Re-Visioning Jesus’ Atonement: Possible Reconstructions

Wow. After all the spirited dialogue on yesterday’s post, I feel like my Part II is somewhat anti-climactic. Seriously. I took time to reply to each & every one of you who commented yesterday; if anyone has the time & patience, you should definitely check out the back-and-forth. It transcends the sadly-typical blog comment disrespect and opens up into some great dialogue. I’ve always thought that I have the best readers.

So…gulp…without further ado, here are some of my Possible Reconstructions of atonement meaning. I’m well aware that people far smarter & more thorough than I have attempted what I’m attempting, and do it better…but again, for my own wholeness’ sake, I’ve been re-reading atonement in Scripture afresh, with the aim of charting a faithful way forward. As I implied in my last post, my goal in reconstructing atonement is to be faithful to both the message of Jesus, which I take to be the Gospel of Peace, the message of God’s in-breaking Kingdom, and the message about Jesus – what he has done on our behalf in forgiving, cleansing, and empowering us, not to mention relationally indwelling us. Working with this latter aspect, messages about Jesus, is invariably working with images of sacrifice. While ‘penal substitution’ is tracable to Anslem’s work Cur Deus Homo in 1098, sacrificial imagery to describe Jesus’ death is undeniably tracable to the New Testament itself. I don’t want to sideline this imagery, but I do feel like I need to get a better grasp at the meaning(s) of sacrifice in Hebrew religious understanding. Here’s where I’m going right now…

  • The Cross isn’t salvation by violence; it’s salvation from violent living, and God’s ultimate repudiation of violence, absorbing it all unto himself rather than fighting back.

  • This absorption is not as a passive victim, but as transforming sustainer. Rather than transmitting pain, as we humans so often do, Jesus transformed the world’s pain/sin/death, creating instead sustaining nourishment whereby we can become partakers of the divine nature.

  • Jesus’ death can be rightly seen as ‘sacrifice.’ But in the Hebrew faith sacrifice is not centrally about killing; it’s about giving your best – representative of your all. By freely giving a symbolic portion of your sustenance – the very food you eat, grain and meat – God meets the collective people with all that God is, giving away God-as-sustenance. (Which makes sense of Jesus speaking of his death and resurrection as real food & real drink in John 6)

  • Jesus, as a symbolic representation of the whole of humanity, is given for all. But this giving began with Jesus’ birth, and didn’t end with his death. Jesus’ response to the cross stands out as the most vivid declaration of God’s eternal heart toward humanity & the cosmos – rather than retaliate in kind and mount the hordes of heaven (or an army of all-too-human zealous followers) in vengeance, Jesus forgives his tormentors, forgives the thief, and puts the powers of violence and oppression to an open shame in the manner of his dying and in resurrection by the Spirit’s power. The sacrifice that occurs is not the Father slaying the Son, but Jesus’ own sacrificial, creative-culture life, which he lived to one of its logical (and tragic) conclusions. Any theology of the cross that celebrates the execution without first mourning it is sub-Christian.

  • Because Jesus’ execution by the collusion of the State and Religion is first of all a tragedy, a mockery of justice, and not something unusual but mundane in the litany of the fallen powers, we should not speak primarily of God’s desire for this to have happened. Jesus was ‘slain before the foundation of the world’ does not have to mean ‘before all time began,’ or some such thing. It can simply mean ‘in front of the foundation of the world,’ in a cosmological sense. This was an ordinary event – the officially-sanctioned killing of undesirable elements – projected by God onto the stage of the universe. In the midst of this most humiliating moment, the Father exalts the Son, and thus, by extension, exalts the suffering of all criminals, terrorists, innocent, guilty, perpetuators and victims alike. He who knew no sin became sin for us, displaying all of our tragedies and inconsistencies and lifting them up to Abba God’s forgiving, reconciling embrace.

