Atonement and the Stone-Campbell churches

This last week our class focused on inspecting the atonement theories we grew up with and then how those theories effect our ministries today. Since all of us have grown up in the United States in the last half of the twentieth it was not a shock that everyone had the primary theory of penal substitutionary atonement as central to their understanding of the cross. For some of us, as we went to some form religious undergraduate work, the idea of King Jesus’ victory over the demonic power and authorities has become more pronounced. And for a smaller number, the concept of theosis, or divination, has begun to play an important role in our understanding of God’s atoning work. I was surprised how often a singular teaching on atonement was stressed for many who had been raised in a local church. As I thought back on my childhood in my home church I began to recognize some distinctive characteristics about atonement in my own context of the Stone-Campbell churches I’ve come to appreciate.

First and foremost, the primacy of studying the Scriptures meant every one of the theories I have studied in this class was something I recognized. While we never identified 1st John 3:8 as a Christus Victor text, we certainly believed that King Jesus had triumphed over the demonic powers of Satan in this world. While we never called Galatians 3:13 a penal substitution text, we believed King Jesus took our place of punishment under the curse of sin and made us right with God. There could be other examples, but the point is that in our church’s dedication to the study of the Scriptures we simply accepted the text was telling us the truth no matter how many different metaphors the text used. While I don’t remember even the word “atonement” being used in my growing up years, we accepted that the cross was a multifaceted reality that had to be expressed in multiple ways for us to even begin to understand the work God had done through and in King Jesus for us.

The second thing I noticed was how the Stone-Campbell dedication to the sacraments of baptism and communion had the effect of rooting our understanding of salvation into community, history, and the physical world. While there was no doubt we wanted to go to heaven, especially when there were those suffering in sickness or heartache among us, there was a dedication to recognizing that King Jesus was ruling over this physical world and the outcome would be for the people of God to resurrect together to be with our King and God for eternity. This focus toward the world was often, sadly, warped into dispensationalism where God was acting in the world through end times prophecies and political action, such as elections and wars. But still, there was a “creational earthiness” as I grew up that challenged the evangelical escapism of heaven so common in American Christian culture that I can only attribute to the redemption of our bodies with and through the physical sacraments.

Lastly, the Stone-Campbell churches have always stressed obedience to King Jesus as the highest form of holiness. While some traditions of Christianity stress dedication to the liturgy or the importance of existential “Spirit” experiences, our churches have always held to the study of the Scriptures for purpose of learning to obey King Jesus. Comedic in its own way, the churches can easily fall into strange mixture of anti-intellectual and Gnosticism. They see knowledge of the Scriptures as bringing the person closer to God (“The more you know, the higher you go!” and proof texting in the worst ways) but they are also weary of academia as they wisely sense education is used by many to subvert the call to faithful, holy life.

The Stone-Campbell churches’ Scriptural saturation, sacramental “earthiness”, and stress on faithful obedience to the life of the people of God as revealed through King Jesus create an understanding and expectation for atonement to be something participated in by Christians rather than simply done on behalf of Christians. The cross forms a people, a kingdom, and the churches themselves. The atonement is seen as the work of King Jesus that results in our lives being able to express his presence in our lives. While there’s plenty of tweaks that need to be made in the area of theological language and cohesive teaching, these will only add a depth to the wide heritage of faithful participation in the atonement completed in the body of King Jesus on the cross and then poured in his kingdom-churches, his body in the world.

This idea of atonement deeply shaped my own teaching and ministry. My whole teaching career in ministry I’ve stressed participation with King Jesus, the presence of the Spirit, and graciousness in the constant call for obedience to the faith. While in undergraduate studies the Spirit gave me the gift of leading an intentional community of faith as one of my ministries. I can only describe this period of my life as a veritable Garden of Eden. There were plenty of challenges over the seven years of our community’s life, but the presence of the Spirit through our communal study of the Scriptures, the partaking of the sacraments, and the constant striving to obey King Jesus in life together created something that I cannot really begin to describe. What I can say is that every family and person connected to that community was fundamentally reshaped to become more like King Jesus than they were before. The Spirit has worked through our lives in amazing ways that simply would not have been possible if we did not live that communal adventure together, an adventure highly impacted and shaped by my own inheritance provided by my life in the Stone-Campbell churches. I would not say I grew up learning an atonement “theology”, rather I would say I grew up with an atonement way of life, and for that I’m grateful.

