Tag Archives: atonement

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Bad Christian Memes Are Bad, Vol. 1

Christians aren’t the only ones posting mind-numbingly stupid things on the social Internet, but boy howdy are they good at it. Here are some of my not-favorite Christian memes from Facebook and Twitter. Disclaimer: If you’re a friend of mine who has posted one of these, I am not mocking you or criticizing you personally. (But please do stop being so awful!)

The Bottom of the Barrel

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The bulk of Christian memes, like most other Internet memes, are just needless pabulum cluttering servers that would be put to better use storing empty text documents. It’s not really worth the effort to analyze and respond to most of these, so I’m going to focus instead on memes with some sort of message or substance.

Creepy Cross Memes

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Look, OK, I kinda get it. The cross is central to the Christian story, central to the theology of Paul, etc. It’s huge, it’s important. But to celebrate the cross without any context or irony is just… creepy. Because guess what? Death and blood and murder are creepy to begin with, and super creepy when mixed with religion. The burden is on Christians to explain how one particular bloody death could be called “good.” For my part, I’ve already made my case for why it’s not. Without self-awareness of what the cross says about us as a species, and apart from the peace and beauty of Easter, the cross is just an ugly religious fetish.

Dualistic Quotes

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I’ve seen both of these quotes attributed to C.S. Lewis (as the second one is here), but he didn’t write or say either of them. “You don’t have a soul” is George MacDonald, “You are not a human being” is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and neither of them reflects what Jesus or the Bible has to say about human beings and spirituality. The idea of the human body as a temporary vessel for an eternal spiritual being is straight out of Platonic philosophy. The Bible itself contains a variety of evolving beliefs about the nature and destiny of humans, but none of them looks like disembodied souls floating upward to the heavens. “Soul” in the traditional Jewish sense refers to the fullness of a person, inside and out, as God sees them. And most biblical visions of the future involve recreation and continued embodied life on earth. I don’t mean to knock Greek philosophy, it’s a hoot. I just feel bad that it doesn’t get enough credit for its deep influence on Christianity. 

Royalty/Daughter of a King Memes

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Really? I mean… just, really? Arrogance, pride, self-aggrandizement… Just like Jesus!

When You Preach…

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This one just kinda backfires in a hilarious way. Am I missing something? Doesn’t the one on the left (preaching what they wanna hear) look like a Billy Graham crusade, and doesn’t the one on the right (preaching the truth) look like a mainline or Catholic church? I’m just saying, is all.

Love is Not Love

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Conservative Christians are eager to let you know that love takes a back seat to doctrine and the enforcement of moral boundaries. “Tolerance” is a dirty word and a compromise. Real Christian love is gleefully offensive and saturated in harsh and accusatory “truth.” These believers are just being true to their God, whose “love” is primarily manifested as wrath and condemnation. Not to split hairs, but it might not be God they are imitating…

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Harm Is Not Justice On Earth Or In Heaven

This year Holy Week generated more than the typical number of articles and debates about the nature of atonement and the meaning of the cross and Easter. I was happy and gratified to add my voice to the growing chorus of Christians rejecting theologies of wrath and punition, embracing instead the essentiality of divine peace and nonviolence.

Throughout the comment threads and Twitter debates, however, it was clear that traditional perspectives are alive and thriving. A not-so-surprising number of times I saw this response to the proposal of a nonviolent God and/or atonement:

“If you remove violence from God, you remove justice. If you remove justice from God you remove justice from the world, then people will do whatever they want.”

This is not one cranky strawman taking up a contrary position, this is a tried and true axiom espoused routinely by legions of committed Christian theology nerds. And to be honest, as deeply as I disagree with this statement today, it still gets stuck in my throat because, well, I used to think this way. Yes, I used to be that guy.

Here is a paraphrase that I think reveals the problematic assumptions in this formula: The point of justice is to punish people who won’t behave properly, the only way we know to achieve this kind of justice is through violence, and so if God does justice it must also be accomplished through violence.

Can’t we do better than this? If not, can’t God do better?

The False Dilemma of Punishment vs. Doing Nothing

From a conservative Christian perspective, the worst thing we can do is to give people the impression that they are OK as they are, that their sin is not a problem, and that God forgives their sin apart from any mechanism of sacrifice or punishment. This will just encourage them to sin more, denying them the opportunity to “get right with God” and putting them in real danger. Thus the caricature of a progressive/nonviolent theology that shrugs off sin while imagining God as little more than a loving, doting grandfather (or grandmother, sheesh!).

While I’m personally on board with the grandma metaphor, I reject the false binary offered here. God as a violent punisher of sin on the one hand and sin as not a big deal on the other are not the only two options available to us, nor are they mutually exclusive.

What if sin was a big deal, a huge deal, in fact; an undeniable epidemic and an oppressive slavemaster over all of humanity, but God was ALSO good and merciful and eager to pardon our sin apart from any requirement of punishment or sacrifice? This still puts the onus of repentance and righteousness on every one of us, but the threat of harm comes not from God’s hand but from our own commitment to violent and self-destructive habits and agendas? God’s role being only to bless and heal, never to hurt?

Wait, where have I heard this before?

Jesus, Sin, and Justice

I’m just one idiot blathering on the Internet, but isn’t this nuanced view more in tune with the way Jesus talked about sin?

I agree with my conservative friends on this: Jesus did not “look the other way” or downplay the problem of sin. In fact, he was on about it. But that’s also where Jesus departs from the evangelical party line on the issue of sin and justice. Jesus tells people they are guilty of sin and implores them to repent, but he does not tell them that they are depraved, or that God’s wrath burns against them, or that they need a blood sacrifice to cover their sins.

In fact, Jesus preached mercy over sacrifice, rejected the idea that God punished people for sin in this life, and his main metaphor for judgment was a fiery garbage dump where humanity destroys itself with war and violence. For Jesus, sin is an ungodly plague from which we need to be healed and delivered, not a trespass for which we must be harmed for God’s satisfaction.

Maybe God’s Better At Justice Than We Are?

Here on earth, violence is still the tool of choice for enacting justice. We have yet to apply our collective, God-given imagination to the task of discovering more compassionate and restorative ways of responding to danger and sin. But let’s give God some credit. Christians, let’s give Jesus credit for his vision of a God whose posture toward humanity is not threat and punishment but mercy and pardon.

For too long the church has mitigated the theology of Jesus because of its theology about Jesus. Theories of atonement predicated upon divine wrath and sacrifice have overshadowed and supplanted the peaceful and beautiful gospel of Jesus. We should repent of that sin and get back to God.

