Tag Archives: atonement

God Crucified?

On Sunday we were listening to Nadia Bolz Weber doing her “Lutheran theology rocks” thing in an interview at Wild Goose. (Seriously, folks, she is living out the law/gospel, simul justus et peccator thing better than anyone else I’m familiar with in 2013.)

At one point she started talking about the atonement. So much of what she says is so great. She talks about how grace works in a community where we experience brokenness not just in community, but just because the community has wounded us.

Then, circa minute 37:45 or so, she starts talking about God in the midst of tragedy. And, again, she does such a great job because she brings people to Jesus, and God bearing our suffering on the cross.

Then she says this:

… that’s not “God’s little boy, like God is some kind of divine child abuser sending his son (and he only had one!).” Come on, give me a break! “God’s little boy and he only had one, and as this divine child abuser and as this cigar-chomping loan shark demanding a pound of flesh, sending his little boy…” What hogwash, right? That actually is God on the cross, God saying, “I’d rather die than be in the sin-accounting business you’ve put me in.”

I love the theology of this: it’s not God sending some other to die, but Godself doing it. And, I know that there is good, strong Trinitarian theology behind this. The eternal Son who is God dies upon the cross.

Image courtesy of nongpimmy / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of nongpimmy / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The problem I keep coming back to is that everywhere and always in scripture, the son who dies is precisely the son who is not the father, and is nowhere the God who, as Godself, is dying to save us.

There is always the son who is not the father who is dying out of obedience to the father.

There is always the father who is not the son who is not sparing his son but delivering him up for us all.

And… “He only had one!”

I don’t dislike the divine on the cross interpretation, but I’m not exactly sure where it leaves us. The only way to get there is to abandon the theological logic of the NT writers and replace it with a particular way of working out the later theological logic of the Trinity.

Is the need for it to be God as such who dies so profound that we simply have to abandon the suffering Human One of the Synoptic Gospels, or the obedient Second Adam of Paul? Or do we simply need to return to the question of why Jesus died to shore up a better answer of why this man, man I say!, goes the way of the cross?

And if we put it all in the divinity, what then of the calling to take up our cross and follow Jesus? Does God love us less than the Son because what God would not call another to do, but does Godself, God nonetheless demands we do?

And what about this bit of the father not sparing? Do we chunk it? What about, “Not what I will but what you will?” do we chunk it?

But if we don’t, how do we articulate atonement in way that doesn’t leave us with a child-abusing loan shark?

I’d love to hear how folks are thinking about what the death of Jesus might teach us about God and/or how you’re working out atonement to deal with the scriptural tradition and concerns such as those NBW raises.

Sacrificial Salvation

Yesterday we took a look at the martyrdom of seven brothers and their mother in 2 Maccabees, using it to help us put together a story of how early Jewish people might imagine atonement being made for the people through the death of a righteous martyr.

Today we turn to a much briefer passage, this one from 4 Maccabees. Fourth Maccabees celebrates the deaths of these martyrs as well, but with a much lengthier telling and a somewhat more philosophical spin on the nature of the martyrs’ fidelity.

These people who have dedicated themselves to God are honored, therefore, not only with this privilege but also because they kept our enemies from ruling our nation.The tyrant was punished, and our nation was cleansed through them. They exchanged their lives for the nation’s sin. Divine providence delivered Israel from its former abuse through the blood of those godly people. Their deaths were a sacrifice that finds mercy from God. (4 Macc 17:20-22, CEB)

The death of the martyrs brings salvation–deliverance from the reign of Antiochus IV: “they kept our enemies from ruling our nation.” Apparently, the swords of the Maccabees were insufficient–God’s favor had to be restored first and foremost.

Their death brought “cleansing” as well. The metaphor of sin as something that stains is in play here, with the martyrs’ death washing the people as a whole. (Again, it’s important that the martyrs are faithful whereas the nation as a whole is seen as faithless.)

But it’s v. 22 that might be the most intriguing for Christians wrestling with how the New Testament writers understood Jesus’ death. This cleansing, saving death is also described as the blood of the sacrifice that makes God merciful.

The Greek word, ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion), is the same word Paul uses in Rom 3 when he says God made Christ a sacrifice of atonement–often argued for as “mercy seat” these days.

Fourth Maccabees is probably not “background” to Paul’s thought, but it provides an intriguing parallel to Paul’s claims for Jesus and the language he uses to talk about the significance of Jesus’ death.

The death of the faithful martyr functions like a sacrifice that changes the disposition of God toward the people by the martyr’s representing the people in fidelity before God even to the point of death.

Atonement & Martyrdom

Increasingly, the idea of atonement is a tough one for folks to grab hold of. “Jesus died for our sins” is not only subject to lots of interpretation and reinterpretation. One of the questions we have to keep coming back to in this discussion, at least to get our bearings, is how first-century Jewish people might understand such a story.

