Latest in a series exploring atonement, the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.
This is the fifth post in our series on atonement, and the last surveying biblical material. We are researching the Bible’s various perspectives on the meaning of Jesus’ death, with special attention to sacrificial understandings. Ultimately, we are questioning the pervasive modern doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), which states that Jesus was punished in the place of condemned sinners to satisfy God’s wrath. So far we have explored the various offerings of the Torah and the “suffering servant” of Isaiah, which are typically considered “prefigurations” of PSA, but in which we did not find a consistent thread of legal substitution or divine wrath. In the Gospels, which narrate and comment on the death of Jesus, we observed a consistent appeal to the “ransom” theory of atonement, which understands Jesus’ death as a self-given sacrifice which rescued his people from the oppression of sin. Meanwhile, in the writings of Paul, we discovered a view of atonement in which the cross represents God’s decisive victory over the forces of sin and death. Paul does speak of condemnation and wrath, but their object is not human sinners or Jesus their substitute, it is the very powers and principles of law and accusation. Today we will conclude our look at the New Testament with brief looks at the book of Hebrews, the General Epistles, and Revelation.
Hebrews and a Superior Sacrifice
Hebrews was canonized under the premise that it was another letter of Paul’s, though it does not claim to be written by Paul and most scholars and interpreters believe it to be an anonymous work by another author. In fact, scholars doubt that it is even a letter, as it bears the form and tone of a sermon or tractate. Hebrews is a borderline polemical series of arguments for the superiority of Christianity over anything in the Hebrew Bible or Judaism. It doesn’t attain the anti-Jewish fervor of a work like the Letter of Barnabas (which shared space with Hebrews in some early versions of the canon), but it does go to great lengths to portray Jesus as the great Jewish trump card. He is better than angels, he is better than Moses, and in his death he is better than all of Israel’s priests and temple sacrifices. Where other texts like Matthew seek to harmonize Jesus with Jewish tradition, emphasizing the “fulfillment” of ancient texts, the writer of Hebrews seems much more defensive and sometimes even a bit harsh. We wonder if we are not reading one side of a rather heated debate. For the purposes of our discussion, it is important to note that Hebrews has been used to demonstrate and “prove” PSA theology more than any other text in the New Testament. For many Reformed and Evangelical Christians, this is the “Substitutionary Atonement Handbook.” Let’s judge for ourselves:
In Chapter 2 the author of Hebrews explains that all humans are God’s children, and thus the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus. Then he or she says this:
14 Since the children share in blood and flesh, he too shared in them, in just the same way, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death – that is, the devil – 15 and set free the people who all their lives long were under the power of slavery because of the fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15, KNT)
Jesus’ death, according to this writer, had the effect of liberating his fellow humans from the “power” of the “fear of death.” This is not so different from Paul’s view, but instead of the “principalities” of sin and empire, this author simply calls the enemy “the devil.” This is pure cut ransom theology, but later in Chapters 9 and 10 the author begins to talk about Jesus’ death as a blood sacrifice. In 9:12 it is said that Jesus “entered the holy place, accomplishing a redemption that lasts forever,” but how was it accomplished? Through bloodshed that appeased the wrath of God? 9:22 is one of the “smoking gun” verses for PSA, so let’s read it very carefully:
In fact, more or less everything is purified with blood according to the law – there’s no pardon without bloodshed! (Hebrews 9:22, KNT)
Aha! Hebrews says that sin cannot be forgiven without the shedding of blood! Gotcha! Except, what the author has actually said is that “ACCORDING TO THE LAW” there was no pardon without bloodshed. The point of this whole section (context!) is that blood sacrifice was a messy, neverending, human business, but that “the heavenly things require a better sacrifice” (9:23), and this is what Jesus represents. Through SELF-sacrifice, by willingly offering himself and NOT a substitute, Jesus dealt with sin “once and for all” (9:25-26). This is yet another text that emphasizes Jesus’ self-offering, not divine wrath or punishment!
And this anti-sacrificial thread becomes more explicit in Chapter 10, where the author imagines Messiah saying (quoting Psalm 40), “You never wanted sacrifices and offerings – so I’ve come to do your will!” (10:5) The author comments on this, saying:
8 When he says, earlier, “You didn’t want and you didn’t like sacrifices, offerings, burnt offerings, and sin-offerings,” all of which are offered in accordance with the law, 9 then he says, “Look! I’ve come to do your will!” He takes away the first so that he can establish the second. (Hebrews 10:8-9, KNT)
As in Paul, Jesus unmakes the burden and condemnation of law so that God’s true will for humanity can be done. And God’s “will” is not more or bloodier sacrifices, but the very end of sacrifice itself. The “once-for-all,” self-given sacrifice of Jesus is that end. It stops the pointless madness of ritual bloodshed by exposing it as such.
