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atone-deaf

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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the-satan

Three Bible Words That Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

OK, so the headline isn’t fair. More and more Christians are educating themselves in the origins and contexts of the Bible, and no one can pretend to have any special secret knowledge that isn’t readily available to anyone. At the same time, in mainstream American Christian culture, these words (and many more) are often locked into unhelpful, non-biblical settings that obscure their true depth of meaning. These concepts are long overdue for some clarification. This isn’t “everything you know is wrong!,” I simply offer a few educated considerations.

1. Angel

What We Hear: Thanks in large part to the imagination of medieval Europe, most people in the western world today envision angels as shimmering, winged Caucasians who live up in the clouds. When our English Bibles say, for example, that “an angel” or “the angel of the Lord” appears in a narrative, we immediately picture a flying Osmond in bleached robes. Some Christian traditions teach that there are classes of angels, like archangels, seraphim, and cherubim, each with different stations and privileges. Clarence Odbody, AS2.

But Consider This: The Hebrew and Greek words translated “angel” in our Bibles simply mean “messenger,” or “one who brings tidings.” In these texts, “angels” are just people, at least in appearance, and they are usually on a mission to deliver important news. These are the “men” who visit Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18, or the messenger Gabriel who comes to Mary in Luke’s nativity. These angels are never said to have wings, and usually appear in broad daylight among people in the real world.

In quite a different category we have strange creatures like seraphs (beings made of flame), cherubs (winged lions), and various “beasts” which inhabit visions and apocalypses. These beings often have wings but are never called angels. Our inherited readings of the Bible have conflated both categories into a single race of heavenly sprites. In reality, they inhabit a wide range of meanings, contexts, and genres.

2. Satan

What We Hear: Satan, or the Devil, is the personal enemy of God, the supernatural lord of evil who rules over hell, thwarts God’s plans, and tempts boys and girls to sin so they won’t get into heaven. Many Christian traditions maintain that Satan was once an exalted angel named Lucifer who rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven along with his legions of demons. Most people assume that this is part of the Bible’s storyline, but apart from a few possible cryptic references, it’s not actually there. It grew out of Jewish legends, literature like the Book of Enoch, and the biblical interpretations of church fathers like Origen.

But Consider This: “Satan” in the text of the Bible is never a proper name, but always a descriptive title with a definite article: “the satan” or “the accuser” in Hebrew, “the devil” or “the slanderer” in Greek. This label is applied to many things in many contexts. In the book of Job, the accuser is one of God’s heavenly employees whose job is to prosecute and torment humans. The satan only appears a couple more times in the Hebrew Bible, as in 1 Chronicles 21 where it’s a negative spiritual influence that causes King David to make an unwise decision. (Though in the alternate telling of the same story in 2 Samuel 24, it is God who incites David to make the same decision.)

In the New Testament, “the slanderer” appears to Jesus in his desert vision quest, tempting him to abandon his earthly ministry before it begins. Jesus calls one of his closest friends, Peter, a “satan” for doubting him. In the book of Revelation, the accuser is depicted as a great red dragon which corrupts and manipulates the Roman Empire until it is defeated and destroyed once and for all. In each of these different formats and contexts, the one thing connecting all depictions of “the satan” is a spirit of condemnation and shame. Whether the satan is a singular figure, a spiritual reality, or a state of mind, it always brings accusation and oppression. It is the opposite of mercy and forgiveness.

3. Apocalypse

What We Hear: The end of the world! An apocalypse, according to its modern usage, is a cataclysmic event that brings either society as we know it or the entirety of space-time to an end. Zombies, aliens, horsemen or climate change, something inevitable is coming and all we can do is hope to survive and be on the winning side when it’s all over. When it comes to the Bible, the apocalypse will be the holy war to end all holy wars, a series of trials and battles that are already preordained to the smallest detail. There is nothing we can do to stop it from coming, but we should still accuse everyone we don’t like of hastening its approach.

But Consider This: In biblical terms, an apocalypse isn’t an event but a type of text, a genre of literature. The word “apocalypse” means “hidden,” and these texts employ visual metaphors and poetic imagination to “reveal” the hidden spiritual reality behind an earthly crisis in the author’s own time. The first biblical apocalypses (eg. portions of Ezekiel and Daniel) emerge after Israel’s exile in Babylon and later Persia. Both of these cultures produced apocalypse-style texts, suggesting perhaps that Israel’s artists and prophets were subverting the cultures of their captors and adapting them for their own purposes. And those purposes, despite the connotation of “apocalypse” today, always involved bringing hope to a people in trouble.

