Looking Again at Atonement in A Course in Miracles

From time to time I find myself needing to revisit certain core ideas in A Course in Miracles. Such is the case with Atonement – which is simply the Holy Spirit’s plan end the illusion of separation. In what way is the course breaking with traditional Christianity and establishing some new theological ground? How should we understand – and bring into application – this essential concept?

First things first. Atonement is based on the verb “to atone,” which in English was most likely modeled on the Latin verb “adunare,” which means “to unite.” In the Latin, it is a combination of  “ad” (which means “to” or “at”) and “unum” (which means one). To atone is to make reparations for a prior wrongdoing and as a result to be restored to an original state of union.

In a great deal of Christian theology, atonement was (and is, in many cases) presented as the reconciliation of God with all human beings as a result of the sacrificial death of Jesus. As Saint Paul noted, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3).

In other words, human beings – having grievously sinned by separating from God  (and compounding that sin daily) – were obliged to make amends with God if they ever hoped to see the shinier sides of the Gates of Heaven. Jesus, through his suffering and death at Golgotha, covered this for all humanity.

This narrative of redemption through blood sacrifice has its antecedents in the Old Testament. The gospel writers were not ignorant of tradition! In Leviticus, for example, God orders Israel to set aside one day a year to be “the day of atonement” (Leviticus 23:27-28). On that day, people were to sacrifice an innocent animal in order to atone for their sins. The shedding of the animal’s blood “was brought in to make atonement” (Leviticus 16:27).

For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul (Leviticus 17:11).

Centuries later, Jesus would become the symbol of the lamb – sacrificed so that through the spilling of his blood we might all atone and return to our original state of union with God.

Interestingly, it was Mary Baker Eddy who popularized a somewhat different take on atonement – shades of which can clearly be seen in A Course in Miracles. In Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Eddy wrote that the principle of atonement was the principle of oneness with God.

ATONEMENT is the exemplification of man’s unity with God, whereby man reflects divine Truth, Life, and Love. Jesus of Nazareth taught and demonstrated man’s oneness with the Father, and for this we owe him endless homage (18).

In A Course in Miracles, Atonement is the Holy Spirit’s corrective plan that undoes the ego. The Plan of Atonement came into existence after the belief in separation emerged. Its guiding principle is that the separation never happened and we remember this – and share it with others – through forgiveness (T-1.III.3:1). It explicitly rejects sacrifice of any kind (T-3.I.1:2).

This is the real insight of ACIM and in the text, Jesus insists that we not overlook it. We are asked to forever break the ties between suffering and atonement. The former is a symptom of the belief in separation; the latter is simply joyful. The crucifixion, by which our salvation was seemingly wrought, is merely an “extreme teaching example,” that serves to remind us what we are in truth is not bound by form and cannot be killed.

Fear is what keeps atonement at bay – not our unwillingness to repent, not the magnitude of our alleged sins, not the egregiousness of our errors. Just fear. We are scared of love, scared of God, scared of each other and scared of being scared. Crucifixion – that horrifying blend of torture and execution – long served as the symbol of our deep-rooted fear. In A Course in Miracles, we are urged to let that go.

God does not believe in retribution. His Mind does not create that way. He does not hold your “evil” deeds against you. Is it likely he would hold them against me (T-3.I.2:4-7).

Sacrifice – the idea that we must giving something up in order to get something else – is altogether foreign to God who neither thinks nor creates that way (T-3.I.4:1). When we begin to see this – and to accept it – the fear associated with torture and death (reflecting, of course, the “sacrifice” that Jesus allegedly made on our behalf) begins to dissipate. We begin to see that salvation, properly understood, is actually enlightening – that is, we are literally lightening our load by releasing unnecessary blocks and baggage and simultaneously allowing light into the interior landscape darkened by fear.

That releasing and allowing for light is really a metaphor for forgiveness, which in terms of A Course in Miracles simply means looking at our specialness – at what facilitates our seeming separation from God – with Jesus or the Holy Spirit. It is the willingness to gently allow for the possibility that our habitual modes of thinking and understanding are not functional and that another way is both possible and necessary.