Book Review of Michael Gorman’s “The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant”

One of the atonement books I was assigned this quarter was the book The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant by Michael Gorman. This was a fantastic read. Gorman saw that many of the atonement theories offered, especially since the Reformation, are both too mechanistic in focus and/or myopic in scope. He seeks in this book to offer a comprehensive and fundamental layer of atonement understanding that will allow all of the theories to have space to interact and find meaning in relation to one another rather than demand a singular allegiance. Gorman calls this “new” method or theory of the atonement a “new covenant” approach.

Gorman uses the first three chapters of his book to lay out that the cross created a new covenant people of God, the primary aim of God’s promises in the Old Testament. He first shows how the New Testament’s claims the followers of King Jesus are liberated and reshaped as the covenant people, who are now rightly in relation to God and one another, by means of the cross. He then shows how these experiences of salvific liberation and unity are fulfillments of the covenant promises in the Old Testament. By showing these new covenant promises as fulfilled through the atonement of the cross Gorman proposes that the current options of atonement theories are inadequate, especially when they try to explain all aspects of salvation.

The next few chapters are dedicated to understanding the new covenant atonement as an atonement that is participated in and performed. For Gorman, since “the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross is to create a people of the covenant”, then “[t]he cross… must be understood not only not only as the source but also as the shape of salvation.”[1] Because of this the new covenant community takes on three particular ways of practicing the atonement: cruciform faithfulness, cruciform love, and cruciform peace. Each of these practices are imitations of God in and through King Jesus that allows for actual participation within the life of God through the Spirit. Cruciform faithfulness offers a way of life that manifests hope. This faithfulness allows sufferings to be redeemed in God’s salvation since his faithful presence with the new covenant people assures Christians of the promise of resurrection found in King Jesus. Cruciform love takes the faithfulness that is willing to suffer for God and extends it to those with whom God himself suffered. Since the new covenant atonement is for a whole people born out of the broken world then in order to practice the love of the atonement Christians must be willing to faithfully suffer for others too. Lastly, cruciform peace offers a way of life. This life, faithful to the imitation and participation in the sufferings of King Jesus, is for the world by inviting it into the new covenant people and is proactively seeking to redeem the relationships broken within Creation. Gorman calls this peacekeeping and peacemaking, which means seeking to manifest the realities of salvation which have been created in the cross of King Jesus. Gorman does not believe salvation should be seen as something a person is able to simply benefit from, rather it is a fully encompassing (baptizing) participatory reality which will be manifest in the life of those who become a part of God’s covenant people. In this way it connects with Bonhoeffer’s teachings against “cheap grace”.

At the end of this book it becomes clear Gorman has undertaken a massive task. He seeks to shift the very foundation of all other atonement theories by offering them all a place and structure for language. This new environment for atonement theories allows those studying these theories to place them within a larger frame of reference, allowing the theories to play off one another and develop a larger picture (the new covenant people of God) rather than solve specific theological issues. Gorman believes, and in many ways excellently persuades, that “the New Testament writers are far less interested in the mechanics of atonement than they are the results of atonement.”[2] This is the gem of Gorman’s work in this book; the atonement is not simply something that God did in order to make salvation possible but it is the work in the cross that continues in and through the covenant people of God today in the Spirit. Atonement in a new covenant model offers ways of approaching the cross from all of the Scriptural and traditional theories, but more than that offers the very story of King Jesus as the paradigm through which the cross finds its meaning and continued purpose.

This, I believe, is what Gorman offers to those who teach in the churches. The atonement is something that should be taught from the vantage point of its salvific results rather than by its particular mechanics. While a teacher or preacher who is going through the epistle to the Hebrews will need to stress the sacrificial metaphors of the forgiveness of sins, the purpose of forgiveness, the creation of a forgiven people, is what should be stressed most strongly. In other words, the atonement is teleological, or in better theological terms, eschatological. The atonement is the “when and where” event in which the people of God and God are most fully made one—in King Jesus on the cross. While it may seem like an event in the past, the cross is the future of all things. The cross is atonement because it achieved the end which all Christians, the whole new covenant people of God, are participating in for all of eternity. Such a generalized theory of atonement leaves many specific things about salvation unanswered, but Gorman’s new covenant atonement theory is as wide as the Biblical story’s view of salvation. It is this story, culminated in the cross of King Jesus’ gospel, which is the atonement we offer to all the world.


