A quiz on the atonement (in narrative-historical perspective)

The day before Good Friday seems a fitting time to launch a narrative-historical alternative to Tim Challies’ thoroughly Reformed Quiz on the Atonement. Well, not quite an alternative, more a commentary on the standard Reformed account of the significance of Jesus’ death. There are 33 questions in Tim’s quiz, so this is not for the faint-hearted. I only got two wrong, and one of those was attributable to fatigue.

You have to decide whether the statements are true or false. Click on the statement to see Tim’s “correct” answer, the biblical references provided, and my commentary, though you may want to take the proper quiz first and see how you get on.

You can find a quick and dirty version of this page, without all the clicking, here.


1. I have sinned against the holy God, who by nature hates sin, and so I have offended him.

(True: Rom. 3:23; Hab. 1:13)

The first problem is that we begin with “I”—the autonomous individual standing in the middle of the vast flat plain of existence, having to deal with an offended God. That is not a biblical place to start. In scripture we have to start with Israel, in covenant relationship with YHWH. Not every misstep or misdemeanour provoked the wrath of YHWH. Much of what individual Jews did wrong was mopped up by the sacrificial system. But long-term, persistent, egregious disobedience, in defiance not only of the Law but also of the prophets sent to the vineyard of Israel, culminated in catastrophic moments of divine judgment. This is what Habakkuk is talking about, and it is presupposed by Paul in Romans (cf. Rom. 1:17).


2. My sin separates me from God.

(True: Is. 59:2)

Isaiah speaks of the sins of Israel which have separated the people from their God so that he does not hear them. The sins are enumerated at great length; they are mostly of a social nature. The remedy is simply to act righteously: to let the oppressed go free, to bring the homeless poor into your house, to pour themselves out for the hungry, to satisfy the desire of the afflicted, and so on (Is. 58:6-10). If they do these things, the Lord will guide them, their desires will be satisfied, they shall be a watered garden, the ancient ruins will be rebuilt. The solution to Israel’s sin is not atonement but a change of behaviour.


3. Because of my sin I deserve to die.

(True: Rom. 6:23; Ezek. 18:4)

Agreed. The “wages of sin is death”, which is why Challies’ belief that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment is wrong.


4. Because of my sin I deserve the wrath of God.

(True: Rom. 1:18; 12:19-20; Col. 3:5-6)

In scripture the wrath of God takes the concrete form of affliction and destruction. Generally it is directed against peoples, cultures and empires. Paul speaks of the wrath of God against the ancient pagan world, which “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23; cf. Col. 3:5-6) and against the enemies of his people (Rom. 12:19; cf. Deut. 32:35). I’m inclined to think that the Old Testament covenant narrative came to an end with the defeat of Rome, so that it is no longer appropriate to speak of the wrath of God either against his people or against the enemies of his people. See my “A handy 17 point summary of the narrative-historical perspective on the wrath of God”.


5. Though I sin, I don’t have to worry because God’s loving character will cause him to overlook my sin.

(False: Hab. 1:13; Rom. 3:23-26; Nah. 1:3)

The Old Testament verses refer to the judgment of God against Israel and Nineveh in the form of warfare and destruction. God does overlook sin for long periods of time—this was Habakkuk’s complaint. But there comes a moment in history when he acts to judge and put things right. Paul tells the men of Athens that YHWH is no longer willing to overlook the idolatry of the classical pagan world: “now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the oikoumenē in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:30-31).


6. God’s wrath is retributive justice. It is his just—and necessary—response to sin.

(True: Rom. 1:18; 12:19-20; Col. 3:5-6)

Certainly, Paul expected God to take vengeance on his enemies, on those who persecuted his people (Rom. 12:19-20; 2 Thess. 1:6). But this is less his just response to sin than his just deliverance and vindication of his people.


7. The word ‘atonement’ means to make amends by blotting out an offense.


It doesn’t really matter how theologians such as J.I. Packer have defined the English term. The question is: how does language associated with the idea work in the Bible?


