Atonement and the Resurrection

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in atonement, Resurrection of Christ | Posted on 25-03-2009

Last week Trevin Wax posted a review of Mark Driscoll’s new book “Death by Love: Letters from the Cross” on his (Trevin’s) “Kingdom People” blog. It was a detailed and sympathetic review of a book that, according to Wax, concentrates heavily on the suffering and death of Jesus as it impacts the redemption of human sinners.

I was troubled, and I raised this question in the discussion, by the apparent lack of emphasis on the resurrection in this work. Wax’s response bugged me even more: “The book is specifically about the atonement, so it is natural that it focuses more on the death of Christ than the resurrection.” The more I thought about it, the more wrong that notion seemed.

There is no question that Scripture, particularly the Pauline epistles, teach us that Jesus’ death in some way dealt with the problem of corruption and sin and death in this world. But when the writers of Scripture talk about Jesus’ death, his resurrection is never far away. Think of all the gospel accounts where Jesus, while prophesying his death, says in nearly the same breath that he’ll be raised on the third day (Matt 16:21 &ff, Mat 20:17 &ff, Mark 8:31 &ff, Luke 18:31 &ff, and others). John is the only gospel where none of Jesus’ comments about his death are associated with resurrection in the same paragraph, though in John 14:18-19 Jesus is clearly talking in that vein.

But it’s not “just” Jesus who talked that way (I can’t believe I just said that). Paul, whose writings form the backbone of most atonement theology, flat-out said in 1 Cor. 15:17:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. While Jesus already had the authority to forgive sins before he died (see Matt. 9:2-7), Paul teaches us that it was his death and resurrection together that wielded the ultimate power over evil, over the principalities and powers of this age.

It occurred to me as I chewed over this, that perhaps the reason Jesus’ resurrection gets soft-pedaled so much in the church, is precisely because the prevailing view of atonement within the church is the Penal-Substitutionary notion that Jesus died in order to take upon himself the wrath and punishment of God for our sins. In P-S, the redemptive act was completed when Jesus “yielded up his spirit” on the cross. In fact, though P-S proponents wouldn’t actually say this, the resurrection is pretty much unnecessary in the view of penal substitution, except perhaps for the fact that like any bereaved father, God wanted his son back (I won’t get into a discussion on christology here). Maybe this is part of why P-S seems so inadequate to me.

But in the Christus Victor view, which comes much closer to my own position at this time in my life, the resurrection is absolutely essential. When Jesus died, Satan and the powers actually thought they had won. From Genesis to Revelation, we see that death is the ultimate weapon of evil against the purposes of God. When they managed to kill the Son of God, they thought they had triumphed and their ultimate weapon had taken down their ultimate enemy. It was when God raised Jesus from the dead, that Satan’s greatest weapon of mass destruction was rendered powerless. Satan’s defeat happened Sunday morning, not Friday afternoon!

Therefore, I contend, as subjects of the resurrected King, we have no business going on about Jesus’ death for a whole book without spending much more energy on celebrating and proclaiming his resurrection.

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. . .We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.

Romans 6:4-5, 9 (ESV), emphasis added

That “no longer” intrigues me. Is Paul saying that, for Friday night and all that Saturday, death DID in fact have dominion over Jesus? We don’t know, but death’s owner certainly thought so. He hasn’t learned much either. Death is still the ultimate threat that the powers of this world (human or otherwise) try to hold over us. It is only in the certainty of Jesus’ resurrection that we can know that he has the power to save us. His blood alone was not enough for that!

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