Have we really believed that a God who can calm storms, heal the sick, transform lives, and even raise the dead cannot forgive sin apart from acts of wrath, whether against guilty sinners or an innocent scapegoat? This might make sense if all we knew was the punitive justice of human tyrants, but we have met Jesus! We have glimpsed a better way, and now we have no excuse.  

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Atone Deaf Part Seven: Keep it Messy, Tragic, and Beautiful

The final post in a series about atonement, the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

The first six posts in this series focused on the origins and evolution of the theological interpretation of Jesus’ death. We explored the foundations of sacrifice and vicarious suffering in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament perspectives on the passion of Jesus, and the development of certain atonement theologies throughout Christian history. You can revisit those posts for my analysis and conclusions. In this final post, I want to leave the research where it is and focus more on the lingering questions and feelings surrounding atonement. Because, ultimately, I’m not sure a technical or transactional understanding of the death of Jesus is the most helpful or valuable one.

The Problem of Over-realized Theology

Strange as it is to have to articulate this, I think it’s crucial to remember that all of our source material for a Christian study of atonement – from scripture on down to Calvin’s Institutes – consists of subjective human interpretation long after the fact. Even the gospels themselves represent an artistic reconstruction of the events of Jesus’ life and passion, told from various perspectives a generation later. Paul’s letters are thought to be the earliest material in the Greek canon, but they are written by a man who was not a companion of Jesus when he walked the earth. Later, the Church Fathers would often blatantly disregard the settings and tropes of scripture in their effort to fit the texts into their own Greek-flavored interpretive schemes. My point is this: for all of the inspired and inspiring insight offered by Bible texts and other Christian writings, they are all assigning meaning on top of meaning to a distant historical event, from a certain vantage point, with the benefit of time and imagination, under many diverse influences. We are the beneficiaries of their work, and their writing is of great value. It is my opinion, however, that when we literalize or absolutize these subjective perspectives we develop an overly legal or forensic view of atonement. That is, we downplay the historical messiness of Jesus’ death and begin to imagine that the theological metaphors are actually concrete, that there was actually some cosmic juridical transaction that took place, as if heavenly bookkeepers were frantically balancing their ledgers as the last drop of Jesus’ blood spilled out. We forget that theology is interpretive and speculative, not descriptive.

As a younger man I believed that Jesus came down to Earth out of the sky, like the son of Jor-El, with a picture of me in his wallet, knowing that he had to be in the right place at the right time to die for me so I could go to heaven. If he had missed his chance or chickened out, I would be out of luck. But Jesus is the hero of the story, so he died just like he was supposed to. Happy ending. Is there a modicum of truth in this version of the story? Perhaps. But my privileging and overemphasis of the transactional (and substitutionary) interpretation of Jesus’ death completely blinded me to historical reality, and led me to imagine it as something other than a tragic injustice. I oversimplified and misrepresented Jesus’ mission and self-identity, completely disregarding the Jewish context of both. I was also myopic and self-serving, assuming that the central crisis of the known universe was my personal fate and afterlife destiny.

Well, the ancient narratives do tell us that Jesus faced his fate with courage motivated by compassion, first and foremost for his own family of Israel and for the love of the whole world. But even given his sense of mission and determination, the political machinations of his trial and execution are never seen as incidental or irrelevant. To say that Jesus “had to die” is not to say it was alright, just a technicality that had to be taken care of. It is to say that his prophetic message about a forgiving Father God and a kingdom of peace and radical social justice was such a challenge and offense to the religious and political powers-that-be that his execution became inevitable. To state this theologically, the life-based justice of God clashed with the death-based “justice” of the world. To state it in more anthropological terms, Jesus lived and died by his countercultural commitment to nonviolence and non-retaliation. If Jesus simply needed to die to satisfy a cosmic theological need, he could have thrown himself off a cliff or jumped in front of a chariot. Instead, he looked corrupt human empire in the face and said, “you don’t understand how power works.” Yes, he had to die, and there is no more damning comment on the state of humanity. Atonement is about palpable hope for our future in spite of this, because of Jesus.

How to Believe in Atonement 

So what does it mean to “believe” in this death? Is it simply a fact we must acknowledge in order to be saved? Is it a transaction we need to understand correctly so that its benefits can be applied to us? Or is it more than that, a story into which we can enter, that can redefine the way we understand the world? As we observed, the ancient interpreters understood Jesus’ death as a self-given sacrifice which disarmed and defeated corruption and sin, exposed the evils of empire and hell, set humanity free from bondage, and reconciled creation to its Creator. There is enough there to keep us hoping and imagining for the rest of our lives, but there are countless other insights, questions, and dreams, some old and some quite new, which explore different aspects and ramifications of atonement. I’ll conclude this series with just a few brief samples, which will hopefully whet your appetite and send you out on your own investigation.

  • To be meaningful, Jesus’ death cannot be separated from his resurrection. One of the big problems with theologies that focus primarily on transactional or substitutionary atonement is that they seem to suggest that Jesus’ death was, in itself, a complete, sufficient, and satisfactory event. These interpreters affirm the resurrection, of course, but treat it as a separate theological category. The cross is about atonement and salvation, resurrection is about eschatology and afterlife. A holistic view of atonement understands Easter as more than proof of heaven or a surprise happy ending. It is God’s peaceful and life-affirming response to the horrors of human ritual victimization exposed on the cross. It completes the picture, and it’s the only way that the events of the passion can be called “good.”
  • Incarnation is atonement. This idea actually goes back to Anselm, but it has been picked up by some of today’s best thinkers (see this Facebook post by Michael Hardin). It suggests that incarnation – how Jesus in his humanity embodies and reveals the divine nature – is the true context and content of atonement. Death and resurrection are thus only the climax of the full story of Jesus’ humanity. Jesus is not God in a man costume, securing atonement by shedding his own heavenly blood. He makes atonement because he is the true human being, who faces a human fate, and who interrupts, disarms, and transcends the human cycle of violence. He does this for and with and on behalf of his human family.
  • Does God love mercy or sacrifice? Why would God send prophets into the world to urge us toward “mercy not sacrifice” if His real desire was for a propitiating sacrifice? Time and again, the Bible’s prophetic witness suggests that blood sacrifice is a human endeavor, a concession, and that God truly desires obedience, mercy, and relationship. Dare we suggest that this same God’s ultimate plan of redemption for the world is the violent sacrifice of an innocent human, His own son? An atonement theology in tune with the gospel and the divine character as revealed in Jesus cannot attribute that kind of bloodthirst to God. In fact, taking a cue from the book of Hebrews, it sees Jesus’ death as a self-given sacrifice which exposes and ends the practice of sacrifice forever. At Easter, mercy obliterates sacrifice once and for all. (Check out this blog post by Brian Zahnd.)
  • If God cannot change, then atonement cannot change God. Philosophically speaking, God is absolute and unchanging by nature. The divine will cannot turn or change its mind, even though anthropomorphic depictions of God in scripture often suggest otherwise. This is one reason why the earlier atonement theologies we surveyed were careful not to suggest that God’s wrath was satisfied or His mind changed by the death of Jesus. Instead they focused on external, impersonal factors like God’s “honor.” His consistency of character and His reputation for mercy and compassion had to be preserved. And after all, how coherent is it to suggest that God reached into human history to affect a change in His own heart and disposition? It is we who need to turn away from aggression and embrace compassion, not God.
  • Atonement is a revelation, not a project. This is along the lines of the previous idea. Richard Rohr (after John Duns Scotus) has suggested a vision of atonement as a revelation of God’s love, rather than a project or transaction intended to solve a problem. Jesus did not live and die to “mop-up” humanity’s sin problem, but to reveal God’s true face and posture in the midst of our trouble. Read more here.
  • Mark Heim says, “Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours.” 