8. No one can have fellowship with God unless their sins are atoned for.

(True: Psalm 65:3-4)

The Psalmist writes: “When iniquities prevail against me, you atone for our transgressions” (Ps. 65:3). The verb “atone” (kfr) in this verse means “to cover” or “to wipe away”. In all three uses of the word in the Psalms God atones directly for Israel’s sins without the need for sacrifice. Köhler says that in these instances it has “nothing to do with sacrifice or other expiatory rite. It is a question of propitiation or atonement by sheer grace.”


9. I can atone for my sins by giving my life to God in service to him.

(False: Ezek. 18:4; Rom. 6:23)

The Lord says to Ezekiel that “the soul who sins shall die”. Unfortunately for Challies, the Lord then goes on to say that if a man is righteous and does what is just and right—does not worship idols, does not defile his neighbour’s wife, does not oppress anyone, etc.—“he shall surely live” (Ezek. 18:5-9). Verses 10-18 make it clear that this is not just hypothetical.


10. No one can escape the outpouring of God’s wrath unless their sins are atoned for through the death of Christ.

(True: Rom. 5:9-10; 6:23)

Paul is speaking about Israel in Romans 5. Those Jews who have been justified by Jesus’ death will be saved from the wrath that will come, sooner or later, upon Israel. This is a particular instance of the general proposition that the “wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).


11. Christ’s death on the cross on behalf of sinners caused the Father to love them.

(False: Jn. 3:16; 1 Jn. 4:10)

Can’t argue with this. In John’s expanded theological perspective God sent his Son into the world because he loved the world. The same was also true of Israel: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).


12. The primary purpose of Christ’s death was to provide an example of God’s love for sinners so that they, in turn, would be motivated to love him.

(False: 1 Jn. 4:10)

Well, no, obviously not. In Philippians 2 Paul puts forward the paradigm of Jesus’ self-abnegation and obedience unto death as a reason for the believers to love not God but one another.


13. To say Christ ‘redeemed’ or ‘ransomed’ sinners means sinners were in bondage, and he paid a price for their freedom.


Challies quotes J.I. Packer again: redemption is “rescue by ransom: the paying of a price that freed us from the jeopardy of guilt, enslavement to sin, and expectation of wrath”. OK, but you haven’t forgotten the story about Israel, have you? Have you?


14. Christ’s death on the cross was a ransom price paid to Satan to buy back sinners to whom Satan had a rightful claim.


Challies rightly says that there is no scriptural basis for the idea that a ransom was paid to Satan. But I would also stress the point that the “atonement” cannot be reduced to a deal done between actors in a courtroom drama. It only makes sense as an event in the history of Israel.


15. Christ’s death on the cross was a ransom price paid to God.

(True: Col. 2:14)

Writing to Gentile believers, Paul says that God has forgiven them, having cancelled the hand-written note (of debt) “with its legal demands” (tois dogmasin), which he then nailed to the cross. It’s difficult to grasp exactly what Paul means here, but at the heart of it seems to be the simple idea of cancellation of debt as a metaphor for forgiveness; there is no reference to captivity or ransom, and nothing is paid to God. The parallel argument in Ephesians 2:14-16 speaks of Jesus’ death as the means by which the partition between Jews and Gentiles was broken down, leading to the abolition of the Law of commandments “expressed in ordinances” (en dogmasin).


16. Christ’s death redeemed sinners from bondage to sin and Satan.

(True: Col. 1:13)

In the New Testament apocalyptic narrative Satan inspired and ruled the pagan world opposed so vehemently to YHWH, his Anointed, and his people. But once the hostile pagan régime has been overthrown, once the beast of Roman imperial power has been defeated, Satan is bound and thrown into the abyss not to trouble God’s people again until the end of human history (Rev. 20:2-3, 7-10). So before the conquest of pagan Rome by the witnessing church, believers were redeemed from bondage to Satan. Subsequently, I suggest, people are “redeemed” from their sinful participation in cultures that systemically repudiate the creator God.


17. Christ’s death did not pay the actual penalty for sins, but incentivizes obedience by demonstrating the seriousness of sin.

(False: Is. 53:4-6, 11-12; Col. 2:14; 1 Pet. 2:24)

This is a reference to the Governmental Theory of Atonement, about which I don’t have much of an opinion. I can well imagine that it’s a misrepresentation of the Jewish-apocalyptic idea of the redemptive effect of righteous suffering. Whether Jesus was punished in the place of Israel is another question. Implicated in the violent punishment of Israel is more how I see it. More at #20.


