(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The death of Jesus: not as difficult to understand as you might think

Peter Enns has written in his characteristically provocative style about two issues in the Bible that are really important but not at all clear.

The first has to do with Israelite origins. We can be reasonably confident about the broad outline of Israelite history back to the reign of David, but earlier than that things are decidedly murky. “Historically speaking,” Enns writes, “we really don’t know where the Israelites came from, and the exodus and conquest stories, which are so central to the biblical account, are particularly problematic.”

The second issue is of a very different type: “Why did Jesus die?”

The crucifixion is obviously central to Christian belief, but actually explaining its significance has proved very difficult. The writers of the New Testament seem to have been working it out as they went along. They certainly had things to say about the significance of Jesus’ death, but the church has generally felt it necessary to furnish more theoretical or systematic accounts of how “the cross” (notice how it has already become an abstraction) achieved the benefits attributed to it. This has left us with an alarming stockpile of high-level atonement theories that are supposed to explain the metaphysics—how dying on a cross could bring about forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God.

Detail from Crucifixion Triptych, Rogier Van der Weyden (c. 1445)

So two problems: a historical one from the Old Testament, and a theological one from the New Testament.

Enns does not try to solve them. He simply wants to point out how “uncooperative the Bible can be if we are looking to it to pave a smooth path for us theologically”—or more positively, that the Bible “drives us to work together by faith in thinking through the nature of the Christian story and its implications”.

I think he’s right, and I think that how we explain Jesus’ death can be used to illustrate rather sharply the difference between providing theological rationalisations and thinking through the story. It’s a good example of the distinction I made in my previous post between theology as dam and narrative as river.

Narrative and narrator

First, a general observation to make. There are two different modes of historical investigation, depending on whether we are interested in what is being described or in who is describing it—the historical referent or the historical speaker.

We can ask , for example, whether the events described in the Old Testament actually happened. Do the Old Testament accounts agree with what we know from other sources? Do they make historical sense? The problem that Enns draws attention to is that on the whole the pre-kingdom narratives do not agree very well with what we know from archaeology, etc.

The assumption is that behind the historical event of the cross is a metaphysical event or process or mechanism or mystery that does the heavy lifting of redemption.

But we can also ask what the historical community understood by the stories that it was telling about its remote origins or its more immediate historical experiences. That is essentially the narrative-historical approach. It doesn’t dismiss the factual question, but it focuses on the perspective and interests of the historical community that interpreted its existence by means of the biblical texts. Even if the community got some of the facts “wrong”, it is still historically true and significant that the story was told in this particular way.

The New Testament community told the story of Jesus’ death and what happened afterwards, and we have quite a lot of information about how the sequence of events was understood. The narrative-historical approach is interested primarily in clarifying how this story worked in its original context on the assumption that such clarification is sufficient for determining the life, thought and praxis of the church today.

The theology of Jesus’ death

What theology has tried to do in this instance is to give what is essentially an abstract or theoretical account of Jesus’ death not as simply an execution at a certain point in history (“suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried”) but as a means of “atonement”.

The assumption seems to be that behind the historical event of the cross is a metaphysical event or process or mechanism or mystery that does the heavy lifting of redemption. This metaphysical reality shows up in fragmentary and poorly grasped ways in the witness of the New Testament community, but later reflection by philosophically trained theologians led to more coherent theoretical accounts—except they couldn’t agree with each other.

These later attempts to construct absolute models for the atonement—or for the Trinity—were also part of the story and should be respected for that reason. But they do not help us with the narrative-historical task. I agree with Enns that the Bible can be uncooperative “if we are looking to it to pave a smooth path for us theologically”.

But can we let the biblical story do the hard work? Can we make sense of the cross by reading historically rather than theologically, forwards rather than backwards?

I think we probably can. In fact, I think we can make better sense of the death of Jesus without the theoretical nonsense, as a moment in the narrative world of Second Temple Judaism rather than as grist for the mill of theological ratiocination.

The story of Jesus’ death

So here’s the first point to make. Jesus’ death has to be interpreted as an event in the river of Israel’s story as it flowed through the landscape of the history of the ancient world. The later church felt the need to ascribe a universal, transcendent, cosmic significance to it, but that is not the controlling perspective of the New Testament. Jesus died for the sins of his people.