That feels like a haphazard and incomplete list of ideas, and I think that’s just about right. One thing I do not want to suggest with this series is that atonement can somehow be systematized or explained in any complete or tidy way. The death of Jesus is (with good cause) the most overanalyzed and over-explained event in the history of the world. It actually does us good, I think, to resist the impulse to pin it down or distill it into a chart or a slogan. We do well to preserve something of the chaos of history, to treat Jesus’ death as a distant and devastating memory. “Atonement” is our attempt to discover our own place in the old story, to feel a fresh wave of the sorrow and shock of Good Friday, and the elation and glory of Easter. This is the story of our lowest moment as a species, and of God’s greatest triumph.

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Atone Deaf Part Six: Atonement After the Bible

Latest in a series of posts about atonement, the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

In five previous posts we surveyed the key Bible texts which deal with the death of Jesus and paid special attention to any meaning (expressed or implied) that they assigned to that event. We concluded that the Bible’s primary metaphor for interpreting the death of Jesus is a “ransom” model in which Jesus’ death constitutes a payment for the release of captives. The payment is his life, and the captives are human beings enslaved by the powers of sin and death. Perhaps just as common, though, is a “victory” model in which Jesus’ act of will in going to the cross accomplished a decisive defeat over those powers. We might understand these in terms of cause and effect; The powers that enslaved and corrupted us were disarmed and destroyed, with the result that we are liberated from both captivity and guilt.

While most Christians today would give a hearty “amen” to everything in that paragraph, many believers – especially those in Reformed and/or Evangelical traditions – might call this an incomplete view of atonement. Where is Penal Substitution (PSA)? Where is propitiation? Where is punishment and wrath? These are the dominant factors in most conservative formulations of atonement today, and we kept these questions at the forefront as we examined the relevant Bible texts. We concluded that, while vicarious suffering and wrath are indeed elements of the biblical presentation of atonement, they have been seriously misplaced and misrepresented in the PSA model. Jesus’ death is called a substitution, and God is said to exert wrath; But Jesus took his “punishment” from the worldly powers of sin and condemnation, not from God, and God’s wrath burns against those forces of evil, not against their human victims whom He created and loves.

So where did PSA come from? When, how, and why were the ingredients of atonement combined and configured in such a way that this is the only framework in which most Christians today are able to conceptualize and explain the death of Jesus? Here is a brief look at the interpretive history of atonement, from the earliest days of the church until today. Continue reading

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Atone Deaf Part Five: Hebrews and Sacrifice in the New Testament

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!)

Revelation

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.

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Atone Deaf Part Four: Paul and Atonement

Latest in a series of posts examining atonement, the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

For many Christian theologians and most modern believers, Paul is the primary (and effectively the only) teacher of atonement in the New Testament. I believe this to be unfortunate for two reasons: 1) Despite how we have been trained to read his writing, Paul’s first concern is not atonement theory in particular or even theology in general. The death of Jesus is central to his writing, to be sure, but the apostle’s letters are impassioned pleas addressing specific contexts of crisis, not fully developed systematic theologies. To read them as such is to misread them. And 2), while we have been busy dissecting and synthesizing Paul’s writings to produce our various atonement theories, we have all but ignored the gospels and how Jesus understood his own death according to those traditions. That surely ought to be the loudest voice in this conversation. (Our series has already attempted to remedy this inequity, of course.)

Yet the significance of Jesus’ death (and resurrection) to Paul cannot be overstated. If we want to get a complete picture of what the earliest Christians thought about atonement, this is a major piece of the puzzle. Paul has a lot to say about why Jesus died, and I don’t mind admitting that my own presuppositions were challenged in this exercise. Let it be said that wrath and substitution are undeniably present in Paul’s complex understanding of atonement, though I would maintain that they have too often been overemphasized and defined according to a context other than Paul’s. It doesn’t help that Paul’s letters are so urgent and specific to their historical circumstances. We are at a major disadvantage as we try to reconstruct both his frantic train of thought AND his context. But when we are careful and patient with Paul, the rewards are many. Here is a too-brief overview of what Paul has to say about the death of Jesus in his letters, with special attention to Romans.

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A Song About Limited Atonement That Is Almost As Horrible As the Doctrine

OK, apologies for making you watch this, but it’s related to the current series and we could maybe use a diversion. So this song is awful, obviously, but in addition to sounding like a Green Day tribute band made up of toilet bowls, it’s also an egregious presentation of atonement theology. Not only are they celebrating a truly problematic and ugly doctrine, they misrepresent its content and then throw endless Bible verses at us hoping we won’t notice. The makers of this video try their darnedest to come across like open-minded theology nerds who are picking on both Arminians and Calvinists, but they are clearly defenders of Calvin’s work. A major clue is the way they try to relabel his “Limited Atonement” with the more palatable moniker “Definite Atonement.” That’s pure R.C. Sproul right there.

