Vol 8, No 1, 2006

An Atonement Update

James Alison

Abstract

What does it mean to say that Jesus died to save us? The traditional account of atonement – in which Jesus becomes a substitutionary sacrifice for human sinfulness – is revealed as problematic as long as it is understood as a theory. In the experience of Israel, atonement was not a theory at all. It was a liturgy whose goal was not to placate some otherwise non-forgiving God (the Aztec or pagan imagination) but the more subversive action in which God’s creative, saving, redeeming activity is poured out to us despite our human sinfulness. Rather than invoke the idea of sacrifice as something God demands of us, by becoming the victim in our place Christ puts an end once and for all to the human insistence for sacrificial victims. This is what makes the Eucharist a liturgical event with such profound ethical implications.