On the Atonement

The purpose of this essay is to create a general framework for how I think the atonement functions (in particular, why the death and resurrection of Jesus were necessary for the salvation of humanity) for humanity. My hope is to do so by taking into account Scripture, tradition, and experience while also maintaining an open dialogue with modern science, philosophy, and current understandings of psychology and anthropology.

At the outset, I should say that I am particularly fond of Girard’s “last scapegoat” theory, which we will address below. I will also take insights from Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death in order to arrive at a fuller picture of what the atonement can and should mean to Christians (and hopefully the rest of the world), and how the atonement ought to directly affect our actions in this present age.

In order to understand the atonement, many evangelicals have been taught what is known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). The general universality of this particular atonement theory (and yes, it is only a theoretical understanding of atonement — not a test of orthodoxy or a “gospel issue”) is actually quite surprising, given that there have been other well thought out and orthodox atonement theories that take a different approach to understanding the need for Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (Ransom Captive, Christus Victor, Moral Influence, and so on). Most understand PSA to function as follows:

God created human beings in the imago dei, perfect and sinless, with the commission to “have dominion” over the earth and everything in it.

Humanity, at some specific point in history, acts contrary to the will of God.

This act of rebellion (or “sin”) creates an un-crossable chasm between humanity and God that humanity cannot cross on its own by “doing” or “being” good. Another way of saying this is that God’s purity/holiness cannot condone an act of rebellion against God’s will. By this act of rebellion, humanity has brought the wrath of God (via death and, even further, eternal torment) upon itself.

Since humanity cannot, on its own, cross the chasm created by its initial rebellion, God offers an initial method of cleansing and atonement for sin by way of blood sacrifice. The mechanics of this can be found in many Old Testament passages (Deuteronomy gives some very clear pictures of what this looked like in the life of ancient Israel).

However, animal sacrifice was not enough. This was a temporary solution to humanity’s problem. What was really necessary was a perfect, sinless human sacrifice to pay the price for humanity’s sin (remember, any sin is an absolute affront to the very nature and character of God). In order to solve this problem, God takes on human flesh is the form of Jesus of Nazareth, lives a sinless life, dies as an ultimate sacrifice on the cross, and receives upon himself the full wrath of God due to humanity.

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, humanity now needs only to accept and believe that Jesus was fully God and fully man, and that his death on the cross atoned (or paid the price) for the sins of humanity.

Doubtless, I have missed several steps here. It should also be said that this story of atonement I have laid out only gives a very particular view of the complete story of Scripture, of the world, and of redemption as a whole, even for those that affirm PSA. Focusing in on a particular doctrine forces me to ignore many historical aspects of the story of Israel and Jesus and the church.

That being said — I do not accept PSA as a viable option for understanding the atonement.

As Christians, I think our standard, rule, and measure for understanding any particular doctrine MUST start and end with Jesus (including the stories of Jesus we have from the Gospels, the creedal/theological statements the universal Church has accepted as true, and our real, present experience of Jesus, the person, today).

In my experience, most people have taken their ideas about what God must be and how God should act, and forced those ideas upon the person of Jesus. Instead, I think we ought to do the reverse. It is not that we impose our ideas about God (a nebulous term that can house virtually anything we want it to — wrath, anger, violence, justice, morality, love, and so forth) onto Jesus; it is that we must now necessarily define God by the person and character of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We have not always known what God is like — but now we do.

It is in this place that I must start with atonement. If Jesus is our starting point for a theology of the atonement, two things come to mind:

First, the fundamental Christian belief that God was not too pure, nor too holy to take on dirty, stinky, fragile, human flesh (this is the Incarnation). Sin, rebellion, and disobedience to moral “law” (or whatever else you want to call it) do not create some situation by which God requires separation, blood, death, and, ultimately, eternal conscious torment if humanity doesn’t comply with God’s standards. Rather, God is the kind of God (Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully man, reveals this completely) that steps into the cosmos, walks alongside us in our brokenness, and only desires complete restoration — for humanity and for the universe.

Second, death and dying are the natural states in which we find ourselves. Our very existence is bound to end in a “snuffing out of the light,” so to speak. We have no choice in the matter. In order to combat this, we neurotically give our lives over to (here’s some biblical language for you) “principalities and powers” that promise to give us fame or fortune or legacy — the “illusion of immortality” — in return. Our fear of death — or “slavery to death” as Richard Beck calls it — produces “sin” in our lives. In particular, we make idols out of our careers or organizations or ideologies, and our selfish and violent actions in relation to others are directly caused by our slavery to the fear of death.

