Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Details

C. E. Sharp, ''Religion and justice: atonement as an element of justice in both western law and Christian thought'' in N. Hosen & R. Mohr(ed), Law and religion in public life: the contemporary debate (2011) 151-164.


In 2008 Ian McEwan's best-selling novel Atonement (2001) was adapted for film starring Kiera Knightly and James McAvoy. The cinematic treatment confrontingly brought to life the story of Briony Tallis and her destructive role in the lives of her older sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner (Cecilia's lover). As both the storyteller and a major character in the narrative, Briony expresses deep remorse about her ruinous acts as a 13-year-old girl and says that her novel, to which she gave an ending very different from the reality, is her 'atonement'. In this story, Briony seeks atonement through fiction - by reuniting the two lovers whose lives had been wrenched apart- in an imagined happy ending. Atonement is central to a Christian understanding of the world with the claim that God achieves it, not through fiction, but through the reality of Jesus Christ's death. This is a concept that reaches back thousands of years to Old Testament times and the film highlights the fact that the idea of atonement may yet be hard-wired into the human psyche regardless of religious belief. This article therefore seeks to capitalize on the return of the word 'atonement' to the more popular vernacular, by exploring how the Biblical concept of atonement may be detected and/or useful within formal western understandings of justice, and theories of punishment.