“Jesus Died for Our Sins”: Sketching Out Atonement

Diego Velázquez, Cristo crucificado

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ death lately. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is the journey we’ve just been on through Lent, following Jesus to the cross.

As I’ve thought about Jesus’ death, both recently and over the years, I keep coming back to the “gospel tradition” the Apostle Paul received from others before him and passed on to others after him, a tradition that was probably formulated within two or three years of Jesus’ death:

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas and the twelve. (1 Cor 15:3-5)

This tradition shows that very early on Jesus’ death was being interpreted as “for our sins.” But what exactly does this mean?

I’d guess that when most people hear that phrase, “Jesus died for our sins,” they immediately plug in a whole cluster of ideas: we sin by disobeying God’s moral law; God’s holiness therefore bars us from being in God’s presence and God’s justice demands a penalty be paid, the penalty of death; God is justly angry with us. To say, then, that “Jesus died for our sins” means that “Jesus died in our place, paying the penalty for our sins demanded by God’s justice, and thus turned away God’s righteous wrath, bringing us divine forgiveness and allowing us to be in God’s holy presence.” This idea is called “penal substitutionary atonement.”

However, the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins,” doesn’t necessarily mean all those things. For it to mean all those things requires many assumptions to be true about who God is, how God operates, what sin is, what forgiveness involves, how justice works, and so on. These assumptions are never actually stated in any one passage in Scripture, but must be inferred from various passages and then all brought together before being read into this phrase.

In fact, I’d suggest that the phrase from this early tradition, “Christ died for our sins,” simply means that “Christ died with respect to our sins”—Jesus’ death concerns our sins, even “deals with” our sins, somehow, in some way. Exactly how this works, however, is not spelled out in this phrase.

The New Testament uses many different metaphors to try to explain how this works, what it means to say that Jesus’ death “deals with” our sins. Images of animal sacrifice, scapegoating, redemption from slavery, covenant ratification, military victory, martyrdom, friendship, gift-giving and more are used by the New Testament authors to interpret Jesus’ death “for our sins.” Some of these can lend themselves toward the popular “penal substitutionary atonement” idea described above, but many of them don’t at all. This is what keeps atonement theologians in business, looking for the best model for making sense of “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”

I’m not at all fond of “penal substitutionary atonement.” I have a whole laundry list of reasons for this, and maybe at some point I’ll pull together a fuller post on the problems I see with this popular view. In a nutshell, though, I’d simply say that at its best penal substitution is a minor theme in the New Testament, and in its worst manifestations it’s a terrible distortion of the gospel. Some of these worst manifestations pit God against Jesus, for example, or they make God out to be a violent abuser who can’t control his own anger, or they turn the gospel into a private transaction that has little impact on personal ethics or social justice.

But is there a better way of making sense of the confession that “Jesus died for our sins”? How do I think about this?

This would require a whole series of blog posts. Actually, it would require a whole book or more. It’s also something that is still very much evolving for me. However, let me sketch out a few thoughts that specifically relate to some of the ideas found in the popular notion of “penal substitutionary atonement.” Even this brief sketch makes for a long post, so buckle your seatbelts.

One of the common themes of many human religions through history is the idea that our circumstances are a reflection of divine favour or disfavour. If things are going well, our god is happy with us. If things are not going well, our god is not happy with us. In extreme circumstances—being conquered in war, experiencing a horrible plague, suffering exile or enslavement—our god is very angry with us for some terrible wrong that we have done.

What’s needed is “atonement.” Usually this is some sort of sacrificial act, in many ancient religions even the violent, bloody death of some living thing. This blood sacrifice appeases our god’s wrath against us for the great wrong we have committed and returns us to our god’s favour. (Exactly how or why this works is rarely or variously explained. Does it satisfy some “life-for-life” sense of justice? Does it expend the god’s anger? Does it cover or remove the transgression that has been ritually transferred to the victim? Is there something special about “blood”? Does the god simply like the smell?)

Another common theme of many human religions through history is the idea that the divine presence is sacred, special in some way, and so cannot be entered lightly. Proper rituals must be followed, performed by the right people and/or in a state of religious “purity.” If we do something that makes us “impure” or “unclean,” then we cannot experience or enter our god’s presence.

What’s needed is “purification.” This can involve anything from ceremonial washings to special prayers, but often it includes some sort of sacrificial act, in many ancient religions even the violent, bloody death of some living thing. This blood sacrifice purifies us, cleansing us from our religious impurities, and allows us to enter our god’s presence. (Again, exactly how or why this works is not often or uniformly explained.)

These perspectives were shared by the ancient Israelites, including their leaders and the writers of their Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament). People did things, even everyday, ordinary things, that made them religiously impure and thus unfit for experiencing or entering Yahweh’s presence. And when terrible things happened to individuals or Yahweh’s people as a whole, it was understood to be because Yahweh’s wrath had come upon them for their sin. What was needed to atone for their sin and turn aside Yahweh’s wrath, or to purify them from their uncleanness and allow them into Yahweh’s presence, was a violent, bloody death, a sacrifice of something or someone else, offered out of devotion to Yahweh.

The story of Phinehas son of Eleazar gives a vivid example of this. The story is told in Numbers 25.

In the story a plague has come upon the people of Israel during their wilderness wanderings. This is viewed as Yahweh’s wrath against Israel because of their sin—Israelite men have been cozying up to Moabite women, one thing has led to another, and they have ended up bowing down to their gods. A terrible thing has happened, which means God must be very angry because of a great wrong that has been committed. And so Yahweh calls on the Israelites to kill those men who have married Moabite women, in order to “turn away” his “wrath,” his “fierce anger.”

