This is the third post in a section on atonement in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished a section on Christology.
A3. In his death, Jesus satisfied the order of things.
1. The earliest sense of Jesus' death was as a sacrifice. Even at the Last Supper, Jesus anticipated that his blood and body would forge a new covenant (Luke 22:20). Paul surely passes on earlier tradition when he thinks of Jesus death as a Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7). In Romans 8, he uses the metaphor of Christ's death as a sin offering (Rom. 8:3).
The book of Hebrews takes this imagery to the next level. Now Jesus is not just the sacrifice, but the priest offering the sacrifice. Indeed, he is the high priest of the new covenant, superseding all priests of the old covenant. He serves in a superior sanctuary to any earthly sanctuary--the true, heavenly one. And he offers the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
In the thinking of Hebrews, no sacrifice before Christ was effective at all (Heb. 10:1-3). But now, "By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Heb. 10:14).
These are of course metaphors, since Jesus literally was put to death by Romans as a criminal on a cross. Hebrews uses these metaphors to explain to its audience that the sacrificial system of Jerusalem was no longer necessary. Jesus had satisfied the order of things. Through his death, all the sins of history were now potentially atoned for.
2. What was the function of ancient sacrifice? Their most basic function was to appease the gods. They were ubiquitous in the ancient world. The amount of sacrifice was often obscene. In most cases, the person bringing the sacrifice could eat a portion of what was brought, the god and the priests of the god also taking their portion. In some cases, sacrifice was understood as feeding the god.
Therefore, we should not be surprised to find imagery in the Bible of propitiation, where a sacrifice satisfies the wrath of God. This is imagery filled with metaphor, since God does not literally get angry. Indeed, from one perspective, you could argue that the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was God meeting Israel in its Ancient Near Eastern context, where sacrifice was ubiquitous. He takes a practice of their world and uses it to transform them and move them toward him. After all, Hebrews says that none of those sacrifices actually took away sin! The only sacrifice that actually worked was the death of Jesus, which then did away with sacrifice forever!
On the other hand, sacrifice arguably serves some deep felt need within humanity, some deep trace of our alienation from God. I will not commit on whether God started sacrifices with primitive humankind in anticipation of Christ, but the drive within humanity toward sacrifice surely fits some deep sense we have within of our alienation from God. It is a consummate example of a deep human sense that the universe is in disorder and that the order of things needs to be set aright.
3. A similar approach is that of Hugo Grotius and what is sometimes called a governmental theory of atonement. Grotius (1583-1645) suggested that, while God did not have to punish anyone for the sins of the world, God did so in order to demonstrate his justice (e.g., Rom. 3:25-26). While this position was not exactly that of John Wesley, the governmental approach is very common among those in the Wesleyan tradition.
4. In his novels, C. S. Lewis captured this inner logic to the universe with the phrase "deep magic." There is a sense of fitness that God should not just forgive us without any price being paid for our sinfulness. There is a deep sense of the need for penance, for restitution.
Crimes have been done against him and against each other, some of them horrific. Individuals have murdered, groups have committed genocide. We have lied and cheated for our own pleasure. We have hurt others to advance ourselves. We have sinned against others in our lust for pleasure and selfish anger.
There is a need for an offering. It feels like something needs to be paid. God could forgive the Hitlers of the world by divine fiat, but it feels like justice needs to be satisfied. It feels like someone needs to pay.
Using another metaphor, the New Testament sometimes speaks of Jesus' death paying a ransom. We are enslaved by sin. We cannot pay the price to be freed on our own. Someone else must pay the price. Some early Christian thinkers took this metaphor too far, as if Christ was paying off the Devil, who held us as slaves. But it is just one image and we should not overread it.
5. Jesus' death satisfies the order of things. Jesus death works the "deep magic" that reconciles the world. He is a spotless lamb without blemish. He was tempted as all humans but did not sin (Heb. 4:15). As a pure sacrifice he atoned for the sins of the whole world. He was thus found worthy to open the seals of judgment that would set the world to right with God (Rev. 5:4-6).
Jesus' death satisfied the order of things. "God became human so that humans could become like God," we might paraphrase Athanasius. As God, Jesus was qualified to pay the price for humanity's debt to God. As human, Jesus was part of the group that needed to pay the debt to God. These are metaphors that make sense, not necessities or absolutes, since God is God and has both the authority and power to forgive and heal us by his divine command.
Yet Jesus' death makes sense of God's forgiveness. It fits the order of things. It satisfies the deep magic of the universe. It communicates the power of God's love. It feels right given the way God has created the universe.
In his death, Jesus satisfied the order of things by enabling humanity to offer to God the greatest peace offering that is possible to imagine, namely, the peace offering of God's own sacrificial death.
Next week: A4. In his death, Jesus took humanity's place.