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What is atonement?

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  • What is atonement?

    Christians refer to Jesus’ death as the atonement, but this is not a concept unique to Christianity, as I will show. In Arabic the word kafara comes from the same root as to cover or to hide. This, as you know if you speak Arabic, is also the root of many negative words (including infidel or unbeliever)! The idea is that atonement literally hides, or covers, our sins.


    Sacrifice appears in every culture I can think of. Pagans made sacrifices to appease the gods. Some groups even sacrificed their children. The Jewish holiday of Passover commemorates when God spared from destruction the Jews who had the blood of the lamb on their doorposts—it was the sacrificial blood that put them at a state of peace with God. That was why John called Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” and Paul called him “our Passover lamb.” This is where the idea of a scapegoat comes from. The Jewish priest used to confess the sins of the people as he laid his hands on a goat, then sacrificed the goat. The goat was symbolically bearing the sins of the people.


    The concept of atonement appears in Islam in two ways. Firstly, the Qur’an teaches that Ibrahim was told to sacrifice Ismail. The Qur’an says that God told Ibrahim that he “ransomed Ismail with a momentous sacrifice.” The other way the concept appears in Islam (extremist Islam, that is) is in martyrdom, when God says that he will “blot out from them their iniquities”—those who die in a jihad. That to me really is the concept of blood sacrifice, albeit a somewhat perverted example, as many Muslims not sharing this extreme interpretation would probably agree.


    Many countries have laws against what we call “double jeopardy”, that is, you can not be tried for the same crime twice. Let’s say a guy steals a thousand dollars and goes to jail. He does his time and gets out. If the jury wanted to bring the matter up again in a year or two and try to make him go to jail again, they couldn’t do it because that would be double jeopardy. The same thing happens when you believe that Jesus took your punishment for you. If you accept it, you can be assured of your salvation because for you to go to hell after you accept Jesus’ sacrifice would be double jeopardy! He already did your time and if you acknowledge it, you will be saved. We can go so far as to say that God made it unnecessary for anyone to go to hell.


    Because God is all powerful, Muslims have a difficult time accepting the idea that he had to die to get us in heaven. Can’t he just send us to heaven? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I suppose technically he is physically capable of doing anything he wants. But no in the sense that God has a distinct nature, and part of his nature is his justice. It is because of his distinct nature that we can know him. God cannot violate his nature because his nature is goodness, and if God violated his nature he would no longer be good. God is always good.


    One because it is baffling. For God to be so merciful to become like us only without sin and then take the blame for the sin he hates is mind-boggling and often times more than we can fathom. But I think more often than not the reason people can’t accept this is not because they can’t understand it. The reason is that for God to have to die for us that automatically means we are serious, serious sinners who can not help ourselves and without his sacrifice we would be helpless and subjects of his wrath. For some people, that’s pretty scary. Also realizing that he went through all the shame and torture of the cross for you makes you feel kind of bad, doesn’t it? I know sometimes it makes me feel bad. But the good news is that Jesus chose of his own free will to die for your sin, and if you accept it you will go to heaven. God did not create you for his wrath. Sin and death are twisted perversions of what the human race was created by God to be, brought on by Satan. He offers you the only way out. Here it is.

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