Rob Bell’s Atonement

Rob Bell’s Atonement October 13, 2014
Marc Chagall’s “Yellow Crucifixion,” which hung on Jürgen Moltmann’s wall as he wrote The Crucified God.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (a rock without internet), you probably know that I’m nearing the completion of a book on the atonement. It’s called Did God Kill Jesus?, and it comes out in March. (It’s the wrong subtitle, and the cover isn’t done yet, but you can preorder it!) I’m fortunate to have the same editor and publisher as authors I admire like Barbara Brown Taylor, Lauren Winner, and Rob Bell.

Speaking of Rob Bell, he continued his hilariously long Tumblr series on the Bible last week with a post entitled, What is the Bible? Part 72: The Question That Keeps Coming Up. He begins the post by listing five reader questions, each of which is basically asking, Why did Jesus have to die?

To that question, Rob has a two-part answer:

First, he writes, “death is the engine of life.” As evidence for that fact, he points to the chicken that died for your burrito, the plants that die in the fall and regrow in the spring, and the billions of cells in your body that die and are sloughed off every day. While I could quibble with each of those examples, I take his point. And I don’t disagree with it. One of the best ways to understand the sacrificial system of Israel — into which Jesus was born, and through which Paul interpreted Jesus’ death — is that the violence and death that was necessary to put food on the plate was sacralized in ritual. This salved the consciences of the animal-killers and it showed respect to the animal. And Jesus himself used an analogy like Rob’s, saying, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground a dies, it remains but a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

But then it gets interesting. In part two of his answer, Rob asserts various things:

  • The Bible was written by humans, not God.
  • The sacrificial system was set up by humans, not condoned by God.
  • When Jesus died, his earliest followers interpreted it through the sacrificial system, because that’s what they knew.

Because of these things, Rob can say,

Can you see why questions that begin with Why did God do it that way…? will never give you satisfying answers? It’s the wrong question which will always result in an unsatisfying answer.

As much as I agree with a lot of what Rob writes in this post, I definitely don’t think that his commenters have asked the wrong question. No, in fact it’s the very best question, even if the Bible is set of books with human fingerprints all over it.

While the Bible was obviously written by humans, the standard Christian belief is that it contains a unique revelation of God to humanity. And the testimony of the Bible isn’t that humans started sacrificing animals and that God grudgingly accepted that. Instead, it’s God who’s behind it — not in the first instances of Cain, Abel, and Noah — from Abraham onward. When Reformed Christians say that God demands blood sacrifice, they’re not grabbing that fact out of thin air.

Rob concludes,

So did he have to die?

AHHHH. Can you see why this question can’t be answered? How could any human ever know the answer to that? Can you see how the categories of the question simply aren’t helpful?

Ayayay. Rob, people ask questions like this — theological questions, questions of meaning — because the answers have amazing explanatory power for many of the large and existential questions of life. Christianity has long taught that new life comes from the death of Jesus. People rightly wonder about this. They ask whether God set up a system that required death, even the death of his son. Or they wonder whether God adopted the event of the crucifixion as salvific after it happened, basically taking lemons and making lemonade.

The categories, in fact, are helpful. And the question does have an answer. More on this soon… 🙂


You can find all of Tony’s books HERE, and you can sign up to be the first to know about his next book, Did God Kill Jesus? HERE.

"Have you considered professional online editing services like ?"

The Writing Life
"I'm not missing out on anything - it's rather condescending for you to assume that ..."

Is It Time for Christians to ..."
"I really don't understand what you want to say.Your"

Would John Piper Excommunicate His Son?

Browse Our Archives

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Billy North


    I look forward to reading your book. I do think the answer to the atonement question is primary. The answer has major implications on the nature of God and his character.

    Jesus predicts his death and implies meaning and purpose to it. It doesn’t appear that it “just happened”.

    Do we have to wait until March? Hurry up!


  • Matt Sipe

    “Christianity has long taught that new life comes from the death of Jesus.”

    Tony: doesn’t new life come through the resurrection? (not the death)

    • Yes, for sure. I’m considering the crucifixion and resurrection as one “event” for the purposes of the atonement.

      • Matt Sipe

        Yeah, my point being how we talk about it and what we say has impact on the types of questions we ask. When people say Jesus “died for my sins” it’s not as helpful as maybe saying something like “Jesus rose to give us new life.” The death is in the past and the new life is in the future. One looks back/one looks forward. I think Rob’s right in that how we frame the question matters.