So I’m going to make a bold claim: I’m not sure that the killing of Jesus changed anything metaphysically in the universe. I don’t think that God was unable to love us until God saw some spilled blood and suddenly his disposition changed. (‘Cause, y’know, John 3:16 is pre-death) Make no mistake: I fully affirm Paul’s writing in Romans 5:

“For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us! Much more then, since we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from wrath. For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life!”

The question is, what did Paul mean when he spoke of “dying for”? He zooms out the lens from Jesus himself, to whom “anyone” might (or might not) die for – but it’s clearly in the context of a rescue mission – not a human sacrifice, which would be unconsciable for any Jew. To be sure, Jesus’ blood speaks, declaring righteous – but this doesn’t mean the act that sheds the blood is somehow righteous or just. After all, the blood of Abel speaks in Genesis too, crying out and accusing. And in this, another senseless and tragic murder, Jesus’ blood meets the cry of Abel’s blood, comforting it at last. Perhaps the wrath we are saved from is our own.

18 Responses to “Re-Visioning Jesus’ Atonement: Possible Reconstructions”

  1. 1 Raffi Shahinian February 7, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Though we must speak of this issue constantly, it’s hardly one that can be adequately covered in the space of a post, or even a series of posts.

    Instead of throwing in my feeble, truncated two cents, I’d do better to STRONGLY recommend “Saving Paradise” by Rebecca Parker and Rita Brock. It’s a beautiful artistic/historical study, the point being that it took about 1000 years of Christian history before Jesus’ death became the central point of the Atonement; during that first 1000 years, there is not a single piece of Christian art depicting Jesus dead on a cross. Not one.

    That wasn’t the point.

    Grace and Peace,

  2. 2 tripp fuller February 7, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    Totally continuing to dig this. I am pretty much with you. Definitely like your boldest claim. Now you need to spell out how this affirmation changes your understanding of salvation history and the biblical narrative.

  3. 3 Darrell Grizzle February 7, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Great discussion, Mike! You’ve inspired me to dig up some of my favorite quotes about the atonement, from Peter Abelard:

  4. 5 natrimony February 8, 2009 at 5:03 am

    Oh Mike,

    “The sacrifice that occurs is not the Father slaying the Son, but Jesus’ own sacrificial, creative-culture life, which he lived to one of its logical (and tragic) conclusions. Any theology of the cross that celebrates the execution without first mourning it is sub-Christian.”

    There is no need to celebrate the execution, but it must be acknowledged. The antimony must exist in that while God did ordain the death of His Son He was at the same time never more proud of his son’s willful and obedient sacrifice. God punished the sin which Christ took upon himself, not the personality of his beloved.

    The Objective quality of God’s action is righteous insofar as His aseity must be preserved. This is why Aquinas argued for a hypothetical atonement—God could have chosen to effect reconciliation in any way He saw fit. However, bloody death is how He chose to demonstrate the meeting of mercy and justice.

    In this way, I see, God’s punitive wrath as being an impersonal force–actually a stimulus–against the entity of sin which Jesus assumed. This piece of crimson colored glass is an integral part of a fully-orbed atonement mosaic. Ultimately your last post concludes with an emphasis upon God saving man from himself (that is mankind). I think that this is where a healthy understanding of both Christus Victor and Ireneaus’ recapitulation theories come into view. While, many would insist upon a one-time atonement vision there is no need to limit the work of Christ—being as how it is closely tied to his person.

    I must say, the views which you’ve shared in these two posts have been corollary to a good deal of my research. Harmony must be achieved between the different streams of faithful believers in explaining BIBLICAL atonement. It takes time. It requires study. And, there is no simple, systematic formula for explaining the continuous updraft of life-union emanating from a gory singularity–a singularity which is both contextualized and unbounded in its force.

  5. 6 Irritable February 9, 2009 at 10:43 am

    I think this is a healthy project, and I think we need new voices — all the time, really — seeking to come to grips with the text, with experience, with tradition. Even with reason, to round out the quadrilateral. Seeking to harmonize the various scriptural threads and square that with our history as well as our present is rightfully the task of the theologian, even admittedly armchair theologians like ourselves. I respect that.

