Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

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checklist with a ticked box and a pen

Well, that’s our take on the atonement. Others will have to assess its value.

However, in the first post of the series we outlined six criteria we believed a successful theory of the atonement needed to meet. The least we can do is to assess our account in terms of these criteria:

1.  It needs to make sense in the context of Jesus’ life and ministry – our account finds a great deal of continuity between Jesus’ life and his atoning work on the Cross. The Cross is not something different tacked on the end of a teaching ministry. Rather it is the climax of his ministry, the culmination his teaching and healings were pointing to.

2. It needs to make sense in the context of the Bible’s metanarrative, its big story – our view makes Jesus’ atoning work the answer to the big questions left hanging in the Old Testament, the denoument of Israel’s story and fulfilment of their prophetic hope. His death finally cleanses his people’s sin, and his resurrection brings them back from exile to God.

3. It needs to comprise both Jesus’ death and resurrection as integral to his achievement, such that it would be inadequate and incomplete if either were missing. Popular views of the atonement find little saving significance in the resurrection. Our account, while holding both events necessary, actually places the greater part of the weight on the resurrection.

4. It must be an account that gives full and equal role to Father, Son and Spirit.    By rehabilitating the resurrection to central stage, our approach makes the Holy Spirit a key player in the atonement. For it is He who raises Jesus, and the realm he is raised into is the new realm of the Spirit. It is likewise the Spirit who raises up God’s people in Christ.

5. It must be an account that give clues to the subsequent rise and shape of the community of Jesus as described in Acts and elsewhere.    Resurrection body –> resurrection community. Simple.

6. It must leave some room for mystery in this central mystery of our Faith.   Our account of the atonement is very brief. It doesn’t claim to know too much detail. It is light on mechanism, being content to assert connections rather than explain them. It is not mathematical and doesn’t invite a ‘book-keeping’ approach to salvation (as some theories do). Rather it relies heavily on what Calvin called ‘the mystical union’ – which for us is the union between Christ and the rest of the human race in a general way, and between Christ and his people in particular.


Whatever you think of our ‘better theory’, it does seem to live up to the criteria we established before we started. If there are other accounts of the atonement out there that do as much, we’d like to know about them.


So many of our gospel presentations today are content to end the story with Jesus’ death, then switch their focus to our repsonse. But it is notable that none of the four apostolic gospel presentations is willing stop there. They all press on to reach their climax and denoument at the resurrection.

Jesus, having announced his intention to live out Israel’s prophetic hope of resurrection, then goes and does it. He allows himself to be cast out and killed. He bears Israel’s exile in crucifixion, and then undergoes their resurrection. The tomb is found empty, and his disciples begin to speak of ‘what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands’ (1 John 1).

In the context of Jesus’ ministry the meaning of his rising is clear: he has entered into the new age, and done it on Israel’s behalf. ‘We have seen it … and declare to you that the age-to-come life that was with the Father…has now been revealed to us’ (1 John 1). Now all his people can enter the new age also, restored to God and to their inheritance as his people.

In other words, Jesus’ resurrection was this sort of resurrection: an eschatological event of epoch-making proportions. And the salvation it achieved was this sort of salvation. At his death Jesus closed off the path of sin that humanity had been travelling since Adam (see Post 3). Now at his rising he achieves a way forward for mankind, a future: “In Christ shall all be made alive.”


In the earliest apostolic preaching, it was the resurrection which established Jesus as redeemer and judge of Israel:

“God has exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and release from sins.”  Acts 5:31

The Jewish title for this saviour/leader was Messiah. Israel expected this Messiah would be a new David-figure, the king sent by God to bring the nation back from exile. Peter, after describing how Jesus was murdered, announces to the crowd at Pentecost that God has appointed Jesus to this kingly office.

“David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades…’. Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”   Acts 2:31, 36

What Peter is announcing, of course, is Jesus’ resurrection. In his view this was quite simply Messiah’s coronation – an  enthronement which secures blessing for his people. For now Messiah is ushering in the age of the Spirit, bringing Israel release from their old captivity and return to live in God’s presence in the new kingdom:

“Be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for release from your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”          Acts 2:38

Paul shares this view of resurrection-as-enthronement: at the opening of his master-epistle, to the Romans, he uses another traditional title for the Davidic king: son of God.

