What Did Jesus’ Death Accomplish? (Here’s the Best Explanation I’ve Heard)

What Did Jesus’ Death Accomplish? (Here’s the Best Explanation I’ve Heard) April 14, 2017

It’s Good Friday, and the church is contemplating the death of Christ. Why did he die? What did his death accomplish? How does the atonement work?

Locating Atonement

The single best explanation I’ve heard on this matter is Benjamin Myers’ talk on the “Patristic Atonement Model.” He gave the talk back in 2015 (and it was also published in the book Locating Atonement), but several unrelated conversations I’ve had recently have brought it back up again, and I thought it would be well worth sharing today.

Human beings are the products of love. They are created in God’s image for the purpose of reciprocating divine love. Human nature, motivated by an internal principle of desire, tends naturally upward toward God. Since God is the source of all life, to be lovingly moving toward God is to be alive. But to turn away from God, even for one second, is to begin to die: to slide downward, away from life, love, and reality.

Since the beginning of history, the whole human race has been locked in a downward slide toward nothingness. But because of his great love for humanity, the Son of God leapt down from heaven and wrapped himself in our plummeting human nature. Because he was human, he participated fully in our perilous slide toward nothingness. But because he was divine, he was able to arrest our downward movement and to reverse it, initiating an upward movement toward the life, love, and reality of God. In the movement of that one human life, the life of Christ, the whole of human nature has undergone death and resurrection. (Locating Atonement, p. 86)

Here’s the full talk. (It isn’t as long as it appears. The last half hour is Q&A.)

His talk brings new life to the recapitulation view of Irenaeus and Athanasius, along with a more-clearly articulated understanding of Christus victor. What Myers so skillfully does is elucidate the understanding of the atonement held by the very earliest church fathers (which has been consistently maintained by the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but has been all but forgotten in Western Christianity). And he does so in a way that makes it applicable for believers today. This is exactly what we’ve needed.

The only clarification I’d add has to do with his discussion on the impassibility of God. Impassibility means different things to different people, and I don’t personally agree with the idea that God has no emotions—that he cannot suffer with us in any true sense. I believe our God is a personal God with very real emotions, and he always suffers with us. However, in Myers’ talk, the focus of impassibility is God’s inability to suffer death, which meant that God had to assume a mortal human body first. On this I certainly agree.

Parts of this post have been adapted from my earlier review of Locating Atonement.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Iain Lovejoy

    I find myself increasingly convinced by this “patristic model”. Two interesting questions which arose in the talk, however, were how one death can affect humanity as a whole, with problems as to how to define “humanity” as an entity, and why, if we are saved from sin and death by Christ’s death, we are nevertheless still sinning and dying.
    For the first, a thought might be to move away from a realist model whereby the death and resurrection of Christ instantly transforms human nature by participation to a viral model, whereby a chain reaction of “infection” with salvation is set off, leading to universal transformation over time (this would work at the beginning, too, with one sin infecting the world and multiplying to drag all mankind down, with Christ then as it were the counter infection).
    For the second, perhaps we should think of supertanker being turned around from crashing into the rocks: Christ has reversed the engines and we are saved from inevitable destruction, but it will be a while before our momentum is reversed and we can start in the opposite direction and head out to sea.

    • Interesting metaphors. May be some merit there.

    • Tim

      “…and why, if we are saved from sin and death by Christ’s death, we are nevertheless still sinning and dying.
      For the first, a thought might be to move away from a realist model whereby the death and resurrection of Christ instantly transforms human nature by participation to a viral model, whereby a chain reaction of “infection” with salvation is set off, leading to universal transformation over time (this would work at the beginning, too, with one sin infecting the world and multiplying to drag all mankind down, with Christ then as it were the counter infection).”

      I’d say this one works for me.

      Salvation from the law of sin and death is perhaps more accurate and clarifying with respect to this point. We still die physically, but all are resurrected again to life.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Not sure why an Anabaptist presumably free church person should be so convinced by a systematic theologian’s portrayal of the atonement, but I also found Benjamin Meyer’s reading and interpretation attractive.

    • I have nothing against systematic theology, so long as it is not used as a sledgehammer.

      • Theodore A. Jones

        What the Bible says is a sledgehammer. What all theologians say is bull deposits.

        • What the Bible says is just text. It can be used as a sledgehammer, certainly, but that would be the wrong way to use it. The right use of the Bible is that which leads to greater love.

          • Theodore A. Jones

            “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow: it judges the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Heb.4:12
            And I know how to use it for its intentional purpose which is: “When He comes He will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin” that sin Jesus is referencing is the sin of his murder. Your sinn’in lying posterior cannot love it’s way into the kingdom of God. Asserting that the Bible is just text is falsely asserting that it is not living. No liar inherits the kingdom of God. Rev. 21:8 “all liars” are excluded. Wise guy.

          • Jesus is the living Word of God, not the Bible. It is he who discerns the thoughts and intents of the heart, not a dead text. And love is exactly how we enter the kingdom of God, at least if Jesus is to be trusted.

          • Theodore A. Jones

            Parenthetically in the short future we’ll see which of us rides hell’s chute and which of us it is that punches the release button. I’ll give you a little wave as your last ride begins after I push the release button. Wise guy. See ya.

          • Blessings, brother!

          • Tim

            Sounds like someone might have forgotten his meds.

  • Theodore A. Jones

    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    You stumbling bumbling blind ecclesiasticals better find out what this law is that ordained patristic elected official of the church Jesus Christ is head of is referencing, but if not that final illusionistic ride out to sea you dream about is actually going to be on a hell chute. That’s the final ride for all of you stumbling blind guides and everyone you’ve taught if you do not find that law and obey it.

    • God’s law is love, plain and simple. Jesus and Paul both affirm that if we love one another, we have fulfilled the entire law.

      • Theodore A. Jones

        That law Jesus is referencing is the written code. The law Paul references in Rom. 2:13 has been added by Christ himself after his ascension. Rom. 5:20 Heb. 7:12″change ALSO! of the law.”
        If it were possible to be declared righteous by God through obedience of the written code of law there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for the murder of Jesus Christ by crucifixion to have been necessary to perfect the Way of salvation. Scripture does not argue against itself wise guy.

  • George Waite

    Why the long wait from Creation/Fall to Jesus to redeem?
    If you saw your children in a car crash, would you wait hundreds of years to send an ambulance?
    And why bother with religion if we get all the benefits of Jesus without going to church?

    • Jesus came in the flesh as the culmination of God’s redemptive activity, but God was not absent from the scene before then. He has from the beginning been always working with humanity, pushing us closer and closer to full redemption.

      As for “religion” or “going to church,” I could take or leave such concepts. I care about Jesus and about people, but I’m not overly concerned with what religious trappings may accompany me.

      • George Waite

        Lots of unproved assertions here.
        Any evidence for this that doesn’t come out of your book?

        • I’m not looking to prove anything. If you’re wanting empirical evidence, you’ll need to look elsewhere. You asked about my faith, so I’m explaining it. But I’m not really interested in convincing you of it. My faith is based on the character of God revealed in Jesus.