Atonement and the Warfare World View

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:

God didn’t demand death as payment for sin, the Powers did.
 


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!

1) I am avoiding, for now, a study of the word “sin,” which itself requires further parsing. I will get there, Mom, I promise! ;{)


18 thoughts on “Atonement and the Warfare World View”

  1. Ben Bajarin

    As Dan alluded to he and I talk about this a great deal and all though he and I can talk about it at small group or text or at Hillside in person I love airing all this so you other great minds can chime in and sharpen the conversation.

    So all that being said I wanted to add an element for consideration / discussion. Particularly to the point of wrath. I heard Tom Wright in a sermon describe God’s wrath not as something active on God’s behalf, meaning He is executing His wrath upon you, instead that God’s wrath is the consequences of our actions in this fallen world. So the world was created to work in a certain ordered way and the “wrath” entered at the first fall because God designed consequences for actions both good and bad.

    Now I haven’t fully built this out but if we can buy into this then I suppose we could say God’s wrath was executed on Jesus only in that Jesus choose to take on how the powers used God’s “wrath” or the consequences of human actions, upon himself in order to defeat them.

    This would be the only way I could come close to buying a wrathful element, but as you alluded to Dan I certainly agree with the powers demanding blood not God.

  2. Dan Martin

    You are right, Ben, if in nothing else but that the meaning and use of the term “God’s wrath” needs to be studied and made clear. But I just made a quick search, and I am going to go out on a limb with this statement:

    Nowhere in the entire New Testament, is Jesus EVER represented as receiving, or taking on, God’s wrath. This claim is 100% extrabiblical. It is false, and it should be expunged from our doctrine.There. I’ve said it. I’m open to dialog, and if (but ONLY if) shown from Scripture I’ll retract it.

  3. aaronruth

    Right on, guys!
    This is exactly what we find in Hebrews 2:13-14 — by his death, Jesus DESTROYED the one who had the power of death, and set free those who because of the fear engendered by that power, had been in bondage. Clearly, not everyone knows that yet — but that’s part of our assignment, with the Good News! It is tragic that so many prefer to trumpet BAD news instead!
    Keep up the good work.
    Mom

  4. Jc_Freak:

    Sorry that I have taken my time at getting around to reading this post. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t treating it lightly.

    I agree with much of what is said here, but I’m not sure if I agree with you completely. You clearly have taken in much of the Christus Victor view, even in adopting the WWV elements. I don’t know much about WWV, since this is the first that I have heard of it. I am skeptical though, because it sounds much like Manichaeism, which I hope I am wrong. The key would be on how one views these two powers and their relationships.

    In either case, I view the OT sacrificial system as the key to understanding the cross. How would you understand the OT system based upon WWV? I have some guesses, but I would like to hear your thoughts.

  5. Dan Martin

    The question on Manichaeism is a fair one, JC. My response is simply that I completely disavow the Manichaean notion of equal and opposite powers. The powers exist, they are referred to by various forms throughout scripture, but they are not equal to God either in authority, power, or any other significant trait. They are rather non-human entities who have arrayed themselves against God, who remains supremely sovereign as I elaborated here. He was sovereign before Jesus’ defeat of the powers on the cross, it just became more obvious afterward.

    As to the O.T. sacrificial system being key to understanding the cross, I am not so sure. As I read Paul (the principal authority to whom PSA proponents usually turn) I see him using the cross to defend against the Judaizers by arguing that Jesus’ sacrifice did away with whatever need there was for those sacrifices; however what I do NOT see is Paul validating the extent of the need for those sacrifices in the first place, that Jews then, and Christians now, seem to presuppose.

    I’ll elaborate more when I’m not so tired, but the short thumbnail is that Paul is saying to the Judaizers (and to the Galatians in particular, who seem to have been under threat from them) “Look guys, why could you possibly be demanding all this stuff (sacrifice included, but also circumcision and diet) when Jesus’ death fulfilled, dispensed with, superceded, and generally rendered all of it moot? Don’t go back there!” The problem with most atonement theology is it spends entirely too much time “going back there,” to the great detriment of Jesus’ message of NEW life, NEW kingdom, and NEW people.

  6. E. A. Harvey

    Great post! I found your site and this particular post through the corresponding post over at “Groans from Within.” Since you are obviously a Tom Wright buff, I’ll ask the same question I asked over on that post:

    “What are your thoughts on the idea that because of the atonement, we are not only declared righteous, but Jesus also “imparts” his righteousness to us? I used to think about it in these terms but then wondered why I should still sin if that were truly the case.

    If I understand N.T. Wright’s book on Saint Paul correctly, he is saying that the sinner is declared righteous but that the sinner does not “take on” Christ’s righteousness as his own. Am I understanding this correctly, and what do you think about that aspect of things?”

    Thanks!

  7. Dan Martin

    E.A. Harvey, thank you for stopping by.

    If I understand N.T. Wright’s book on Saint Paul correctly, he is saying that the sinner is declared righteous but that the sinner does not “take on” Christ’s righteousness as his own. Am I understanding this correctly, and what do you think about that aspect of things?I think you are characterizing NTW’s position correctly–and it’s one I share. The classic notion has always seemed to me like Jesus is somehow pulling a fast one on his Dad, making us look better than we are. The Father is not gullible. . .he KNOWS we’re not righteous in the same way as his son. As Wright puts it, the “righteousness” is really more like “vindication. . .” a declaration of “not guilty” in a court of law. This is a verdict that the righteous judge has every right to grant on whatever grounds he finds just. . .and fortunately for us, his grace is sufficient grounds.

