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.
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’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.
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’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.