We probably won’t get this specific when we talk about Calvin’s atonement theology in an upcoming post, so if you’re not familiar with Limited Atonement here’s the rundown: This doctrine asserts that the “atonement” achieved by Jesus’ death on the cross was “limited” and effective only for those whom God preordained (or elected) before time to eventually believe in it. That is, it is for true Christians only and not for “the world” or for “all” as the Bible seems to state. Hardcore Calvinists will not tell people “Jesus died for you,” because they cannot be sure that it is true. Why would anyone believe in such a nightmare? For defenders of Reformed Theology, it is all about preserving God’s honor and “sovereignty.” It is all about God’s “design” for atonement and its perfect fulfillment, and it boils down to this: because Calvinists view sin and salvation in strictly legal terms, and because they see such immovable obstacles between humans and God, even on this side of Easter, they cannot abide the thought that an ounce of Jesus’ blood might have been spilled for anyone who doesn’t deserve it. Of course, they’ll insist, none of us deserves it, but the elect receive it because they have been chosen to receive it. Everyone else is out of luck.

Again, all of this can only possibly make any sense within the harsh and abstract dimension of theological theory. This is the magical realm where sin is a legal problem to be managed, not a fundamental problem of human relationship. Where repentance is a ritual one must perform in pursuit of forgiveness, not a lifelong journey of discovery and enlightenment. Where Jesus’ death is a puppet show to accomplish “God’s will,” not the tragic murder of the son of man. Where salvation affords passage into a happy afterlife for those fortunate enough to broker a deal, not the rescue and redemption of every molecule in all creation. And where only a special group get to call themselves “God’s children,” not everyone and everything in existence.  

The video goes on to invoke the “ransom” theology we observed in the gospels, because this is what the Bible actually says instead of touting Penal Substitution or Limited Atonement. But the picture of Jesus giving his life to free his captive people is far more beautiful and meaningful than anything in TULIP or PSA, and it seems like an odd fit here. Are we all imprisoned, and yet God has only seen fit to rescue some of us? Substitutionary punishment is a horrific notion, but at least it lends itself to an individualistic theology like Calvinism. Ultimately, the biggest problem with election theology, as far as I can see, is that the person teaching you about it always assumes they have been elected. Beware of “insider” religion. If it’s not good news for everyone, it’s not good news.

And yes, this was going to be a fun post when I started writing it. Sorry. :)

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Atone Deaf Part Three: The Gospels and Why Jesus Died

Latest in a series of posts exploring the Christian understanding of atonement and the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

In our last two posts we surveyed key sacrificial traditions of the Torah and the famous “servant song” of Isaiah 53, to see if they in any way predicted or anticipated the death of Jesus as a substitutionary punishment for sin. I concluded that, while there are elements of payment and vicarious suffering in those Hebrew Bible traditions, none of them constitutes the kind of wrath-satisfying punishment made necessary by Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theology. Instead of an angry God looking to spill the blood of an innocent surrogate, we found a God who ultimately rejects blood sacrifice in favor of mercy and love, and who turns the earthly suffering of his “servant” into hope and new life. If you want to “prove” PSA from the “Old Testament,” you’ll find a few scattered elements, but you’ll have to ignore everything else that’s really going on.

Of course, it’s in the New Testament that the events central to a Christian understanding of atonement are portrayed, and regardless of what the Hebrew Scriptures say, this is where we’d expect to find an explicit message about the meaning of Jesus’ death. If Jesus died as a substitutionary sacrifice to appease the wrath of God, the gospels will surely tell us so. Let’s see what they have to say, taking them in (roughly) chronological rather than canonical order.

Mark

The first thing we notice, reading the gospel texts on a mission like this, is that they very seldom spell out theological meaning with explicit commentary. They are rife with such meaning, to be sure, but it must be discovered by interpreting the dialogue and the style and drama of the narrative. Most Christians would prefer to read the gospels as simple, factual reports of eyewitness experiences, but comparing one gospel to another illuminates just how much personal creativity and agenda have figured into the shape of these presentations. This is not necessarily to question their reliability, but to simply acknowledge their diversity in detail, theme, and emphasis.

Mark’s gospel is the shortest and the most “action oriented.” Jesus casts out his first demon before the end of Chapter 1. There is no “narrator’s commentary” on the death of Jesus, and so our only references to the subject come in the form of words on the prophet’s own lips. Twice in Mark Jesus predicts his own death privately to his followers (8:31-33; 9:30-32). In both instances he emphasizes his inevitable rejection by the human authorities in Jerusalem, his eventual execution, and his ultimate vindication in resurrection. Other than the political machinations implied in these predictions, Jesus does not mention any cause or ramification for this death until we get to Chapter 10, when he says this:

“Don’t you see? The son of man didn’t come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45, KNT)

Mark’s Jesus gives us an explicit statement on the meaning of his impending death, and I have heard this verse cited innumerable times as if it were a definitive biblical reference to PSA theology. Two considerations: 1) The immediate context is not a question about sacrifice or the theological necessity of Jesus’ death, it is an argument among Jesus’ followers about who will hold the most power when he becomes king. Jesus rebukes them and explains that his vocation is not to seek and wield power like a typical earthly king, but to lay down his life for the sake of his people. 2) More significant to our discussion, a “ransom” is not at all the same thing as a “substitute.” A ransom is a payment for the liberation of captives, not the transfer of a punishment from a guilty party to a proxy.

The obvious referent here is the Passover sacrifice we discussed in an earlier post, an allusion that is even more pronounced in the “last supper” account in Mark 14. Jesus shares a Passover meal with his followers on the eve of his death, reappropriating the unleavened bread and the cup of blessing as signs of a “new covenant” in his blood for the arrival of God’s kingdom. Later in the place (not a garden) called Gethsemane, Jesus prays fervently to his “Father” that he might be spared the burden of betrayal and execution, but ultimately concedes to the divine will (the first and only explicit reference to God’s will in relation to Jesus’ death). At the moment of his death in the next chapter, Jesus quotes the refrain of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” After Jesus dies, Mark says the temple veil is torn in two, suggesting that Jesus’ death has fundamentally broken the old sacrificial system. The final chapter of the gospel emphasizes the Sabbath setting of Jesus’ resurrection, indicating that his death marked the end of one era, and his rising the dawn of a new one.

Matthew

Matthew’s gospel spends a lot more time describing Jesus’ origin and demonstrating his credentials as a Jew and as the anointed one (messiah). The author presents Jesus’ life as a series of “fulfillments” of Hebrew Bible texts. More than half of the book goes by before the spectre of Jesus’ death is raised. We get two predictions from Jesus himself echoing those in Mark (Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23) and an additional one on his fateful trip toward Jerusalem with an added reference to being “handed over to the pagans” and “crucified” (20:17-19). Later in the same passage, Matthew presents the saying about “a ransom for many” (20:28), and in Chapter 26 Jesus emphasizes that his death will coincide with Passover. At the last supper, Jesus’ words are very similar to those in Mark, with an added reference to his blood being “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28), connecting his death to the Torah sacrifices as well.

