I hope you have enjoyed the series on the atonement so far. In this final post, I want to answer some of the most difficult questions about the atonement that have come up in my journey over the last twenty years. Some of them came up while listening to sermons at church, some while doing personal Bible reading and prayer, some while doing historical background research into the Bible and some while in conversations with friends.
For those who might be quick to assume that asking questions and doing research was merely an intellectual exercise, these questions were often accompanied with a lot of internal stress, anxiety and turmoil. They were not simply a matter of finding answers to questions. They were a matter of sorting out what kind of God I believe in, which was deeply rooted in what kind of God I believed the Scriptures were revealing. And as anyone who has asked hard questions, questions about God seem to involve an additional amount of stress because how we perceive God to be also involves how we perceive God sees us, loves us and connects with us.
All that to say, the answers that I eventually arrived at were deeply felt, involved a lot of research, conversation and prayer. They were not an emotionless intellectual exercise.
Overview of the questions
In the first article in the series, I raised twenty-two questions about the meaning of Jesus’ death on a Roman cross (i.e. the atonement). I decided in this final post to answer those questions. To do so, I first grouped related questions together for this article to make things easier to follow.
These questions and the answers to these questions address a complexity of converging issues surrounding the death of Jesus. They generally address three large topics: 1) God’s saving plan (or if you like—God’s plan of salvation); 2) God’s sovereignty, and 3) human free will.
The questions about God’s saving plan generally are about when, how and why God rescued the world from the damage and consequences of sin. Questions about God’s sovereignty are generally about how we should understand God’s authority and control of creation. Questions about human free will are generally about how (or to what extent) human beings act as free agents making free decisions and choices for themselves. These are without question complex matters. No brief article (like this one) can begin to touch on the numerous issues involved, but I hope it at least creates a pathway for clarity on some of the most important issues associated with the atonement. Knowing that entire books are written on this subject, I acknowledge that my brief article response is one of many, and because of this, I will make the most of this space to do so.
Questions and answers about the Atonement
First set of questions
“If it was God’s will for Jesus to die, and if God planned Jesus’ death before time, then why does the Bible describe Pontius Pilate as being responsible for Jesus’ death? And how about the fact that a large crowd of his own people in Jerusalem had called for Pilate to “crucify him!!! Didn’t all these people share responsibility? If we say it’s both, how could Jesus’ death be both God’s will and the will of people?”
I admit the first question is too layered, and that’s probably because sermons and books about Jesus’ death often combine multiple facets of his death—like God’s plan before creation to deal with human sin, God’s will and the human drama that plays out. In fact, when I first asked myself a similar question nearly twenty-five years ago, I was trying to make sense of how Jesus’ death could be both pre-planned by God and yet involve the very earthy seemingly spontaneous moment by moment human drama that the gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) wrote about in their accounts of Jesus’ life. It begged the question, if God had planned Jesus’ death in advance—even before creation—then wouldn’t that suggest that God would have to influence or take over the human wills involved in Jesus’ death so that his saving plan happened in the exact way he had planned it? And if that was the case, then were those individuals involved in Jesus’ death truly free agents? My eighteen-year brain, at the time, could not handle those complexities and there is good reason why. Not just because of age, but because of some of the wackamo responses often given to solve that conflict like It was God’s plan and will so it happened that way or Well, this is what the Bible says, so I believe it. That nonsense doesn’t help anyone, including earnest people who want to know the truth, including Christians and anyone everyone else visiting our faith communities who want us to dig a bit deeper than our scripted evangelistic apologetics.
