The British philosopher A. J. Ayer once summarized his objections to the Christian faith by singling out the doctrines of original sin and the vicarious suffering and death of Christ. There is an intimate connection between both doctrines. Since man cannot redeem himself, the Son of God, as man, surrendered Himself unto death. Atonement by the blood of Jesus Christ belongs to the essence of the Christian faith. Such is the testimony of the church’s creeds. Can this confession be substantiated in light of Scripture? What do the Scriptures have to say about the atonement? Availing myself of a number of works that have been published during the last few years, I wish to present some exegetical considerations in this first installment. In the second installment, I will focus on how the significance of the cross of Christ has been addressed throughout the history of the Christian church.
The Old Testament sanctuary was a reflection of the nature, reputation, and authority of the LORD. The sins of the people of Israel were incompatible with His justice. For the Lord to dwell continually in the midst of His people, His justice had to be vindicated repeatedly. This was particularly the case on the great Day of Atonement, which provided the people with an affirmation that forgiveness had been granted them. The fact that the Law of Moses uses various words to designate sin (e.g., transgression, unrighteousness, uncleanness) is one of the indications that Israel (taking her lead from the Lord Himself) took sin seriously. The Mosaic laws make it clear to us that atonement and forgiveness of sin will never become a reality apart from confession of sin and, ultimately, restitution for the transgression committed.
Leviticus 17:11 is a key text in the Pentateuch. Does the atonement referred to there come about by means of the soul (i.e., life), or for and/or instead of the soul? External to the context of the atonement, the preposition that precedes the nouns life or soul also has the meaning of instead of or on behalf of. This is evident, for instance, in Genesis 29:18, where Jacob says that he has worked seven years for Rachel. Therefore, the notion that blood yields atonement for the soul is at least a possibility. However, when Leviticus 17:11 states that blood is the life or soul of the flesh, it would probably be preferable to interpret Leviticus 17:11 to mean that the shedding of blood yields atonement because of the life inherent in it.
Whatever the case may be, it is the sacrificial blood of the animal that serves as a substitute for the one who brings the sacrifice. The atonement also yields purification, but such purification is only possible because blood is substituted for the guilty sinner. Regarding the ritual of the Day of Atonement, it is noteworthy that inanimate objects are referred to as the objects of atonement without the use of a preposition, whereas any reference to people is preceded by a preposition.
The verb to atone belongs to the very essence of the cultic legislation of the Old Testament, and it reveals to us that the one who participated in the service of the Lord felt the necessity to escape God’s displeasure toward sin. When, for example, we consider this in light of Numbers 16:46–47, it will be evident that the quenching of God’s wrath is one of the components of the concept of the atonement. By dying vicariously, the sacrificial animal endured the wrath of God toward sin. It was understood that the goat sent into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement would be sent to a deserted location; that is, to a place divorced from God’s favor and where it would be subjected to God’s wrath.