Why did Jesus have to die?
Most of us can come up with a good answer right off the top of our heads: Jesus had to die in order to forgive our sins. But with that answer in mind, consider the question again: Why did Jesus have to die? In other words, why can’t God simply forgive people, without demanding the death of anyone at all?
I started asking that question about a month ago, and the last few weeks have led me on a journey of study into the mysteries of the atonement. This is a controversial issue—more than one would suspect if all one listened to was the week-by-week sermons from evangelical pulpits. But along the way I’ve discovered a rich depth of new understandings, and I would like to share them here. For those of you who aren’t theologically-minded by nature, I’d still encourage you to read this post. It’s long, but (I hope) not overly long for the depth of the material covered. (If you only have time to glance at one section, take a look at the final summation of my understanding of the Incarnation, since it might well be different from what you’ve heard before.) I hope to submit a bit of critique to the normal way that evangelicals understand the meaning of Jesus’ death on the Cross, and then to add an overview of some of the rich ways that Christians throughout history have understood the atonement. To those not used to reading theology, some of this might seem a bit nitpicky at first. But I believe it’s important. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, each one of us has a personal theology. That theology, especially if we’re unconscious of its presuppositions, colors the way we read Scripture. It also shapes the way we think about God and the Christian life. And, in the end, the way we think shapes the way we live. So I’d like to invite you to join me in an exploration of some different ways of thinking about the wonder of the Cross.
By way of a brief acknowledgement, I need to tip my hat to my brother Josh, who helped point out my initial direction for this study (though whether he agrees with its final form will be for him to decide). Much of my work leans on the early Church Fathers’ interpretation of Scripture, particularly Irenaeus of Lyons and Athanasius of Alexandria. (Irenaeus was one of the earliest of the great Church Fathers, and most of his work was done in combating Gnostic heresies. There’s an ancient tradition that says he studied at the feet of Bishop Polycarp, who studied at the feet of the Apostle John. Athanasius came later, but he represents the “gold standard” of ancient orthodoxy. His influence that was formative in shaping the great creeds of the church.) In particular, I made use of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and Hans Boersma’s exposition of Irenaeus (Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross). I was also aided by J. I. Packer’s masterfully sane defense of the penal substitution model (What Did the Cross Achieve?) and C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.
Metaphors and Models The first thing that needs to be said is that the classic orthodox creeds of the faith leave the question of the atonement open. While the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are defined for us, there is wide flexibility for study into the meaning of the atonement. Scripture uses a wide variety of metaphors and models to explain what Christ accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. The New Testament speaks about the atonement as redemption and ransom, which point toward the exchange of a price; as sacrifice and propitiation, using the context of Old Testament sacrifices; as healing, cleansing, justifying, victory, triumph, demonstration, reconciliation, and a host of others. And as Augustine says in his Enchiridion: “If there are other advantages accruing from so great a mystery of the Mediator—even if they cannot be described—let them be added to the list.” Unfortunately, most of the Protestant tradition has had a tendency to focus on the sacrifice/propitiation/justification family of themes (“penal substitution”), to the detriment of other understandings.
The important thing to keep in mind at this point, though, is that these are metaphors for redemption. They are there to illuminate the meaning of the atonement rather than the mechanics of the process. Metaphors can’t be pushed too far, or they will break down. Scripture does not illuminate the mechanics of the atonement for us (that is, it doesn’t explain exactly how Jesus’ life and death was efficacious for change), and we should not expect that we can fully understand the acts of an infinite God. For this reason, it’s my belief that we need a kaleidoscopic view of the main Scriptural metaphors in order to gain a full picture of the atonement. None is complete in and of itself, and they are all intended to be an aid to our understanding.
For the purpose of this study, I’ll examine five “families” of atonement models that come from Scripture: Penal Substitution, Moral Governance, Christus Victor, Healing, and Relational. The first three categories are often viewed as the classic models of the atonement, but I think the Scriptural range is a bit broader than those three alone. I’ll conclude by offering a holistic understanding of the Incarnation that can make use of all five sets of atonement models.
