Atonement has come to mean paying a penalty to meet legal demands. But when the Bible was first translated to English, Atonement referred to the state of being in unity: AT-ONE-MENT.
Commonly, in the last few centuries, Atonement has come to mean making amends, paying a penalty to meet legal demands, to propitiate wrath or to adjust one’s to legal standing. To many Atonement is what Christ did to reconcile the Father unto us and assuage His offended wrath. But that is not the original meaning of the term, and it is definitely not the meaning of the word in the Bible.
Dictionaries agree that the word Atonement is a made-up word, namely ‘at-one‐ment’. That’s the way the word started. It was based on a verb, ‘to one’. Two people are fighting, and you are sent out to ‘one’ them. Not ‘win’ them; to ‘one’ them. And then when you have succeeded in ‘one-ing’ people, then, hopefully, they would remain in a state of oneness. It is the state of being ‘at one’ that is atonement, not the process ‘one-ing’ people. Atonement therefore means to be in harmony or unity. That is what Atonement meant when the Bible was first translated into English.
The only place you’ll find the word, in the King James Version, is in Romans 5:10. But the word in the Greek is the very common word ‘katallasso’. There’s no hint of making amends in this word. It means ‘reconciliation’. Holman’s Bible dictionary defines this word as follows:
Reconciliation … specifically the reconciliation between God and humanity effected by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. … The basic Greek word is usually translated “to reconcile”. The basic meaning is to establish friendship.
Therefore Romans 5:10, in the NASB, reads:
“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.”
Why did the meaning change?
There’s only one dictionary that really gives the history of the word, and that’s a multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary. It shows how, for a long time, it was used in its original sense of being at one, reconciling people to harmony; friendship is often mentioned, unity, and so on. Now, later on somehow, it was changed to mean ‘making amends, paying penalty’, and that’s the way it’s commonly used now.
It was the forensic doctrine of salvation that changed the meaning of “atonement” over the course of the centuries. This doctrine teaches that somebody must pay for sins committed. It presents God as angry and the death of Christ as a sacrifice to pacify God. It was because the reformers had this understanding of the purpose of Christ’s death that the meaning of “atonement” has slowly changed over the centuries to “reparation for an offence or injury” (Merriam-Webster).
How should we understand Atonement?
Christ did not die as a sacrifice to pacify God. It is not God that must change. The blood of the Cross did not change how the Father feels about sinners. The opposite is rather true, namely that the blood of Christ was the means by which the Father reconciled His creatures to Himself (Colossians 1:20). It is us that must change. It is not God that is angry; it is His creatures that “were enemies” (Rom. 5:10) and “hostile in mind” (Colossians 1:21). In the Bible God is never reconciled to us; it is always us that are reconciled to God, through Christ (Col. 1:20). God, because He loves us, sent His only Son to be “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29) to bring His people back to Him (John 3:16).
Please also see the article Christ’s death reconciled us to God for further information.