[1] Michael J. Gorman, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not so) New Model of the Atonement (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 175, 213.

[2] Gorman, 210.

Explorations in Atonement: Theory Readings

This week our class had a number of readings that allowed the different theories of atonement to be presented by those who hold to each. I will be evaluating each of these representations and offering my appreciation and critique for each of the theories as I find them.


“The Atonement Debate” chapter in Across the Spectrum by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy:

Penal Substitution

  • Negative: I am not convinced that Jesus’ death was needed to solve God’s issues concerning holiness. If Jesus is divine then he could not have “become sin” for us in this model of atonement. The incarnation works against this view’s dogged assumption that God cannot put up with sin. It would seem God could not put up with sin ravaging Creation and therefore was dealing with the sin issues in Creation by willfully dealing with sin in the body of King Jesus.
  • Negative: The critique of Wright on the common usage of this model still stands. It is far to focused on individual benefits rather than the communal reality brought into existence through the cross. Furthermore, that individuals benefit is usually the escapist hope of not suffering in Hell for eternity and rather living eternally in the pleasures of heaven. The Cartesian “soul” spirituality aside, this fear of suffering and hope in pleasure usurps the reality of the cross and condemns this popular view as feeding into, and possibly born out of, a cultural obsession with pleasure and happiness as the ultimate good of life.
  • Positive: I still agree that King Jesus was giving himself as a sacrifice on our behalf so that the punishment of sin would not fall on those who find life through and in him. In as much as punishment is still being removed and the king is representatively protecting his kingdom then there is some merit elements of penal substitution.


Christus Victor

  • Negative: The idea that salvation is secondary to the cosmic battle God is having against Satan does not seem to be compelling to me. This could easily be reworked to be understood as through salvation for humanity God overcomes Satan. This would make sense of King Jesus’ statement that when his disciples went out and participated in his ministry of exorcism he saw Satan fall from heaven (Lk. 10:17-20).
  • Positive: This view locates salvation as manifest first for and through humanity, but not only about humanity. The focus of salvation is the redemption of all things, Creation itself, and humanity is called to participate in this salvific reality.
  • Postive: Christus Victor locates atonement, and the salvation that pours forth both in humanity and into the whole cosmos, within the historical realities of the story of God in relation to Israel. The theological implications of atonement and salvation only find their sense and power within the manifested history of Israel that culminates in the long awaited coming of the Davidic King, Jesus of Nazareth.


Moral Government

  • Negative: The focus of this atonement theory is on form of outcome that God desires, a holy people. The problem is that the form of holiness revealed in King Jesus is not enough to empower or reshape the realities of humanity lost in sin and death. If the law taught Israel anything it was that they were not able to live up to the standard of holiness as the people of God, even with the gracious forgiveness of God continually offered in the sacrificial system. The cross must actually have effect and cannot simply be revelatory in order to be the cross which brings salvation for the kingdom of God. Furthermore, what it the point of the cross if propitiating God’s anger against sin is not for forgiveness? Saying King Jesus died to show God is seriously angry about sin does not seem to actually deal with sin.
  • Positive: This theory does place a high value on learning to live in the way King Jesus revealed by the example of his own life. King Jesus is the truly human one who makes it possible to live in relation to God eternally and if we wish to participate in that reality then we are to live as he lived in this world (1st John makes this pretty clear I think).


“Redemption and fall” by Trevor Hart, The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (1997)

