Does Jesus’ Death Have Meaning?

Ted Grimsrud—December 11, 2011

I recently read and discussed with my Contemporary Theology class three books on atonement theology. Each answers the question of the meaning (or lack thereof) in Jesus’ death.

Hans Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition, sees the most meaning in the crucifixion of Jesus in his defense of traditional atonement models (his is not simply a straightforward defense of traditional satisfaction and substitutionary views, though).

J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement challenges the view that Jesus’ death is necessary for salvation, but as he does still work with the language of atonement, there is some ambiguity in his treatment of Jesus’ death. The death was strictly an act of evil, not something God in any sense willed. But Jesus’ death is part of the story of salvation that in some sense is dependent upon Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection is the saving act, but—though Weaver does not state it like this—there had to be a crucifixion for there to be a resurrection. So Jesus’ death has meaning in relation to his resurrection.

Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in their book Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, utterly reject any kind of positive role for the story of Jesus’ death. They believe that Christian theology that valorizes Jesus’ death, especially that sees his death as necessary for salvation, is actually advocating a kind of “divine child abuse” where the “father” requires the violent death of the “son.”

As it turns out, Boersma’s view is pretty complicated. He tries to hold together all three of the tradition models: satisfaction, moral influence, and Christus Victor. There are other arguments for the satisfaction model and its substitutionary atonement variant that are stricter. One recent example is this book by British theologians Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach: Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. The subtitle makes the stance of the authors clear.

The two approaches: Satisfaction or mercy “all the way down”

One way to approach this topic is to note that, at bottom, there are basically two ways to think about Christian salvation: the satisfaction view and the “mercy all the way down” view.

The first is the satisfaction view—that God requires some kind of satisfaction in order to effect salvation. This is the case because human sinfulness has so disrupted the moral balance of the universe that some kind of payment is required to restore the balance. The disruption may be understood in terms of the violation of God’s honor when God’s human creatures, by their sinfulness, do not honor God as they should (the view attributed to Anselm). Or it may be understood more in terms of God’s holiness that is violated by human impurity, requiring punishment from God unless some way of covering the impurity might be found (the post-Anselm penal substitution view, often linked with John Calvin). In either case, Jesus’ death is required as a sacrifice that restores the balance—providing adequate honor, covering the impurity in respect for God’s holiness.

The second is what we could call the “mercy all the way down” view—that from the start God’s response to human sinfulness has been mercy. What is required is not payment to God but a breaking through of human blindness to the forgiving and transforming mercy of God that when, trusted in, provides healing from the brokenness caused by human sin.

Quite a few theologians have sought to find ways to bring these two views together—Boersma is a recent example; he draws heavily on the early Christian theologian, Irenaeus’s “recapitulation view” that in Boersma’s view provides a basis for holding together the various major atonement models (though admittedly Anselm’s satisfaction view postdates Irenaeus by almost a millennium). Part of the argument for the synthetic approach is that the satisfaction view itself (at least in Anselm’s rendering, if not Calvin’s) posits God’s mercy as the driving force behind the sacrifice that restores the possibility of salvation.

Perhaps such syntheses are the best reading of the evidence. However, it seems to me that the two general approaches are so fundamentally different that mixing them is like trying to mix oil and water. If God’s response to human sinfulness truly is mercy all the way down, then there should be no need for God to require some kind of satisfaction. If satisfaction is required, some moral dimension at least equally fundamental as mercy is at work. It seems incoherent to argue that God’s mercy initiates a process whereby some kind of sacrifice happens that then allows God to act mercifully toward sinful humanity. If God’s mercy can initiate such a process, why can’t God simply forgo the sacrifice?

No matter how the satisfaction view is adapted in an attempt somehow to place the priority on God as merciful, there still remains the necessity of Jesus’ oh-so-violent crucifixion for salvation to happen. This alleged necessity raises numerous problems. It does seem to impose a kind of mechanistic dynamic onto the free and dynamic God of the Bible. God can’t simply forgive breeches of God’s honor or holiness because God is governed by the moral dynamics of a universe that limits what God can do. God can only respond with forgiveness when certain conditions are met (and, in effect, at that point God has to respond thus). As well, as emphasized by Weaver and by Brock and Parker (and, interestingly, also acknowledged by Boersma), the motif of God-required violence that is central to the Jesus as necessary sacrifice model of atonement invariably leads to justifications of human on human violence. If God is punitive, so too (like it or not) will be God’s worshipers.