18. Christ’s death was a propitiatory sacrifice. It appeased the wrath of God.

(True: Rom. 3:24-26; 5:8-9)

The deaths of the Maccabean martyrs were regarded as a “ransom (antipsuchon) for the sin of the nation”, the means by which the homeland was purified, and the hilastērion by which “divine Providence preserved Israel, though before it had been afflicted” (4 Macc. 17:20-22). This is the logic behind Paul’s description of Jesus’ death as a hilastērion which demonstrated that in his divine forbearance God had passed over the former sins of his people (Rom. 3:24-25). I don’t see any basis in either text for the idea that the suffering of the righteous appeased the wrath of God. It seems rather that God positively acknowledges their extreme sacrifice, as representative Jews, by preserving the people when faced with terminal affliction.


19. Christ’s death on the cross reconciles sinners to God.

(True: Rom. 5:9-11; 2 Cor. 5:18-19)

In the Romans passage Paul speaks on behalf of Jews who have been “reconciled to God by the death of his Son”; they will be saved, therefore, from the wrath that would soon come upon Israel. In the 2 Corinthians passage he says that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them”, which looks very much like the argument of Colossians 2:14 and Ephesians 2:14-16. Jesus’ death for Israel was like the atonement ritual. The analogy made less sense for Gentiles. Instead his death is the means by which the dividing wall of the Law is removed.


20. It would be unjust for the Father to exact the penalty for our sin on his Son.

(False: Is. 53:5-6, 10)

This is the heart of the moral objection to the penal substitutionary view of atonement. My argument has been that Jesus’ death should probably be seen as implicated in the punishment of Israel through the events of the war of AD 66-70. The Isaiah passage, however, should not be read as an exposition of atonement theory. The servant, in my estimation, is the late exilic community, which had to suffer innocently for the sins of Israel.


21. When he died, Christ voluntarily substituted himself for sinners.

(True: Is. 53:4-6; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18; Mk. 10:45; 1 Tim. 2:6)

Yes, if we qualify “sinners” as “sinful Israel”. The language of “substitution” belongs to the theological rationalisation of the biblical argument, but it seems to me that there is, within second temple thought, the idea that the suffering and death of a martyr means life and freedom for the people.


22. God counted people’s sins to Christ, so that when he died, he was enduring the retributive justice of God due to them for their sins.

(True: Westminster Confession of Faith 11.3; Is. 53:4-6; Col. 2:14; 2 Cor. 5:19-21)

There is no “retributive justice of God” in Colossians 2:14: God cancels the debt-note and nails it to the cross, but Jesus’ death is a disarming of the rulers and authorities, which are rendered impotent if the threat of death is taken away. Nor in 2 Corinthians 5:19-20, where again the thought is only of forgiveness: “not counting their trespasses against them”. The Westminster Confession also referencesa number of other texts. Jesus gave himself as a “ransom” for all but classifies this as an act of mediation between God and people (1 Tim. 2:5-6). Hebrews speaks of Jesus’ death as an “offering… once for all” (Heb. 10:10, 14). The “anointed one” who is cut off in Daniel 9:26 is likely to be the high priest Onias III. The only passage that gets close to the idea of retributive justice, it seems to me, is Isaiah 53:4-6: “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed”. Peter quotes this passage but makes no reference to the “retributive justice of God” (1 Pet. 2:24).


23. It was necessary for Christ to be human in order to substitute himself for human sinners and endure the wrath of God on their behalf.

(True: Heidelberg Catechism question 16; Heb. 2:17; Rom. 5:12-21)

The point here is not that Jesus needed to become human but that he needed to suffer in the way that Israel—the “offspring of Abraham”—was suffering so that he might qualify as a high priest who makes propitiation for the sins of the people in the heavenly sanctuary. So “because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18). Reformed theology has clumsily rewritten the argument of Hebrews as a general incarnational soteriology, seen through an overblown forensic metaphor. The Romans passage simply takes it for granted that Jesus was human. The point is not that he was “man” but that he was “one man”.