  • Good Warnings: First, not all atonement metaphors seem to be given equal weight in the New Testament. Something is to be learned from each but the amount of emphasis each metaphor deserves should be varied and scrutinized.
  • Quote: “Whenever the story which the church tells appears to dovetail neatly and without wrinkles with the stories which human beings like to tell about themselves and their destiny, it is likely that the church is cutting the cloth of the gospel to fit the pattern laid down by the Zeitgeist rather than the heilige Geist.” p. 191
  • Quote: “What the metaphors and models all have in common, if they are faithful developments or translations of the apostolic tradition, is a specific focus in history; namely, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. They do not drift freely across the plains of history as universal truths of reason, or recurrent religious myths in which the global hopes and aspirations of humankind are expressed. They are rooted here, in the awkward particulates of God’s dealings with actual men and women, inseparable from the specificities of time and place to which the Christian scriptures bear witness, although transcendent of these in their significance. There, indeed, is the rub for many whose sensitives are finely tuned to the wavelengths of modernity with its historical consciousness and relativistic outlook. God, the Christian gospel insists, has acted decisively for our salvation here rather than elsewhere. It is in the personal particularities of the story of Jesus, a historically and culturally remote figure for most of the human race, that our own personal stories collide with God’s story, that they are somehow take up into his story and transformed. Here particularity and universality refuse to be prised apart.” pp. 192-193
  • Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory: Hart skillfully explains Anselm’s theory as God fulfilling through the incarnation the lacking of human duty and faithfulness due to God because of willingness to sin. Only the fullness of divinity enfleshed is able to properly fulfill humanity before and toward the Creator. I would easily call this a form of representative substitution on account of the representative nature of the incarnation for all of humanity and also because King Jesus is willing to suffer in any way to fulfill the obedience of humanity towards God. As Hart explains, God’s anger is not the driving motivation for God’s satisfaction though punishment is inevitable for humanity on account of sin. God makes atonement through King Jesus precisely because there is punishment for sin and he loves us thereby making a way to God when humanity could not.
  • Modern Enlightenment’s Atonement: Hart explains that in the midst of the Enlightenment’s modern developments Anselm’s Satisfaction theory forged through penal-substitution’s individualistic assumptions led to an idea that King Jesus came to reveal and unleash the latent good and potential within humanity. There was no inherent evil within humanity that needed to be removed by the atonement as much as sin needed to be removed so it was no longer as an impediment to the human condition. The individual and subjective influence of penal substitution created the expectation of an existential experience. This experience of “meeting God” would then allow the person to move “beyond” sin for them to fulfill all that King Jesus intends for the person. This idea of individual fulfillment and self-fulfillment as God’s intent on the cross unmoors atonement from the historical context of the gospel and makes it a Platonic “spiritual” salvation that is nearer to religious therapy than historic Christian theology. Sadly, the only collective thought available within this theory is the cultural notion that humanity is progressing getting better, which is bolstered by the idea that in the cross God is moving humanity towards its truly realized end.


“The Nonviolent Atonenment” by J. Denny Weaver, Stricken by God (ed. Hardin, 2007)

  • Positive: This last reading was interesting. The high level of historical focus, meaning Weaver’s dedication to allowing the context of texts give meaning for theology rather than later Christian developments, is refreshing. But sadly, nothing I liked about this essay had anything to do with the proposed atonement theory of a “narrative Christus Victor”. Weaver also was intellectually honest throughout. He is open that if God intended for Jesus to go to the cross then his method is not an option for atonement.
  • Negative: Weaver is so dedicated to his a priori interpretation of Jesus as God cannot “touch” violence in any capacity that much of the New Testament becomes unintelligible. Paul’s insistence on the cross as God’s wisdom and power, the writer of Hebrew’s insistence on forgiveness through sacrifice by God’s appointment, James’ belief that suffering is redeemed (coherent only by interpretation in light of the cross), even Jesus’ own words when he reveals why the incarnation takes place (John 12:23-28) makes no sense if we follow Weaver’s presuppositions.
  • Negative: The most damning element of Weaver’s atonement theory is his openness that for him, and his theory, the cross is not central but rather a byproduct: “The victory of the reign of God over the forces of evil, symboliszed by Rome that killed Jesus, occurs through resurrection.” “The saving element of narrative Christus Victor is resurrection…” “I have emphasized resurrection as the saving event, the sine qua non of this narrative.” “If Jesus’ mission was the life-bringing, life-affirming mission of witnessing to the reign of God as I proposed, then I cannot say that his death was intrinsically necessary to the divine will.”[1]
  • Negative: Because of this dogged allegiance to a self-imposed hermeneutic Weaver makes a philosophical and theological claim I find hard to get past. In his Christus Victor scope of focus he sees the powers and authorities as demonic forces with actual power, and this I do not begrudge him. But he believes it is within their power to destroy the very existence of humans through death as their weapon.[2] In such a statement there are a number of philosophical problems but I would like to focus on the inevitable conclusion that there exists a power in reality that is able to rival God’s creative and sustaining work. To believe that something has the power or right to extinguish existence is to counter God’s power and work effectively. In reality there is another god, one of evil and chaos that is able to destroy our very life. But such a power is only attributed to the Creator God of Israel by none other than King Jesus (Mt. 10:28). Weaver must push this demoted concept of God because if God were the ultimate divine of Christian tradition it would mean all things, even evil only exists by his gracious sustaining and even their behaviors are allowed within God’s intent and purposes. Weaver believes if God allows for the will of God to be accomplished by evil then God is morally bankrupt and therefore restricts himself from an orthodox view of God’s reality.[3]