Model #1: Penal Substitution This is the model that has become the mainstream “big idea” of the atonement in most evangelical churches. It was pioneered in its current form by the great Reformers of the 16th century—Martin Luther and John Calvin. Like all models of the atonement, it begins with a view of the problem of humanity: the main issue facing mankind is its sinfulness. Because our individual sins are an infinite offense before an all-holy God, we are justly condemned to die for our crimes. The classical source for this belief is the first few chapters of Romans (although it also appears elsewhere in Scripture). There we find that the wrath of God is being revealed against mankind because of their sin (Rom. 1:18). Every man and woman stands under this same guilt and condemnation. What Jesus did, then, was to take the guilt of all these sins upon himself. He presented himself as a sacrifice, just as a spotless lamb would have been offered as a sacrifice for sin in the Old Testament. God the Father poured out his wrath against sin on Jesus, who accepted the punishment of death. Because of that transfer, our guilt has been taken away, and God now sees us as righteous in Christ.
Most of us will be fairly familiar with the argument. But there are some troubling tendencies in this model if taken too far. Depending on how it’s presented, we can come away with a very skewed view of God. Anger becomes one of the primary characteristics of God in his relation with human beings. We lose sight of the golden Old Testament theme that God is “slow to anger and abounding in love.” Rather, we see that he is constrained by his unswerving moral rectitude to punish every infraction of his law, no matter how minor—and punish with death! It might legitimately be asked, why does God demand “a kill” before he can forgive? Isn’t forgiveness the idea that one asks for nothing in compensation—not even punishment? Why is God unable to offer a type of forgiveness that even I am able to give to others, a forgiveness that looks for nothing in return? Further, what sort of justice is it that punishes an innocent person for the sins of others? And how can this view be reconciled with the idea of a loving God? Even if we accept that God’s character is infinitely more complex than a human’s, it strains the imagination to assume that God can feel love for a human person—a love that genuinely desires to save—and, at the same time, a wrath that demands death.
These are some of the common objections raised against the penal substitution model. And, at face value, they appear compelling. But they miss the big picture. Penal substitution isn’t only about God’s wrath against sin. It’s much more about God’s love in taking that wrath on himself. That’s the piece of the puzzle that most of the objections overlook—they try to use this model to examine the character of God without actually taking the atonement into account. The truth is, Jesus Christ is God-in-the-flesh. And rather than demanding the punishment for sins from those who sinned, God, in his great love, took that punishment on himself. We need not picture this as the Father punishing the Son. To avoid the heresy of a vengeful, death-seeking God who commits child abuse against his Son, we need to remember the unity of the Trinity. It wasn’t only that the Son placated the Father’s wrath through his substitution in our place—it was also that God himself so loved the world that he accepted death for us. Mercy and justice are both part of the nature of God. But while God expresses anger, God is love. God is angry at our sins, and has every right to destroy us. But he doesn’t. In his unimaginable love, he substitutes himself under the judgment that should have fallen on us. In the Cross of Christ, we can exclaim with James, “Mercy triumphs over judgment!”
To get at the real thrust of penal substitution—self-sacrificial love that takes the place of condemnation—let me offer this quote from the early Christian Epistle to Diognetus (9:2b-5): “He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins?...O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!”
Now that a corrective has been given, we can still affirm that not everything in the objections above is misplaced. It’s still difficult to posit that God must punish sin. My personal view is that God has the freedom to forgive without condition if he so chooses, but his justice and his anger at sin means that he will never treat sin as a small thing. In a practical sense, we can say that God will punish sin (not necessarily that he must, and not necessarily “sins” in the sense of each individual sin ever committed). We can also say that he already has punished sin in the person of Christ. God has every right to punish our sins in holy retribution. But instead, he has decided to take the punishment that we deserve upon himself, and so to set us free.
There are still a few problems, though. The penal substitution model has its place in Scripture. Both the Old and New Testaments are clear that God is angry at sin, and that he has every right to pour out punishment—even punishment to the death—on everyone who sins. But the Protestant tradition has stumbled in making this model its primary understanding of the Cross. First of all, it focuses almost exclusively on the negative. That is, it focuses on solving of the problem of sin. It answers the question, “What are we saved from?” but not “What are we saved to?” (Some of the other models do a much better job of answering the second question.) Second, it also fails to explain why Jesus’ life, ministry, and resurrection are important. If Jesus’ death alone is what accomplishes his mission and gains our salvation, why did he spend so much time teaching? Why not just get to the Cross? And why did he need to rise again? It’s nice that he did come back to life, but if this model is our only understanding of the atonement, then he really didn’t need to. The job was already completely done, and we could still have believed in the future resurrection of the body anyway, as the Pharisees of that time did. Third, it ignores the stream of Scriptural teaching that views salvation as a process over the whole course of one’s life, in which one needs to persevere and endure till the end. Other than a response of gratitude, this model gives us little reason to live in holiness. Finally, this model is limited in two main ways: it’s highly individualistic, and its focus is only on legal exchange. It doesn’t tell me much about my relationship with God except that God hates my sin, is angry at me when I sin, but that, despite his anger, he loves me and has made it possible for me not to be an object of his wrath. This model, when considered on its own, leads us to a picture of the Christian life that is obsessed with personal sins and personal forgiveness. And don’t get me wrong: that’s part of the picture. But it’s not the whole picture. Not by a long shot.
