p.ost

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

A dead guy going to heaven is not metaphysics?

Perhaps a bit more clarification is needed. I argued in the last piece on Hebrews that there is no deep metaphysical magic involved in what is said about atonement in the letter.

It is the resurrection that changes everything. This was a continuation of a couple of other posts setting out a “pragmatic non-theory of the atonement” (see below).

Alex has come back with a pointed comment:

A dead guy came back to life and went to a place called heaven where he gets to be king of the world?

And this somehow is not metaphysical/magical?

Have to admit that I am very confused with all of this.

The first thing to say is that my argument in these posts has not been that the resurrection and ascension are not metaphysical/magical; it has been that the atonement is not metaphysical/magical.

It’s been an attempt to answer the question: how does the atonement work?

That said, I would argue that the resurrection and ascension of Jesus were understood in the New Testament as realistic events: a dead guy came back to life and went to heaven to be enthroned as king over Israel and the nations. Precisely.

That only became a matter of metaphysics when the later church needed to resolve this apocalyptic narrative into a rational theological model, which became orthodox Trinitarianism.

So it was the realistic event of the resurrection that changed everything: people believed that Jesus had been raised and exalted, that the future had been put in his hands, and as a result they received the Holy Spirit and became part of a chosen eschatological community that escaped destruction to bear faithful witness to God’s new future.

Apart from that extraordinary outcome, the death was just a death.

It only became a matter of metaphysics when the later church needed to resolve this apocalyptic narrative into a rational theological model, which became orthodox Trinitarianism.

In the light of the resurrection and the transformation that it triggered, the early Jewish church naturally drew on Old Testament sacrificial language to explain the significance of Jesus’ death within the narrative—just as the Maccabean texts attributed atoning significance to the deaths of the martyrs. But the focus was on the faithfulness and obedience of the “martyr”, not on some transcendent transaction or metaphysical mechanism.

It was under different epistemological conditions that the later church felt the need to provide a “rational” or philosophical account of how a death could achieve the redemption of humanity—hence all our theories of the atonement.

Historical narrative was considered to be at most the outward form of redemption. What really mattered was the transcendent, supra-historical, metaphysical reality. This was the impact of Platonism. We have inherited this theological mindset, but historical-critical study of the New Testament has been pushing us to recover the force of the historical narrative.

We still affirm that the people of God in the first century was saved from its sins by the death of Jesus.

We still affirm that Gentiles were included in that people without having to take on the Law because Jesus died—which means he died, in a sense, for the sins of the world.

We still affirm that we are included, by grace, in this people today only because Jesus died for the sins of Israel.

But that’s just history, folks. Yes, a history that included the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his ascension to the right hand of God. But there was no deep metaphysical magic involved.

Comments

I’m not convinced that a traditional “theological” account of the atonement is necessarily a “metaphysical” one though, at least in the sense of which you speak. Certainly when it comes to the doctrine of the new birth, lots of strange metaphysical assumptions have come into play. However, salvation has traditionally been understood in a historical sense, in terms of the righteous being vindicated at the resurrection of the dead - a historical event.

Likewise, in the celebration of the sacraments there is an enacted union with Christ in his death and resurrection. There is nothing strange or “metaphysical” about this though - it is nothing more than the working of the Spirit in the believer. All of this is perfectly historical in character. Unless you don’t believe that the Spirit is present in believers?

I’ll get back to you on the Hebrews post.

However, salvation has traditionally been understood in a historical sense, in terms of the righteous being vindicated at the resurrection of the dead - a historical event.

I’m not sure how traditional that notion of salvation is. At least, wouldn’t most people still think that salvation means my sins are forgiven, I’m reconciled to God, and I can expect to go to heaven after death?

But theories of atonement attempt to explain the means by which the death of achieve makes possible the salvation of people. How does Jesus’ death deliver me from sin? They are getting at something that lies behind or beyond the historical event—a payment made to Satan, the propitiation of divine wrath, a cosmic act of substitution.

Yes, but what does it mean for sins to be forgiven? And how is this forgiveness associated with Baptism in your thinking (as it seemed to be in some way for the Apostles)?

Regarding the events which you suppose are beyond history, I would submit that they are not. If a payment was made to Satan, that would have to be an actual event which happened in history. If divine wrath was propitiated at the cross, then that too would would be a historical event. In my view, the wrath of God was expressed on the cross through human mediators such as the Romans and Jewish leaders, just as Israel had earlier been judged by God via the mediation of Babylon and Assyria.

Although, to make a wider point, if the Biblical authors were not interested in the “how”, then why would they bother ever giving us a “how”? E.g. why tell us that the exile was a punishment from God?

“However, salvation has traditionally been understood in a historical sense, in terms of the righteous being vindicated at the resurrection of the dead - a historical event.”

In the OT salvation is political, salvation from slavery, captivity, exile, or occupation by foreign powers. The switchover to salvation having to do with afterlife theory is post-OT in Pharseaism and Christianity. So where did this illigitimate change come from? Babylonian comic books.