[1] J. Denny Weaver, “The Nonviolent Atonement: Human Violence, Discipleship and God,” in Stricken by God? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 330, 340, 347, 351–52.

[2] Weaver, 330.

[3] Weaver, 342–43.

Book Review of N.T. Wright’s “The Day the Revolution Began”

The conversation of atonement is looming large in my graduate studies, both as a part of my current theology class and as a major portion of my thesis. This conversation inevitably meant I had to read one of the most recent books on the topic written by one of the most prominent New Testament scholars, The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright. I bought this book when I went to see Dr. Wright speak on the subject at Wheaton College and was intrigued by a number of the themes he presented in his lecture that seemed like a challenge both to the traditional Protestant understanding of atonement and the Platonizing elements (at least in his understanding) of much modern conversation on atonement. While there is much to be discussed in this book there are only a few points I would like to land on in this review.

First, Wright focuses intently on the Platonizing elements he believes are everywhere in modern concepts of the atonement, or maybe more implicitly, he is critiquing centuries of theological conversation that veered far off from anything the Scriptures were historically referencing. The cultural context of tribalism in the USA has led many academic Christians to deeply explore the teachings of Christian Tradition(s), and many (influenced particularly by David Bentley Hart) are finding Platonism to be a philosophical construct which allows them to understand their faith and reality. I too have many reservations about Platonic elements of philosophy being used as ways of constructing contemporary theology, but I believe there should be more of an effort to distinguish Ancient Platonic thought, Christian Platonism (particularly as expressed by Maximus the Confessor), and what I would call ‘Modern Platonism’ in order to refer to Enlightenment-era philosophy that has embedded (though often wrongly applied) Platonic elements. Wright is primarily attacking the last of these three as he criticizes the common understanding of penal substitution as spiritualized and individualized understanding of Reformed atonement theory.[1] These are valid critiques of penal substitutionary atonement on account that it constructs an idea that King Jesus died with specific intent for each individual (the phrase “He was thinking of me on the cross” or “He would have went to the cross if even just for me” are good examples) rather than personally incorporating the individual into the work of God brought about in King Jesus. What’s more it seems King Jesus’ divine intent for my eternal fulfillment on the cross for “me” was to escape this world of pain and death to go to heaven rather than being empowered to follow him in his life of sacrificial, suffering love for others.

Second, Wright seeks an understanding of the atonement within the framework of Jesus’ own historical context and the first century Christian communities. This means understanding what the phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures”, found in 1st Corinthians 15:3, means. Wright proposes Jesus’ death was framed, both by Jesus himself and his followers, as the ultimate fulfillment of Israel’s covenantal expectations. He argues that for these covenantal promises to become fulfilled the exile must come to an end. And in order for the exile to come to an end the sins of the people must be forgiven. Wright sees the New Testament revealing Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, the long-awaited Davidic king, and the Son of Man from Daniel 7. This merging of Old Testament themes (Wright’s idea of “according to the Scriptures”) means Jesus is able to act as a substitution for Israel’s punishment of exile to bring it to an end (the Suffering Servant), act as representative to God in order to fulfill where Israel had failed in the past (the Davidic king), and act on behalf of God to establish the eternal, global kingdom (the Son of Man). This mixture of motifs allows King Jesus to remove the sin of the people, fulfill the mission of Israel to be faithful to God overthrowing the powers and idols which had enslaved them, and to open up the kingdom’s blessings to the nations as promised to Abraham. All of this happens as an act of love from God who is being faithful to enacting his covenantal promises to Israel (and the nations through her).

