* I’m indebted to David Brondos for the bulk of what I propose below, and virtually all of the ideas below come from his book Paul on the Cross and Redeeming the Gospel. He is certainly not the only theologian to reject classical atonement theories, and I am uncertain how unique his holistic understanding of Christ’s salvation message is. Nevertheless, I thought it fair to at least give credit where credit is due and to not pass these ideas off as my own, though I may have deviated from his thought in certain minor areas, such as my brief speculation regarding the possibility of Christ not being crucified and the small detail that the Kingdom began after Christ left earth, not while he was on it. As for the former, I don’t think he ever addressed such a possibility, and as for the latter, I don’t recall what he held regarding the Kingdom, whether it was present with Christ or not until after.
It would also be prudent to add that due to the controversial nature of alternate atonement theories, I don’t ask anyone to take my word for it. Whether or not my views will change in the future, I find this position to be one of the most reasonable and elegant I’ve been exposed to so far; but one should think for himself and examine the evidence in a more thorough manner than by reading a single blog.
When I was in college I asked one of my professors how the classic Protestant doctrine of penal substitution could be in accordance with justice – a question many have asked since the 16th century when it was first expounded by John Calvin and others during the Reformation. You see, it’s often said that since God is just, he must punish sin; and since all humans are sinners, all humans must be punished; but if all humans are punished for their sin, then they cannot inherit eternal life since the punishment for sin must also be infinite and eternal, which means that God cannot save people as he wishes until that punishment is somehow meted out. Obviously those whom he wants to save can’t take the punishment, since an offense against an infinite God requires an infinite punishment, which, as I already mentioned, would require eternal punishment for the offenders.
As a solution, the Son of God became incarnate in the man Jesus, lived without sin (ensuring that he didn’t deserve the punishment himself, which would have made him just another human), and then vicariously took that punishment on the cross for the sins of humanity. This was, as I said earlier, to satisfy justice since God apparently could not simply forgive of his own accord. The problem, however, is that this isn’t really justice at all. Justice demands that the offender be punished, not just anybody. I can’t take the place of an inmate on death-row for a murder I didn’t commit. Everyone would agree that this is entirely contrary to the whole purpose of the death penalty, whatever purpose you might ascribe to it. In the case of restitution I’ll admit that one could argue that another can vicariously pay back a debt, which is different than taking punishment; but this is more akin to Anselm’s satisfaction theory, which is similar, but also different to Calvin’s. If you don’t know much about satisfaction or penal substitution, it’s okay. My real purpose in writing this entry is not so much to critique other theories as it is to lay down an alternate system that makes sense of Christ’s life and death.
I think it’s safe to say that in order to understand what happened on the cross, one first needs to understand the nature of salvation itself, which is far more holistic than people often recognize. We see in the Gospels that Jesus came announcing the Kingdom of God, which was at hand, that he came “to proclaim release to the captives, give sight to the blind, and set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18 cf. Isa. 61:1) In saying this, he was not just offering forgiveness from sins and entrance to some ethereal heaven after death. He was setting up the kingdom on earth – planting the mustard seed that would grow into a large tree (Matt 13:31-32). In this sense, salvation included a great deal more than just some future salvation from hell, but salvation from our sins here on earth and the consequences that arise from them, along with all manner of ills and suffering that have plagued us for ages. Salvation is not just spiritual, it is also physical; and this holistic salvation is to be brought to earth through the church/kingdom, which began with the coming of the Holy Spirit.
In setting the stage for this future kingdom, we see on page after page of scripture that Jesus came into frequent conflict with the religious authorities of his day. Not all were against him, of course, but a substantial portion evidently were due to both His vicious condemnation of them as hypocrites and His understanding of the Law of Moses as something which embodied principles, rather than rules. To them he was seen as a lawless rebel who was leading the people astray. This ostensibly radical departure from standard Jewish religious thought eventually led to his execution at the hands of the Jewish and Roman leaders as is heard every Easter in churches around the world. At that point it was over. He died, never having fulfilled his goal of starting the kingdom that would one day embody the fullest principles of love and justice, or so it seemed. It wasn’t until days later that the disciples were shocked to find that this “failed” Messiah wasn’t even in his tomb anymore, and that he was in fact alive.
Obviously such events needed to be understood since they were such a drastic departure not only from their religious expectations, but also from the ordinary course of human life. Unfortunately we don’t know what Jesus told the disciples when “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24: 27, 32, 45), but we still have the writings of the Apostles from which to learn and infer what was believed among first century Christians.
I am going to here suggest that the death of Jesus was not, strictly speaking, actually and atoning sacrifice and did not serve as a means in taking away the sins of the world. Jesus died in fighting for a cause – the cause of God’s kingdom, which he was seeking to inaugurate. But much as we would say a soldier who died in battle sacrificed his life, so too can we say that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice, which is why the Apostles use sacrificial language in describing what took place. God is free to “have mercy on whom he will have mercy” (Rom 9:15) and doesn’t require any satisfaction of justice. He requires no balancing of the scales to remit sin. Jesus died in seeking to alleviate our suffering, much of which is the result of our sin, while also teaching us how to live right and whole lives. In this way, he died for our sins. He was obedient to God unto death, thereby showing us true perfection and holy living, which serves as our example as we follow him.
What if Jesus hadn’t been crucified? I maintain that he would have died anyway, after which the Holy Spirit would have been sent and the Kingdom inaugurated. But if he had died in an accident or from natural causes, we would have never seen a perfect example of faithfulness. Yes, he still would have been perfect, but the example he left us wouldn’t have been one of obedience unto death, which is the highest and most dedicated form, and it is for this reason that God ordained his execution rather than a natural death. Nevertheless, he was not to remain in death but was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures, so that He could return and fully establish the kingdom he set into motion.
Those who believe this message are counted among the covenant people of God, that is, they are justified. It’s not by believing that Christ appeased the Father’s wrath as a sacrifice. It’s by believing in the promises of God — the promise that God will mercifully forgive our sins and someday establish his just kingdom in its fullness throughout the world. To believe in Jesus is to believe in his cause and to believe that he has been raised to one day return to not only champion that cause but to complete it — to believe that God made good on his word once and will do so again. In so doing we are counted righteous, and as such we will one day partake of a new and restored physical creation free from the suffering and evil we experience here.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering. The professor didn’t have an answer for me. He could only say that it must have been different in the case of Jesus. I guess he would pretty much have to say that, wouldn’t he?