The term "atonement" has long been employed in theological language. It has been used in Old Testament theology and to designate the work of Christ on account of sin. Should it truly be used to describe the work of Christ? Did Christ atone for our sins? If animals atoned for the sins of people in the Old Testament, does Christ also atone for sins in the New Testament, or was what Christ did more than atonement? I believe the uncertainty of meaning of atonement occurs mainly due to the fact that atonement is solely an Old Testament term. It does not appear in the New Testament.
The King James Version uses the English word "atonement" in Romans 5:11. However, the English word at that time could be understood in the sense of reconciliation. Shakespeare himself uses the word atonement to mean at-one-ment or reconciliation. This is not the sense of theological understanding of atonement. The Greek word (katallage) is used four times in the New Testament and it is translated "reconciling" (Romans 11:15), "reconciled" (2 Corinthians 5:18), and "reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Some have argued that the NT Greek text equivalents for "atone" are found, and they support this by pointing out that the same terms which "the Septuagint" translators used for the word "atone" as it occurs in the OT. The truth is that they used about a dozen different words to translate "atone" and "atonement.," showing that they found no uniformity of meaning than have the authors of the many theories of the atonement that have come down to us.
There are certain NT words that are more or less akin to the meaning of atonement. "Ransom" (lutron) comes pretty near to its meaning, and perhaps "propitiation" (hilasmos) comes even closer. The fact remains, however, that no true synonym or equivalent for atone or atonement is found in the NT. Do you think this might just be because the word "atonement" limits what Christ did on the cross in its description?
The way to understand "atonement" must come from the etymology and Scriptural usage of the Hebrew original. To get the Scriptural conception of "atonement," we can't forget that the Old Testament was not revealed in English. The Hebrew verb kaphar without doubt means "to cover." Its piel form kipper is generally used in the OT. The first time the word occurs in the OT, it is translated "pitch" in Genesis 6:14.
Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.The original meaning of the word was "to cover." However, most of the time in the OT, unlike this usage in Genesis 6, the term is not used in a literal way, but in a metaphorical or spiritual way. The ritual covering in the OT was not literal, but metaphorical. In most cases, blood was not actually laid on the object covered. The blood is instead brought before God and in the ceremony it is the sight of the Lord that is covered.
The verbs kasah ("to cover") and machah ("to blot out") are used synonymously with kipper. It seems clear that while the word "atone" means "to cover," this covering was in a figurative sense, and it is this metaphorical usage that gives rise to its many shades of meaning. There could be no word in another tongue that would mean all that the Hebrew metaphor conveyed in its usage. The English word "atone" must be understood in light of all the Hebrew word expresses, not vice versa. Some of the concepts that are communicated for "atonement" are actually far more the results of the covering, making them a secondary, not a primary meaning.
Atonement does what David prayed for in Psalm 51:9, "Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities." Atonement hid sins, put them out of sight, or invalidated them so that they no longer offended. Atonement expressed by its figure that sin was removed from God's sight and so its effects were also undone. This figure of atonement is not competent in portraying all that Christ achieved through His sacrifice for our sin, which is why it is not a NT word. If "atonement" were sufficient, no doubt the NT would have used it. Of course, the NT was written in Greek, not Hebrew, but still the character and scope of the work of Christ is too vast to be portrayed by the figurative term "atonement."
(This begins a series on atonement in Scripture as it relates to the work of Christ.)