…the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was appointed to be son of God with power according to the Holy Spirit by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through who we have received grace.          Romans 1:3-5

He rose to reign in the Spirit-filled new life of God’s kingdom. But because he does this as Israel’s leader, he opens up that new existence for the whole nation.

In other words, Jesus’ resurrection is being shared with his people. They become a resurrection community enjoying the blessings of the new age, here and now. Or, to use Isaianic terms, enjoying salvation:

By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead… Although you have not seen him, you love him… you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are already receiving the goal of your faith: salvation for human people.      1 Peter 1:3-9


The NT epistles are written with the express purpose of helping this new community grasp and live out its resurrection life to the full together.

But God, who is abundant in mercy…made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. …He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus… For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them…So I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle… Ephesians 2, 4.

Of course the key-word here is ‘so’: their community life springs out of the reality of resurrection. All Paul’s ethical instruction is given on this same basis: the people are already part of this resurrection community. Indeed it only makes sense with that as its premise:

No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.   Romans 6:13

The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!    1 Corinthians 6:13-15.

He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer to themselves, but to him who died and was raised for them… So if anyone is in Christ, new creation! – the old has passed away; see, new things!      2 Corinthians 5:14-17

This view of the Christian communities is not unique to Paul but common to all the apostolic writers.  Their letters are written to encourage and admonish resurrection-gatherings:

Through Jesus you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God. Now you have purified yourselves by obedience to this truth that leads to genuine brotherly love. So love one another deeply from the heart. For you have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring Word of God.  1 Peter 1:22

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love remains in death.  1 John 3:14

The letters to the churches hardly ever mention Jesus’ resurrection without linking it to the present life-experience of the recipients. The two things – his resurrection life and theirs – are not treated as two but as one and the same thing.

In summary, Jesus’ expectation had been realised: in his resurrection as Messiah, he had raised up Spirit-filled communities which began living the new life of the age to come, even in the present. Those far away had released from sin and brought near, to enjoy favour with God and peace with each other. Isaiah’s ‘salvation’, Ezekiel’s ‘resurrection from the dead’, or Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’ (see Post 4) – whichever name you want to call it by, it had arrived.

CONCLUSION: A Better Theory of the Atonement

We have suggested that Jesus achieved two things at the Cross: a death and a resurrection. Both of which we needed. Satisfaction Theory finds little atoning value in the resurrection: how can rising from the dead satisfy anything? But now that we have told the story the apostles were always telling, it should be apparent why they place the greater share of the theological weight on the resurrection. It was essential that our sinful human flesh be put to death, and Jesus accomplished that. But this was really just the ground-clearing. The real goal was the building which God had planned in its place: the kingdom of God.

The death of Christ was God’s ‘No’ to sin and sinful mankind. But that was not his final word. God’s ultimate word to us was given in the resurrection: and it was ‘Yes’. This is why all four gospels push on beyond Good Friday, to land on Easter Sunday.

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.

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

A better theory of the atonement – 2

Posted: October 4, 2015 by J in Bible, Theology

HEBREWSThe question we are asking when we talk about atonement is this: how did the Easter events deal with the problem of sin that had beset humanity since the Fall? In fact the term ‘at-one-ment’ is already too specific to describe this question: by implying a relational, reconciliational achievement it rules out other possible answers in advance.

So we’d better change our title to ‘A better theory of the Cross‘ – understanding ‘the Cross’ in the broader sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection.


A million books have been written about this. A million theories are out there. We can’t try to interact with the literature here, there’s not room. It’s worth making a couple of observations about it overall, though.

First, the fact that this debate is still raging after all these centuries should suggest to us that something is fundamentally wrong. For most Christians the question why did Jesus die is pretty core to their faith. Our belief about the atonement is surely not meant to be a controversial topic for endless argument, but a precious truth to be shared and cherished. The fact that we have never arrived there is evidence of a serious problem somewhere in the deep structure of our faith tradition. In many studies one gets the impression that the wood cannot be seen for the trees: big pictures are few and far between in the literature.

