Atonement and the Resurrection

Last week Trevin Wax posted a review of Mark Driscoll’s new book “Death by Love: Letters from the Cross” on his (Trevin’s) “Kingdom People” blog. It was a detailed and sympathetic review of a book that, according to Wax, concentrates heavily on the suffering and death of Jesus as it impacts the redemption of human sinners.

I was troubled, and I raised this question in the discussion, by the apparent lack of emphasis on the resurrection in this work. Wax’s response bugged me even more: “The book is specifically about the atonement, so it is natural that it focuses more on the death of Christ than the resurrection.” The more I thought about it, the more wrong that notion seemed.

There is no question that Scripture, particularly the Pauline epistles, teach us that Jesus’ death in some way dealt with the problem of corruption and sin and death in this world. But when the writers of Scripture talk about Jesus’ death, his resurrection is never far away. Think of all the gospel accounts where Jesus, while prophesying his death, says in nearly the same breath that he’ll be raised on the third day (Matt 16:21 &ff, Mat 20:17 &ff, Mark 8:31 &ff, Luke 18:31 &ff, and others). John is the only gospel where none of Jesus’ comments about his death are associated with resurrection in the same paragraph, though in John 14:18-19 Jesus is clearly talking in that vein.

But it’s not “just” Jesus who talked that way (I can’t believe I just said that). Paul, whose writings form the backbone of most atonement theology, flat-out said in 1 Cor. 15:17:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. While Jesus already had the authority to forgive sins before he died (see Matt. 9:2-7), Paul teaches us that it was his death and resurrection together that wielded the ultimate power over evil, over the principalities and powers of this age.

It occurred to me as I chewed over this, that perhaps the reason Jesus’ resurrection gets soft-pedaled so much in the church, is precisely because the prevailing view of atonement within the church is the Penal-Substitutionary notion that Jesus died in order to take upon himself the wrath and punishment of God for our sins. In P-S, the redemptive act was completed when Jesus “yielded up his spirit” on the cross. In fact, though P-S proponents wouldn’t actually say this, the resurrection is pretty much unnecessary in the view of penal substitution, except perhaps for the fact that like any bereaved father, God wanted his son back (I won’t get into a discussion on christology here). Maybe this is part of why P-S seems so inadequate to me.

But in the Christus Victor view, which comes much closer to my own position at this time in my life, the resurrection is absolutely essential. When Jesus died, Satan and the powers actually thought they had won. From Genesis to Revelation, we see that death is the ultimate weapon of evil against the purposes of God. When they managed to kill the Son of God, they thought they had triumphed and their ultimate weapon had taken down their ultimate enemy. It was when God raised Jesus from the dead, that Satan’s greatest weapon of mass destruction was rendered powerless. Satan’s defeat happened Sunday morning, not Friday afternoon!

Therefore, I contend, as subjects of the resurrected King, we have no business going on about Jesus’ death for a whole book without spending much more energy on celebrating and proclaiming his resurrection.

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. . .We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.

Romans 6:4-5, 9 (ESV), emphasis added

That “no longer” intrigues me. Is Paul saying that, for Friday night and all that Saturday, death DID in fact have dominion over Jesus? We don’t know, but death’s owner certainly thought so. He hasn’t learned much either. Death is still the ultimate threat that the powers of this world (human or otherwise) try to hold over us. It is only in the certainty of Jesus’ resurrection that we can know that he has the power to save us. His blood alone was not enough for that!

11 thoughts on “Atonement and the Resurrection”

  1. Kurt Willems

    Great post my friend! This is an issue i will look at in some fashion in the future on my site as well. PS is inadequate in many ways, not least how it supposes that one member of the Trinity (Father) punished another member (Son). That makes no sense at all! What we need to do to P-S is forever get rid of the “P”!!!! I believe that Christ took on the powers as you suggest as a “S” for us… we are not saved from God’s wrath in this sense but from the death curse that plagues all creation becasue of fallen powers and their lure of humanity towards sin! Great stuff man! The resurrection matters!!!!!!

  2. Dan Martin

    Thanks for the props, Kurt! I would only respond that while, in some way, Christ took on the “S” for us in his death, the difference is that we get to experience the resurrection for real too, he wasn’t JUST raised FOR us. In this sense his work was the “down payment” rather than a “substitution.” That’s why we are raised WITH him, which I think is way cooler than is usually taught.

  3. Mason

    I really enjoyed this post Dan.
    You said, “though P-S proponents wouldn’t actually say this, the resurrection is pretty much unnecessary in the view of penal substitution”.
    I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, but it does get damagingly downplayed in that theology.

    I would challenge the idea that we need to ditch PS (or just the P) in favor of Christus Victor though.
    I’m not disparaging Christus Victor, my atonement theology probably has more CV than anything else actually.
    What I would challenge though is the idea that it is an either/or proposition.
    The best study of atonement theology I’ve read was “A Community Called Atonement” by Scot McKight, and he makes the argument that to get the best picture we can of the depth and majesty of the atonement we need to utilize the best of each theory, not focusing exclusively on any one on its own. I think that approach has a lot of traction.

  4. Dan Martin

    Fair enough, Mason. I’m not implying that CV has the whole answer–at least I’m not trying to.

