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.
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.