The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: How Does Atonement Work?

What needs to be done in order for a bad deed to be fully atoned for?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“We must own our mistakes without excuses. We need to offer an apology to those we have harmed. We need to listen when they tell us of the harm we have caused without rebuttal. And we need to make the correction, learn from our error, and going forward not to repeat the same behavior. Essentially, we need to do better going forward.”

Chris Curia, the Director of Youth Ministries at Fairway Christian Reformed Church, responds:

“Did you know that the word atonement is the literal stitching together of the words at and one, and the suffix -ment? The word prompts us to strive for oneness with God, ourselves, and others, not to do better or be better. Our limited perspective on penal atonement often frames God like an abuser of (or a bystander to the abuse of) when it comes to the crucifixion of Christ. As it relates to us, this God even resembles a bloodthirsty mobster, demanding some sacrifice from us to demonstrate our loyalty to God and the cause.

“But if love has an expression, it is forgiveness and learning to love again, not demanding better deeds or perfection. We are redeemed by being included. Sometimes, redemption and inclusion compel us to appropriately respond by owning up to how we have hurt others through reparations per how we have done wrong. But to live in a scarcity mentality that forgiveness is sparse is to become enslaved to the kind of legalism from which Jesus sought to disentangle the spiritual life.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“This depends on several factors. Most bad deeds affect another person. If there is any way to rectify the ill that has one has caused then that should be uppermost in the mind. Full responsibility should be  taken, apology offered, and if the action can be reversed or compensation provided, then we move forward. Even if the apology is not accepted, every attempt should be made for rectification or healing.

“Then there are those actions that might not affect any one person in particular, but nonetheless impact the wider world. In those cases it is advised my many Hindu teachers to intensify one’s spiritual practices of meditation, devotion and selfless service to increase the awareness of one’s bearing on our environment and the larger population.

“Asking forgiveness from God may be a helpful psycho -spiritual exercise for some, but it is not required. The simple feeling of remorse and the desire to do better in the future can be just as effective.  In Hinduism, there are ceremonies that are designed to expunge sins. Even taking a dip in a river is said to be of redemptive value. But these are simply measures to encourage introspection and renewal. Without the proper mindset, they mean nothing.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Presbyterians believe that every ‘bad deed’ or sin ‘deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come’ (Shorter Catechism, Q. 84). It is impossible for us to atone fully for one such ‘bad deed,’ much less a lifetime of sinning against the law of God. ‘To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Christ, repentance unto life, and the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption’ (SC, Q. 85).

“ ‘Christ died for our sins’ (I Corinthians 15:3), thus making full atonement or satisfaction for them to God. Our part is to trust in the power and efficacy of Christ’s death for us, and thereby turn from our sins and begin a new life of obedience to God and service to our fellow human beings, in Christ’s name.

“All the benefits of Christ’s redeeming death and resurrection are ‘communicated’ or imparted to us through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, as the Holy Ghost uses these ‘outward means’ to work faith in our hearts and confirm it (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 65).”

My response:

If the bad deed involves another person, atonement begins with a sincere apology to the person you have wronged. It may require more than one conversation and the apology should not ask for forgiveness, but should clearly state what you did wrong and apologize for it without excuses.

If your behavior caused monetary damage in any way, you need to make restitution. If there are any legal penalties, you must submit to them.

Resolve not to repeat the behavior. This needs to be a sincere intention, recognizing the steps you have taken to change habitual bad behavior.

Then, and only then, Judaism proposes that God will wipe away the bad behavior as if it had never existed.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up ina the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.