Atonement and the Death of Jesus

In Christian belief Jesus dying on the cross has a saving effect for humankind. Human kind is made one again, meaning redeemed. The belief is that because Jesus, who was fully human and fully God, died, then we do not have to die, and by die it is meant die from sin. By believing in the Christ who died, Christianity claims to offer everlasting life.

Where did this belief come from? It came from the viewpoint of these near Eastern people 2000 years ago that people actually got ill and died because of sin. If you were ill, you had a demon or more inside you. When Jesus healed he cast out demons. Sin was an illness that involved demons. It followed in their minds that people died because people sinned. Now, because all people were sinners, all people died. However, some Jews, like the Pharisees but not the Saduccees, believed people would die and sleep, effectively waiting for the last judgement of God and then be raised by God in a rejuvenated body, and thus live in the Kingdom of heaven for eternity. One of Jesus own central beliefs was that the Kingdom of Heaven was coming soon, and one of his central activities (as well as teaching and preaching) was healing people - thus giving people a better chance in the coming Kingdom of heaven free of their illness. He even, it is written, brought people from death. People of course had to change their ways, and the poor had a better chance to enter the Kingdom of heaven than the rich. But Jesus carried out what we might today call healings or faith healings in order to put them right in the eyes of God.

In those days life was frequently miserable and destitute, or corrupt or cruel. Jesus preached that this would end, but people had to become healthy. Today we have separated being ill and being bad, though some people practice holistic medicine and say if we treat the spiritual condition of people their illnesses will go away. People are seen to be ill today because they are upset. In Jesus' day people were seen to be ill, or died, because they were basically sinful.

Now if Jesus was sinless he clearly did not have to die, and yet he did die. In the opinion of the later developing Christian community, this meant that he died not for himself but died for others. He should have lived but gave his life for others. This means that although everyone else, who does sin, has to die, the fact that Jesus did die means they do not have to die any longer.

To die like this, to exchange our death for his death, is a supreme act of love. This is an exchange of positions: all our sinful deaths are taken on board by Jesus so that we may live. This saving act of grace is because God loves us so much, Christians state.

Exchange is central in this. Exchange is give and take. God gives death so that we may take life.

Now we know that everyone has a biological body and everyone without exception does die. No amount of believing in Jesus according to Christian belief will stop you from dying. So what Christianity states is that we have an afterlife. The question then is whether you will live in the afterlife. Christians say if you believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, then you will not die but live. You live in Christ, but in the afterlife (as well as in this life).

To spice this up a bit there are some alterations to this simple dead or alive choice. According to some, if you do not believe in Christ, you do carry on living in an afterlife, but in hell. It is continuous fire and torment. Christians live in heaven. Then of course there is the traditional belief still that Christians do not have this afterlife of the soul; instead they are raised, rather like the Jewish faith believed and mainly still does believe. Some Christians combine living in heaven and then a day of judgement. We might say that Greek beliefs in an afterlife of the soul were plastered on to Jewish beliefs in a resurrected body, and became multi-layered or even confused.

However, the crucifixion on its own, even with the atonement, is not enough. Because Christian belief further claims that Jesus was the first of the resurrected. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection but the Saduccess did not. The traditional belief says that those who are saved will be resurrected. However, Jesus is already resurrected, an additional victory over death.

There are different views of resurrection in the Christian Bible. The later story of the resurrection is that the tomb was empty, though many did not believe the first witness of the women. Paul, who provides the earliest writings, speaks instead of spiritual experiences, but is forced to write about a spiritual body. This is because a resurrection is about a body even though he is writing about a spiritual experience.

The texts state that after his resurrection Jesus becomes present with people but not recognised. A belief point is made and then Jesus is recognised. Then he disappears. Jesus is said to go through closed doors. Yet because the resurrection is a belief of a body rising, the texts also stress that he has the signs of a wounded body, although without the physical ailments that a walking cripple shows.

You cannot have the crucifixion without the resurrection, but the crucifixion is about the sacrifice of one who did not have to die. It is also important to realise that Jesus did not want to die. He thinks he is going to be arrested and killed. In the Garden of Gethsemane he asks for the burden to be lifted from him. Yet he knows the tradition in the Jewish Bible of the suffering servant and sees himself fulfilling an important role in suffering himself in order to bring in the Kingdom of heaven.