Model #2: Moral Governance This model also has its grounding in Scripture, but in the Protestant tradition it came about largely as a reaction against penal substitution. It is suspicious of the claim (as I am) that God is constrained by his character to punish every sin ever committed, and that he is unable to forgive by any means other than exacting punishment. On the other hand, it still affirms the wrath of God against sin. Scripture is clear: God is angry at sin. But this model defines the problem of mankind differently. Whereas penal substitution holds that each sin is an infinite crime against an all-holy God, the moral governance model claims that the problem is our lack of understanding. We just don’t get it. In our natural condition, we don’t understand God’s hatred of sin. And thus, we don’t understand God himself, which makes it impossible for us either to live in relationship with him or to live holy lives.
So Jesus came as an example. He taught us how to live holy lives, and then he died to display the wrath of God against sin. In this sense, the Cross is not about appeasing God’s anger, but rather about illustrating it. Moral governance proponents point to Romans 3:25 (also a favorite verse of the penal atonement camp, though with a differing interpretation): God had Jesus crucified “to show righteousness.” By seeing Jesus’ example, we turn from our own sins and embrace him. And God accepts our repentance, as we look on Christ crucified, and wipes clean any offense or debt of sin that was previously held against us. He doesn’t demand punishment as a prerequisite—he simply forgives. But our salvation is not merely the absence of sin. Our salvation is a matter of a whole life lived (and there are numerous Scriptures to support this). In effect, salvation is a process of following the example of Jesus and progressively reflecting his holiness.
In his Enchiridion (29:108), Augustine made a list of various aspects that he saw in Christ’s mediatorial work, and moral governance ideas figured prominently. Augustine described Jesus’ death as an act that exposed the pride of mankind, which was then healed by the humility of God. It was also “to show how far man had departed from God.” Christ, he said, was given to us as “an example of obedience.”
But this model, when taken alone, runs into problems. It doesn’t sufficiently account for Scriptures which teach quite plainly that Christ bore our sins (1Pet. 2:24, 1 John 2:2). It limits the work of the Cross to a demonstration of God’s wrath against sin. But it fails to account for the fact that Christian tradition has always viewed Jesus’ passion as an event that actually did away with our sins, either by sacrificial cleansing or by appeasing God’s anger. It’s hard to escape the feeling that this model trivializes the Cross. If the main problem is our lack of understanding of God’s wrath against sin, did Jesus really need to die? It’s an awfully persuasive demonstration, but maybe not a necessary one. Humans were given a rational capacity for understanding, and Jesus surely could have just taught us about God’s wrath against sin.
At the same time, I think the moral governance model, at least in part, is a necessary piece of the Scriptural picture of salvation. It’s clear through the New Testament that salvation cannot be reduced to merely having one’s sins expunged. Jesus said, “he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13). There’s a broad stream of Scriptural teaching that sees salvation not only as the moment of conversion, but also as the moment of final declaration of righteousness at the end of one’s life. The Epistle to the Hebrews is full of exhortations to endure, to press on, not to fall away. Moral governance rightly recognizes the “whole life picture” of salvation. It also rightly notes that Jesus’ life has salvific significance for us, as our teacher and model. As Christians, we are not merely rescued from our sins. We are also called to be imitators of Christ. And God, through his power that works in and through us, empowers us to walk in obedience. The moral governance theory, then, doesn’t focus as much on what we are saved from (ignorance?) as what we are saved to (a life of obedient holiness and transformation into the likeness of Christ).
It is thus a necessary corrective to the penal substitution model, and I think the two need to be held as complementary. We can affirm with penal substitution that Jesus actually did bear away our sin on the Cross (even if the mechanics of the process are beyond our understanding), and with moral governance that we are called, as a result of his life and teaching, to become his disciples in the here and now.