        • Yeah, but isn’t it just playing with words at that point? I mean, when someone “enters the church triumphant” they still died (or were murdered, or executed) I might argue that we don’t talk about the death (execution) part enough..

        • $122284574

          I enjoy the annual resurrection and celebration of fertility from the cold hands of winter. Taken from an astrotheological viewpoint, every Ēostre the light of the Son/Sun overcomes darkness, i.e., the day finally becomes longer than night on the vernal equinox. The dying-rising solar deity is risen! (Think about that at the next sunrise service you attend.)

      • I consider the whole thing one event. When I preside over communion I say “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the saving life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ until he comes again in glory.” Probably heretical, but I haven’t gotten kicked out yet…

    • Nimblewill

      A quick reading of Hebrews 2 changes things for me. New life is one that is lived without the fear of death. Only the resurrection could have brought this about, and only death could have led to a resurrection.

  • Steven Kurtz

    “the first instances of Cain, Abel, and Noah…” – are you taking these figures as historical?
    and “salvific” – from or for what are we saved? the method question seems to come after this question, no?

  • I am joining the chorus that can’t wait for this book. I’m interested from a personal, academic standpoint just to figure out how to engage my congregants who find the atonement problematic. I’m *most* excited to think about how to be able to summarize the main point of your book to kids (stay tuned.) So, while we’re talking about the book (yours) and while it’s in my head — I’ve been rereading Mark Taylor’s “The Executed God.” I. Love. That. Book. Have you read it? (I assume yes because, you know. PTS.) Even if you think he’s over the top or you disagree, you will respect the research. Dude knows his stuff. Another thought — who was it that was lamenting the fact that there are no good theology books recently and that everything is some version of spiritual memoir? I couldn’t agree more. So sick of that. (I mean, I love the memoirs, too, but balance!) Rambling. Can’t wait for your book. Yay!

    • $122284574

      Atonement isn’t a mere problem anymore, it’s the butt of jokes. For good reason. It’s pure “nonsense,” as even the Bible admits.

      “Jesus died for your sins. How does one affect the other? I [bleep] hit myself in the foot with a shovel for your mortgage. I don’t get it. And if there is a correlation, why would you do that?”
      ~Comedian Doug Stanhope

  • Tony B

    Thanks for the response to Bell’s post. I’ve been following his Bible meanderings for a while and this is one of those that had quite a perplexing answer without really giving an answer (as he does from time to time). Seems like a lot of people are living with the idea that Jesus’ death has meaning (as noted in Scripture, Creeds and such), so what is gained by ignoring the question? Did he really want to get to post 73? Anyway, I’m looking forward to what you have to say on the topic.

  • Orton1227

    After reading so many blogs and books this year on the atonement, I sure feel like I’m still not educated enough to be able to discern the right view, whatever that is. Maybe 30 more years of study will help me get closer to understanding it and being right..

  • KentonS

    I read Rob’s post differently than you did. Rob takes the questions:

    – Why did Jesus die? (Rob answers he was killed)
    – Who killed Jesus? (Rob answers that humans did)
    -That makes the “why did God kill Jesus?” question moot.

    The fact that Reformed folks have an answer to the last question doesn’t matter if we fundamentally disagree on the premise. That what Rob seems to be saying.

    It can still leave the “did it have to happen that way?” question, but that’s not where the question is (most) interesting. The (most) interesting question addresses the premise that is widely disagreed upon. You’re not writing a book titled “(Why) Did Humans have to Kill Jesus?” You’re writing a book that answers the second question above.

    Did I miss something?

    • If the event was entirely human, then there are indeed no theological questions. But I think it’s clear from Paul on that it is an event rife with theological questions, like how did the death of Jesus of Nazareth “satisfy” God.

      If Paul weren’t in the New Testament, Rob would be right. But Paul is there, so atonement questions are not moot.

      • Orton1227

        This subthread brings up some pondering for me:
        The cross itself as a killing tool is nothing special. Nor is Jesus dying (since he was fully human, he would’ve died of old age or cancer or something anyway, right?)

        The thing I see, as is highlighted that night in the garden, is that he willingly died. Big difference. He voluntarily was led to be killed on our most gruesome, cruel instrument of torture for a juxtaposition – so that true love may be revealed, an eternal love beyond all comprehension. Perfect love casts out fear. The cross seems to be Jesus saying, “You don’t have to fear God, He loves you; You don’t have to fear each other because you have a purpose.”

