The Doctrine of the Atonement

 

The divine Jesus that Paul created has, naturally, theological implications. One major theological contribution that Paul has made to Christianity is his introduction of the doctrine of the Atonement. This, the Incarnation, and the Trinity represent the three most influential doctrines in Christianity. The Atonement and the Trinity were both derived from the deification of Jesus, i.e. the most fundamental doctrine of the Incarnation.

The Atonement denotes the role of the death and resurrection of Jesus in bringing about the reconciliation between God and man after Adam’s sin (Rom. 3:21-26, 5:6-21). Sin represents death, so by making his son die and bringing him back to life, God gave people the opportunity of salvation. As Paul put it in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth in Greece: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). Paul taught that the Atonement was so fundamental to Christianity that he told his fellow Christians: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17).

Amazingly, despite its fundamental position in Christian theology, the doctrine of the Atonement is not found in any of the Gospels which are presented as collections of Jesus’ sayings and works. There is not even a passing mention by Jesus to this supposedly most fundamental doctrine that represents his whole mission in life, death, and resurrection. Even when Jesus tells his disciples about the suffering he was expecting, the Gospel writers do not attribute to him a single word indicating that this suffering has a vicarious function (Mark 8:31, 9:12; Matt. 16:21, 17:12; Luke 9:22, 17:25, 22:15, 24:26, 24:46)!

The Qur’an rejects completely the concept of the Atonement. First, the Qur’an rejects the concept of original sin, which states that Adam committed a sin which all his descendants were made to inherit and thus be born in a state of sinfulness. Yet the concept of original sin forms the basis of Paul’s Atonement, even though original sin started to develop as a doctrine in the 2nd century before it reached the summit of its power at the hands of the Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine (354-430 CE). Second, the salvational role that a prophet plays is achieved by guiding his followers to genuine beliefs and practices. Whether an individual goes to hell or paradise is determined by his behaviour, not by any action taken on his behalf by anyone else, including a prophet. The reader may consult my book The Mystery of the Crucifixion for a more detailed analysis of the doctrine of the Atonement (Fatoohi, 2008a: pp. 57-65) and its refutation in the Qur’an (pp. 125-132).

Jesus’ sacrifice replaced the Mosaic role as the necessary route to salvation. Paul did not promote a complete abrogation of the law, but one letter that used to be attributed to him in the past said that Jesus’ sacrifice resulted in “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (Eph. 2:15). The almost complete absence of the law from Christian life is a testimony to Paul’s success.

Furthermore, the concepts of a suffering Messiah and a Messiah who rescues people through his death and resurrection do not exist in Judaism. Both are Christian inventions that have no roots in history.

          

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