18 And God has made all things new, and reconciled us to himself, and given us the ministry of reconciling others to God. 19 In other words, it was through the Anointed One that God was shepherding the world, not even keeping records of their transgressions, and he has entrusted to us the ministry of opening the door of reconciliation to God. 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 (TPT)
As a fourth-generation ‘Christian’ I have sometimes found myself attempting to explain the death and resurrection of Jesus through a lens that often did not make sense. Christianity affirms that the death of Jesus brought freedom and forgiveness from ‘sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:3, John 1:29). That is a Bible fact. However, at the same time, Christians hold to different theories about ‘how’ this exactly happened through Christ’s death. In other words, how did Christ’s death accomplish the salvation of humanity and the world?
The word ‘atonement’ is what most English translators use for the Hebrew word kippur (to wipe away, to cover over, to cleanse). Our English word ‘atonement’ tries to describe the beautiful act of God making us ‘at-one’ with Him. The result of what God was doing through Jesus made us ‘at-one’ with God in a ‘moment’. Our ‘at-one-ment’ with God means that we have been cleansed from sin, reconciled, and re-united with God forever. All of this happened at Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension. But how?
The Bible uses different images to convey this concept. Here are a few:
- Jesus as the Sacrificial Passover Lamb – an image of a life given, to take away our sins and give us our freedom (1 Corinthians 5:7, John 1:29)
- Jesus as our Ransom – an image of a price paid for our freedom (Mark 10:45)
- Jesus as our Conquering King – an image of one who achieves victory through what looks like defeat (1 Corinthians 15:54-57, Hebrews 2:14)
- Jesus as our Healer – like the bronze serpent in wilderness, Jesus will heal the dying who look to Him in faith (John 3:14-16, 2 Corinthians 5:17,21)
- Jesus as the New Covenant – the blood of Jesus guarantees God’s New Covenant (Luke 22:20, 1 Corinthians 11:25)
Oftentimes Christians do not disagree or debate these major images that the Bible uses to describe what was accomplished through Jesus’ death. They are right out of the Bible after all. However, what Christians do passionately debate is the meaning of these images and metaphors. What exactly was happening when Jesus died? What are the metaphysics and meaning behind the metaphors? This is where theories develop?
It is very important to acknowledge that atonement theories are just that – atonement theories. They are believing humanity’s attempt to understand and explain the deep theological implications pertaining to the atonement. We now enter the field of taking what the Bible says by trying to establish what the Bible means.
Throughout Church history different atonement theories have been pitched onto the proverbial playing field so to speak. Here are a few:
- Healing – Christ changes our hearts by taking sin and making us new
- Penal Substitution – Christ changes God’s heart by taking our punishment and appeasing God’s wrath
- Ransom – Christ took our place by offering His life and defeated and fooled Satan by rising from death
- Christus Victor – Christ conquered Satan by turning power upside down and ascending to His throne as the rightful King.
- New Creation – Christ’s death ends the old covenant and establishes a new way of relating to God and each other and launches the world towards ultimate transformation.
When reading the above theories, which one speaks to you and captures your mind and heart? Perhaps a combination of them serve as your primary way to communicate what God was doing through the cross. Most Christians holds to one of those theories, however, all Christians should avoid making any one atonement theory equivalent with the gospel. When that happens, the gospel itself is weakened because atonement theories are not the gospel, but theories about the gospel.
Currently, there are Christians in the world who passionately state that one is not preaching the gospel unless you specifically describe God pouring out His wrath upon Jesus on the cross. In this light, Jesus serves as someone who steps in between God’s wrath and humanity. Acting like a divine asbestos-suit, Jesus deflects God’s flames from us, or absorbs it on our behalf. The fact is that YES, Christ’ death removed any and all punishment coming our way, and YES Jesus took our sin. However, the Penal Substitution theory has some major issues with it: 1. It goes beyond what the Bible clearly and plainly says, 2. It seemingly is not Trinitarian (what is The Spirit doing in all of this), and 3. It seems to contradict what the early believers presented to non-Christians.
In the book of Acts, there are over a dozen examples of the gospel presentation, and none of them bring up aspects of Jesus being punished or God’s wrath being poured out on Him. In other words, the Biblical pattern of believers communicating the gospel with non-Christians do not use elements of the Penal Substitution theory.
I challenged you to read the following passages to see how Peter communicates the role God plays in the Easter story (death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus):
Acts 2:23-24, 2:36, 3:15, 4:10, 5:30, 10:39-40
When you read those passages, a pattern emerges: We are responsible for the death of Christ. But God raised Him from the dead. The only ‘wrath’ evidenced upon Christ was from humanity, not God. For some reason the earliest of gospel writers do not describe God pouring out His wrath upon Jesus. Simply stated, God discharging His wrath upon Jesus is something never stated in the Bible or preached publicly as the gospel in Scripture. The early church never communicated an image of an angry God hovering over and above Jesus while pouring out His punishment for sin. This was never stated. We do see wrath, but it is the wrath of fallen humanity acting through the power of religion and politics raging against Christ. God in fact was not operating in wrath, but in love. Here’s how.
God was in Christ, suffering with Christ and loving the world (and us) through Christ.
This is clearly stated in the Bible. God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, no longer holding anything (our sin) against us.
So I admit that I’m not a fan of the Penal Substitution theory to explain what God was doing and accomplishing through the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Moreover, I am less of a fan of people who preach this theory like its the gospel. However, let me end on a positive note: through Jesus’ death on the cross, God is reconciling the world to Himself, and us to one another.
In the first-century world, Paul uses this concept to help the early church understand what God was doing by bringing the Jews and Gentiles ‘at-one’ with Him. He writes in
Ephesians 2:14-16: Our reconciling “Peace” is Jesus! He has made Jew and non-Jew one in Christ. By dying as our sacrifice, he has broken down every wall of prejudice that separated us and has now made us equal through our union with Christ. Ethnic hatred has been dissolved by the crucifixion of his precious body on the cross. The legal code that stood condemning every one of us has now been repealed by his command. His triune essence has made peace between us by starting over—forming one new race of humanity, Jews and non-Jews fused together! Two have now become one, and we live restored to God and reconciled in the body of Christ. Through his crucifixion, hatred died.
I believe we need to return to an outlook which truly emphasizes what the Bible says about the power and mystery of the Easter story: new creation.
Now, if anyone is enfolded into Christ, he has become an entirely new creation. All that is related to the old order has vanished. Behold, everything is fresh and new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
I am thankful for a God who offers us a fresh, new start. I am thankful for Jesus who endured more physical, mental and spiritual anguish than I could ever imagine in order to usher in a new reality for us to experience and have.
NT Wright says that ‘on the cross we see dying love, and we recognize it as the undying love of God.’
Amen. This is Easter. This is Jesus.