So let me give you my take:

Humanity is bound. Specifically, we are bound by two distinct but overlapping principles/systems: rivalry, based on imitative desire, and (like I stated above) a “death/zombie drive” that forces us to pursue certainty, satisfaction, legacy, and the “illusion of immortality” in the face of our neurotic fear of death.

First, rivalry. This doesn’t necessarily sound all that “bad” initially. The word “rivalry” doesn’t quite awaken our senses like “original sin” or something that entails breaking a moral law of some sort. Nonetheless, I believe rivalry leads to one of the primary reasons why humans need an atonement or salvation.

Rivalry stems from an even more basic characteristic inside of humanity – namely, imitation (or mimesis). That humans are mimetic explains much in psychological development (i.e., humans often learn things as babies or children by imitation: talking, walking, and so on). Further, our mimetic nature also explains our basic desires. We learn exactly what we should want by observing what others want. Often, however, this desire leads to rivalry with that person. Because we desire what others have or what others want, our rivalry with that person tends to lead to conflict (especially when that person is someone we are close to – if that person is Bill Gates, for example, there are enough social and economic barriers to prevent any real rivalry between the two of us; if however, that person is a close family member or friend, the potential for rivalry in the relationship increases drastically).

When conflict goes unchecked, it can often lead to violence between the two individuals. Remember, one of the basic human characteristics is imitation. So when violence is perpetrated against us, our response is often retaliation (in the form of increased violence) because we imitate the rival party. In this way, conflict, violence, and retaliation are contagious. Conflict between two individuals grows, leading to rival families, tribes, and social religious groups. We have a tendency to become intensely violent, and these conflicts can lead to the utter breakdown of societies and social groups as a whole. To rid our social groups of the tension created by this “mimetic cycle,” humans use the scapegoating mechanism.

The scapegoating mechanism is a social method by which humans release conflict, violence, and tension onto an individual or minority group within a larger group or society. Usually, these individuals or minorities are easy targets; they may be physically weak, socially outcast, and so on. This person/minority, in the ancient world, would actually have been sacrificed or killed (as humanity progressed, this became less common; societies ritualized the scapegoating mechanism by banishment of an individual or sacrificing animals). The (un)surprising thing about the scapegoating mechanism is that, ultimately, it works. Once the individual or minority has been killed or banished, the larger group (or the mob) finds that its conflict/tension has (almost magically) disappeared. Thus, those in the larger group feel their actions are justified, because, in the mind of the group, the tension or conflict has disappeared. Therefore, the killed or banished person must have actually been guilty. This is the fundamental, broken reality (or “original sin”) of human beings and societies: we are bound to this never-ending cycle of mimetic violence:

Imitation leads to rivalry leads to conflict leads to violence leads to scapegoating. This cycle continues over and over again, and humans build their civilizations upon the bodies of the oppressed, the victimized, and the scapegoats.

Further, humans are bound by the fear of death. This is the “flip side” of the human coin, so to speak. Externally, we scapegoat to maintain social cohesion on a broad scale. Internally, our individual actions are driven by what Richard Beck calls a “neurotic anxiety” about the mortal predicament of humans. In the past (before modern or even pre-modern times), this fear of death (as a “basic” [not neurotic] anxiety) manifested itself in the human struggle for survival over and against others. The pursuit of survival and self-preservation drove humans to use violence against perceived threats, human or not.

Now, in modern times, humans (at least in first-world countries) don’t often face a daily struggle for our very survival. Nonetheless, our anxiety regarding death has not simply disappeared; instead it has transformed into an internal, “neurotic” anxiety. Our fear of death manifests itself by “feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, obsessions, perfectionism, ambitiousness, envy, narcissism, jealousy, rivalry, competitiveness, self-consciousness, guilt, and shame” (The Slavery of Death, 28).

In response to this neurotic anxiety, humans have the tendency to make decisions that are selfish, cruel, and power-seeking. Also, this anxiety drives us to give ourselves over to institutions (e.g., building a business from the ground up) or governments (e.g., serving the military) or religions/causes (evangelicalism or humanism or… you name it) to build a sort of legacy so that we can “remain” on earth after death. This is also the reason we — particularly in the West — are plagued with consumerism. We buy and collect and store items that give us a fleeting sense of satisfaction.