When we invite the Holy Spirit (if you prefer your spiritual companions to be abstract) or Jesus (if you prefer them to be quite specific) we are trying to see beyond what separates us – bodies, jobs, attitudes, income tax brackets, houses, cultures. We are trying to go beyond finding fault in the externals  and instead accepting its origins as internal.

Thus, when we “atone” in A Course in Miracles we are not really forgiving people for being troublesome or mean or selfish or violent. We are really forgiving ourselves for the belief that we are separated from God. The external wrongdoings are projections that reflect our own interior horror show. Forgiveness is the means by which we see the illusion for what it is, and thus let it go, and perceive instead the Love that lies beyond it.

Forgiveness lets the veil be lifted up that hides the face of Christ from those who look with unforgiving eyes upon the world. It lets you recognize the Son of God, and clears your memory of all dead thoughts so that remembrance of your Father can arise across the threshold of your mind (W-pI.122.3:1-2).

Forgiveness is personal. Though our demons and devils arises from the same error (the belief that it is possible to separate from God and that we did separate from God), they assume forms and modes that are unique to us. They show up in the world of separation, which is the world of variability and change. This is why I often say A Course in Miracles meets us where we are: it doesn’t matter what your problems are or how you prefer to talk about them or how you conceive of solutions.

Atonement is not contingent on form – it will assume whatever form is most helpful at a given time and place. In truth, the atonement is perfect love (T-2.VI.7:8) which always adapts itself to circumstance, forever taking the language and structure that is most suited to the shared experience of those extending and receiving it (T-2.IV.5:1-3).

We undertake Atonement in here in the world because it is “the natural profession of the children of God” (T-1.III.1:10). And Jesus assures us that once we accept the gig, we aren’t going to hurt for material.

You have a role in the Atonement which I will dictate to you. Ask me which miracles you should perform (T-1.III.4:2-3).

I was a lucky kid growing up in the Catholic church because a lot of my teachers – priests, parents, catechism leaders and later professors and monks and nuns – tended to dwell on how much God loved me. Even Jesus’ death on the cross was presented as a loving gesture. He would suffer and die for me – who else was willing to do that?

Yet that message of love was often in conflict with the imagery and language that was presented in other settings. I would sit in the pews and look at the crucifix – this poor broken and bloody body and think, man, I would never have asked him to do that for me. Nobody should have to suffer like that. What kind of God are we talking about here?

It is not really possible to talk about a God of Love – or say God is Love – while simultaneously preaching that only the shedding of blood through torture and execution can lead one to that God. In the end, it is a message torn between perfect love and perfect horror.

A Course in Miracles neatly resolves that. It is not everybody’s spiritual path, nor should it be, but it is a pretty consistent and elegant one. Atonement is natural and effortless. We ask Jesus and the Holy Spirit to help us practice forgiveness. No more than that is required. Our willingness to practice – and our faith that our learning is in better hands than ours – is what finally allows us to see the folly of self-reliance.

You always choose between your weakness and the strength of Christ in you . . .  In every difficulty, all distress, and each perplexity Christ calls to you and gently says, ‘My brother, choose again.’ He would not leave one source of pain unhealed, nor any image left to veil the truth. He would remove all misery from you whom god created altar unto joy (T-31.VIII.2:3, 3:2-5).

In every moment Christ calls and urges us to choose again: to choose with Christ rather than against Christ. Will we do it? Atonement is nothing more than our quiet answer “yes.”

Like what you’re reading? Consider signing up for my weekly newsletter. No sales, no spam. Just thoughtful writing about love and A Course in Miracles.


  1. “First things first. Atonement is based on the verb “to atone,” which in English was most likely modeled on the Latin verb “adunare,” which means “to unite.” In the Latin, it is a combination of “ad” (which means “to” or “at”) and “unum” (which means one). To atone is to make reparations for a prior wrongdoing and as a result to be restored to an original state of union.”

    Isn’t it interesting that ACIM retains the foundational element of this concept if we examine the Separation and Atonement from a psychological rather than metaphysical or even spiritual perspective. The mind engaged in a thinking error that resulted in dissociation (“We have said before that the separation was and is dissociation…”) leaving not the mind itself but our awareness of the mind’s operations and content fragmented, disconnected, and fractured. The Atonement integrates which is to say unifies the fractured awareness and, thereby, returns it to its original state.

