Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Eastern Thoughts on Atonement

Written by: on February 21, 2019

Mark Noll writes,coming to know Christ provides the most basic possible motive for pursuing the tasks of human learning.1 His critique of evangelicals and their lack of desire to pursue deep thinking and constant questioning of concepts that should make us hunger for truth has encouraged me to seek how those outside the Western world would view ideas like atonement. Understanding how Western and Eastern theologians understand sin and atonement helps us deepen our own understanding of scripture.

Western theology tends to orient toward individual identity, individual merit, individual rights, and individual salvation. Therefore, it tends to emphasize the guilt and law motifs in Scripture. Sometimes Eastern views are not seen or understood to Western eyes. For example, God’s glory is an important focus in the Bible. Wu states,

The glory of God is a major theme throughout the Bible. All have sinned and come short of the glory (honor) of God(Rom 3:23) is a central diagnosis of the human condition, calling for salvation. Humans have dishonored God and themselves and this condition needs redemption. Yet, Western theology tends to treat Honor Shame as primarily a social-science issue, not a theological problem on the same level as law.”2.  

Crossing cultures and not adjusting our perceptions have created much confusion. John Griffith in 1859, claimed, “Sin, however, in the Scriptural sense, is not recognized by their system. The contrast of good and evil, according to their view, resolves itself into a difference in degree.”3 James Legge said “Confucianism nor Daoism knew anything about the propitiation of sin…The knowledge of God in Confucianism, which has become a heritage of the Chinese people, is very precious; but the restriction of the worship of Him to the sovereign has prevented the growth and wide development among them of a sense of sin.”4 When viewed through the lens of Western theological concepts, Chinese seem to have no view or understanding of the atonement or sin.

Clearly understanding the contrast of a Western (legal/individualistic) and Eastern (honor/shame, relational harmony) understanding of the gospel helps us to see how confusion can arise. This is especially true when evangelicals do not take the time to develop their intellectual depth. For example, taking the Four Spiritual Lawsand simply translating them into Mandarin, for the purpose of sharing the Gospel, makes an incorrect assumption about the audience it will be used with. The problem is that the Four Spiritual Lawsformulate the gospel in a Western way. So, translating this Western worldview in the Mandarin language brings confusion and incorporates cultural barriers. These concepts do not speak to the hearts of Chinese. In fact there are many times that when we focus only on bridges that relate to us and our worldview, we create converts that only accept our way as right and their own culture as wrong. Those that strive to contextualize by limit[ing] the relationship between Scripture and culture to a few select points, their bridges may in fact act as a wedge between the gospel and the local culture.” 5 This kind of contextualization is then superficial.

Enoch Wan writes, Christianity should not be transplanted to China in a Western pot; it should be transplanted and rooted in Chinese soil …Chinese values of family, honor, and harmony should produce a gospel message that corrects the overemphasis on the forensic nature of the Gospel…”. 6 Chinese desire to understand the gospel, atonement, reconciliation and ultimately a relationship with Jesus in ways that are not western, but rather speak to the roots of their own narratives and traditions.

Understanding the atonement of Christ through Chinese hearts is key to true inculturation. The atonement is seen through the relationships of honor and shame. We shamed God with our sin and according to scriptures the only way to restore that honor is through the death of Christ. If Christ did not die, God would lack honor and is shameful.

Wu puts it like this,

The cross saves God’s ‘face…Jesus died for God. As he was about to go to the cross, Jesus said to God, Father, glorify (honor) Your Name!(John 12:28-29), showing that God honored Himself by Jesus dying on the cross. As the prayer in Psalm 79:9 says, “Help us, Oh God of our salvation for the glory of your name: deliver us, and atone for our sins for your name’s sake!”. Christs atonement centrally concerns the honor of God and the shame of man. …God’s worth is so great, that the only object or entity that could satisfy, vindicate, and validate Gods vitiated honor is Christs death.”7

Christs atoning death restores people to a right relationship with Christ. Those who are are in sin are like Adam. But those who are in Christ…belong to Christ…are righteous, and share his glory” (honor) . This concept makes complete sense to those from a communal society whether that is a Chinese or Hebrew world view. John 17:22 says, I have given them the glory (honor) that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—“8

If culture leads the conversation about Christ then a relationship is built, rather than a speech given. We must use culture to interpret the Bible. There is a saying attributed to the Talmud that says, “We see the Bible not as it is, but as we are. People will see the Bible and understand Christ first in what is most relevant to them in terms of their own cultural experience. May we be deep thinkers in how we share the story of Salvation.

1 Noll, Mark A. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2011. ix-x

2 Wu, Jackson. Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation Through Honor and Shame. William Carey Library Publishers. April 22nd 2013. 7

3 Griffith, John (1859). “The Ethics of the Chinese, with special reference to the Doctrines of Human Nature and Sin”. Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. 2 (1): 20–81

4 Ball, J. Dyer (1927), “Sin (Chinese),” in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 22, ed. by James Hastings, pp. 535–537.