All of these are “defense mechanisms” (SD, 39) in response to the overwhelming anxiety we feel from the fear death.

Given these two basic, fundamental traits about humanity (our bondage to both the mimetic cycle [with the scapegoating mechanism] and neurotic anxiety in the face of death), we are in need of salvation from these oppressive, destructive systems. The only way humanity and civilizations have functioned – up until the time of Jesus – was founded both on the victimization of easily marginalized groups of people, and neurotic anxiety about death (selfishness, greed, anger, power-seeking, fear). These systems make us virtually incapable of real, self-emptying, sacrificial love and incapable of building civilizations without trampling down those who are “other” than us.

[Side note: From this point forward, I run the risk of distilling the story of Jesus and de-contextualizing it to the point of unrecognizable distortion. That is not my intention. The events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are beyond multi-faceted. While I sincerely believe in the particular narrative I am laying out, I am also aware that this does not tell the whole story; I am surely missing large sections of Israel’s history, the story of the Gospels and the early Church, and so on. Nonetheless, I believe the narrative I am attempting to weave is a broad, sweeping view of humanity’s brokenness, why humanity needs atonement, and how that atonement is obtained by and through Jesus of Nazareth.]

First, let’s take a look at how Jesus saves us from mimetic rivalry and the sacrificial scapegoating mechanism. Again, I cannot take into account every verse found in the Gospels, but we can look at a few in the hopes of pointing to the places where this view of atonement makes sense.

In Luke 11, when Jesus is conversing with a group of lawyers and religious teachers, he mentions that it is the “blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” was “shed from the foundation of the world.” This is of extreme importance – particularly Jesus’ mention of Abel. The story of Cain and Abel is the story of the first murder (due to mimetic rivalry!). And after Cain kills Abel, what happens? Cain ventures out and begins the building of a civilization! The very first murder is not only the murder of a marginalized victim, but one that serves as the foundation for a society. And it is this for which Jesus condemns his present generation. They are just as guilty, he says, of the blood of the prophets (and victims!) — from Abel to Zechariah.

In John 8, Jesus is again talking to a group of teachers, and says “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” Again, we can see the reference to desire as mimetic (imitative of how their “father” acts). Further, it is important to point out that another word for “satan” is “accuser” (i.e., the one that blames the victim for causing conflict, perhaps?) And again, we see the reference to being a murderer “from the beginning.” Girard explains this well: “The ‘origin’ or ‘beginning’ must have to do with the first human culture… they indicate that between the origin and the first collective murder there is a relation that is not accidental. The murder and the origin [of human civilization] are the same thing” (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 86). Here, Jesus claims that the religious leaders are actually followers/imitators of the accuser, guilty of the blaming and murdering of innocent victims for the function of their civilizations and cultures.

There are a multitude of other examples found in Jesus’ teachings, and even littered throughout the remainder of Scripture. The passages in Isaiah about the ‘suffering servant’ address the scapegoating mechanism. The entire book of Hebrews, with all its talk of blood sacrifice, can actually be seen to show Jesus’ sacrificial death as a move past the sacrificial system set out in the Old Testament. Acts, in its recording of the first sermons about Christ, addresses the mimetic cycle and how it has affected the people of Israel. The most poignant and important example, however, is found in the Passion narratives.

The stories in the Gospels about Jesus’ death (and resurrection) are especially unique in the long line of these stories in the history of humanity. Often, humans have used “myth” to obscure what actually happens when the scapegoating mechanism takes place. We can look at pieces of literature from Oedipus to old creation myths to find stories that affirm the “rightness” of our collective violence against individuals. These stories preserve the goodness of the crowd and the integrity of scapegoating in general.

The uniqueness of the Passion narratives, however, is that they clearly show a victim who was wrongly accused. The community that condemned Jesus was experiencing tremendous conflict and upheaval (Roman occupation being the primary driver here), and a mob formed that needed to vent its tension upon a singular individual; in this case, it is Jesus. The Gospels, however, tell this story in a unique way. Instead of hiding Jesus’ innocence, like all other myths about sacrifice do, they expose the guilt of the mob! Jesus’ death is very obviously unjust and should not have happened. However, by submitting himself fully to the scapegoating mechanism, Jesus directly exposes its inherent wrongness. God himself gives himself over to our evil, sinful, victimizing, oppressive cycle in order to expose it for what it is.

