I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we do not need a theory of the atonement. Theories of the atonement are nothing but excess intellectual furniture. We can’t move in here at the moment because the place is heaped up with ponderous medieval dining tables, fussy baroque wardrobes that go nowhere, and hard, threadbare Victorian armchairs, all covered in a thick layer of dust. We don’t need it. It’s all just clutter. Centuries of obstructive theological clutter. What we need to do—sorry, what I think we need to do—is tell the story of how Jesus’ death around AD 30 fundamentally and lastingly impacted the people of God, and to tell the story as the New Testament tells it, as prophetically interpreted history.
Tony Jones and designer atonement theories
I’ve just been reading Tony Jones’ enjoyable short Kindle book A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin. It’s never been clear to me why people have such a problem with the notion of “original sin”. We all sin, we all die, without exception—it’s in the genes. That seems to me about as uncontroversial a theological observation as anyone could make. Is it just a sentimental concern about the state of infants?
Anyway, Jones suggests that the doctrine of original sin is like a runaway train. Jesus was in two minds about it, but then:
Paul, Augustine, and Calvin each took the notion that we have inherited sin from Adam, and extended it. Each added more consequences for us, as human beings. (loc. 246)
So we end up with some repugnant phrase like “total depravity” and wonder how on earth we got there from the New Testament. Jones may have a point—as I say, I don’t entirely see the problem. But when he then goes on to expound a “Better Atonement”, it seems to me that he fails to do what he attempted to do, if somewhat half-heartedly, with the doctrine of original sin—that is, dump the unhelpful theological baggage and go back to scripture.
He gives a brief account of the standard theories of the atonement and argues that each “was developed in order to solve a contemporary problem with the atonement”. He then sets out the theological context in which he will develop his own theory of the atonement and he is quite candid about the fact that it has to meet certain personal requirements: it cannot have anything to do with punishment, wrath or substitution; it cannot depend on the existence of demons or Satan because Jones doesn’t really believe in them; it must not contradict his convictions about the freedom of God; it cannot require the subservience of the Son to the will of the Father; and it must be able to address the “social dimensions of sin” (loc. 550-630). We are then presented with his preferred notion of the atonement as God’s solidarity with us, which is attributed to Moltmann:
When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness… He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and godforsaken can experience communion with him.1
But what is going on here? How is it that the “atonement” has become something that can be shaped and reshaped to fit the contours of a culture? How has it become detached from scripture in this way? Why is there no examination in this section of how the New Testament itself interprets Jesus’ death? Jones is surely right to point out that the various theories of the atonement that have been propounded over the centuries are all culturally determined, so why perpetuate the problem? Why try to stuff one more item of oversized furniture into the room? Why not just let the New Testament speak for itself and leave it at that?
The atonement as history
It seems to me that there is little point in trying to make sense of the atonement in the abstract, as a free-floating transaction between God, Jesus and humanity, apart from the extreme pressures of history. It is only the story of Israel, determined by the Law, and the pressure of first century Middle Eastern politics that can explain the atoning effect of Jesus’ death. It is a biblical phenomenon and it needs to be explained in biblical terms. In that respect the atonement is a contingent event, not an absolute, metaphysical, transcendent or cosmic event that may legitimately be the object of general rational enquiry.
It can be accounted for, I suggest—very roughly and much too hurriedly—under the following headings…
1. The ransom of Israel from the hand of its enemies
Jesus’ death on a Roman cross is understood as an act of self-giving that would practically speaking ensure the salvation of Israel at a time of extreme eschatological crisis. He would give his life “as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45). In scripture this has nothing to do with paying a ransom to Satan or to anyone else. There is no mysterious deal being done in a smoky back room; there is no conspiracy between Aslan and the White Witch. Behind the thought are numerous passages in the Old Testament that speak of the ransoming of Israel from the hands of its enemies or from the political consequences of its sin. There is no need to enquire into the logic of the transaction: “ransom” is simply a metaphor for the fact that by dying Jesus would save many in Israel from the destruction that they would suffer from the hands of their enemies. It’s a statement about what would happen, not about how it would happen.
2. An atonement for the sins of Israel
It was a death because of the sins of Israel and as an atonement for the sins of Israel. The angel tells Joseph that Jesus will “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). He is the high priest who makes “propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17; cf. 9:12). Romans 3:23-26 is also about the redemption of Israel: Jews and Gentiles alike are saved by their faith in the fact that Jesus’ death was an atonement for the sins of Israel. Paul is not setting out a theological abstraction. He is explaining how the death of God’s Spirit-anointed messiah at the hands both of rebellious Israel and overbearing Rome would ensure the survival of the people of God. This is not our doctrine of the atonement; there is nothing “contemporary” or universal about it. It is Paul’s understanding—more or less—designed to meet the demands of first century Judaism in crisis.