        And after reading Rob’s post, it doesn’t sound like he’s arguing the event was solely human. Just that humans killed Jesus. It doesn’t mean there’s not something more spiritual at work. Like Babylon conquering Judah, a human army did that, but the Bible claims it was God judging Judah.

        • KentonS

          Yes – IF you’re including the resurrection in the event.

          What I think lurks behind the question “(why) did (humans) have to kill Jesus?” is almost a denial of that resurrection power that means we don’t have to fear each other. It creates a finger-pointing tendency to say that this was the fault of the Romans or Pilate, or this is the fault of the Jews or Herod – anything that might get us to say “hey, look, it wasn’t me.” I think that’s what’s behind Rob’s response. It’s not helpful. Don’t go there. Yes, there are still good theological conversations to have, involving the nature of God at the crucifixion/resurrection event. But don’t absolve yourself in this by asking why did *they* do this?

          Does that make sense?

          • KentonS

            BTW, Orton1227, I’m hosting a book discussion on Peter Enns last book on 11/10. You’re in my neck of the woods. Do you want to come?

            • Orton1227

              Give me the details. I’d love to make it if it works out. We’re moving houses that week (not very far, but it’ll be hectic). You can email me at if you want.

              • KentonS

                Invite sent.

          • I agree. For many centuries, it was acceptable to blame the Jews. Nowadays, everyone wants to blame the Roman, those damn imperialists. Like you, I think these are attempts to blame anyone other than ourselves.

            What most interests me is the *theological* question. That is, what is God’s culpability in the event, regardless of what human pounded the nails.

            • Andrew Dowling

              What is God’s culpability in the brutal murder of any innocent person?

          • Nimblewill

            Here’s a question. If humans were responsible for His death, and He’s
            not dead then what is our responsibility? Are we guilty of killing a man
            whose no longer dead?

            • KentonS

              Well… he did have “other plans” for that Saturday, you know. 🙂

      • KentonS

        Is this a Romans 3 thing?

        Maybe you’re saying something different than what I’m expecting. (Do you sing “In Christ Alone” as written???)

        Yes, it *is* still rife with theological questions (“Why is God’s response resurrection and forgiveness?”), but until we settle out the differences in premises, those questions only get us talking past each other.

        Maybe this will become more clear when I read your book.

  • $122284574

    “Death is the engine of life.” Bell makes a sophistic point, because Jesus didn’t merely die naturally or accidentally. His death was premeditated, either a suicide or a homicide with motives varying from political to sacrificial, depending on who’s responsible for effecting his very deliberate death. The question would be better posed thusly: “Why was the decision that resulted in Jesus’ death made?”

    Since the pious fictions of his life say he knew it was coming, I call his death a self-righteous suicide.

    I don’t think you trust in my self-righteous suicide.
    Father! Father! Father! Father!
    Father into your hands I commend my spirit!
    Father into your hands –
    Why have you forsaken me?
    In your eyes forsaken me?
    In your thought forsaken me?
    In your heart forsaken me?
    Trust in my self-righteous suicide!

    ~System Of A Down (2001) Chop Suey! [220,140,608 views]

  • Steven Kurtz

    thanks. And, does Tartarus enter into the picture too?

    • $122284574

      Yes, and the river (or lake) of fire, the Phlegethon, leads to the abyss of Tartarus, according to Plato.

      I have no desire for eternal life or heaven, and reckon Ecclesiastes 3:19 is the most accurate account of what happens when we die. “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals.”

      But I do regret not having a chance to meet ol’ Cerberus, the triple headed hounds of hell. 😉

  • WilmRoget

    If only we could be saved from spam.

  • John Doll

    First off, either God is the author of the entire Bible or not. I believe that he is. The ongoing debate about human interference in the Bible is getting to be a real bore. I think that the God of this Universe is more than capable of seeing that His word is accurate. People like Rob Bell over analyze everything. I am not the most educated person around so I am most grateful the gospel message is simple and clear. I personally believe Rob Bell’s continued second guessing of the Word of God puts him in a rather precarious position.

    • Choosing to simplify a message doesn’t make the message simple. I know that what I’m about to say is itself oversimplification, but unless you’re boiling the whole thing down to “Love God and love thy neighbor as thyself,” I don’t think there is a simple and clear message.

      It’s a complicated book that needs to be engaged in order be worth much of anything, and I don’t see how looking at the Bible context-free does it, you, the Gospel, or Christ any favors.

      • Bcrew

        The simple message is the message of salvation. There is one way to God and that is through Christ.

