It has been stated a number of times in recent discussions here that only a divine Jesus could atone for the sins of the world. The death of a mere man is simply not big enough or significant enough—metaphysically speaking—to account for such a massive outcome. Since it is Good Friday tomorrow, I will take the opportunity to explore this argument in a little more depth. The selection of texts may seem arbitrary, and I may have missed some important ones out. But they seem to be the ones that give us most to go on.
I can understand that once we have reached the consolidated theological position that Jesus is fully God and fully man, it may seem necessary to read that ontology back into everything that is said about him in the New Testament, including what is said about his death. But I am at a loss to see how the case might be made as a matter of biblical interpretation. If we read historically rather than theologically, forwards rather than backwards, the efficacy of Jesus’ death as an act of atonement appears to rest not on ontology but on a concrete act of faithful obedience within the narrative of Israel. As I see it, therefore, the task we face is to wrest Jesus’ death from the sphere of an abstract metaphysics and return it to the apocalyptically constructed account of what God was doing with and through first century Israel vis-à-vis the nations.
The blood of the martyrs
Jewish precedents do not raise the expectation that God himself must suffer, must die, in order for his people to be redeemed. The typology of sacrifice in the Old Testament at no point requires an identification between the animal sacrificed and God. The “servant” of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, who was wounded for Israel’s transgressions”, who “bore the sin of many” in Israel, etc., is a human figure. Nothing in the passage suggests that for his suffering to have had redemptive effect for Israel he needed to be more than human. Texts which speak of the atoning value of the death of the righteous do not worry that their sacrifice is invalidated by the fact that they are merely human (see my The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom, 81):
I, like my brothers, give up body and life for our ancestral laws, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by torments and plagues to make you acknowledge that he alone is God and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation. (2 Macc. 7:37-38)
And these who have been divinely sanctified are honored not only with this honor, but also in that, thanks to them, our enemies did not prevail over our nation; the tyrant was punished, and the homeland was purified, since they became, as it were, a ransom for the sin of the nation. And through the blood of those pious people and the propitiatory (hilastēriou) of their death, divine Providence preserved Israel, though before it had been afflicted. (4 Mac 17:20–22)
The emerging paradigm—so far as it goes—is of a righteous or innocent Jew who suffers because of the sins of his people, whose death may avert the wrath of God towards his people, and who in the end will be vindicated for his faithfulness. This goes a long way towards accounting for the significance of Jesus’ death. The difference only really appears in the narrative context.
Why have you forsaken me?
To the extent that the last supper is a Passover meal, it institutes the celebration of a new exodus. The blood of the lamb does not atone for the sins of Israel; it is a “sign” marking out the houses of the Israelites, so that the Lord will pass over them and not allow the destroyer to enter (Ex. 12:13, 23). However, the interpretation that Jesus gives to the cup alludes not to the Passover but to the confirmation of the covenant with Moses (Ex. 24:8). He is saying no more than that the new covenant between YHWH and his people will be confirmed not by the blood of a bull but by his own death.
Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34), is difficult to understand on the assumption that he is being thought of as God. Psalm 22, which opens with these words of despair, is the prayer of a man who is opposed and threatened by his enemies, who cries to God for deliverance, who promises to praise God in the congregation, and who affirms in the end that the nations will turn to the Lord, for “kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations”. Jesus appears to have consciously located his death in the story of the coming reign of God over the nations.
The faithfulness of Jesus
It is the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” that makes his death an act of atonement which God can put forward to the world as a demonstration of his own righteousness (Rom. 3:21-26). The translation “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” for pisteōs Iēsou Christou is contentious, admittedly, but the idea is found elsewhere, not least in Romans 5:12-21, where what qualifies Jesus’ death is the exceptional act of obedience. The argument does not require an absolutely sinless life, one that is humanly impossible, only the “one act of righteousness” (henos dikaiōmatos) which resulted in his death. Just as the one act of disobedience of the first man Adam led to condemnation for all men, so the one act of obedience of “that one man Jesus Christ” resulted in “justification and life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). What made this work—what made the death effective for the many—was not that Jesus was God but that “grace abounded” (5:17, 20-21). Paul’s argument is clear: Jesus’ death resulted in life because God poured out grace abundantly in response to his obedience.