Model #3: Christus Victor This is one of the most ancient understandings of the Cross, and almost every one of the Church Fathers makes reference to it when discussing Jesus’ death. Our problem, in our natural condition without Christ, is that we are captives—we are bound by the power of Satan, by sin, and by death. (It’s important to note here that “sin” is not thought of as everyone’s individual sins, but rather as a personification of evil that prevents us from doing good.) Everyone who sins cedes power to Satan and his dominion over the earth. This argument feels a little strange for most evangelicals, since we don’t spend a lot of time actually thinking about Satan. Driven by a penal substitution understanding of the Cross, we generally consider the Christian life to be an internal battle against sin. But there’s a broad stream of Scripture that speaks about Satan’s present dominion over the world, and about the Christian life as an external battle against the powers of evil. Paul seems to refer to Satan as “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the ruler of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). Jesus calls Satan “the prince” of this present age (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). The early Church Fathers also saw death as more than just a physical eventuality—it was an evil spiritual power, wielded by Satan, to which all human beings were subject as a result of sin. It included not merely physical death, but the loss of all spiritual life. To these three complementary spheres of evil power—Satan, sin, and death—all human beings were enslaved as a result of Adam’s first sin.
In this view, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus all have significance for our salvation. Jesus prepares for his ministry by going into the desert and ends up having a faceoff with Satan (in which Satan implies that he (Satan) has authority over all the kingdoms of the world). Jesus wins that preliminary contest by refusing to sin, and thus refusing to submit himself to the devil’s power. A large part of Jesus’ subsequent ministry consisted of the confrontation of demonic powers and of freeing people from their grasp. Finally, Jesus died on the Cross “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15). “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15). 1 John 3:8 puts it plainly: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” And as the final stroke of his victory, Jesus rose from the dead. The power of death, which was in Satan’s hands, could not hold Jesus.
As a result, we Christians have victory over sin, death, and Satan through Jesus Christ. We have been “rescued…from the power of darkness and transferred…into the kingdom of the beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). In his death and resurrection, Jesus broke Satan’s power, and the church is now endued with the power of God for the final rout of the forces of evil. Paul speaks about the church age by saying that the end will come “when [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:24-25). Ephesians 6:11-12 famously presents the Christian life as a battle against the powers of evil: “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” The New Testament clearly expects us to be watchful against the influence of Satan, but it never loses its note of triumphalism. The battle is already won, and we are free. Now we can resist the devil, and he will flee from us (Jas. 4:7). Now we can be assured that nothing—not even angels or demons or any other powers—can separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:38-39).
Athanasius, writing in the 4th century, has this same triumphalism. In his Life of Antony and On the Incarnation, he boasts that wherever the Gospel is preached, the demons flee, pagan religion crumbles, and men and women have power to embrace the freedom of God. The Gospel had spread even to the barbarians, those tribes that had always before been under the dominion of Satan. He notes that Christians have no fear of the power of death anymore, standing boldly for Christ in the midst of persecution and martyrdom. Because Satan has been defeated, the church is on the move, routing the enemy from every last stronghold in this world.
It might be of interest to note that this was one of C. S. Lewis’ favorite models of the atonement. It is the dominant model in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and it has a significant place in Mere Christianity.
But how, exactly, did Jesus break Satan’s power? What was it about his life, death, and resurrection that won the victory? Here we run the risk of pushing the metaphor too far, seeking mechanics rather than meaning. Some of the suggestions made by the early Church Fathers are evidence of this danger (for instance, one popular assertion was that God tricked Satan by making Jesus a human being, and when Satan swallowed the bait, he was hooked by Jesus’ godhood, which he couldn’t swallow). But there are better solutions available. Jesus triumphed by virtue of his obedience (again, note the salvific significance of Jesus’ life, not just his death). Because it was disobedience by one representative man (Adam) that set all humanity in bondage, the obedience of the “second Adam” (Christ) broke those bonds. Jesus also accepted death—which Heb. 2:14 ascribes to the devil—but, being sinless, was not worthy of death, and so undid its power. There’s also the idea of a “ransom” here (think The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe again—Aslan offers himself to the White Witch in Edmund’s place). God had given Satan the power of death. And Christ paid the ransom-price of death in exchange for humanity. But because Satan had put to death an innocent man, he had transgressed the authority which God had given him, and so God took it back. Satan is thus justly dispossessed of his power. This is the notion of many of the Eastern Church Fathers, but the Christus Victor model itself does not depend on any such speculation about the mechanics of the process.
