A better theory of the atonement – 3: Death

Posted: October 5, 2015 by J in Bible, Theology

zz3lqchyph6eeff1nzyoWe want to suggest a better way to understand what the Cross achieved in relation to our human sinful condition. It achieved two things: first a death, and second a resurrection. 


If there is one thing the apostles clearly taught about Jesus’ death, it was that he did not die as a mere private individual, but rather for the sins of mankind. He died as a representative. While we evangelicals like to emphasise that our death was transferred to Jesus, the NT writers usually tell the story the other way round: we get to share in his death. His death implicates and involves us all.

We are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  2 Corinthians 5:14

We have been buried with him by baptism into death.      Romans 6:4

This one representative, who was made like us in every way, has taken sinful humanity (‘flesh’) upon himself. And then he, as the representative bit of our ‘flesh’, has taken it down to the grave .

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in sinful flesh like ours, and as a sin offering, he condemned sin in the flesh.     Romans 8:3

He was put to death in the flesh.   1 Peter 3:18

The wrath of God against human sin, the sentence of death upon us, had been left as it were hanging and not yet executed. Though death had been an ever-present plague, yet human life was allowed to continue. In Jesus the sentence was finally and thoroughly carried through. And in that condemnation, human sinful flesh was put an end to. By setting forth Christ as a place of atonement, God was able to finally demonstrate or reveal his justice, his actual response to sin, which had been put off for so long out of concern to spare his children:

God put Christ Jesus forward as a place of atonement by his blood, received through faith. He did this to show his justice, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed.    Romans 3:25

That forbearance had left sin active. It had left a question unresolved: was God ever really going to deal with sin – really  perform the radical surgery needed to eradicate it? Would righteousness (justice) ever be restored and conquer? Or would sin and violence go on triumphing forever? Since Adam the question had never been settled, not even at the flood. Now at the Cross God finally goes to the root of the matter and finishes it off. He condemns sinful flesh and all its hostile divisions once and for ever in its representative, Jesus.

The death he died, he died to sin, once for all.       Romans 6:10

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…that he might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death the hostility through it.   Ephesians 2:14-16

Better than saying ‘he died the death we deserve’ is to say ‘we died with him’. Jesus in some way took our sinful humanity to the grave and left it buried there for good.

This teaching that Jesus died to put away our sin is summed up in the phrase Paul identifies as the primitive Christian witness about the Cross:

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.    1 Corinthians 15:3

“In accordance with the Scriptures”: this was what God had always said must happen to sin: it must die, along with those who embraced it. From the beginning he told Adam, ‘On the day you eat of it, you will surely die.’ When Adam embraced sin, God pronounced the only remedy: ‘to dust you shall return’.

The flood drew a heavy line under this statement about sin: the only way forward for the creation was through the waters of death.

The exodus told Israel much the same story: freedom from slavery and the new birth of the nation was only possible through the death of the Passover night – death both for the sons of Egypt and for the lambs of Israel, whose blood rescued the people.

Israel remembered this sobering reality each year as they re-enacted the Passover and slaughtered the lamb again and again. Life came only through blood.

If that wasn’t enough of an object lesson, God also gave Israel regular animal sacrifices as a perpetual reminder of the claims of sin: blood was called for to deal with and cleanse it. The only way to take away sin was through death.

The scapegoats on the Day of Atonement spelled out God’s intention for dealing with the people’s sin: one was slaughtered, the other driven out of the camp into the wilderness. Exile and death are the way ahead for cleansing the people of their sin.

Eventually the nation itself went into this exile and death, and became their own sacrifice for sin. God handed them over to their enemies:

Be silent before the Lord GOD!

For the day of the LORD is at hand;

the LORD has prepared a sacrifice,

he has consecrated his guests. 

And on the day of the LORD’S sacrifice

I will punish the officials and the king’s sons

…At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,

and I will punish the people.

…because they have sinned against the LORD,

their blood shall be poured out like dust.           Zechariah 1:7-17

Here Israel’s exile is viewed as the sin offering. This is a frequent theme in the prophets: Israel’s wickedness cannot be removed by animal sacrifice: she must now bear her own sins in exile (cf Ezekiel 44:12, Hosea 10:2). This was why the priesthood and sacrifices were discontinued at the time of exile (Ezekiel 44:10-13): the nation must function as its own sin offering, its own blood must be poured out to put an end to sin.

This was to lead to a general end of mankind’s evil:

For my decision is to gather nations,

to assemble kingdoms,

to pour out upon them my indignation,

all the heat of my anger;

for in the fire of my passion

all the earth shall be consumed.             Zechariah 3:8

This is also sacrificial language: pouring out and burning up in fire. The nations are to become a great sacrifice that will put an end to sin.