3. Penal substitution
Jesus’ death for Israel was penal and substitutionary in that he suffered the judgment or punishment or wrath of God that would come upon the whole nation within a generation: he was pierced for the transgressions of Israel, crushed for the iniquities of Israel; upon him was the chastisement that brought Israel peace (cf. Is. 53:5). If the destruction of Jerusalem was “penal”, Jesus’ death was “penal”. If Jesus was “destroyed” so that a remnant might escape final condemnation and survive, his death was “substitutionary”. Get over it.
4. An eschatological exemplar
Jesus’ death established a “way” or path for the salvation of Israel. Jesus set a pattern for the apostles and others to emulate or imitate: he was to be an exemplar, a pioneer, the firstborn of many brothers, the head of the body. Israel would find life only by a way of obedient suffering. If others had not been willing to take up their own crosses and follow Jesus through death to resurrection, there would have been no future for the people of God. This is what Paul means when he says that baptism into Jesus is a baptism into his death (Rom. 6:3)—the martyr community has been baptized into a way of suffering, but they do so with the firm conviction that if they suffer with Jesus, they will be glorified and vindicated with Jesus (cf. Rom. 8:17); the new “resurrection” life that they have now through the Spirit is further assurance of this fact. In his death Jesus was not a “moral” but an “eschatological” exemplar.
5. The justification of those who believe
God counted those who followed Jesus “justified” or “righteous” because of the exceptional faithfulness of Jesus, who was obedient to the point of death (Rom. 3:26; Phil. 2:8). Because this “remnant” of the people (including the Gentiles who were added to it) had been justified by Jesus’ death, it would escape the destruction of the impending day of God’s wrath against his people (Rom. 5:9). As I argue in The Future of the People of God, justification in Paul is an eschatological category: on the coming day of judgment—against the Jew first, then against the Greek—those who had concretely and practically trusted in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection would be shown to be in the right.
6. The victory over death
Through his obedience Jesus overcame death; he was raised from the dead. The rules had clearly been changed: death did not have to be the end, either for the martyr or, indeed, for creation. The ultimate enemy of humanity and the most powerful weapon wielded by empire had been rendered ineffectual. Christus victor! As Jesus had told his disciples, not even death could overcome the new ekklēsia of Israel that confessed that he was the Christ (Matt. 16:18). It is easy to appreciate the value of this perspective for the martyr church, but as a new creation event the resurrection has implications beyond the vindication of the martyrs. Tony Jones is right to insist on the necessary and continuing relevance of the resurrection:
Thus, since the resurrection of Jesus is his defeat of death, evil, and grief, it’s important to me that it really happened. Without a resurrected Jesus, Christianity is impotent. (loc. 354)
7. Cancellation of the Law
Jesus’ death abolished the barrier of the Jewish Law which excluded Gentiles from the people of God (cf. Eph. 2:14-16). Because that barrier was no longer in place, Gentiles had access to the same corporate life as forgiven Jews. Gentiles had come to share in the redemption of Israel. The logic is very practical, as the Cornelius episode demonstrates: Gentiles are told that Jesus died for the sins of Israel, they believe this good news, the Holy Spirit falls upon them, and they begin to speak in tongues and worship the God of Israel (Acts 10:44-48).
8. The continuing narrative of participation
This whole narrative should determine the sense in which Christ died for us today. We too are invited to share in the eschatological life of the family of Abraham, which was secured once and for all by the faithful obedience to the point of death of the one who was made YHWH’s king.
These different perspectives on the death of Jesus, out of which the various theories have been developed, are not arbitrary. They are controlled by the narrative. None has priority over the others, but it is also unhistorical to suggest, as Scot McKnight apparently does in A Community Called Atonement, that they are like different clubs in a golfer’s bag to be selected as suits the lie of the ball, or flowers arranged in a vase (Jones, A Better Atonement, loc. 609). Scot’s emphasis on the community is really important, but metaphors of this sort weaken our sense of the interpretive narrative context: the flowers should never have been cut and put in the vase in the first place.
I am not suggesting, finally, that we should simply forget about the long theological debate from Augustine to Tony Jones. It is part of our story, and we cannot properly understand who we are as God’s people today if we disregard 1600 years of Christian thought. Nor do I think that we should abandon the task of constructively re-narrating—in various modes of discourse: poetic, philosophical, prophetic—what it means to owe our participation to new creation life to Jesus. But if we believe that this gift has its origins in events associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus in the first century, I think that we have to learn to let the theology speak historically, on its own terms, within its own frame of reference, for its own purposes.
- 1. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 276.