    But I think it’s also healthy to recognize that we’re chasing after shadows. I don’t see where the anyone in the NT claims to be giving us the final answer, the full disclosure, the one true meaning of the Cross. I think we have, graciously preserved for us, a number of very human responses to the Christ-event, of which (as you point) the Cross is but one part, and these responses come from folks who had resources in their semiotic toolkit that seem problematic to us.

    The logic of sacrifice is one of these. So is a sense of impending apocalyptic wrath. There’s no getting around the sense that Jesus’ death is somehow efficacious. It is for us. That’s always going to be messy. At the same time, however, the early believers seem to be taking the opportunity to narrate the end of sacrifice, and if Beck is right even the end of apocalyptic wrath (though, greenie that I am, I would not dismiss the apocalyptic consequences of human exploitation).

    We’re not going to discover some lost meaning of the atonement, some magical harmonization of the multiple voices preserved in the canon. We will add our own voices to those of Anselm and Abelard, of Augustine and Irenaeus, of Paul and Peter. The tension between these voices is troublesome, but creative.

  6. 7 Peter February 10, 2009 at 7:28 am

    I’m jumping in here kind of late, and I don’t have all the answers, but I do have just a thought or two to add to the mix. (I share the sense of rightness that “this is somethn we gotta do” and the appreciation of Mike’s boldness and honesty that several others have already expressed.)

    In my attempt to follow the excellent advice to “keep wrestling” and to let myself be impacted by the shock factor inherent in this topic, the “scandal” of the cross, I find myself returning over and over to the reality that this violence of the cross is MY violence; it is as much a revelation of what I am really like inside as it is of the character of the Son of God or of the Father. I am so deeply bent on seeking my own way that I have done all in my own perverse power to be sure Jesus got put on that cross. If anyone needed this sacrifice to be offered, it wasn’t the Father (to pacify His fierce wrath against my sin) or the Son (whose love for me may have been expressed in any of a thousand ways); it was me, the violence inherent in my fallen nature, that has required this expression of violence in order to display ultimate love and compassion.

    Jesus gives us, clear and straight, the key to the meaning of the cross in his discourse preparing his followers just before it happened. He tells us that no one is taking his life from him, but that he is freely giving it up; and then he responds to the violence by taking it into himself (as others in this dialogue have emphasized) and responding in a loving, non-violent way, the way he had spent so much of his time teaching us about and modeling for us.

    My other thought is a strong confirmation of those who have reminded us that the distinct, unique feature of this redemption story is not that Jesus died but that he was raised again by the spirit of holiness, “Christus victor.” I agree with Mike that the event of the crucifixion is essentially mundane, just another of thousands of similar injustices we humans perpetrate against one another on a daily basis. But I’m NOT sure I agree that nothing cosmic or earth-shaking happened that day; on the contrary, the fulfillment of the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” in its sovereignly pre-determined time and place is “the only thing that has ever happened.” Behold, the revelation of the true nature of man–and of God! Our relationships are permanently altered, and a new creation has been born, radically and totally different from the one it has displaced.

    Now I have hope; in the mundane world before, I had none. My hope is that I can be transformed into one who no longer contains in the core of my being the violence which made the sacrifice necessary. I can enter into theosis and be changed in character from the inside out. I can’t get away from my need to face the shock of the cross, but I can surrender to its implications in my life, and allow it to transform me into what I was originally designed to be.

    Thank you, Mike. Keep fighting; I know you won’t give up!

    Peace in Jesus,

  7. 8 Derek Flood February 17, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Hi Michael,

    I’d like to respond to a couple of your thesis points here.

    First, I completely agree that whatever theory we develop of the atonement, it needs to square with the non-violent message of Jesus. Paul directly equates following Christ in his death in becoming “living sacrifices” with the practice of non-violence in Romans 12. That practical application of the cross reveals a lot about its meaning for Paul (and Apostolic Christianity).

