An Explanation of Christian Atonement

Written by
Tim Carroll
Jun 8, 2021
Tim Carroll

uman experience is a strange thing, for it is the litmus test of all tests.  If a doctrine is worth anything at all, it must find that it meets the need of human experience, else it is basically of little to no value. When explained and applied in a correct manner, I find that the Christian doctrine of atonement significantly benefits humanity. I do not refer to a particular theory, but rather to the true meaning and experience of atonement, something more creative than systematic, of that which exceeds the mere declaration that the repentant person is forgiven and nothing more is required to be fully liberated. It must include divine revelation and an inner experience of Christ in the soul, it must be a spiritual atonement. 

Permit me to say upfront that I do not believe the popular view of atonement in the least bit, namely penal substitution atonement (PSA) theory. To be blunt, it is repugnant to the spirit of truth and misrepresents God. It is crude, revolting and offensive to modern day criticism. Though there are different variations of PSA, for the most part it goes something like this . . . 

Man was created innocent and upright, however he disobeyed and is now under God’s displeasure and wrath for rejecting instruction in the garden of Eden. The penalty for not taking heed to God’s warning is a death that never dies, or death eternal. God desires to save fallen humanity, but his justice requires either man or someone in his stead ought to be punished. There is simply no way around it, God’s law must be vindicated for this act of disobedience. Some means of justifying us before God is now required. Fortunately, the son of God agreed to accept man’s eternal penalty as his substitute, instead of man himself. God accepts this sacrifice as a full equivalent of what justice requires, pouring his wrath upon his son in lieu of man, thereby God allowing himself to pardon sin. Justice is now satisfied, and man can be forgiven (after certain conditions, such as accepting it) and then restored back to God. With all of this said, sadly most will still be eternally doomed in hell, spite this so-called glorious atonement. Meanwhile for those that believe such a supposed theory, righteousness is imputed to them the few, to enjoy the bliss of heaven. 

What are we to make of all of this?  The common idea that the death of Christ is substitutionary, or in our place? That the death of Christ is penal, in that Christ took on the penalty for our sin that should have been imposed on us and that the penalty is one that was instituted by God? That by Christ bearing this penalty on the cross, he bore the wrath of God and in some mysterious way God placed the full iniquity of mankind (past, present and future) upon Christ, therefore making him an atoning sacrifice for sin? That the wrath of God can only be turned away by the sacrifice of his Son? That a Holy God could not look upon such sin and had to turn away? And with such a so-called glorious event, God could finally permit himself to be reconciled to mankind, in accordance with his divine principles and holy law?

Now if we are honest about it, there seems to be several disturbing ideas that requires sound and reasonable explanations.

Here are just a handful of concerns:

  • That a just and fair penalty for a single transgression is supposedly eternal death (perpetual or ceasing to exist). 
  • That God could not forgive until some sort of penalty be satisfied, a settlement of some sort of legal claim must be met, or the satisfying of justice. 
  • The justice of God demands that someone must accept the penalty (be punished) to save us from his own anger or the appeasing of divine wrath.  
  • That humanity did not get what they supposedly deserved because God has an equivalent payment, and an innocent victim, nonetheless. 
  • Christ did not really suffer an eternal penalty in the least bit, but nevertheless he made up in quality (divine offering) what lacked in quantity (eternal death) and therefore the sacrifice was deemed equivalent.  
  • The sacrificial death of Christ upon the cross effected (brought about) something with God so that he could forgive and save humanity.
  • That the suffering of Christ was in our stead. 
  • That this was all by divine appointment, and everyone involved were mere pawns strategically moved on the board of life.

We have advanced from theories that may have been suited more to address their time, such as Origen’s ransom theory to repay the devil or Anselm’s honor theory. Likewise, we would do well to depart from the Reformers concept of legal obligation when it comes to atonement. 

Before proceeding with an explanation for atonement, we would do well to set a baseline definition of certain terms.  Some of these include words or concepts such as atonement, the death of Christ, and the blood of Christ.  