The people of God are sinful. Within this context a person is killed for maintaining his fidelity to Israel’s God in the face of every inducement to abandon his course. The result is that God’s just displeasure with God’s people is removed and they are delivered from their enemies.

This is the story of 2 Maccabees.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes is persecuting the people of Israel. But the problems aren’t all from the outside. A Hellenizing movement has developed, pulling the people away from the Torah keeping that marks them out as the people of God.


This king attempts to induce seven brothers and their mother, under severe torture, to eat pig.

When the first brother is killed, they encourage each other to entrust themselves to the God who judges justly: “God will have compassion on his servants.”

What possible deliverance can these maimed and tortured brothers be hoping for? One part is personal vindication:

“You, who are marked out for vengeance, may take our present life, but the king of the universe for whose laws we die will resurrect us again to eternal life.” (2 Macc 7:9, CEB)

Resurrection is God’s vindication of God’s suffering faithful–and the indication that God is a greater, more powerful king than the kings of the earth who can take a life, as the fourth brother says:

“Death at the hands of humans is preferable, since we look forward to the hope that God gives of being raised by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life.” (2 Macc 7:14, CEB)

But this event is not merely personal. It is corporate as well. The shift to the people begins with the fifth of the seven brothers:

While looking at the king he said, “You, though human, have power among human beings and do what you want. But don’t think that God has abandoned our people.” (2 Macc 7:16, CEB)

The following brother connects their suffering with the people’s sins: the brothers are faithful, yet suffering for the sins of the people. But this moment of suffering is not the last word:

“Don’t deceive yourself in vain. We suffer these things because of our own sins against our God. Things worthy of wonder have happened. But don’t think you will escape unpunished after trying to fight against God.” (2 Macc 7:18, CEB)

It’s in the lengthy speech of the seventh brother that the propitiating significance of their death comes to the fore:

“We are suffering because of our own sins. If our living Lord is angry for a short time in order to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. But you, unholy man, the most bloodstained of all people, don’t be so proud without having cause. Bloated by futile hope, you raise up your hand against the children of heaven. You haven’t at all escaped the judgment of the almighty God, who oversees all. Now our brothers, who endured pain for a short time, have been given eternal life under God’s covenant, but you will suffer the penalty of your arrogance by the righteous judgment of God. Just like my brothers, I give up both body and life for the ancestral laws. I call upon God to be merciful to the nation without delay, and to make you confess, after you suffer trials and diseases, that only he is God. Also I hope through me and my brothers to stop the anger of the almighty, who is justly punishing our entire nation.” (2 Macc 7:32-28, CEB)

The suffering of the martyrs is (1) because of the people’s sins; which (2) has provoked the just wrath of God. But (3) their own suffering is due to a faithful adherence to God’s law which (4) should have the effect of stopping God’s anger and turning God to mercy.

Immediately afterward, the story shifts scenes to Judas the Maccabee, gathering his army. “They called on the Lord to listen to the shed blood of those who had appealed to God for help” (2 Macc 8:3). And then, “Once he organized his army, the Maccabee couldn’t be stopped by the Gentiles, because the lord’s wrath had turned into mercy (2 Macc 8:5, CEB).

How might atonement be conceptualized by an early Jewish person?

In a context where the people are viewed as sinning against God and in need of repentance, a person who is faithful to God is martyred precisely because of this faithfulness. The fidelity of the martyr turns God’s anger to mercy, and the people are delivered. Despite their own faithfulness, the martyr receives the just penalty, the chastening discipline, due to the people as a whole.

And then, everything changes.

Our Sin in God

Karl Barth, thoughts on our sin and God, appropriate for Holy Saturday:

It is His heart, not ours, which is suffering when we think that we are the sufferers and that we have a right or obligation to lament. His heart is wounded, and wounded through our heart…

Sin attains its true form as opposition to the grace of God. It becomes hopeless as such, and its consequences are hopelessly painful. But at this point the grace of God intervenes as the mercy of God. Jesus Christ enters human existence as the great joy which shall be to all people he breaks down this resistance to grace by himself appearing as grace triumphant, as the royal removal of our sin and guilt by the action of God Himself. Because our sin and guilt are now in the heart of God, they are no longer exclusively ours. Because He bears them, the suffering and punishment for them are lifted from us, and our own suffering can only be a reminiscence of His…

It remains for us only to be the sinners whose place He has taken and who must therefore really have their life in Him.

The above is from §30.2 of Church Dogmatics.

Atonement Begins… When?

Tony Jones is hosting a series of guest posts on the atonement in the lead-up to Good Friday and Easter.

