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atone-deaf

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 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.

Continue reading

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.