That the Bible's central message is atonement, that is, that God has provided a way for humankind to come back into harmonious relation with him, is everywhere apparent in Scripture. From the first stories in Genesis to the last visions of Revelation, God seeks to reconcile his people to himself. Atonement, however, cannot be usefully discussed in this way, and translators have settled on it, and its cognate expressions, as a translation for a relatively circumscribed number of nouns and verbs in the Bible.
The Old Testament
In the Old Testament atonement, and related phrases, such as sacrifice of atonement, most often translates the Hebrew piel verb kipur [ruPiK] and two related nouns, one, kippurim, found always in the plural and signifying the noun equivalent of kipur [ruPiK], and the other, kapporeth [t,roP;K], meaning the so-called mercy-seat or the place where the sacrifice of atonement happens. These occur with meanings related to atonement around 140 times, almost always in the context of the cults, as a sacrifice for sins and to provide reconciliation to God.
The breadth of the use of the concept in the Old Testament is striking. Atonement is provided for inanimate objects such as a mildewing house, the altar in the temple, the sanctuary (i.e., the Holy of Holies within the Tent of Meeting), the holy place, and the tent of meeting/temple itself. In one place atonement is also provided for an animal, the scapegoat used in the atonement rituals found in Leviticus 16. Sacrifice accomplishes atonement "for sins" in many places, though these passages always mean atonement for people "because of" their sins rather than atonement "on behalf of" sins, as if sins were being personified and therefore in need of redemption. Of course, the majority of all the references are to atonement on behalf of people, either individually or as members of the community of Israel.
Atonement for inanimate objects is found twelve places in the Old Testament: ex 29:36-37; 30:10; le 8:15; 14:53; 16:10, 16, 18, 20; eze 43:20, 26; 45:20. Eleven of these passages refer to cleansing either the tent/temple, one of its rooms, or the altar inside it. The lone exception refers to the cleansing of a contaminated house. In one of the stranger passages of the Law, God instructs Moses and Aaron about the purification rites they are to apply to a house that has "a spreading mildew" and declares that, if a house responds to the treatment, then it can be declared clean ( Lev 14:33-53 ). The priest cleanses the house by sacrificing a bird, and dipping cedar wood, hyssop, scarlet yarn, and a live bird in the blood of the dead bird, then sprinkling the blood on the house seven times. He then is to release the live bird into the open fields outside the town. "In this way he will make atonement for the house, and it will be clean" ( Lev 14:53 ).
The entire passage significantly echoes the preceding passage in which a human being undergoes the same investigations and purifications for infectious skin diseases, and it anticipates the important regulations of Leviticus 16 concerning the Day of Atonement, the most important sacrifice of all, when sacrifice is made for the cleansing of the sins of all the people. The point is apparently that the surface of the skin can demonstrate a deeper sickness underneath as can the surface of a house; both need to be cleansed of that deeper sickness as does the human heart of its sin.
Far more important are the references to the atonement of the Tent of Meeting, the temple, the holy place, the sanctuary, and the altar. These take place in the contexts of the ordination of priests ( Exod 29:35-37 ; Lev 8:15 ), God's instructions for the building of the eschatological temple in the later chapters of Ezekiel ( Ezekiel 43:20Ezekiel 43:26 ; 45:20 ), and the Day of Atonement itself ( Leviticus 16:16 Leviticus 16:18 Leviticus 16:20 ). The need for cleansing the buildings, the altar and the sanctuaries is due to the fact that these are the meeting places of the divine, Holy One with his people. The holiness and purity of God are so emphasized that not only does he and the one who approaches him have to be pure, but even the means of their communication and relationship must be covered by the blood of an atoning sacrifice because of its contamination by sin.
It is perhaps important that this cleansing of inanimate objects, with the lone exception of the house (which seems to serve as an analog to human cleansing), is limited to the house of God and its parts. There is no sense that the world is God's place of meeting and in need of a cleansing sacrifice of atonement, but rather that the special cultic and covenantal relationship that God has with his people is what is in need of purification. This is not to deny that the world has been infected by sin, just that the particular relationship of redemption that God has with his covenant people is not extended to the whole world, but simply to the people of Israel, and even that is vicarious, that is, through the priests and their cultic duties.
