Discussing the Atonement When Its No Longer Cool!

I have been doing some thinking about the atonement in recent months and even though I am behind the trend of making this a focus during Lent leading up to Easter, I decided to blog about it anyway J .  At seminary, I have a professor who has pushed me to think outside of the box on what we mean when we use terms like: gospel, mission, and especially atonement.  Mark Baker is the author of two books on the subject, Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross (listed as a resource for Rob Bell’s “The God’s Aren’t Angry”) and Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (co authored with Joel Green).  Also, my good friend Dan Martin has had some good posts on the subject.  Below is my first attempt at formulating my own atonement theology on this blog:

For God so loved the cosmos that he sent his only son Jesus, to proclaim good news to the poor, the bound, the sick, the victimized, and the whole of the creation project. Many have taken the famous phrase in John 3, “For God so loved the world…” to mean that the Lord loved all of humanity. This is indeed true, but the word “cosmos” indicates a much larger scope of what God’s plan in sending Jesus accomplished. For instance, in Ephesians it talks about how God in Christ is now “gathering up all things” as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus. One foundational idea in the Scriptures in regards to the atonement is that when Jesus was crucified, his death atoned for the sin of the whole created world, not merely human sin. This is so that one day, the “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay to share in the glory of the children of God.”

A question that is often asked is: Why did Jesus have to die? It seems that his death and resurrection have accomplished many things, but it will be helpful to highlight two specific areas. The first victory of Jesus’ atonement was the substitutionary (yes, I intentionally omit the word “penal”) act on behalf of humanity. He gave his perfect life (a life that was in perfect peace with God, creation, others, and self) as a substitution for the ‘old’ humanity, enduring the full wrath of the evil powers and systems of this world. All sin was placed upon Jesus as he endured the worst possible outcome of evil, death itself. Every human has fallen to the lure of evil, disrupting the intended purpose of the creation project. In his death, Jesus chose to represent the final consequences of the injustice of the old humanity, but in resurrection he is the “firstborn over all creation,” inaugurating a “new humanity” that will begin to restore the relationships back to God’s intended purpose.

The second victory of Jesus’ atonement was a victory over Satan and the fallen powers. The demonic was determined to corrupt God’s good world through implementing decay and death, but Jesus’ victory exposed the weakness of the powers by “making a public spectacle of them.” Evil cannot triumph any longer, for Jesus has defeated it and is now gathering a people that will join him in such a victory. This victory will be fully realized when Jesus returns, bringing justice to the universe by judging and expelling all evil, while resurrecting his people for a world set in right relationships. This final realization will manifest itself in “a new heaven and a new earth,” where the “curse” of evil will be broken; and as a result, all poverty, sickness, pain, and death will be abolished for eternity!

Well, I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on these preliminary statements about atonement.  I realize that I was not all that thorough, so I invite your additions, subtractions, further thoughts, and critiques!  My main hope is to get some dialogue stirred up on the subject so that we can become better at proclaiming the hope of the world!

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  • You’re making me think, Kurt, and that’s always good.

    “Jesus chose to represent the final consequences of the injustice of the old humanity” in His death. I agree, however, I think His death was even more than a representation. It was a substitution. As you say, “Jesus’ atonement was the substitutionary”. As a sinless God-man, Jesus was able to receive the penalty for the sins I committed. There was a holy transfer of God’s wrath from me to Him.

    I guess I’m OK with the concept of “penal”. I think it’s biblical.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Dave, thanks for your thoughts here. I agree with you until you state: “There was a holy transfer of God’s wrath from me to Him.” I think the problem is not with appeasing an angry God, but with restoring the relationship that is hindered because of human disobedience as we have fallen prey to the powers of evil. God is not angry and demanding punishment, but is desiring that all can find victory over the Powers. Jesus accomplished this as our substitute, and our believing faith restores our relationship to the Father as we are declared “justified” by our covenantally faithful God. I will work this out in the near future in a post.

  • Not surprisingly, Kurt, I like where you’re going with this (thanks for the shout-out BTW).

    It dawned on me as you wrote your bit about Jesus’ “substitutionary” but not necessarily “penal” death, a point I have been missing that may make sense of this. The classic penal-substitution view, as Dave just described, is that death was God’s requirement for sin. But what if we look at it from the other side? The powers think (thought?) they own humanity since the fall, and humanity has done a pretty good job of reinforcing that view. It is the powers themselves, not God, who requires death…not as a penalty for sin, but as the ultimate demonstration of their ownership of us.

    So Jesus submitted to the powers’ greatest weapon–death–but only so he could turn it back on them through his victorious resurrection. So yes, Jesus’ death was substitutionary in that he submitted (temporarily) to the powers’ control, but only so he could finally and decisively defeat their threat.