Matthew’s presentation of the death of Jesus in Chapter 27 adds some curious details not found elsewhere. There is an earthquake at the moment of Jesus’ death, and “many bodies of sleeping ones” climb out of their tombs and shuffle off to Jerusalem. This bizarre episode is possibly a rare biblical reference to the “harrowing of Sheol,” an early Christian tradition in which Jesus descends into the underworld, binds the satan, and rescues the martyrs held captive there. This is the backstory to the brief line in the Apostle’s Creed that says “he descended into hell,” and it quite starkly dramatizes the “ransom” model of atonement theology. We’ll discuss this tradition a little more in an upcoming post.

Luke

Scholars suggest that the authors of Matthew and Luke had access to Mark’s gospel as one of their sources. Many of the sayings and traditions they share are found in simpler forms in Mark, and each contains their own unique material as well (there is also another hypothetical shared source called Q). Luke 9:22 records Jesus predicting his own death as he did in Mark and Matthew, but here it is followed by a warning that anyone who would follow Jesus must “deny yourself, and pick up your cross every day.” (That doesn’t sound very much like substitution!) In Chapter 13 Jesus responds to threats from King Herod by saying, “Only in Jerusalem could a prophet perish!” (13:33). Later, in Chapter 22, Luke emphasizes the Passover setting of the last supper, just as Mark and Matthew had done, but throughout Luke’s narration of the passion there is a special emphasis on both the suffering and innocence of Jesus. In Gethsemane, Jesus is in “agony” until an angel is sent to “strengthen” him (22:43), a detail found only in Luke. As he dies, Luke’s Jesus pronounces forgiveness upon his enemies and murderers (and presumably everyone; 23:34), and the soldier who proclaimed in Mark and Matthew that “this man is truly the son of God,” here proclaims that “this man truly was innocent!” (23:47)

John

John’s gospel is the “most different” of the canonical gospels. It was written as much as a generation later than the synoptics, and it presents a radically different take on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This Jesus does not cast out demons, does not tell parables, doesn’t proclaim the “kingdom of God”, never shares a last supper with his followers, and spends most of his time performing miracles so that people will “believe” in him. On the subject of Jesus’ death, John’s gospel is telling the same story, but in a different language.

The first reference to Jesus’ death in John actually comes in the form of a prophecy from Caiaphas, the High Priest, who says “let one man die for the people, rather than the whole nation being wiped out” (11:50). This becomes the religious establishment’s justification for assassinating the prophet. Jesus doesn’t explicitly predict his death in John as he did in the earlier gospels, but he does cryptically prepare his followers for life in his absence. When the passion week arrives, John describes the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus in a profoundly symbolic pageant. John moves the day and time of Jesus’ death to coincide with the slaughter of the Passover lambs, and as he dies Jesus exclaims “It is finished!” (19:30). This is an artistic collision of two major Hebrew Bible themes: Jesus is killed as a ransom sacrifice like a Passover lamb, and his death marks the end of a work of “new creation.” This is emphasized further as Jesus resurrects on the first day of a new week and encounters Mary, who mistakes him for the “gardener” (20:15).

Analysis: Why Did Jesus Die?

The first thing to note about this brief tour of the gospels is that, despite the diversity of perspectives and agendas in the various tellings of this story, one thing is extremely clear in each of these texts: the primary cause of Jesus’ death was the treachery of corrupt religion in collusion with empire. He was killed by the machinations of human “justice,” and anything else is theological speculation after the fact. This is not to say that such speculation has no value, but some formulations of atonement put such emphasis on the theological necessity of Jesus’ death or on “God’s will” that the clear, historical circumstances of the passion – outlined explicitly in every gospel – become bothersome or irrelevant. This is the same mistake we make when we focus so obtusely on abstract legal ramifications of human sin that we forget about the toll it takes on real people here and now. Jesus died as an innocent victim of human oppression. That is not the cover story for some cosmic transaction, it is the bitter truth of what occurred. And it implicates us, not God.

On that note, returning to the question of atonement, we observed another surprising continuity across all four gospels: an understanding of Jesus’ death as a “ransom” sacrifice for the liberation of his people. Neither penal substitution nor the wrath of God seems to be a factor for any of these authors/communities, though arguments have been made. It has been suggested, for example, that the “cup” Jesus must drink is the wrath of God against human sin, but this is not what the text says at all. Jesus identifies his fate as the inevitable result of human betrayal and politics, and tells his power-hungry disciples that they will drink from the same cup if they choose to follow him. Like the “take up your cross” language in John, this sounds more like solidarity and shared suffering than substitution or punishment. It should also be noted that each of the gospels connects the death of Jesus indivisibly to the resurrection, so that it would not be sufficient to consider one apart from the other. This is another major error of many atonement theologies.

According to the gospel texts and the early communities of Christians that produced and read them, Jesus died to liberate his people from bondage to sin and death, to set them free to embrace and inhabit God’s kingdom of peace and reconciliation. These texts are not theological textbooks or doctrinal statements, they are artful responses to the Jesus event, told and retold by his followers and their descendants. These are not legal or technical explanations of why Jesus “had to die,” they are literary celebrations of an event so simultaneously shocking and beautiful that it changed everything, forever. Jesus died for us, and with us, and yet it was we who killed him. God didn’t “pour his wrath” on an innocent victim, we did. And yet the innocent one willingly suffered this fate for the sake of those who perpetrated it, and he did not curse them or retaliate, he only forgave. That is where we find God in atonement: not behind a curtain pulling the strings, but on the cross loving and forgiving His killers.

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Atone Deaf Part Two: Isaiah’s Suffering Servant

Second in a series of posts exploring theology of atonement, the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

In the previous post I suggested that Israel’s sacrificial traditions constituted human tributes to God for the confession and relinquishing of sin guilt, not blood payments to a wrathful deity. We then explored the Hebrew Bible’s pervasive prophetic witness to God’s ultimate rejection of blood sacrifice in favor of love, mercy, and relationship. All of this calls into question the premise of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), which assumes that God requires death and blood sacrifice as punishment for sin. Before we move on to a survey of the New Testament, however, no study of atonement and the Hebrew Bible would be complete without a discussion of Isaiah 53.

