The oldest religious ideas uncovered were found in ancient Egypt to date circa 2400–2300 BCE. Prior to those records being uncovered no one knows when religious views first emerged. But possibly it coincided with the ability to distinguish the ‘self’ as separate to oneself. Thus occurred relatively late in the evolutionary journey possibly circa 200,000 years ago.
At that time the offering of sacrifices as an atonement by priests to appease deities was a feature in the developing agrarian communities. Once settled communities were acutely aware of their dependence on the success of the harvest and supporting infrastructure inextricably tied to the elements and avoidance of pestilence. So the idea of making peace with the angry GOD(s) for inequalities or sins committed meant one must offer sacrifices as an atonement. That situation contrasted with hunter gatherers able to freely move from one place to another in tune with the seasons. This idea of atonement and reconciliation with GOD(s) permeated those dependent cultures but any distinction one wishes to make becomes highly subjective given the abundance of available material. This summary will seek to formulate some broad observations and later explain atonement in more detail in the Jewish/Christian perspective.
But to begin in China, a once highly religious society, it is noted it became a melting pot for many of the world’s religions. Initially Confucius (552-479BC), and others were making a mark on society that continues to a minor degree today. But in ancient China no separation existed between church and state. Confucius happily existed alongside the prophetic streams from Abraham and Buddha. China was also profoundly influenced by outside cultures by virtue of the ancient Silk Road (130 -1453 BC) linking east and west. The introduction of Buddhism from India in 150 BC initially met with stiff opposition but it was eventually reconciled to Taoist traditions. Both Pure Land Buddhism and Chan (Zen) Buddhism remain today along with elements of folk and other strains.
The end result is different religions remain integral to a person’s needs and the laity who routinely freely propose prayers and petitions indifferently to the popular deities.
Hans Kung (Chinese Religions) talks about the ‘Heavenly Masters Sect’ which was considered the beginning of the Taoist religion established in the second century. This replaced bloody sacrifices by the offering of cooked vegetables. Confessions of sins, were instituted for healing rather than previously through spirit mediums. Shamans were replaced with male and female priests as the prevailing superstructure for various cults, in lieu of Buddhist inspired literature.
Some of the practices however date back to the 3rd century BC associated with Taoist Yoga and the concepts of Yin and Yang. However the religion steadily declined from the 17th century but thereafter evolved to incorporate many different pantheistic beings and rituals to celebrate the cosmic seasons,
In Hinduism, as the oldest world religion, during Vedic times it offered sacrifices to please devas (gods) or the Brahman. Oblations were poured into the divine sacrificial fire, usually by a priest destined to reach the GODS to the chants of Vedic verses.
Hence such ceremonial practices supported the idea of atonement and acted as a form of penance for sins that violated the dharma – assisted by practices such as fasting and acts of charity to atone to the GODS and as a means of liberation from the Karma which causes their sins.
Buddhism is far from theistic religions so the concept of atonement to God is absent. Instead, atonement is focused on fellow humans with the accent on forgiveness. Nevertheless, even if you are offended you are expected to forgive others. Here atonement is expected to be initiated more by the offended party. The idea of forgiveness in Buddhism is to negate the suffering and harmful emotions from the Karma that attaches in sin and attendant misery.
In the Abrahamic religions (Jewish Christin and Islam) atonement was very similar, except offerings were made to a single GOD.
In Islam religions atonement continues to be associated with repentance and similarly in making amends for offences. Muhammad, who was the founder of the Islamic faith communicated closely with influential Jewish tribes of Arabia so that Jewish teaching was integral his preaching and quest for them to accept him as a true prophet.
Fast of Ramadan
Ramadan involves fasting that extends through the daylight hours, in accord with the Koran, which replaced the earlier one day fast known as the Ashura. The word is derived from the Hebrew word Asor, the tenth, (Leviticus in the OT 16:29) to designate the date of the holiday (the tenth day of the seventh month). The Koran (2:183-187) reflects the prophet’s command to adopt the Jewish custom of fasting on the Day of Atonement.
To reiterate, atonement has its origins as a sacrificial rite to Leviticus, which seeks to purify from sin in (ref Lev. 5). This was the constant theme of the prophets and became synonymous with fasting and prayer to more specifically attain atonement (Isa. 58:1–10; Jonah 3)
But after the period of the destruction of the Temple in 70AD in Rabbinic references sacrifice was completely replaced by prayer and repentance plus charity. Suffering also came to be regarded as a means of atonement and was preferable over a sacrifice in an attempt to win GODs favour.
The Day of Atonement is effective for transgressions between man and God, but for sins against a fellow man, restitution and forgiveness are also necessary.
The word atonement only arose in the English language during the 16th century but was translated in the NT to link it’s meaning to be associated with Christ’s death as an atonement for mankind’s sins and the means to reconciliation.
There are references to this concept in the NT evident in Paul’s letters in 1 Cor.15.3. And in Heb.9.11-15, linking his death as a means of atonement for sins as there is elsewhere in the OT.
Today the Eucharist (bread handed out at Communion) continues universally in Christian services.
Nevertheless atonement and the link to the Eucharist does not have a firm doctrine. In modernity there is a softening in the idea to link Christ's death as an atonement for sins. Depending on Catholic versus Greek Orthodox versus Protestant, Eucharist (bread during communion) represents the substance, mystic or symbolism of Christ's atoning will.
The formalisation of Christ's death as an atonement for mankind's sins and hence as a means of reconciliation is included in Paul's letters in 1 Cor 15. 3 and In Heb, 9 11 15.
The idea of Eucharist also followed on from references to the last supper on the eve of Christ's execution. The sequence of events and emphasis is different in John's gospel which talks about his washing of the disciples feet and a new beginning after the destruction of the second temple in 70AD. This marked a new way of thinking in contrast to the older gospels of Mark, Mathew and Luke.
One can glean from those sources disagreement between St Peter and St Paul, recorded in Luke's gospel.
Paul was intent on a new beginning inspired by his revelation of the resurrected Christ whilst Peter thought the existing Jewish practices could continue. The result was Paul was to set off on missionary journeys whilst Peter remained until such time many years later when a truce was formed to revert to a simple gospel message. What transpired thereafter we don't have a clear picture, except what was agreed in 320 AD at the behest of Constantine, so that Christianity then could become the religion of the Roman Empire.
But in early Christianity Jewish holy days continued to be celebrated by both Jews and Christian's alike. The principals involved continued making restitution where possible, repentance and the offering of sacrifices for past sins whether intentional or not.
To reiterate, just as is the case in Islam, its origins as a sacrificial rite date back to Leviticus, which seeks to purify from sin in (ref Lev. 5). This was the constant theme of the prophets and became synonymous with fasting and prayer to more specifically attain atonement (Isa. 58:1–10; Jonah 3)
Secular and other spiritual aspects.
The secular aspects to atonement is also evident in attempts to ameliorate wrongdoing by arranged meetings in prison between victims and their perpetrators.
The remorse towards the victims can be the catalyst to healing for both parties.
In the steps to be taken at Alcoholic Anonymous those similarly address the harm or wrong that may be due to the alcoholic’s addiction.
The idea of a simple repentance or to give away money or goods or demonstrate sorrow in recognition of wrongdoing is what seems both practical and important to society if it is to be healed. Atonement in this respect must involve making sincere amends for wrongs just as applies to repentance or remorse.
Christ as a NT example as the king of peace, a fighter for justice, a friend of the poor and disenfranchised who showed compassion for all seems sufficient enough as an exemplary example. The mystic elements of his death and influence remain profound, without the need to insist on making him a sacrifice for our sins.