Monday, May 26, 2008

More on the Atonement

Some of my readers may remember that a few nights ago I talked about the concerning disconnect between the evangelical perception of the gospel and Jesus' teachings. I thought that I might take that idea further tonight and try to examine Jesus' life and ministry within the context of his subsequent death and resurrection. With that in mind, I suggest that by looking at the atonement through the lens of Christus Victor, we see the entirety of Jesus' life, including Jesus death and resurrection, as a coherent whole. Alternatively, I would suggest that the same cannot be said if we understand the atonement through the lens of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, because when we do, Jesus' life and ministry begins to look somewhat like an unnecessary and option extra.

The first thing I'd point out is that I believe that evangelicals are right to see Jesus' death as the focal point of his earthly ministry. Firstly, the gospel writers all include the crucifixion and resurrection narrative, and all conclude their narratives with these events. Secondly, one only needs to see how much space each writer decides to allocate to the final week of Jesus' life to know that they consider these events to be important. Of course, this is not to say that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is of exclusive importance, but it is fair to say that these events should be regarded as the climax of the gospel narratives and the logical conclusion of what has preceded these events.

In my previous post, I suggested that the Kingdom of God Jesus speaks so much about should be central in our understanding of the gospel. I described the Kingdom of God as more than merely a spiritual and distant reality. It is clear that Jesus believes that he has inaugurated the Kingdom of God. In short, he believes that there is a very real sense in which the Kingdom of God is already here. Furthermore, I suggested that the Kingdom of God is opposed to "this present evil age", which is seen to enslave and entrap the captives. By striking out against the religious, political and social institutions that held humanity captive, Jesus is offering freedom to all.

What I have described above in the life and ministry of Jesus is part of the story, but I would suggest that it is only by examining this mission in the context of Jesus' subsequent death and resurrection does the story truly take shape. The first thing to point out is that throughout the gospel narratives Jesus is fighting an active and malevolent force of evil, fighting back to prevent this freedom that Jesus offers. The gospel writers all use the religious authorities as the human face of this evil, and to a lesser extent the Roman Empire. Throughout the gospel narratives, each gospel writer foreshadows the inevitable show down between Jesus' and the powers. At various points of the narrative, it is clear that the religious authorities wish to kill Jesus. Indeed, this is precisely what does happen with the crucifixion. It is here where Jesus meets evil face to face, eye to eye, the event that the whole scope of Jesus' ministry is building towards. Here we understand the resurrection as Jesus' defeat of the powers and the defeat over the power that death holds over humanity.

The summary I've provided above suggests that the very direction of Jesus' ministry leads to an inevitable final confrontation. Even as Jesus is dying, we see the curtain tear in two, a symbol of Jesus fight against the powers that keep humanity from God. Understood this way, the cross is not isolated from the very raison d'etre of Jesus' ministry - rather it is the very point of Jesus ministry writ large. As much as I try, I just can't make the same sense out of Penal Substitutionary Atonement - it doesn't seem like the continuation of Jesus ministry, but rather the antithesis of it. Throughout Jesus' ministry, Jesus tells parable after parable depicting God as "the Good Father" and encourages us to speak to God as if we were on intimate terms with Him. Then Jesus dies on the cross, apparently to placate the wrath of God. I'm sorry, but this simply doesn't seem consistent with the rest of the gospel narrative.

If any of my evangelical readers are still reading, I'd encourage you to explain to me how Jesus' broader ministry fits within the context of Penal Substitionary Atonement. If nothing else, this will encourage you to examine the Atonement from the perspective of the gospels - and you may just give me something to think about.

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