Second, much of the most interesting recent writing is not accessible to ordinary church members. It’s too hard to read. This is a disturbing trend which needs reversing. If writers are not pursuing this study for the sake of the churches, then they’d be better to pack up and go home. And in my experience the pastors are not much better at reading than their flocks.

For these reasons, rather than get bogged down interacting with the myriad detailed questions and views in print – and probably lost in the trees – we are going to step back and try for a big picture. We’re going back to Scripture. We believe it is possible to find some big-picture answers there that are plain and ecumenical (i.e. believable by the large majority of Christian people).

A better theory of the atonement

Posted: October 3, 2015 by J in Bible, General, Theology

Crosses1-e1378309830959Dan W raised a perfectly valid point during our recent series on the Satisfaction Theory of the atonement: if we’re going to tear down a dodgy theory (as we did) what can we build in its place? Are we offering anything constructive, or merely indulging in iconoclasm?

Good question Dan. We’re going to have a go.

First we’d better lay some ground-rules. I reckon for a theory of the atonement to be viable it has to meet the following standards:

  1. It needs to make sense in the context of Jesus’ life and ministry – not be merely a tacked-on achievement that is basically discontinuous with his prior story. Since Jesus’ death and resurrection comes as the climax of the Gospel accounts, we should be able to take our cues for understanding that climax from within the Gospels themselves.
  2. It needs to make sense in the context of the Bible’s metanarrative, its big story.
  3. It needs to comprise both Jesus’ death and resurrection as integral to his achievement, such that it would be inadequate and incomplete if either were missing. Neither can be assigned the heavy lifting in a way that leaves the other element a light-weight.
  4. It must be an account that gives full and equal role to Father, Son and Spirit.
  5. It must be an account that give clues to the subsequent rise and shape of the community of Jesus as described in Acts and elsewhere. No other Jewish popular leader who was executed in that era left behind an ongoing community. What was it about Jesus’ death that was different?
  6. It must leave some room for mystery in this central mystery of our Faith. We are looking for an account of the Cross, not a full explanation. Any theory that wraps it all up too neatly, is suspect.

In my view Satisfaction Theory fails each one of these tests. It tells a story like this:

Our human sin has offended God’s honour or justice and alienated him from us. He wants to reconcile us but he can’t until his justice or honour is satisfied with respect to our sin. Someone must pay. So he sends Jesus his Son. Jesus spends his time doing miracles to proove he is God’s son, teaching God’s standards to convict us of our failure, and then he dies to bear the punishment we deserved. This death finally satisfies the demands of justice. Once Christ has died, salvation is achieved. Now we can get right with God and find a place in heaven. But he has to rise from the dead so we will know it’s true.

In terms of Point 1, above, Jesus hardly shows much interest in the need to satisfy God’s honour or justice, during his ministry. Under 2, ST works without needing the story of Israel. ‘Nuf said. For 3, ST puts all the weight on Jesus’ death, leaving little if anything for the resurrection to accomplish. For 4, ST is a transaction between Father and Son; the story works without needing the Spirit. ‘Nuf said. 5: ST provides little if anything in the way of explanation for the rise and unique shape of the early church. 6. ST seems to offer a complete explanation, it leaves little room for mystery.

So we’d better come up with something better, hey Dan?

I want to add to this, that the whole idea of a ‘theory’ of the atonement is problematic. We don’t want descriptions of mechanics worked out in the abstract environment of systematic theology but not grounded in the NT story. No matter how clever or ‘satisfying’ such a theory might be, it would remain in my view a distraction from the gospel. As ST has been.

What we want is an account of the atonement, one that restrains itself from going beyond what is written, and instead clarifies and synthesises the apostolic witness about Jesus. We don’t want something that Christians will be forced to argue over and defend or critique for centuries, but rather an account that Christian people can recognise as true and build their faith on. That might mean a degree of caution in how much we claim to know, especially about the mechanisms of the thing. It might be that a brief, general account is better than a long detailed one.

All right, after this bit of scene-setting, let’s get down to it.

Tomorrow: everybody else’s theories. In 2 paragraphs.

lamb_thumbThe Cross of Christ is never described as a propitiation in the NT. At least not using hilas-. That’s the conclusion we’re going to come to at the end of this study. Just letting you know in advance – if you don’t want to come to that conclusion you might want to stop reading now.