Isaiah 53: The Jesus Prophecy?

Isaiah 53 (technically Isaiah 52:13-53:12) is referred to as the “servant song,” or the “suffering servant.” It is actually the fourth such song in Deutero-Isaiah, the second division of the scroll named after the prophet. The immediate context is a rapturous declaration in chapter 52 of Israel’s “redemption” and the end of exile, where the song bursts forth as a poetic exploration of both suffering and joy on the eve of release and return to the homeland. The subject of the poem is the pain and triumph of a lowly and mysterious “servant” who is “stricken by God” and bears Israel’s “iniquities” so that “by his wounds [they] are healed.” This language appears to plainly describe the substitutionary punishment of an innocent victim by God for the salvation of others, exactly the sort of vicarious harm suffered by Jesus on the cross according to PSA. The result has been that, despite its explicit context of Judaism and exile, Isaiah 53 has been read by Christians as a clear and obvious prediction of Christ’s death on the cross.

Before returning to the question of Christ and atonement, however, our first task is to appreciate the text in its original setting. This will not be easy. As Christians we have only ever read Isaiah 53 as if it was an “Old Testament” cameo by Jesus. I might come across as contrary or obtuse in this exercise, but that only demonstrates how locked-in we are to our particular perspective. Please stick with me for this valuable thought experiment. It is time to listen to the servant song with fresh ears.

A Fresh Reading of the Fourth Servant Song

Awake, awake, O Zion! Clothe yourself in splendor; Put on your robes of majesty, Jerusalem, holy city! For the uncircumcised and the unclean shall never enter you again.
Arise, shake off the dust, sit on your throne, Jerusalem! Loose the bonds from your neck, O captive one, fair Zion! For thus said the LORD: You were sold for no price, and shall be redeemed without money.
(Isaiah 52:1-3, JPS)

This is the true context of the servant song, lest we forget. Israel/Zion/Jerusalem (interchangeable poetic references to the exiled people of Judah) has been held captive, but will soon be set free and return to her home, which will be purified at long last after being the plunder of other nations. The text goes on to describe the people’s journey back to the land before the stunned eyes of the nations, at which point our song begins:

For you will not depart in haste, nor will you leave in flight; For the LORD is marching before you, the God of Israel is your rear guard.
“Indeed, My servant shall prosper, be exalted, and raised to great heights.”
(Isaiah 52:12-13, JPS)

The song begins with the first reference to the “servant,” which at this point appears to be a direct reference to the exiled people of Judah. They were low, and now they are being lifted up and rescued. But in chapter 53 things start to get a little more dark:

“For [the servant] has grown, by [God’s] favor, like a tree’s crown, like a tree trunk out of arid ground. He had no form or beauty that we should look at him; No charm that we should find him pleasing. he was despised, shunned by men. A man of suffering, familiar with disease. As one who hid his face from us, he was despised, we held him of no account.”
(Isaiah 53:2-3, JPS)

The servant (or Israel) is a figure (or people) of great sorrow and misfortune, hated and spurned by the world (by men, not by God). A rumination on the torments of captivity and exile.

“Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing, our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued, stricken by God; But he was wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the punishment [or correction] that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed.”
(Isaiah 53:4-5, JPS)

Here are the first notes of vicarious suffering. The servant, who somehow represents Israel and yet somehow transcends it, endures great pain and “sickness.” But this sickness is not, as the people might have thought, the result of a punitive attack by a wrathful God, it is the result of Israel’s own failure and sin (note the logic: “we ACCOUNTED him stricken by God, BUT he was wounded because of OUR sins”). Some looked at misfortune and said, “why is God angry with us?” The prophet responds, “we brought this upon ourselves!” The servant, like Israel (as Israel?), is hated and tormented by men, but somehow this will all lead to healing. The word translated “punishment” here also means “teaching” or “correction,” indicating that this calamity is ultimately constructive, not destructive.

“We all went astray like sheep, each going his own way; And the LORD visited upon him the guilt of all of us. He was maltreated, yet he was submissive, he did not open his mouth; Like a sheep being led to slaughter, like a ewe, dumb before those who shear her, he did not open his mouth. By oppressive judgment he was taken away, Who could describe his abode? For he was cut off from the land of the living through the sin of my people, who deserved the punishment [or correction]. And his grave was set among the wicked, and with the rich, in his death – though he had done no injustice, and spoken no falsehood.”
(Isaiah 53:6-9, JPS)

Israel was led into exile like a lamb to slaughter, a poetic image evoked elsewhere in Hebrew Scripture (eg. Psalm 44). Just as the servant is somehow both Israel and its savior, this “oppressive judgment” was somehow both an injustice and a fitting correction. And the servant faced this dark ordeal without retaliating or cursing Israel’s enemies.

“But the LORD chose to crush him by disease, that, if he made himself an offering for guilt, he might see offspring and have long life, and that through him the LORD’s purpose might prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see it; He shall enjoy it to the full through his devotion. ‘My righteous servant makes the many righteous, it is their punishment that he bears; Assuredly, I will give him the many as his portion, He shall receive the multitude as his spoil. For he exposed himself to death And was numbered among the sinners, Whereas he bore the guilt of the many and made intercession for sinners.’”
(Isaiah 53:10-12, JPS)

By enduring the suffering and terror of exile, the servant/Israel has himself/itself been “offered up” as a sin offering, a relinquishing of guilt and a plea for forgiveness. The result, to the people’s amazement, is renewal and prosperity (“offspring and long life”), and a restored and grateful nation for his spoil. By dying on the altar of exile, Israel was not destroyed but through suffering and by God’s goodness was made whole.

Debates and Considerations

That is our intentionally pre-Christian reading of Isaiah 53. Before we return to the question of Jesus and atonement, a couple of concerns should be briefly addressed. First is the question of whether or not the servant of Second Isaiah can be considered a “messianic” figure. Isaiah is more keen on a king (messiah) as the answer to Israel’s woes than most other prophets, but the servant is a decidedly lowly and common character. Christians will often point to an Aramaic Talmud (rabbinic commentary) of Isaiah from the second century that explicitly identifies the servant as “messiah.” However, that same text fundamentally changes the meaning of the whole passage, turning it into a revenge fantasy with the worst of the “suffering” deflected onto Israel’s enemies. That represents a sharp departure from the original poem and undermines the intentions of those who appeal to the Targum as a Christian prooftext. At the same time, of course, the nonviolent and non-triumphal character of the servant may lend itself even more to Christian appropriation than an explicitly messianic one.