Lastly, there is only one area of this book that I did not follow Wright. The particular section was where he fights the idea that atonement does not need to have a concept of punishment involved. By this he means, in his model of atonement Jesus does not need to be sent to placate the anger of God towards humanity.[2] This central argument had two contentions I found particularly weak. A) The Day of Atonement ritual did not actually kill the goat, which represented the people, upon whose head the sins of the people were placed. B) Sin offerings were not about punishment from God being averted, rather it was about purification of accidental sins of the people. It is easy enough to find dissatisfaction in these points from within Wright’s own method of New Testament investigation since the writer of Hebrews merges both of these two sacrificial themes together (Heb. 13:10-13). Leviticus 16 instructs that on the Day of Atonement the bodies sacrificed for sin, which removed or cleansed the people, were all presented for bodily destruction outside of the camp/city. Leviticus 16 then immediately moves to a long list of punishments for breaking the covenant willfully, and the writer of Hebrews seems to be warning against a punishment for disobeying the gospel message in chapter 4. Yet, as I am writing a mini-commentary of disapproval in the margins of this section, Wright then turns. He makes clear that, yes, Jesus as (representative) King and (substitutionary) Suffering Servant does mean punishment against the people of Israel is being removed in the cross. He simply wants to make it clear the punishment is not a future threat of hell that is being removed but the punishment of exile.[3]

But this is a further strangeness in Wright’s aversion to punishment in the cross. He is insistent that wrath is still yet to come so wrath could not have fallen on King Jesus at the cross.[4] Again, I believe Wright’s own method works against him here. Conceptually, the blood of the Passover lamb kept away death in the place of the firstborn sons of Israel thereby purchasing the life of the firstborns for God’s special use. Later, God set the Levites in the place of the firstborns. This interaction of sacrifice and the death of sons is deeply embedded into the Genesis story beginning with the skins God puts on Adam and Eve rather than them dying the very day they ate of the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:17). While death was staved off for a time sin convinced one of their sons to kill the other beginning a whole set of recapitulations of animals “covering” sons in sin and death (Isaac on Moriah, Jacob’s deception of Isaac, the patriarchs’ cover up with Joseph’s coat, etc). All of that to say, I believe this idea of death/punishment in the sacrifice of the cross would be worked out by Wright’s own method if he more fully incorporated the Old Testament interactions of sonship and sacrifice. This would easily be enveloped into the three themes Wright offers of King Jesus, most naturally into the representative form of the Davidic King but possibly even in the priesthood theme of the Suffering Servant. If this does make a way for punishment, including the future wrath the whole world will experience, to be satisfied in the cross it means that when King Jesus ended the exile it was the end of any condemnation for the people of God in this age and the next.

Overall, this book is a great read. Other than the handful of pages referenced above about the aversion to punishment in a specific way, I believe this book is a necessary corrective for many who think about the impact and power of the cross in Christian theology. Theology must be more rooted in the actual language of the Bible and the time of King Jesus himself. As nice and pretty as some theological conversations of later times appear, they are often far from the meanings of the Scriptures they employ. As Wright implores, Christians must understand God’s giving of King Jesus as a loving act for our good, not with the specific intend of stopping his anger at individuals per se, but rather the ending of the sins of Israel so that the covenant blessings might be fulfilled. While sin, anger, punishment, and death are dealt with it is through the ending of the exile by God forgiving the sins of the people in King Jesus. Wright compellingly explains how the end of this new exile is more than just about certain political freedoms (such as overthrowing Rome) but it is more about robbing the demonic rulers and idols, which have entrapped all of Creation and enslaved humanity, of any power to rule. King Jesus has liberated his people, humanity, and all of Creation from the rule of evil, sin, and death, thereby, fulfilling all things “according to the Scriptures”.


[1] N. T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, 2016, 35–37.N. T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, 2016, 35–37.

[2] Wright, 329–31.

[3] Wright, 337–38.

[4] Wright, 330.

Explorations in Atonement

This last week our class began to dive into atonement theory by looking at backgrounds and words. I have thought for the last year, before this class was known about, that I should do an open and public exploration of atonement theories and the theologies that undergird them. I have no personal preference for a specific atonement theory, if anything my background was about individualized penal substitution but my readings and studies have swung against that interpretation. I admit I’m at a point where I need to work though this subject, and these exploratory posts will be my format for doing so. My explorations will be my evaluation of historical settings of biblical texts, the texts themselves, historical reception of certain theories, the usage of those theories, an anthropological look at the place of atonement and sacrifice, and lastly, how useful are the metaphors for teaching in the churches.