Primary among the objects of atonement in the Old Testament are the people of God, but the means of atonement can vary. Goats, sheep, and birds are listed among the acceptable animals to be sacrificed, but there were also grain, oil, and drink offerings. Ransom money can provide atonement for the lives of the people; God commands at least one census to be made of the people at which each participant pays the same amount to buy his life and the lives of his family from God, who promises no plague will harm them when they do pay ( Exod 30:11-16 ). Significantly, the money is to be used to support the services of the Tent of Meeting, hence tying it to the sacrifice of blood for atonement, if only in a tangential way. The other nonanimal sacrifices are often equally tied to atonement by blood.
Certainly the most frequently mentioned means of atonement in the Old Testament were the blood sacrifices, dominating the use of the term by constant reference in the books of Leviticus and Numbers. Atonement needed to be made for everything from heinous crimes like idolatry ( Num 16:47 ) to mistakes of intent, when the only sin was ignorance or error, not willful disobedience ( Num 15:22-29 ).
Perhaps the heart of the Old Testament teaching on atonement is found in Leviticus 16, where the regulations for the Day of Atonement occur. Five characteristics relating to the ritual of the Day of Atonement are worthy of note because they are generally true of atonement as it is found throughout Scripture: (1) the sovereignty of God in atonement; (2) the purpose and result of making atonement; (3) the two goats emphasize two different things, and the burning another, about the removal of sin; (4) that Aaron had to make special sacrifice for himself; (5) the comprehensive quality of the act.
Atonement is clearly the action of God and not of man throughout the Bible, but especially in Leviticus 16. Aaron's two sons, Nadab and Abihu, had been recently put to death by the Lord for disobeying his command by offering "unauthorized fire" before the Lord ( Lev 10:1-3 ). Here God gives Aaron precise instructions concerning how he wants the sacrifices to be made, down to the clothes Aaron is to wear, the bathing rituals in which he is to engage, and the types of sacrificial animals he is to bring. His sovereignty is further emphasized by the fact that the lot is used to choose which goat will be sacrificed and which goat will serve as the scapegoat.
The purpose for the ritual is made very clear in several places. It is to cleanse you "from all your sins" ( Lev 16:30 ). Other passages make it clear that such cleansing results in saving the life of the participant (cf., e.g., Lev 17:11 ). The restoring of pure relationship is an important result, too, since the atonement is for all "uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been" ( Lev 16:16 ). Thus Israel is reunited in purity to its God by the atoning sacrifice for sins.
The symbolic import of the sacrifices is so detailed that three different actions were necessary to display everything that God apparently intended us to understand about the way he was to deal with sin. The sacrificial death of the first goat showed clearly that the offense of sin requires the punishment of death ( Eze 18:4 ). The sending of the second goat into the wilderness with the sins laid on the top of its head emphasizes that sin will be removed from the person and the community "as far as the east is from the west" ( Psalm 103:12 ). The burning of the sacrifice so that it is consumed shows the power of God over sin, completely destroying it so that it can bother the supplicant no more.
Particularly important for the full biblical picture of atonement as it is found in Christ is the sacrifice Aaron makes for himself and his family ( Lev 16:11-14 ). Everyone, even the high priest, is guilty and needs atonement that can only be provided by God himself. The author of Hebrews emphasizes this point to make clear his doctrine of the purity of Christ as both the true and perfect sacrifice and the true and perfect priest who performs the ritual of atonement ( 8:3-6 ; 9:6-15 ). The Old Testament sacrifices are shown to be but shadows of the real sacrifice of Christ on the cross by the fact of Aaron's sinfulness; an imperfect high priest cannot offer a true sacrifice, just as the blood of bulls and goats could never truly pay for the offense of human sin or substitute for the shedding of human blood.
