The Atonement (think “at-one-ment,” because it’s about reconciling yourself to God) refers to the act by which Christ, who was God incarnated as a man, absorbed into himself the entirety of the cost—all of the negative karma, if you will—of everything bad that any person ever had or would do—and then destroyed it by allowing the body which held it to be destroyed.
God did that because he loves us, and so above all desires our happiness. And what most often keeps us from being happy? What’s the number one thing that every day, in a million little ways, interferes with our feeling truly pleased with who we are and how we live?
Guilt, baby. Guilt is the nagging, ever-present, ever-caustic boog-a-boo of the human experience.
We do bad things; we feel guilty for doing them; the quality of our lives degenerates accordingly. Every day; all the time; there’s no escaping it.
If you’re God, and above all desire that people love the life you’ve given them, that just doesn’t work for you.
But what can God do about the intractable guilt from which people constantly suffer? Part of his creation of us—the main part—is installing in each of us an absolute free will. (That’s how we get our guilt; being free to make so many choices means we necessarily make a lot of bad or wrong choices, for which—what with our being imbued with a conscience, and all–we are then bound to feel guilty.) If God just showed up, and told us how unconditionally he loves us, and how that meant we were okay and could stop feeling so guilty all the time, then, by virtue of thus eliminating any choice we have but to believe in him, he would eradicate the very free will which so fully defines us. (For more on this, see my Why Doesn’t God Just Prove He Exists?)
If God leaves us be, then we (being both we personally and mankind overall) are left forever burdened by the guilt that must result from our free will. If he shows up as God—if, say, he rents wide the sky and just starts talking to us all—then he destroys our free will.
And there you have the ultimate Catch-22.
What God needed was a way to:
1. Interject himself directly into human affairs and human history; and while doing so:
2. Prove he was God;
3. Prove he fully understood human guilt—which is to say prove he was fully human;
4. Be as clear as possible that the reason he’d come was to forever remove from us our guilt;
5. Act out the process by which he was removing our guilt;
6. Go back to the heaven from whence he’d arrived; and
7. Do it all with minimal impact on human free will.
The story of Christ in the Bible is the story of how God accomplished all of the above. He began his plan to essentially save us from ourselves by choosing a group of people who were are at least smart enough to have already caught on to the idea that there might actually be just one God; he spent two thousand years being extremely clear to that group about how and where he was going to show up, and about what exactly he was going to do once he got there; he showed up; he did every kind of miracle to prove he was really and truly God (the most impressive, of course, being raising himself and others from the dead); he played out a terrible drama, every last detail of which was perfectly designed to prove his eternal love for all people everywhere; he did the whole thing so that as many people as possible saw and heard exactly what he was doing and how he was doing it—and then returned to his home in heaven.
God as Jesus came; He proclaimed; He executed. And by doing it all as a human—by becoming Jesus—God accomplished two things: He proved how deeply and utterly he empathizes with us, and as much as possible he left open, for anyone’s choice, the option to believe that his time here on earth was nothing more than a matter of smoke and mirrors.
Today, anyone seeking absolute forgiveness for their sins—anyone who has fallen away from the goodness and truth of God, and wants to be again reconciled to it—can avail themselves of what God through Christ did for them on the cross. Because of Christ the full forgiveness of God, for any person who desires it, is as close as the distance between their knees and the ground.