This week will focus on understanding the Jewish and Greco-Roman backgrounds to atonement and sacrifice. Was there a theology within Israel as understood in Second Temple Judaism(s)? If so, what was this (common?) internal logic? How does it compare to Greco-Roman understandings of sacrifices? While this post will not go into exegetical detail about the New Testament it is necessary to look into if these strands of thought slightly to see if King Jesus’ or his followers’ language about atonement assume these cultural backgrounds.

Greco-Roman Sacrifices

The Greeks used sacrifice as a way to worship the gods in celebration. These celebrations were usually public and highly festive. These gifts of sacrifice sought to bring blessings from the gods for their particular city, more than seeking assuage the anger of the gods. The Roman cultic system was much more focused on maintaining peace between the gods and Rome, consequently elevating the appeasement of the gods to primacy. This peace was continually maintained by private and public enactment.[1] Those within the rule of Rome were expected, both culturally and politically, to participate in this worship of the gods in order maintain this blessed peace given to Rome.[2] In Hellenism, sacrifice focused more on the purification of those participating in the sacrificial ceremony. While the minority understanding of sacrifice, propitiation to appease the gods of any anger, became primary in Romanized sacrifice. Even still, a purification element remained within the sacrifice of propitiation.[3]

Old Testament Sacrifices

Israel’s sacrifices, in her gigantic and singular temple, were different from the Greco-Roman practices performed in their much more numerous and smaller temples. The Hebrew word for atonement (kpr) is primarily used in the cultic literature of the Old Testament to show how blood is used to expiate, remove the sins or guilt of the participants in the sacrificial ceremonies, rather than propitiate, remove the anger of God against the participants. Outside of the cultic writings, atonement (kpr) is used to substitute one thing for another, therefore righting or correcting something that has gone wrong. There are two particularly good examples of atonement. The first is seen in Moses putting his life in the place of the people who have sinned in Exodus 32:30. The second is Numbers 35:30-34 where the blood of the murderer is needed to atone for the murder. This atoning is not about stopping God from being angry but is to cleanse the ground of the pollution of murder.

The centrality of blood manipulation for expiatory atonement is located in the concept that blood itself is the life of creatures (Leviticus 17:11-12). The reverence for blood is because of the reverence for life as given by the Creator. Blood is not for common consumption because it is believed to have been created specifically for atonement. The issue of murder and ground pollution in Leviticus 17 makes, at least to me, a clear connection between sacrificial atonement theology in Israel and the Cain and Abel story. This might also be a foundation in the atonement concepts of the writer of Hebrews in his letter (12:24). The purpose of expiatory atonement was unquestionably to save the life of the participant in the sacrifices. By the first century the offerings which included a sacrifice had become associated with the concept of atonement, even the peace and burnt offerings, which were originally gifts to God and communal acts of presence with God. This would also seem to connect to the major confluence of atonement in all forms of sacrificial offerings referenced by the writer of Hebrews in his letter.[4]

E.P. Sanders stresses that Israel’s theology of sacrifice was not simply blood magic. The sacrifices alone did not atone for the participants or the people of God like a mechanism put into motion separate from the individuals involved. Sacrifice was the enactment of the participants devotion. If the atonement was to expiate and purify then the participant would need to give themselves to God through the act of sacrifice. While sacrifices allowed for communion and partnership with God, this was not the primary focus, the point was deliverance of the body and life of the participants from sufferings, pains, and death. The sacrifices also created a common identity for the people of God, especially those associated with the festivals. Further, sacrifices were used to bring gifts and prayers to God for the blessing of the participants’ family and nation, and even other nations, such as Rome.[5]

Atonement and Penal Substitution

One of the major fads I have overheard in atonement conversations is to reject penal substitution outright as a Reformation-created theory that does not deal with history of atonement, whether Jewish or Christian tradition. This is a substantial point to me, which if found true, would persuade me to disregard this theory. Often I hear the point articulated in this way: a) the Hebrew concept of atonement (kpr) does not include the propitiatory element of the Greek concept (hilosmos), b) God is angry at sin in humanity and to punish humans (or Creation) is arbitrary to the issue of overcoming evil, and c) God is non-violent love as revealed in the cross which means he would rather suffer himself from outside forces than punish others to bring all things into right relationship with himself.