First, let’s consider the matter of God’s will and human agency. Both matters beg the following questions: Who is responsible for Jesus’ death? Is it God or people? I believe it’s possible to understand the atonement as both. BUT—and this is a big BUT—I suggest that we should at the very least let the four Gospels (the first century accounts of Jesus’ life and death in the first four books of the New Testament) and the book of Acts (the story of the early Jesus’ movement following Jesus’ resurrection) tell us how they viewed this. While it’s true that their answer is both (God’s will and human will), they heavily focus on the human element and we should pay attention to it. In other words, for them, Jesus died because people had him killed. For a more detailed analysis of how I see that working out, consider taking a look at my previous article in the series, 7 Bible stories you think you know but don’t. Until we understand that human beings were at work in having Jesus killed (indeed murdered), we will have a difficult time with the God’s will piece. In modern Protestant atonement theories, we have overemphasized the God’s will part and deemphasized the human part, and we’ve come up way short. It’s time to let the Gospel writers remind us again of the human drama that ensued.
That being said, saying the death of Jesus was God’s will should (in my view) not be understood as saying God overrode the wills of human beings in order to have Jesus killed. The four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) tell the story of Jesus’ life and death as if all human individuals involved were perfectly responsible for their actions and in charge of their own faculties (even if deceived in their beliefs and actions). All four writers allow for the possibility that human faculties can be influenced by dark forces of this world or, oppositely, to forces in harmony with and including the Spirit of God (namely angelic beings); but even then, it is assumed that human beings are responsible for their actions, whether God, angels or demons were involved in influencing them. The point again is that human beings alive at the time were involved in a plot to kill Jesus and they executed that plan. People killed Jesus.
We can also say that according to the four Gospel accounts, Jesus’ crucifixion was in harmony with God’s plan to rescue the world from sin (ie. God’s plan of salvation). They all agree that his death was planned in advance. When precisely that plan was in full force and how much God knew or knows about the future is not necessarily where I want to go today in my response because this of course opens so many other questions about what God does and does not allow himself to know about the future. I would suggest that Greg Boyd’s way of framing the sovereignty and foreknowledge of God is worth considering in his book God of the Possible. I personally am fine with the view that suggests God knows everything, both in the distant past and distant future to all eternity, but I understand not everyone reading will.
However, you understand God’s advance knowledge and plan, it does not necessitate a view that suggests God needs or ever needed to see blood spilt. Let me clarify that I do believe Jesus’ death was intentional and planned in advance, but I do not believe that is the same thing as saying God needed the blood of an innocent man to be split in order to satisfy honor or justice in some abstract sense apart from the story the gospel writers are telling. Is God’s honor and justice on display in the four Gospel accounts? Absolutely. Yes. But not in the abstract. Follow the storyline to get there. If we are to understand the how and why of God’s will as it relates to the death of Jesus, we would be wise to listen to how those four authors tell the story. Again, if you haven’t had the chance to read 7 Bible stories you think you know but don’t or my last article Cruciform atonement theory: How the death of Jesus on a Roman cross changes everything consider reading those for a fuller, more detailed account of how I understand the human elements in God’s saving plan.
Let me say that I will elaborate more on questions relating to Jesus’ blood being spilt in the next set of questions. For those visiting this website and did not grow up within modern American or European Christianity, I wholeheartedly agree that some American telling’s of the gospel of Jesus indeed make God out to be a monster who needs someone to be punished and killed in order to forgive people’s sins. But if murder is typically off the table and not God’s will (per the ten commandments and other laws in the Hebrew Law), then why would murder be ok in the case of Jesus? In other words, why would God be perfectly fine with sending Jesus into the lion’s den to be killed?
Which leads us to the next set of questions?
Second set of questions
“And why was God’s formula for forgiving and atoning for sin that a perfect human being should die? And if this was the formula God chose to forgive sin, then of course I’m glad Jesus died for my sin so that I didn’t have to, but why couldn’t God just decide to forgive people without the death of an innocent person? Why does God need bloodshed to forgive? And for that matter, if the main reason Jesus came to earth was to die so my sins could be forgiven and I could go to heaven when I die, then what were all of the real-life events from Jesus’ life leading up to Jesus’ death even about? Why not kill Jesus many years earlier? Why not kill him using another method? What were the historical events and characters intended for that we read about in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’s gospels? If God just needed the blood of a perfect human being to be shed, why the drama beforehand? And now that we’re on that question, why did God choose this particular point in history to send Jesus to? What was so special about sending Jesus to die for our sins in Israel during the first century? Did God know that if he sent Jesus to Israel in the first century that the Romans would crucify him? Why, out of all the options for the death penalty that existed in the world, was Roman crucifixion God’s chosen method to kill Jesus? In what sense could crucifixion, a horrendous and tormenting way to die created by the Romans, God’s will? Are you telling me this kind of death was not only chosen by God, but it was chosen by God before he even created the world? Again, how can we criticize the Romans if it was God’s will? Why call them barbaric if it was God’s will after all? Is God barbaric then? Does God have a dark side? And if crucifixion was God’s will, does this mean that God somehow forced the Romans to kill Jesus? Did God take over the wills and bodies of Roman soldiers and force them to kill Jesus?–because after all, wasn’t it already God’s will before creation for Jesus to die for our sins by means of Roman crucifixion?”