    Does this work? I fully admit it’s only partially baked, but it may make some sense out of the conflict. It resonates to me. . .

  • Jon

    I like this, i resonate with a lot of what you are saying here…probably the whole bulk. But I will comment further later probably. The whole deal about atonement has always been dealt or leans towards the ‘penal substitution’ theory too much that other atonement theories are neglected. Sort of like the vision that Scot McKnight presented in his book “a Community called atonement” which is a superb resource!

    and Dan,
    your explanation here just makes sense all the more. I like your explanation here about Jesus’ substitutionary death in which he submitted (temporarily) to the powers’ control, but only “so he could finally and decisively defeat their threat.” It is a great way to explain it!

  • Ben

    Yes Kurt I have to agree you are on to something as stated. I also like as Dan does how you locked on more with substitution then penal. We certainly find substitution in the bible but not penal.

    When I wrestle with this I look more at why this one statement in particular gets people so upset when you disagree with it. Dan and I joked about this on Sunday at our fellowship that all penal substitution theology is, is a strategy to make feel guilty so they need their church thus putting puts in the seats, money for the pastors and feeding the beast all around. So he and I nicknamed now this theory the gospel of guilt. That may be harsh I know.

    Since you alluded to the “god’s aren’t angry” one thing I took away from that is that to say that Jesus simply appeased the wrath of angry God would not have been a new idea in human history. In fact it would have been the very same thing as all the other cults out their. I think Rob’s point with that video was if that is all it was then nothing was different, this was just one more god with one more thing he needs for you to be right with him.

    So to look at Jesus, as we should always start with, I don’t see him making people feel guilty with any aspect of his life or the good news of the Kingdom he preached about. So I LOVE the idea that Jesus substituted the death the powers demand of all of us, thus the outcome was instead of our being in Adam, and old life, we are now in Christ with new life in a way that was not possible until Jesus defeated and took away their power. Hence new life is possible because of the victory of the cross and the hope of the resurrection.

    Long live the King!

  • Kurt,
    I really enjoyed this post, and as for what you say the atonement is and accomplishes I would completely agree and I think you state it quite well.

    Where I would differ is in what you feel the atonement is not, in some sense penal.

    Now, I will readily concede that most of those who see penal substitution as central make it very individualized and neglect the other myriad aspects of the atonement.

    However, the proper response to that in my eyes is not to eliminate the penal aspect from our theology, but rather to put it in it’s proper place as one element, not as the controlling concept around which all else orbits.

    I understand why people react against PSA, but to be frank I think it usually is a reaction against a caricature or poorly articulated teaching of the belief.
    Not that people do this intentionally, they simply see the many leaders who truly teach these warped versions of PSA and see the obvious flaws in it.

    That said, real biblical PSA has never been about a vengeful God taking out his anger on a loving Son. It is about a Holy God who deeply loves and cares for his creation and his people refusing to take their pain and suffering lightly or brush it aside.

    It is easy to make PSA into the actions of an angry God, but how ‘just’ or ‘loving’ is it if God ignores the consequences of sin, the penalty of sin?
    If the actions of the man who murders your sister, the general who bombs your city, the corrupt leadership that takes food from the poor to establish their own power, if those actions are ignored or brushed aside, if there is no penalty, would those who suffered these horrors see that as a action of love towards them?

    It seems like most opposition to PSA sets one member of the Trinity against the other, but that is not what true PSA teaches. The holy, just, Triune God took seriously the sins we have enacted against each other and ourselves and took those upon himself just as he took death and the powers upon himself and defeated them.

    • Ben

      Mason, I agree that there is some element of the law court setting which begs the question then when will this judging happen? The element of PSA we all have trouble with, I think, is the notion that YHWH demands the blood for atonement. If this is true then what do we do when Jesus forgives sins while still alive. Well the standard seminary answer to that is Jesus blood forgives sins past present and future.

      On that point I think we need to investigate sin a little more. Sin as I heard put by Rob Bell I believe is “the distortion of the best kind of life.” Or perhaps even better anything that distorts or takes away from ones humanity.

      Jesus provided the alternate and ultimate way of being human the way God intended for us. His death was not necessary for this element yet his blood was the substitute for the blood the powers or evil demands of us.

      I feel it is hard for us to say that Jesus blood fully atoned for us in that Sin still exists, Sin and death are the last enemies to be defeated. Jesus certainly stripped them of their power but they are yet to be fully judged.

      I feel a deeper examination of salvation is necessary but I am becoming increasingly convinced that salvation is the awareness and pursuit of our true humanity where sin / death is the pursuit and actions of things that detract from that humanity. If this is true then Jesus life was necessary for salvation where again his death appeased the powers and crippled them.

