[This is the third in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013).]
The story told in the gospels places itself in the heart of the traditions of Israel. Jesus presents himself in this story as embodying the promises of Yahweh to his forebears. For Jesus the Old Testament’s salvation story remains fully valid. He does not tell a different story, but proclaims the truth of the old story.
Jesus and Old Testament salvation theology
In the stories of Jesus’s birth, we learn that indeed something new is at hand, a “new thing” in full harmony with the Old Testament portrayal of salvation. There is no hint that something has to happen to God to make restoration possible. God initiates the reconciliation. God unilaterally declares that salvation has come and is especially available to vulnerable and marginalized people.
The birth of Jesus is not linked with the logic of retribution. The birth stories’ announcement of salvation’s presence contains no sense of a new approach to satisfy God’s aggrieved holiness or violated honor or to balance the scales of justice with ultimate innocent sacrifice. The stories point only to God’s initiating mercy and forgiveness.
As Jesus begins his public ministry, he expresses his own sense of continuity with the Old Testament salvation story. In his resistance to Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, Jesus quotes Israel’s scriptures. In his opening message to his home synagogue in Nazareth, he links himself with Israel’s hopes and Yahweh’s promises from the book of Isaiah. Throughout his teaching as presented in the gospels, Jesus quotes and alludes to and paraphrases the Old Testament. He never hints that he might understand his teaching as anything but in full continuity with Israel’s scriptures.
Jesus drew on Torah to transform how people viewed God’s participation among the people. People in power used debt to enhance their power and wealth at the expense of the less powerful. Jesus saw debt differently. Drawing on Torah, Jesus’s believed debt provided an opportunity for forgiveness. God does not demand repayment for every ounce of indebtedness. Rather, God offers abundant mercy. The debts would be forgiven without any kind of payment. Jesus’s God was not a God who maintained debt records for the purpose of foreclosing on the poor, but a God who canceled debt and restored life.
Jesus’s witnesses to salvation’s presence
Jesus presented the kingdom of God as already present. Because of its presence, listeners may “repent” and “believe.” Jesus offers no hint that repentance and belief are conditions God requires before making the kingdom present. Jesus did not offer to forgive those who would repent and promise to do works of restitution. He started with forgiveness; the repentance and good works were a response.
Jesus’s ministry included his healing a wide spectrum of people (see especially Matt 8–9). His welcome extended indiscriminately and unconditionally to all kinds of people. Salvation as healing here comes as a gift of a merciful God with no hint of the logic of retribution. Just as God, out of gracious initiative, liberated the Hebrew slaves in the days of old, so here, out of gracious initiative, God brings healing to those in Jesus’s world enslaved by demons, blindness, sickness, and even the trappings of power.
The Gospel of Luke tells of Jesus twice being asked directly about eternal life. In one case, the answer is love God and neighbor (Luke 10), in the other it is give one’s money to the poor (Luke 18). When we consider these responses, we see something unremarkable if we understand Jesus to be in continuity with the Old Testament. Jesus actually adds nothing to the Old Testament portrayal of salvation. What must one do to be saved? Love God wholeheartedly (Deut 6:5). Love one’s neighbors as oneself (Lev 19:18). Follow the commandments (Exod 20:1-17). We do not see in these two stories any hint that Jesus thinks of salvation in terms of the logic of retribution.
Jesus’s approach to salvation follows from his understanding of God. God is Jesus’s paradigmatic model for calling his followers to live by the logic of mercy and to reject the logic of retribution (see Luke 6:35-36). For the God that Jesus calls “Abba,” holiness leads to initiating mercy, not to initiating sacred violence in order to punish.
Jesus’s allusions to his death
According to the gospels, Jesus did point forward to his own death as a likely possibility containing salvific meaning. When Jesus called on his followers to serve others, not dominate them, he tells them they will be imitating him—even to the point of sharing in his cross: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Ancient Israelites used the term “ransom” as a metaphor for the liberation of God’s people—from slavery in Egypt and from the oppression of exile.
As Walter Wink wrote: “The deaths of Jesus and some of his disciples would ‘ransom many’ by unmasking the Powers and revealing their defection from their divine vocations. The redemptive suffering of the few would show others a new world of power relations in which ‘success’ is measured by the capacity to help liberate others” (The Human One, 94).
Jesus’s death as part of the salvation story reveals like nothing else the hostility of the fallen Powers to the social outworking of the logic of mercy. Because of the depths of their hostility, the Powers put Jesus and God to the test. How does love deal with deadly hatred? The basic issue here is whether the logic of mercy may actually make a difference in a world governed by retribution. Does Jesus offer a genuinely different way, an approach to violence that does not merely escalate the violence (either by fighting back against it or by refusing to resist it)?
So we must look more closely at the story of Jesus’s death.