The sacrificial atoning death of Jesus on the cross is not just the heart of the Christian message, it is the Christian message. Take it away and you have nothing left that can be said to be "Christian" at all. Even the resurrection, robbed of the atoning nature of the death, is of no significance: other individuals in the Old Testament were brought back from the dead. If "faith is in vain" without the resurrection, as Paul maintains, then this is even truer for the atonement: Christianity literally rises and falls on the validity of the cross. But is it tenable? The New Testament appeals over and over again to the authority of the Old Testament scriptures, and it seems indisputable that the atonement must be supportable in light of the Old Testament for it to be of any validity at all. With this understanding in mind, it is the aim of this node to examine if there is any plausible (or even barely plausible) way that the validity of the atonement can be maintained in accordance with the Old Testament.
(Note that for the sake of brevity, the atonement always refers in this node to the sacrificial atoning death (the "cross" is also often used), whereas atonement without the definite article refers to atonement in general, "NT" refers to the "New Testament" and "OT" refers to the "Old Testament". I intentionally don’t cite OT passages when it is simple to find them or a quote is given as I wish to encourage the reader to examine them in their original context themselves. The passages are quoted from the KJV as it is most readily known, in the public domain, and easily accessible to me.)
It seems undeniable that for the cross to have any validity it must be, and have always been, the one and only exclusive means of atonement. The reasons for this should hardly need to be stated. First, the NT emphatically declares the exclusivity of Jesus as a means of salvation ("there is no other name given among men by which we must be saved"). It does not seem to directly state that the atonement is the means by which this exclusivity is made effective, but there seems no other possible way to understand the claims of exclusivity except by way of the cross. Even if this were not so, if there were another means of atonement then the "gift" of Jesus' sacrifice becomes much like throwing one's self (or one's dear child, depending on how you look at it), under a bus to stop it from driving off of a cliff when there is a perfectly good brake system already available to the driver: still very loving and noble, but extremely stupid and unnecessary. Arguing that the sacrifice was a mere example to demonstrate how loathsome sin is not only seems a non-option in light of many passages but makes it non-atoning anymore -- no longer is the sacrifice effectual in the salvation process anymore, but simply a way of making a point.
It is thus obvious that for the cross to maintain OT validity, it must be that no instances exist of atonement granted on the basis of any other substance but the cross. For the OT to remain authoritative, as it must to maintain Christianity, its words must be taken as stated. Thus there must not be a single instance of the OT specifically stating that atonement is provided for due to some other substance but the cross. Unfortunately for the doctrine, there are quite a few that at least seem to do just this. However, the doctrine can still be maintained provided that the acts themselves performed do not effect atonement. Pointedly simply that the acts are performed and immediately following atonement is given will not disqualify the doctrine. In such an instance, even though the most plausible inference is that the act was the effectual agent in providing atonement, that is not enough. Nor is it enough that atonement is provided before the cross. Unless a passage specifically states that atonement is provided because of / through a substance other than the cross, the doctrine is not disqualified.
Unfortunately, passages do exist that state that atonement is provided by way of a substance other than the cross. Leviticus clearly states that of the blood of animals it has been "given it to you upon the alter to make atonement for your souls." (Note that this passage does not say that only an animal's blood is given for such a purpose, and other passages make it clear that other, blood-less, means of atonement are effective as well. I encourage the reader to verify the truth of this themselves.)
It seems clear that atonement is provided for by a variety of means, only some of which involve blood at all. If we can't salvage the doctrine by the name of "atonement", can we do so under another name? Perhaps it is the word "atonement" that is causing us the trouble. Of course the Old Testament is written in Hebrew (and if I am properly informed also in parts Aramaic), and thus it is to the Hebrew word translated "atonement" which we must look. An important disclaimer is here warranted -- I am not a Hebrew scholar, nor am I even barely literate in Hebrew, and thus my examination will need take place using third-party references, albeit ones that I know of no meaningful dispute with. My reference will thus be the quite excellent BlueLetterBible.org site, which itself includes reference to Strong’s Concordance. Strong’s has a useful system where the Hebrew words are all numbered, which is very nice as it saves me from having to try to include Hebrew characters in this paper.
The word translated “atonement” occurs in 69 verses, 66 verses are #3722, while 3 are #3725, and #3725 is just a derivation of #3722. It is here where we might seem to have some hope of salvaging the doctrine of the cross, for one of the meanings of this word is “to cover up” and if “atonement” merely consists of “covering up” the sins (though other meanings do include “purge”, “reconcile”,”be obliterated” etc., a primary meaning is cover) it could be argued that the sin was not properly removed and hence a final removal was still needed. This is an interesting, albeit seemingly tenuous interpretation. The passage in Leviticus concerning the scapegoat seems to render this view untenable though. This scapegoat is said to be “presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him” and is then cast alive into the wilderness having had the sins of the people put upon it and bearing them away:
And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness:
And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.
It hardly seems possible that this could be any clearer: the sins of the people are here transferred to a substitute, but it is NOT Jesus, but a goat, which then bears them away into the wilderness. This simultaneously seems to affirm that atonement involves the actual removal of the sins, as well as certainly stating that the sins are transferred away from the people. Stating that this is an allegorical foreshadowing of the cross is not a sufficient means of avoiding the problem not because the allegory might not be somewhat apt (although note the goat is not killed but merely sent away, albeit that another goat is killed -- which makes for an odd allegory if we are to apply it indeed) but because we are obliged to take the OT seriously if we are to take the NT seriously, by understanding the passage as meaning what it actually says and thus the sins are actually bore away.
As this sacrificial substitute is capable of dealing with “all their transgressions in all their sins” and without needing any blood shed, let alone the blood of God incarnate, it seems indisputable that the cross is not exclusive in its ability to bear away sins and thus is made of no meaning. Contrary to the assurance of Hebrews, it is possible for the “blood of bulls and goats” to take away sin -- and a goat can do so without shedding it’s blood.
Thus the entire doctrine is rendered untenable. Indeed it can be easily verified that atonement can be made in some cases with money, by a kind of grain offering, and other ways and it seems indisputable that atonement means what it seems to mean -- the actual “purging”, “pardoning”, “obliteration” of sin. In short it seems undeniable that the cross can’t be saved, not according to the OT’s clear words, not unless we arbitrarily decide to ignore clear statements that atonement was effective through other means, that forgiveness was granted on a variety of basis, all of them seeming to require contrition as the primary ingredient, etc. Christianity is simply, regrettably, but very clearly, untenable according to the OT.
Having reached my conclusion I am all too aware that this is a minority view and bias is an ever present issue in any consideration, thus it might be I am missing some avenue by which a different conclusion can be reached while still maintaining the validity of the OT, so if there is such a way or if my logic is deficient in some way please feel free to let me know. Providing a rebuttal would be even better. Be merciless and bold. Show where I am quite obviously wrong, as I must be, right?