At the simplest level what we mean by “atonement” is that Jesus died for my sins in order to reconcile me to a holy God. But when the church attempts to explain how Jesus’ death on the cross does this, we quickly find ourselves entangled in a number of competing theories: the moral influence theory (popular with liberals), the Christus Victor theory (currently popular with emerging types), Anselm’s satisfaction theory (popular with Anselm), the notorious penal substitution theory (popular with the neo-Reformed), the sacrificial theory (popular with the writers of the New Testament, but see below), the governmental theory of Hugo Grotius, and no doubt many others.
What this whole approach rather suggests is that in our minds metaphysics works in much the same way as physics does: we assume that the hidden workings of an event or process require a single theoretical explanation.
Leon Morris’ comments on the sacrificial theory are revealing in this respect:
it is an explanation that does not explain. The moral view or penal substitution may be right or wrong, but at least they are intelligible. But how does sacrifice save? The answer is not obvious.
But this obsessive need we have to provide a rational explanation for the atonement—whether right or wrong!—is more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to understanding what’s actually going on in the New Testament. What we have in these writings is not a body of disorderly empirical data regarding Jesus’ death that must be organized and rationalized into a coherent explanatory theory or model. There is no “must” about it—except for the imperative of Western culture to give a scientific or quasi-scientific account of everything. What we have in the New Testament are mostly undeveloped arguments—in different contexts, for different reasons—about the significance of the historical event of Jesus’ death for Israel and its relationship to the nations.
I will argue here that the most important distinction to be made as we consider these various arguments is between (1) the significance of Jesus’ death for Israel and (2) its significance for the pagan nations within the eschatological narrative presupposed by the New Testament. This leaves open the possibility (3) that our own relation to the death of Jesus may need to be framed in different terms again.
The redemption of Israel
We begin with what is probably the clearest statement that the Jesus of the Gospels makes about the significance of his death. “Ransom” terminology in the Old Testament derives primarily from a legal setting. A “ransom” (lutron) is paid for the recovery or preservation of property or life (eg. Ex. 21:30 LXX). But the verb (lutroō) is widely used in a metaphorical sense for the redemption of Israel from the consequences of divine judgment (eg. Is. 51:11; 52:3; 62:12; 63:4, 9 LXX). When Jesus says that “the Son of Man came not to serve but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45), he means that his suffering will be the means by which Israel will be redeemed from its current “exile” or state of oppression. It is idle and pointless to ask what exactly is paid and to whom.
The penal substitutionary view of atonement is often dismissed as a moral absurdity, if not horror; but it makes very good sense in the Jewish part of the unfolding story of the transformation of the people of God. Jesus suffered in his own body the destruction at the hands of the Romans that was to be Israel’s punishment. The New Testament makes surprisingly little overt use of Isaiah 53, but the thought is certainly there that Jesus is in some sense the servant who is wounded, crushed, and punished because of the transgressions of Israel. I have made this case also with respect to 2 Corinthians 5:14 and 5:21: in his death Jesus was made a “sin offering” for all.
Paul’s statement in Romans 3:24-25 that all are justified “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation (hilastērion) by his blood” is in the first place an argument about the redemption of Israel. The Law charges Israel—it “speaks to those who are under the Law”—with sin so that “the whole world may be held accountable to God”. Israel, therefore, will not be justified at this time of eschatological crisis by works of the Law (3:19-20). But God has shown that he is righteous nevertheless by providing an alternative “redemption” (apolutrōsis) for Israel through faith in Jesus’ death as an event that atones for Israel’s sins. We have the same metaphor in 4 Maccabees 17:22,used with reference to the deaths of the martyrs: “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” (NETS). All who believe in this act of redemption for all Israel will be justified on the day of God’s wrath against the oikoumenē.
The argument that Jesus “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13) is also an argument about the redemption of Israel. We hear Paul speaking for the whole of humanity here, but that is an error of perspective and theological conditioning. Paul speaks on behalf of that part of Israel that is being saved by its faith in the story of Jesus, to which some Gentiles have also been attached. It is Israel, not humanity, that lives under the curse of the Law because it has not done the works of the Law. Christ took that curse upon himself, Paul argues, whenhe was hung on a tree; and one of the consequences of that redemptive act for Israel was that the blessing of Abraham was extended from Israel to the Gentiles.
The inclusion of Gentiles in redeemed Israel
Here, indeed, we have the basic structure of Paul’s soteriology: Jesus’ redemptive death for Israel, interpreted according to Jewish presuppositions, had the effect of opening the door of membership of the saved community to Gentiles.
So in Ephesians 2 Paul argues that Jesus’ death has led to the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant community. How? Not by ransoming or redeeming them, but by demolishing the “dividing wall of hostility” which up to that point had strictly excluded uncircumcised Gentiles from participation in the “commonwealth of Israel”, by “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (2:15). In effect, Jesus’ death had rendered the Law irrelevant—the resurrection, and the subsequent outpouring of the Spirit, had demonstrated clearly that the coming eschatological crisis had to be faced not on the basis of Law but on the basis of concrete, resolute, obedient trust in the face of intense hostility.
We have a similar situation in Colossians 2:11-15. This predominantly Gentile community has participated in the death and resurrection and “fulness” of Jesus in relation to all powers and authorities through the concrete commitment of baptism. They have been forgiven; the record of debt against them has been cancelled, set aside; but the link with Jesus’ death is established with a simple non-theological metaphor: “nailing it to the cross” (2:14).
There is no appeal here to Jewish narratives of atonement. The cross is the means by which rulers and authorities are disarmed and put to shame. The confirmation of Jesus’ triumph over the rulers and authorities is the resurrection: he was condemned by his powerful opponents, the leaders in Jerusalem and their Roman masters, but they were ultimately shown to be powerless, unable to suppress the revolt of faith against the status quo.
Since the Colossians have been baptized into this narrative (cf. Rom. 6:3-4), it is likely that Paul also has in mind the powerlessness of local rulers and authorities, with earthly or spiritual, to suppress the witness of the community, even through violence. Similarly, in view of Jesus’ insistence that his followers must also serve (Mk. 10:43-44), arguably it is the suffering of the martyr communities which, practically speaking, brings about the ransoming of Israel.
Here we begin to see how the ideas of exemplification and imitation come into play. Christ is the first martyr. He models the radical faithfulness that the churches will have to imitate if they are to survive the coming “tribulation”. He is “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
Tell me the whole, whole story
So Jesus died for the sins of Israel and this redemption allowed for the participation of Gentiles in the people of God. This is roughly how the data is organized in the New Testament, though the boundaries are blurred a bit in places: for example, in 1 Timothy 2:6 Paul uses the very rare non-biblical word antilutron when he speaks of Jesus giving himself as a “ransom for all”.
But what about us? We are not first century Israel under the wrath of God because of the nation’s persistent rebelliousness; nor are we now in the position of the Gentiles debarred from participation in the “commonwealth of Israel” by the Law. This part of the story has worked itself out.
We still come to God as sinners, trapped in a corrupted order of things from which we are powerless to escape. We may still need to say, quite simply, that Jesus died for our sins so that we may be part of a people reconciled to the God who brought it into existence to be “new creation”. Jesus’ death has opened up to me personally the possibility of being a player in God’s new world. But the continuing dependence of the people of God on the death of Jesus needs to be construed and explained not in abstract theoretical terms but narratively, historically—and of course, biblically.