N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.
The utter sinfulness of sin, redux
I read a post by Mark Love, which reminded me of some posts by Richard Beck, and then all of a sudden, Wright’s point about heaping up sin on Jesus so that it might be shown to be “utterly sinful” made sense in a whole new (old) way —
(Rom. 7:11-13 NET) 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it I died. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good. 13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? Absolutely not! But sin, so that it would be shown to be sin, produced death in me through what is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.
(Rom. 8:3 NIV) For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh,
Let’s start with Love’s post —
Mark Heim’s book [Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross] suggests we’ve read the significance of the Bible’s “sacrifice” language totally backwards. For Heim, Jesus’ death is not the ultimate or most effective instance of redemptive violence or scapegoating, but the end of it. He writes, “Scapegoating brings us together, stops escalating conflict among us, unites us against a common enemy. We find peace by finding a common victim, by hating together. Satan casts out Satan and becomes all the stronger for it…”
In contrast, “(Jesus’) death exemplifies a specific kind of sin we are all implicated in and we all need saving from, and acts to overcome it. Only the divine power of resurrection and revelation could do that. God was willing to be a victim of that bad thing we had made apparently good, in order to expose its nature and liberate us from it.” (xi-xii).
Beck’s posts make up a seven-part series:
Beck summarizes the lesson in Part 6 —
Following Girard[,] Heim points out that the cross is a paradox and the paradox is the key to a correct understanding of the death of Jesus. Heim states that we need to see the cross stereoscopically, two perspectives on the same story. It is this stereoscopic perspective that creates the paradox and, unfortunately, causes so much confusion about the death of Jesus.
Specifically, in the passion narrative there is the classic mythic story of the scapegoat, the story of a sacrifice to please God and bring communal peace. This is the story as it is experienced by those who are immersed in the events–the disciples, the crowd, Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin. Thus one story contains the actions, words and plot of a sacred sacrifice to appease God. These themes are undoubtedly present, but we must be careful not to read these dramatic movements as the main plotline.
Because a second story is being overlaid the mythic scapegoat story. As readers we get access to the backstage of the drama. We get to see all the props, the makeup room, and the nervous pacing of the actors before they go out onstage. The gospel authors lift the veil of mystery for us. The scapegoating sacrifice, what is believed to be the product and demand of the gods, is now revealed in the gospel narratives for what it really is: The killing of an innocent man by self-interested parties who wish to retain their power and the status quo.
Schematically and dramatically, we have two stories being presented simultaneously in the gospels:
The Onstage Story = The Divinely Mandated Scapegoat Sacrifice
The Backstage Story = The Murder of an Innocent Man
As Girard has argued, this stereoscopic story, where both the onstage and backstage stories are simultaneously presented, is unique in history. Prior to the gospels only the Onstage Story had ever been told. The Old Testament, we have seen, suspected there was a Backstage Story, but it never did get that backstage pass to find out. But here in the gospels everything finally gets exposed. In the death of Jesus the final revelation occurs: Scapegoating must end, forever, because it is simply a ruse and strategy to accomplish our self-interested goals. In the cross there is one final scapegoat: Scapegoating. As Heim says, the “sacrifice” of Jesus was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Violence must cease because we just might be killing God.
(Boldface in original; italics are mine).
Let me try to join this together perhaps more simply. Paul says that by the Torah and the crucifixion, God showed sin to be utterly sinful. What was going on? Well, the leaders of the Jews, the Roman occupying military, and in a very real sense, the nation of Israel conspired to “honor” God by killing a man they believed to be a false messiah, a blasphemer, and someone likely to incite rebellion against the Romans. They violated Jewish and Roman law in countless ways. They even begged for Barabbas, a notorious criminal, to be freed from a just imprisonment in exchange for the crucifixion of Jesus. Witnesses were bribed to give false testimony. And the leaders of the Jews chanted, “We have no king but Caesar!” when their scriptures declare God to be their king. The words were idolatrous, honoring Caesar above God.
Now consider this parable —
(Matt. 21:33-41 NET) 33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a pit for its winepress, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenant farmers and went on a journey. 34 When the harvest time was near, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his portion of the crop. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves, beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first, and they treated them the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and get his inheritance!’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will utterly destroy those evil men! Then he will lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him his portion at the harvest.”
What is the role of the death of the son of the landowner in the parable? He doesn’t bring salvation — not as we think of salvation. Rather, he shows the sin of the servants to be utterly sinful. This is Rom 7:13 in story form: the crucifixion shows how utterly sinful sin is!
So the crucifixion condemned sin in the flesh of the Son because the crucifixion demonstrated the utter sinfulness of sin. Crucifying the Son of God — indeed, YHWH in the flesh, according to Acts 2:36 and 1 Cor 10 (as we’ve covered many times) — is as sinful as sin can be. And the wrongfulness was demonstrated beyond all doubt. The Jews, though blessed by God with the Torah and the prophets, rejected the core teachings of the Torah by idolatrously killing YHWH himself.
They studied and honored the Torah and yet suffered the utter sinfulness of sin — showing that (a) Torah cannot change hearts in a way sufficient to prevent sin from being utterly sinful, (b) even God’s chosen people, with thousands of years of special connection with God and with one prophet after another sent to bring God’s word to them, could not choose God over Caesar, (c) the powers and principalities win. That is, God created government and other such powers to help govern his people, to prevent anarchy and allow his people freedom to live in right relationship (shalom), but the powers and principalities ultimately see themselves as the true gods and the people ultimately bow to them. And so even when God himself appears, they kill him to worship the powers and principalities.
But, of course, this isn’t the end of the story. Satan controls all the kingdoms of the earth, he offers them to Jesus if Jesus would only bow and worship, and Jesus refuses. And Satan then contests Jesus for control of the hearts of the people, and Satan wins.
But this only proves the utter sinfulness of sin. Jesus was not the victim. Rather, he was the victor because not only was he resurrected, but he was enthroned with God in heaven as the true King of the Jews — proving the crucifixion — and all that drove it — to be utterly sinful. This is, in fact, the theme of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2.
That is, the worldview, the mindset, the point of view that says let’s seize power and defeat all who stand against us has been shown utterly sinful. Rather, the Way is the way of the Lamb — and we are called to join the Lamb in his mission or vocation, that is, in showing the superiority of the Way, which rejects controlling others, the imposition of power to compel obedience, and the use of violence to do “good.”
Jesus founded a Kingdom not of this world. It’s not based on power, control, or compulsion. It’s entered voluntarily only. It’s the opposite of crucifixion — which is done by the hands of man. It’s resurrection — which happens entirely by the power of God. And it doesn’t seek to change the culture of the world. It seeks to be the Kingdom and to invite the world to leave the realm of Sin, Death, and crucifixion and to join the realm of Life, Spirit, and resurrection.
Now, no one atonement theory fully explains the atonement. And I’m not sure the totality of what I’ve just covered does either — but it comes a lot closer than looking at the atonement in just one, privileged way. We need all the stories, all the points of view, all the perspectives — and maybe 100 more — because the atonement is much bigger than “how to get to heaven when you die.” And a limited atonement theology makes for a limited understanding of salvation, which makes for a limited life with Jesus.
But when we reflect deeply on each atonement theory and squeeze each one for all the juice that we can pour into our mouths, well, things change and change a lot. The Five Steps become obviously, woefully, sadly inadequate to explain what salvation is about. The Five Acts become pitifully insufficient to express the worship that God deserves. And even our politics and Facebook posts are redeemed from “Give us Barabbas!” and “We serve no king but Caesar” to “Truly this man was the Son of God!” because any proper atonement theory takes us to the foot of the cross.