We might think of apocalypses as the political cartoons of the ancient Near East. They are certainly more serious and consequential, but they function in a similar way. In Revelation, the only extended apocalypse in the New Testament, Rome is satirized as a monster and a whore, while Jesus is depicted as a slain lamb. The metaphors are mixed and the images are impossible, but the coded message of hope in the face of political turmoil would have been crystal clear to its original readers. None of this precludes apocalypses from being spiritually inspired or communicating timeless truths, but it does suggest that they are products of ancient historical crises and that they will always speak louder in those contexts than in our own. And when they do speak, their true voice is one of expectation and rescue, not inevitable doom.

We Have Met the Beast and He Is Us

Beast666Somehow this is still a thing. Christian politicians and pundits routinely make fearmongering overtures about the identity of “the beast,” “the antichrist,” the cosmic boogeyman who will bring about the End Times™ and also happens to be their ideological opponent. Just pick a public figure you don’t like, label them “dangerous,” throw in a vague appeal to “biblical prophecy,” and you’re good to go.

Even as we roll our eyes, we think we know exactly which Bible prophecy is being abused: the book of Revelation and its warning of a coming antichrist. But it’s not simply that the words of Revelation are being misappropriated as political fodder, they have been completely misread and misunderstood in the first place. If we take an educated and careful look at the relevant passages, a very different picture comes into focus. Spoiler Alert: there is no singular “antichrist” figure in Revelation. There are several metaphorical “monsters” in the text, but the nearest contemporary analog for the “beast” in question is not a Muslim warrior, a popular Pope, or a socialist President. It’s something much more familiar and far more insidious.

(Actually) Reading Revelation

I get a little twitchy when uninformed Christians rant about “what it says in Revelation” concerning “the antichrist.” For starters, the word “antichrist” never appears in the text. It’s not there. Something like it can be found in John’s epistles, but not here. There is a “beast” in Revelation, a few of them in fact, and to put them into proper context we’ll need a quick overview of the whole thing.

The final book in the New Testament canon, Revelation was written as a coded message to first century churches from an exiled pastor named John. It’s an apocalypse, a sort of ancient political cartoon, imagining the imminent destruction of the Roman Empire and the vindication of Jewish-Christian martyrs who had been killed by the state. Apocalyptic literature allowed its authors and recipients to express their true feelings about Rome without incrimination, using cryptic metaphors and bizarre symbolic imagery instead of openly political language.

Revelation plays out as a pageant of symbolic tableaus. The martyrs entreat the heavenly throne for justice, Jesus (depicted as a slain lamb) opens a scroll containing God’s purposes, and bowls of consuming wrath are poured out onto the armies and superpowers of earth. In the end, the great Whore of Babylon (a.k.a. Rome) is defeated and God’s kingdom is established in its place, a glistening (earthly!) city called New Jerusalem. The end.

So where does “the beast” figure in?

Dragon and the Beasts, This Fall on ABC

The chapters in question are Revelation 12 and 13, wherein the narrative shifts and the Bible suddenly goes all Harryhausen. A “great red dragon” falls to earth and summons two “beasts” (or “monsters”), one from the sea and one from the land, who do the dragon’s bidding. The first monster speaks “blasphemous words” and “makes war on the saints,” while the second one “deceives” the people of the earth into worshiping the first monster. This is the beast that “marks” humans with a number permitting them to “buy and sell.”

The text explicitly identifies the dragon as “the satan,” the evil power which animates the two earthly monsters. The first monster is the Roman Empire, with its temporary authority to rule over the tribes of the earth and its thirst for the righteous blood of the martyrs. Who then is the second beast, the one which so preoccupies dispensationalist Christians that they’ve forgotten all the other apocalyptic critters? He represents the religious and economic systems that feed the ambitions of the first beast. He makes images of his counterpart to be worshiped and brands citizens for participation in the marketplace. And what is the “number” that this beast stamps on the people’s hands and foreheads? 666, the numeric name of Nero, the great persecutor of Christians. This beast dupes God’s people into bankrolling their greatest enemy.

Hitting Close to Home

This is the dreaded beast of Revelation: imperial consumerism that lulls people into working and buying and selling and worshiping against their own interests. Revelation wasn’t a warning to the future about the rise of a bad guy from an enemy camp, it was a clarion call to first century Christians against capitulation and collusion with the powers-that-be. It was an anti-establishment screed, reminding its hearers that Christians do not play at power and war and money like the beasts do. In a bottomless pit of irony, those Christian gatekeepers who most loudly sound the “antichrist” alarm in our own day tend to be those who are most sold out to nationalism, capitalism, and the established imperial order.

In context, the monsters of Revelation confront us with an unexpected threat. It’s easy to exploit weird, cryptic prophecies for personal gain, fearmongering, and drumming up the donor base. It’s easy to imagine some far off, foreign enemy who threatens to take our freedom away and disrupt our lifestyle. It’s quite another thing to imagine that our very lifestyle itself might have all the markings of a beast.

For a more detailed breakdown of Revelation, check out this podcast.