Can Jesus’ death be meaningful in a non-satisfaction way?

For those who would affirm the “mercy all the way down” view alone, the question remains, though, about whether Jesus’ death is meaningful. If you reject the satisfaction view that sees the meaning in a necessary sacrifice that makes salvation possible, is there any other way to see meaning in the crucifixion?

There is a major problem for those who would simply and unequivocally say, no, there is no way to see meaning is this unmitigatedly evil act of violence. This is that the New Testament itself tells the story in a way that highlights throughout that Jesus’ death is meaningful. The gospels are written in such a way as to highlight the passion narratives (some interpreters have gone so far to label the Gospel of Mark, at least, as a passion story with an extended introduction). The writings of Paul, the book of the Acts of the Apostles, and the book of Revelation—along with the rest of the New Testament’s shorter writings (including especially the book of Hebrews)—all in various ways refer to the cross as central to the basic salvation story.

And yet, the New Testament valorizing of Jesus’ death does not easily settle the discussion. It could be that the writers were misled. They were so close to the event and had such a stake in understanding it in a way that would not undermine their movement, that they were forced to lift it up as something meaningful. Being further removed from that historical moment, we could now say that the New Testament overemphasizes the significance of that event and in unhelpful ways turns something that actually was without meaning into something they could claim was full of meaning. The movement has survived regardless, and we Christians now have no need further to perpetuate those positive interpretations of Jesus’ death.

A variant on this point would be to say that part of what fueled the very first Christians take on Jesus’ life was their view of God. They could not imagine that God would not have been in control of events. So, they had to see Jesus’ death as meaningful because to think otherwise would be to see God as not in control after all. Since then, we have developed theologies that allow for more nuance in thinking about God’s relation to the world. We can now understand that recognizing God’s limited power does not require us to deny that God nevertheless is real and does relate to the world in redemptive ways—just not in controlling ways. So it is possible to affirm God’s reality and also accept that Jesus’ death was empty of meaning.

Some thoughts on the question of meaningfulness

There is another approach, though, that is possible. It could be that the New Testament has something else altogether in mind when it portrays Jesus’ death as meaningful than satisfaction atonement theology. It could be that Jesus’ death is meaningful in ways other than as a necessary sacrifice to God required for salvation to be possible. And, in fact, the New Testament does not present Jesus’ death as a necessary sacrifice to satisfy God’s honor or holiness. The New Testament simply does not explain the inner workings of how Jesus’ death is a meaningful act that is linked with human salvation. The satisfaction view has become so embedded in Western theology that its adherents simply assume that it is based on the Bible. However, at its core it does not have direct biblical warrant.

How, then, might we think further about these issues? Here are some thoughts.

(1) The actual events in the story of Jesus’ death show that the conflicts leading up to his death, his arrest, his encounters with the religious and political leaders, and his execution were evil and without positive meaning. Jesus was put to death in a terrible miscarriage of justice by people whose acts had no redemptive value. There is no positive meaning in these events beyond Jesus’ own courage and steadfastness and the loyalty of a few of his closest friends.

(2) It was not God’s will that Jesus be crucified. This event happened strictly due to the social structures that coalesced in hostility to God in killing this profoundly faithful prophet. Religious institutionalism, political authoritarianism, and cultural exclusivism—the Powers that Jesus overtly opposed—joined together to put him to death. Though they claimed to be acting on behalf of God (or the gods) in eliminating this “trouble-maker,” their motives were not faithfulness of self-preservation. They are revealed to be enemies of God, not God’s agents. Their killing Jesus was pure rebellion against God’s intentions.

(3) Therefore, if we do find positive meaning in the story of Jesus’ death, it is meaning that is retrospective. We read back into the story a sense that here, amidst the strictly evil and meaningless actions of the agents of structures in rebellion against God, nonetheless something that did prove to have positive meaning occurred. Whatever positive meaning we find in this story is a consequence of seeing after all the events were over that the evil did not prevent goodness from also occurring—not because of the evil but in spite of it.