Lastly, atonement covers all the sins — intentional, unintentional, heinous, trivial of those for whom it is intended. No one was to enter the Tent of Meeting until the ritual was over because what was taking place there was for the whole of the community of Israel ( Lev 16:17 ), presumably because any interference with the sovereign action of God's cleansing might bring an impurity into the equation that would nullify the purificatory act. The comprehensive nature of the sacrifice of atonement prefigures the comprehensiveness of the shedding of Christ's blood on the cross, but it limits its effects in the same way the Old Testament limits the effects of its sacrifice on the day of atonement to the people whom God has elected to call his own and them alone.
The New Testament
The so-called ransom saying, found in the Gospel of Mark ( 10:45 ; cf. the parallel saying at Matt 20:28 ), has been much disputed as to its authenticity, but its theological content is clear. Speaking in the context of the apostles' dispute over which of them is the greatest, Jesus relates his mission to two things: serving all and giving his life as a ransom for many. Like many of the teachings of Jesus, the saying dramatically extends the answer to an immediate question or problem (that of the selfishness and pride of the apostles) to include something that no one would have linked to that problem (the ransom nature of the cross). The saying of course primarily relates the death of Christ to the metaphor of service; giving his life is the greatest example of servanthood that can be imagined. The fact that his death is also a ransom links the idea of atonement to the servant spirit of the Christ, probably in the light of the famous servant song of Isaiah 53.
The second Gospel passage relating to atonement appears in the eucharistic words of Jesus recorded in all three Gospels ( Matt 26:26-29 ; = Mark 14:22-25 ; = Luke 22:15-20 ). At Luke 22:19-20, Jesus asserts that both the bread and the wine symbolize the fact that his death would be "for you" (huper humon [uJpevruJmw'n]), a phrase not found in the other Gospels (though the notion of the blood of Christ being "poured out for many" is found in both Matthew and Mark). The key element linking the passage in all three Gospels to atonement is the sacrificial nature of the language; the poured-out blood is the blood of the lamb of Leviticus 16, sacrificed "for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt 26:28).
To discuss Paul on atonement is, again, to make a choice between a thorough discussion of Paul's soteriology and limiting oneself to a discussion of the meaning of hilasterion [iJlasthvrion] in Romans 3:25. Space does not even allow for a full evaluation of the latter in this article. The preponderance of the evidence weighs in favor of a translation that recognizes the background of Leviticus 16 in the crucial passage. Some now argue that Paul intends a quite specific reference to the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant and that hilasterion [iJlasthvrion] should be translated "mercy seat."
In any case the passage occurs in a clear context of God's righteous, wrathful judgment against the sins of humankind (Rom 1:18-3:31; cf. esp. 1:18; 2:5) and declares God's merciful action of atonement on behalf of his people. He takes an action that is rightly called "substitutionary, " putting his Son in our place and so remaining just but also demonstrating his mercy (3:25-26). This shuts out any possibility for humankind to boast of its having saved itself (3:27). Thus the themes of sovereignty, mercy, and comprehensiveness that we saw present in Leviticus 16 are paramount in the mind of Paul too.
The same applies to the rest of the references to hilasterion and its cognates (hilaskomai [iJlasmov"], hilasmos [iJlasmov"]) in the New Testament. Hebrews 2:17 points squarely at Jesus as the high priests of Leviticus 16 who offers a sacrifice of atonement (hilaskomai [iJlavskomai]) for his brothers and is therefore a merciful and faithful high priest, but who is of course also the very sacrifice he offers, suffering so that he is able to help those who are tempted in their time of need. The oneness both between Jesus and the redeemed and between God and humanity is emphasized by the family metaphor used throughout the context of the passage (Heb 2:10-17). Similarly, in 1 John 2:2 Jesus' sacrifice of atonement (hilasmos[iJlasmov"]) is powerful enough to heal the sins of the whole world and unite it to God, but it is only "Jesus Christ, the Righteous One" (1 John 2:1) who can accomplish this. God's sovereignty and love in atonement are clearly seen in 1jo 4:10 and cap the New Testament teaching on this essential doctrine: our love for God is not the issue, but rather his for us and it is this love that has both motivated and produced the sacrifice of atonement (hilasmos [iJlasmov"]) necessary for healing the relationship of God to man. So the biblical teaching about atonement is summed up: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 Jo 4:10).