    • Daniel Lee

      So much for a life time of learning and getting to know God then. If the Bible was so clear and accurate, there would be one church which is not the reality. The Bible deserves more care and respect than that. I think Rob Bell gives it the proper honor by asking all the questions instead of glossing over them like most of us tend to do…it’s not about the answer but the questions and the seeking…

  • Rebecca Trotter

    While I also have some objections to Bell’s characterization of the bible, I think that he is much closer to the truth than you are, particularly with regard to animal sacrifice. The reality is that animal sacrifice was a human creation, not a God-directed one. Animal sacrifice has been wide spread among humans dating to long before the first record of the God of the Hebrews. Now, perhaps some ancient person had an encounter with the maker of the universe in which he/she was directed to engage in animal sacrifice and the practice then spread. But we have no record or even hint of this event.

    Also, I think that you are very much in error to dismiss God’s ability to use human actions and inventions for his own good purposes. For example, the covenant ritual between God and Abraham was already common in the ancient world. God didn’t make it up to satisfy his own needs, but appropriated something that Abraham would have already been familiar with and understood and used it for His own purposes.

    Animal sacrifices, and sacrifices in general, never have been about God’s needs or demands, but rather are provided for our own needs. We need ritual, we need assurances of connection and forgiveness, we need ways to show and solidify our commitments. Animal sacrifices served these human needs which, in turn, lead to greater bonds between man and creator. Likewise, Jesus’ death didn’t serve God’s needs or demands. In fact, everything about Jesus’ death was contrary to the laws God had given his people regarding sacrifice as well as justice. It truly was a human driven event. But God, out of his desire to be reconciled with us, takes what mankind does and uses it for his own good purposes.

    (I explain these ideas much more fully in my own take on the question of the meaning of Jesus’ death here:

  • Guest

    Well written.

  • Mike D’Virgilio

    I’ve been a Christian a very long time, relatively speaking, and the more familiar I become with the Old Testament, and I’m becoming very familiar with it, the reasons Jesus had to die to make atonement for our sins and satisfy God’s wrath are blindingly obvious. And as much as I agree about Paul’s importance, the gospel of God’s grace started very clearly with Jesus. In Luke 24 the risen Lord tells his disciples TWICE: “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (v. 27) And, He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (v 44)

    It is irrelevant where animal sacrifice started. The wages of sin is death; even the pagans knew this. How many times did people in Israel sin in one way or another, and God killed them. It’s really brutal and doesn’t seem to make sense to 21st Century Americans. But when you understand the moral universe we live in, that wrong has to be paid for, it makes perfect sense. Rob Bell wants to judge scripture and God’s actions by 21st Century sensibilities, which is a recipe for distortion. Lots to be said her, but too little time and too little space.

    • Bcrew

      Excellent post. Bell is simply wrong. He is a false teacher who has strayed and become enticed by today’s culture. Jesus paid it all and is THE WAY. Without this simple truth Christianity has no meaning.

  • Bcrew

    Rob Bell is a moral relativist and a disgrace. He is a false teacher that Jesus warned about. He has made himself and his message irrelevant. Either the gospel is true and Jesus is the Way or it’s not true. If it’s not, Christian ministers are useless (“Christian” ministers like Bell are useless either way).

  • Mojito

    Christians shouldn’t be confused about the atonement. The bible is explicit. “…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9). Why? Because the necessity of the atonement is rooted in the nature of God. He is perfect and requires that we be perfect (Leviticus 11). Further, the penalty for our imperfection is death. Now there’s a problem! And there is no way around it. For all Rob Bell’s effervescent re-imagining, he can’t prevail against the reality of the human character at war with God (Romans 5). Only God himself can fix this problem. Only the self-sacrifice of a holy, perfect God will do.

    Such a messy business this blood and sacrifice! So pre-modern and unsophisticated. Deal with it. The cross of Jesus Christ is offensive precisely because it tells the truth to those in need of a savior.

    • Andrés Enjuto

      “Because the necessity of the atonement is rooted in the nature of God.” I used to share this thought, which I now find rather disturbing! But here’s a problem: if Jesus died to appease God’s need of blood, then God didn’t really forgive us… He just took the (allegedly owed) blood from someone else (Jesus). The problem with this interpretation is that Jesus is the full revelation of God, and Jesus IS loving and forgiving. So no more violent atonement view for me. Not sure where I’m going from here, though, but I’m not going back for sure.

  • Mark

    Rob’s post makes perfect sense to me, as one who doesn’t believe in a deity who holds grudges and makes arbitrary rules about what are and are not acceptable forms of worship.