(4) There can be positive meaning drawn such evil acts. It is meaningful to learn from those acts that we need to do all we can do to prevent their recurrence. We must work to echo Jesus’ resistance to the violence of religious institutionalism, political authoritarianism, and cultural exclusivism that scapegoats, persecutes, and executes prophets of restorative justice and compassion. It is meaningful to learn the lesson from the story of Jesus’ death that governmental and religious structures tend toward domination. They can all too easily become idols. People who see Jesus as revelatory of the true God will treat these structures with great suspicion, especially when they claim to be acting as God’s agents in their violent practices.

(5) To draw positive meaning from acts of evil such as Jesus’ crucifixion is a way of challenging the hegemony of the Powers responsible for the evil acts. If we see that even in face of the events leading up to and including Jesus’ death, horrendous as they were, Jesus remained committed to his path of resistance and solidarity with vulnerable people, we can affirm that the evil is not ultimate.

(6) In light of these points, Jesus’ call to his followers to “take up the cross and follow” also has positive meaning. It is not a call to see suffering and death as anything but evil. It is not a call to passivity in obeying a “holy” God who deals out “righteous and necessary” punishment. Rather, it is a call wholeheartedly to resist any and all acts by people in power to harm, punish, violate, scapegoat, disempower, and impose order through violence. Recognize that such resistance might lead to suffering, even death. But the actual meaning is in the resistance, not the suffering. But the suffering does not negate the meaning; the evil does not conquer the good.

(7) Finally, the meaning of Jesus’ death only becomes clear in relation to the larger story of which it is part. Very briefly, we may say that the heart of this larger story is the mercy of God that brings salvation to humanity from the very beginning. When we look at the Old Testament part of the story, we see over and over how God brings salvation utterly apart from needing satisfaction. In fact, as Hosea 11 emphasizes, it is precisely because God is a holy God that God comes with mercy and not retribution. So, the path to salvation has been opened from the start—Jesus’ death adds nothing to this opening beyond its (extraordinary powerful) witness to the reality of God’s mercy. The next part of the larger story, of course, is how God vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead—not as an act that makes salvation possible in a way that it wasn’t before, but simply as an (extraordinarily important) act that reveals as nothing else ever will God’s merciful character and the power of God’s love to defeat the Powers.

[For a much longer discussion of many of these themes, see my book length manuscript: Mercy, Not Sacrifice: The Bible’s Salvation Story]

20 thoughts on “Does Jesus’ Death Have Meaning?

  1. I think it is inescapable that Jesus’ death on the cross was meaningful. In what sense was it necessary? I, too, have trouble reconciling the view that God required it with what else we know about God. Was it necessary because the principalities and powers were so strong that only through allowing them to crucify our Lord and then for Him to be resurrected that their power could be defeated? This view has God acknowledging that the power of evil produces the result of the crucifixion, but doesn’t have God requiring it. It’s about the best I can come up with.

  2. Thanks, Bill. While I am reluctant to use the word “necessary” in any sense (because it seems to me to imply that God willed Jesus’ crucifixion), I think what I am trying to say is quite close to your point. I do think the centerpiece of the meaning of Jesus’ death is in how it (with his resurrection) “defeats” the Powers.

  3. Ted, when you speak of ‘whole-hearted resistance’ to people in power in your 6th closing point, I don’t think you’re being clear enough that action cannot signify a whole-heartedness unless part of this resistance includes a resistance of schemes of tit-for-tat that lead to exchanges of evil-for-evil. I think this great term ‘whole-hearted’ could be developed to inform a clear sense that evil is only to be overcome by good. I like the attempt to take the idea of ‘good’ away from suffering while at the same time warning that suffering will come – along with the ‘true good’ of resistance.

    The Son was crucified, I think, because death is part of incarnation for one wholly made man; it is clearly ‘ordained’ for all born of woman, and we need not think that God required it to be horrible – that was a matter of circumstances, as you say).

    But for me the resurrection is also only part of the picture of incarnation, and not the explanation of the picture – I think the explanation for the whole mission was the pouring out of the spirit after the incarnation was truly finished – that is, after the ascension.

    Anyway, you are being courageous here, and thank you.

  4. I appreciate your thoughts, John. Good to hear from you again. I think you are certainly correct concerning “whole-heartedness” breaking from from tit-for-tat. I will try to incorporate that thought when I work on this further.

    I also think your point about the pouring out of the Spirit as part of the mission is important and one I need to think about further.

    1. I enjoyed Boersma’s Intro and Chapter One, he helped me see into the concept of ‘hospitality’ as a very high spiritual virtue. Although I thought Derrida goes too far with it.

      But already in Chapter Two he begins to distort (in my opinion) this wonderful concept by trying to sell it as ‘limited.’ In order to put it into service on behalf of those theological atonements that, as you say, are not really lying on the surface of Scripture. I couldn’t finish the book and so didn’t get much out of it vis-a-vis ‘atonement’ or the cross.

      I want to read Weaver’s book soon.

  5. I think that is another way to see God as merciful, and in a way that does not abridge understanding the “wrath” of God. I was struck to see that the Gospel of John, and a number of epistles say that all things were created by Christ, or I think that means that “saviour”, “Jesus” was responsible for creation. I take that to mean that God/Jesus created man/me knowing that I would choose my own way, and that I would need redemption.
    Now I assume that if God knew any other way to redeem us/me, he would have not sent his Son to die.
    In psychological or criminal systems of young people, the “family systems” is often looked at as a significant part of the problem.
    Genesis tells us that the “Human systems” have a major me first flaw. And only by God personally entering the human arena, could the flawed human system be fixed. And of course when God entered the flawed human system, it killed him. In the garden, it was the Fathers intention, and Jesus decision to stay the course, even though they both knew it could only end in Jesus death.
    Empire is a symptom of the failed human system, but it is a mistake to assume the root enemy is “Empire”, rather the enemy is the human decision, my decisions to seek my own welfare above the welfare of others.
    As I see it “God’s Wrath” is his merciful way of setting limits on the hell that men can create on earth. This love is a tough love, Israel spent 40 years in the desert on the way to the promised land because of the “wrath”. Israel spent 70 years in exile because of the “wrath of God”. But this was God’s love and mercy, not his anger and hatred, not his demand for sacrifice.
    And so we break the bread saying: “This is Christ’s body broken for you”, and serve the wine saying: “This is Christ’s blood shed for you”.
    Redemption has never been cheap. Our own participation in God’s redemptive way is not cheap either. Read Roman 8:31-39 listing all the things that cannot separate us from the Love of God, but they are really scary things, we should never underestimate the cost of participating in the redemption of the “human system”.
    May God Have Mercy, Christ have mercy on us poor sinners.

    1. Thanks, Al. I always appreciate your thoughtful reflections.

      What you say here makes a lot of sense. I would want to be clear that in my approach, I am not wanting to deny the significance of God’s wrath. What I reject is the mechanistic and legalistic view that limits God’s mercy due to an understanding of justice/holiness/honor that in some sense stands independent of the mercy.

      I want to say it’s “mercy all the way down” and that “wrath” must be understood as subordinate to mercy. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

      At the same time, I want to also challenge your statement that the only way God could “redeem” us is to send Jesus to die. In saying this, you are ignoring that the Old Testament and the gospels are full of examples of God redeeming people—all prior to and not dependent on Jesus dying. Whatever Jesus’ death might mean, it can’t mean (in the context of the entire Bible) that God can’t redeem us without it.

      1. I really don’t understand your last paragraph about redemption not dependent on Jesus dying.
        If you are saying people were redeemed without knowing and believing in the death and Resurrection of Jesus, yes. But wasn’t that redemption in believing in the God who sent his Son to die because of his love and mercy. Certainly Abraham believed in God’s mercy without knowing that the “lamb” that spared Abraham’s son, what the Son of God, but wasn’t the death and Resurrection of Jesus involved or implied by that mercy of God?

        If God could “redeem” us without being killed by the evil in man and in the powers, then why did Jesus come with the expectation that he would die?
        It seems to me that there is a great difference between God so loved the world that he was willing for his Son to die, and God so loved the world that He gave his only Son to die (and he died).
        How do you see the New Covenant in Jesus broken body and shed blood?

