Ok, so I’m back from hiatus working through Rob Bell’s book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. To be honest I feel like the whole thing is passé. As of now the book and the issues raised by it have been repeatedly commented on ad nauseum. Just last week Michael posted the solid recent review by Nijay Gupta. Still, the issues are weighty and there are few reviews that have gone chapter by chapter as we’re doing, Scot McKnight’s being at least one exception.
This post finds us in chapter 5 titled “Dying to Live”. It is a chapter on the meaning of Jesus death and resurrection. I’ve found a couple of things to discuss so I’m going to break this post into two.
The meaning of Jesus’ death in theological circles is called the “Atonement”. The question is: what did the death of Jesus accomplish? The chapter begins by listing some of the metaphors the New Testament uses in describing the significance of the atonement. Rob notes that the New Testament defines the meaning of death of Jesus with a number of different figures of speech: sacrifice (blood sacrifice), reconciliation (social), redemption (economic), victory (militaristic).
In Rob’s view, it is detrimental to insist on one metaphor over others because each one serves a purpose to express the multifaceted nature of Christ’s work. He states, “To elevate one over the others, is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors”. Rob believes that the choice of these figures was completely based on the culture within which the writers lived: “They were reading their world, looking for ways to communicate this epic event in ways their listeners could grasp” (129).
So what about this idea? I believe Rob is right and wrong.
Yes, the New Testament uses several figures of speech to represent the meaning of the death of Jesus. Each provides a certain window into its significance. And each addresses a certain aspect of the implication of Jesus death. Scot McKnight has compared these metaphors to golf clubs in a bag. He says that one grabs the club that best fits the particular shot. This seems true enough.
However, there is a no here too in my view. Rob seems to minimize the reality behind the metaphors. There is something more to the relationship between the signifier and the sign. For example, given the role of the sacrificial system in the Jewish Scriptures and the teaching of much in the New Testament, the death of Jesus as a substitutionary, vicarious atonement seems to be more than a symbol, more than purely an image. In God’s economy of salvation a blood sacrifice was required to expiate and propitiate the sins of Israel. Jesus is God’s end-time and final blood sacrifice. This concept of course seems barbaric and antiquated to many today. Rob is right to point out that this concept is foreign to almost everyone in the West. Yet it is difficult to conclude anything other than that this idea is a clear teaching of Scripture.
Additionally, it seems to warrant the view, espoused by many today (see recently John Dickson’s book The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips) that evangelism today must first begin with the story of Israel and the narrative of the Scripture. Otherwise, the Gospel of Jesus death and resurrection is unintelligible.
As for which symbol best captures the meaning of the death of Jesus, I find myself convinced that the ancient theory of Christus Victor is the one idea that holds all the others together. To me this seems to be central to the Gospel’s proclamation that Jesus is Israel’s Davidic Messiah (Rom 1).
For the earlier six posts see Love Wins.