Sorting Out Atonement Theories

This is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

“To land our ‘sins’ onto a dead first-century Jew is not just ridiculous; it’s disgusting. To suggest that some god projected our ‘sins’ onto that man is even worse: it’s a sort of cosmic child abuse, a nightmare fantasy that grows out of— or might actually lead to!— real human abuses in today’s world. We can do without that nonsense.” -N. T. Wright.

WHY DID JESUS DIE?” IT IS A QUESTION TO WHICH CHRISTIANS automatically answer, “For our sins.” Although it may be a satisfactory answer within Christian circles, this answer might alienate those seeking some semblance of coherence, particularly inasmuch as this entails an angry God sending his innocent Son to die for all who reject him which, frankly, does not make much sense.

Western theology has passed along the idea that God requires a sacrifice in order to forgive humanity’s sins. This becomes an interesting (ironic) doctrine when analyzed in light of the teachings of Jesus and within light of the counter-prophetic message that sacrifice is a human, and not a divine, innovation. Why would Jesus ask humankind to forgive others 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:21-22), when God cannot forgive humankind unless something or someone dies? If God really wants to forgive and restore humankind, why does He require a sacrifice? Jeremiah 7:22 says “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Either something is wrong with many of the traditional atonement theories or something is wrong with God (He is schizophrenic and/or sadistic). The major western theories all partake of the same basic errors, which I briefly describe below, before pointing toward what I take to be a more biblical understanding of why Christ died.

Contractual Theories

 In summary, contractual theories teach that humans are sinful (as in original sin/total depravity), everyone violates the Law (in which life resides), therefore they are damned. The Contract (Covenant) humanity and God had was not working, therefore God provides a way out in Christ, who satisfies God’s justice by taking humanity’s punishment on Himself, and imputing to them His righteousness through faith in Christ’s sacrifice.

There are several problems with the basic assumptions of the contractual approach, in that they contradict what the Bible teaches:

  1. Life is in the Law, contrary to what Romans 8:2 says (life is in the law of the Spirit in Christ).
  2. Those who killed Jesus acted according to God’s will.
  3. The ultimate purpose of the mission of Jesus is not to restore all things (Acts 3:21), but to die as a sacrifice.
  4. It assumes some satisfaction (of divine wrath) is required for forgiveness.
  5. Humankind has a debt to pay that requires human blood from a demanding God that rejected sacrifice in several verses in the Old Testament.
  6. God demands humankind to forgive their neighbor, but He cannot do that Himself without the death of someone.

These theories claim that justice needs to be done in order for forgiveness to be granted, but when justice is done, forgiveness is no longer necessary. So, why is there a need to forgive if justice was done in the death of Christ? The obvious answer is, Jesus’ death is not just, but far from it, an innocent man is killed to spare the truly evil guilty ones that, paradoxically, kill him according to God’s will. Justice is absent when violence is done, and violence is precisely what the cross represents: namely, human violence against its own Creator.

The theology of the early Church became corrupted through time due to the events surrounding the “conversion” of Constantine who merged Church and State and this may go a long way in explaining the multiplication of perverse theories of atonement. In addition, several atonement theories arose which were intended to illustrate the death and resurrection of Christ (at specific times in history),[1] and not necessarily to pose singular or dogmatic understandings, but which unfortunately ended up being codified into doctrine.

The theories can be sorted according to the problem Christ would solve, specifically within the various persons (Satan, Man, God) which contain the obstacle to salvation. The question arises as to the person and the nature of the obstacle?

 According to Ransom theory (developed by Origen, 185-254 AD), sinful man is controlled by Satan, therefore, the death of Christ is a payment to Satan to free the captives. Sometimes this ransom is illustrated as a hoax; in other words, Jesus ripped off Satan. Somehow Jesus ensures the escape of mankind from the hands of Satan, and then he scams Satan by escaping through the resurrection. The problem with this theory is immediately obvious, if God or Jesus owes something to Satan, is Satan more powerful than God?

The Man theory has multiple variations, but essentially holds that the death of Christ serves as a catalyst to inspire the reformation of society, that is, to bring about repentance and to halt rebellion against God. God could have forgiven without the cross, but He uses the cross to persuade humanity to repent. In this theory, salvation depends entirely on the human response, that is, on human repentance. The two main variations of this theory are:

The Moral Influence Theory. This theory (held by Abelard; 1033-1109) teaches that God wanted to forgive man, but the problem lay in how to convince man that he could be forgiven. On the cross Jesus demonstrates the love of God and His willingness to forgive. Man, turning to see the cross and the love of God it portrays, rekindles his love for Him, repents, and then God forgives him.