When we turn to the NT, there are only a handful of instances where the apostles use the hilas- word group. This scarcity should give us pause. If the term is so vital for understanding the Cross, as is often claimed, then it is strange that it is used so rarely. I would suggest that on the contrary these occurrences of hilas are not intended to do the heavy lifting of our atonement theology. Rather they provide one metaphor among many in the apostolic vocabulary of atonement.

Let’s take a look at the few occurrences there are in the NT.

In Luke 18:13 the tax collector in Jesus’ parable says ‘God be hilaskomai for me a sinner’. Here God is the one acted on by the passive verb. Propitiation would seem to be in view. ‘God let your anger be turned away from me.’

In Hebrews 9:5 hilasterion is the mercy seat, a piece of Levitical furniture.

The other four occurrences refer more clearly to Jesus, and are of particular interest to us.

In Hebrews 2:17 the high priest is chosen ‘to hilaskesthai the sins of the people.’ Here we have a sacrificial context, and no personal direct object for the verb. God is not acted on: the sins are. This is the typical Levitical usage (see previous post): no surprise in a letter like Hebrews! Cleansing is in view.

In 1 John 2:2 we read “and Jesus Christ is the hilasmos concerning our sins”. The context is sacrificial: a few verses earlier we read:

“and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin… If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will release from us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Here we have cleansing through blood sacrifice: a Levitical context. In keeping with this setting the hilasmos is directed not at God but at our sins: “He is the hilasmos concerning our sins.” An expiatory sense is indicated. The other occurrence in 1 John 4:10 is very similar. God is not pictured here as alienated and needing to be placated, but rather as overflowing with love and goodwill. In his goodness he provides us with a hilasmos, a sacrifice to put away sin.

In both these instances John sees hilasmos as an ongoing reality: Jesus, post-resurrection, is now our cleansing.

The last occurrence is Romans 3:25: “whom God set forth as a hilasterion through faith, by his blood…” This comes at a pivotal moment in Romans. This is the verse usually made to bear most weight in the case for the Cross as a propitiation.

It is also extremely difficult to translate. Paul has compacted many concepts and images into a single sentence: this is not Paul at his clearest! It’s a pity to hang too much of your theology on such an opaque sentence. Let’s have a go at understanding it.

This passage in Romans is absolutely dripping with OT references. We are deep in Scripture territory here: in the past four verses Paul has referenced the law of Moses (twice), the prophets and redemption – all classic OT themes. Now in v.25 he pictures God as setting forth a blood offering. The verb protitheimi is a standard term for making certain sorts of offering in the LXX Torah, especially the showbread. We are in a traditional Hebrew context here: try to imagine Paul speaking with a thick Jewish accent!

The offering which God sets forth here is a blood offering. It is his Son, Christ, who is set forth as crucified.

Paul invites us to consider Jesus’ death in the light of a Levitical offering or sacrifice. But Paul does not use the metaphor with strict precision. For one thing, protitheimi is not normally used of blood offerings. Also here God himself provides the offering. This is reminiscent of the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt Moriah, where Yahweh provides the sacrifice in place of Isaac (Genesis 22).

Paul adds one further word to complete his picture: God sets Christ forth as a hilasterion in blood. This word hilasterion is the word we are investigating. Some evangelical scholars tell us it should be translated ‘propitiation.’ But this is curious, because hilasterion never refers to propitiation in the LXX version of the OT. In secular Greek usage the word could be used to mean this. But it is hard to believe that in this hyper-Jewish context, Paul would go against the traditional Jewish meaning and import one from a foreign context. We would do better to exhaust all other options for interpretations before settling for such an unlikely solution.

In Levitical usage this word always refers to the mercy seat, the cover over the ark which relates to atonement. It is the place where blood is sprinkled on the day of atonement, i.e. it is part of the sacrificial system. Given the sacrificial context Paul has created, we cannot help thinking of this mercy seat and day of atonement when he uses hilasterion here. Probably he is suggesting that we should understand what happened with Jesus’ blood in those terms: as a kind of day of atonement event.

As we have seen (in the previous post), this Levitical imagery has little to do with propitiation and everything to do with cleansing.