The Cross in the General Epistles
The New Testament’s non-Pauline epistles are brief and sharply focused on church issues like unity and the threat of “false teachers” and “antimessiahs,” so references to Jesus’ death are few, scattered, and always contextual. Really, only 1 Peter and 1 John have anything substantial to say about atonement. 1 Peter declares that Jesus’ death effectively “ransomed” his followers from the “futile practices” of their ancestors by way of a sacrifice “without spot or blemish” (1 Peter 1:18-19). The author sums up the Easter story by saying that “humans rejected [Jesus], but God chose him” (1 Peter 2:4), placing a major emphasis on the human injustice of the cross. Then, in 1 Peter 2:21-25, the author writes an extended paraphrase of Isaiah 53, celebrating messiah’s liberating example of willful suffering on behalf of his people. Finally, 1 Peter asserts that, on the cross, “the just suffered for the unjust,” to reconcile them to God (1 Peter 3:17-18). Meanwhile, the first epistle of John declares that Jesus is the “sacrifice that atones” for the sin of “the whole world” (1 John 2:2; No limited atonement here!)
The Revelation of John is a book about which I’ve written a great deal. It’s a text that has been butchered in its interpretation thanks to bad history, bad theology, and ideology. What so many Christian readers have embraced as a blueprint for a grim and calamitous future is actually an ancient political cartoon about the fall of an oppressive empire and the vindication of its martyred victims. Revelation presents a pageant of symbolic images that narrate the decisive victory of heaven over Rome and the evil powers that animated it. At the center of the drama is the crucified and resurrected Jesus. The opening words of the book announce that Jesus has “freed us from sin by his blood” (1:5), and the messiah himself is then depicted as saying, “I was dead, and look! I am alive forever! I have the keys of death and hades” (1:18). This is yet another appeal to ransom theology, and specifically to the “christus victor” scenario in which Jesus descended into the grave and freed its captives. Later, in one of the book’s heavily symbolic tableaus, Jesus is depicted as both a lion (a king from Judah, the messiah), and a slain lamb (a sin/ransom sacrifice). The heavenly chorus then sings the lamb’s praise, saying: “You were slaughtered, and with your own blood you purchased a people for God!” (5:9) In a sense, the entirety of Revelation can be understood as a massive poetic dramatization of ransom theology. God’s “wrath” is poured out upon all sorts of creepy crawlies that represent what Paul called the “principalities and powers,” the forces of sin and death that plague and oppress the people of God. Jesus’ self-sacrificial death is (once again) declared to be the ultimate victory over these evil forces.
Conclusions: Ransom, Ransom, and Ransom
This ends our blog-friendly survey of the Bible’s various perspectives on atonement. Despite many nuances of language and detail, we discovered an overwhelming witness to a view of Jesus’ death as a ransom sacrifice; that is, a willingly offered tribute which secured the release of a captive people. This makes a great deal of sense, given that the Bible’s authors are Jewish, and the controlling narrative of Jewish “theology” is the Exodus, a story of victory, ransom, and liberation. As to the question of Penal Substitution and divine wrath, while various atonement texts invoke the idea of Jesus’ willingly facing a sort of “punishment” or “correction” in the form of human injustice, and while God’s wrath is said to burn against the powers of sin which had enslaved His people, not once did we encounter a text that explicitly claimed that Jesus’ death constituted a divine punishment that assuaged God’s wrath against individual sinners. Jesus gave himself as a representative of his own people, and his death was simultaneously a heinous injustice wrought by corrupt empire and an act of divine love and deliverance. Sin, empire, and the spirit of condemnation itself were condemned and disarmed on the cross. This was not a theological necessity nor a legal transaction to mollify a raging deity, it was a decisive act by an inspired human being that interrupted and sabotaged the machinations of human violence, unmasking and unmaking them forever. This is good news for everyone.
In the next post we’ll follow the development of atonement theology after the New Testament up to the present day, after which I will wrap up with a more personal and positive discussion of atonement and its meaning for Christians in the twenty-first century.