I suggested in The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom that when Paul says that God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh”, he has in mind the fact that Jesus was crucified as a sinner, as a false claimant to the throne of Israel, alongside two other renegades. He appeared to the world to be fundamentally in the wrong. The same point could be made with respect to 2 Corinthians 5:21 (“he made him to be sin who knew no sin”) and Galatians 3:13: Christ redeemed part of Israel from the curse of the Law by “becoming a curse for us”. The crucifixion had marked Jesus in the eyes of many as an apostate, a lawless person, accursed, outlawed from the community of Israel. Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 speaks of the persecuted righteous who “in the sight of human beings… were punished”—that is, as wrong-doers—but who will “judge nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will be king over them for ever”. The appearance of sinfulness again is part of an apocalyptic narrative culminating in the rule of YHWH over the nations.
The so-called “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11 emphasizes the self-abasement and obedience which led to a degrading death on a cross, for which reason God exalted him and gave him the name of “Lord”, which was otherwise reserved for God alone.
Hebrews appears to lay even greater stress on the humanity of Jesus in his suffering. He prayed intensely to God and “was heard because of his reverence”. He was a son in the sense determined by Psalm 2—that is, the king who would rule the nations (Heb. 5:5). Nevertheless, he “learned obedience through what he suffered”, and having been “perfected” through this experience, he “became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him”. Jesus’ offering of himself to God was “through the Spirit”, and the point is also made that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:14, 22). The argument requires no further conditions than that Jesus was filled with the Spirit and that he died. Finally, we are told that having offered a single and decisive sacrifice for sins, Christ sat down at the right hand of God until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet (10:12-13). Jesus’ death is tightly framed by the same apocalyptic narrative: the kingdom comes about through the faithful suffering of God’s Son.
1 Peter 1:19 speaks of Jesus in his death as “like a lamb without blemish or spot”, but it is also expected of believers that they “be found by him without spot or blemish” as they wait for the impending day of God (2 Pet. 3:14; cf. Eph. 5:27). The language does not appear to mark Jesus out as unique or super-human in his death.
The apocalyptic narrative, finally, determines the significance of the imagery of the slaughtered lamb in Revelation 5. The lamb, which is also the “Lion of the tribe of Judah”, has overcome death and, therefore, has gained the right to open the scroll and its seven seals of judgment. By his death he has “ransomed people for God from every tribe and nation”, making them a kingdom of priests which will “reign on earth” (5:9-10). In Test. Jos. 19:8 a lamb which is associated with a lion is attacked by other beasts but destroys them and treads them underfoot.
The narrative of redemption
The argument appears to be, therefore, that Jesus’ death was effective for the salvation of God’s people because, as the one empowered by the Spirit of God to lead a movement of eschatological renewal, Jesus pursued a path of faithful obedience to the point of death, trusting his Father to the uttermost that death would not be the end. Nothing in the argument, as far as I can see, suggests that only a God-man could do this. The outcome of this faithfulness was twofold. On the one hand, Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of God to rule over the nations until the last enemy is destroyed; on the other, God gives abundant new life to those who believe in this story—who believe that Israel’s God was justifying himself in the eyes of the world through these events.
It seems to me, therefore, that there is much to be said for David Brondos’ argument—developed mainly with Paul’s teaching in mind—in Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle’s Story of Redemption. He suggests that Jesus’ death is not redemptive in itself; rather, “it is salvific and redemptive only in that it forms part of a story” (italics removed):
This involves the claim that Paul understood Jesus’ death primarily as the consequence of his dedication and faithfulness to his mission of serving as God’s instrument to bring about the awaited redemption of Israel, which would also include Gentiles throughout the world. In this case, for Paul, Jesus’ death is salvific not because it satisfies some necessary condition for human salvation in the way that most doctrines of the atonement have traditionally maintained nor because it effects some change in the situation of human beings or the world in general; rather, it is salvific because God responded to Jesus’ faithfulness unto death in seeking the redemption of others by raising him so that all the divine promises of salvation might now be fulfilled through him. (Kindle loc. 55)