The mechanism’s temporary ability to dissolve conflict in a community can no longer function because God reveals it (first by the very act of submission to it, then through the Gospel narratives) as unjust. Further, Jesus is resurrected from the dead after submitting to death by scapegoating. And what are his first words? “Peace to you!” If anyone could have justly exacted vengeance for his death, it was Jesus, the sinless victim, the lamb who was slain. Nevertheless, after his resurrection, he only gives a word of forgiveness, a dispelling of fear for those who participated in his killing or turned their backs on him!

This is the good news: In the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus reveals our evil tendency for scapegoating and victimizing by submitting to our violence, and then he subverts our expectations further: he forgives us. By doing so, he is commanding the end of our victimization of others.

Now, the flip side of the human predicament.

Remember, Beck’s argument about the human predicament is that we are enslaved, or in bondage, to the fear of death. This neurotic fear produces sin in our lives – namely, we can trace much of our “individual” choices to sin back to our neurotic fear of death. When we participate in greed, violence, hatred, lust, laziness, gluttony, and so on, we do so as a response to our enslavement to the fear of death.

Our fear of death also causes us to give ourselves to institutions and “higher causes” in order to somehow preserve our own legacies, pursue “success,” and fight against our own mortality. These institutions and causes we give ourselves to can be thought of as “principalities and powers.” This is idolatry in its highest form.

Along with this, the neurotic anxiety we experience actually hinders humanity from expressing genuine love. We are, in some sense, incapable of love. Love requires sacrifice – sacrifice of our time, our energy, our desires, our (perceived) freedom. Love is an act of giving, but giving requires loss. The problem is that the anxious part of our selves doesn’t want to sacrifice anything. In the face of death, our pursuit is possession, mastery, legacy, and a (false) sense of immortality. These pursuits are often acquired by pushing ourselves to the “top” by way of aggression and manipulation. This leaves no room for genuine love and sacrifice, which is the command of Christ.

The Christus Victor theory is extremely helpful here. The basic view in Christus Victor is the assumption that humans, rather than choosing to sin and God requiring a sacrifice for rebellion, are in bondage to systems of sin. Many versions of this theory often use terms like “satan” and “demonic powers” to denote who or what is in control of these systems of sin and how they might function. Regardless of what we might call them, the premise in this view is that God, rather than requiring a type of punishment or sacrifice for our individual sins, comes into the world to break us free from bondage to systems we have little to no control over. God — in Jesus — submits himself to these “demonic” powers, and breaks them for us by dying to them and resurrecting again, which gives us a new path forward. (This is only a simplified version of the many ways we can understand Christus Victor. However, we can use this going forward to understand how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection save us from the anxiety brought on by our fear of death.)

So, how exactly does this work? How can we connect this view of anxiety over death that leads to sin and the work of Jesus that saves us from our enslavement and bondage to principalities and powers? I think we can do so in three distinct but connected ways:

1. First, the crucifixion provides a specific picture of genuine love from Jesus. Rather than fighting for his life, and running away from death at the hands of humanity, Jesus freely gives up his own life for the sake of others. The symbol of the cross is the ultimate symbol of love because it is a radical departure from the usual human response to fear and death, which is to protect that which we feel we possess and fight for our own lives.

Jesus’ willingness to submit to our violence and our systems of victimization is a picture of a life not bound by fear of death, but a life committed to self-expenditure and sacrifice in the name of love. Jesus does not cling to life for fear of losing it, but loses it freely for the sake of humanity. The only way forward, the only way to genuinely love and move past our anxiety about death is to follow the example of Christ. (To borrow some biblical language, we are to “take up our cross.” Further, we know what love is because Christ showed us what love is by laying down his life, so we ought to do the same [1 John 3:16].)

The imitative, mimetic nature of humanity overlaps with this theme here. Our inherent tendency to imitate doesn’t simply stop when we believe in and are saved by Christ’s death and resurrection. Rather, in the call to follow Christ, we are given someone new to imitate – not someone with whom we could become rivalrous, but the very person who shrugs off rivalry and the pursuit of self-preservation. Jesus serves humanity, sacrifices for humanity, empties himself for humanity. In calling us to “take up our cross,” Jesus says we ought to “follow” (or imitate) him in serving, sacrificing, and emptying.