So sin is the problem of humanity in this model, but not primarily as a crime against God. Sin is the problem because it has enslaved us to Satan and to death. Again, we should recognize that the models we’ve seen are not mutually exclusive. There’s no reason why we can’t view the problem of sin as both guilt and enslavement. Christ died to take away the guilt of our sins, but he also died to take away our enslavement to the power of sin.
As with the others, this model runs into some problems if it’s taken as our sole understanding of the atonement. Like penal substitution, it answers the question of what we’re saved from, but doesn’t focus a great deal on what we’re saved to (other than a role in God’s conquest of evil). But the greatest danger is that, when taken alone, it gives far too much credit to Satan. We would come to see all evil and temptation as a result of Satan’s influence. But tradition has long affirmed that there are three sources of evil and temptation—the world (the sinful ordering of society), the flesh (our sinful human nature), and the devil. On the positive side, however, we can affirm that the Christus Victor model is clearly present in Scripture. It also makes sense of the entirety of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and current heavenly reign. And it provides a view of the Christian life that is not merely internal. Rather, as Christians, we are a part of God’s cosmic salvation. The Christian life is not merely one of struggling with individual sin, but of spiritual warfare—the external battlefield that leads us to stand against the sources and effects of evil in the world around us.
Model #4: Healing Now we move from the three classic, better-attested models to two groups that I also find in Scripture, but with slightly different emphases than those already described. The first of these two interprets the atonement as healing. Again, sin is seen as the problem, but in a different way. This view takes sin not as a crime or an enslavement, but as a disease. In the great messianic “Servant Song” of Isaiah 53, we find healing metaphors alongside penal substitution: “he took up our infirmities…and by his wounds we are healed” (v.4). The doctrine of “original sin” is important here. In Romans 5, where Paul expounds the doctrine, we find him speaking of sin as a whole, rather than as individual actions: “Sin entered the world through one man” (v.12). Theology, following Paul’s argument, has long held that through that first sin of Adam, all human beings were forever affected. As the representative of our race, he sinned, and we all share the effects of that sin. (This idea of humanity as a unity is important. We are all connected together in one organic unity through natural generation and spiritual affinity. As C. S. Lewis describes it, “If you could see humanity spread out in time, as God sees it, it would not look like a lot of separate things dotted about. It would look like one single growing thing—rather like a very complicated tree.”) Because of our union with Adam and his sin, we are all now born with an inherent proclivity toward sin, a twisting of our desires and will. Rather than desiring good, we now “naturally” desire evil. We were originally created “in the image of God.” According to Eastern theology, that image has been defaced through the disease of original sin. Our wills have been changed by sin to the point that we have, in a great measure, lost our likeness to God. It is this condition—this disease—of which all individual sins are symptoms. In the opinion of the early Church Fathers, this is what made Jesus’ death a necessity. According to Athanasius, God is fully able to forgive individual sins merely by virtue of repentance. But individual sin isn’t the whole problem. Humanity stands in need of holistic healing in the depths of its nature. Only by death—the original penalty for the first sin—can the effects of that first sin be undone.
In his death, then, Jesus did more than merely atone for all the little individual sins that each of us has done. He has begun the healing of the human family tree. He has instilled in us the cure that is undoing our sinful nature (what C. S. Lewis referred to as “the good infection”). As Paul goes on to say in Romans 5, “Just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [Christ] the many will be made righteous” (v.19). Through his redemption, along with the empowering presence of the Spirit, we now have the power to desire and do what is good, and to despise and refuse evil. Our wills are being healed. The image of God is being re-painted in us, so that through Christ we begin to regain our resemblance to the One who made us.
Here it might be beneficial to pursue a question related to the models we’ve examined so far: Why is God so angry at sin? We live in a culture where most sins are seen as “no big deal.” As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s okay, right? But the Bible is clear that God hates sin. Those who hold exclusively to penal substitution suggest that God hates sin because it is an infinite affront to his holiness. And that is undoubtedly part of the reason. But taken alone, it leaves us with a caricature of a God who is infinitely uptight, whose holiness seems to depend as much on his interaction with others as it does on the sufficiency of his own being. It doesn’t detract at all from God’s holiness to say that mankind is sinful, and I can’t honestly see how it would detract from his holiness if he mercifully chose to forgive sin without demanding punishment. Penal substitutionists would also say that sin is an affront to his sovereignty, an unwillingness to recognize his lordship. And again, that’s part of the answer. But taken alone, it would lead us to think of God as a tyrant who is enraged by the fact that he doesn’t constantly get the proper homage from his subjects. I think there’s a deeper answer to the question of why God hates sin, one that overlaps with the two given above and makes them a bit more sensible. God hates sin because he loves us. He hates sin because of what it does to us. It twists us, holds us captive, and turns us into something wretched. It prevents us from becoming what we were always meant to be. Imagine a loving father whose grown-up son becomes an alcoholic. The son’s life completely falls apart because of his addiction to drinking. Wouldn’t the father hate that addiction? He would hate it because of what it did to his son, whom he loves. And that’s the same way that God hates sin. He hates it because of what it does to us, whom he loves beyond all measure.