The idea that the kingdom narrative—the story of the clash with paganism—would entail the suffering of the righteous as a consequence of Israel’s sin is well established by the time we get to Jesus. We see it in Isaiah’s suffering servant and in numerous accounts of the violent oppression that a faithful section of Israel endured from Greek and Roman overlords, with their own leaders often conspiring against them.

Jesus was not the first Jew to die on a Roman cross, but more importantly for the New Testament narrative he would also not be the last. His crucifixion anticipated the crucifixion of thousands of Jews during the war against Rome a generation later. He suffered the wrath of God that would come upon his people.

Agnus Dei, Francisco de Zurbarán (1635-40)

The account of the Lord’s Supper suggests that Jesus attributed sacrificial meaning to his death: he was implicitly the Passover lamb; his blood confirmed a new covenant with his followers, as Moses had sprinkled the “blood of the covenant” on the people (Ex. 24:8). But these are not pointers to a deeper theory of personal atonement. They are ways of speaking about the effect or impact of Jesus’ death in the unfolding kingdom narrative.

The supper is a fellowship meal for the disciples who will have to follow Jesus—the Son of Man who must suffer and come in his glory (cf. Lk. 22:22)—on a journey of Christ-like suffering until the kingdom of God comes and they are vindicated. They are bound together as an eschatological community. They share the meal in order to remember him until they eat together again when the kingdom of God comes. During the course of the meal Jesus says to them:

You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Luke 22:28–30)

Jesus’ death is eschatological before it is soteriological, which is why Luke makes so much more of the resurrection and ascension in Acts than he does of the crucifixion. Or to put it another way: Jesus’ death has narrative significance rather than theological significance.

Luke’s soteriology in Acts is otherwise very simple: Jews and Gentiles are exhorted to repent of their sins and to believe that the resurrection of Jesus changes everything, both for Israel and for the nations; if they believe that, their sins are forgiven.

The same point can be made with respect to Paul’s statement that God put forward Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25). It adds nothing to work this up into a general theory of substitutionary atonement. The narrative argument is that Israel faces condemnation under the Law because of persistent sin; Jesus (as the Son sent to Israel in the likeness of sinful flesh) was faithful unto death; on the basis of this God has demonstrated his righteousness regarding his people; and those who believe this, whether Jew or Greek, will be publicly justified at the parousia, when the nations confess that Jesus is Lord.

Within the context of this narrative it makes sense to say that Jesus’ death was a propitiation for Israel’s sins, serving a purpose similar to the sin offering on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:15). But the efficacy of the whole thing lies in the faithfulness of Jesus and the belief of his followers regarding the future outcome.

Keep telling the story

This has obviously not been an adequate analysis of the New Testament data, but I think it makes the basic point. Jesus’ death was not a metaphysical event requiring abstract theological explanation. It was a historical event that had far-reaching historical repercussions. What set it apart from the many other deaths of righteous Jews at the time was, on the one hand, the claim that Jesus was the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel, and on the other, the confirmation of that vocation by his resurrection from the dead and elevation to a position of supreme authority at the right hand of God.

As part of the narrative it made sense to invoke Old Testament themes of sacrifice, but the language is not straining to articulate a transcendent mystery of atonement. It is simply part of the telling of the story. Our interest in it lies in the fact that it is our story. We are still living it out.


Clearly the death of Christ is about more than a metaphysical substitution, but how is it straining anything to include that as part of its primary significance? The language of sacrifice is explicit, and what else is sacrifice (whether at the Passover or anywhere else), but a substitution?

No, my argument is that the death of Christ is about less than a metaphysical substitution. The language of sacrifice is used to speak about a historical event, not to point beyond the narrative to something mysterious and transcendent.

There is a sense in which, even historically, Jesus died so that the people of God might live—as a substitution, so to speak. Ironically, the sharpest statement of this is found in John’s Gospel:

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. (Jn. 11:49–52)

The transcendent account only became necessary once the church had forgotten the point of the Jewish-apocalyptic story and needed to redefine Christian belief in broader universal terms.

I would say that very rarely is sacrifice meant to be thought of as a substitution.