The Governmental Theory. This theory teaches that God is a ruler who uses Jesus as an example to impose fear on the hearts of sinners. This theory emphasizes the seriousness with which God regards His law, such that whoever breaks it suffers the wrath of God. As God demonstrates His wrath through the cross, He persuades humanity to respect God’s moral law.

The main problem with the Man Theory is the fluid (it seems to illustrate opposed notions in the two versions of the theory) and the non-essential purpose it assigns to Jesus’ sacrifice (any number of things might illustrate the love or moral seriousness of God). If anger falls on the one who breaks God’s law, what law did Jesus break? Wasn’t He innocent?  Was there not a simpler way to demonstrate His love than the murder of Jesus? If the crucifixion was not necessary, then why carry out such a plan?

In the God Theory it is taught that the death of Jesus removed the obstacle to forgiveness within the nature of God. God’s loving nature wants to forgive humanity, but His holiness does not allow it and demands that there be punishment. Therefore, before sins can be forgiven, God’s justice must be satisfied. The main variants of the theory are:

Divine Satisfaction. In this theory (held by Anselm;[2] 1093-1109 AD) sinful man must pay a debt to satisfy the honor due to God or suffer eternal punishment. But, since man constantly sins, it becomes impossible to pay a debt that continues to increase. Since Christ was sinless, He can and does pay the debt of all humanity.

Penal Substitution. This theory (held by Calvin; 1509-1564 AD) is a modification of divine satisfaction, with a shift in focus from satisfying honor to appeasing anger. Since man broke God’s law the exact penalty prescribed by the law must be paid. In order to save a few, the elect, God transfers His punishment to a substitute: Jesus. Christ takes upon Himself the divine anger and suffers the penalties and imputes His justice to the elect.

Divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on the exchange between the Father and the Son: an infinite offense against the infinite honor of God that required a divine exchange (between the Father and the Son) that basically leaves out finite humans. Instead of being rescued from sin, death, and the Devil (which was the primitive belief about the ministry of Christ), a change arises in which humanity is now being saved from the law, justice, and God.[3] Salvation means that God’s wrath is removed or His honor is reestablished through the death of Jesus.

In this perverse alternative to Christianity, instead of the disciple taking up his cross and following Jesus, Jesus dies in his place so that the disciple no longer has to die. Salvation is focused on the death of Christ: in Catholicism it is a continuing death and in Protestantism it is death mostly in isolation from His life. This is typically linked to the denial of the body as a means for the salvation of the soul. Instead of the Father and the Son being united to defeat evil, death, and the Devil, now it is the Son who suffers the wrath of God for humanity.

Instead of resurrection being the sign of a completed mission against evil, now resurrection is secondary to the penalty or substitution exacted on the cross. In this alternative Christianity, the State (the Roman Empire) is now part of the divine order, instead of being the servant of the prince of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4). The death of Christ, instead of suspending, displacing, or rendering the law useless, requires Roman law and the Mosaic law. Law is integral to the logic of the governmental theory, divine satisfaction and penal substitution and the law, rather than being suspended or displaced, is left in place as the logic that required or justifies the death of Christ.

In short, there are a multiplicity of atonement theories, several of which do not focus on biblical exegesis. As mentioned above, the function of some was merely illustrative and they did not purport to be biblical. The theories are dense and complex, and each Christian has a responsibility to scrutinize the Bible and study these theories and hopefully leave behind those unworthy of the God found in Christ. No theory may be complete or perfect, and thank God, humanity will not be saved according to the correctness of their theories. Like Michael Hardin says (in Finding Our Way Home), “God forgives our theology… just like He forgives our sin.”[4]

What can be said, without a doubt, is that the image of a God who demands satisfaction for His honor or wrath is not the God of the Bible; it is a paganized notion. The larger problem with many of the atonement theories is that, as Richard Rohr puts it, “to turn Jesus into a Hero we ended up making the Father into a ‘Nero’.”[5] In other words, God becomes the first to persecute the Body of Christ.

The reality is that the cross is a confrontation, but not between the Father and the Son, but against the forces of evil that murdered Him. It is the overthrow of death, nationalism, ethnocentrism, racism, self-centeredness, machismo, feminism, and every form of evil that results in violence and death. It is not the “violence of God” that murders Jesus, it is the violence of human evil that murders Him.

Rightly understood, this accords with the classic understanding of Christus Victor, which Gustaf Aulén maintained was the understanding of the first church and to which he advocated a return. The Christus Victor paradigm understands the word of Christ in terms of His conflict with, and triumph over those elements of the kingdom of darkness that enslave humanity, that is, Satan and his demons, sin, death, and the curse of the Law. Though it may be a parallel to Ransom Theory, the theory need not be associated with the cruder elements of this understanding[6] and it also stresses Christ’s victory over sin and is thus centered to an equal degree in the idea of the resurrection.