The great benefit of the healing model is that it adds something crucial to the previous models. Rather than just telling us how we’re freed from sin, it shows us that we now have the power to do right. It gives us not only an understanding of the solution to the problem of sin, but also a glimpse of the one grand goal of the atonement: that we would become like Christ. The atonement is the act of Jesus Christ—in his life, death, and resurrection—that makes us what we were always meant to be.
Model #5: Relational This one is actually more of a theme than a model. It moves us closer to what I believe is the heart of the atonement. The bottom line, which all of the other four models move us toward, is this: we have been separated from God. The problems of legal guilt, ignorance, enslavement, and disease all point toward that one somber fact. The intimate communion that Adam and Eve had with God in the Garden of Eden—that intimate communion that each one of us was made for—has been broken. And the great message of the Gospel is that God himself has come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ to seek us out and restore that communion. He entered a world riddled with sin and ruled by Satan in order to draw us to himself. More than the condemnation of sin, the atonement is about our relationship with God. The other four models show the various ways that God overcame the problem of sin. But the goal of that overcoming was so that we might be in a restored relationship with him—in Paul’s terminology, that we would have reconciliation and peace with God. This is the point of the great parables of Luke 15. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. God’s reaction to us in the atonement is the reaction of the father, welcoming home his prodigal son.
There’s a strand of thought in biblical studies that redefines even the legal categories of penal substitution in relational terms. Too often we think of justice in terms of crime and punishment, balancing wrongs with retribution. But justice—in the biblical sense—is a covenant-attribute of God (it’s actually the exact same word as “righteousness”). It doesn’t always mean that God is balancing out sin by means of punishment. It means that he faithfully acts according to the terms of his covenant-relationship with us. “Righteousness” often carries the sense of “doing right vis-à-vis the covenant-relationship.” So when Paul speaks of the justice and righteousness of God, and of his justifying work on our behalf, perhaps he is actually talking about the ways that God brings us back into relationship with him, rather than simply the way that he punishes sin. As Boersma, quoting Marshall, says: “Punishment may be necessary…but it is not the pain of punishment that achieves justice, as though justice resides in creating equity of suffering, the pain of offenders’ punishments compensating for the pain inflicted on victims. True justice resides in the restoring of relationships and the recreation of shalom” (175). Shalom is the Hebrew idea of peace—a holistic idea of well-being for humans, for society, and for all creation in relationship with God. At its root, justice is neither more nor less than this—all things properly ordered unto God.
In light of the relational theme, we can also venture a reconsideration of the meaning of death. This is entirely speculative, and perhaps dead wrong, but I think it’s worth considering. The penal substitution model assumes that death is the penalty that God always demands because of sin. But there may be another way of interpreting it. Jesus said, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). This is not unfamiliar language in evangelical thought—to be really alive is to be in relationship with God, and to be cut off from relationship with God is to be dead. In the words of Irenaeus: "Communion with God is life, and separation from God is death." Perhaps when God warned Adam and Eve in the Garden, “If you eat it, you will surely die,” he was not decreeing a penalty. Perhaps he was saying that the natural result of sin would be separation from him, which is, in a very real way, death. And perhaps when Paul says that “the wages of sin is death,” what he means is not that death is the proper punishment of sin, but that death is sin’s natural result. Death is simply what sin earns by nature of sin being sin. It cuts us off from God, who is the only True Life. If this train of thought is right (and at this point it’s only a suggestion), then Jesus accepted death as the penalty for our sins—not necessarily as the punishment of God, but as the natural result of our sins. By the grace of God, he “tasted death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). He underwent separation from the Father so that we could be brought back to the Father.
