Muddling through the claim that Jesus died for our sins with Arrested Development

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March 7, 2014 by jmar198013

The soundtrack for my wakeup this morning included the song “Revolution” by Arrested Development. Arrested Development was hot for about a cup of coffee in the early 1990s, and at the time, I was hopeful that their brand of socially responsible hip-hop would revitalize the genre, inspiring poor folk to resist the script as written. Well, my hopes have obviously been frustrated, but that’s another story that’s still evolving. The song, which you can hear by clicking the link below, was from the soundtrack of the 1992 Spike Lee “Malcolm X” biopic, which I highly recommend.

Now, my version of the song has a spoken intro from the group’s frontman, Speech, that contains these words:

Before you put on this record, understand this is for all my ancestors who were raped, who were killed, and hung, because of their plight for freedom and for dignity. They died for me, and they died for you.

They died for me, and they died for you. One of NT’s central claims about Jesus on the Cross is that his death was for us. For instance:

But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Rom. 5.8)

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2.20)

Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God. (Eph. 5.2)

Jesus died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with him. (1 Thes. 5.10)

He gave himself for us in order to rescue us from every kind of lawless behavior, and cleanse a special people for himself who are eager to do good actions. (Titus 2.14)

The important thing for the NT authors was not the brute fact that Jesus died, but how to interpret the salvific implications of that death. For the past three hundred years or so, the penal substitutionary theory has enjoyed a nearly hegemonic control over the interpretation of Christ’s death. In other words, Jesus’ death is “for us” in the sense that he suffered the punishment due us for our sins (i.e., God’s wrath). This theory has two things going for it. First, it takes sin seriously enough to assert that sin ought to be punished. Second, it seems to fit well with the scheme of OT sacrifices, particularly those of the Day of Atonement, and NT authors (most notably Paul and Hebrews) traded heavily in that sacrificial imagery (see for instance Eph. 5.2 above; also Rom. 3.25; 2 Cor. 5.21; and especially Hebrews 10).

However, what on the surface appear to be penal substitution’s greatest strengths turn out to be its greatest weaknesses. First, there is an assumption that other accounts of the work of Christ don’t take sin seriously enough; but that’s a wholly subjective judgment. So far as I can tell, there is no description of what God is doing through the Cross that isn’t based on the idea that sin is serious enough to require divine intervention. Could it be that the need for blame and punishment expressed in penal substitution owes more to modern subjectivities than it does the biblical witness? Advocates of penal substitution might also retort that those who embrace other stories about what God is doing in the Cross are trying to pit God’s love against his justice. Again, there are some major problems here. For instance, God’s justice is thereby narrowly defined as retributive justice, and this simply will not work in terms of the biblical witness. For more on that, see my thoughts here. But even more critical is the failure of those who champion penal substitution to acknowledge that, if anything, their account of the work of Christ depends on framing God’s justice and love as an adversarial relationship. How so? Because it subordinates God’s love to God’s justice. God can’t be in relationship with me until someone pays for my sin. Literally, God’s desire to love me as he would is held hostage by his need to punish. N.T. Wright (who incidentally acknowledges some aspect of penal substitution in his thoughts on the atonement) has made the astute observation that: “You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his Son,’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his Son.'” So I would first offer that the charge of those who advocate penal substitution that other accounts of atonement don’t take sin sufficiently serious is misleading.

Second, it is not at all apparent that the OT sacrificial rituals and penal substitution are communicating the same thing. Penal substitution advocates take the Day of Atonement ritual (Lev. 16), for instance, to mean that the people laid their sins on the lamb of God and then it was executed in their place. However, neither Leviticus nor anywhere else describes what is going on thus. In fact, the sins of the people there are laid on the scapegoat, but it is not killed. The logic of the slaughtered lamb’s blood shed on the mercy seat is not a substitution of a death, but the substitution of life; hence Lev. 17.11: “A creature’s life is in the blood. I have provided you the blood to make reconciliation for your lives on the altar, because the blood reconciles by means of the life.” Penal substitution proponents have failed to appreciate the logic of the sacrifices, or worse, have made their theology a Procrustean bed onto which they fit those sacrifices by means of amputation or stretching. Brevard S. Childs noted over two decades ago that while the verb for atonement or expiation occurs over a hundred times in the OT, “God is never the object of the verb as one who is appeased or propitiated” (Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflections on the Christian Bible [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992], 503). According to penal substitution, the Cross does what the OT sacrifices only foreshadowed, and that is, propitiate God’s wrath toward sin. However, that was not how the OT explained the blood sacrifice rituals (but it does smell suspiciously pagan). Again, penal substitution advocates have failed to demonstrate that their account of the meaning on the Cross is more faithful than others.

While Scot McKnight has dismissed growing rejection of penal substitution among evangelicals as trendy, I would argue that what we are really seeing is people acknowledging the sorts of flaws in it I have described above. For me, there is no liberal revisionism going on here. I don’t believe that the problem with penal substitution is that the winsekins have burst. The problem with penal substitution is is that it’s wine out of a box..