Mine is there today:

“Jesus died for our sins.” Often, the problem with this core piece of our common Christian confession is that we think we know what it means. And so we limit our understanding of the fullness of the atonement…

Forgiveness is not merely about having guilt forgiven. Forgiveness becomes the means by which we are freed from an enslaving tyrant…
(read the rest at Theoblogy)

Does Mercy Seat Work for You?

How do we understand what Jesus is on the cross?

Romans 3:25 speaks of Jesus as a hilasterion. This is translated in some versions as “sacrifice of atonement,” in others as “a propitiation,” and now the CEB is translating it, “the place of sacrifice where mercy is found.”

The word is used in the LXX (Greek translation of the Old Testament) to refer both to the sacrifice of atonement and to the “mercy seat” inside the holy of holies. So what I’d like to hear from you is whether this “mercy seat” idea works for you as a reading of Rom 3:25. Does it make sense in the verse? Can you see how it’d work? Thoughts?

Here’s the passage:

All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus. Through his faithfulness, God displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness in passing over sins that happened before, during the time of God’s patient tolerance. (Rom 3:23-26, CEB)

Freedom from Sin

When the Bible talks about the work of Jesus, it uses an abundance of metaphors.

We sometimes get ourselves stuck. We have an idea of what it means to confess that Jesus “died for our sins,” and we bring this idea with us wherever we go. Often in the world of Western Christianity the idea that Jesus died for our sins brings to mind the idea of legal infraction, a penalty that has to be paid for breaking the law.

But the idea of legal infraction is often not present. Yes, there is sin; yes, Jesus dies for this sin; and yes, there is forgiveness. But it can be imagined in other ways as well.

In Colossians 1, we read this description of salvation:

He made it so you could take part in the inheritance, in light granted to God’s holy people. 13 He rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. 14 He set us free through the Son and forgave our sins. (CEB)

The metaphors in vv. 13-14 have to do, not with guilt but rather with slavery.

Image: David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Freedom here is not freedom from guilt or punishment. It is freedom from a controlling power, from “darkness.” The solution to a problem of slavery is liberation. The kingdom transfer laid out here–form darkness to the Son–is a transfer from a domain of slavery to a domain of freedom.

Entailed in this transfer is “forgiveness of sins.” Where does that play into the slavery metaphor?

Perhaps the sort of enslavement that we should envision is the slavery of debt. This metaphor is taken up in 2:14:

He destroyed the record of the debt we owed, with its requirements that worked against us. He canceled it by nailing it to the cross. (CEB)

The work of Christ in bringing forgiveness is cancelling debt. That debt was, or lent, its enslaving power to those who controlled us and made us hostile to God. And thus Paul can continue, after claiming that the debt certificate was nailed to the cross:

When he disarmed the rulers and authorities, he exposed them to public disgrace by leading them in a triumphal parade. (Col 2:15, CEB)

With the death and resurrection of Jesus, the authorities and powers that were created through and for the sake of the Son are disarmed and subjected to him again. In forgiving our debts, Jesus opens the door for the Father to transfer us from the kingdom that is hostile into the reconciled, cosmic space that Jesus created afresh through his death and resurrection.

The work of the cross is not one in which “freedom” becomes a next calling after God has “forgiven” us in a court of law. The act of salvation itself is a transfer from one lord to another Lord, from one kingdom to another Kingdom.

Debt is forgiven.

And we are free.

At Work in Your Midst

Ever pray for God to be at work in a situation, in a place, in a relationship, in a church?

I’m pretty sure I have. And it never much occurred to me that I might be doing something exceedingly dangerous. It was reflecting on “atonement” in the Luke-Acts that made me think twice.

I remember being taken aback my first semester of my PhD program when people were off-handedly talking about Luke not having an atonement theology. But as I started to dig in I saw the point: Luke seems to have purposely eliminated Mark’s ransom saying. It may be replaced by the saying about coming to serve at table. And, if Bart Ehrman is right, Luke may have eliminated the sacrificial overtones of the last supper.

The cross serves a different kind of purpose in Luke: it makes the Jewish people, in particular, realize that they need God’s forgiveness (rather than making such forgiveness possible).

But then, that brings us up to the problem: the reason they should see they need forgiveness is that God was at work in their world–and they didn’t see it.

Worse, they didn’t merely miss seeing it, they actively worked against it. They opposed the one through whom God was at work, actively and powerfully.

And here is where I circle back to my question: are we really sure we want God to be at work in our midst? What if he is, and we miss it? What if he is, and we actively oppose it?

If the ministry of Jesus shows us anything, it is that the people who should have the clearest vision–both because of their knowledge of scripture and the ways of God and because of their proximity to God’s work–are the ones who oppose the work of God most vehemently.

Yes, of course, I want God at work.

But we should be as diligent in praying for eyes to see and celebrate that God at work as invoking the action in the first place.