However, Paul handles his images quite loosely. For in the Levitical system it is supposed to be the offering, not the mercy seat, that is set forth. It is set forth (at least the blood is) on the mercy seat. But Paul says ‘God set forth the mercy seat’Perhaps in this highly compact sentence he is using a kind of shorthand, eliding and condensing ideas, leaving out connecting words. If we were to expand it, it might read:

…whom God set forth to be our day-of-atonement offering, altar and mercy seat, through his blood shed for us at the cross.

So how should we translate this term hilasterion in Romans 3:25?

If we are right about Paul’s shorthand approach, then it’s not going to be easy to translate it. But if we pull back and look at the whole sentence, the sense is clear enough:

“The righteous salvation of God has been revealed for both Jew and Gentile, and it has come apart from the Mosaic law. For Jew and Gentile are on the same footing, as sinners deprived of the life of God. But now they are put right and rescued from that sin and guilt freely through Jesus Christ. God set him forth instead of altar, ark or sacrifice, as the place where our sins are taken away. Jesus’ blood, not that of animals, cleanses sinners. It cleanses all who place their trust in him, observance of the law notwithstanding.”

This is a paraphrase. How would we do a stricter translation of Romans 3:25? I would probably still paraphrase slightly:

“whom God set forth as a place of atonement through faith, by his blood…”

It doesn’t yield its meaning immediately, does it. But then, neither does Paul’s Greek version, so that’s ok by me. Really, there is no good translation of this difficult verse. Sorry.

I think the NRSV and NIV do pretty well here, reading ‘as a sacrifice of atonement’. The Holman’s reading, ‘as a propitiation’, is without linguistic justification.


We’ve done a pretty simple word-study of ‘hilas-‘ in Scripture, using some of the basic tools of lexical semantics: circles of context, fields of meaning, buddy words, semantic range (for more on these, see Post 3). All these tools were well understood by the 1960s when Morris was doing his work. They’re not hard to use. They protect us from committing a whole bunch of exegetical fallacies. In this case they have also yielded a clear result to our inquiries.

What have we found?

In the four cases where the hilas- word-group is applied to Jesus, it is used in a Levitical context, and should be given the Levitical sense of ‘cleansing’. We have found no instances in the NT where hilas- is used to describe the Cross as a ‘propitiation.’ This is consistent with the NT view of the atonement, that ‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). He does not need to be propitiated: he is the one doing the reconciling! It is us who need to change.

Giving a nod back to the place we started from – the idea that propitiation-terms describing the cross are evidence for a Satisfaction Theory of the atonement – we can say, this is not true of the hilas- word-group.

confess(In the previous post we began our assessment of the work of Leon Morris on the word ‘propitiation’. Here’s the rest.)

Next Morris turns to hilasmos. He concludes once again that ‘whenever’ it means forgiveness the circumstances indicate the turning away of divine wrath.

One example should be enough to test the quality of this conclusion. In Psalm 130, we read ‘but there is forgiveness with you’. The context celebrates God’s loving orientation towards Israel. He does not mark their sins but will instead redeem them from them all. It would seem that God’s wrath is far from view in this Psalm. But no, Morris finds propitiation implied even here: “the word occurs in a context of trouble.” That’s it, that’s the proof. Did you catch it? The writer is facing troubles: a clear statement of God’s wrath(!) Apparently God has marked the psalmist’s sins after all. And not only is God’s wrath here: for Morris the turning away of wrath is a ‘necessary feature’ implied by this context of trouble.

It seems there is no context where Morris cannot find the idea of God’s wrath being turned away. I suppose he might say the whole Bible is such a context – in which case every word in it must necessarily speak of propitiation! In any case, Morris’s approach makes the business of considering individual examples of usage pretty pointless: we know what the outcome will always be.

Next is hileos. Morris’s comment on Deuteronomy 21:8 is revealing. The context is all about the removal of guilt in case of murder. Clearly expiation is in view. The elders are to sacrifice a heifer and say, “Do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain upon your people.” There is no mention here of wrath or punishment. In spite of this, Morris detects it: “It is difficult to interpret this other than as a propitiatory rite.” Why is that? Why could it not be, say, an expiatory rite? No reasons are given. In fact we already know that Morris has ruled out the category of simple expiation a priori. Actually one gets the feeling that this comment of Morris’s pretty much sums up his approach to studying the usage of the hilas– word-group: he finds it difficult to seriously consider interpretations other than propitiatory ones. If so, this tells us about Morris – but not about hileos.