    I do think I may be close to saying that Penal Substitution is fundamentally wrong, but I have to do my homework before I lay down the gauntlet on that one. My working thought is this–in the O.T. sacrifices that Jesus’ blood fulfilled (and his doing so is an undeniably Biblical concept), the sheep and goats were being sacrificed as an offering. They were not being “punished,” nor were they taking on the Israelites’ “punishment.” Rather, their death was an offering commanded by God, to illustrate that not just sin, but worship and adoration, had to cost something serious. Remember sacrifices in the Jewish temple weren’t only sin offerings.

    Anyhow, like I said, I have to go back to the texts and spend some serious time there before I can lay this one down with any certainty–for now I’ll call it a working hypothesis. But keep me honest here! I deeply appreciate you guys engaging in serious dialog on this!

  5. Kurt Willems

    I am fully convinced that we need to get rid of the “P”. In order to get a better picture of why I would argue this, read “Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross” by Mark Baker. I am passionate about this point because I have sat under Mark as a professor. He is the best on atonement theology (along with Scot McKnight) that I have seen and read. To go even furthur in depth check out “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross” that Mark co-authored with Joel B Green. Here is a link worth checking out with articles and books listed on the subject of atonement:

  6. Dan Martin

    Mike, thanks for stopping by. I’m not actually asking Scot to make a judgment either way on the creeds themselves. While I have issues with them what I’m really trying to raise is the standard laid out by which heresy and orthodoxy are judged. That standard (per Scot’s posts and his quotes of the book at hand) is the church, and by extension the long-held traditions thereof. I maintain that is replacing “sola scriptura” with “scriptura plus certain authorities–who gained their authority by winning ancient credal battles and therefore defining orthodoxy in their creeds.”

    It is this elevation of extrabiblical authority that I believe (1) must be acknowledged; and (2) once recognized, must be rejected.

  7. Travis Greene

    “In fact, though P-S proponents wouldn’t actually say this, the resurrection is pretty much unnecessary in the view of penal substitution, except perhaps for the fact that like any bereaved father, God wanted his son back (I won’t get into a discussion on christology here). Maybe this is part of why P-S seems so inadequate to me.”

    Couldn’t agree with this more. When we lose the other ways of understanding the atonement, the Resurrection just doesn’t matter.

    In fact, growing up in conservative SBC churches, I privately thought the Resurrection was kind of a cheat. I mean, he knew he was coming back, so it’s not really much of a sacrifice, was it? Would have been better if he’d just died, really.

    Hence my fondness for Norse mythology.

    But it’s scary, looking back, how much a supposedly “traditional” theology led me quite naturally to the brink of rejecting the Resurrection. I never would have, of course, because it’s in the Bible, which we all knew was dictated by God directly to King James. But I didn’t get its significance for far, far too long.

  8. David Rudel

    I think you are more correct than you realize with this post. The early church, and in particular the apostolic church, was built completely on the resurrection. Simply reading the evangelism in Acts shows this in striking relief! I compiled these teachings on my blogFurthermore, reading either Mattew or Mark in isolation [pretending you were an original reader] should drive home that the empty tomb was the center of the gospel message. [Well, that and “REPENT!”]

    The early church saw the resurrection as intimately linked to the atonement, but then again the early church did not believe in PSA.

    For what it is worth, this notion that the resurrection has practically no place in PSA was brought up in The Nature of the Atonement (a debate book among 4 people), and the person defending PSA had practically no defense to that charge. The only thing he could do was reference Romans 4:25 without any indication of how Christ being “raised for our justification” made any sense in PSA. It is doubly critical that this was all the defender could do given that that verse is considered somewhat poetic, not really indicating a division between the two.

  9. betweenleafandsky

    To pull an "Abolition of Man," sort of thing on this, and I know this is an old post, so forgive me for stirring the muck, but understanding Jesus's blood shedding in the OT way makes sense cross-culturally, as well.

    Many other cultures understand that there's something powerful in the blood, that blood can be shed to fulfill or pay for health, etc. While, I don't discuss the Lakota sundance to outsiders, the saying is that the dancers dance for 'the people' and the earth, as well as for personal reasons. Those who bleed do so for the community. Christ's once-and-for-all blood shedding to the death to break the death curse then for the betterment of all creation, makes sense. His resurrection shows that God doesn't desire death.

    But try to explain God pouring punishment on Jesus…to a culture that sheds blood ritually for the good of community (people and land), and that doesn't make much sense.

    Not that it has to, but I'm just saying that I'm sure if we look further, embedded in much of humanity we would find this understanding of sacrifice of the strong on behalf of the weak and creation.

  10. Dan Martin

    This is actually a fascinating suggestion, betweenleafandsky. I don't have a connection to Lakota traditions myself, but if I correctly understand what you're saying, the notion of Jesus' death being to take the punishment for others' sin, doesn't compute in the Lakota understanding, even though sacrificing himself for the good of the people is eminently believable.

    You're just adding fuel to a sense I've come across before, that God planted a whole lot of truth in a whole lot of places, that when imbued with his Breath can lead one to seek Jesus. One need not be either a Universalist nor a Pantheist to see God's finger in many corners…thank you for sharing!

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