Every year, during Holy Week, the atonement wars seem to heat up in the media and in the blogosphere. Its a regrettable situation. Of all times of year, Holy Week is hardly an appropriate season to strike up a debate over whether penal substitution is or is not the definitive explanation for Christ's atoning work. For that reason, while I'm not interested in bashing penal substitution (or any other atonement theory) in this post. I do think that there is a question that is worth asking when it comes to the atonement:
What did Jesus have to say about the meaning of his death?
Most of our understanding of the reasons for the death of Jesus tend to come from two sources – (1) Paul's writings and (2) the book of Hebrews. There are also a few smatterings that come from the Revelation and from the other epistles. Most of the time, however, if you ask someone to show you a place in the Bible where the meaning of Jesus' death is explained, they will head straight to something written by Paul – more often than not, to the early chapters in Romans.
Don't get me wrong. Paul is the great interpreter of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. What he says on the subject needs to be heard. However, before getting to Paul's words, it might be worthwhile to reflect on what Jesus himself thought of his death. He knew full well that he was about to die at the hands of the temple authorities and the Romans when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He had told his disciples as much. Surely his thoughts about what his death would mean should be given primary consideration when we think about atonement.
To explore this question, lets have a look at the Gospel of Mark, which was the subject of my post on Holy Week meditations a few days ago. Within this book are two key texts that contain Jesus' explanation for his death.
We begin in Mark 10:42, just before the description of Palm Sunday. The disciples, we are told, have been arguing over who will be the more prominent in God's kingdom. Jesus responds like this:
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
The concept of ransom that is central to this text is similar, but not identical to our own. When we think of ransom, we are probably thinking of money that is paid to cause a kidnapper to release a hostage. Someone is a captive, and, because of the ransom, they are set free. For the original readers of Mark, the idea of ransom relates to slavery: to pay a ransom to a slave owner is to arrange to have the slave set free. In the end, the concepts are identical for purposes of the central point: someone who is captive is set free.
The statement that Jesus is giving his life as a ransom is contrasted with the conduct of the Gentiles. The Gentiles act as tyrants, enslaving and asserting dominion over one another. They struggle with each other for dominance. This order of things, Jesus suggests, is going to be undone by his death.
From what are the "many" being set free? From the consequences of sin? Perhaps, in a sense, you could put it that way. But to fully understand what this freedom is about, you need to first understand that, in Mark, forgiveness of sins does not seem to be a huge barrier to relationship with God. In Chapter 2, for example, Jesus simply pronounces forgiveness on a paralyzed man, and – when his claim that the man has been forgiven is challenged – he backs it up by healing him. It is clear that, even before Jesus' death, God is capable of forgiving sin.
So, again, if forgiveness can be obtained even before Jesus' death, what is it from which people are set free? A parable in which Jesus refers to his own death, in Chapter 12, is helpful in answering this question. This story follows a text in which the people in charge of the temple ask Jesus to describe the authority by which he acted, the day before, in shutting down the business of the temple and condemning them as robbers. In fact, as I suggested in the previous post on the subject, they were effectively robbers – depriving landowners of their rights and taking control over their property (Jesus will later warn people to watch out for them because they "rob widows' houses").
After he is asked this question, Jesus proceeds to tell a parable about a vineyard. The reference to a vineyard is likely intended to remind the crowd of Isaiah 5, where Israel is itself described as a vineyard. Here is the parable:
A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed
He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son. But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. Haven’t you read this scripture: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this,and it is marvelous in our eyes."
We are told by Mark that the temple authorities “realized that he had told this parable against them.” As such, the parable is about how the temple leaders (the tenants) who are in charge of the vineyard (Israel) have failed in their duties. Their killing of the prophets (the servants) will now give way to their killing of Jesus himself (the son). The act of Jesus’ death will then trigger God’s judgment on them, and we will marvel as God makes Jesus (the rejected stone) the Christ (the chief cornerstone).
To summarize, then, this is how I think Jesus viewed his own death:
- Jesus believed his duty was to confront and condemn the temple authorities, knowing that this would cause them to kill him.
- This death would then be the final straw, sealing their fate. As a result of his death, God’s judgment would fall on the temple and those in charge of it.
- This is good news, because when God acts against the oppressors, he also acts to set free those who are subject to the oppression.
I conclude with two questions:
Does Jesus’ understanding of his death involve us being saved from our sins? As I said above, the answer is “yes, in a sense.” The systems by which one, smaller set of humans dominate and oppress a larger set are the ultimate consequence of our sin. To borrow from the first and second commandment, we do not love God, who does not desire things to be this way, nor our neighbors, whom we oppress. For God to undo this system is to save us all from our sins.
How, exactly, does Jesus death serve to set free the oppressed? Clearly, systems of oppression and domination have continued to exist for the last 2000 years. Here, I think, is where we need Paul desperately. However, to understand Paul properly, we need to see him as picking up on the same theme – the theme of liberation, and then elaborating on it in light of Jesus’ resurrection and the subsequent emergence of the community of Christians. And that, unfortunately, is where I’ll have to leave things off for now.