    Second, while I agree that the temple sacrifice is about bringing the best you have to God (and the corollary that on the cross God gave his best to us), I think the bigger idea of sacrifice is about cleansing or purifying sin. A view that sees the solution to sin as soley punitive trivializes sin because it ignores the profound damage that sin does to our soul. The Bible recognizes this is speaking of sin as “sickness”. Sin needs to be atoned for in the sense of it being cleansed “whiter than snow”. That’s the idea of new life in us that is a major picture of what the sacrifices are about.

    Third, from that I would have to disagree with your “bold claim” that the death of Jesus did not change anything metaphysically. It did not change God because God loves his enemies, but it does change us. Or more precisely the combination of the incarnation, death, and resurrection changes us because God becomes us, dies as us, and overcoming sin and death as us, rises as us. This “as us” and “for us” means that we can participate in that new life, in that liberation from bondage, in that purification of our blackened lives. The acts of God here are the incarnation and the resurrection. The cross is a human unjust act that epitomizes our human fallenness – injustice, oppression, monstrous violence. God enters into that injustice and overcomes it, and because he does this not just for us, but incarnate as us, it means that we are objectively changed by it which is evidenced in the new birth as we join Christ in dying and entering into his life.

    Forth, I think that instead of having a “Christus Victor vs. Penal Substitution” (I’m about to contradict myself here a bit), we need to understand Christ taking on our sin and accursedness (vicarious sacrifice) in the context of Christus Victor – that is in the context of his liberating us out of death and Hell and giving us a transformed identity.

    In sum, I like where you are going, and agree that we need to go beyond the liberal/conservative divide, but would argue that part of that divide was to divide camps into subjective vs objective models of the atonement. I would say that the atonement needs to be understood as both subjective (moving us, presenting a model) and objective (transforming our being) all understood in the context of life-changing relational grace.

  8. 9 int3grity April 4, 2009 at 6:58 am

    This is so wrong. Why don’t you just start a new religion and stop calling your pop cultural invention Cristianity?

  9. 10 zoecarnate April 4, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Sorry friend, but conservative penal substitutionists (is that a word??) don’t have a monopoly on historic, orthodox Christian faith. There are ways of looking at Jesus’ saving life, death, and resurrection (even his sacrificial life & death) that don’t involve the Son dying so the Father can be appeased. That’s child sacrifice, and the God of the Hebrew bible explicitly forbids this.

  10. 11 Gary Amirault June 17, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    An interesting concept of “Why did Jesus die” comes from A.P. Adams in his article:

  11. 12 Theodore A. Jones November 16, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    “It is NOT those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who OBEY the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    According to Paul it is necessary to obey a law to be declared righteous. Any idea what this law is?

  1. 1 Re-Visioning Jesus’ Atonement: Beyond Liberal and Conservative « zoecarnate Trackback on February 8, 2009 at 4:49 am
  2. 2 Atonement and Food « What Would Jesus Eat? Trackback on February 12, 2009 at 2:01 pm
  3. 3 Further Atonement Thoughts: Late to the Party « zoecarnate Trackback on March 1, 2009 at 3:30 pm
  4. 4 sin kills god: why jesus had to die – Trackback on March 30, 2009 at 4:03 pm
  5. 5 Atonement Resources « to tell the truth Trackback on September 8, 2009 at 10:09 pm
  6. 6 Undertanding Atonement | CharisMissional Trackback on August 7, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Check Out This Free Book Club


Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Abolish Slavery – Join the Movement Today!

  • Friend of Emergent Village

    My Writings: Varied and Sundry Pieces Online

    Illumination and Darkness: An Anne Rice Feature from Burnside Writer's Collective
    Shadows & Light: An Anne Rice Interview in MP3 format from Relevant Magazine
    God's Ultimate Passion: A Trinity of Frank Viola interview on Next Wave: Part I, Part II, Part III
    Review: Furious Pursuit by Tim King, from The Ooze
    Church Planting Chat from Next-Wave
    Review: Untold Story of the New Testament Church by Frank Viola, from Next-Wave


    %d bloggers like this: