Imagine sitting down at the dinner table with your family, you pray a short prayer of thanksgiving for God’s provision, and then you ask matter-of-factly, ‘So, any thoughts on the atonement?’ If you’re like the majority of Christians, it’s not something you’ve given much thought. You probably haven’t discussed it with your spouse or children. You may have heard it mentioned in a sermon once or twice but that’s about the extent of your contact with the concept of ‘atonement.’ And yet, if you are a Christian, this doctrine under-girds your entire belief system. So, what is the atonement and does it really matter?
The Blood of Bulls and Goats…
Animal sacrifice was a normal part of life in the Old Testament era. Whole chapters of the book of Leviticus are concerned with how and what to sacrifice for various reasons. As we enter into those pages, we see the bloodied altar. We can smell the burning flesh as smoke wafts heavenward. We hear the lowing of cattle, waiting to be led to the slaughter. For many modern people, it’s simply too much to think about. We prefer to get our meat from the grocery store where no animals are hurt. This practice of blood sacrifices is brutal; barbaric even. And yet it was wholly necessary.
This period of regular and expected animal sacrifice was established to teach us something we otherwise would’ve been ignorant of. The author of Hebrews put it this way, “According to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). In other words, the injustice of sin, disobedience, and rebellion require a blood sacrifice. Life must be taken. Blood must be spilled. These sacrifices served as stark reminders that sin always demands payment when viewed in the light of God’s justice. Imagine living under the Old Covenant. When you sin against God or your fellow man, you are then required by law to watch as an innocent bull or goat or lamb is laid on the alter, slaughtered, and roasted. And there’s no barbecue for you to enjoy. You haven’t watched it die to feed you. Instead, its death is brought about purely because of your decision to disobey.
This is atonement: our disobedience is paid for through the bloody death of another. But every piece of cattle on earth could be bled dry and it still wouldn’t cover all of our sins. “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). All of those animal sacrifices were merely foreshadowing the ultimate atonement: Jesus Christ.
The Lamb of God
Jesus’ incarnation, his taking on flesh and dwelling within the confines of his creation, had one primary goal in mind: atonement. If Jesus had merely come to teach his disciples a new morality he would’ve left them without any hope of surviving beyond the grave. Sin had already taken root in their lives and a new system of morals and ethics would do nothing to turn away the wrath and justice of God. Humanity needed more than morals, more than platitudes, more than another book or system or paradigm. Man needed atonement. We needed someone to be crushed so that we could go free. We needed a way out from sin and death. But biblical atonement always requires a blood sacrifice. This is why “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood…” (Romans 3:25, NIV).
And so, our sins and disobedience and rebellion have been purified and removed from our account. They’ve been paid for. The popular, modern hymn, ‘In Christ Alone’ lyrically communicates this powerful truth in its second verse:
In Christ alone! who took on flesh
Fulness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied –
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.
The atonement opens up for us the entire Christian life. Without the atonement, we are and have nothing. With the atonement, we are in Christ and have everything. The atonement makes all of the difference.
The Infinite Sufferings of Christ
But what about the death of Christ? You’ve probably heard the story. Maybe you’ve read the passion accounts in the Gospels or seen one of the countless movies that depict them. Jesus was nailed to a cross and hung for several hours before breathing his last and being taken down and buried. But was that all there was to it? Did Christ’s sufferings for all mankind only last six hours? Could that comparatively quick death truly atone for the sins of billions upon billions?
In ‘Beyond the Cosmos’, Hugh Ross, a Christian astronomer, describes the probability that God works within multiple dimensions; dimensions that we can’t begin to fathom any more than a two-dimensional being might try to fathom our three-dimensional experience. Using recent scientific discoveries as well as the scriptures, Ross argues that while we live within a four dimensional experience (length, height, depth, and time) God most likely functions within at least ten or eleven dimensions. So, what does this have to do with the atonement? Possibly everything.
If God experiences time within two dimensions, then he is not limited to our linear experience of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Instead, just as we can walk around a room because the floor is a plane; so God could walk around time as if it was a plane. In other words, during any one of the moments we experience, he could accomplish an infinite number of tasks by moving time in a perpendicular direction. This corresponds well with Peter’s time-shattering assertion that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day” (2 Peter 3:8). In other words, God is not restrained at all by our experiences of linear time.
So what implications does this have for the atonement? As Christ hung on the cross for those six, agonizing hours he was not restricted to six hours as we experience them. Ross explains it this way, “The penalty for one person’s sin – unimaginably painful torment and isolation from God and everything and everyone good and righteous forever – would require that individual’s existence (after physical death on earth) on at least one infinitely long time line. If some twenty billion people incur sin’s penalty, twenty billion infinite time lines would represent the cumulative total of sin’s penalty…Thus, while Jesus suffered on the cross for six hours on our time line, He could have experienced the suffering of twenty billion infinite timelines in two other dimensions of time” (Ross, p.112-113, italics mine). Think about that for a moment. Modern physics opens our minds to the possibility that Christ could have suffered a potential infinite amount of time for each one of us. In other words, for Christ it may not have been just six hours.
As I read this chapter in Ross’ book and began meditating on the atonement, it gave me so much to think about. If Christ did suffer for us individually, did my entire life play out before him? Did he watch my every sin? Did he weep at each rebellious act and mourn over my apathy? Maybe the cross wasn’t just a six hour marathon of physical, mental, and spiritual torture for our Lord. Maybe it was much, much worse.
“For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels provedunalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?…” (Hebrews 2:1-3a).
Ross, H. (1996). Chapter Ten: Extra-Dimensionality, the Incarnation, and the Atonement. Beyond the cosmos: the extra-dimensionality of God : what recent discoveries in astronomy and physics reveal about the nature of God (). Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress.