[I just completed and sent to the publisher a book manuscript with the working title, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness. Hopefully it will be out by next summer. Here’s an except from the conclusion.]
For many Christians, the “biblical view” of salvation centers on Jesus’ death. The doctrine of salvation (“soteriology”) is defined in terms of how Jesus’ death makes salvation possible. It is linked closely with the atonement, which is commonly defined as “how Christ accomplished our justification (i.e., being found just or righteous before God) through his sacrifice on the cross” (Stephen Long, “Justification and atonement,” in The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology, 79).
I believe that the Bible’s portrayal of salvation actually does not focus on Jesus’ death as the basis for reconciliation of humanity with God. Not all accounts of salvation that place Jesus’ death as central explicitly argue in favor of retributive justice as part the divine economy that must be satisfied by a sacrifice such as Jesus’ death. However, I suspect that any view of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice necessary for salvation at least implicitly accepts retributive justice as an element of the process of providing for salvation.
Salvation and restorative (not retributive) justice
I have made a case: (1) to see that salvation in the Bible is not centered on Jesus’ death as a necessary pre-requisite for salvation to be made available, and (2) to see that the dynamics of justice that undergird salvation in the Bible are best understood as restorative and not retributive. In a nutshell, I argue that the biblical story of salvation portrays God as reaching out to human beings with mercy. The God of the Bible responds to human brokenness, violence, and sinfulness with healing love. In telling the salvation story in this way, the Bible refutes the logic of retribution.
If salvation stems from a holy and pure God being governed by the need to destroy sin and impurity unless God’s righteous anger is dealt with, then the logic of retribution may be validated. However, if salvation according to the Bible instead may be most accurately understood as contrary to the logic of retribution, governed by God’s simple healing mercy—unearned by human repayment, unconditional except for human acceptance of it—one of the main bases for affirming the logic of retribution will be refuted.
The Bible’s basic story: Old Testament
The Old Testament emphasizes a few key moments at the heart of salvation: (1) the calling of Abraham and Sarah to parent descendants (miraculously, given Sarah’s barrenness) who would form a people who will bless all the families of the earth; (2) the liberation of these descendants from slavery in Egypt and the threat of annihilation they faced there at the hands of Egypt’s god-king Pharaoh; (3) the coalescing of these liberated slaves into a coherent peoplehood shaped by Torah, given by God to the people through their leader, Moses; (4) the establishment of this community in the promised land to enable them to sustain their peoplehood in a real-world environment; and (5) the sustenance of this community even in the face of the destruction of their main political and religious institutions by the Babylonians through the promises voiced by the prophets and the perseverance of Torah as their organizing blueprint.
The story portrays each of these five “moments” as expressions of God’s unilateral mercy. Each is a gift of a loving God, not the fruit of human action, rituals, or payments to God. In none of these cases are we led to believe that God was constrained by holiness or the need to balance the scales of justice before the gift is given. Certainly, at least in some cases, violence, even punishment, may be seen as an element of the story. Human beings do reap consequences for their injustice and resistance to God. However, in terms of the basic gift, the violence is peripheral. The gift does not require that there be pre-payment of appeasement or punishment. The gift is unearned; the violence is not inherent in its bestowal.
The centrality of the gift may be seen in the role the law and sacrifices play in salvation. Both are second steps, responses to the gift. God acts directly to give life to Abraham and Sarah; then they offer sacrifices. God acts directly to liberate the Hebrew slaves from Egypt; then God gives the law to shape the people’s responsive living. Salvation is not the consequence of obedience to the law or the offering of sacrifices. To the contrary, obedience to the law and the offering of sacrifices are consequences of salvation.
Old Testament prophets, who voiced sharp critiques of Israel’s practical repudiation of Torah’s moral vision, reinforce the basic message of the salvation story. Salvation is a gift; it simply requires trust, while its fruit is faithful living. Reject the gift and you will face consequences—but even then, God awaits your return should you choose to do so. The point of the consequences is not punishment, nor is it that God is unable to forgive without the scales of justice being balanced. Rather, the consequences remind people that wholeness requires harmony with the God of the universe. The consequences themselves point toward God’s healing love that must be trusted in for it to heal.
The events ultimately vindicate the prophets. First of all, the Hebrews’ unwillingness to trust God and instead trust in the ways of the nations and their power politics and injustices leads to the failure of the Hebrew kingdoms, first the northern kingdom of Israel and then the southern kingdom of Judah. Secondly, though, and more profoundly, the underlying message of God’s persevering love remains when the Hebrew people’s tradition and community survives the fall of Jerusalem. According to the prophecies in Second Isaiah, this survival itself is a gift. God’s will for healing emerges as more fundamental than God’s anger at the people’s unfaithfulness.
It is not as a nation-state successful in power politics that Israel is sustained. Abraham’s descendants do keep their identity. They are scattered widely, but also retain a presence back in Judea. They remain at the mercy of the empires and always long for something more secure. Still, the promise to Abraham remains in effect and the tradition survives.
The Bible’s basic story: The New Testament
The next stage in the biblical story of salvation emerges when a prophet arises in Galilee, a kind of Jewish in-between area, nearer than the diaspora, but outside of Judea. This prophet shares a name with one of the Old Testament’s main heroes: Joshua/Jesus. This name also expresses an aspiration. Jesus means “savior” or “liberator.” As presented in the four gospels, Jesus overtly linked himself with his forebears—not only Joshua, but Moses, Elijah, and a few other key prophets.
Remarkably, given how Christian theology has evolved in the centuries since Jesus’ lifetime to assert a disjunction between “Christian salvation” and “Old Testament salvation,” Jesus’ message actually places him squarely within the mainstream of the Old Testament salvation story. For Jesus, salvation is a gift. Obedience follows as a response to the gift. Jesus affirms Torah as thesource of guidance for this obedience-as-a-response-to-God’s-mercy.
The story of Jesus stands in continuity with the Old Testament salvation story and embraces the logic of mercy, not the logic of retribution. In Jesus, as in the Old Testament, God responds to brokenness not with punitive violence but with unconditional mercy. The spiral of violence that leads to vengeance that leads to brokenness and more violence must be resisted. Forgiveness trumps retribution.
The story of Jesus goes further, though. What came clearer with Jesus’ story was the nature of the human predicament and the relevance of the biblical salvation story for this predicament. Rather than, as later theology often assumed, operating according to the logic of retribution, Jesus exposed retributivism as prevalent in the Powers of cultural exclusivism, religious institutionalism, and political authoritarianism, and as contrary to the will of God.
The story of Jesus’ death does add something essential to the biblical portrayal of salvation that precedes it, as traditional Christian theology affirms. But this essential element is nearly the opposite of what the traditional theology says it is. Jesus’ death reveals the logic of retribution to be the tool of evil, not the God-ordained rule of the universe. If Jesus’ basic salvation message proclaims liberation from the Powers, the story of his death reveals the true character of some of the main Powers that bind people.
Jesus proclaimed and embodied emphases from Old Testament prophets: Torah as a gift from God meant to enhance human well-being and the sustenance of liberated existence (“the Sabbath is for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath”), worship as an expression of all in the community’s access to God and as an invitation to all the families of the earth (“the temple is meant to be a house of prayer for the nations”), and political life characterized by service and mutuality (“the Gentiles’ leaders lord it over them; it must not be so with you”).
With such a message, Jesus ended up in conflict with the Powers who found themselves threatened by his alternative consciousness. Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and Romans alike asserted that Jesus violated their standards for behavior. By doing good in the way he did, by faithfully expressing God’s will for human life, Jesus found himself in conflict with the principles of the guardians of society’s alleged peace and order.
This conflict makes clear the problematic nature of these principles for peace and order. The Powers of cultural exclusivism, religious institutionalism, and political authoritarianism claim to serve God and society’s welfare. However, their standards place them at odds with the one who actually embodies the will of the true God and, hence, the authentic peace that does serve society’s welfare.
Jesus’ conflict with the Powers leads to their acts that silence him with extreme violence, in the name of their service to the gods of peace and order. When he remains firmly committed to the path of liberation, Jesus exposes the Powers as unworthy of the kind of trust they demand that, when given, leads to bondage.
The story of Jesus’ death contributes to the larger biblical story of salvation insofar as it: (1) reinforces the truthfulness of the prophetic message of God’s mercy as a critique of and alternative to the peace and order of power politics, (2) highlights the tension between Torah as revealed through Moses and the distortion of the law as an instrument of cultural exclusivism, (3) reveals the underlying violence of religious institutionalism and political authoritarianism, and (4) decisively refutes the belief that the logic of retribution reflects God’s will.
The final element of the story points both backward (and underscores the truthfulness of Jesus’ way that underscored the truthfulness of the Old Testament’s prophetic message) and forward (and offers hope that the way of Jesus indeed does express life that cannot be conquered by the Powers of death). God raises Jesus from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection vindicates his message. Rather than being ill-fated and naïve, a kind of quixotic idealism in the face of the “real world’s” overwhelming force, Jesus’ way links inextricably with the creative powers that form the universe. God blessed the way Jesus lived and taught, and God verified the message given at the time of Jesus’ baptism: “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17).
Jesus’ resurrection confirms that Jesus’ own resistance to the Powers deserves to be followed. He challenged their hegemony; he proclaimed alternative ways to their exclusivism, institutionalism, and authoritarianism; he remained utterly committed to nonviolence even in the face of their brutality.
The Bible’s salvation story and atonement theology
The differences between the Bible’s salvation story and atonement theology are significant enough to conclude that we do not find an atonement model in this story. The Bible’s salvation story does not base salvation on Jesus’ death. As David Brandos concludes, “Jesus’ death may have been seen as the center and starting point” of traditional atonement theology. However, for the Bible “what was redemptive was the whole story, that is, all the events making up that story; the cross was redemptive only to the extent that it formed a part of that story” (David Brandos, Paul on the Cross, 194-95).
My reasons for concluding that we do not have an atonement model in this story include: (1) The story places the emphasis on God’s mercy as the basis for salvation, not on Jesus’ death. Atonement theology, when it defines salvation in terms of the cross, cannot help but add complicating layers to the dynamics of salvation, whereas the Bible’s story itself from start to finish remains simple. God makes salvation available due to God’s mercy—period.
(2) The story presents justice as restorative much more than as retributive. Salvation is “just” because it restores relationships and heals brokenness due to God’s merciful initiative. This is contrary to the retributive notion that God’s justice requires punishment and sacrifice to be satisfied as a prerequisite for making salvation possible.
(3) For atonement theology, Jesus’ death is the core content. It provides a heretofore missing and necessary basis for salvation being made available. For the Bible’s salvation story, the basis for salvation is given at the very beginning and never changes: it is God’s mercy. Jesus’ death provides no new content in relation to the essence of salvation. Jesus’ death does confirm the origin basis for salvation and, crucially, reveals how powerfully the Powers resist his embodiment of God’s mercy. Likewise, Jesus’ resurrection does not change the basis for salvation but rather confirms it when it vindicates Jesus’ way of life that reiterates the original basis for salvation, which is God’s mercy.