“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—facing a severe drought, experiencing a horrible plague, being conquered in war, 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 threatened 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, showing God’s love. For some thoughts on these things, you can check out my post on “The Foolishness of the Cross.”

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.

Love, Above All

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

In my first post I got on my soapbox and boldly declared: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

Image: Stephen Hopkins

In our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we need more than anything else.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Sounds simplistic and naïve, I know. Sounds idealistic, and darn near impossible. Sounds suspiciously like some liberal agenda, or some trendy “spiritual-but-not-religious” kick.

But I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this. That was part two.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe the love Scripture and Jesus point to is not mere tolerance, or mere affection, but something far more, far more substantial, far more necessary. That was part three.

And now I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe all other divine commands and human virtues—including holiness and truth-speaking—are subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love.

Think back to the way the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, speaks about love. Jesus and Paul agree that the whole point of Scripture is love: every command, every promise, every story, every poem in the Bible hangs on the hook of love, loving God and loving others (Matt 22:35-40; Rom 13:8-10). John concurs, affirming that this love is the defining characteristic of the true life of God, truly knowing God, truly being a disciple of Jesus (1 John 3:11-20; 4:7-21; John 13:35).

Paul talks about love as the virtue that “binds together” all other virtues, including the virtues of moral holiness and truthful speech (Col 3:5-14). Love for others, Paul says, is more important than seeking true knowledge, or striving for sinless purity, or having great faith. There are three things that “abide,” he stresses: “faith, hope, and love—but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 12:31-13:13).

Underlying these and similar biblical texts is the notion that every ideal humans are to strive for, every virtue Christians are to cultivate, is subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love.

How does this work? A few musings—and be prepared, this is the most abstract and “theological” of all these posts on love.

Love incorporates all the other Christian virtues. Again, I’m not talking about a sentimental affection or a clinical self-sacrifice, a benign tolerance or an intense intimacy. I’m talking about the love that God shows us in Jesus, the love that freely gives oneself for the good of the other, to share together in the flourishing life of God. Any human ideal or Christian virtue you can conceive of is subsumed under this love.

You can trust someone without loving them, but you can’t love in this way without trust. You can hope without love, but this Jesus-love includes hope. It’s possible to have justice without love, but not love without justice. Peace, patience, courage, faithfulness, self-control, joy, and more—they’re all the same, woven into the fabric of a Christ-like love.

Clothe in LoveLove defines and governs all the other Christian virtues. If one ever seeks a justice that is not loving toward all involved, then one has not found true justice. If one strives for a faithfulness that is not compassionate or charitable toward others, then one has not found true faithfulness. If we ever feel a tension between holiness and love, or between truth and love, or between any other ideal or virtue and love, we must choose love—because it is in love that we will realize the potential of all other virtues and ideals.

Love precedes and supersedes moral holiness, being “separate from sin.” Before sin was in the world, before moral holiness was even a thing, there was love. After sin and death are dealt their final blow, when moral holiness is no longer a thing, there will still be love.

This is why holiness—in the sense of moral holiness, separation from sin—cannot be the central, most essential attribute of God. God is eternally holy, in the sense of being utterly distinct from all else, wholly other. But moral holiness is not an eternal attribute of God, unless we wish to say sin and evil are eternal.

God’s eternal holiness, God’s distinctness, God’s otherness, is shown first and foremost and always in love. It is, in fact, because God is distinct and other that God can love: love requires a distinction in personhood, an I and a thou, a self and an other, before it can give the self for the other, before it can love the other as it loves itself. Classic Christian theology understands God to have been loving in this way for an eternity as three persons in one God, and God’s love for humanity and all creation is simply an extension of this eternal love within the Trinity.

God is love. This is the essential nature of God’s character, God’s person. And so it is the defining feature of God’s ultimate self-revelation, Jesus Christ. And so it is to be the essential nature and defining feature of those created in God’s image, those being re-created in Christ’s image, God’s new humanity. Just as God’s holiness is manifest first and foremost and always in love, so it is with the holiness God calls Christians to. Our holiness, our distinctiveness, is seen in our love.

Love fulfils truth; it completes it. Love puts flesh on truth. It is truth put into proper practice. By itself, truth—in the sense of “correct knowledge about reality”—has no virtue. It is neither inherently good nor bad. Truth only becomes virtuous, it only becomes good, when it is used in good ways for good ends.

This doesn’t mean that truth has no value. It is valuable and necessary, even in relation to love. Love should be guided by a right perception of reality, as best as we can discern that—recognizing that our knowledge of the truth is always incomplete (1 Cor 13:9-12).

But, while love without knowledge can still be virtuous, knowledge without love never is: it is as a resounding gong or clanging cymbal, it is as nothing at all (1 Cor 13:1-3). Such knowledge risks simply puffing us up in pride, while love—even ignorant love—always builds up others (1 Cor 8:1-3).

