*As the title suggests, this post concerns Christ’s atonement—as it was known to the first Christians and as it is known today. But before we turn our attention to the issue of atonement it is helpful to comment on the factors that motivate our contemporary christological discourse. These notes will prove important for understanding how and why Christians formulate the doctrine of the Atonement both then and now.*
A christological prologue
Commitment to divine christology in the modern context alleviates one of two burdens.
For progressive evangelicals, on the one hand, the divine Christ subjects the burden of biblical ethics to liberal moral reasoning. As the definitive revelation of God’s character, the Jesus of progressive evangelicalism validates progressive ideals like pacifism, tolerance, and egalitarianism. In so doing he subverts the violent, tribal, patriarchal, and hierarchical tendencies of the biblical deity. Having in this way neutralized much of the (im)moral content of the Bible through the interpretive lens of Christ, liberalism can then begin to accommodate Christian faith. The christological slogan “God’s word is a person, not a book” exemplifies this kind of ethical exchange.
For conservative Christians, on the other hand, the divine Christ subjects biblical atonement theories to the burden of the “introspective conscience of the West.”1 As the morally-perfect God-man who dies for the sins of the world, the Jesus of conservative evangelicalism solves the problem of universal human guilt by becoming the essential ingredient by which the psyche finds peace with God (and thus with itself). In Christ’s blood—in the very death of God—introspective man can mollify the existential dread generated by his guilty conscience. The Christian then, because he is assured of forgiveness, can contentedly await heavenly bliss.
The costs of christology
For both of these popular modern frameworks then the psychological costs incumbent upon questioning divine christology are, as expected, exorbitant.
On the one hand, a merely human Christ lacks the authority necessary to supplant the pre-modern moral fabric out of which the biblical writings were woven. A merely human Christ cannot, for instance, disavow Yahweh’s actions and rescind Yahweh’s instructions in a theologically-credible way. (He may only do so from a position antagonistic to Israel’s historic faith, e.g. Marcion). To construct a canonically-credible solution, rather, Christ must be in some way more “fully God” than Yahweh.2
On the other hand, a merely human Christ cannot save humanity from the eternal (and psychological) consequences of sin and guilt. Instead, when Christ is robbed of his divinity—when the cult is left with a purely human sacrifice—the metaphysical mechanism of justification lies dead. Without a divine savior whose ontologically-innocent blood is of infinite worth, the sinner remains in his sin, unable to escape God’s postmortem judgement. The nightmare of the introspective conscience thus continues.
A mundane martyr
So, as with its progressive counterpart, the conservative framing of Christ’s purpose (in this case, his atoning death) neglects historical context in favor of certain ideologically-motivated assumptions.3 For those shaped by popular evangelical theology, therefore, the scope of Christ’s sacrifice must be spiritual rather than historical, universal rather than particular, and timeless rather than ephemeral.4 Without these qualifications, the dying-savior myth fails to sustain what has become a psychologically-fulfilling, all-inclusive, modern religion.
Still, there are ways to recapitulate a more primitive understanding of Christ’s atonement. For one, we can juxtapose early Christian rhetoric with related literature from the same period—in this case with 4 Maccabees, a Hellenistic-Jewish work of the 1st century AD. The author of 4 Maccabees works with atonement-type language and imagery that is immediately recognizable to the modern Christian.5 Yet instead of ascribing salvific significance to a divine savior, this work posits that the Maccabean martyrs who suffered under Antiochus Epiphanes became an acceptable substitutionary sacrifice for Israel’s sins at a specific moment in history.
Let’s briefly consider the legacy of these martyrs in 4 Maccabees.
A Jew by the name Eleazar, the first among those tortured and executed for Law-observance, declares this before his death:
You know, O God, that though I might have saved myself, I am dying in burning torments for the sake of the law. Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them (ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν). Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs (ἀντίψυχον αὐτῶν λαβὲ τὴν ἐμὴν ψυχήν).”4 Maccabees 6:27-29
Seven brothers then follow Eleazar into death in like manner. The writer explains concerning them:
The [Jewish martyrs], then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored… by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified (καθαρίζω)—they having become, as it were, a ransom (ἀντίψυχον) for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice (ἱλαστήριον θανάτου), divine Providence saved (διασῴζω) Israel that previously had been mistreated… Because of them the nation gained peace, and by reviving observance of the law in the homeland they ravaged the enemy.4 Maccabees 17:20-22, 18:4 cf. 1:11
These passages swell with familiar jargon. The Maccabean saints substitute their holy lives in exchange for the life of a sinful nation (1 Cor 15:3, 1 Peter 2:24); they provide the ransom needed to save their people from the consequences of their rebellion (Mark 10:45, John 1:29); their righteous blood, poured out upon God’s mercy seat calms divine displeasure (cf. Rom 3:25, 1 John 2:2, Heb 2:17) and cleanses Israel from the stain left by disobedience (cf. Heb 1:3, Titus 2:14).