Working back through these issues, Sanders shows Paul is well within Jewish theology to believe the people of God will be subjected to punishment in this world, and even in the one to come. This punishment was expected to be temporal, but could easily be conceived of as eternal if it did not lead to repentance before death.[6] The writer of Hebrews, again, exemplifies a Jewish theology by teaching Christians are disciplined for complicity with sinners and sin so that further punishment does not come against them (12:3-17). The writer goes on to explain King Jesus’ blood (sacrifice) makes the people of God holy and overcomes death (13:12, 20). Because of this I don’t find compelling the idea that God cannot punish just because he has revealed his love in King Jesus on the cross.

The second issue with this common caricature of penal substitution is the arbitrariness of God’s anger. Wright does a great job of showing how the New Testament’s Jewish theology lends itself to the reality that there is both substitution and punishment in the atonement.[7] Wright’s necessary corrective to popularly held penal substitution is that God is motivated to atone through King Jesus by love to rescue his covenant people, not anger. Wright believes God’s anger is justified against sin and therefore he does punish it, but this is not arbitrary. Idolatry, both in humanity turning toward Creation from the Creator and in Israel turning to other gods from Yahweh who liberated them in the Exodus, allowed humanity to become enslaved and corrupted by the demonic forces of Sin and Death. This enslavement, intensified in Israel’s oppressive Exile, was a  punishment for unfaithfulness to the covenant with God and in no way arbitrary. If these consequences were not arbitrary punishments then the atonement made through King Jesus’ cross is not arbitrary forgiveness.

This, to me, seems central to evaluating the penal substitution atonement theory. Was the central idea of the atonement about stopping God’s anger and punishment? Or was anger and punishment things that simply were dealt with as the people were purified from their sins? Again, the writer of Hebrews offers a good indication of an answer. His quick summary of God’s work in King Jesus in 1:3 as the “purification of sins” places the idea of expiation as central. He retains the concept of punishment for those who outside of the blood of King Jesus throughout the letter. Therefore, punishment is something that atonement does address, but it is addressed as the people are formed in the expiating blood of King Jesus’ holy obedience. There is no forgiveness without the expiation of blood (9:22), and this expiation results in the new covenant people being able to approach God without having to fear his judgement anymore (13:18-24).[8]

Lastly, Jewish theologies’ usage of “atoning expiation” (exilaskomai, a syntactical variant of hilosmos) for Hebrew atonement (kpr) reveals that Jewish theologies did not believe the effect of atonement was only on the participants. Atonement effected God as well. The Greek concept of atoning propitiation was that humans assuaged God, particularly his anger, by sacrifice. Jewish atonement saw atoning expiation as God’s act, whereby he forgave humans and overcame the expected punishments of his anger.[9] Jewish theology saw God as the initiator of atonement to purify humans by expiation and subsequently this circumvented the punishing consequences of sin and death. The main motivation for God to act was therefore love (hsd, covenant faithfulness) for his people, not satisfying his anger, but it cannot be assumed there was no element of propitiation within the expiation of God’s atonement in King Jesus.


[1] David E. Aune, “Religion, Greco-Roman,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 917–26.

[2] Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2016), 37–76.

[3] Friedrich Büchsel and Johannes Herrmann, “Hileos, Hilaskomai, Hilasmos, Hilasterion,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), 310–11.

[4] This section is highly indebted to the following works, which should be mandatory reading for the subject of atonement. Büchsel and Herrmann, 302–10; R. E. Averbeck, “Sacrifices and Offerings,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 710–22.

[5] E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE (London : Philadelphia: SCM Press ; Trinity Press International, 1992), 251–57.

[6] Sanders, 270–75.

[7] N. T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, 2016, 287–88, 337–38.

[8] There is also the connection in 11:28 to the Passover and how blood of the lamb saved the lives of the firstborns of Israel from the Destroyer. Exodus 12:23 seems to show that God’s inaction, not covering the doors of the Egyptians, allows the destroyer to kill the firstborns of Egypt. It also seems to express the Destroyer’s action as (at least a part of) God’s own action, as if he himself is taking the lives of the Egyptian firstborns. A Jewish theology could be posited that the Yahweh’s sovereignty as the Creator means his inaction to stop the evil powers under his control means they enact his judgement and their restriction under his power is always a merciful gift.

[9] Büchsel and Herrmann, “Hileos, Hilaskomai, Hilasmos, Hilasterion,” 316–17.