Following are thoughts by Gerhard Lohfink on what makes the Judeo-Christian understanding of atonement unique. This is an especially worthy reflection on Good Friday, of course. Reflecting on this doctrine also supports our prayers for ecumenical relations with Anglicans since the Marian title, “Our Lady of the Atonement,” approved by Rome in 1919, had its genesis in the prayer life of Episcopalian Father Paul Wattson, founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, before he was received into the Catholic Church.
The understanding of atonement in world religions regards it as a matter of human initiative. To secure one’s own life, to appease the deity or cause the deity to feel gracious, cultic mechanisms are employed to effect “nothing more than a symbolic replacement to pay for sin, often even a [self-imposed] self-punishment” (Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth, 264). This understanding of atonement runs the risk of “making use of the deity and rendering it instrumental to [one’s] own purposes” (265).
Atonement in the scriptural understanding proceeds not from human initiative but from God, thus turning “the concept of atonement in the religions on its head” (265). Judeo-Christian atonement is God’s gift that allows one (and, as Lohfink emphasizes, the entire people of God) to “to live in the presence of the holy God, in the space where God is near, despite one’s own unholiness … not appeasing God … but allowing ourselves to be rescued by God’s own self from the death we deserve” (265).