  2. “And Jesus assures us that once we accept the gig, we aren’t going to hurt for material.”

    Amen to that, brother… 🙂

  3. Religion tells us that Jesus suffered and died for our sins. OK press the guilt button – it never did me any good and might explain why our churches, here in England at any rate, are virtually empty.
    Thank heavens for another ‘version’ or way (forward).

    1. Yes – the guilt of that image, of Jesus dying for our sins – has been incredibly painful with terrible consequences. It was one of my early favorite moments in A Course in Miracles, the introduction of the notion that Jesus was not punished because we were bad. I felt like okay, this is a path that I can follow. I have been grateful ever since.

      1. Yes, i always thought it was very funny in a way , the book transformed how i saw Jesus.i have always been an atheist cuz i thought Jesus or God was only there to judge me, but i realized how deluded we are with such notions, i still regect conventional faith ,yet i looove acim truly.Thats how religion shoud have been presented , not the kind we have , that devides people.

        1. Yes, there’s too much division. The Atonement is indeed a lesson in sharing, in recognizing – in remembering – our shared glory and home in Love. I, too, am grateful for the course. It is merely one of many paths, but for me it was a deeply helpful one.


      1. ACIM states that “The utter meaninglessness of all perception that comes from the unbelievable must be apparent, but it is not RECOGNIZED as beyond belief because it was made BY belief.”

        This discussion involves finding a perception that comes from the unbelievable (aka ego/ego thinking) – namely the perception that the Son of God was murdered on a cross for our sin – in some way so sufficiently meaningful that it carries a punch, a kick, and a brutal infilling. Come on! All that is meant by the Son of God died for our sins is the following: Gagorn dkdien do eenene eee woooo emeent. Let’s not believe otherwise.

        1. Hi Pamela,

          Thanks, as always, for sharing.

          On the one hand, you are absolutely right – the notion that Jesus died to atone for our sins is meaningless.

          On the other hand, the crucifixion holds all the meaning that we give it – that is the nature of separation, as you know – and so it remains for many students a source of guilt and fear. Not because it really happened or because it really does mean the blood of Jesus washed away our sins – but because, on some level, we believe it does.

          It’s the same with anything – cancer, birthday parties, blog posts about atonement and A Course in Miracles. It’s real to the extent we give it belief.

          Thus, talking about this stuff – writing about it, praying about it – is the way to heal it. We have to look at what is causing us pain – if that means a traditional Christian understanding of the crucifixion, so be it. Otherwise, for me, the Course remains an intellectual exercise – I can talk about salvation and atonement, but I am not going to bring it into application in what I believe is my life.

          I know I am not saying anything you don’t know. I simply wanted to make sure that everyone who reads understands that it’s okay to talk through – and work through – crucifixion, resurrection, atonement and all of that stuff – in the interests of healing it.

          Thank you so much for sharing – you always shed light here and I am grateful.


          1. Sean, I certainly didn’t mean to shut down the conversation and reviewing what I said, I think that you are correct and the way I worded things could absolutely have been interpreted in that manner. I am sorry for that. In fact, to the extent that I might have done that, I really feel terrible about it because I do indeed agree with you in believing that talking about our experiences of ‘stuff’ is indeed healing.

            All I really wanted to say was that as Course students, especially when we talk about other forms of the curriculum, we must at some point bring to awareness the fact that our talk is about the meaning we are giving these forms and not what the forms themselves are doing to us or others. I went to Catholic school for many years and while I had guilt a’plenty, I don’t for a moment blame the nuns or the priests or traditional Christianity for it. If they did engender guilt in me, it was only because I brought guilt to school with me daily and was unconsciously looking for verification of said. As the Course states about that which affirms error in others, “When man projects this onto others, he DOES imprison them, but only to the extent that he reinforces errors they have already made.”

          2. Thanks, Pamela – yes, I agree with you. We are of a mind on this! The guilt is there before the nuns and priests (or whatever external form) show up. We are always projecting guilt outward and then blaming the projection for our internal strife.

