August 7, 2011

There has been a recent interest among biblical and systematic theologians to reconsider the theological significance of the death of Jesus, to say nothing of the historians’ quest to determine the political and religious currents of first-century Palestine that brought about the crucifixion of Jesus. Christian thought throughout its history has always viewed the death of Jesus in one way or another as atonement for sin and not merely the result of human decisions. If so, is there any logical way we can avoid the implication that God manipulated human history to cause the death of Jesus?

While the New Testament writers explicitly proclaim that the death of Jesus was in accord with God’s redemptive purposes, the passion narratives of the four Gospels and the sermons in Acts leave no doubt that the death of Jesus was brought about by human beings, whether Jewish or Roman authorities, and therefore historically contingent. I am defining historical contingency as any event for which human beings, rather than God, are responsible. Christian theology over the centuries has grappled with the dilemma of reconciling the historical contingency of Jesus’ death with its divinely ordained purpose.

The atonement theories that have emerged are various attempts to come to terms with this theological dilemma. That is, in view of the fact that it was human beings who killed Jesus, how can the death of Jesus be, if at all, a divinely foreordained event? Are we to conclude that it was God who orchestrated and manipulated human decisions in order to bring about Jesus’ death?

As a student of the New Testament and, I must admit, one who has spent nearly thirty studying with and critiquing Calvinist (or rather, Augustinian) theology, I wish to look at this issue from the perspective of New Testament theology and critique some of the atonement theories that have emerged in the history of Christian thought.

I will first formulate the theological dilemma by laying out before us key statements from the synoptic gospels relevant to the issue of Jesus’ death. Then I will take a look at the historical Jesus to see what can be said, if anything, about his understanding of the probability of his own violent death. Then I will examine various New Testament writers’ interpretations of the death of Jesus. I will finally raise the question as to which of the theological interpretations of Jesus’ death in the history of Christian thought is most viable from the perspective of the historical Jesus and the biblical witness.

The New Testament itself understands the death of Jesus to be in accordance with the redemptive purposes of God. One of the most significant ways that the New Testament speaks of the death of Jesus is that it was for us, for our sake, in our behalf. According to Mark 10:45, "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom (lutron) for many (anti)." Using an early Christian tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul unequivocally declares, "I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for (huper) our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures." In Galatians 2:20 Paul says, "The Son of God . . . loved me and gave himself for (huper) me." Perhaps Paul’s most puzzling statement is in 2 Corinthians 5:21: "For our sake (huper) he (God) made him (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin." In 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 we find a reference to Jesus as hilasmos (atoning sacrifice, and in Romans 3:25 Paul says, "whom (i.e., Christ) God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement" (hilastarion). There has been much debate about the translation and exact meaning of the nouns lutron, hilastarion, and hilasmos and the prepositions anti and huper. Although a detailed exegesis of those passages is not within the purview of this paper, some reference will be made to that discussion in this essay whenever it is relevant.

At the same time, however, the New Testament writers clearly understood not only that the death of Jesus was in keeping with God’s redemptive purposes but also that it was caused by human beings, who therefore stand guilty before God. All four gospels see human factors at work in the death of Jesus. Judas is held responsible for betraying him (Luke 22:3). "For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!" (Luke 22:22). At a later point in this essay I will comment on the first half of this verse, but for now, it is clear that the second half of the verse holds Judas culpable for his betrayal of Jesus. It is true, of course, that in some sense all human beings are culpable for the death of Jesus. However, that is not a historical statement but a theological one, frequently occurring in Christian hymnody and spirituality. As the gospels see it, Judas had a part in the historical events that resulted in the death of Jesus.

The Jewish leaders are also blamed for the death of Jesus. According to Mark, the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him (14:1; cf. Matt 26:3-5). Matthew says that when Jesus was before Pilate, the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed (27:20). Regardless of the actual facts of the case, there is no doubt that the gospel writers hold the Jewish leaders responsible.