  6. Ted, I understand your logic in describing what makes Jesus’ death “meaningful”as going something like this:

    1, Jesus is killed by a coalition of social, religious and political Powers that, purporting to be good, in executing him show themselves to be evil.

    2. Jesus’ death exposes the inherent tendency of those Powers to do evil. That’s meaningful for us, since we tend to idolize them.

    3. Jesus’ death is, furthermore, meaningful in that it both enjoins us, his followers, to also resist those Powers, and instructs us how to resist—by his way, non-violently.

    4. The Resurrection vindicates Jesus’ way of resistant, non-violent love. It exposes the evil Powers as ultimately powerless before such love, and overthrows them, at least provisionally. Further, Jesus’ Resurrection victory promises his followers’ vindication.

    It seems to me that your analysis moves in the direction of an updated version of the Christus Victor atonement theory.

    To the question, “Did Jesus “have to die?”: what about this response. Given that Jesus made the critical choice of being a “suffering servant” (Isaiah) rather than the militant Messiah most of Judiasm seems to have been expecting (and to which he may have been tempted), then, realistically, yes, he had to die–not because of God’s need for satisfied honor or for a sacrificial victim (even one proffered “mercifully”), but because of the implacable resistance “all the way down” of human sin. And perhaps additionally necessary in that laying down one’s life for enemies is the fullest demonstration of love, which is God’s “coup de grace” against God’s enemies.

    One more thought your post triggers. From early teenage years, when I worried about whether I was “saved,” I have struggled to understand “atonement”—not only why Jesus had to die, but also how to appropriate his atonement. Perhaps this goes beyond your intention in this post, but I’d really like to know how, as you see it, personal, structural and cosmic “at-one-ment” with God happen? How are those processes different and how are they unified? And I’d like to hear you expand on this statement early in your post: “What is required is not a payment to God but a breaking through of human blindness to the forgiving and transforming mercy of God that, when trusted in, provides healing from the brokenness caused by human sin.” What does it mean to “trust in” this mercy? How do I know when I’ve trusted in it? When I say that “Jesus (out of mercy) died for me”? (“Faith”?) When I endeavor to practice a life of mercy? (“Works”?) Have you written about atonement elsewhere?
    Thanks for opening a vital topic.

    1. Thanks, Philip. Great comments. In fact, the questions you raise in your last paragraph are so challenging to me that I plan to write another whole blog post responding to them—either this Sunday or shortly thereafter.

      I am writing a book on salvation that is the closest I have come to writing about atonement. I linked to that at the end of post ( I plan to revise and complete it this summer. I am thinking of changing the title to Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and add material that more overtly addresses the atonement models.

      I will try to write more very soon in response to your other thoughts in your response. I think you understand what I am saying pretty well.

      1. A couple more comments, Philip, though I will be leaving reflections on your final paragraph to a longer blog post.

        (1) Your summary of my “logic” seems about right. I definitely think there are some “Christus Victor” elements there (especially if you substitute the Powers as I referred to them for “Satan” in the classic view). But there are also some Moral Influence elements. God’s love shown in Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection are what provide the content for the new understanding of reality that opens our eyes and provides our direction.

        But I want to get away from the idea of “atonement models” altogether. To me they all imply too much of a focus on Jesus’ death as the locus for God’s saving work. The actual story, I think, places the locus on God’s saving love expressed from the beginning in creation and God’s work with Israel. Jesus’ death, properly understood, at most illumines this saving love that exists before and independent of Jesus’ death.

        (2) I like what you say in response to the “did Jesus have to die?” question a lot. So much, it seems, hinges on what we mean by “have to die.” (a) If we mean, it was inevitable (as you seem to be saying), that seems to fit the story. But (b) if we mean “God required it” or “God had to have it,” then we are diverging from the story. However, it seems generally the phrase is used in relation to the second sense. That’s why I would prefer to avoid the language of “necessary” or “have to die.” It seems clearer simply to say “it was inevitable” if that’s what we mean.

  7. This is my response to Al Steiner.

    Challenging questions, Al.

    I do believe that the notion of redemption in the Old Testament had nothing to do with Jesus’ death and resurrection. I don’t see how it could have, since none of the writers or actors in the stories could have known anything about Jesus. Redemption was based on God’s mercy and nothing else. The Law and sacrifices were, when properly understood, seen as responses to that mercy.

