[This is the sixth 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). Here is a link to the first five posts in the series.]
The Basic Argument: Old Testament Salvation
For many Christians, the “biblical view” of salvation centers on Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice required to make salvation possible. This is the doctrine of the atonement, commonly defined as “how Christ accomplished our justification through his sacrifice on the cross.” However, the Bible’s portrayal of salvation actually does not focus on Jesus’s death as the basis for reconciliation of humanity with God.
The Old Testament emphasizes a few key moments at the heart of salvation: (1) the calling of Abraham and Sarah to parent descendants who would form a people to bless all the families of the earth; (2) the liberation of these descendants from slavery in Egypt; (3) the coalescing of these liberated slaves into a coherent peoplehood shaped by Torah; (4) the establishment of this community in the promised land; and (5) the sustenance of this community even after the destruction by the Babylonians through the prophets and Torah.
The story portrays each of these five “moments” as expressions of God’s unilateral mercy. In none of these cases was God constrained by holiness or the need to balance the scales of justice before the gift is given. In some cases, violence may be seen as an element of the story. Human beings do reap consequences for their injustice. However, the violence is peripheral. The gift does not require that there be pre-payment of appeasement or punishment. It 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.
This view of salvation is reinforced by Israel’s prophets even amidst their sharp critiques. They proclaim that 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 Basic Argument: Jesus’s Message
Remarkably, given how Christian theology has since Jesus’s lifetime asserted a disjunction between “Christian salvation” and “Old Testament salvation,” Jesus’s message actually places him squarely within the Old Testament salvation story. For Jesus, salvation is a gift. Obedience follows as a response to the gift. Jesus affirms Torah as the source of guidance for this obedience-as-a-response-to-God’s-mercy.
What did come clearer with Jesus was the nature of the human predicament and the relevance of the biblical salvation story for his 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.
Jesus’s death reveals the logic of retribution to be the tool of evil, not the God-ordained rule of the universe. If Jesus’s 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. 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’s resurrection, the final element of the story, both underscores the truthfulness of Jesus’s way that underscored the truthfulness of the Old Testament’s prophetic message and offered hope that the way of Jesus indeed does express life that cannot be conquered by the Powers of death. God raising Jesus from the dead vindicates Jesus’s message and confirms that he faithfully embodied the biblical salvation story.
Instead of Atonement
The differences between the Bible’s salvation story and later 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’s death.
(1) The story places the emphasis on God’s mercy as the basis for salvation, not on Jesus’s 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 Bible’s story presents justice as restorative much more than as retributive. Salvation is “just” because it restores relationships and heals brokenness via 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’s 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’s death provides no new content in relation to the essence of salvation.
The Bible’s “Dark Side”
I have constructed a positive case for the core message of mercy in the Bible rather than to refute the counter-veiling evidence of the Bible’s affirmation of violence and punishing judgment. But the Bible does contain stories and direct teaching that speak of vengeance and retribution. How do these materials not refute my main argument?
(1) The Bible contains within itself a variety of perspectives on lots of issues, some that contradict other views within the Bible. So we should not be surprised to find pro-violence sentiment there. If we read the Bible in light of its overall message of mercy, though, we can accept that having some elements in tension with that message do not threatening its viability.
(2) The biblical perspective differs from our modern sense of a materialistic universe that operates according to impersonal laws of cause and effect. In the Bible, everything comes from God. God is involved in all actions and reactions. So for biblical people to speak of God’s connections with events in the world had somewhat different connotations than it would for modern people. At least some biblical language about God’s involvement in violence may actually be a way of speaking of the natural and impersonal processes of the world. The world is set up so that when people violate the basic harmony of healthy human inter-relating, they face negative consequences (we could call this “providential punishment”). To say God is part of this process is not to say that God acts in direct, unusual ways to punish particular people for particular acts so much as to say that God is part of the way the universe works.
(3) The story makes clear throughout that the threats, and even carried-out incidents, of judgment and retribution served the broader purposes of God’s work for salvation. Even the “providential punishing” is not an end in itself but ultimately serves redemptive ends.
(4) Mercy in the Bible means God heals that which is broken and does not simply accept brokenness and sinfulness. The healing requires resistance to the brokenness. The consequences of sinfulness, when seen as part of God’s providential work to effect healing may therefore be seen as for human beings’ welfare, even as they are “imprecise” and not always directly life-giving.
(5) So, if we look at the whole, we will see that retribution is secondary in the overall biblical perspective; mercy is central. The underlying logic is one wherein retribution, to the extent it is part of the picture at all, serves God’s merciful, healing intentions.