And yet the practical outcome of their expiation is historical, particular, and ephemeral rather than spiritual, universal, and timeless. In other words, these mundane martyrs became the means by which God defeated an idolatrous king and for a time expelled the heathen menace from their land. While their redemptive work thus altered the course of Israel’s history during a political crisis, it did not, as in the Christian atonement myth, save a fallen humanity from Hell—and perhaps more importantly, from the fear of Hell.
An apocalyptic martyr
While these texts are no doubt useful for our purposes, the theory of atonement presented in 4 Maccabees does not adequately explain the conceptual contours given to the Crucifixion by the first Christians. Jesus’ death on behalf of God’s people did not, in the first place, drive out the Romans from Judea, temporarily or otherwise. Christ’s sacrifice, rather, functioned as an apocalyptic martyrdom: his propitiatory death remedied conventional political concerns but from a distinctly eschatological vantage.6 This is to say that the early Christians viewed the mundane picture of atonement represented in 4 Maccabees through an apocalyptically-tinged lens. Here’s what I mean.
The execution of Jesus and his subsequent exaltation to God’s right hand set into motion not just the temporary liberation of Israel, but the closure of the ages. The whole world, its citizens and rulers included, were now in the throes of death—evidenced, of course, by imperial persecution of the eschatological community (Revelation 12:12). The establishment of God’s kingdom over the nations was surely at hand.
Through his atoning death then, Jesus ransomed his people from pagan occupation on an apocalyptic scale—rescuing them not merely from an evil kingdom but from an evil age (cf. Galatians 1:3-5). Godless governors—this time both earthly and heavenly—were set for expiration and replacement (cf. Revelation 5:9-10). No longer would idolatrous empire succeed idolatrous empire to Israel’s dismay. Instead, those covered by the blood of God’s sacrificial lamb would escape the coming wrath and inherit the world to come (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10, Romans 5:9).
An apocalyptic Exodus
The Maccabean martyrs, for their part then, atoned for Israel’s sins and in so doing saved their nation in a moment of trouble, redirecting history, if only for a time, by jamming a spoke into the wheel of pagan supremacy. Their blood inaugurated a new Passover and a new Exodus out from under the threat of Antiochus Epiphanes. It would not be long, however, before the heathen horde once again crushed Israel under its chariot wheel.
Christ’s atonement, for its part, however, wiped away the sins of God’s people and in so doing cast horse and rider into the sea of obsolescence, redirecting history by orchestrating the permanent downfall of the pagan political order from atop his heavenly throne. Like the blood of the Maccabees, Christ’s blood put into motion a new Passover and a new Exodus: yet this was a new Exodus out from under the present evil age and into the age of God’s kingdom.
Atonement then and now
So where does this leave us?
If the modern conception of Christ’s atonement is characterized by an emphasis on that which is spiritual, universal, and timeless, early Jewish conceptions of atonement appear to have been largely concerned with that which is historical, particular, and ephemeral. Historical because such atoning acts were directed towards political outcomes; particular because they redeemed a specific people; and ephemeral because they brought into being a salvific moment. In the apocalyptic fires of early Christianity, that ephemeral salvific moment—the day on which God abolished the idolatry of the nations once and for all—changed history forever, or rather, brought history to its long-awaited end, time’s end. Golgotha, as it were, looked to swallow history.
Once God’s climactic reign over the nations of the inhabited world was established—the apocalyptic narrative finally exhausted—it was then that the churches of the West began to refashion the meaning of Christ’s atonement (and of Christ’s nature) according to new concerns, for the alleviation of new burdens.
1—A phrase coined by theologian Krister Stendahl. See his Paul among Jews and Gentiles.
2—Proponents of this non-violent interpretation of God often appropriate Paul’s eschatological metaphor: Christ brightly reveals what was in the past seen as in a darkened mirror (1 Corinthians 13:12). Prior accounts regarding God’s moral character (i.e. the Hebrew scriptures) are thus somehow inadequate and/or corrupted.
3—As I’ve suggested before, the removal of communal sin-debt serves both spiritual and historical-political purposes in biblical literature. For God to forgive Israel his sins is to at the same time restore his worldly fortunes. The restoration of one’s polis confirmed the restoration of God’s presence and pleasure with his people.
4—Christ’s sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin as popularly conceived is effective for the faithful in all times. In this sense the Cross is an eternal or timeless, not ephemeral, source of divine mercy.
5—The New Testament and 4 Maccabees are independently indebted to the poetic musings of Isaiah 53.
6—Eschatological anxieties originate, of course, in the psyche and can thus be described as psychological. But unlike the concerns of modern progressive and conservative Christians, ancient apocalyptic concerns give supremacy to that which is political, not that which is ethical or existential.