    And, the thing is, this is what Jesus himself taught and practiced, too. He got into big trouble because he offered forgiveness directly and by-passed the sacrificial system. When he taught and offered salvation, he never said anything about the salvation not being valid until he died and was raised.

    I definitely believe, in light of the Old Testament and Jesus’ life and teaching, that “God ‘could’ [and does] redeem us without being killed by the evil in [humanity] and in the powers.” And I don’t think Jesus’ “came with the expectation he would die,” if that means that from his birth (or during his “preexistence”) he expected to die the way he did. We of course aren’t told much of Jesus’ inner awareness, but I tend to think his sense that he was heading for a violent death came gradually, as he realized how intransigent the Romans and religious leaders were in response to his message.

    So, the question is not whether God “could redeem us” without Jesus’ death—if God could not, then that makes God subject to some forces that are stronger than God’s mercy. Rather, the point seems to be that God wanted to reveal Godself to humans in such a profound way that we would realize that indeed God can and does redeem us out of pure mercy if we simply trust in God and respond to that mercy with our faithfulness. I don’t think it was predetermined what exactly that revelation would look like over the course of Jesus’ life beyond being characterized by his showing what God’s mercy is like.

    Given the hostile responses that Jesus received (which were not predetermined but the consequences of a series of human choices shaped by the social dynamics of the fallen structures), his way of revealing God’s love took the form of his “broken body and shed blood.” I’m not quite sure how to understand “new covenant,” because clearly Jesus and Paul did not see themselves as starting a new religion or being outside the covenant God had made with Israel. Perhaps it’s best understood as “new” in the sense not of replacing the old but in the sense of newly re-emphasizing the original covenant made of old.

    Thanks for the stimulus to think more on these important issues.

    1. I still don’t understand, redemption without Jesus death. If Jesus had decided in the garden that the Cross was too much and He would instead take a walk and not be killed, would I/we still have redemption?

      I looked at various scriptures describing Jesus death from various strands of early Christian teaching, Matt. 26, Romans 5, Hebrews, Acts 2, Rev 5:6 all of which give me the impression that redemption is based on the sacrifice of Jesus, His blood shed for us. Are we to understand that these can also be interpreted to say that the Son of God did not need to be Sacrificed.

      I certainly agree that God wanted to show us his overwhelming mercy in the death and Resurrection of His Son. You stated: “So, the question is not whether God “could redeem us” without Jesus’ death—if God could not, then that makes God subject to some forces that are stronger than God’s mercy.”

      Is it possible to see that God deliberately limits Himself to give me/human kind a choice to make God first in our lives, or to make ourselves first?
      In this view, the “Wrath of God” are consequences by God in response to our me first choices. In His great mercy God continues to offer us redemption, but as it is written in John 3 18 “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. 19 And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. 20 All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. ” and in may other teachings of Jesus, there are terrible consequences for those of us who do not choose to believe and put God first in their lives. Is this not also part of who God is and how He works?

      I tend to get confused trying to see Jesus as sacrifice, and God only as Love and Mercy. I wonder if that is not an over-simplification of the mystery of God. We see over and over that God is Love, He is merciful, He gave his Son as the “way” to redeem us, and yet in His mercy He created us in His image to walk with God, but also with the ability to create Hell for ourselves and others. I/We have the choice to walk away from God, and experience “God’s Wrath”. Is this not also the God we know?

      Also when Jesus death is referred to as sacrifice, as His blood shed as a sacrifice for the sins of many (Matt 26), does this not link his death with all of the other sacrifices for sin? In some way, fulfilling the sacrifices that came before? I don’t believe the sacrifice was a payment to the Devil or to the powers. Is not the sacrifice somehow related to the God of Mercy and Love and Wrath? Is it related to the “law?” of consequences for sin, that God by His Wrath limits the amount of Hell a “me first” person can create during his life? How do you interpret the many times Jesus death is referred to as sacrifice, even though there are other references that speak of Jesus death related to the mercy of God?

