As Good Friday approaches, it is time once again to insist that theories of the atonement are a waste of space

Read time: 10 minutes

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.

  • 1Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 276.
peter wilkinson | Mon, 04/02/2012 - 15:25 | Permalink

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.

Maybe the story of Israel was only a story which was intended to determine the story of the rest of the world. Maybe that was what it was designed to do. It makes sense of the outcome of the story. It also makes sense of the trajectory of Acts, the thrust of the letters, and the development of the ministry of at least Peter and Paul.

I don’t see where we are inivited to participate in the narrative, according to your understanding, nor, crucially, how we are qualified to participate in the narrative. If sin was such a big deal for Israel, especially as Paul expounded it, it’s strange that it’s such a small deal, according to you, for us.

Having said all that, I like your observations — which bring out a great deal of theoretical theological explanation of the cross which you have been keen to dismiss! I just don’t see the explanationss as limited to Israel, as I argue here. Conveniently, they fall into 8 categories, 8 being the number of resurrection, of course.

@peter wilkinson:

If sin was such a big deal for Israel, especially as Paul expounded it, it’s strange that it’s such a small deal, according to you, for us.

I don’t think I said that. Sin is a massive deal for us. It’s a massive deal for the church, too.

peter wilkinson | Mon, 04/02/2012 - 16:27 | Permalink

You’re right, Andrew. I misinterpreted your statement:

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?

It seemed by the way it was written to be diminishing the importance of sin for us today, and beyond 1st century Israel. (I still think this is an issue where the death of Jesus is seen as being for Israel alone and not for the rest of the world. Jesus’s death as atonement for sin massively heightens the importance of sin, as far as God is concerned).

But I think the reason why there is controversy over original sin is over what seems to be a confusion of categories. Sin as moral degeneracy is different from physical degeneracy. Moral behaviour is associated with moral responsibility, and not a physical, or genetic condition. Those who object to original sin may do so on the grounds of questioning how a just God can judge those for something which was not theirs by choice but by physical birth.

I’ve know idea what Tony Jones says about this, but he, along with others, seems not to appreciate that the phrase ‘total depravity’ as used by the reformers does not mean ‘as wicked as it is possible to be’. Rather,  it means that without exception, all our faculties, moral and physical, have experienced a falling away from God’s intentions. It should be understood by its Latin root: de (very) pravus (fallen away, turned away from). Total means comprehensive, but not exhaustive.

From a layperson, a question. I have read Colin Gunton’s book (Actuality of Atonement) but mostly I read the Psalms. Nonetheless, all of us laypeople wonder about mechanism and actuality — not as a distant abstraction but as a present reality. We are often not impressed with the behaviour of ‘church’ with respect to helping us actualize the power implicit in the cross to bury our sins.

You say: In his death Jesus was not a “moral” but an “eschatological” exemplar.

It is important that you emphasize not “moral” but do you by this phrase intend to leave out the present?

As a reader of the psalms I find that the present reality of Yhwh to the poet is lovely and underscores what each and all in the church are also to know, and need to know. The present must be part of your eschaton, or you will end up with just another theory.

E.g. for starters: Psalm 27 

One thing I have asked from

יְהוָה that thing I will seek

that I may sit in the house of

יְהוָה all the days of my life

to gaze on the pleasantness of

יְהוָה and to reflect in his temple

Yes, the very next verse is eschatological — but the request for a present reality is first.

Perhaps I might think that theories of atonement are reasoning about what has been known. Though that knowledge covers the whole earth, it has come to me through the work of Jesus as recorded in the NT. The pointer for me to the Psalms comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews. (A priest in the 1980s told me I should not be reading that letter — it wasn’t for me, but only for priests.)

So the question remains — from the debris of the dusty furniture, does the message of the present reality get from pupit to pew let alone from theologian to the world?

Hi there

A friend directed me to this article.

You are correct in directing us back to a Biblical framework, but I reckon a lot of theology misses the Bible’s on commentary on the Atonement.

Everything in the Bible follows a process. We see the same process in Genesis 1, in Israel’s Feasts (Lev. 23) and in the journey from Egypt to Canaan. We also see it in the structure of the Covenants. Every narrative also follows the same structure.

When this “matrix” is identified, we can see a commentary on what “Atonement” actually is <em>in God’s eyes.</em>

I’m sure this sounds strange, but it works like clockwork. The Bible is a fractal.

I’ve written an introduction to this process, and also a followup explaining its Covenantal significance.…

Happy to send a free copy.

If you get this structure under your belt, the Bible starts to makes a lot more sense. Moses uses it. Samuel uses it. The prophets use it. Jesus and the apostles use it. Identifying the underlying historical and literary structure not only reveals what an engineering and artistic feat the Bible is, it provides unequivocal answers to many theological debates.

Yinka | Tue, 04/03/2012 - 18:28 | Permalink

Rev. Andrew,

You should P.R.E.A.C.H like this more often :)


Dana Ames | Wed, 04/04/2012 - 19:35 | Permalink

Hi Andrew-

I can go with most of what you include in your last 5 points, esp with nuancing re Justification.  But some thoughts have stuck with me over the last few days, so I’m sharing them :)

1)  I can go with you for a bit in saying Christ ransomed his people, because he was the True Israelite.  However, I think this ransom aspect can’t be ultimately limited to the Jews because a) the Romans didn’t get booted out, and b) Christ was also the True Human Being and therefore the ransom aspect had to be broad enough to be effective for all humans.  The ransom was from death, paid to humanity in its condition of death, as I understand the general consensus of the  Greek fathers.  No, it’s not there in the Gospels, but it is surely there in Hebrews 2.15.

2)  I’m sure you know that the word translated “propitiation” indicates the Mercy Seat, the place where God and man meet in man’s worship of God.  I think this casts the idea of “atonement” in a different light.  Sure, the people of God will survive.  The faithful (“righteous”) ones were in Israel all along, and called such in the NT (Zachariah & Elizabeth, others).  Again, unless Jesus’ death has a wider meaning, atoning for the sins of Israel alone doesn’t really help the gentiles.  But the extension to the gentiles is very much a concern of Paul.  Not to mention the redemption of all creation.  Again, yes to the specific, but not leaving things there.

3) Sorry, I can’t get over it.   Substitutionary makes sense, but penal doesn’t, and didn’t from before I found EOrthodoxy.  I can go with Wright’s view, and his is *extremely* nuanced and is more about a prophetic, proleptic act than averting God’s supposed wrath against all mankind.  Yes, Israel’s sins must be dealt with, and that happened in Christ’s voluntary death, where the forgiveness of God was shown forth — not only for Israel, but for all.  The Temple becomes redundant, not because it is “bad” or needs to be “replaced”, but because what it pointed to is now here.

Eschatology- yes.  We see everything from the End, through the Passion of Christ.   Righteousness coming from the faithfulness of Jesus- yes.  Victory over death- absolutely, and very much the sense in the early church wrt martyrdom, which we previously discussed.  Cancellation of the law- seems clear.  Participation- now you’re talking!  This is right at the heart of EOrthodox theology.

So I’m not saying the historical is to be ignored.  Of course not.  I know you’re trying to take into consideration how the early church interpreted it all.    I wish you had the opportunity to engage with EOrthodox theologians.

A blessed Easter to you, Andrew.  Pascha for me is next week.