Btw, I phrased these questions in a way that would be like how I would have asked them in my late teens and early to late twenties.
Let me start with a story. When I was around the age of twenty-seven while attending my fifth year of Bible college, I had a professor that pointed out an event within the life of King David. It dealt with the time when God forgave David’s sins without the use of an animal sacrifice. See 2 Samuel 12 and Psalm 51. And it wasn’t just any sin; it was an escalation of sins that led to the most heinous act. First, David had lusted after another man’s wife. And not just any man, but one his most valiant military soldiers, Uriah, a man who would do anything to serve his king. And not only this, but while Uriah was out fighting David’s battles against surrounding armies, David slept with his wife. Not only this, Uriah’s wife Bathsheba became pregnant. David worried that he would be found out, so to cover his adultery he had Uriah killed in battle by putting him at the very front of one of the military conflicts. Not only this, but Nathan the prophet visited David and told him a story about a wealthy man who had lots of animals to eat for food and share when visitors came from out of town; the man instead took a young animal from a local poor man—and that animal was the only one he had. After hearing this story, David immediately lashed out that this man should die! Nathan said, You are that man. In this story, no sacrifice is mentioned. In fact, it appears that according to Nathan God had forgiven David at that very moment. Not only this, but in the prayer David prayed following his meeting with Nathan the prophet, David prayed this among other meaningful things:
For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
You do not take pleasure in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, God, You will not despise.
The point in sharing this is that the Scriptures indicate God forgave sins apart from the sacrificial system and it begs the question why? We might make an argument that even the New Testament letter of Hebrews quotes the Old Testament Scriptures as saying without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. The problem is that there were instances, like with David, when animal sacrifice was not only not done, but God forgave the person even before a person could go offer one at the Temple. Not only this, but in the story of David, David himself says in his prayer, You do not take pleasure in burnt offering. To cap off my point, while the author of Hebrews does make a strong point of comparison between Jesus’ death for sin and the sacrificial system in the old covenant, he concludes his long dissertation with Jesus blood speaks a better word.
For those steeped in the theological mindset that the entire sacrificial system was set up by God to anticipate the atoning death of Jesus (as if it’s a one-to-one this then that fulfillment) and/or if you assumed Jesus’ death was required in order for God to forgive sin, you will likely miss the point being made here. I will likely not have any satisfying answer for you, and that’s ok. While I wholeheartedly believe Jesus’ atoning death is an expression and demonstration of God’s forgiveness of sin, I don’t believe his death was a requirement for his forgiveness. There is a nuanced difference here, and the nuance is important. I don’t, in other words, believe Jesus’ death earned us God’s forgiveness nor do I think God needed to punish Jesus on our behalf. On the other hand, I do believe that God punished sin (not Jesus)–in the sense of exposing humanity’s sin by his self-sacrificial death on a Roman cross.
When the first Jewish Christians were attempting to understand Jesus’ death, they understandably used pictures and metaphors from their Mosaic Covenant Law to understand his death, but this is not the same thing as saying the entire system was set up as an anticipation of Jesus’ death. When Paul in all his letters and the author of Hebrews in his letter attempted to communicate the good news of Jesus’ atoning death to Jewish Christians in the scattered places across the Roman empire, they used the language of sacrifice to make comparisons to Jesus’ death because that is what they had to work with and it connected the Jewish people to their history. If you follow the argument the author of Hebrews makes all the way through his letter to Jewish Christians, you’ll see his overarching point is that the One sacrifice of Jesus supersedes everything prior, and this should reshape the entire way we think about God and God’s forgiveness and motivate a whole new way of relating to God and others.