The real test for Morris comes with exilaskomai.  For the word is mainly used in Leviticus, in a cultic context. But in Leviticus there is no mention, no suggestion of God’s wrath: the focus is always on the removal of sin or guilt. In fact the book is remarkable for omitting this common OT idea, the wrath of God. In this cultic sphere, the category is apparently absent.

You might think it would be difficult to find propitiatory ideas, then, in this Levitical term, exilaskomai. But I think by now you’ll have guessed that Morris finds them. Here’s how he does it: there are a handful of occurrences of exilaskomai outside this cultic context. He decides that this reflects the normal usage of the word, and that the huge number of cultic occurances are the exceptional usage. Ok…

He calls these few non-cultic occurrences “what the verb means in itself quite apart from the conventional use of the cultus.” He then demonstrates to his own satisfaction that these few occurrences allow of a propitiatory interpretation. The next step is to let these few non-cultic occurrences to control the meaning of the term when found in a cultic context: they ‘give us the key to the understanding of the cultic references.’ They become in effect the tail that wags the dog. They force a propitiatory meaning onto the Levitical usage.

This is Morris at his worst. As we have pointed out elsewhere, this idea of an intrinsic meaning in a word ‘in and of itself’ apart from context and usage, this has been thoroughly discredited by a century of lexical semantics by now. Usage and context are the keys to word meaning. For Morris to extract the word from its cultic setting in order to pin down its ‘real’ meaning apart from all the distractions of context, is naive. To then reimport this meaning into the cultic usage, is to commit the ‘illegitimate identity transfer’ which James Barr complained was such a common error among biblical scholars. A word’s meaning in one context cannot determine its meaning in a very different context.

In fact, words take on different meanings in different settings. Especially in a technical setting like the Levitical instructions, a word could easily have a special meaning. The legitimate way to discover that meaning is to look at Levitical usage. Simple. But that yields an ‘expiation’ result…

At the end of this chapter studying the OT usage of the hilas- word-group, Morris summarises his position beautifully: “When we reach the stage where we must say ‘When the LXX translators used “propitiation” they did not mean propitiation’, it is surely time to call a halt. No sensible man uses one word when he means another.” This would seem to be a conclusive argument – if the LXX was using ‘propitiation’. But that is precisely what Morris is attempting to prove. What this sums up so clearly is that Morris has all along been assuming the meaning of the word in order to prove that assumption. He might as well say, “It must mean propitiation, because that’s what it means.” We might remember that he began his discussion with this same argument. This silliness does nothing to advance our understanding of the hilas- group.

Such large-scale and persistent methodological flaws and follies as we have identified render Morris’s work of little value as a contribution to the study of the hilas word-group. The fact is that neither he, nor the ‘authorities’ he adduces, seem to understood how to employ the disciplines of modern lexical semantics (the science of studying words).

Sadly the evangelical constituency for which he was writing had even less understanding of these things than he did, and so were easily impressed by the appearance of scholarship. I for one grew up on this diet, being assured that “it has now been settled by the best scholars that this word means ‘propitiation’”. It is distressing to revisit this from a linguistic point of view, and find such poor quality work. I come away from this review feeling that the Christian community deserved better from a scholar they trusted so much.

In summary, pretty much everyone agrees that the idea of ‘expiation’ is central to in LXX usage of the hilas- word-group. Morris has argued that propitiatory ideas are also to the fore whenever this root is used. But he has not produced convincing evidence for this. The best we could say is, he has shown from the usage that ‘propitiation’ is sometimes in view in some of the terms studied. But in other hilas- words – in particular those connected with the Levitical sacrifices – there is no evidence of ‘propitiation’.

Is the Cross a Propitiation?

Posted: September 1, 2015 by J in Bible, Linguistics, Theology

leonmorris_narrowweb__300x3670(This post started life as an appendix to our series on the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement. But it’s outgrown that place, so I’ve promoted it to the status of a series in its own right.)