First, consider the history and meaning of atonement. In reading about early Semitic religious practices, primitive sacrifice included offering their gods things they valued and considered to be among their best possessions, ranging from fruit or animals to even captives of war or on rare occasion their own children. Granted the latter is barbaric to our present understanding, but it was anything but in ancient times among Semitic people. It was terribly painful for the parents of the sacrificed child, yet it was for the good of their community, to show the gods their gratitude for continued blessings. Their religion and culture had taught them to believe that this was required for survival of all. More importantly, the underlying idea behind the form of expression, in this case sacrifices, was to show that the gods and man were collectively one. This was the meaning of atonement, the unity of the deities and humanity. As one scholar of old had stated, “Physically and spiritually the unit was held to belong to the whole, and to exist for the sake of the whole.” [1]

The Hebrew people both understood the meaning of atonement and practiced similar principles in their own sacrificial systems. The reader may want to review Leviticus chapter sixteen to become more familiar with that ceremony, where “two kids of the goats” constitute a single offering. This included the “Lord’s goat” sacrificed by the priest and the scapegoat taken by a fit man into the wilderness (some suggesting to the evil demon Azazel, casting the sins into the depths), never to return. The general idea was, not only were their sins forgiven (removal of guilt) or remembered no more, but the sins were taken away too.  Therefore, both animals together were considered as the one single sin offering. It should not be overlooked that the primary purpose of this ritual was to demonstrate their desire of unity with God. All past transgression that may have separated them from God was to be forgiven, remembered no more, removed completely from them. It is worth noting, the day of atonement did not free them from the penalties resulting from their crimes, a man still had to bear the consequences brought upon himself by his own wrong doings. Again, the main idea was to remove all barriers (e.g., guilt) that kept them from oneness or “at-one-ment” with God. It was about making right any wrong that would have caused their separation and lack of favor from God. I think we have lost sight of the original meaning of atonement and have turned it into a scheme of salvation contrary to scripture and the guiding of the Holy Spirit. Atonement is all about oneness, which includes the putting away of any selfishness (sin) that separates us from God. As Christians, we understand that Christ saves/rescues us not from the penalty of sin, but from sin itself, thereby liberating us into the life of our Lord, bringing us into harmony and union with God. To experience spiritual atonement in our soul.  

Second, we ought to understand why Jesus died and what was the entire or real death of Christ. The Conservative Christian will argue that his physical death on a gruesome cross was the determinate council of God his Father, while the Progressive Christian will often defend that Christ died because he was simply human and had to die.  I find both views inadequate and entirely missing an important aspect of his death. He had to die, else the full force and impact of his self-sacrificial love would not have influenced the consciousness of humanity, as it has done through history. I explain this further below. Furthermore, his physical death would not had meant as much as it did, had he not lived a self-sacrificial life.  Therefore, they both required one another and completed a sacrificial life. Never was there such a person and never shall there be – Jesus Christ! 

As to his real death, it was his incarnation, leaving his former glory and entering this fallen state or condition of death. Of course, his death included the chain of events from his birth to resurrection. This is where he tasted death for every man, being the captain of our salvation through his sufferings (Heb 2:9-10). This death of Christ included his reproach and rejection of men, his sorrows and acquaintance with grief, his being oppressed and afflicted, and iniquities of us all. Make no mistake, the death of Christ far exceeded the horrific act of him murdered, by a barbarous physical crucifixion. Others had experienced such torture as well. Jesus Christ entered this fallen state of humanity and was made sin for us or bore our sins during his entire earthly sojourn. He was manifested to ‘take away’ our sins, or more accurately stated, ‘to bear’, endure or carry our sins. Behold, the Lamb of God which bear (e.g., weight laid upon him) the sin of the world. The heaviness of humanity was upon him, and he grieved for them, having compassion. Furthermore, his physical death was a type and fulfilment of the law that required the dead carcass of the sin offering. This is a key point often missed. Just as the Hebrews did not consider the dead body as the atoning work, the Christian doctrine of atonement should not consider the physical death of Christ as the single atoning work of redemption. It was part of the entire atoning process. 