Another consideration, given the theological rigor that has been applied to this text, is the format and intent of the prophet’s words. This text is not a forensic or technical or doctrinal statement about the legal/sacrificial transaction that ended the Jewish exile. It’s a sacred song about the surprise of redemption and an attempt to understand an unspeakable ordeal that somehow gave way to hope and new life. Like Ezekiel lying on his side for a year, Isaiah is using art, spirituality, and imagination to dramatize divine “correction” in a framework his hearers will recognize and understand. Forgetting that this is a work of art is the first step to interpreting it poorly.

The Servant and Jesus

Arriving at last to the matter of Jesus and the suffering servant, I would summarize my feelings like this: Isaiah 53 is not about Jesus, but Jesus is all about Isaiah 53. To explain this more fully, I present my analysis in the form of two short lists.

Five Reasons Isaiah 53 is Not About the Jesus of Penal Substitution

1. The setting is too specific. The occasion of this song is not vague and open to interpretation. This is a song from the sixth century BCE about the exile and return of Judah, not a prediction of a future event or an atonement formula waiting to be played out.

2. The servant’s identity is too vague. In the framework of PSA, the distinction between the sacrificial victim and his beneficiaries is stark and absolute. He is the only sacrifice acceptable to God, and they are unworthy sinners. But from the start Isaiah blurs the lines between the servant and his people. They are the same, and yet he represents them in a uniquely efficacious way.

3. The servant’s reward is too contextually specific and too “worldly.” “Offspring,” “long life,” and an earthly homeland are the types of things exiled humans long for, not cosmic saviors. PSA is concerned with legal fallout in the afterlife, but Isaiah’s song is about getting home safe and raising a family.

4. The servant’s suffering is vicarious, but not substitutionary. He suffers with Israel and on her behalf, not in her place. Everything described here as “punishment” or “correction” WAS ACTUALLY EXPERIENCED BY ISRAEL IN EXILE! It is not a fate they dodged because the servant took the brunt, it is their very real suffering that he took upon himself in solidarity. It is his unique ability to transcend that common suffering that rescues his people.

5. God’s wrath is not a factor. Israel’s dilemma is not that God is angry and needs to be appeased. Their “iniquity,” not least their violence and corruption (according to prophets like Isaiah), left them vulnerable to the “oppressive judgment” of enemy nations. Israel needed to be redeemed from a predicament of their own making, not to mollify God but to repent of the sin that (they came to understand) had put them in captivity in the first place.

Once we move away from the world of PSA and Christian prooftexting, however, it is not difficult to see how the themes of Isaiah’s servant song might resonate in major ways with the Jesus of the gospels.

Five Ways the Jesus of the New Testament Reflects and Manifests Isaiah 53

1. Jesus announced the end of exile and the coming of God’s kingdom. This is the true context of both “the gospel” and the servant song. Jesus and Isaiah are singing the same tune.

2. Jesus lived and died as a true Israelite and a true human, not as an alien god in a human suit. He identified fully with his human family to the last (and still does!).

3. Jesus’ legacy points to peace and renewed life on earth, not detached spirituality and afterlife.

4. Jesus suffered in solidarity with humanity, not in its place as a substitute. His cause of death was the “oppressive judgment” of human empire, not theological necessity. He died for us and with us, that we might transcend our station with him.

5. Jesus absorbed the wrath of sinful humanity, not of an angry God. Like Isaiah, Jesus understood sin not as a legal offense to an outraged deity, but as the temporal consequences of our failure to love. Jesus does not “save” us from God, but from ourselves.

This has been a long post. If there’s just one takeaway, let it be this: Whatever you make of Isaiah 53 and its relationship to Jesus, it is not a testimony or proof to the wrath-addled God of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Like the Easter texts of the New Testament, the song of the suffering servant is a composed response to a tragedy in which shared suffering and non-retaliation became a liberating and transcendent jubilee. These are not stories about God murdering a scapegoat because He knows no other way to forgive sin. These are about a servant’s choice to suffer for and with his own people for their deliverance. It is tragic and beautiful, not sick and superstitious.

Atone Deaf Part One: Sacrifice in the Ancient World and the Hebrew Bible

First in a new series of posts exploring the topic of atonement, the question of theological meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

For many western Christians the death of Jesus is not only the most theologically significant event in the Bible or the church calendar, it is the most significant event in all of human history. And for conservative Protestants in general and evangelicals in particular, an understanding of Jesus’ death as an atoning substitutionary sacrifice is more essential to faith and hope than his life, his message, or even his resurrection. As kids we learned that believing in the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrificial death in our place was the only way to be reconciled to God and saved from His wrath. We learned that this view, labeled Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), was the only true and biblical one, anticipated fully by the ancient Jewish sacrificial system and explicitly taught in the New Testament. We’ll deal with the New Testament in upcoming posts, and today we’ll focus on the Hebrew Scriptures. The major question of today’s post is whether or not the offering rituals of ancient Israel constituted substitutionary sacrifices for the satisfaction of God’s wrath. But first, a general word about sacrifice and human history.

Where Does Sacrifice Come From?

In terms of history and anthropology, sacrifice is the communal sacralization or ritualization of the killing of animals (and/or the consumption of resources in general). Most ancient cultures, not least those in and around the Near Eastern setting of the Bible, developed frameworks in which sacrifices were understood to be interactions or exchanges with gods and supernatural forces. Killing animals, burning or cooking their flesh, and using their hides and bones as raw materials is what ancient hunters and farmers were already doing long before it was codified into any kind of religious system. In its most appealing expressions, sacrifice was an appreciation of divine providence and a show of respect for the animals and plants which gave their lives so the tribe could survive. More severe systems took “blood sacrifice” to unsavory extremes and offered up human victims to purge their tribes of impurity. Being one Near Eastern culture among many, Israel reflected some of these sacrificial characteristics while emphatically rejecting others.