We’re following up the word most often adduced to lend support to Satisfaction Theory: the hilas- word-group. The claim is that it means ‘propitiation’, which is an ST kind of term.

So what does ‘hilas-’ actually mean?

Let’s take a look this word-group: does it mean ‘propitiation’? The most famous exponent of the ‘hilas- means propitiation’ view is evangelical scholar Leon Morris. ST subscribers, when pushed, will tend to fall back on Morris’s authority. Let’s take a look at his work on this word.

Morris on Propitiation

Morris devotes two chapters to ‘propitiation’ in his book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross: one on the OT and one on the NT. We will confine our critique to the first chapter, on ‘propitiation in the OT’.

Morris has titled his chapter Propitiation, but it’s actually structured as a study of the hilas- group: so we might be forgiven for thinking we’re dealing with a foregone conclusion about the meaning of ‘hilas-’. I think we’d have to call this a bad sign.

In his introduction Morris tells us he will exclude some occurrences of the word-group hilas- from his study, on the basis that they don’t refer to the cross! Apparently we are only studying occurrences that help describe the cross: i.e. we are trying to build a theological concept from this word. Morris tells us that though the word occurs few times in the NT, ‘We should not dismiss the concept as unimportant, for the idea is often present where this particular terminology is absent, e.g. in passages dealing with the wrath of God’ (p.144 my italics). Next Morris calls propitiation a ‘category’. It seems we have a concept in our sights, not a term.

After this introduction, Morris proceeds as though he’s doing a word study of the hilas- word group. So are we studying a theological concept, or a word? James Barr identified as a fundamental problem in word studies of the bible, this very confusion between studying terms and studying concepts. Morris ignores Barr’s warning, and never manages to clarify which one he’s studying. He builds this methodological confusion into his deep structure. Effectively we’re doing theology through word study. Which, as we saw last post, is a Bad Thing.

Morris begins with pagan/classical usage. The word-group means ‘to appease or placate’. “Hilasmos is the means of appeasing God or of averting his anger.” Morris concludes that ‘when a first century greek heard the words of this group, there would be aroused in his mind thoughts of propitiation.’ Morris doesn’t arrive at this conclusion by doing any actual word study: he simply relies on the opinions of ‘authorities’ such as Dodd and Moulton.

Next Morris cites Dodd’s opinion that the Scripture usage is different from the pagan usage: cleansing not propitiation is intended in both LXX and NT. Morris has two objections to this:

1. If the Scripture authors wanted to say ‘cleansing’ why did they use the word for ‘propitiation’?

This is of course a nonsense, assuming his conclusion in order to prove it. The question of what the word means has not yet been settled, Dr Morris: that’s why you’re studying it, remember!

Morris’s second objection is:

2. Dodd rejects the whole idea of the wrath of God, and thus prefers ‘cleansing’ for theological reasons. I.e. his view is biased by non-linguistic considerations. There follows an extended digression on the wrath of God in Scripture. Morris does not explain why this is here. One can only infer that by countering Dodd’s theology, Morris thinks he has countered his assertions about the word-group ‘hilas-’. Now we are doing word-study through theology! Once again the confusion of word-study and concept study muddies everything, producing this lengthy, confused digression.

Having done as much as possible to pre-judge the question of what these words mean, Morris now finally turns to looking at usage in Scripture.


Morris starts with hilaskomai. He acknowledges that “the Hebrew verb it translates conveys thoughts like ‘forgive’.” But he qualifies this: “if the particular forgiveness or purging of sin is one which involves as a necessary feature the putting away of the divine wrath” then propitiatory ideas can be seen still present in the term. Pay attention to that sentence: it’s going to get a work-out before long.

It turns out that Morris discovers ‘the putting away of God’s wrath’ as a necessary feature pretty often. On Psalm 65:3, where there is no mention of wrath in the entire psalm, Morris nevertheless concludes: “The context tells us that ‘words of lawless men have overpowered us’, and once more we see the kind of thing which would naturally be associated with divine wrath” . And apparently Morris can deduce from this that ‘putting away’ of that wrath is also in view here. Note that none of the terminology of wrath or putting away is present in Psalm 65. Yet Morris finds this is an example of the situation he posited, where putting away of wrath is a ‘necessary feature’ of the forgiveness in view. This is remarkable exegesis, to say the least.

