Atonement – Defining a Misunderstood Term

Atonement – Defining a Misunderstood Term March 7, 2023

Credit: Pixabay

With Easter approaching, we do well to consider the meaning of atonement, a concept that people too often assume they grasp. That’s a bold claim, but the coming posts in this series will highlight a few reasons why we need to rethink our understanding.

NOTE: This series draws from select insights found in The Cross in Context, where I elaborate further on each topic.

How Do We Define Atonement?

Teachers frequently confuse the meaning of atonement with its effects. For example, they’ll say that atonement refers to reconciliation, purification, forgiveness, or covering. No, none of these define the biblical terms for atonement. Not even “cover.”

Some writers think the Hebrew kpr is related to the Arabic word kafara. If so, the kpr’s basic meaning might include covering. Yet, this proposal is problematic, and scholars increasingly argue against it.[1]

Leviticus scholar, James Greenberg, suggests that kpr (“to atone”) is “to repair or create a new protective connection” between the worshipper and the Lord. Therefore, it “reflects [the Lord’s] acceptance of the priestly offering.”[2] This meaning would shed light on several texts that don’t fit common interpretations of atonement (e.g., Exodus 29; Leviticus 16:15-19; Numbers 8).

To the surprise of many, people are not the primary object of atonement. Although atonement is made on behalf of people, priests make atonement for holy objects and sacred space. Effectively, kpr (“atone”) bestows the recipient with special favor and honor.

The Function of Atonement

Atonement serves a distinct set of functions in the Bible. Passages like Numbers 8 are especially illuminating. Here and elsewhere, we find that the process of atonement produces two distinct transformations.

(1) Atonement transitions an object from being unclean to becoming clean (e.g., Lev 14:19-20; 16:30, among others).

(2) Atonement transforms an object from a state of being clean to being holy. The latter refers to consecration (Exod 29:33-37; Lev 16:19-20).

Sadly, many theologians compromise the doctrine of atonement by settling for what is merely true. They suppose a half-truth, i.e., that atone implies appeasing wrath.

However, in numerous passages, atone means “entreat” or “seek favor.” Those contexts do not necessarily imply wrath. Entreating the Lord might involve appeasing God’s wrath, but not necessarily. Nor do those texts directly refer to punishment. In short, appeasing God’s wrath implies seeking his favor, but seeking God’s favor does not necessarily entail appeasing wrath.

Putting It Together

In summary, I don’t suggest that common teachings about atonement are entirely wrong; it’s simply that they lose perspective of the bigger picture by focusing on a sliver of truth. Consequently, we overemphasize certain parts while missing more fundamental dynamics.

Atonement removes whatever obstacle impedes one’s having a right relationship with another. Sinning intentionally is not the only way a person destroys a friendship. Other problems hinder good relationships, such as lack of awareness, social inequalities, misinformation, and historical injustices.

In The Cross in Context, I illustrate the point with a story about Steven Adams, center for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016.

Steven Adams, NBA Center

A person can feel neither prejudice nor hatred towards another person yet feel a separation between them. Once that invisible wall becomes visible, one is obliged to remove it. Otherwise, that person effectively approves of its existence. They reinforce the barrier….

During the NBA finals, he said the guards for the Golden State Warriors were “quick little monkeys.” Outrage followed since the Warriors’ guards are Black and the term monkeys is widely recognized as a racial slur in the United States. Yet Adams is from New Zealand, where the word carries no such connotation. He said,

“I was just trying to express how difficult it was chasing those guys around . . . It’s just different, mate,” Adams told USA Today Sports. “Different words, different expressions, and stuff like that. But they obviously can be taken differently, depending on which country you’re in. I’m assimilating, mate, still trying to figure out the boundaries. But I definitely overstepped them tonight.”

Adams intended nothing malicious by his remarks; in fact, he tried to compliment the Warriors on their athleticism. Still, once he discovered his comments caused offense, he quickly sought to apologize and rectify the problem. Although he had no ill-motive, he needed to set things right.[3]


For deeper discussion and its implications, check out The Cross in Context to reflect on the cross as we approach Easter.


[1] For arguments against “cover,” see Jay Sklar, Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice and Atonement, 44-45; Baruch Levine, Presence of the Lord, 57-63, 123-27; Yitzhaq Feder, “On kuppuru, kippēr and Etymological Sins that Cannot be Wiped Away,” 537. Notably, BDB says, “Cover over sin: the older explan. cover, lid has no justification in usage.”

[2] Greenberg, New Look at Leviticus, 45, 48.

[3] Jackson Wu, The Cross in Context, 74. Adams’ quote comes from “Thunder’s Steven Adams Apologizes for ‘Monkeys’ Comment.”

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