But before this can happen, Phinehas hears of an Israelite man who has taken a Midianite wife, he tracks them down to their family tent, he impales them with a spear—and the plague stops. Phinehas is hailed by Yahweh as a hero, with these words:

Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites. Therefore say, ‘I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites. (Num 25:11-13)

All this sounds like “penal substitutionary atonement”: our sin puts us under God’s wrath, and what’s needed is a violent, bloody death offered in devotion to God in order to turn away God’s righteous anger, to make “atonement.” This same language, the same basic ideas, are found in other biblical stories and lie behind the animal sacrifices described in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.

But there are some problems with this whole way of thinking, problems which the Old Testament itself acknowledges. Not all bad circumstances are because God is angry with us because of our sin, just as not all good circumstances are because God is pleased with us. A blood sacrifice doesn’t actually change the heart, our inner disposition that prompts our outward actions. Even more, a blood sacrifice doesn’t actually change the world; it doesn’t bring true justice within society, or a real and lasting peace, or a full and flourishing life.

There is a “minority report” of voices through the Old Testament that highlight these problems. Here are a few samples:

Sacrifice and offering you [Yahweh] do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required. (Psalm 40:6)

For I [Yahweh] desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)

“With what shall I come before the Lord [Yahweh],
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)

When we turn to Jesus in the Gospels, now, we see a few interesting things.

First, Jesus agrees with the “minority report” of the Old Testament. He severs the necessary link between sin and circumstances: while it is true that we generally reap what we sow, with harmful actions leading to harmful consequences, it is not true that all our experiences of harm are the direct result of our sin. Jesus also affirms that outward cleansing rituals don’t change the heart, and he even re-configures “holiness” in terms of acts of mercy and justice. Jesus also quotes some of those Old Testament texts that de-center or devalue blood sacrifice as a means of atonement or purification: what’s most important, Jesus says, is devoted love of God and self-giving love of neighbour; that is, “to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Second, Jesus forgives sins apart from blood sacrificeThis is startling to the religious leaders in power primarily because, as they say, “only God can forgive sins.” However, Jesus’ action—like John’s “baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins” before him—would surely have raised concerns because there is no reference to Temple sacrifices. This was a live issue in Jesus’ day—the Essenes, for example, seem to have denied the efficacy of the Temple sacrifices and did not look to them for atonement. After another generation, with the destruction of the Temple and the inability to offer blood sacrifices, Judaism as a whole re-imagined atonement in the terms of the “minority report” of their Scriptures: repentant prayer, bearing fruit in acts of justice and mercy, atones for sin.

Jesus’ forgiveness of sins anticipates this later Jewish development. Jesus’ forgiveness shows that God does not need blood sacrifice in order to forgive sins. Instead, what Jesus calls for, and thus what God requires, is “repentance”—an inner change of disposition involving a recognition of one’s sin and a commitment to live differently—and “faith”—a devoted trust or allegiance to God expressed in following the way of God in self-giving love.

This leads to the third thing that distinguishes Jesus’ approach to sin, atonement, purity, and especially “sacrifice”: Jesus does not sacrifice something or someone else for his own good; rather, he gives himself for the good of others, even his enemies. Phinehas, a model of the majority view in the Old Testament on these things, you’ll recall, atoned for the sin of Israel by committing violence against another, spilling the blood of another, sacrificing another for the good of many. Jesus, by contrast, atones for or “deals with” sin by bearing the violence of others in himself without retaliation, allowing his own blood to be spilled with forgiveness on his lips, giving up his own life for the good of all.

In all this, in Jesus’ life and teachings culminating in his death, Jesus shows us a better way, God’s true way for atoning for sin: through nonviolent, self-giving love for others, even for one’s enemies. This alone is what will bring about true justice within society, a real and lasting peace, a full and flourishing life for all.

Jesus’ death, then, is really a kind of “anti-sacrifice”—in the full, dual meaning of the Greek prefix “anti.”

Jesus’ death is “anti-sacrifice” in that it is “against sacrifice”: it underscores the reality that blood sacrifice is not needed for God to forgive, it is not needed for us to experience or enter God’s presence, and it doesn’t bring about either the personal change of heart or the wider justice, peace, and life that we need.

And Jesus’ death is “anti-sacrifice” in that it is “instead of sacrifice”: instead of the violent, bloody death of something or someone other than ourselves in order to bring justice and peace and life, what’s needed is the nonviolent giving of ourselves for the good of others, the good of all, including friends, neighbours, and even enemies.

In other words, Jesus’ self-sacrificial death brings an end to blood sacrifice of any kind—animal sacrifice, capital punishment, war death, and more—once and for all.

There’s much more that can be said about the meaning of Jesus’ death than this. For example, Jesus’ death is a subversion of the evil powers of this age, the unjust powers-that-be in the world that oppress and enslave. Jesus’ death is also a revelation of who God is and the way God works in the world, showing God’s true power and wisdom, God’s love.

There’s also much more that can be said about the themes I’ve mentioned and how they are used in the Bible, themes of “sin” and “justice” and “divine wrath” and “atonement” and “holiness” and “purity” and “sacrifice” and more. These themes certainly continue into the New Testament and many are important to Jesus, though the way they are used needs to be carefully parsed.

Nevertheless, this gives at least a sketch of where my thinking is at on these biblical concepts and how they all come together into some kind of coherent understanding of what it means to say that “Jesus died for our sins.” Constructive comments or honest questions, as always, are welcome.

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