While the language of "atonement" has begun to fall out of regular use in our day and age, atonement itself remains as central to the human experience as it has ever been. In most cases, the word "atonement" has been replaced by the word "reconciliation." And who can deny that there is in every one of us a desire to be reconciled—to be made right?
In the post-Christian West this longing for "made-rightness" typically expresses itself in one of two ways. On the one hand, many engage in adjusting themselves to the world in which they live. So, for instance, I can be made right with the world I live in by adjusting my language, style, and culture to better fit the world around me. This kind of adaptation to cultural expectation carries with it an implicit recognition that there is something "wrong" with me that must be adjusted if I am to be reconciled to the world in which I live. I must locate the problem within me and seek to make the necessary changes to solve the problem.
On the other hand, many engage in adjusting the world to themselves. Here, the world must be changed if it is to be aligned with who I am as an individual. In this scenario, there is still something "wrong" that must be made right, but it is located outside of me. In the end, it doesn't matter which approach we take, we all long to experience "made-rightness" and reconciliation. In a word, we all crave atonement.
To modern readers, the kind of atonement that we find in the Old Testament book of Leviticus seems archaic and antiquated. We don't know what to do with things like blood sacrifice and statutes regarding the proper location for such sacrifices. Leviticus 17 presents us with a seemingly strange world. But an honest reading of the text leads to a recognition that the Israelites were a people not unlike ourselves. Like us, they used every culturally acceptable practice at their disposal to experience "made-rightness" and reconciliation.
This was the situation: in a culture where blood sacrifice was understood as one of the primary means of dealing with the out of sync nature of the world and one's own individual fallenness (both of which were the result of sin), God had given the Israelites the sacrificial system as a means of being reconciled to him. They were to make sacrifices as "a gift to the Lord," and they were to do so "in front of the tabernacle of the Lord" (17:4). These were to be "peace offerings to the Lord" (5) which he would receive as a "pleasing aroma" (6).
When the Israelites made their sacrifices in one place to the one true God, they would be reconciled—they would experience the "made-rightness" of atonement. This was God's design: "the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life" (11).
But rather than sacrificing to one God in one place in accordance with his design, the Israelites demonstrated their lack of faith by sacrificing to many "gods" in many places. Rather than placing all of their trust in the God who had delivered them from Egypt, they attempted to cover their bases with the gods of other nations as well. They were making sacrifices "outside the camp" and "in the open field" (3, 5).
In essence, they were practicing idolatry, which is equivalent to adultery. The end goal of God's design concerning sacrifices was to mark out his people as his and no one else's: "so they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore" (7). And the end result of overturning God's design was terrifying, namely, "that man shall be cut off from among his people" (4).
Of course modern people do not "whore" after goat demons. But we are no less idolatrous and adulterous in our attempts to cover our bases with the "gods" of our own age.
We pour ourselves into our work in hopes that title, position, and wealth will give us that "made right" experience. We look to relationships (romantic or otherwise) to assure ourselves that we are desired and needed—that we fit in the world. We seek comfort and rest in any number of cultural commodities (food, drink, media, etc.). In short, we give ourselves away to many "gods" in our search for atonement.
What is God's one true response to our idolatrous and adulterous attempts to be made right apart from him? While we might expect to be "cut off" (9), in the most amazing narrative turn imaginable, God himself enters our world in the person of Jesus Christ to accomplish atonement on our behalf—to put us in a "made-right" relationship with himself.
He takes our blood guiltiness upon himself and, on the cross, experiences the cutting off that we deserved. In Jesus, the one true God gives himself up as the one true sacrifice in our place. He accomplishes atonement on our behalf, overcoming our idolatrous and syncretistic tendencies in order to bind us to himself.
The only natural response, then, is to put away idolatry and adultery—to put our trust in the one true God's work for us. Because in Christ, reconciliation, "made-rightness," and atonement are ours to be experienced and cherished-our searching is over. We are now free to give ourselves over to God with a single-minded, pure hearted devotion.