5 Wan, Enoch. “Christianity in the Eye of Traditional Chinese.” Global Missiology 1, no. 1 (October 2003). No Pages. Cited 17 May, 2019. Online: http://ojs.globalmissiology.org/index.php/english/issue/view/27.

6 Ibid.

7 Wu, Jackson. Saving God’s Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation Through Honor and Shame. William Carey Library Publishers. April 22nd 2013.

8 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=john+17%3A22&version=NIV

About the Author


Greg has a wife and 3 children. He has lived and work in Asia for over 12 years. He is currently the Asia Director of Imanna Laboratories, which tests and inspects marine products seeking US Coast Guard certification. His company Is also involved in teaching and leadership development.

8 responses to “Eastern Thoughts on Atonement”

  1. M Webb says:

    Hi and thanks for the most outstanding cross-cultural review of East -vs- West views of the atonement. Just like you helped me translate the armor of God for the Hong Kong challenge coin, this is great intellectual stuff about atonement. These are differences that really make a difference if not carefully put into the proper cultural and religious contexts.
    When the Chinese view God and Christ in the context of honor and shame, how do they (God and Christ) stack up in significance to the rest of the gods in their spirit world?
    I am still wondering about the Eastern idea that God might somehow experience shame and that the atoning death of Christ somehow restores His honor. I get their context alright, but wonder how it stacks up against the idea that the cross represents the Western ideas that Christ defeated death, overcame the Adamic sin, and provided a path to restore humankinds relationship with God. I see these two cross themes quite different in their meanings. What do you think?
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Greg says:

      Mike. thanks for you questions. I disagree and see these 2 “crosses” (as you put it) to be very similar. God has promised forgiveness and for Asians, he is honor bond to do what he is promised. This is a trust issue. It is that in the eyes of Chinese, that God’s honor is restored and he is trustworthy because his word is true. The broken relationship of sin for the western world would be similar to the language Chinese could use as well. Let me try it this way…With right and wrong defined in a communal way, sin is thus defined through the lenses of honor and shame. So even how we understand sin in a judicial way is not necessarily how the Chinese (nor maybe the ancient hebrews) define it.

  2. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Greg,

    I am actually going to talk about the Four Spiritual Laws in my sermon tomorrow. Not any more, you ruined it for me (grin).

    Thanks for sharing your powerful statement, “Understanding the atonement of Christ through Chinese hearts is key to true inculturation.” Wow, that is wonderful. I am so glad you realize this.

    Keep thinking deeply!

    • Greg says:

      Jay, I do hope you were joking….I was talking about using a tool our of context. Yet I do think that even in the states this “tool” should be used in relationship with someone. I keep thinking of the whole hammer and nail metaphor Jase likes to use, if we only have one way to evangelize than even looks like a nail for our one tool. Finding the right tool for the right conversations in extremely important and requires more thought than most evangelicals are willing to explore (thus making Noll’s point:-)

  3. Great post, Greg!

    I found it interesting how your post examined the varied ways that atonement is viewed from a globalized context.

    You assert, “In fact there are many times that when we focus only on bridges that relate to us and our worldview, we create converts that only accept our way as right and their own culture as wrong.” This is a powerful truth! If we perpetuated a Western view of atonement without the freedom of intellectual discussion, then we simply encourage conversion without conviction.

    Noll touches a lot on the incarnation of Christ and ties that into the idea of atonement. Do you find that Western culture removes the humanity of Christ and only focuses on His deity? Is this problematic? Is this why many in the West are reluctant to focus on the mind?

    • Greg says:

      I don’t think people intentionally seek to mold believers in their own image but it happens often. (I think even in the states). Reading Noll got thinking about atonement as related to my dissertation question. (So that is where is where this blog came from) Good question about whether western culture removes the humanity…I honestly don’t know. I do think it is easier to be removed from a personal relationship with God if we mentally take humanity away and He then becomes only “the God in the sky.” Of I don’t think people would say it….that is just the way they live.

  4. Dan Kreiss says:


    This is an insightful post and helps reframe the discussion. I think Noll is getting at many of the same things. Anti-intellectualism fails to address the cultural shifts occurring in the West and the need people express for a faith grounded in intellectual rigor. That deep thought results in transformed lives which is what was so powerful about the development of the creeds and how they shaped the life of the Christian community. Using our minds to their full extent also means that culturally based assumptions are not foisted upon other cultures but great thought is put into considering the best way to communicate to any given culture. You of all people will have tremendous insight to offer in that regard.

    • Greg says:

      Dan. I liked Noll emphasis on the creeds and how to understand the world we live in. I think even the cultural shifts that have taken place between the times each of those creeds were written and today give us insight on how we currently view or should view Christ. I smiled when you said all your blogs were the same…I am starting to feel the same that each of my blog comes down to culture 🙂

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