Atonement and sacrifice

The word atonement, which suggests ‘making reparation for an offence', has at its root the idea of being ‘at one' or ‘reconciled'. In the Bible, the term atonement usually refers to doing whatever is necessary to be reconciled to, or at one with, God.

Sacrifice and atonement in the Old Testament

In the first part of the Old Testament, those who had offended God sought to appease him by offering a sacrifice. The writer of Leviticus outlined the strict laws that should be followed in such cases. For example, the people of Israel were instructed that, if a person committed a sin (see Big ideas: Sin), he should bring a goat or a she-lamb, ‘lay his hand on its head and slaughter it for a sin offering at the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered' (Leviticus 4:33). See Big ideas: Sheep, shepherd, lamb; Goats; and Blood.

ScapegoatThe Bible also records (Leviticus 16:20-22) that there should be a special day of atonement for sin, when the priest should lay his hands on the head of a live goat, confessing the sins of the people. Then the goat, known as the scapegoat, should be sent out into the wilderness, ceremonially and symbolically carrying away the sins of everyone.

However, later in the Old Testament, Isaiah writes that God prefers penitence (see Big ideas: Penitence, repentance, penance) to blood-sacrifice,

‘These are the ones I look on with favour: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word. But whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a human being' (Isaiah 66:2-3).

Sacrifice and atonement in the New Testament

God had made it clear that the punishment for sin is death. Consequently, in the New Testament, the death of Jesus Christ is seen as the sacrifice which takes that punishment, or atones for the sins of the world. The fact that Jesus came alive again, overcoming death at the resurrection, offers the hope of redemption, that human beings may be forgiven and reconciled with God (see Big ideas: Redemption, salvation).

However, the imagery of the New Testament picks up the Old Testament images of sacrificing an animal, and because lambs were traditionally seen as innocent, Christ is often referred to as a sacrificial lamb. (See Big ideas: Sheep, shepherd, lamb.) In the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, the writer has a vision (see Big ideas: Dreams, visions and prophecy) of Christ in heaven, as ‘a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne … and the twenty-four elders sang a new song: ‘You are worthy … because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation' (Revelation 5:6; Revelation 5:8-9).

Holy Communion

The shedding of Christ's blood as atonement for sinful human beings is commemorated in the most important service in the Christian church, the Holy Communion, Eucharist or mass. The night before he died, Jesus gave his disciples wine (see Big ideas: Vine, vineyard) to drink, telling them that it was ‘my blood which is shed for you'. Then he offered them bread, ‘my body, which is given for you.'

In the Book of Common Prayer, which has been used in the Church of England and other churches which are part of the Anglican Church, for four and a half centuries, there is a prayer which refers to Jesus as such a sacrifice. The prayer comes immediately before the believers receive the bread and the wine, and refers to God, in the person of his son, being the sacrifice as an atonement for sin, ‘Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made … a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice ... for the sins of the whole world.' (See Big ideas: Last Supper, communion, eucharist, mass.)

Related topics and other cultural references

Big ideas: Sin; Sheep, shepherd, lamb; Goats; Blood; Penitence, repentance, penance; Redemption, salvation; Vine, vineyard; Last Supper, communion, eucharist, mass; Dreams, visions and prophecy

McEwan's Atonement

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