Third, far too often, the blood of Christ is considered as only (or mostly) in relationship to his death upon the cross and not recognized as a symbol of his eternal life. The life of the flesh is in the blood. It is the eternal life (symbolized as blood) of Jesus Christ his Son that cleanses us from all sin. This is important to understand, as any sacrifice was to offer the life of the victim as belonging to God and willing to give its life for the common good of all, namely the meaning of atonement. 

Now, let us take a closer look at several points to better understand a Christian doctrine of atonement, while discarding thoughts that may contradict it.

First, God did not warn man of an “eternal death” when eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There was no mention of eternal consequences, not a peep. The consequence to their action was a state or condition of death, including eventually physical death. There is no such thing as eternal death! Furthermore, God saves us not from death, but “out of death” (Heb 5:7). 

Second, we embrace the fact that it was God in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, while rejecting the notion that God had to be reconciled to the world (II Cor 5:19). The alienation was with man, not God. In fact, God was every bit involved in the reconciliation. When Christ loved, the Father loved as well.  When Christ suffered, the Father suffered too.

Third, the impact of atonement includes the entire chain of events, from incarnation through crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. The saving value of Christ was not only through his suffering and physical death upon the cross, but most certainly his entire life while on earth, as well as his descent into hades and his ascension. Simply put, it was this entire chain of events from incarnation to ascension that completed the perfect life of atonement. We can no longer separate his obedience from his death, for he was obedient unto death. Note: I believe we speak too often of his crucifixion as the exclusive cause of our reconciliation and isolate it from his entire sacrificial life. We tend to elaborate on the gruesome and miss the rest of the story.  

Fourth, scripture nowhere represents atonement as effecting or bringing about a change in the mind of God. No such movement occurred. Never such a change happened. Nor did forgiveness come at the expense of appeasing the justice of God. Suffice it to say, his mercy was unpurchasable. 

Fifth, God did not require a sacrifice to forgive us.  In fact, we find what he desires of us:

  • Psalms 40:6 “Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened; burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.”
  • Psalms 51:16 “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offerings.”
  • Hosea 6:6 “For I desired mercy; and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”
  • Micah 6:6-8 “Wherein shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath answered thee, O man, what is good; and doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
  • Matthew 9:13 “But go ye and learn what meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice…” 
  • Hebrews 10:8 “…Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law.”

What are the acceptable sacrifices of God, if any?  Hear the words of David, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17). Christian sacrifice is an expression of self-sacrificial love. Its object is to impart life and love to the one in need. Such sacrifices move “us” towards God to experience his forgiveness, which is a vital component of atonement. However, it does not move God towards us, for he is already closer than close, with outstretched arms, always ready to receive us in reconciliation.

Sixth, we dismiss the idea that Christ took our penalty in our stead or in our place. Furthermore, we reject the notion that his physical death was substitutionary. Some sort of vicarious punishment will not do. That Christ saved us from the penalty of our sins, you will not find in scripture. Yes, Christ died ‘for’ us, ‘on our behalf’, but he did not die ‘instead of us’, so that we do not have to die. God’s way to life is through death, and we die daily. Unless a seed die, it abides alone. We need to understand that he suffered on our behalf, was “made in all things like unto his brethren” and serves as our companion (helps carry our burdens). A close examination of the Greek word ‘huper’ will help the reader discover Christ died FOR us (Rom 1:8), was sacrificed FOR us (I Cor 5:7), died FOR our sins (I Cor 15:3), made to be sin (offering) for us (II Cor 5:21), gave himself FOR our sins (Gal 1:4), gave himself FOR me (Gal 2:20), gave himself a ransom FOR all (I Tim 2:6), should taste death FOR every man (Heb 2:9), and suffered FOR us in the flesh (I Pet 4:1). For us, on our behalf, for our benefit, but never in our stead or place. And yes, Christ was made a curse for us too, but he himself did not become a curse, nor was it a curse of God. He was no more accursed as sinful, neither occurred. 

