- Jesus, Torah, and Ethics
-Was Jesus a Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene, or other?
-A Little Chat about Hell
Today I would like to talk about atonement. The idea of atonement is rooted in the concept that one’s sinful actions make one unclean and outside proper relationship with YHWH God. For the Levites and the Temple cult there was a specific process for going about atoning for both known/acknowledged sin and for unknown/unacknowledged sin. The practice of sacrificing an animal was seen as a way of bringing about cleanliness. This need for using a sacrificial animal begins with the Passover story in Exodus, where Israel sacrifices unblemished lambs, pours the blood on their doorways, and consumes the animal by eating and burning what is not eaten. When the Spirit of God descended upon Egypt, those inside the homes marked with the lamb’s blood were spared the wrath of God, those who did not experienced the death of the first born. This judgment was total in that it included both people and animals, so essentially a judgment upon all creation. Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus demonstrate how this central event was to be remembered and celebrated in perpetuity. However, the process of reenacting the Passover also became a time of reestablishing proper relationship with God. One would bring their best animal or grain to be offered as an atoning sacrifice for sin to the Temple, lay hands upon the animal or grain confess sin, and allow the Levitical priests to go about the process of ritualistically sacrificing it on the alter. One would also eat a portion of the sacrifice. By confessing the sin(s) while laying ones hands upon the animal it was a way of placing those sins upon the animal. When the animal was destroyed through sacrifice, so was the sin itself, putting one back in a proper relationship with God. Other small infractions could be “atoned” for by washing, tithing, and the passage of time. This process was individualistic for the most. However, the priesthood could offer atoning sacrifice on behalf of the entire nation such as in the Day of Atonement and the daily morning/evening sacrifices.
Later, such as in the case of Isaiah 53-54 and 4 Maccabees there is a clear understanding that Israel has sinned as a whole and somehow an individual human will go about the process of absorbing that sin on their behalf. In Isaiah there is a “Suffering Servant” who as a righteous one will be crushed (atone) for iniquities and infirmities and by doing so will bring healing to the people, allowing them to be restored into right relationship with YHWH and thus end their literal exile. For the image of the Maccabees the seven sons suffer on behalf of the people (atone) for their idolatry by being faithful (non idolatrous) toward God and dying for that purpose. In doing so the people will be made right and have God join their cause to overthrow their literal oppressors, at least for a season. These atonement ideas seemed limited in scope and effect.
So the question becomes, did Jesus see his death as atoning. Scot McKnight first asked this question in Jesus and His Death where he took on this question from the historical Jesus point of view where his basic conclusion is that based on purely historical models it is hard to determine if Jesus saw his death as atoning. However, in the conclusion he does say Jesus' death and resurrection was atoning. He sets out to better explain his understandings in A Community Called Atonement, where he makes a comparison to the various forms of atonement to using the proper club for a golf course. Each one is good and right in their proper setting but no one club is appropriate for all needs of atonement.
What separated Jesus from previous prophets would be that his death would usher in the “Final Ordeal,” and that his death would be vindicated by God. This vindication would begin the process establishing the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, which was imminent. His death would also be representative death for others to follow. By reinterpreting the Pesah-like meal in light of his own calling from God, he becomes the Passover lamb, making Jesus’s death the decisive act of redemption for salvation. Those who partake in his body and blood are protected from the in a literal sense from the Temple destruction and secondly from the wrath of God in the eschatological sense. This is much like the how the Israelites were protected in their homes by the blood of their lambs in the first Passover.
Ultimately, atonement is about moving people from one state to another. A state of sin and captivity to a state of freedom and holiness. The death of Christ might not in itself alone been the atoning moment. The whole life, death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost however do speak to atonement. The death of Jesus protects his followers from Gods condemnation for sin and ushers them into right relationship with God in the Kingdom of God.