How does Morris know that wrath is in view here? He tells us how: ‘lawless men’ would naturally be associated with divine wrath. In other words his criterion for discovering propitiation as a ‘necessary feature’ of a text, is that the text have some sort of evil in view. That’s all that’s needed. It turns out that for Morris, whenever anything to do with sin is in view, this is evidence that ‘putting away God’s wrath’ is implied.

Let’s get this straight. The question we’re pursuing is, does hilaskomai mean ‘cleanse’ (following Dodd) or ‘propitiate’? Both meanings are about sin. But ‘cleanse’ is about the sinner, while ‘propitiate’ is about the placating of God. However, Morris’s approach in Psalm 65 is that if sin is in view nearby, wrath is implied, and if wrath is implied, the turning away of God’s wrath is implied. And so if the word hilaskomai occurs in that context the meaning is necessarily propitiatory. Did you notice the trick here? For Morris, hilaskomai cannot possibly mean just ‘cleanse’. Because ‘cleanse’ always involves sin. In other words one of the two options is being ruled out a priori. In effect we are presented with a foregone conclusion. While maintaining the appearance of studying word usage, usage is not allowed to affect the result. Indeed Morris gets his result in spite of the apparent lack of propitiatory language in the context where hilaskomai occurs. Psalm 65 is an example of this, but he does it in case after case.

judgment_by_fullofeyes-d4zg5o1There is one word in Scripture which evangelicals have pointed to as evidence for Satisfaction Theory: the hilas- word group which is sometimes translated ‘Atoning sacrifice.’ Evangelicals often claim that it really means ‘propitiation.’

This word-group deserves treatment as a kind of appendix to our series on ST. For if the claim is true that hilas- means propitiation, then that might be evidence of ST in Scripture – since propitiation is a similar idea to satisfaction.

The story of propitiation goes like this: the god is angry with us. We will suffer the consequences of his wrath unless we can placate or propitiate him in some way. This concept is common in pagan religions the world over. Most Christians (including many evangelical scholars) agree that this view of god is horrendous and incompatible with the God of Israel. However some have gone for a modified take on propitiation.

How is this modified view different from the pagan one? It’s not easy to articulate this, but one distinctive is in the role played by God. In the Christian take on propitiation there is nothing we can do to turn aside God’s wrath. But God makes a way of atonement – a propitiation. His wrath is turned aside elsewhere (onto Christ) and so we escape.  This is necessary for our salvation, for his wrath must go somewhere: God cannot simply switch it off.

You can see that this has the same thought-structure as Satisfaction Theory. Propitiation is really a variant of satisfaction. This is why the hilas word group tends to be prominent in evangelical accounts of ST.

So does hilas- mean ‘propitiation’? And if so, can this word swing the debate in favour of Satisfaction Theory? We’ll take these questions in reverse order.

Firstly, can this word swing the debate in favour of ST? 

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that hilas- did mean ‘propitiation’. Would that establish the popular evangelical idea that the Cross of Christ atones by rendering satisfaction?

The reliance on ‘hilas-’ to establish this doctrine is an example of one of our evangelical besetting sins: doing our theology through word studies. We like the idea that a whole lot of meaning (= theology) can be stored in a single word. We can extract it from the word, and ‘hey presto!’ – instant theology.

Actually words don’t work in this way. And neither does theology. Modern linguistics tells us that meaning (i.e. theology) does not reside so much in individual words as it does in sentences, paragraphs, stories, books –  i.e. in larger units of language. To do our theology well, we need to exegete texts, not individual words. Ultimately the whole bible story is the unit that encodes the meaning we need. In other words biblical theology is the discipline to work with for building our theology – not word studies. To jump straight from word study to theology is to short circuit the whole process of actually reading the text.

So we should be wary of any argument that proceeds on the basis of word-studies. The hilas word-group (or any other word-group) can never be a strong argument for ST, or for any other doctrine.

For more on the problem of word-study theologising, see here.

Tomorrow: Does hilas- mean ‘propitiation’?