  8. Thanks for your continuing challenges, Al.

    My short answer to your question, whether we would “still have redemption” if Jesus hadn’t been killed, is “Yes, certainly.” To answer, “No,” it seems to me is to discount the Old Testament and Jesus’ own life and teaching. The prophets and Jesus all certainly taught that people who turned to God “had redemption” apart from Jesus’ death.

    It seems to me that you are jumping into the biblical story ¾ of the way in and ignoring what is taught in the first ¾ of the story. Whatever it is that Paul and the other NT writers have in mind in talking about Jesus’ death and redemption, they don’t seem to see themselves as negating the earlier portrayal of redemption as strictly grounded in God’s mercy and not requiring sacrifices to God that are required before God can save.

    On big issue is what do we mean by “sacrifice.” It is notable that the NT actually hardly ever uses the word “sacrifice” when it talks about Jesus’ death and about salvation (only in Romans 3 and 1 John—and in both cases the translation of the word that in each place is “sacrifice” in the NIV is hotly contested)—outside the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is extraordinarily difficult to interpret and scarcely the centerpiece of the NT thought. Even so, Jesus in Hebrews is likened more to the priestly role than the sacrifice role. Regardless, in none of these texts or any other is Jesus’ death portrayed as a sacrifice to God that is needed for God to effect salvation. There simply is no textual support for that idea.

    When you refer to Matthew 26, I assume you have in mind Jesus’ words at the Last Supper (26:26-29). But notice that he does not use the term “sacrifice.” We tend to import into his words meaning from later, post-biblical atonement theology. Jesus says, simply, “This is the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Remember that in Leviticus 17:14, we are told “life is in the blood.” Given that Jesus already practiced “the forgiveness of sins,” why could we not understand him to be saying here that he offers his life as proof of God’s mercy that forgives all who turn to God.

    I think “wrath” is indeed an important element of the biblical teaching. I tend to follow Paul’s discussion in Romans 1 that portrays this “wrath” in terms of God allowing idolaters to reap the consequences of their trusting in lifeless idols—more than active anger from God. And certainly, Paul does not present this “wrath” as being an attribute of God that is in any way in tension with or independent of God’s love and mercy.

  9. The book group that I participate in is reading your new book, “Instead of Atonement,” and we will be discussing Chapter 2 (and the Part 1 intro) next week. Our group is made up of individuals from all walks of life, not clergy, who are asking questions about religion and being Christian.

    It seems to me that the topic of salvation should include talk about “salvation from what?” Do we need to be saved from God? Satan? ourselves? each other? At the root of this topic, I think from the traditional Christian sense, is sin. Further, I would expect the topic of Salvation in the Old Testament to touch on the topic of Original Sin, it seems to me that to many the need for substitutionary atonement is rooted in the idea of original sin.

    I don’t think you touch on Original Sin in your book, nor for that matter much about sin directly, although it is very much implied throughout. Am I wrong in thinking that Original Sin is related to Salvation? Or is that because the idea of Original Sin is foreign to the Old Testament you don’t discuss it?

    Congrats on the completion/publication of the book, I see it has been a while in coming. I bought it when it came out this summer, read it, and recommended it for our group this fall. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Frank. I am—of course—delighted to hear of your book group and appreciate your recommendation.

      The way I would say it (and I agree I don’t spell this out clearly enough) is that we mainly need to be saved from our bondage to the Powers. My discussion of the three Powers that killed Jesus is meant to illumine that point.

      You are right, I don’t discuss “original sin” by that name. In my reading, this is a concept that emerges with Augustine and is not overtly biblical. In fact, I think the Bible as whole (OT and NT) has a pretty positive view of the human possibility of actually following the law pretty well.

      I do hope to write a sequel that will focus on the history of theology. I plan to have a chapter on Augustine that will address the theology of original sin.

      Basically, I would say that God’s response to sin is to seek to bring healing to the brokenness sin (defined especially as trusting in idols, living in bondage to the power of sin that is enabled by idolatry), not to condemn it or require a sacrifice to satisfy God’s honor/holiness/justice/wrath in order to make salvation possible. Since this idea of satisfaction, like original sin, is largely post-biblical, I will be saving my treatment of it for the second book. This first book, Instead of Atonement, is meant to be a summary of the biblical picture.