Draw near, O nations, to hear;

… For the LORD is enraged against all the nations,

…he has doomed them, has handed them over for slaughter. 

…the mountains shall flow with their blood. 

…For the LORD has a sacrifice in Bozrah,

a great slaughter in the land of Edom.          Isaiah 34:2-6

The message is clear: sin can only be resolved by being put to death. Therefore death in exile is the fate of Israel, and of sinful mankind.

However, Isaiah takes this whole theme of sin and death and gives it an unexpected twist: a servant of Yahweh will live out this story on behalf of the people. Like the scape-goat on the Day of Atonement, the Servant will go into exile on their behalf. This representative figure will become the national sin offering that finishes sin once and for all, and brings in righteousness:

The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous…

he poured out himself to death,

and was numbered with the transgressors;

yet he bore the sin of many,

and was handed over because of their sins.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have all turned to our own way,

and the LORD has handed him over

for the sins of us all.         Isaiah 53:11-12, 6 (LXX)

This talk of handing over  (Gr. paradidomi) is the language of exile (cf. Lev. 26:25; Isaiah 36:15, 37:10; Jeremiah 34:20, 38:18; Ezekiel 25:4).

Then in the gospel, Jesus comes and calls on people to take up their cross and lose their life with him. He insists that he himself must be ‘handed over’ to Gentiles and killed. Then he goes on his long march to Jerusalem, where he shuts down the temple and its sacrifices. He is actually handed over to the Gentiles, is humiliated and dies in disgrace outside the city. Jesus is playing the part of ‘the Servant’, living out the whole story of Israel in exile, becoming the sin-offering for the people.

All four Gospel writers say that this is what was happening to Jesus: they hammer away at the exile-word paradidomi ceaselessly. It occurs 83 times in the Gospels, usually with reference to Jesus’ arrest and death. They allude to Isaiah’s Servant  frequently (e.g. Matthew 8:16, 12:18ff; Mark 14:61; John 12:38; cf. also Acts 8:32-33). Jesus, they insist, is living the exile experience – and dying it. He has become the sacrifice to cleanse the sins of the people.

This is also how Paul understood what Jesus did at the Cross:

He was handed over (paradidomi) to death for our sins.         Romans 4:25

He … did not withhold his own Son, but handed him over for all of us.    Romans 8:32

Christ loved us and handed himself over for us, an offering and sacrifice to God for a pleasing aroma.      Ephesians 5:2

When Paul writes that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,’ he is telling the same story as the prophets, but identifying Jesus as the servant who becomes the national sacrifice. When he says ‘He was handed over for our sins’, he is quoting Isaiah 53:12 (LXX). In this light Paul is saying that Jesus died as the sacrifice that finally put the people’s sin to death.

Likewise the writer to the Hebrews identifies this destruction of sin and sinful humanity as the achievement of Jesus’ death:

But now he has appeared once for all at the consummation of the ages to put away sin by his sacrifice.

The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, will purify our heart from dead works to worship the living God!         Hebrew 9:26, 14

The NT witness is tightly unified on this point, then. This is the first part of Jesus’ achievement at the Cross: he died the death we needed to die, he died it for us, and so somehow he destroyed our sinful ‘flesh’. Death is the only answer to our sin: not something to be escaped but something to be accomplished. For in the Bible story God’s justice is about him fixing his world, about restoring righteousness. He can’t do that without first destroying sin. Before the new house can be built, the old one must be condemned.

There are many other images used to express this in the New Testament besides the ones we have canvassed. But they all point in this same direction.

Evangelicals, failing to follow the story, habitually talk about death as what our sins deserve, as though God’s justice was mainly aimed at meting out just deserts to all. God must by all means balance the books! They miss the big picture of God’s purpose in justice. Redemption, not retribution, is the goal of the Bible’s story. The condemnation of sin comes in because it serves God’s central aim of renewal for the creation. This is why the atonement begins with Jesus’ sin-bearing death, but does not end there.

In fact, all that we’ve described so far has been negative. We have seen what the Cross destroys. But this is merely the ground-clearing for the real work of atonement. Which is tomorrow.

Tomorrowthe resurrection

  1. David McKay says:

    I like it when people spell “just deserts” correctly. David McKay

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Matt says:

    Does this way of describing the atonement avoid pitting the Father against the Son, as ST implies?

    • J says:

      Well, I would have thought so. In the story I’m telling, Father and Son are heading the same direction right through, no persuading the Father to be propitious.

      But what do you think, Matt?

      • Matt says:

        I think it does, but it doesn’t seem that way in this paragraph: “The wrath of God against human sin, the sentence of death upon us, had been left as it were hanging and not yet executed. Though death had been an ever-present plague, yet human life was allowed to continue. In Jesus the sentence was finally and thoroughly carried through. And in that condemnation, human sinful flesh was put an end to.”