  8. Travis Greene

    I think the various atonement theories are the various ways the gospel responds, depending on what question you ask it.

    If the question is “How can I be reconciled to God, since I, as an individual, have done all these terrible things that deserve punishment?”, then yeah, the answer is “Well, Jesus took the punishment for you.”

    Thing is, that’s actually not the question the Bible is asking most of the time.

    I think PSA has its place, properly understood. But the problem is with what Dallas Willard describes as bar-code Christianity, where Jesus’ “imparted righteousness” means that he puts the wrong bar-code on us, so when God scans us in at judgment day, he thinks we’re bananas instead of apricots, and thus welcome into the Great Grocery Bag.

    We desperately need the other ways Christians have had of understanding what the heck happened on Easter all those years ago. And, cautiously, new ones.

  9. Dan Martin

    Thing is, that’s actually not the question the Bible is asking most of the time.

    A profound, if simple, point, Travis! How many of our theological debates are exactly this–asking and then answering questions the Bible isn’t talking about?

    Thanks for the Willard reference LOL. Very well put!

  10. David Rudel

    Dan,
    There are several times in the Old Testament where God demanded death for one reason or another. Most of the time this was due to sin.

    Does this not show that God’s wrath is kindled by sin and (sometimes) that God demands death?

  11. Dan Martin

    Sure, Dave, but going from there to PSA is like saying because we in the U.S. have capital punishment for murder, all Americans who speed or shoplift deserve the electric chair. Doesn’t follow in either case.

  12. David Rudel

    Ah, so your qualm is with going from “physical death for serious offenses” to “eternal torment for any offense.”

    Of course, I am sympathetic to that viewpoint (the “one sin damns all” idea of evangelism has absolutely no biblical basis anyway), but at the same time it seems hard to build a theology around the powers demanding a particular payment/penalty when I don’t know of any place where Satan (or anyone else) does anything other than tempt or accuse. Even if it were true, it would be hard to show biblically for the same reason that it is hard to say anything about what happens between death and the Judgment. The Bible simply says very, very little about it.

    [I would point out, though, that I think your objection would be rather assuaged if we did not insist on a Westernized, individually packaged salvation. Surely if we are no longer talking about saving individual sinners but rather only talking about global issues, there was plenty of global sin around to easily dwarf anything we see in the OT.

    Furthermore, if we ratchet down the “eternal damnation” back to “physical destruction,” it would seem to also remove an order of magnitude from the discrepancy.

  13. Dan Martin

    Ah, so your qualm is with going from “physical death for serious offenses” to “eternal torment for any offense.”

    No, that was an illustration. My qualm is with the still-unsubstantiated (IMO) notion that God decreed all fallen humanity had to die, till his son took the fall for us. My qualm is with creating a death- and punishment-focused definition of “faith” that resonates far more with the hang-em-high Republican right-wing American politics than it does with the Jesus I see in the gospels. My qualm is with a fire-insurance notion of salvation.

    And my qualm is most of all with creating complex doctrines that start from outside the Bible and then search high and low for prooftexts to back them up.

    I am not claiming that Satan demanded payment for sin. I have been trying to make clear that “payment” and “sin” are too-often linked in ways that probably are nonsense at best. I AM claiming that once humanity surrendered their/our will to Satan rather than God, then Satan’s principal tool–death–became their birthright, not by God’s decree but by a natural consequence of who we were serving.

    But I’ve also (I hope) made clear that this is a working theory, NOT a settled point of doctrine. I may never settle it even for myself. I just noticed that this hypothesized framework seemed to fit a number of Biblical facts quite easily, at the very points where PSA was jangling against those same facts.

    Yes, I could be risking replacing one extrabiblical doctrine with another. I need accountability to prevent that. But for now I see it as only an alternative hypothesis to another hypothesis (the second one masquerading as dogma) that I have found wanting.

  14. Dan Martin

    Actually, Dave, I do also have an issue with finite sin being met with infinite penalty. And that issue remains whether you’re talking individual or global, I think.

    You are right, in the final analysis, that the Bible says very little about it. If only the same were true of theologians.

  15. David Rudel

    Actually, Dave, I do also have an issue with finite sin being met with infinite penalty. And that issue remains whether you’re talking individual or global, I think.Ah, and that is one reason I give in my book for Hell being a poor choice if one is looking for a way to “reckon accounts.”

    Of course, if the purpose for hell is something else…

    Anyways, I can now not help but point out that if we make both of my suggested alterations [individual sin become global and eternal torment become physical destruction or some other “less infinite” idea], then perhaps we are trading the finite for the finite.

    Of course, you would probably still object to the notion of “trading” in the first place…but that is another matter entirely ;).

    Be well.

  16. Dan Martin

    You’re right, Dave, that these two changes would address my problem with the NATURE of hell. I also think they’re closer to the biblical truth we do see.

    Of course, it still leaves outstanding what, for me, is the far more important question, of how hell is used in doctrine, evangelism, etc. This is a question I know you, too have addressed.

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