24. It was necessary for Christ to be sinless in order to substitute himself for sinners and endure the wrath of God on their behalf.

(True: Heidelberg Catechism question 16; 1 Pet. 3:18)

The New Testament is not interested in the absolute sinlessness of Jesus. The point is that he did not sin in the way that rebellious Israel sinned; he remained obedient to his vocation as the anointed servant or son of YHWH (cf. Is. 42:1; Matt. 3:16-17 and parallels); although he was the son sent to the vineyard of Israel, he “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). Interestingly, Peter makes Jesus’ innocent suffering an example for believers to follow: “even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake… For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous…” (1 Pet. 3:14, 18).


25. Because he endured the just penalty for sin and was raised, Christ was victorious over death, hell, and the powers of evil.

(True: Col. 2:13-15)

The emphasis on enduring the penalty for sin seems misplaced. He was raised and exalted to the right hand of the Father simply because he was obedient unto death (cf. Phil. 2:8-9). In Acts the apostles repeatedly affirm that God raised Jesus from the dead but never interpret his death as the “just penalty for sin” (Acts 2:23-24, 32; 3:15; 4:10; 10:40; 13:30; 17:31).


26. Christ’s death atoned for the sins of everyone who has ever lived and who will ever live.

(False: Rom. 2:5)

Romans 2:5 is addressed to the self-righteous, judgmental, impenitent Jew who is “storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed”.


27. The purpose of Christ’s death was to atone for everyone’s sin, but those who refuse to believe and be saved frustrate God’s purpose for Christ’s work.

(False: Eph. 1:3-14; 5:25; Rom. 8:31-34)

Challies argues that the purpose of Jesus’ death was to redeem those whom the Father “chose… before the foundation of the world”. But as ever Reformed theology cannot see beyond the end of its nose. It is blind to the eschatological narrative. Paul has in mind the community which has been chosen to be the Christlike “servant” through whom God will bring about the eschatological renewal of his people (cf. Is. 41:8-9; 43:10; 44:1; 49:7).


28. The purpose of Christ’s death was to atone for the sins of a small number of people.

(False: Rev. 5:9; 7:9)

This is nit-picking.


29. The saving effect of Christ’s death is limited to those who believe.

(True: Rom 3:25-26

Agreed. I’m not a universalist.


30. Christ’s death achieved a totally effective redemption for those for whom it was made.

(True: Rom. 8:31-39; Heb. 10:14)

I love this passage in Romans. Jesus gave himself up for the sake of the future of God’s people. The “elect” are those who have been chosen to share in the sufferings of Jesus, to be conformed to the image of the Son, so that he might be “the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). Reformed theology is blind to the Jewish-apocalyptic narrative that controls Paul’s thought at every point. See #27.


31. During the time of the Old Testament, the sins of the people of Israel were actually atoned for by the animal sacrifices God instituted for them.

(False: Heb. 10:11-14; Rom. 3:25)

Isn’t there a distinction to be made here between Aaron effectively making atonement “for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel” (Lev. 16:17) and sins being taken away so that they cease to be a problem? I don’t think we have to infer from Hebrews 10:11-14 that the atonement sacrifices did not do what they were intended to do.


32. Christ’s death on the cross is an expression of the love and justice of God.

(True: 1 Jn. 4:10; Rom. 3:25-26)

The death of Jesus, according to Paul, demonstrated the “righteousness” of God. It showed that God was acting with integrity in the specific sense that he had not forgotten his promise to Abraham. This is not the forensic notion that God’s justice demands the death of the individual sinner and that Jesus has been punished in our place. Rather it is narrative-historical: it has to do with God justifying himself in his dealings with Israel.


33. It was necessary for Christ to die in order for God to save us. There was no other way.

(True: Rom. 3:26; Matt. 26:39)

It was necessary for Christ to die for the sins of his people so that there would be a narrow path leading to life alongside the broad path leading to the destruction of AD 70. Because this was a solution apart from the Law (cf. Rom 3:21), it meant that Gentiles did not have to submit to the Law in order to become part of a renewed “Israel” that confessed Jesus as Lord.