In conclusion, to think that God is angry and wants to send everyone to hell is not biblical. The story the Bible tells is of God’s search for a relationship with His human creation, and this creation constantly turns away from Him, choosing to abandon the singular source of life. This is precisely what sin is, not just the breaking of moral codes, but idolatry and the distortion of human identity because of that idolatry. It is exchanging life for death. It is offering God death instead of sacrificial life. It is exchanging the covenant with God and making a covenant with death itself.

N. T. Wright describes (in his book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion) the three-layered error in modern Christianity: we Platonized our eschatology (by substituting the promise of being a new creation for ‘souls going to heaven’), we moralized our anthropology (by substituting the biblical notion of human vocation for a qualifying test of moral performance) and we paganized our soteriology (by substituting the genuine Biblical notion of forgiveness with the idea that “God killed Jesus to calm His anger”).

Christianity, under the influence of Plato (and Platonist theologians), inevitably interprets God as a violent god, but perhaps people will distance themselves from that god and be drawn to the God of the Bible. The hope is that by moving away from the repulsive god of a failed atonement theory the true God will be sought, though, this is often not the case.


[1] The error of many of these atonement theories is locating themselves in a specific time and space other than the time and space in which Jesus died. That is, they try to explain the purpose of Jesus’ death according to the historical context that surrounds them. For example, Satisfaction theory repeats themes from its medieval context. Not that this is necessarily bad, because Jesus died for everyone in all times. But you cannot speak of His death and resurrection without placing them in their own context. Another example of this error is the one that N. T. Wright rightly points out, and that is, even, many of these atonement theories are not based on the Gospels, but on the letters.

[2] Augustine is the theologian who most influenced Western theology and that is why it is necessary to mention the following: Augustine, who had Neo-Platonic notions, leads theology to reinterpret human subjectivity and the functioning of truth. It fails to appreciate the embodied nature of truth, and unfortunately this infects the rest of theology with a dualistic tendency, thus fusing it with Greek philosophy. The interaction between soul and body becomes more Greek than Judeo/Christian. It begins the belief that the soul is eternal and is trapped in a human body. And it is Augustine who mystifies sin, opens the way to the atonement theory called “divine satisfaction” that is today’s standard imposed in most Western churches and that Anselm developed later.

Anselm completely absorbed the change that Constantine brought about and gives life to the Satisfaction theory. In this atonement theory, God is the object, and the human is the subject. This theory used Roman law as a metaphor (and, on behalf of Anselm, his intention was only to make an illustration). Unfortunately, his illustration became the only way to see the cross of Christ in Western theology.

“In ancient times, Christ was seen first and foremost as the conqueror of the devil and his powers. His work consisted above all in freeing humanity from the yoke of slavery to which it was subjected. And so, the worship of the ancient church was centered on the Resurrection. But in the Middle Ages, particularly in the ‘dark ages,’ the emphasis shifted, and Jesus came to be thought of primarily as the payment for human sins. His task was to appease the honor of an offended God. In worship, the emphasis fell on the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection. And Jesus Christ, rather than the conqueror of the devil, became a victim of God. In Why God Became Man, Anselm clearly and precisely formulated what had become the common faith of his day [Justo L. González, History of Christianity: Volume 1, vol. 1 (Miami, FL: Editorial Unilit, 2003), 424-425.] Translated by me.”

[3] A violent atonement theory – a theory that uses violence to generate its meaning – will only serve to multiply and even justify violence in the world.

Calvin, one of the most influential theologians, is a good example of the violence that this blog criticizes. He agreed with the murder of heretics and blasphemers (who would determine who was a heretic? Him?), to the point that, according to A History of the Church by James North “Servetus was burned to death in Geneva by Calvin and his followers (p. 350).”

Although there is debate as to how much Calvin directly influenced the assassination of Servetus, and other assassinations (sometimes the number exceeds 58), there is no doubt that his theology justifies such acts and greatly influenced during the Protestant Reformation.

[4] Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, eds., Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 64.

[5] Ibid, 208.

[6] Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 AD) illustrates the Devil as a fish, Jesús is the bait and hook, God is the fisherman. Augustine (354-430 AD) used an example similar to Gregory’s: a mousetrap. Jesus on the cross was the bait, a man without sin. Satan kills Jesus, but at the same time falls into the trap and is mortally wounded.

Does Complementarianism Undermine the Gospel?

