What was the purpose of Jesus dying on the cross?
- Was it payment for sins?
- Was it a demonstration of non-violence?
- Was it to forge a new covenant?
- Was it an avoidable act of murder?
- Was it all of the above?
I know penal substitution atonement is the traditional view, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Frank Viola once described the cross as a multi-faceted diamond. You can turn it different directions and constantly be awed by it. That’s why I’m a bit hesitant to subscribe to a sole theory about the atonement. None of them can capture the entirety of the cross. Since you’ve already done such a great job talking about Christus Victor (my primary view), I’ll take a different look at the cross, from Peter’s perspective in the early chapters of Acts.
Acts 2:23-24 “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” Sounds like a good summary of the crucifixion and resurrection to me.
One current point of contention is whether or not the death of Jesus was, as you said, “an avoidable act of murder” or if it was intended by God. According to Peter the answer is a bit of both. In Acts 2:22-23 Peter describes how the Jews crucified Jesus, but he also says that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God”. Peter again in 2:36 places responsibility for the death of Jesus on the people of Israel and does though yet again in 3:13-15. But in 3:17-18, Peter describes the suffering of Christ as being foretold. In short, it seems like Peter is saying that mankind crucified Jesus, but that the crucifixion was actually part of God’s plan. This same theme is seen yet again in Acts 4:10, where Peter says “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” It seems to me as if God was fully aware of human nature, that inevitably, we would reject what was best for us and thus turned our violence and hatred into the tool of our redemption, our restoration. Who knew that looking at the use of pronouns in Biblical study would be so important?
Peter also gives us some good insight into the why of Jesus’ death. In 2:24 Peter explains how in Jesus’ resurrection the “pangs of death” were loosened. In 3:17-26 the results of Christ’s suffering are explained as “times of refreshing” and restoration. Peter culminates his speech by describing how God “raised up his servant…to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.” There’s not a lot (or any!) talk here about an angry God, vengefully pouring out his wrath on Jesus, instead on us.Instead, the crucifixion is intrinsically connected to the resurrection, to “the pangs of death being loosened”, to the forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, to refreshing, to restoring, and to blessing. For me, what seems to tie these all together is Acts 2:36 “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” There is an inescapable factor of exaltation in the cross and the tomb. It is the exaltation spoken of in Philippians, of the servant God who stooped so low as to take the full brunt of human wrath and hatred, so as to deliver us from it.
I’ve found it helpful to take a look at Peter’s writings on the cross, especially given how many Protestant churches tend to go straight to Paul’s writings, especially in Romans. We rob ourselves by limiting the crucifixion to narrow ideologies and viewpoints.
Now one question I have about the atonement actually has to do with the resurrection. It seems to me that the crucifixion are rarely spoken of as separate events throughout the NT, but often are tied together. How do our understandings of the cross shape our understanding of the resurrection? You talked about that in the most recent article, but I’d love to dive even deeper into that.