Especially if we look at the Passover, the text never says that the lamb is meant to be substitution. The only rationale that it is given for it is Exodus 12:26-27:

26 And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ 27 you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’”

They offer sacrifices to the Lord because he spared them when he struck down the Egyptians, but there’s no clause in there that indicates that the lamb somehow satisfied God’s wrath against the Israelites. That doesn’t even make sense in the Passover narrative - God is saving his people from the Egyptians.

Perhaps the closest we come to a Passover-substitution is Exodus 13:11-16, but that’s not a substitution, either. It’s a redemption. Surely that ongoing practice is not meant to imply God continually wants to kill the firstborn sons of Israel but is appeased by their continual sacrifice of firstborn livestock.

The death of the lambs absolutely is a substitution. Their blood is shed in place of the first born sons’ blood being shed. How is that not a substitution? In much the same way, Jesus is a substitution in that his blood is shed to save us from death, granting us eternal life.

There is nothing in the text that says that the lamb is killed in the place of the firstborn son. That is an implication you are reading back into it.

In fact, when God issues the warning about the tenth plague, He says:

“Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.”

Ex. 11:5-7

There is absolutely no evidence that God wants to kill the firstborn sons of Israel, but they kill a lamb to substitute for them. Every evidence from the actual Bible says the Lord has no intention of harming any Israelite, and when the justification is given for the Passover, they kill a lamb because God saves them, not because it is a vicarious substitute for their own firstborn.

I’m sorry, but Exodus 12:13 is pretty clear - “and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.” They were spared because Yahweh “saw the blood”. That suggests a substitution, blood for blood.

Of course, I don’t dispute that Yahweh didn’t want to kill the Israelite firstborns. That’s precisely why He instituted the slaying of the lambs instead.

I couldn’t help but notice you cut off the first part of that verse.

“The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live.”

The blood is a sign that identifies the Israelite houses. That’s what’s annexed to, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” It doesn’t say, “The blood will be a substitute for your own firstborn sons.”

It doesn’t “suggest a substition.” It suggests one to you because you want to find it, there, but there’s nothing -absolutely zero- in any of the texts that suggest that the lamb is killed in place of the Israelite firstborn who would otherwise be killed, themselves. In fact, the word God gives to Moses about how not even a dog will bark at an Israelite because God makes a distinction between Israel and Egypt says, in fact, the exact opposite of that. It doesn’t say, “I’m going to treat you exactly like Egypt unless you kill a lamb in your place.” That’s all you.


I agree that God used the blood to identify the Israelite’s houses. But it’s not difficult to spot the correspondence between the death of the lambs and the death of the firstborn. Any first century Israelite offering the lamb would have made that connection. They would have done this recalling Abraham’s sacrificing of a lamb in place of his own son: (Genesis 22:13)

“Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.”

Notice the key word there - instead. The ram is offered in place of the son, as a substitute. In fact, even in the following chapter of Exodus the event is portrayed as a substitution: (Exodus 13:15)

“When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.”

The word “redeem” used here means to liberate, typically through some kind of down-payment. The animal offered is a down-payment on behalf of the firstborn son.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to speculate on what a first century Jew “would have” done in terms of these connections, especially if we ourselves are making those connections. I do not know of any early rabbinical commentary that says the passover lamb was a substitutionary death that died in the place of Israel’s firstborn, thus enabling their lives to be spared. If you find some, I am open to correction on that.

Instead of theorizing on connections they “would have” made, I think we’re on safer ground to look at the meaning to the original audience. Is there any indicator anywhere that the people who killed the lambs on passover understood that their sons were slated to die, but they could instead kill a lamb in their place, thus sparing their lives?

I have pointed out at least one text that explicitly say that the Lord was not going to harm Israel in the tenth plague - His actual announcement of the tenth plague. I don’t know where an Israelite would have gotten the idea that God was actually going to kill their firstborn as well unless they killed a lamb in their place.

As for the sacrificing the firstborn of livestock that is born later, I actually brought that text up in my first response to this thread. Hopefully, you and I can agree that this practice was not substitionary. God does not continually want to kill Israel’s firstborn, so they continually have to keep killing animals to prevent that from happening, right?