        Maybe ST is too ingrained in my thinking, but God “carrying through” the sentence on Christ still sounds like a satisfaction. Do you mean by “condemnation” something like an indictment on sinful flesh, rather than Christ being treated like a guilty sinner?

      • J says:

        Thanks Matt, these are great comments. I can see what you mean. That paragraph speaks of the necessity of God’s wrath being carried out. Which ST does as well. So why are we still talking necessity?

        Why is it important for the condemnation to be enacted? AFter 1000 years of this ST distortion, our ST-filled minds run immediately down that track for an answer. But there are other tracks available.

        It’s all about categories. If you rephrase the question in medical terms, Why is it important to remove a cancer? Is it because the surgeon’s honour demands it? Maybe, but more likely you’d answer, it’s to save to patient. A different kind of necessity.

        Sometimes people react against ST by stopping talking about God’s wrath. I think that’s a category error. ST is only one way of understanding why God’s wrath is important. When the PC(USA) dropped In Christ Alone from their hymnal, because of the line ‘The wrath of God was satisfied’, they explained that it was not the wrath bit, but the satisfied bit that was problematic. They got it right.

        I’m not clear on why you’re asking about condemnation, so I probably haven’t quite locked on to your train of thought. But anyway,
        By ‘condemnation’ I mean God carrying out his sentence of death on all sin.
        Is Christ being ‘treated like a guilty sinner’? I try to avoid the word ‘guilty’, because I think it pushes us back to ST categories strongly. So I’m going with ‘sinful’.

        Yes Jesus is ‘treated like a sinner’ – specifically like sinful Israel. But importantly, he is actually part of Israel. He is treated like sinful flesh, for he has shared in our sinful flesh. He dies as our rep, because we all needed to die.

        I’m not sure if i’m scratching where you’re itching with that last bit.

      • Matt says:

        Hmm, I think I’m getting confused. So, it is still necessary for Jesus to die to fix sin, but NOT so he can satisfy the punishment but so that he can destroy the cause (sinful flesh)? Is that accurate? And, if so, why use the language of “condemnation”? We don’t “condemn” cancer, do we? What you are saying is probably true, I guess for me it doesn’t push back hard enough against ST conceptions of the atonement.

        P.S. Another reason to drop that hymn is that it has the words “in” and “glorious” right next to each other, which sounds the opposite of what’s intended 🙂

      • J says:

        Yes Matt that is what I’m hearing the apostles saying.

        Re ‘condemnation’, it’s an image, a metaphor. You’re right it isn’t used in a medical setting. But , as the picture above suggests, it is used in building demolition!

  3. Keith says:

    Just a few thoughts.

    1. Seems to me that the Bible not only says that Jesus death saves us but that it also achieves something necessary that relates to the character of God: ‘so that he may be JUST and the JUSTIFIER.’

    2. I also wonder if you are (perhaps unintentionally) casting what Jesus has accomplished in more consistently impersonal terms than the Bible does. He doesn’t simply carry the sentence of death on sin, he carries OUR/MY sentence. He doesn’t simply bear God’s wrath against sin, but God’s wrath against OUR sin so that we might escape it. ‘having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. (Romans 5:9).

    3. From an earlier post you state that your hermeneutical method here requires agreement with the metanarrative of the Bible. Why not just the Bible? What is the metanarrative? A summary of scripture? The narrative portions of scripture? An interpretation of scripture? If it’s anything other than the whole of scripture, don’t you give something other than the whole of scripture your final authority in the interpretive process?

    • J says:

      thanks for your great comments, Keith. they raise some big issues, perhaps I’ll break it down to answer.

      Re. 1. ‘Jesus death saves us but that it also achieves something necessary that relates to the character of God’ Romans 3:26.

      That’s absolutely right. But what sort of necessity? After 1000 years of Satisfaction Theory, it’s hard for us to imagine any other sort than the ST sort. We read Romans 3:26 and our minds immediately take that track as if there were no others available. I would suggest that this reading rips Paul’s words out of context and interpret them in the realm of medieval European thinking.

      If we plug Rom 3: 26 back into the passage, and the bigger story Paul is telling about Israel and the world, then we realise that he is totally immersed in the world of thought of the OT prophets. In particular he has raised the prophetic idea of God’s righteousness or justice (same word) – a term from the Psalms and Isaiah. There it relates to God establishing justice in the world, dealing with evil and vindicating his faithful people. In Isaiah, God’s righteous is used time and again as a synonym for ‘salvation’.