      God as judge is entirely correct and he will come back to set the world to rights, as Tom puts it, and at that time sin and death will be fully dealt with.

      I’d love what you guys have to say about that matter and even the larger salvation picture.

      • This is deeper, and more significant, than we may be giving it credit for, guys. We need to carefully look at this. I started my own study on atonement (going slowly) by reading the Torah (heading for the gospels next, then epistles), and I discovered something interesting. . .while there are blood sacrifices in the Torah that are called “sin offerings,” two very important, but usually-overlooked, facts jumped out at me:

        1) The blood of the sin offerings is never described in the Torah as conditional for forgiveness. In point of fact it often seems more like a means of thanksgiving and worship for sin forgiven, rather than a payment or atonement to request forgiveness.

        2) There are a whole lot of sacrifices in Torah–perhaps more than the sin ones–that have nothing to do with sin or forgiveness at all. They are simply a means of thanksgiving or worship or fellowship.

        Now I haven’t gotten to Paul yet. . .and I know both the Pauline epistles and Hebrews have a lot to say on the subject. I’m not claiming this is a finished thought in any way. However, I think the usual assumptions that a holy God required blood in payment for sin are, at the very least, a vast oversimplification, and quite possibly a flagrant misrepresentation of the God we serve.

        As I get deeper in this, you can be sure I’ll be writing up a lot more. . .

  • Steve H.

    Love the elaboration on Jesus’s resurrection being the first for all of us ushering in a new humanity. I for one, am looking forward to the fulfillment of this promise. Good post!

  • Michael McAleer

    The victory over Satan idea is so very prominent right now in my own thinking. If there was ever anything more needed in the world today I do not know what it might be. When people can understand that through the life giving Spirit there is now victory over sin that entraps them and the power to live a different life people really do go “aha now I have found it.” Colossians is such a great book for this. When the universe, including our worldview, gets “put to rights” as N.T Wright talks about There is finally justice without the old God-for-a-judge image being necessary.

  • Guy

    Have you read Christus Victor? Gustaf Aulen makes an interesting case that the penal substitution theory was not the dominant view for at least the first thousand years of the church. Recently, N.T. Wright has argued that the Christus Victor views are not incompatible with *some* version of the substitutionary views.

  • Very good post.

    What are your thoughts on the idea that because of the atonement, we are not only declared righteous, but Jesus also “imparts” his righteousness to us? I used to think about it in these terms but then wondered why I should still sin if that were truly the case.

    If I understand N.T. Wright’s book on Saint Paul correctly, he is saying that the sinner is declared righteous but that the sinner does not “take on” Christ’s righteousness as his own. Am I understanding this correctly, and what do you think about that aspect of things?

  • Though I might quibble about some of the minor details, i think you’ve summed it up fairly well.

  • If God loves us unconditionally, Jesus himself asked what credit is there to love those who we know will return that love. and if God is love, and love keeps no record of wrongs, then why is there a need to satisfy God’s wrath. What’s he so angry about. It seems way more logical to me that the cross was the ultimate of example of God’s unconditional love. “Go ahead and nail me to a cross….I love you any way! Now come join me in showing the world that there is nothing that can turn away my love or yours. Pick up a cross and come follow me!”

  • Weepingblackangel

    Jesus told us how to restore the broken connection with the father without blood or death. He said If you love me the father will love you. (Restoration accomplished). Do you need a better connection? If you keep my sayings (commandments) the father and I will make our abode with you. No blood or death involved.

    The Old boys (sages of the OT) thought blood was necessary for sin removal. Wrong! If you forgive others the father will forgive you. No blood required.

    Stop readin all dem damn books and read Jesus.

    Robert Roberg
    Gainesville FL

  • Question for Robert: Then why did Jesus have to die and resurrect? The bible seems to think it was for the “remission of sins.”

    PS – I love to read Jesus… I also love to know and experience Jesus in my daily walk with his spirit!

    • Weepingblackangel

      Sorry Kurt,
      I didn’t mean to imply you don’t read Jesus, I can see you do, but like most believers you mix his truth in with the whole Bible as if all truth is equal. Plus you were recommending a list of books.

      I think we get lost in the forest of the Bible and mislead by mixing. Only the word’s of Jesus are the Light, and the bread, spirit and zoe life.

      Even my words are lifeless compared to his.