On the other hand, the gospel writers do not exempt Pilate himself from blame either. Although Pilate washed his hands before the crowd and announced that he was innocent of Jesus’ blood (Matt 27:24), Matthew does not regard that little ritual as an absolution of Pilate’s guilt. A few verses earlier Matthew reported that Pilate’s wife sent word to her husband about her dream, which is taken to be a vision from God as a warning to Pilate (27:19). But Pilate heeds the voice of the crowd rather than the voice of his wife or his own conscience. Even after he had decided that Jesus was innocent, he gave in to the public demand and handed Jesus over to the will of the crowd. The Gospel of John seems to attribute Pilate’s decision to his cowardice, confusion, expediency, sarcasm, or a combination of all the above. When the chief priests say, "We have no king but the emperor," Pilate decides to have Jesus crucified (John 19:16). Whatever Pilate’s actual motives may have been, John in this dramatic portrayal has skillfully created a narrative in which Jesus emerges as the true judge and all other parties, including Pilate, stand condemned.

Many critics have argued that for polemic reasons the gospels tend to shift the blame for the death of Jesus from Roman authorities to Jewish leaders. This anti-Jewish stance eventually turned into anti-Semitism in the later history of Christendom, ultimately resulting in the Holocaust. Others point out that the gospels find both Jewish and Roman authorities equally blameworthy. Although I concur with the second view, my purpose here is not to resolve the historical question as to which human person or group was ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus, but merely to point out what appears to be a theological dilemma, namely, that the evangelists can on one hand point an accusing finger at human actors in the drama of Jesus’ crucifixion, while on the other hand holding on to the conviction that God’s purpose was somehow being accomplished. Perhaps for someone like Augustine or John Calvin the dilemma would be minimal: God’s sovereign will is accomplished with or without human cooperation. But what would be a Wesleyan response?

In Peter’s Pentecost sermon the death of Jesus is alluded to in these words: "this man, handed over to you according to the definite (horismena) plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law" (Acts 2:23). Likewise the prayer of early Christians in Acts 4:27-28 states that "both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan predestined to take place." There is no question here that the blame is placed not on any single people or nation, but both "Gentiles and the peoples of Israel," that is, all the human actors in the passion narrative, whether Jew or Gentile, are equally culpable for the death of Jesus. But this statement in Acts raises the thorny problem of the death of Jesus seemingly being divinely predestined, which is the issue that I am concerned with in this paper.

Luke-Acts as a whole seems to present the death of Jesus consistently in this way. The Lukan Jesus speaks of his death in the same language as that of Peter in the Pentecost sermon alluded to above: "For the Son of Man is going as has been determined (horismenon)" (Luke 22:22). In his first passion prediction, Jesus speaks of the necessity (dei) of his suffering and death. In the second prediction, Luke makes the words of Jesus more emphatic: "Let these words sink into your ears" (9:44). In the third prediction, Luke adds these words to his Markan source: "everything written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished" (Luke 18:31). After his death and resurrection, when Jesus appears to the two disciples on the Emmaus road, who are overwhelmed by the traumatic events of the last few days, Jesus reprimands them for their foolishness, slowness of heart and unbelief and says, "Was it not necessary (edei, e?ei) that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" (Luke 24:26). Later, when Jesus appears to the eleven disciples, he says to them, "[E]verything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled. . . . Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise…" (24:44, 46).

It is clear from these statements that dei is highly significant in Luke-Acts. In his article on dei (dei==), Grundmann points out that of the 102 occurrences of dei, or deon esti, 41 are found in Luke-Acts. It is worth noting Grundmann’s assessment of the importance of this term in Lukan theology:

Jesus sees His whole life and activity and passion under this will of God comprehended in a dei. Over Him there stands a dei which is already present in His childhood. This is the dei of divine lordship (Lk. 2:49). It determines His activity… It leads Him to suffering and death, but also to glory… It has its basis in the will of God concerning Him which is laid down in Scripture and which He unconditionally follows…

The major voices in the New Testament seem to concur with this perspective. According to 1 Peter, the Old Testament prophets testified in advance to the sufferings of Christ and his subsequent glory (1:10-11; cf. 1:18-20). Revelation 13:8 makes reference to "the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world," although an alternate translation is more likely, such as the NRSV rendering, "everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world. . . . " Paul of course has much to say about the death of Christ. Perhaps his most puzzling statement is in 2 Corinthians 5:21: "For our sake he (God) made him (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin."

In the next article, we will take a closer look at Who Jesus is and His place in redemptive history.