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Was the cross merely an example of “at-one-ment,” or did it provide “atonement”?

As a yoga student, I was taught that Jesus’ death on the cross was merely an example of obedience, an inspiring demonstration of the “at-one-ment” Jesus possessed with the Oversoul. It graphically showed how far we should all be willing to go in order to fulfill the purpose of God in our lives. Powerfully portraying death to self, it revealed how we, too, can attain “at-one-ment” (oneness with the ‘higher Self’). However, the cross did not provide atonement (a price paid to remove sin).

This view sounded reasonable and appealing to me at the time, but it didn’t match Jesus’ own assessment of the purpose of his death and its ultimate effect. Revealing a totally different stance, at the Last Supper Jesus predicted that his blood would be shed, not merely as an example of obedience, but “for the remission of sins.” (Matthew 26:28) This word “remission” means the act of releasing, pardoning or setting free from sin.

If Jesus was an Avatar and could only speak the truth (as my former gurus and teachers claimed), how could he make such an outlandish claim unless it was true? If this was an accurate appraisal of Jesus’ purpose (and I now contend that it is), then the message of the cross should be lifted high over the entire human race (for the sake of mankind’s deliverance, not just to enlarge the ranks of a religion).

I am now absolutely, unequivocally convinced that Jesus was much more than just another Avatar. He was the only incarnation of God in this world and his death is the only true and complete source of cleansing for the souls of men. Nothing else will remove the stain of sin but the precious blood of Jesus— not lacerating one’s own body in self-mortification, or bathing in the River Ganges, or burning holy candles, or turning prayer wheels, or chanting mysterious mantras, or any other sacred rite offered in any religion in this world.

Death is the curse that follows sin. It was pronounced first on Adam. It still hovers over every person who commits sin in this world (which is, unfortunately, an inevitable part of being human). (See Genesis 2:17, Romans 5:17.) Thankfully, the Scripture announces that Jesus, by the grace of God, “tasted death for every man.” (Hebrews 2:9) He became “a curse for us,” suffering the consequences of sin in our place, so that we could go free. (Galatians 3:13) An occurrence of this spiritual magnitude has never happened before or since. No pivotal religious event can even compare to its importance—not the flight of Mohammed to Medina, nor the supposed enlightenment of Buddha under the Bodhi tree, or even the awesome privilege given to Moses of receiving the Law on Mount Sinai.

Jesus stands unique in executing a substitutionary death in the behalf of a fallen human race. Furthermore, it is totally improbable that his disciples misunderstood the purpose of his death and misrepresented this revelation in their writings, as some have conjectured. The Son of God spent several years carefully instructing his chief followers so they could correctly and effectively perpetuate his message and ministry. Even after his death and resurrection, he instructed them for another forty days before ascending into heaven. (See Galatians 3:13–14, 1 John 2:1–2, Acts 1:1–3.)

At the start of Jesus’ ministry, John, the Baptist, his forerunner, clearly identified this incomparable purpose for the Christ. As Jesus passed by, John cried aloud to an audience of eager truth-seekers, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Years later, all the apostles emphasized this substitutionary sacrifice in their preaching. Peter revealed that Jesus was delivered up to die “by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God.” (Acts 2:23) Paul even resolved not to dwell on any subject except “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

Comprehending the mystery of Jesus’ death is paramount in understanding the purpose of his coming. It is the focal point of Christianity and the hope of every man and woman born into this world. Yes, I concede, it did powerfully portray Jesus’ “at-one-ment” with the Father (something we should all imitate), but more than that, it also provided “atonement” (something we must all appropriate). In almost all other religions, the main emphasis is man sacrificing in order to reach God; in Christianity, the main emphasis is God sacrificing in order to reach man.

Copyright © 2003 Mike Shreve

Important note: Actually, the word “atonement” falls short of the description of what Jesus accomplished for his people. Atonement more perfectly means a covering for sin. This was the dominant theme of the Old Testament plan of redemption, because the blood of animal sacrifices provided only a temporary and insufficient “covering” for sin. Now, through the precious blood of Jesus, sin is not just “covered”; it is washed away: wiped out of existence, as if it never happened. However, for the sake of this comparative article, this biblical term was used. (See 1 John 1:7, Revelation 1:5.)

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Written by Mike Shreve