‘Atonement’ as Justice in Western Law and Christian Thought

Cassandra Sharp explores the concepts of atonement and justice.

This year Ian McEwan’s best-selling 2002 novel Atonement was adapted for film starring Kiera Knightly and James McAvoy. The cinematic treatment confrontingly brings to life the story of Briony Tallis and her destructive role in the life of her older sister Cecilia and her lover, Robbie Turner. As both the storyteller and a major character in the narrative, Briony expresses deep remorse about her ruinous acts as a 13-year-old girl and says that her novel, to which she gave an ending very different from the reality, is her ‘atonement’. In this story, Briony, seeks atonement through fiction⎯by reuniting the two lovers whose lives had been wrenched apart⎯ in an imagined happy ending.

Atonement is of course central to a Christian understanding of the world with the claim that God achieves it, not through fiction, but through the reality of Jesus’ death. The film highlights the fact that the concept remains hard-wired into the human psyche regardless of religious belief. This article seeks to explore how the biblical concept of atonement may be detected within formal Western understandings of justice, and more specifically, theories of punishment.

What is atonement?

In Biblical terms the concept of atonement refers to the process by which humanity is returned to the status of being ‘at one’ with God after sin has compromised the relationship. As God cannot ignore sin, the question becomes: once the wrong has been committed, how can atonement be made?

The Christian understanding of the atonement is that God seeks restoration with his people and has achieved this through retributive actions. The Bible claims that the consequences of sin is death (Rom 6:23) – this means that God, as the lawmaker, requires that the wrongdoing or sin be dealt with via punitive measures. This claim is supported by both the Old and New Testaments. In Old Testament Mosaic law, God himself instituted the sacrificial system (and in particular the Day of Atonement) as a means by which wrongdoers could atone for their sins via animal sacrifices. In this case the innocent animal ‘took on’ the sins of the perpetrator. In the New Testament, the suffering and death of Jesus Christ is portrayed as fulfilment of the Day of Atonement ritual. At the heart of this portrayal is the presentation of Christ as the sinless substitutionary saviour, who in his death atones for the sins of all.

It is through retribution that God brings about restoration and enables atonement. Interestingly, these twin aspects of the doctrine of atonement are two major justifications for our criminal penal system.

Theories of punishment – Retribution and Restoration

In our criminal justice system, the question of guilt is paramount, together with the infliction of punishment upon the person found guilty of having transgressed the law. The two dominant reasons given for criminal punishment are retribution and restoration. Retributive theory says that the purpose of punishment is to give the offender what he/she deserves. This is a retrospective justification that links justice with desert, whereby offenders deserve to be punished in a way that is proportionate to the crime.

As a society we feel the need for justice, and will demand this justice for lawbreaking through punitive measures, but this does not preclude the involvement of restorative practices within punitive measures.

Perceived to be in opposition to retribution as a grand theory for punishment is restorative justice. Because crime is seen as a harm to the social fabric which requires repair, restorative justice works to effect that repair by bringing together all the relevant parties (victim, offender, wider community) and giving them a role to play in the process of restoration. The emphasis is on reconciliation and quite obviously requires the repentance of the offender, and the willingness to forgive on the part of the victim.

Rather than viewing these two theories as opposites, it can be argued that just as with atonement theory, they should be held together, in tension. As a society we feel the need for justice, and will demand this justice for lawbreaking through punitive measures, but this does not preclude the involvement of restorative practices within punitive measures.

It could be argued that current punishment theory carries within it echoes of the way in which God deals with sin and crime, and in this way there is some continuity between atonement theory and secular justice. That is, it could be said that wrongdoing in the secular world is dealt with according to the same principles by which God deals with sin through the atonement – a transgression of the law (God’s or society’s) requires a penalty – (God’s wrath affecting death or punishment/penal sanction). In this sense, the retributive element deals with the wrongdoing and reflects the justice of the lawmaker.

This is in line with the biblical concept of atonement – both law and religion recognise that punishment does not reverse the wrongdoing – we send murderers to gaol even though we know it won’t bring the victim back; and God’s substitutionary sacrifice does not mean that we have not affronted God with our sin.  Both society and Christian doctrine acknowledge that lawless actions deserve a punishment.

Importantly though, repentance and forgiveness are key elements of the atonement and also play a significant role in restorative initiatives.  Reconciliation does not come about by simply the changing of attitudes but requires the repentance of the wrongdoer and the forgiveness of the victim. Restorative measures in secular justice seek to do just that – to prioritise the involvement of the key people – rather than a determination of an institution.

Both society and Christian doctrine acknowledge that lawless actions deserve a punishment.

As such, restoration and retribution are not seen as contradictory but vital elements of a holistic community system. Consistent with biblical atonement, retribution can be seen as one method of the satisfaction of justice, and that in combination with restorative practices, can help to facilitate the reconciliation between wrong-doer and victim.


When the Bible talks about atonement it emphasises God’s mercy in providing a substitute for the wrongdoer. This means that the sinner is no longer held liable to suffer the retributive penalty that is deserved for the transgression. It is Jesus who takes up this substitutionary position, and here we see a startling discontinuity with criminal retributive theory – that the innocent would stand in the place of the guilty and make satisfaction for the wrongdoing of the guilty flies in the face of the notion of ‘just deserts’.  And yet, this is exactly the case of Christian atonement.

Taking this further, the Christian doctrine of atonement particularly emphasises that it is God himself (in the person of Jesus) who acts to free people from the penalty of their sin. Again, this is of course inconsistent with expectations of criminal justice. It would seem outrageous to allow the victim to take on the punishment deserved by the offender, and yet again, this is the essence of the biblical idea of atonement – the one who has been offended, who has been transgressed, is the atoning sacrifice by which the offender is forgiven and restored in relationship with the victim.

In the McEwan novel and film, the perpetrator of a grievous harm is left tortured with guilt and forced to turn to fantasy to find what is ultimately an inadequate solace for her soul. True atonement it seems eludes her. The Christian vision on the other hand claims the promise of a radical ‘washing’ of past wrongs that is based not on fantasy, but the objective reality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Retribution and restoration are rolled into one within a miracle of divine grace and mercy.

Dr Cassandra Sharp is a lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of Wollongong