            And yes – that is a critical part of the discussion – we are the ones giving the meaning to everything. Indeed, I think once we really begin to experience the truth of that, our load of guilt begins to lighten considerably. The other way somehow clarifies and we are better able to begin tracking it.


          3. How would you recommend that I forgive myself for hurting my beloved soulmate husband without saying I was sorry before he was killed in a car accident?

          4. Hi Lara,

            Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry for the loss of your husband, and the grief that goes along with what apparently cannot be undone.

            You ask how to forgive yourself. I think the move we make as ACIM students is to realize that “we” don’t forgive – God does, through the Holy Spirit. And God does not see errors or sins nor anything else that would obscure our innocence.

            So the more helpful question is: can you see yourself as God sees you?

            For me, that is a confusing question. If I could see myself that way, then I would not need all the help I need. But also, asking that question does help me remember that there is always another way to look at what happens and to understand its meaning. I can ask for help in seeing that other way, and I can practice seeing that other way (and practice asking for help).

            Why is it so hard to love ourselves? And so easy to torment ourselves?

            In part, because a lifetime of listening to ego – forever centering MY feelings, MY suffering, MY understanding – has conditioned us to overlook the grace of God inherent in any situation and relationship.

            Ego is the voice that says I am unforgivable. Or that this thing I did is unforgivable. Or that communication is limited to bodies.

            Ego is the voice that says, there is no other way but this, regardless of how much it hurts.

            And that’s a lie! There is always another way – one that leads, however slowly, away from fear, hurt and guilt and towards love and happiness.

            On the one hand, this is about making intentional choices to respond differently to our grief in the world. In a very self-help/self-improvement kind of way, we actually make decisions that align with our best understanding of self-care and self-love. Go for a walk, bake a friend cookies, volunteer at the animal shelter, write a poem, do yoga. Whatever.

            Those are life hacks at the level of the body. We all have certain hacks that work for us. Doing them to the best of our ability matters.

            But on the other hand, this “act as if” energy reflects our deeper understanding that it is possible to be happy in a non-dramatic way as an effect of remembering our innocence. Whatever we think we did – however bad it is – in God’s eyes it is already forgotten. Adopting self-care practices in the body can awaken a spiritual insight that we are wholly unified with all life.

            So we are making contact – by being willing to make contact – with the love of God. We practice seeing ourselves as Love sees us; we practice living as Love asks to be lived through us. In ACIM, this is about the shift from the nightmare of separation to the happy dream of forgiveness. We live by the law that nothing real can be threatened, and nothing unreal exists.

            So it’s a kind of two-step dance. We engage with our lives in constructive ways – using therapy, yoga, journaling, et cetera to manifest our refusal to suffer. And, we enter into dialogue with the Holy Spirit, asking it to teach us to remember what we are in truth so that we might remember we are not guilty in any way, shape or form.

            The impulse to reach out and ask “how am I supposed to do this” – regardless of the spirit in which it is uttered (frustration, derision, desperation etc) – is a ray of light in self-imposed darkness because it recognizes both the possibility of a way forward AND the importance of seeking it in relationship.

            I’m sorry that your spiritual path includes this difficult challenge. But there are no mistakes in salvation, and God is not confused about you. Find the faint light and follow it. Others will find you and help you and you will find others who need your help. We do not do any of this alone.

            Thank you again, Lara.


  4. Not being as familiar with TCIM as others, this may already be addressed, but there seems to be a need to distinguish between shame and guilt. Shame is what I see folks talking about here – a feeling of being fundamentally wrong or bad in a way that requires separation – hiding – from others for fear of scorn or punishment. Guilt is an awareness of harm done to others – an empathic response that recognizes shared pain or loss – motivating the guilty to make amends, seek repair, and to feel joined again – to ease one‘s own suffering by easing another‘s, even when I may have been the cause of it. Atonement, as discussed here, and as I understand it, deals with shifting from a sense of shame to one of guilt – shifting from focus on me to we as being in pain – and acting on that to restore a sense of oneness and shared struggle to hold all in the light.