  10. Al, i’ve been recently reading Rita Nakashima Brock’s book Journeys by Heart; due to to some misgivings i’ve felt over her position regarding Jesus’ death, i google and was fortuitously led to your article.

    and thus, i want to thank you for your thoughts on this subject; you have thereby expanded the meaning of the cross in ways that honors it and layers it with the most timely insights.

    much appreciated, hector

  11. know I have replied here before, but it is again “lent”. I am again reflecting on Jesus , His life, His death, His resurrection, His Spirit with me today, and what all this means for me. For me, God’s shows his everlasting love through sending his Son to lead the warfare with evil. His life, His death and His resurrection are the beacon light of my life, they are my hope for something more than the kinds of hell I see on earth. The terrible story of Abraham being called to sacrifice his God given son of his very old age is completed by God supplying a sacrificial lamb. Jesus chose his confrontation with the existing powers at “Passover” the celebration of safety by the blood of a lamb as part of the deliverance from long years of slavery in Egypt. By proclaiming “his blood shed” and “His body broken” Jesus strongly identified himself as the sacrificial “lamb of deliverance”.

    Jesus story, is the story of God the Father’s love for the world so deep that He sent his only Son to die. Prophets before had spoken of our “healing by his stripes”. God’s love not only disciplined his called out nation, God sent his only Son for the salvation of that nation and of the world. In deep agony on the last night, Jesus the Son chose to stay with God’s plan as sacrifice and face the horrible death by extreme torture on a cross. It is that love by God that draws me to Jesus, not Buddha or Confucius.

    For me, Jesus death has to do with me personally repenting of my sins, my selfishness, my wanting my way, again and again, and feeling forgiven, that I have restored my relation to God, Jesus, Father and Spirit. I too must chose again and again to die, to accept the loss of my way, and instead, with Jesus’ Spirit, I strive to love God with all my heart, all of my strength, all of my spirit, and all of my body, and I strive to love my neighbor as myself. Knowing that God died for me is critical to my belief that he loves me enough to forgive me.

    I decided to try to do a study of what the new testament says about Jesus, life, purpose, death and resurrection. I do not know Greek, so that I use the with several different translations, to try for a broader understanding of what has been said.

    Again and again I read in the Bible that Jesus died for my sins, His death was a sacrifice and gift, that this is an expression of how God loved the world and me so much that He sent his Son to redeem me, to free the world and me from sin by the death of Prince Jesus, his only Son to die for me. I understand this was to restore the loving obedient relationship between me and God. The relationship includes living in the right way with God, with others, with myself, with the world around me.

    I understand that Jesus came to engage in a battle with the hold of sin in the world, the effect of man/our/my decision to choose knowledge of good and evil so that I could be my own god. Jesus engaged in this battle with our/my slavery to sin, my desire to be god, and the powers of greed, of slavery, of lust for power, popularity, pleasure, position, and plenty. It was a battle to the death, but Jesus conquered in death and was raised back to life. Jesus sent his disciples out to carry on his mission to build His body in many local places, so that each congregation of his body would continue His battle empowered by His Spirit, with His new covenant in our lives. We remember his sacrificial death, resurrection and battle, every time we participate in communion/eucharist.

    I am called to be a living sacrifice, a part of Jesus body today, continuing to work out God’s purpose to redeem the world, to restore the world back into God’s Kingdom. In God’s love, Jesus lead the way as “The sacrifice”, the first in the way to life through death. Jesus taught that: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25 What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 26 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”(Luke 9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV))

    Remembering God’s love through Jesus sacrificial death is what we do in communion/eucharist as we remember his death and the promise of Jesus return and the restoration of God’s Kingdom.

    I see in Hebrews: Jesus sacrificial death did something that all of the temple sacrifices (perhaps all sacrifices) were not able to do. (I think the sacrifices are an admission that we/mankind cannot deal with our sin and find reconciliation to God by ourselves, we need help from God.) God sent his only Son as a sacrifice to supply help to us human sinners. Nowhere in this section is that anything about Jesus sacrificial death to satisfy God’s anger, instead it says that Jesus sacrificial death was God’s gift to help us human sinners deal with our guilt and shame so that we can be reconciled with God.

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