Atonement (Part 1)

The Light (Pakistan), 1st June 1922 Issue (Vol. 1, No. 12, p. 2)

[Related: Parts: 2, 3, 4 and 5]

Atonement is the cardinal doctrine of Christianity. It is based upon the assumption that God is just and loving. His justice demands that a sinner should not go unpunished. His love, on the contrary, wants that punishment should be wiped out from the surface of the earth.

Now, it was a very critical position for God. He was bound on one hand to punish every sinner to do justice, but He was equally bound on the other to show mercy to sinners in order to satisfy the impulse of love. With a view to solve this difficulty and to display the two contradictory attributes at one and the same time, God adopted a very curious plan. He showed mercy by crucifying His only son, who died a cursed death, for the redemption of mankind. Thus, the price was taken from mankind for its salvation and justice was also done.

But as this price did not come out from the pocket of the people, there was nothing in it against the Divine love. God, so to speak, Himself paid the price out of His limitless mercy, and thus effected the redemption of man, without making any departure from the strict sense of justice.

Such is the popular theory of atonement. But our esteemed contemporary, the Epiphany, which is devoted to the spread of the Christian doctrines, in a recent issue has given it quite a different light. The paper however uses very elastic language, which is wonderfully adapted to various interpretations. Yet if we can claim to have understood it rightly, it holds that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is only a symbol, which signifies life after death or, more properly, the revival of Christianity after a period of death or oblivion.

From this principle as its data, it also draws a moral lesson that every life means a previous death, and one who wants to live must die first. The belief in the crucifixion or atonement therefore means the belief in this principle, and nothing more.

We must admire the ingenuity of our contemporary and heartily congratulate it on the plausible interpretation which it has put on this old doctrine of Christianity. But we can hardly hope that the Church will agree to it. If this is the only significance of atonement, the dogmatic Christianity will fall to the ground. Jesus Christ was not the only Prophet who suffered and eventually triumphed.

As a matter of fact, this has been the case with every divine teacher. The Holy Quran has laid down the principle that:

“surely with difficulty is ease,”

and Muslim divines have the motto

“die before you die,”

which means that to achieve eternal life one must die before one’s physical death; that is, must go through hardships and misfortunes.

This idea of self-annihilation or mortification is often met with in the writings of Sufis. If the former phase of atonement, which signifies the paying of the price for sins, is a relic of the old pagans who used to appease their angry deity with sacrifices or offers, this latter development, which holds that crucifixion and resurrection as the symbol of life after death, is an echo of the Sufi’s philosophy of self-mortification. But the crucifixion of Jesus which is the foundation stone of atonement is a historical event and must be studied from a historical standpoint. We will do it in our next [issue].

[Read the next part: ‘Part 2’]