Can’t God Just Forgive?

When people wrestle with atonement theology (i.e., how does the cross, in particular, bring about forgiveness of sins), the objection to atonement theology as a whole is sometimes voiced: why can’t God just forgive? Does God really need some sort of payment?

On the one hand, yes, God can do whatever God wants. This is possible.

On the other hand, we develop our understanding of how the cross works ex post facto. We’re not setting up parameters that have to be met, but trying to understand the biblical witness about how the death of Jesus did, in fact, function. We have books like Hebrews that say things like, “You could almost say that without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” We have the language of Jesus’ death as atoning sacrifice.

So atonement theology is our attempt to make sense of what did happen, not to set requirements on God.

But there’s another piece of the biblical puzzle as well. That piece is Luke-Acts.

Luke seems to go out of his way to mute the idea that Jesus’ death is somehow a ransom or payment for sins. You know that, “Son of Man didn’t come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” saying? It’s replaced by the son of man being among his people as one who serves the table.

Look at the sermons in Acts. Here, of all places, we should get a clear exposition of the purpose of the cross. And we do! But its focused purpose is to fulfill the scripture about Israel rejecting its own Messiah, so that Israel will see that they, as much as the Gentiles, stand in need of the forgiveness of God.

God forgives.

God isn’t paid.

Sin isn’t covered.

Blood doesn’t cleanse.

Canonically, this is not enough. There is more to be said, other developments of the significance of Jesus’ death that need to be incorporated into a fully developed understanding of the atonement.

But here’s the question: is this atonement-free forgiveness a viable starting point for us to take with people who find the idea of God needing payment to be barbaric, weird, etc.? Can we set aside the other angles on Jesus’ death and cultivate a Lukan theology of the God who forgives, and who is at work in the world through Christ and the Spirit, as the gospel with which we begin?


Judgment & the Story of Israel

Atonement is tricky. On Thursday I was wrestling with the giving of Jesus by the Father in comparison to the self-giving God of more developed Trinitarian thought. Part of the challenge is that the language and larger theological framework of God giving God’s beloved for the sake of the world is larger than just Jesus’ self-giving.

Jesus’ becomes the pattern for believers’. And, tying together earlier posts about Romans 11 and atonement, it seem to be the language Paul uses to describe how God is currently postured for Israel: “If their rejection be the reconciliation of the world…”

Karl Barth places the whole idea of judgment on God’s people within a much larger biblical story.

As the bearer of the revelation imparted to it, Israel only too clearly means catastrophe for the surrounding world. But even more clearly Israel itself as the recipient of revelation has to suffer in this world. It encounters in its history incomparably much more evil than good. (Dogmatics 1.2, 86)

Prophets can’t advocate the cause of the nation AND YHWH, but must always advocate for YHWH, and so are rejected. The constant rebellion and rejection of God means that its only hope, continually, is in deliverance and salvation, unmerited, by its God: “Between covenant and its fulfillment there is suffering and death for those in whom it ought to be fulfilled.”

And as if Barth insists on saying in its most dangerous form what is most dangerous to say, he continues about the faithful ones in Israel:

They are themselves the first to have to suffer, and they are themselves the ones who have to suffer most, for the truth of their proclamation, for the fact that the God who has ever loved Israel is such a hidden God. And the same order is repeated again in the figure of the single righteous man, who, without special office, simply lives concretely the existence of Israel before his God… Thus the end of the world, or the judgment of the world, is seen above all in Israel. To it especially God is a hidden God. It especially, the beloved, chosen, sanctified nation, the house of God, must be the place where the old aeon begins to pass in face of the coming of God and His new work. (88-89)

From the NT we might remember the saying that it’s time for judgment to begin with the house of God, or we may think of Jesus’ prophetic ministry about the coming destruction of Jerusalem–and then, also, we must think of the cross.

This is, of course, all quite dangerous. It can lead to the problem of thinking that Israel bears all of this judgment, or is the place of all this judgment, because it is especially bad and thus especially worthy of judgment.

But there are two very good ways of heading this off.

The first is to recognize that in this pattern of giving the beloved in judgment, Jesus does stand at the middle. Jesus becomes the curse of the Law, death, thus ending the reign of the Law as the curse- and death-bringer. Jesus himself stands in this role of judged with death.

And the pattern does continue out into the church. We are summoned to take up our cross and follow. We are called to be the judgment-bearers. We are called *gulp* to fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

This talk of being the place where judgment is made known to foreshadow the final judgment is not only about Israel, it is about the cross, and it is about the church. Perhaps getting hold of this is a first key in getting hold of a more biblical understanding of the death of Jesus and our own participation in it.

Here, in this death, in this judgment, the holy God is revealed. Because the holy God must be revealed in a world of sin and death.