      I bring near my righteousness, it is not far off,
      and my salvation will not tarry;
      I will put salvation in Zion,
      for Israel my glory. Isaiah 46:13

      The LORD judges the peoples;
         O let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
      but establish the righteous,
      you who test the minds and hearts,
      O righteous God.
      God is my shield,
      who saves the upright in heart.Psalm 7

      The term ‘righteousness’ is used in this way over and over in these prophetic books.

      The story these prophets tell is the one we’ve outlined in this post: God’s character is called into question by the ongoing existence of sin amongst his people and in his world. Is he the judge who rescues his faithful and punishes evil? Will he fix things and establish righteousness – or not?

      And the answer the prophets give is, Yes. His righteousness is coming soon.

      This is the context Paul has established for his epistle by announcing upfront that his theme is the revealing or appearing of righteousness of God (Romans 1:17).

      God had left the question hanging, but now he has settled the matter: he has set forth Jesus as a place of atonement in his death and resurrection, to reveal or demonstrate his righteous – in the prophetic sense of that term. By giving Jesus as a sin offering, he puts an end to sin in the flesh. By raising him up into salvation, he vindicates his faithful servant. Both sides of justice are accomplished in Jesus.

      By enacting righteousness in this way, God answers the big question: is he the righteous judge? – yes he is. He is righteous – and the one who vindicates his servants who put their faith in him. This was the question that had to be answered. So, yes, necessity, but of a different kind from the ST variety.

      The fact that this is not our normal way of reading Romans 3 is simply the result of our failure to read it in its proper context – in the story of Israel, where Paul locates it. But as soon as you place it in the story the prophets tell, it reads pretty clearly.
      (sorry for long reply – not easy to compress!)

    • J says:

      Keith, on your 2.
      I’m intrigued!

      There is clearly something here that’s making you hear ‘impersonal’. Hence your point that it was our sin and our death.

      Strange thing is, that’s the same point I make all the way through the post. About 50 times. The whole question we’re answering is set up in personal terms: how did Christ help our human sinful condition?

      I’m sure there’s something in the post that you’re responding to. I wish I understood better what it is.

    • J says:

      On your 3. “you state that your hermeneutical method here requires agreement with the metanarrative of the Bible. Why not just the Bible? What is the metanarrative?”

      This is a big big discussion. I won’t go into the details here.

      The overview is, that the metanarrative of the bible is what we sometimes call ‘salvation history’. That’s a way of saying that the arena in which God reveals himself is the time-space one of world history.

      The Bible faithfully reports that history to us, and reflects on it, responds to it, etc.

      But – and here’s the key thing – the history is bigger than the Bible. Although we find the history in the Bible as a narrative, that shouldn’t confuse us into thinking of salvation history as a subset of ‘Scripture’. Scripture is a subset of salvation history: it is the sanctified record of it.

      And in fact we find the apostles constantly doing their theology by reflecting on the story. They often reflect on the words of scripture, of course: but they constantly take their cues from the story itself.

  4. Keith says:

    Hey Jonathan, I may well be misunderstanding what you’re saying but your article came across to me as saying that although Jesus deals with sin in his death, or Israel’s sin or his people’s sin, that he doesn’t actually pay for my/our sin in particular. He doesn’t actually bear God’s anger against my sin. If that’s the case I think it’s very hard to talk about Jesus death in personal terms, like ‘Jesus died for me.’ To be fair you do you use personal terms a number of times, but you seem to exclude individual interpretation of these personal terms and seem to default more to terms like ‘human sin, Israel’s sin, sin etc. when speaking of Jesus’ death. Hope that helps.

    • J says:

      I’m struggling, brother, to get pick up your nuance here. You say it sounds like “he doesn’t actually pay for my/our sin in particular”

      Should I hear the emphasis here on the word ‘pay’? That’s not a term I’ve been using. It belongs much more comfortably in a Satisfaction Theory model. But it’s very hard to find this language in Scripture.

      Or are you leaning on the word ‘particular’? As in particular redemption. This idea of ‘he paid for my particular sin’ is the answer to the question ‘whose sin in particular did Jesus die for?’ Which is a question that arises out of the payment/ST model. Which I’m suggesting is problematic.

      When you say “It sounds like he doesn’t actually pay for our sin” – which ‘our’ do you mean? Is there some other ‘us’ that you have in mind besides God’s people or mankind? These are what I mean by ‘our’ in my post. Who is your ‘us’?

      All this leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that we may not be talking about the same thing.

  5. Keith says:

    I’m not especially focused on the word ‘pay’ (although I don’t think the concept is unbiblical) or on the doctrine of particular redemption (though I do hold to that). However I don’t really know how to explain my concerns much more clearly than I have, so I’ll probably just have to leave this part of the discussion for now.

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