One of the other great images of atonement in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, is that of exile and return. Though Israel was the covenant-community in relationship with God, he would allow the Israelites to be taken into exile as a restorative punishment for their sins. But there was always the promise and the hope that one day—just as he had done for the Israelites in Egypt—he would lead them out again, back into relationship with him. The intriguing thing here is that many of the Jews in Jesus’ day still felt themselves to be in a time of exile. Foreigners ruled Israel, and the power of God was not evident among them as it had been in days gone by. They were waiting for God to lead them out of their spiritual exile. And Jesus did just that. I’m not a fan of all of N. T. Wright’s work, but his contribution in tracing this theme of exile and return in Jesus’ story is brilliant. For our sakes, Jesus suffered “the curse of the Law,” which was not only death, but exile from the presence of God (Deut. 29:24-28). On the Cross, he experienced the forsakenness of exile from the covenant-relationship, and symbolized the return from exile with his resurrection. The sacrificial blood he shed in undergoing exile proved to be the seal of the New Covenant. And what was the promise of the new covenant? It was entirely relational: “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Heb. 8:11; Jer. 31:34).
The Mystery of the Incarnation I’ll now try to sum up the message of the atonement by exploring the purpose of Jesus’ coming. My hope is that it will provide a wider, more holistic basis from which to understand the meaning of the atonement. The direction in which this goes takes us into an area where words begin to fail. Here we plunge into the ineffable wonder of all that Jesus Christ is. Some of this may sound unfamiliar—perhaps even strange—because it’s more a part of Eastern Orthodox theology than it is of the Western tradition (of which we are a part). Some of the ideas here are necessarily speculative and imprecise. Most of them are the ideas of the Eastern Fathers (as I understand them) rather than my own, and they’re open to debate. In any case, I hope this will be more illuminating than confusing.
We began by asking the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” Let’s now back up a step and ask, “Why did Jesus have to come at all?” The early Church Fathers had some very good answers to this question, answers which, unfortunately, are seldom heard from evangelical pulpits in our day.
We’ve already touched on part of the answer in our exploration of the healing that the atonement wrought. Just as Adam was the original representative of our race, through whom we inherited our sinful nature, so Jesus was the second Adam—our representative for the New Covenant—and through him our sinful nature is being healed. Hebrews 2:17 tells us that in order for Jesus to be a high priest before God for us, “he had to be made like his brothers [that is, human beings] in every way.” This idea of representation is at the heart of Irenaeus’ theology of the Incarnation. It might better be put as “recapitulation.” In short, Jesus came to re-trace in his own person the entire journey of humanity as a whole. Just as Adam was supernaturally born from the dust by the work of God, so Jesus was supernaturally born from a virgin. Just as Adam and Eve faced temptation from Satan and failed, Jesus faced temptation from Satan and won. Where Adam disobeyed, Jesus obeyed. Where Adam sealed our death through a sin at a tree, Jesus sealed our life through an act of righteousness on another tree. And where Adam was cast out from relationship with God, Jesus was brought back from the exile of death by God’s power.
Not only did Jesus recapitulate Adam’s story, he also recapitulated the story of the people of Israel. This is part of the implicit background of Matthew’s arrangement of the Gospel. Just as God brought forth his chosen people by the miraculous promise of a child to Abraham, God brought forth Jesus by the miraculous promise to Joseph and Mary. Just as the people of Israel sojourned in Egypt as slaves, Jesus and his family were forced to sojourn in Egypt. Just as the people of Israel were tested in the desert by God, Jesus began his ministry by going out into the desert to be tested. Just as the people of Israel underwent their “baptism” in the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan River, Jesus underwent his baptism in the Jordan. Just as the Law was delivered to Israel from the mountain, so Jesus expounds his new law from a mountain. And so on. (N. T. Wright also does some nice work on the theme of Jesus reconstituting Israel).
The purpose of this recapitulation was to sum up in his own person the totality of humanity’s story and identity. In a very real way, Jesus was the actual representation of humanity.
But this extends not only to a re-tracing of humanity’s story. The doctrine of the Incarnation tells us that in Jesus, the divine person of the Son of God united himself with human nature. We evangelicals tend to think this simply means that Jesus was “fully human and fully divine.” It does mean that, but it could mean more. To say that God united himself with human nature in the person of Jesus does not just leave us with implications for our understanding of Jesus. If you’ll remember, we touched on the idea of humanity as an organic unity, naturally and spiritually. In a very real way, we are all one thing. So to say that God was united to human nature in Jesus means that not just one individual human nature was united to him, but all of human nature, in which we all share. That’s what a “nature” means. It’s not the same thing as a “person.” We are all fully individuals, but as humans we all share “human nature”—everything that makes us authentically human. This unity of nature is what allows Paul to argue that all humanity is affected by Jesus’ redemption, just like all humanity was affected by Adam’s sin. In short, when God joined himself to human nature in Jesus, humanity was caught up into the very life of God. This view is summed up neatly in the saying of the great Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa: “God united Himself to our nature in order that our nature might be made divine through union with God.”