My larger point in this section is to say that atonement theologies that attempt to force a view that Jesus had to die in order for us to be forgiven of sins often miss the way the four gospel writers actually tell the story of his life and death. And their example is one for us to take note of. Before we get into heavy theology about Jesus’ atonement, we should probably just listen to the Story where the real events in the lives of real people with real intentions came together and clashed with the mission of Jesus in his own hometown, in the surrounding villages and in the Palestinian countryside of Israel under Roman occupation.
The truth is, the gospel writers are telling us that Jesus (the Jewish Messiah) died on a Roman cross for his enemies (both inside and outside of Israel) because he believed God is a non-violent God. And since Jesus was exemplifying who and what God is like to his people Israel and the broader world, Jesus acted out non-violent enemy-embracing self-sacrificial love toward people who would otherwise have him murdered. As the apostle Paul (a Jewish man) stated, While we were still sinners, the Messiah died for us. Yes, I believe Jesus is God in the flesh but if you don’t get the first part first, you will never arrive to second in any meaningful New Testament way; in fact, you may do a lot of harm with the second part and justify a lot of injustice (as has been done by countless Christians over the centuries who acknowledged the second by bi-passing the first). It is because of the preoccupation with the second point–that Jesus is God—that many Christians today lose nearly every atheist, agnostic, spiritualist and other people of faith in conversation. People interested in Jesus simply don’t care if Jesus is God unless they first know and see that God’s love is reflective in the non-violent love of Jesus and in the non-violent love of Jesus expressed and demonstrated in and through your life toward them.
As for questions about heaven, read Hijacking the Biblical story of atonement and Reengaging with the Bible’s biggest themes, which are both earlier articles in this atonement series. I answered questions about heaven there.
Let me quickly speak to a few questions above that I haven’t dealt with yet: “What were all of the real-life events from Jesus’ life leading up to Jesus’ death even about? Why not kill Jesus many years earlier? Why not kill him using another method?” To these questions, I can only offer a brief answer, a speculation really based on how the Bible’s Big Story enfolds in Jesus’ life and the early Jesus’ movement of the 1st century. Like anytime in Hebrew/Jewish history, the prophets were sent at times when the people needed to be reminded of their calling and vocation. This was no different with Jesus’. The people of Israel needed to hear his message about being the light of the world and the rest. What was uniquely different about this prophet was that God had entered the world of first century Jewish communities during Roman occupation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and experienced firsthand the same horrors, injustices and persecutions they were experiencing.
As for why Jesus died via crucifixion? That was the method used at the time by the Romans. In the Middle Ages, he might have been hanged, drawn and quartered. Today in 2022, he might have been killed with an AR-15 during a mass shooting or beaten to death by a bigoted white supremacist mob for being a Jewish pacifist. I’m not sure the method of death was sacrosanct in the mind of God. I do know that the fact that he died via crucifixion has been fixed into the minds of hundreds of trillions of people since the time of the first century, so it has made a lasting impression.
And for any other questions above that I didn’t answer directly, I hope the answers I did give created a pathway for seeking out answers on your own and perhaps understanding them in a new light. Again, I’m sure my answers will not satisfy everyone and that’s ok. I hope it got you thinking. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to read the other articles in this series, click on the links below.
- FaithRethink: My evolving understanding of Jesus’ death
- FaithRethink series on the Atonement returns
- 7 atonement theories from church history
- Hijacking the Biblical story of the Atonement
- Reengaging with the Bible’s biggest themes
- 7 Bible stories you think you know but don’t
- Cruciform atonement theory: How the death of Jesus on a Roman cross changes everything
- Questions and answers about the atonement (page you’re on now)