Saturday, June 30, 2018

The True Spiritual Meaning of Atonement

Atonement is the removal of sins, and there are two systems of thought as to how atonement is effected:
  1. Atonement, the removal of sins, is effected by repentance and turning away from evil, and/or
  2. Atonement is the removal of sins and reconciliation of God and man through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Most understand the need for repentance, but few understand how that is related to the coming of Jesus Christ. Many who practice true spirituality by living one's life according to God's commandments fail to understand who Jesus Christ is and how He is involved in one's spiritual life. On the other side of the coin, many religious people just believe and rarely practice a life of repentance.

So how is a life a repentance and self examination related to the coming of Jesus Christ, and why was His coming necessary? Here, a rational and comprehensive answer is provided in the theology of the New Church which is explained in detail in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.


The Christian life as explained in the theology of the New Church is simple: turning away from evil because they are sins against God, and doing that which is good. Before good can be done, before the Holy Spirit can enter into one's life, evils must be removed. The removal of one's evils is atonement. This can only happen through internal struggles known as temptations, and repentance. It must be preceded with an acknowledgment of truth, and self examination. It begins with an acknowledgment that the source of one's evils is one's self, and that any good originates from God alone. One must identify specific sins, and turn away from them. This is how sins are removed, and how one begins a spiritual life.


In the original Hebrew, the word "atonement" means "cover." It first appears in scripture in the instructions to Noah on how to build the ark:

Make yourself an ark of gopher wood.  Make rooms in the ark, and pitched it inside and out with pitch (Gen. 6:14)

The word "pitch" is from the word that is also translated as atonement. And from this many have invented false teachings to explain the meaning, such as, when one converts God "covers up" one's sins so that He does not see them. This is a false perverted teaching that has destroyed the essential teaching of Christianity: it is used as an excuse for a life of evil and it goes against a life of repentance. In the work Heavenly Arcana Swedenborg offers a rather interesting spiritual insight into the meaning of this word when commenting on the story of Noah's ark:
"In the original text it is not indeed said that it was to be pitched with pitch, but a word is used which denotes protection, derived from expiate or propitiate, and therefore it involves the same. The expiation or propitiation of the Lord is protection from inundation of evil" (Heavenly Arcana, n. 645)
The words "expiation" and "propitiation" are synonyms for the word "atonement." This is one of the first surprises for me when I encountered the theology of the New Church, as this is not what is taught by most churches. When one withdraws from evil, one withdraws from the influence of evil spirits, whose temptations are represented by the flood of waters that attempt to flood the ark. The ark with its different compartments represents one's will and mind. When one withdraws from evil, then one opens the door to heaven, and the Lord then withholds and protects the one who has followed Him from the influence of evil.


It is well known that animal sacrifices in the Jewish religion represented the rite of atonement. These animal sacrifices were symbolic, where the blood was withdrawn from the animal before its body was burned on the altar. The body or flesh represent one's lower desires, and the blood that was offered represented what was holy:
"In the rituals of the Jewish Church blood had no other signification than the holy proceeding from the Lord's Divine Human, wherefore when they were sanctified, it was done by blood — as when Aaron and his sons were sanctified, blood was sprinkled upon the horns of the altar, the remainder at the base of the altar, also upon the tip of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand, and the great toe of the right foot, and upon his garments (Exod. xxix. 12, 16, 20; Lev. viii. 15, 19, 23, 30). And when Aaron entered within the veil to the mercy-seat, blood was also to be sprinkled with the finger upon the mercy-seat eastward seven times (Lev. xvi. 12-15)." (Heavenly Arcana, n. 4735.11)
When one repents from evil, one turns away from the desires of the ego and the lower self, represented by the flesh of the animal. Only after that could the priest enter the Holy of holies, which signifies that communion with the Divine of heaven is only possible once sins or evils are removed by repentance. It is affected by knowledge of the truth, thus in many Jewish rituals one is cleansed by the washing of water, and in the Christian Church it is the ritual of baptism, since water signifies the truth by which one reforms one's way of life.


Atonement, which is the removal of sins and the liberation from the bondage of evil, is effected by Divine truth, and this is represented by blood in the Jewish rituals, as well as by water. Blood in itself effects nothing, it is a symbolic representation of the Divine truth that proceeds from the Lord:
"blood in the Word is signified Divine truth proceeding from the Divine good of the Lord, and by this truth all purification is effected; for truth teaches man what is good and how he should live, and when man knows this, then first can affection or love of good be implanted, and thus he be regenerated. For knowledge must precede before man can have faith and live the life of faith, which is the life of good" (Heavenly Arcana, n. 10026)
Those who have no knowledge of the truth live in darkness, and the way they live will be influenced by their lack of knowledge and tend towards favoring the selfish ego and desires.