      The blood of Jesus is found in Proverbs 8, it is “wisdom”.
      It is wisdom that teaches how to remit our sins.
      Jesus spoke the words of wisdom which shows us in 5 steps how to remove sins.
      1.Confess your sins,
      2. make amends
      3. Forgive and you will be forgiven.
      4. Because she loved much, her sins though many are forgiven.
      5. Make a supreme effort, like the man coming down through the roof, to reach Jesus.
      None of these steps involves blood, or death.

      Jesus goal was not to die but to live a sinless life. It was his sinless life that broke the power of Satan. He offered his life as a ransom in a living prisoner exchange. One sinless man sinned and one sinless man conquered sin. God doesn’t cheat. He didn’t come to the earth in a skin suit and deceive the devil.

      Satan was a murderer from the beginning and so Jesus knew he would die, his final temptation was to get through the final hours without sinning and he made it. He shouted in a loud voice tetlestai (the gladiator’s cry of victory).

      Although he was wounded and lost his throne of power, Satan was not giving up, he made sure the twisted blood atonement found it’s way into the other NT books. He has succeeded in clouding and diluting the words of Jesus through mixing.

      The point of the resurrection was so that we might believe, and prove to us that we too will rise on the final day if we follow our master and keep on studying his undiluted Gospel and keep on doing it.

      • Robert: Thanks for coming back and giving me more to ponder. A couple of questions:

        1. Do you believe that only the recorded words of Jesus are authoritative? If so why?

        2. Do you not believe that the rest of the NT books are accurate in their depiction of Jesus’ death and resurrection in regard to the issue of forgiveness? If this is your view or some version of it; on what grounds do you dismiss the writings of Paul, Peter, John, and others? Is this what you mean by “Mixing?”

        3. Would you categorize your belief system with a specific name?

        Finally, I agree that Jesus declared forgiveness without shedding his blood in some scenarios that you mention, but it seems that without the resurrection his words would not have been valid. Resurrection vindicated Jesus as the world’s True Lord and the only one who has ever conquered death. Any thoughts here? Just trying to understand you position a bit more.

        PS – Do you have a blog? Any recommended online reading I can do to further understand your views on Jesus?

        • Hi Kurt,
          . A couple of questions:

          1. Do you believe that only the recorded words of Jesus are authoritative? If so why?
          Jesus said heaven and earth would pass but his words would not. So yes they are authorative.

          Everything that harmonizes with the words of Jesus is true. He said his words are spirit and zoe life. He said ” am the truth. He is our gold standard by which we judge all truth. His words for me are only in the 4 Gospels and that’s why I call myself a Red Letter Christian (Not to be confused with Tony Camplos mixing of politics and Jesus).
          I also call myself a “one viner” for I only draw my theology from the one vine of Jesus. The other writings I view as commentary, some of the commentary is in sync with Jesus but some of it is contrary. For example when Jesus says God does not want sacrifice and Paul , Hebrews and 2 Peter preach sacrifices I disregard their commentary and dismiss their comments as the thoughts of imperfect men being lead astray by adversaries.
          2. Do you not believe that the rest of the NT books are accurate in their depiction of Jesus’ death and resurrection in regard to the issue of forgiveness? If this is your view or some version of it; on what grounds do you dismiss the writings of Paul, Peter, John, and others? Is this what you mean by “Mixing?”I dismiss anything that does not harmonize with Jesus whether it is said by Moses, Pau, Mt, Mrk, Lk, or Jn,l or any apostle (they were all fallible men)
          No amount of blood can remove the sins of an unrepentant sinner who does not forgive everyone.
          “If you do not forgive others, father cannot forgive you.”

          3. Would you categorize your belief system with a specific name?”Berean” for I search the scriptures daily. I am not a teacher, preacher, prophet, expert scholar, but merely a serious student who has been wrong often and I do not inisist people agree with me. If you can show me scripture that harmonizes with Jesus, I am teachable.

          Finally, I agree that Jesus declared forgiveness without shedding his blood in some scenarios that you mention, but it seems that without the resurrection his words would not have been valid. Resurrection vindicated Jesus as the world’s True Lord and the only one who has ever conquered death. Any thoughts here? Just trying to understand you position a bit more.
          His mission was to deliver the logos. He was the sower sowing the logos (note he does not claim to be the logos, but preached the logos and told us to preach it.
          The logos is the message of the Father as revealed by Jesus . The law came by Moses but truth came by Jesus. If he never died or rose he would have still completed his mission. You are cleansed (would that be foriven?) by the word. He sent his word and healed them. The resurrection was to increase our faith and take away our fear of death as you said it vindicated everything Jesus said and did.

          PS – Do you have a blog? Any recommended online reading I can do to further understand your views on Jesus? I have a book on AmazonThe Gospel of the kingdom: Retold and it can be downloaded here free. http://robertroberg.com/writings/kingdom35.pdf