Well, if Christ’s death is not a matter of being executed in our place, in what sense is his death “for us”? Well, I have said all of that to say this: I suspect that the claim of the NT authors that Jesus died “for us” is more along the lines of what Speech from Arrested Development meant when he claimed that earlier generations of African-Americans who had suffered and died did it for the sake of the entire people. They died for me, and they died for you. Obviously, this does not mean that they were tortured and executed in an exchange bargain. Rather, what this asserts is that their deaths were not meaningless. They didn’t die for being “uppity.” Their suffering and death are placed in the context of a struggle for freedom and dignity, as part of a cosmic conspiracy against the powers of slavery and segregation and Jim Crow. They gave their lives to secure future generations. If you listened to the song “Revolution,” then you noticed that the struggles of those who had come before–including suffering and death (“it ain’t like we never seen blood before”)–were meant to draw present generations out of lethargy and dissipation. In other words, to live like people for whom others gave their lives:

As I look out my window, I see the little ones
playing amongst each other with their water guns,
in pure poverty–
generations of good people in cycles of poverty!
It bothers me, so I ask myself:

I said, “Are you doing as much as you can for their struggle? (No)
Am I doing as much as I can for their struggle? (No)
Then why do I cry when my people are in trouble? (Yo)
My ancestors slapped me in the face and said, ‘Go!'”

That sounds a lot like Titus 2.14, referenced above: He gave himself for us in order to rescue us from every kind of lawless behavior, and cleanse a special people for himself who are eager to do good actions. The song frames the martyrdom seen in previous generations as in some sense vicarious–but not substitutionary! It also sounds like the ransom tradition located in the synoptic Gospels: For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10.45; par. Matt. 20.28; cf. 1 Tim. 2.6).

Closely related to the NT claim that Jesus died for us is the claim that he died for our sins. For instance, 1 Cor. 15.3-5 tells the story like this:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for 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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

Does Paul thereby mean that Jesus was executed in our place, so that God’s wrath was siphoned off onto him? No; I don’t believe that the claim that Jesus died for our sins requires that interpretation. Think back to the spoken intro to “Revolution”:

Before you put on this record, understand this is for all my ancestors who were raped, who were killed, and hung, because of their plight for freedom and for dignity. They died for me, and they died for you.

I want to suggest that, while they suffered and died on account of the sins of others, that doesn’t imply that they were propitiating an angry deity. Rather, when we claim that Jesus died for our sins, this is a confession, a repentance on our part: God gifted us with his Son, and we lynched him. We love our autonomy and our personal security and our sin so much that we have become the sort of people who would kill God if given the opportunity. We are comfortable with a story that tells us a bunch of pompous bureaucrats were manipulated by God to kill Jesus to make up for the things we have done wrong. We do not want to hear a story that tells us that we are like Caiaphas and Pilate and that the only way to be any different is to become disciples of the very One we would kill. 

In short, to sum up, everything in the Bible–from the OT sacrificial system to Paul’s theology of the Cross–indicates that the work of Christ is not to substitute our execution for his. Rather, it is about being gathered into the life Christ offered up to God on our behalf. Therefore, it is written: one died for the sake of all; therefore, all died. He died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised (2 Cor. 5.14-15). Now, being gathered into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus may very well get us killed, which is why he calls us with these words: All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me (Mark 8.34; par. Matt. 16.24; par. Luke 9.23). But our primary task is to live a revolution, not merely to die for one.

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8 thoughts on “Muddling through the claim that Jesus died for our sins with Arrested Development

  1. John Mureiko says:

    This is a fascinating perspective that I have only superficially studied. Do you have some literature recommendations for where to dig deeper into the subject? Thanks for the enlightening post!

    • jmar198013 says:

      Hey John:

      Some books I’d recommend along these lines are

      John Carroll and Joel Green, The Death of Jesus In Early Christianity. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995)

      Mark Baker and Joel Green, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Ethics. 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011)

      Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005)

      S. Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice: a theology of the cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006)

      You can get any of those on Amazon; and I think all of them also have Kindle editions.

  2. Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

  3. Marcie says:

    Hi Jeremy! As I’ve told you before, I struggle with the doctrine of atonement, among other topics. Maybe I’ve read the Bible through thoses lenses so long that I can’t see it any other way. But I still don’t see how you can see anything other than penal substitution in the scriptures. It’s so foreign and not how I would have thought it should go, but that’s what I see. But I’ve just started to try on this other perspective. I am not currently capable of digesting a meaty theological tome. Which of your above book suggestions is closest to an 8th grade reading level? Thanks!
    Marcie

    • jmar198013 says:

      Marcie: An excellent introductory book, geared toward “lay” reading, is Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement, by Mark D. Baker. The book has brief essays, sermons, even children’s Bible class lessons. I’d highly recommend the essay “Atonement in the Coffee Shop,” by Chris Friesen from that book.

  4. […] teaching this distinctive, and relatively recent, doctrine with proclaiming the gospel. I have previously written that this doctrine is problematic because it cannot bear the freight of discipleship. It divorces […]

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