2. Second, the bodily resurrection of Jesus gives hope to humanity, which pushes us past our fear of death to an embrace of life. By defeating death, and being what Paul calls the “firstfruits” of those who have died and will die, Jesus brings hope for a resurrection of humanity and the world. In the resurrection, we are promised a reconciled, revived, new world – one in which the kingdom of heaven reigns. If that is true, then enslavement to the fear of death (which breeds sinful, selfish action) should no longer reign in our lives. We can love freely because we have been given hope for the future of the world.

3. Third, in his life, Jesus models and teaches what this life given to love ought to look like. Parables, the Sermon on the Mount, and other teachings serve as direct ways of teaching us how to love and serve. Further, Jesus’ inclusiveness (both with religious leaders and with “outsiders”), whether in eating or spending time with or healing, gave us specific ways in which we could imitate him. He loved and served those who were victimized, oppressed, abused by the system; he also loved those who were in power – the victimizers, the oppressors, the abusers. It may not have looked the same, but it was an inclusive love that he modeled nonetheless. His identity was not rooted in selfishness and he did not seek to defend his place or possessions in this world. He freely gave because he did not experience enslavement to the fear of death.

Why is this important? Why should we care about how exactly Jesus’ death and resurrection are necessary for our salvation? Can’t we just go about believing Jesus died and rose again for a reason without wondering why it had to happen that way? Or perhaps we could chalk it up to God requiring sacrifice in his wrath toward sin and leave it at that?

I don’t think so.

Not long ago, I was participating in a Bible study with a group of people whom I love dearly. We were discussing the role Scripture ought to play in the life of the believer (i.e., How does it hold authority? Is it the word of God? In what way is it the word of God? What do we do with violence in the text?). Mine and my wife’s answers to these questions differed significantly from virtually everyone else in the group. At one point because of our answers to these questions, I was asked, “So do you have a problem with violence?” (as if this were a scandalous thing to ask!). My answer was, “Of course. I think violence in particular is anti-Christ.”

The conversation could not go much further. Before I could answer one question about a particular verse in the Old or New Testament (Revelation was brought up several times), I was given another verse to which I was expected to have an answer. Overall, I was not given enough time or space to give a reasoned, thoughtful, answer to either the Bible verses that seem to paint God as violent or why I thought we, as Christians, ought to denounce violence in general.

In general, I find the problem to be that, as humans, we don’t just desire justice via vengeful violence — we crave it. We honestly believe punitive action toward someone is the only way to gain justice for a wrong. What we don’t see is that we impute this desire onto God, believing God to work the same way. God couldn’t just simply forgive us without first calculating the cost of our wrong, rebellious actions. Someone needs to pay, we think. That is why we read the book of Revelation and assume Jesus is coming to smite his enemies and it’s all blood and vengeance and “wrath.” Surely, Jesus must give to the world its due. Then everything will be put right.

We then take that assumption about a book like Revelation (which I believe is wrong on multiple levels) and backtrack and say that God’s violent, genocidal commands in the Old Testament are justified because, well, that’s justice! God can do whatever God wants!

And then we radically re-interpret Jesus’ words in the Gospels, be they “Love your enemies” or “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye,’ but I tell you…” and assume those things didn’t quite mean that, or that God expects us to act that way but doesn’t act that way himself, or of course Jesus knew that’s not really a practical way to respond to violence, he was just using hyperbole. All because, deep down, we want vengeance and violence and “wrath” to be justified. Retaliatory vengeance is the only way we know how to make things right.

That’s the real scandal of grace. Grace and forgiveness do not demand a payment. On the cross, Jesus doesn’t say “Father, forgive them, but only if they do x, y, and z.” He simply looks at his accusers and murderers, and says “Father, forgive them.” When he comes back from the grave, he doesn’t bring a word of vengeance to his enemies (Jesus, of all people, would have been “justified” in doing so!), but says “Peace be with you!” And by doing so, he frees us to love unconditionally, forgive freely, and serve the world in a newly found absence of the fear of death.

Books and articles that I referenced in this essay:

“Some Thoughts on the Atonement” – James Alison (August 2004)

The Slavery of Death – Richard Beck

I See Satan Fall Like Lightning – Rene Girard

Saved from Sacrifice – S. Mark Heim

“Please Give Me Freedom from the Pursuit of Happiness” – Peter Rollins (October 2011): http://peterrollins.net/2011/10/please-give-me-freedom-from-the-pursuit-of-happiness/

Beauty Will Save the World – Brian Zahnd

“God is Like Jesus” – Brian Zahnd (August 2011): http://brianzahnd.com/2011/08/god-is-like-jesus-2/

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