I don’t know where you’re getting your definition of epdeh since that passage is the only passage where that word appears. A slight variant occurs twice in Hosea (7:13 and 13:14), both of which in the sense of ransom. But a ransom or a redemption is not a substitution - it’s giving up something of value to obtain something of value. If I buy a candy bar at the store, I am not substituting the candy bar in the place of my money except in the most abstract of senses. I eat candy bars and I buy things with money. I am certainly not using one in place of the other. I am, instead, sacrificing something of value to me so that I might obtain something I value more, which I would say is a very good overall paradigm of sacrifice in the OT.

To convince me of your position, I’m going to need to see some actual evidence that anyone would have thought of the passover lamb in the way you describe. Your own exegesis does not count. I’m going to need to see some biblical texts or rabbinical commentary or something.

How does the death of Christ make us righteous? If not through metaphysical means?

Doesn’t seem that anything merely historical about a man dying on a cross makes us righteous.

Alex, I think it’s faithful obedience to God that makes a person righteous, i.e. doing the “right” thing as a part of one’s day-to-day life. I think that’s what you see in both the Old and New Testaments.

You disagree with Paul then.

Alex, I disagree with what you think Paul is implying.

That’s well put, Alex. It gets exactly to the nub of the issue. This is a rough sketch of a response, developing the basic point that Peter makes.

Paul’s argument is that people are “justified” by faith, which is also not an abstraction but an act of real belief and trust in the eschatological significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was no longer observance of the Jewish Law that guaranteed the future of the people of God but the faith that God had put his Son in control of all things.

The death of Jesus does not make the person righteous. God justifies or counts as righteous the person who believes that Jesus died for the sins of his people and is now seated at the right hand of God, eventually to rule over the nations.

The comparison is with Abraham (Rom. 4), who was counted righteous by God because he believed the promise about future offspring. It’s not the promise that put him in the right. It was his belief in the promise.

So I’m not sure we have to say that Jesus’ death achieved anything metaphysically beyond what it achieved as part of the narrative of the coming of the kingdom of God from the perspective of historical Israel in the first century.

Even today, we are justified by a concrete, embodied, lived out act of faith in the fact that Jesus died for the sins of his people, was raised from the dead, has been made Lord above all things for the sake of the people of God, the descendants of Abraham, and will continue to safeguard and direct his people as we journey from Christendom into the wilderness of Western secularism.

That, to my mind, is justification by faith. God thinks that we are in the right for holding to this conviction; and as a faithful people we will be found to be in the right at some point in the future.


I think you’re right to view the gospel as primarily a historical event, a story and I love the focus that this piece brings. However, I don’t think there’s ultimately a conflict between story and theology in the bible. Why do the two perspectives have to be at odds?

Perhaps there’s a theological way of telling the stories and likewise, perhaps there’s a more narrative-driven approach towards the theology. These two perspectives can be reconciled.


Regarding the OP and why Jesus had to die: Jesus’ suffering during his Passion was sufficient to forgive the sins of everyone (1 John 2:2), because Jesus is not just a human, but also God (John 1:1,14, John 10:30, John 20:28). His soul is infinite, and so the suffering of his soul (Isaiah 53:11, KJV) was infinite in amount, even though it was not infinite in duration. And so his suffering could satisfy God the Father’s justice (Isaiah 53:11, KJV; 1 Peter 3:18), which requires an infinite amount of human suffering for sin (Matthew 25:46). Because humans who are not God have finite souls, for them to suffer an infinite amount for their sins, they must suffer over an infinite duration of time (Matthew 25:46, Revelation 14:10-11, Mark 9:46).

Every human has sinned (Romans 3:23), except Jesus (Hebrews 4:15b; 2 Corinthians 5:21). But because Jesus suffered for sins (1 Peter 3:18, Isaiah 53:11, KJV) an infinite amount, when the elect repent from their sins and believe in Jesus’ human/divine sacrifice, they can have their past sins forgiven (Romans 3:25-26, Matthew 26:28), while God the Father’s justice remains fully satisfied by Jesus’ suffering for their sins (Isaiah 53:11, KJV; 1 Peter 3:18).

Regarding the OP and Ennis’ idea of how “uncooperative the Bible can be if we are looking to it to pave a smooth path for us theologically”: This idea is absurd from a Biblical Christian’s point of view. For the Bible, in its entirety, is given to us precisely in order to pave a smooth path for us theologically:

2 Timothy 3:15  And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
16  All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17  That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.