    1. Hi Skye,

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I haven’t read this post in quite a while; I am grateful for a chance to think again about it (and correct at least one typo).

      You are drawing a distinction here that is clear and helpful at the level of our shared experience in and as bodies but that is at odds with the specific way of A Course in Miracles uses the term “guilt.”

      In ACIM lingo, what you call “shame” is guilt at having *already separated from God or Love. We did a bad thing and we fear retribution and so we project responsibility onto others (in myriad forms and modes). In a strictly textual sense, the course subsumes both your definitions under one word – “guilt.”

      For reference’s sake, the ACIM material includes just shy of 700 variations of “guilt” and just 5 for “shame!”

      But I don’t think that “a strictly textual sense” is helpful or ideal, which is why your comment resonates. “Strictly textual” reminds me of my lawyering days in Vermont, when we’d advocate for outcomes that complied with the technical letter of the law but that everyone knew were illogical and incoherent.

      On that view, we do have experiences of shame – a deep unworthiness that makes us want to not exist – as well as experiences of guilt which are, in your lovely phrasing, “an empathic response that recognizes shared pain or loss – motivating the guilty to make amends, seek repair, and to feel joined again – to ease one‘s own suffering by easing another‘s . . . ”

      The distinction between the two is helpful because our response to shame and to guilt are also distinguished. Healing shame and healing guilt are not identical. Different hurts beget different healing processes.

      This is helpful in the sense that it focuses us on the direct experience of living that we are having, and invites us to be responsive to that living in the specific way in which it arises. It’s confusing to call my shame “guilt” and my guilt “shame.”

      Rather, I need to meet them as they are. Only in doing so can they truly begin to be healed. And, in that experience of healing, I can also begin to perceive more clearly the way in which separation from God or Love is unreal – never happened, never will happen, never could happen – and so the “guilt” envisioned by ACIM is also healed.

      I don’t know if you’ll see this comment, but if you do and if you’re comfortable, I’d be curious to hear more about your experience of ACIM. Here in the comments or via email or whatever is appropriate.

      And if it’s not comfortable, no worries!

      Thank you again for reading and sharing,

      ~ Sean

  5. I’ve just begun reading ACIM, at 68 years of age, after many years of procrastination. I’m giddily happy that I googled “the meaning of atonement in ACIM’” because I found your article, and it’s immensely satisfying. As one raised Roman Catholic, I identify with the angst over Jesus’ suffering “for my sins.” Your explanation of the ACIM teaching goes far beyond my mere 55 pages read. I look forward to the days and months ahead as I absorb more and more of this remarkable manuscript. (The sudden availability of massive amounts of free time — courtesy of a global pandemic — has helped me quieten and allow this book to call me.).

    Thank you so much for your help understanding such an important premise of ACIM. I think I’d love to find a zoom —book study group, so maybe I’ll try that next. Any direction or suggestion on that would be welcome and appreciated.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Marcia. I’m glad the post was helpful. The course corrected a lot of my thinking grounded in growing up Catholic; Both Ken and Helen were fascinated in their way with Catholicism, and I think the material reflects that interest in healing ways.

      Love your optimist take on the global pandemic as being a chance to read deeply! I agree, actually. And it’s always nice to hear someone finding a welcome space in the ACIM material. It’s not for everyone, but if it is for us, then it can be deeply helpful.

      In terms of study groups and whatnot, I am sure they are out there, though I don’t have any specific examples to point towards. If you find anything, let me know.

      Thanks again, Marcia! I hope your ACIM journey bears good fruit.


  6. Thank you Sean and everyone for your insights. My inquiry has been satisfied with an elevated understanding of “Atonement.”

  7. Great job Sean. I Googled “ACIM What does Atonement mean?” to get a perspective before our class on Monday night. We are looking at Chapter 6 and this line popped out at me “You have been chosen to teach the Atonement precisely because you…..”

    Atonement is one of those ACIM concepts that I keep fishing for, catching and then let slip through my net. 😅 After reading your article I’ve got it again.


    1. You’re welcome Kathryn! I’m glad you got it again! Hold onto so when I forget you can remind me 🙂

      ~ Sean

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.