Likewise, the idea to be a substitution, in place of us, reduces us to mere spectators rather than participants. It contradicts scripture and hinders our spiritual growth as would-be overcomers. Therefore, he endured the same sufferings and death in his humanity, but never as a substitute in order that we may escape our own suffering and death. We have a part in this, we are made conformable unto his death, that we experience his life. Certainly, the popular view will object, citing Isaiah chapter 53, as their substitution.  But is this so?  Yes, we most assuredly agree with Isaiah, “Surely, he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed”. Likewise, we equally agree with Matthew, “that, it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses”, referring to, “they brought unto him many that we possessed with devils: and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick.” This clearly was not fulfilled as a substitution of any sort at calvary, but rather during his ministry as expressed by Matthew. He carried their griefs and sorrows as one that bears burdens. And yet if there is any sense of satisfaction to be agreed upon, it would be that the entire life of Christ was a satisfaction with God, including his laying down his life for the common good of humanity. God was never dissatisfied with him in the least bit. Yes, our chastisement (atmosphere of guilt) was upon him, but God never chastised him. And if one is to insist that atonement is within the framework of substitution, do not make it one of substitutionary punishment. The object of atonement is not to escape penalty but to redeem man from sin itself. 

As one scholar of old so perfectly expressed, “But in what sense is the death of Jesus a satisfaction to the Father? In no sense at all, except that the sacrifice of Jesus is the highest expression of the innermost of God that has ever been made.”, and “…surely the highest satisfaction that God can know must be his self-expression in the self-sacrifice of his children… of giving one’s self for the good of the whole. It is the satisfaction he receives from the atonement and the only one.” [2]

Seventh, God did not in some transcendental way place the entire sin of the universe upon Christ, no more than the sins of the people were literally transferred to the head of the scapegoat. God did not literally place the full iniquity or sins of the world upon Christ. He did not take into himself and absorb all the sins of the world into himself, as some sort of cosmic superhero. He became the sin-offering, not sin itself. Said another way, there was no imputation as transfer of quantitative merit. Simply stated, he who was made sin for us could never be made sinful. Yet he did take upon himself and in holy judgment condemned sin. Most certain, the spiritual significance and saving value of his death could not be over emphasized. 

Eighth, it should be clear to any that God did not rescue Christ from his dreadful death upon the cross but rather let the wickedness of man have their way. Yet, Christ’s self-sacrifice reached its climax and shining value by allowing himself to be executed in such manner, as no man taketh his life but rather he laid it down. Astonishing, an unselfish life resulting in a sacrificial death. If there by any beauty in his death, it would be this fact alone that should arrest the very core of our conscience. This was the determinate council and foreknowledge of God, not that God placed him on the cross (because he did not), but rather that he did not intervene, letting human history unfold, and having foreknowledge of the creative and intrinsic value of the effect upon humanity. 

In closing, I particularly like what one scholar once stated, “atonement, is the assertion of the fundamental unity of all existence, the unity of the individual with the race and the race with God. The individual can only realize that unity by sacrificing himself to it. To fulfil the self, we must give the self to the All. This is the truth presumed in all ancient ideas of Atonement.” 

I find the Christian doctrine of atonement in the life of Jesus Christ, whereby his spirit continues to demonstrate a self-sacrificing love upon humanity. It is this very spirit of Christ that must be brought forth into conscious activity, an uprising of Christ in the soul, to bring about reconciliation. I believe in the beauty of atonement, from incarnation through ascension, in Jesus Christ, both historically and in our present experience, exposing the sense of guilt and abolishing sin (selfishness) itself. 

Brethren, how can one deny the truth and value of the influence of a spiritual atonement? Does not experience demonstrate its redeeming power, that Christ does something for us (on our behalf) in the direction of God, that he reconciles us to God? The atonement is the expression of divine love for the redemption of the soul, for God so loved the world. He gave! And God in Christ, he gave himself for our sins. Why? That he may deliver us from this present order of things. How much more shall the blood (life) of Christ. through the eternal spirit purge our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.  That is spiritual atonement!  



1. R.J. Campbell, The New Theology, Chapter IX
2. Ibid. Chapter X

Timothy D. Carroll is a layman teacher of thirty years and has authored the recently published book Christ The Original Matrix as well as the ARISE journal publication for five years, advocating Christian universalism and kingdom-now sonship. He is a certified product manager, holds a bachelor of science degree in computer science and is based in the Tampa, Florida area.