Jesus is the Passover lamb, the one who died for our sins. This proposition, however, we are to unpack such a statement, may be said to summarize the most basic understanding of the saving work of Jesus Christ. Jesus own self-understanding of his (upcoming) death saw it as a sacrifice, echoing the Old Testament sacrifices. Paul likewise suggests that the death of Jesus on behalf of people’s sins was based upon the Scriptures, i.e. the Old Testament. Then we have the letter of Hebrews that obe can perhaps (over)simplify as a sermon on atonement and how Christ’s death was in fulfillment of Israel’s sacrificial system. Expressed throughout the New Testament is this resounding conviction that Jesus death was fundamentally important for Israel and the whole world. However, sans maybe Romans 6-8, we never seem to get what amounts to a systematic account of how Christ’s death is salvific aside from what is stated within Israel’s Scriptures. Even then, the Passover sacrifice in Exodus and the Levitical sacrificial system never provide a theory for the effectiveness of the sacrifices they made; the accounts of the sacrifices simply assume their efficacy.
This has lead to various attempts to account for why Jesus’ death saves. Atonement models and theories have different flavors. such as Christus Victor as outlined but Gustav Aulen, satisfaction theory propagated by Anselm, penal substitution as popularized by Reformed theology, the governmental view in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, etc. There is a wide array of explanatory models in the world of theology and scholarship, each of which has their own strengths and weaknesses in what Scriptures their theories pulls from and what effects and Christian experiences they account for. However, there is one marked tendency that most atonement theories and models have that in my opinion makes them fundamentally problematic.
Most atonement theories and models rely upon explanations that do not derive from what we otherwise know about God, humanity, and the relationship between God and humanity. What do I mean by this? In evoking Occam’s Razor, the marked tendency of explanations of the atonement leads to the multiplying of entities to explain the atonement, whether it be developing some metaphysical construct that is neither divinity nor humanity that Jesus’ death satisfies or making some claim about God or humanity that has neither been disclosed in revelation nor known through scientific observation.
For instance, I will take my favorite whipping boy, penal substitution theory, although this criticism is equally applicable across the board for me. Penal substitution suggests that when people sin, they deserve death.1 However, Jesus death serves as a substitute punishment for our own punishment. In order to make this model ontologically true, and not just a useful metaphor, there must exist some mechanism by which a) sin always leads to a punishment of death, b) a substitute may take on a person’s punishment and c) substitution is the only way to avert punishment. So, either one must attribute the objective existence of sin-guilt2 or it must stipulate these characteristics belong to God’s nature, which is the more frequent response. However, herein lies the fundamental problem: those three propositions are nowhere clearly defined anywhere in the Old Testament or New Testament. Certain passages can be interpreted as consistent with those mechanisms, such as Isaiah 53, but there is no passages they approximately approach such a clear formulation about some metaphysical entities or about God’s nature.
It seems to me, and this is more of an intuition than a stone-cold fact, that most atonement explanations are more of actually a form of abductive reasoning, trying to find the best fit for the evidence that is known, but it seems as if the premises are assured and therefore operates according to deductive reason where the premises are true. In the process of finding a good fit, the concepts and abstracted relations employed in describing atonement pull more from what seems to be true about the person’s own experiences in life that they ‘impute’ to the Scriptures and not as much pulled from a close reading of the Scriptures themselves.
Furthermore, it seems many atonement explanations attempt to explain the Incarnation by suggesting why Jesus is both fully God and fully human is necessary for satisfied certain conditions for atonement, rather than the Incarnation being itself atoning on the terms of its own reality. In other words, rather than regarding the Incarnation as satisfying some other conditions making salvation possible, I would highlight the concrete reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection being itself the actual power of the atonement. This is consistent with the atonement theology of Hebrews, which makes reference to the necessity of Christ’s experiential reality as being salvific.3 Furthermore, it coheres well with Paul’s more systematic account of Christian experience in Romans 6-8, where the believer is united with the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Paul, the only necessary explanation for this “transfer” of Christ’s experience to the believer is the Holy Spirit, who becomes the focus in Romans 8:1-17. In the end, this is a more fully Trinitarian and Incarnational view of the atonement, without positing imposing some sort of rationalistic scheme that does not immediately arise from the Scriptures.
In addition, this explanation of the atonement fits with the Old Testament in accordance to the way that the authors of the New Testament used the Old Testament. The New Testament does not treat the Old Testament as a store of metaphysical statements about the world, nor do they treat the Old Testament as discussions into the more abstract, impersonal rumination about God’s nature. Rather, they see the Old Testament scriptures as a) entailing the nature of God’s relationship to Israel and the world and b) serving as witnesses to God’s relational character and actions. As such, they are not mined by the New for explanatory “laws” of spiritual realities, as if they could be used to explain the specific mechanism of Jesus’ atonement. Instead, we can say that Christ’s death is a) a faithful fulfillment of God’s commitment to Israel and b) expresses something substantive about God’s character in the very way Jesus lives, dies, and is raised from the death. The existential reality of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection being transferred to believer via the Spirit echoes both ideas of God’s faithfulness and God’s character that is consistent with the Old Testament Scriptures, but appealing to the Incarnation and Trinity as THE metaphysical explanation of the atonement.
- Death is often times a code word for eternal judgment and not simply the cessation of life of the body. I won’t go into detail here, but penal substitution may cross the line into equivocation, where it talks about Jesus’ death as a bodily death but then treats that death as a substitute for a spiritual death or judgment. This equivocation is a necessary move for penal substitution because obviously, Jesus’ death does not prevent the physical death of other people.
- As opposed to its existence in the minds of beings and their inter-subjectivity
- Hebrews 2:14-18