A better theory of the atonement – 4: Resurrection

Posted: October 13, 2015 by J in Bible, Theology

open-grave-shutterstock-Mordechai-Meiri-e14274405029642. A RESURRECTION

In Jesus’ death and rising from the dead, a second thing is accomplished for mankind: a resurrection.

…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. 1 Corinthians 15.

The two achievements are not symmetrical. When Paul rehearses for the Corinthians the teachings he first delivered to them, the things of first importance, he gives the death of Christ fifteen words while the resurrection gets the other 1200. And the theology of atonement in that chapter is entirely built on the resurrection.

True, we share in both Jesus’ death and resurrection, and both are needed for our salvation. Yet the two events are not given equal weight or importance in the story the NT tells. In the apostles’ thought the emphasis is massively on resurrection not death. To this event, not the crucifixion, they were called to bear witness (Acts 1:22; 4:33).

This unequal emphasis can be explained as the result of taking a salvation-historical view of things. Paul is viewing the Cross as part of the Bible’s meta-story. In capturing that story, he has panned his lens out to the point where only two great events remain visible:

Since through a man came death, through a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.  1 Corinthians 15:21-22

Jesus’ achievements at the Cross, then, reflect the basic structure of salvation-history: death-resurrection. And from that perspective, death is nothing new. Nothing to write home about, you might say. It has been with us all along, ever since Adam: the plague of our existence. Historically speaking, death is Adam’s legacy, not Christ’s: “In Adam all die.”

The new thing Jesus accomplishes is resurrection. When he rose, Israel’s history – and indeed world history – turned on its hinge. “In Christ shall all be made alive.”

In salvation-historical terms, then, Adam correlates with death – and Christ with resurrection. Likewise while both Jesus’ death and resurrection are part of God’s plan, yet his death is often identified as the work of man, while his resurrection is uniquely ascribed to God’s action:

And you killed the prince of life, whom God raised from the dead.     Acts 3:15

The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.   Acts 5:30

In the structure of NT thought, then, God’s victory at the Cross is largely centred on the resurrection.

“In accordance with the Scriptures.” Paul is careful to repeat this phrase: it applies not only Jesus’ death, but also to his resurrection. Israel had been waiting and hoping for a new age to be born, a time when all the nations’ enemies would be overthrown. They themselves would be restored from exile and enter once again into their covenant inheritance: they would enjoy Yahweh’s favour in their own land. In the new age, all God’s purposes for his creation would arrive. Isaiah’s special word for this age was ‘salvation’ (Gr. soterian). Jesus prefered to call it ‘the kingdom of God.’ Prophets like Ezekiel and Daniel had a different image to depict the new age:  it would be resurrection from the dead (Ezekiel 37, Daniel 12). The nation was effectively dead, but God would bring it back to life. This is resurrection ‘according to the Scriptures’.

Jesus’ ministry was full of this prophetic imagery of resurrection.


In the great, central parable of Luke’s gospel, salvation is twice described as resurrection from the dead: “This son of mine was dead and is alive again!” (Luke 15:24,32).

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ talk about his Messianic role constantly centres around resurrection. The nation needed a way to reconnect with God: the Jerusalem temple was supposed to be that place, but when Jesus visits he finds it corrupted. In his very first public encounter, Jesus introduces himself as one who will raise up a new temple for the nation:

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”  But he was speaking of the temple of his body.  After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this.   John 2:19-22

Jesus identifies himself as ‘the resurrection and the life’. This defines his messianic identity in a way ‘the crucifixion and the death’ does not. In nearly every chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus asserts that his mission is to bring in the life of the age to come:

Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, in the same way also the Son gives life. John 5:21

That means leading the people out from the condemnation of exile, and into resurrection life:

Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has age-to-come (Gr. aionios) life, and does not come under condemnation, but has passed from death to life.  John 5:24

So his Messianic role can be summed up in these exact terms:

This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have age-to-come life; and I will raise them up on the last day.  John 6:40


The great climactic healing in John’s gospel is a resurrection: that of Lazarus. This event caused ripples throughout Judea (John 12:9,17). Raising from the dead was a prominent feature of Jesus’ healing ministry. Moreover, he was explicit about the symbolic value of these raisings: they were the evidence that his was the kingdom-ushering, Messianic ministry foretold by the prophets:

When John heard…what Messiah was doing, he sent word…“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:…the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  Matthew 11:4-5


Once Jesus arrives at the Passover festival in Jerusalem, the narrative echoes with constant references to resurrection (Matthew has at least 12 before the actual resurrection event). Jesus tells parables about the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 25:32ff), insists on the reality of resurrection in the face of contradiction from the Sadducees (Matthew 22:23), quotes prophecies of resurrection (Matthew 22:44), encourages his disciples to expect it (Matthew 23:11), and predicts that he himself will undergo resurrection (Matthew 26:32). Also his death sparks off a mini-general-resurrection moment in Jerusalem (Matthew 27:52). After his death the chief priests stress about Jesus’ prediction of his own resurrection and make plans to prevent it (27:63).

Clearly Israel’s hope of resurrection is absolutely central to Jesus’ understanding of his own role in the nation and in salvation-history, and central to what he expects to achieve in Jerusalem at the Passover.

Perhaps most striking of all here is the gradual, unfolding sense that Jesus is appropriating Israel’s salvation-hope to himself. The nation was waiting for return from exile, for the ‘resurrection from the dead’ the prophets had promised. But now Jesus takes that expectation on his own shoulders: he will be the one raised. It seems that he is planning to play Israel’s part at this climactic moment in her history. He will fulfil the role of Isaiah’s Servant not only in death and exile (see Post 3) but also in the return, the resurrection. He will bring the nation into the new age which is her birthright, but which she could never enter otherwise. He will do it in his own body.

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