The theology of the cross is called atonement. So when Jesus dies but does not need to, so others may live, he is putting right what is said to have happened at the Fall of humankind. Humankind fell from its perfect state, its image of God, with Adam and Eve and temptation. Jesus will have believed in Adam and Eve as history. Humankind made in the image of God became sinful. Atonement is sometimes called at-one-ment so that things are put back from a broken state to being one again. Jesus was broken so the world could become one again. So Jesus, who is perfect, breaks, and then humankind is one again. Humankind is redeemed. By redeemed it means put right, able to be whole and purposeful and not lost. Although, to be as one, humankind must follow Jesus as the Christ. This is left, according to the free will of each of us, to individuals to follow Christ, but Jesus sacrificed himself to save everyone, according to Christian belief.

In the Protestant tradition Jesus sacrificed himself once, and that one event on the cross was enough to save others. In the Catholic tradition, just as the mass is the real body and blood of Christ, so the mass is the crucifixion of Christ each time. The sacrifice takes place again and again.

This theology is about why Jesus had to die. It is a matter of historical record that the theology of sacrifice and atonement came late in the development of the growing Church. There are hints about Jesus being a ransom for our sins, or sacrificing himself, or even God playing a trick on the devil by Jesus' death. Some theology suggested Jesus' death was

Why Jesus did die as a matter of history is that he was an irritant with a following to a very repressive Roman occupying power in Palestine. Contrary to biblical accounts Pilate cannot be thought of as a thoughtful and generous figure, taking time to say that Jesus Christ did nothing wrong. Pilate, if involved in any real sense at all, would have rubber stamped the cruel killing of any dissenter, especially one embarassing to wealthy high priests likely to be corrupted or compromised by the regime. Whether anything God driven or supernatural was going on is left to doctrines and belief. The central historical mystery of belief is how this event and a subsequent claimed resurrection is said to have led to the founding of early Christian Churches.

Some terms

Redemption Derived from the practice of paying the price of a slave´s freedom; and so, the work of Jesus Christ in setting people free through his death.
Atonement Reconciliation between God and humanity; restoring a relationship broken by sin.
Sin Act of rebellion or disobedience against the known will of God.

An assessment of the human condition as disordered and in need of transformation.
Grace The freely given and unmerited favour of God's love for humanity.

Summary Points

Near Eastern people believed that humankind was sinful (with the work of demonic forces) and this is why people got ill and why they died. Christians believe Jesus as sinless did not have to die whereas all sinful humans do; by dying Jesus offers the chance that everyone can live. This exchange is atonement. The deal is belief in Jesus as the Christ.

The exchange is: "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son" (as the hymn goes). Jesus' death is an act of love not cruelty. For some religions it is scandalous that a figure of God should die. The Bible (Garden of Gethsemane) shows that Jesus did not want to die. What if Jesus had not been killed? Were his teachings enough?

Atoning for the world allows it to be restored, to that condition before humanity fell with Adam and the sin of temptation. This is redemption.

Obviously no amount of believing in Jesus and atonement changes biology. We do not have their ancient views. So living in Christ becomes something about eternal life in the afterlife. To spice it up some Christians say those who are not saved live in the afterlife torment of hell.

For those who think God does not exist, or God does not exchange death for eternal life, or that Jesus is not the Christ, this atonement is meaningless, or is to be found through human teachings and effort. We can always offer our own small sacrifices for the benefit of someone else.


Write so that the question is built in to the answer. Remember that on matters of opinion there is no right or wrong answer. It is the quality of thought that matters. You are free to agree or disagree with Christian beliefs.

1. Describe a situation where someone has sacrificed (given up) something of their own in order to benefit someone else. If you cannot think of a real event give a short imagined example of how this might take place.

4 marks


According to Christians, what do people have to do to enjoy everlasting life in heaven rather than hell? 1 mark


Write down the exchange that takes place so that atonement happens, according to Christian belief. This is where Jesus does something so that we may benefit. 2 marks


Do you think Jesus wanted to die? Explain your answer with reference to the Garden of Gethsemane. 2 marks


Christianity claims it is necessary that Jesus did die so that we may live. Does this mean Christianity is loving or cruel? Explain your answer giving at least a different point of view. 4 marks


Jesus taught about blessing for the poor, about loving your neighbour, and getting yourself into right behaviour with good health. Do you think teaching this is sufficient or is it necessary to show by example, perhaps by giving up something precious for somebody else? Discuss your answer. 6 marks


People who do not believe in God cannot believe that anything happened with the death of Jesus other than a death. Others believe in God but maintain such a God does not take part in a sacrificial exchange. God is love to all and Jesus' death is but a personal tragedy. Describe your own view of Jesus death and its meaning. Do you think atonement happened, or that it is a belief that happened afterwards? 6 marks