Blood Sacrifice and Sin in the Hebrew Scriptures

The texts of the Hebrew Bible imply the ubiquity of sacrifice in the ancient world. In the early Genesis tales, for example, figures like Cain, Abel, Noah, and Abraham perform various sacrifices centuries before there were Levitical laws or a temple in which to practice them. The ancient Hebrews also demonstrate distinctly polytheistic tendencies, such as their use of pagan names for God and their penchant for “household gods.” These stories (written down as late as the post-exilic period) indicate that Israel’s sacrificial system represents a later stage in the evolution of Hebrew religion, an evolution in which they moved further and further away from the practices of their polytheistic neighbors. Noah and his family are portrayed as the first humans to kill and eat animals. The story of Isaac’s “binding” dramatizes the Hebrews’ rejection of the common ancient practice of child sacrifice. And the Torah laws themselves reflect the specific religious and agricultural realities of Israel’s life in the “promised land,” not some generic or timeless setting. All of this suggests that sacrifice did not fall out of heaven all at once as a divine decree, but that it developed and changed over time as a human endeavor according to Israel’s religious beliefs and experiences.

For the purposes of this series, we are most interested in those sacrificial traditions in Israel which dealt with blood and/or sin, as these are the images most often invoked in Christian discussions of atonement. We will briefly examine three such traditions, with special attention to the way they worked and the problems they were intended to address. These are pesach (Passover), the korban khatta’at (sin offering), and the scapegoat of yom kippur (the Day of Atonement).

The Passover story, narrated in the book we call Exodus, features a blood sacrifice at its dramatic climax. The children of Israel, slaves and captives in Egypt for generations, must kill a lamb and wipe its blood on their doorpost so that the “angel of the LORD” will pass them by as it unleashes a deadly plague against their Egyptian overlords. The event will be commemorated in an annual festival (in fact, a festival of lambs predates the Exodus experience), and marks a decisive moment in the formation of Israel’s identity as a unified people destined to become a nation. We note that there is supernatural danger in the story, but it is temporal and local and directed against the Egyptian villains. We also note that there is no “substitutionary” element to this sacrifice. The Israelites’ problem is not that they are guilty of any sin, in fact they are innocent victims of oppression. The blood is an identity marker and a harbinger of liberation.

The Levitical law prescribed several types of sacrifices, including burnt offerings, grain offerings, and offerings of peace and thanksgiving. The sin offering (detailed in Leviticus 4) involved the sacrifice of a bull for the acknowledgement and forgiveness of sins, particularly for “unintentional” misdeeds (4:2). This sacrifice was not conceived as a substitutionary killing but rather as a gift to God of an unblemished specimen as an offering for sins. And while the aim of such a sacrifice was to seek divine forgiveness, the framework was one of covenant faithfulness and blessing, not eternal salvation, afterlife, or the appeasement of God’s wrath.

Likewise, the sacrifices of the annual Day of Atonement (also described in Leviticus) were offered for the sins of the people, intentional and unintentional. The Hebrew word we translate “atone” literally means to “remove” or “wipe away.” The corporate guilt of the people was to be confessed and relinquished. Among the many rituals of the day, two goats were prepared: one for slaughter as an unblemished sin offering, the other as a “scapegoat.” The scapegoat was symbolically imputed with the sin guilt of the people (the closest thing we’ve got here to a “substitutionary” animal) but it was not sacrificed. Instead it was led into the wilderness to physically remove the people’s sin from the land. (According to rabbinical tradition, in order to avoid the embarrassment of a “sin goat” accidentally wandering back into town, it was usually led off a cliff to its “accidental” demise. Still, we note that this was technically not a sacrificial death, and was not a part of the official yom kippur observances.)

In summary: The offering rituals of ancient Israel served various functions and occasions, including matters of sin and forgiveness, but substitutionary punishment, soul salvation, and appeasement of divine wrath were not their context or intention.

Prophetic Critique of the Sacrifice Traditions

A question which arises later in Israel’s religious tradition and which speaks directly to our study of atonement is whether or not these sacrifices represented the only and mandatory methods of dealing with human sin guilt. For the theology of PSA to make sense, blood sacrifice must be the only possible way for God to be fully satisfied in the face of human sin guilt. But according to Israel’s poets and prophets, this was and is not the case. For one thing, Hebrew Bible texts routinely feature individuals and groups who attain forgiveness by repentance and prayer, without the help of sacrifices or the shedding of blood (eg. David in Psalm 32 or the entire city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah). If those inferences aren’t strong enough, however, Israel’s prophets offered a more direct challenge to the notion of blood sacrifice as the path to God’s heart. Consider these well-known passages:

And Samuel said, “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to his voice? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22)

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the meat! For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this is what I commanded them: ‘Obey my voice, that I may be your God, and you may be my people. Walk in all the way that I command you, that it may go well with you.’” (Jeremiah 7:21-23)

“For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; Obedience to God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)

According to the prophets, God is not particularly impressed with heaps of unblemished animal carcasses, and in fact (according to Jeremiah) He never asked for any blood in the first place. In light of these passages and our observations above, sacrifice looks more and more like a concession at best, like something God tolerated from humans who would rather negotiate forgiveness than walk in the light. 

But, since humans are utterly unable to obey God and walk in the light, doesn’t blood sacrifice become necessary to pay for our sins? God may not prefer it, but He has no choice! That is the logic of PSA, but it is difficult to reconcile this formula with the spirit of Jesus, who echoed these same prophetic words and revealed a God who forgives sin freely. Why would a God who rejects sacrifice in the name of mercy and love demand a blood sacrifice (a human sacrifice!) in order to forgive sin? It is inconsistent with the gospel of the kingdom and the divine character revealed in Jesus. 

Sacrifice: Human Gesture, Not Divine Demand

Some are perhaps uncomfortable with the anthropological approach to sacrifice I’ve outlined above, so consider a more “theocentric” version of the story: God calls Israel from among the tribes of the world, insists that they stop sacrificing human lives – especially children – and instructs them in the appropriate way to offer good gifts and offerings. But later God reminds them through the prophets that sacrifice is no substitute for love and obedience, and He wishes people would seek Him in the wellbeing of their neighbor instead of the spilling of animal blood. In what possible universe would this same God go on to require and even to orchestrate the human sacrifice of His own beloved Son?

The Passover lamb, the sin offering, and the scapegoat were symbols of liberation, forgiveness, and covenant, not punishment or the assuaging of divine wrath. Likewise, God is not a petulant, bloodthirsty deity in need of pacification. God’s heart and disposition are not swayed this way and that by the spilling of guilty or innocent blood. We will explore the positive and compelling ways in which the death of Jesus might be described in sacrificial terms, but substitutionary punishment is a fundamental misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Israel’s sacrificial traditions and the God they meant to honor and delight.

Next time: The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.

[NOTE: After writing the first couple of posts in this series, it came to my attention that the brilliant and funny blogger James McGrath has already coined the term “atone deaf.” I just want to give him full credit and link to his post.]