And here is where we get to the point how Jesus Christ is related to purification from evil through atonement: Jesus is the Divine truth in human form, thus He is called the Word in the flesh. There is a false teaching that states that such animal sacrifices represented a "substitutionary" or "vicarious" atonement where someone else suffers for the punishment of one's sin. This is again a false teaching, a late development in Christianity that began in the 11th century and is now popular in Catholic and Protestant thinking. So why was the coming of the Divine in human form necessary? The human race had become separated from heaven, and it is from heaven that Divine truth flows into the minds of the human race. Thus it became necessary for the Divine to descend in human form to subjugate the power of hell over the human race:
"They who have no knowledge of the internal sense of the Word, thus who do not know that by blood is signified Divine truth, and that by this from the Lord is effected purification, believe that man is purified by the blood of the Lord, by which they understand His passion of the cross. But let them know that by the Lord's passion of the cross, thus by His blood, no one is purified, but by a life according to His precepts, as He Himself teaches in many places. The passion of the cross was the last of the Lord's temptation, by which He fully glorified His Human, as He Himself also says in Luke: Ought not Christ to suffer these things, and to enter into His glory? (xxiv. 26.) For the Lord came into the world that He might subjugate the hells and bring back all things into order, even in the heavens, which was effected by temptations admitted to Himself; and the passion of the cross was the last of His temptations, by which He fully conquered the hells, and set the heavens in order, and at the same time glorified His Human, and unless He had done this, no man could have been saved" (Heavenly Arcana, n. 10026.2)
This is described further in another passage:
"It is a common belief at this day that the burnt offerings and sacrifices signified the Lord's passion, and that by this the Lord made expiation for the iniquities of all, indeed, that He drew them away upon Himself, and thus bore them; and that those who believe are in this manner justified and saved, provided they think, though but in the last hour before death, that the Lord suffered for them, however they may have lived during the whole course of their life. But the case is not really so: the passion of the cross was the extremity of the Lord's temptation, by which He fully united His Human to His Divine and His Divine to His Human, and thus glorified Himself. That union is itself the means by which those who have the faith in Him which is the faith of charity, can be saved. For the Supreme Divine Itself could no longer reach to the human race, which had removed itself so far from the celestial things of love and the spiritual things of faith, that they no longer even acknowledged them, and still less perceived them. In order therefore that the Supreme Divine might be able to come down to man who was such, the Lord came into the world and united His Human to the Divine in Himself; which union could not be effected otherwise than by the most grievous combats of temptations and by victories, and at length by the last, which was that of the cross" (Heavenly Arcana, n. 2776)
With the union of the Divine with the Human in the Lord, communion is thus now available where one may receive the truth through the Holy Spirit, which proceeds from the Lord. In such a manner the coming of Jesus Christ was necessary for mankind to continue to be liberated from the dominion of hell through a life of repentance. Belief alone does not save, nor does faith alone save -- only by following the truth and turning against one's evils is one liberated to live a life according to the Divine will, which is a life of eternity that continues in heaven.

If any teaches otherwise, then Quit the Old Church, and Join the New.


  1. Hi Doug,

    Good article. There's a lot of confusion and misinformation out there about atonement, redemption, and so on.

    I would add that the sacrifices were not penalties for sin, despite some shockingly bad modern translations of Leviticus, such as the NRSV and the NIV. Rather, they were ritualized sacred meals with God, bringing the people offering them into communion with God, and symbolizing the willingness of those making the sacrifice to bring themselves back into alignment with God's will. The Holy Supper is a more direct representation of this sacred meal with God, without the need for literal slaughter and blood.

    This is something I plan to take up in more detail in a future article on my blog.

    1. Yes animal sacrifices are taken as evidence for the theology of atonement. I would make the point that burning the flesh of the animal is the rejection of the lower desires of the self, the blood is the higher concept that leads to love.

      The true original meaning of "atonement" is covering, and it is the concept that when one turns away from evil one gets "covered" or protected from the influence of evil, by an aura of Divine protection that attends one living a good life. Its distorted by some (especially Protestant pastors) to say that God covers up one's sins so that He will not see it, which means one can live an evil life and it will not matter.

      Again, another comment lost in the endless flood of spam.


Comments, questions, corrections and opinions welcome...