This is mystical language, and as such it defies precise definition. But a large majority of the early Church Fathers (especially in the Greek tradition) are unanimous on this point. A word of warning is appropriate at this point: it may sound like this understanding of the Incarnation would lead us naturally to a doctrine of universalism (every human being will be saved). Obviously, it does lend itself to that. But it’s not a necessary leap, and Scripture doesn’t warrant it. Jesus is the head of a new humanity, into which the old human nature—as represented in any individual—can join at any time. But there is no obligation. People can refuse the healing of their nature and choose to remain in the old humanity.
Though we’re not used to thinking about our relationship to God in this mystical way, it does have Scriptural backing. 2 Pet. 1:4 talks about Christians as being able to “participate in the divine nature.” In Jesus’ great prayer, he says this: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John. 17:20-21). In Eph. 5:31, Paul talks about the union of Christ and the church in the analogy of a man and his wife becoming “one flesh.” This is, he says, “a profound mystery.” And in John 15, there is the famous example of the vine and the branches—a vivid example of our lives in intimate connection with the life of God. Further, Paul talks countless times about Christians being “in Christ.” It is the consensus of the Eastern Fathers that this isn’t just pretty rhetoric—it actually means something. It’s not merely a nice analogy to say that we are “the Body of Christ.” It implies that we are deeply connected to the life and person of God in a way that defies explanation. And it’s a two-way communion—we participate in the divine nature because Christ has caught up humanity within himself, and because the Father has sent the Holy Spirit to be the constant and intimate presence of his life within the church.
The language of the Church Fathers about this is breathtaking. From a Western mindset, it almost sounds blasphemous. But Irenaeus and Athanasius (the same Athanasius that shaped the Nicene Creed that we all hold to) speak in almost the exact same words: “God became man so that men might become gods”—a thought echoed by the entire Eastern tradition of the church. This is what they call the doctrine of “deification” (or “theosis”)—that we so share in the life of God that we are gradually transformed, little by little, into the true likeness of God himself. We retain our own identities and personalities, but we are drawn into the all-consuming, all-redeeming, all-fulfilling life of God. This seems to be what C. S. Lewis has in mind when he talks about the transformation of individual personalities into “little Christs” in his conclusion to Mere Christianity. It is not that we will become separate little divinities in our own right, but that we will come to reflect, in brilliant array, the life and power of the One True God.
This gives a whole new sense to the biblical idea of our adoption as sons. In a very real and mystical way, we are in the family of God, sharing his life. God so loved us that he not only saved us from our sins, he united us to his very being—like a man with his wife.
So again, why did Jesus have to come at all? If the problem of humanity was only sin or Satan or ignorance or corruption, couldn’t God have solved those problems another way? Of course he could. He can forgive sin, crush Satan, enlighten the ignorant, and heal corruption with a single word. But those things don’t constitute the whole story of his purpose for redemption. He so loved humanity that he wanted us to be united with him—intimately, mystically, sharing the same life—and that’s why Jesus had to come. In the person of Jesus, we have the fullest picture of our salvation—humanity and God, bound together in an eternal, personal act of unimaginable love. And having gathered humanity to himself, he made a way for that mystical union to become an interpersonal reality. He removed the obstacles of guilt, ignorance, corruption, and the power of Satan, enabling us to answer “yes,” to his eternal “Yes!” to us.
We are the beginning of his new work of reconciling all things to himself. As Paul so famously said, “If anyone is in Christ—new creation!” (This is a better translation of the Greek than the NIV, “he is a new creation”). In us, the renewed humanity, God has set at work the mystery of redemption that will one day set all things under the glorious dominion of Christ. And we are not merely saved as individuals, but as a redeemed community—the Body of Christ—all together participating in the divine nature. This is one of the outworkings of the mystery of the Incarnation from the Eastern perspective, and it provides a good answer to why Jesus came at all. Understanding his purpose for us—that we would be joined in intimate, eternal communion with him, the various ways of looking at the atonement now take on a new brightness.
I could find no better conclusion than this excerpt from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity: “If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality….Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and will always exist….Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.”