My good friend Ben and I have the greatest theological discussions by cellphone text message. This is both a blast and a pain. . .a blast in that an ordinary, underwhelming day can be interrupted at any moment by a question or a thought about stuff that really counts, and a pain in that it can be really hard to encapsulate a nice juicy thought in 160 characters or less!
Being that as it may, we have been trading thoughts recently over some questions related to the purpose and effect of Jesus’ death, ignited (this time) by a great post over at my friend Kurt’s blog. I want to get some of these thoughts down in greater detail here. . .and I must start with the caveat that while the words here are mine, the thoughts are very much a product of this back-and-forth we have been having, so thanks to all of you.
Regulars will recognize that we’ve been over some of this territory already, and will know that several of us have pretty serious issues with the Penal-Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) framework for understanding Jesus’ death. Most of us have agreed that the Christus Victor (CV) view explains vital elements of the redemption story that just aren’t covered in PSA. Where we may differ is in just how much to keep or discard, in PSA.
The prevalent notion, of course, is that Jesus’ in his death took on the wrath of the Father (who demanded death in payment for our sin 1). A major problem with this theory is that it is (I am beginning to suspect) largely extrabiblical. I am doing a study right now on the use of, and teaching regarding blood sacrifice in Scripture. My initial observations suggest that God never demanded blood sacrifice as payment for sin in the first place. . .but more on that once my study has progressed further. But if (as Ben and Kurt and I have all suggested at different times) Jesus’ death wasn’t primarily (or mostly, or at all) a payment for sin, then what was it? Just a necessary prelude to resurrection? No, biblical texts still suggest it was more than that. What then?
The key that is starting to tie this together in my mind, was ignited for me when Kurt commented that Jesus did, in fact, die in our place–a “substitutionary” death–but not necessarily in the “penal” framework usually posited. That clicked a connection for me with the “Warfare World View,” (WWV) which holds that, rather than God controlling–and even planning or mandating–everything that happens, in fact the cosmos suffers under a grand battle between God and his servants on one hand, and the “principalities and powers” (which I will refer to simply as the “Powers”) at work against God throughout creation (Greg Boyd has a nice intro to WWV here). I don’t know if Boyd (or other WWV proponents) would agree with this or not, but WWV has the potential to profoundly affect our understanding of Jesus’ death, and that matter the broader notion of atonement. The concept is this:
Death, remember, is an enemy. Rev. 20:14 tells us it’s the last enemy to be destroyed, and Rom. 5 tells us that death “reins” as a result of sin. In other words, humanity’s choice to rebel against God handed authority, as it were, over to the Powers. The Powers’ ultimate weapon is death (and humanity’s fear of death); therefore, the rein of death is the consequence of the Powers’ authority.What Jesus did in the incarnation, and culminating on the cross, was to voluntarily submit to the Powers’ ultimate weapon. In this sense, he died “in our place,” in that although he “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21), he submitted himself to the consequence of sin (death at the hands of the Powers). Of course, they didn’t know that his submission wasn’t the end of the story. When he was raised from the dead, he defeated the Powers’ ultimate weapon, thereby becoming the first fruits of God’s restoration of his corrupted cosmos. (If this sounds an awful lot like the climax of Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, don’t blame me. Obviously Lewis thought of this long before I did).
So yes, Jesus’ death was “substitutionary” for us. But not because he was absorbing the Father’s wrath–but rather because he was dying for us so that he could then rise for us, and in so doing defeat our slave masters and raise us into his renewed kingdom. The Lord is Risen Indeed!