These ideas are behind the most significant dimension of a Christian understanding of “truth,” the idea that truth is not just about “correct knowledge of reality,” but that truth is ultimately about a Person, a Person who shows us a certain Way, a Way that leads to Life. Jesus is this Truth, and his Way is love, and this Jesus-love leads to Life (John 14:6).

In all this we’re circling around something very profound, and crucially important: love is at the heart of the gospel, and so at the centre of Christian theology and ethics.

The God who is love has, out of love, come in the person of Jesus, who taught an ethic of love and lived out a life of love, and who suffered in love for us in order to bring us with him into flourishing life, a life energized by the Spirit of Jesus and characterized in its very essence by our love for God and others. We might spend millions of pages and thousands of lifetimes exploring this trinitarian gospel of Jesus-love, but if we ever lose this focus in our theology and ethics, then we no longer have a theology or ethic worthy of being called “Christian.”

It’s love all the way through, no matter how you slice it. It’s love all the way down, from top to bottom. It’s love from beginning to end and everywhere in between.

I’ve sometimes heard people say that calling for love is somehow being wishy-washy. That somehow saying, “We need to love each other,” is being soft on holiness or truth. “Just take a stand, won’t you! Get off the fence on this issue, or that issue, or the next issue. Stand up for truth! Demand holiness!”

Well, here I stand. I can do no other. I give you the strongest moral imperative there is, the most profound truth one could ever declare:

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

If we get this one thing right, everything else will fall into place. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter.

Up next, some concluding reflections on putting this love into practice.

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Love is All We Need

Love is All We Need | Scripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

We live in turbulent times.

Everything is changing. Nothing seems certain any more.

Humans NYOur knowledge of the universe is growing exponentially, racing beyond our wisdom, outpacing our ability to tame this knowledge for good purposes.

Our globe has shrunk to a village, but it’s a village made up of thousands of distinct cultures, dozens of religions with hundreds of offshoots, and seven billion one-of-a-kind individuals.

Our world is increasingly complex, and we don’t know how to handle this. We scramble for some kind of order in all the chaos and confusion.

We’re afraid, though we don’t like to admit it. We’re afraid of change, afraid of losing what we value most, afraid of the unknown other, the unknown future, afraid of a meaningless existence.

We mask all these fears with stuff—big houses and new cars, gizmos and gadgets and mindless entertainment, all just bread and circuses. Or we medicate our fears away—whether it’s prescription drugs or spiritual highs or something else—anaesthetizing our angst until it retreats to the depths of our subconscious.

Naturally, everyone’s got an opinion on what should be done—that’s part of the mad scramble for order, and part of the chaos and confusion. We take sides on issue x or issue y, digging into our polarized positions in binary code. We shout at each other IN ALL CAPS across the internet. We react to opposition with flaming words, with shaming and scapegoating, or with bullets and bombs—betraying all those underlying fears, and giving us even more reason to fear.

We Christians have our own brands of chaos and confusion, growing from those same complex realities. Faith nomads shift from one Christian tradition to another, church attendance overall is on the decline, and Christianity’s public influence is waning even faster. And we eagerly contribute to the cacophony of opinions on what should be done about all this.

Some of us call for allegiance to doctrinal systems that lay everything out with clarity and certainty—in this we will find our stability, we are told. Others turn to the latest fandangled worship bling or revive tried-and-true forms of ancient ritual. Still others shrug their shoulders at theology or liturgy and instead focus on social justice efforts or political engagement.

Some point to charismatic speakers or compelling authors and hang on their every word—surely they will point the way forward. Others appeal for a simple return to the Bible, apparently unaware that the Christian Scriptures have in fact spawned dozens of different worldviews themselves, contributing to the complexity and chaos and confusion of our post-Christendom world.

In the midst of this chaos and confusion, standing in the complexity of our world, I join my voice to those who say this:

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Yikes! Did you hear that? That was the sound of Christians shouting their objections at me. (Yes, we Christians do that, in case you haven’t noticed.)

“Love? Seriously? The world’s problems are going to be solved by holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’? Get real!”

“Love, sure. But we are also called by God to be holy, we are called to seek and speak truth. Love without holiness and truth is no love at all!”

“You’re just another liberal following the crowd, reducing the gospel to mere ‘tolerance,’ willing to accept anything and everything in the name of love!”

Well, before you grab your pitchforks and storm mi casa, hear me out.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe all other divine commands and human virtues—including holiness and truth-speaking—are subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe the love Scripture and Jesus point to is not mere tolerance, or mere affection, but something far more, far more substantial, far more necessary.

Love is all we need.

Faith Hope LoveIf we get this one thing right, everything else will fall into place. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter.

Sound a little over-the-top? Well, come back tomorrow and I’ll begin fleshing this out in a series of blog posts this week.

In the meantime, here’s a little reading to get you started.

Love is All We Need | Scripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.