In Genesis humans are depicted as bearing the image of God as male and female. God speaks in the first-person plural, “Let us,” and humans are created as a plurality. This means image bearing is integral to human relations of every kind: sexual relations, family relations, marriage relations, but also in relation with God (that is the human image presumes relation to the Origin). Male/female is of course a characteristic running throughout creation – so it is simultaneously that which humans share with other creatures. While human spirituality (bearing the divine image) and human created/creatureliness cannot be reduced to gender, gender pertains throughout, so that both human depravity and the heights of spirituality find expression in human sexuality. Idolatrous religion, in its Old Testament depiction and in Paul’s summation of that depiction in Romans 1, manifests itself in human sexual misorientation, while the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the culmination of human spirituality, is depicted in terms of a fulfilled marriage relationship. This culminating wedding feast is the reconciliation of humankind with God, but simultaneously the restoration of right interpersonal, intrapersonal relations, and relation to creation (Revelation 19-21). In other words, resolution to the problem of gendered relations (through Christ as groom and the Church as bride) is not just part of the biblical story, this is the biblical story.

Gender problems are at the center of the human problem (male dominance and female desire, Gen. 3:16) and salvation is depicted, in a key motif of the New Testament, as the completion of the promise of Genesis that “the two shall become one flesh” (Eph. 5:32). Salvation depicted as the fulfillment of marriage must mean that male/female relations cannot be understood apart from understanding who God is, what the human predicament is, and the manner in which we are delivered from that predicament. Which is to say, the role of women in Church leadership or the relation of husband and wife cannot be isolated from the narrative sweep of Scripture. A typical error of isolating these issues is to misread the curse of the Fall, male domination and oppression of women (Gen. 3:16), as if God is accommodating or even encouraging this oppression, and then to read this into particular New Testament passages.

In both Ro. 7:1-4 and in I Cor. 11, Paul not only depicts human failure and success in terms of gender, failed and successful marriage and male/female relations in the church respectively, but apprehension and understanding of God, particularly God as Trinity, is interdependent with the full realization of male/female interdependence. “Belonging to another” in Romans (7:4) and male/female interdependence in I Cor. (11:11-12) are to be realized by being “joined to Christ” or being “in the Lord.”

In I Cor. 11, the image restored in the body of Christ calls upon a direct correlate between male/female relations and the Father’s relation to the Son (the key to understanding “headship). Just as there is no such thing as the Father independent of the Son (or any one member of the Trinity apart from relation to other members of the Trinity), so too there is no such thing as man apart from woman and woman apart from man (ontologically and universally). Identity depends upon how we relate to others but this in turn is best apprehended in Trinitarian relations.  Just as subordinationism is a Trinitarian heresy, the same applies to the relation to men and women (part of Paul’s prolonged argument against oppressing other people).

Romans 7:1-4 depicts the universal misorientation to the law as a marriage problem. The woman who would consort with a man, other than her husband, while her husband is still alive is representative of failed humanity. The resolution is not to kill off the living husband or wait around for him to die (abolish the law). Two realms of knowing, knowing the law with the mind and knowing in the Hebraic sense (knowing in the flesh), have come into conflict and cannot be coordinated. The woman’s troubled love life (legally married to one man and illegally consorting with another) is not simply her singular problem, but represents the human predicament.  The point of the illustration, deploying the conflict between sex and marriage, is that the law dictates and determines every aspect of this relationship. Knuckling under to the law (a submissive or passive relationship to the husband or law) or transgressing the law, are not the resolution.  The problem is the oppressive axis of the law (authority, the husband, the punishing law) coordinates even the most intimate relationship. Domineering authoritarianism (the husband or law calls all the shots), passive self-effacement or open rebellion, describe life under the law, which Paul equates with sin.

The resolution is to be found in coordinating the two kinds of knowing (mind and body) by becoming the bride of Christ: “you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another” (7:4, NASB). This enables a joining to another in a fruitful relationship (“in order that we might bear fruit for God” vs. 4). Redeemed humanity is the bride of Christ, pregnant with the fruit of true love. The attempt to “gain control” as an orientation to the law, in either the typical authoritarian or submissive role, is suspended.  Christ, as husband, represents a suspension of the force of the law and being found in Christ as bride brings an end to agonistic domination and submission, as authoritarian rule is suspended.

Self-alienation and alienation from others, are not ultimately resolved apart from this reconciliation to be had in Christ. In both Ephesians and Romans this discord overcome in Christ directly pertains to human sexuality: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31-32, ESV). In both instances this speaks of a simultaneous realization of right relations between men and women coordinated with a fuller realization and understanding of the work of Christ.

The New Testament accommodates culture in certain instances, and does not seek to simply overturn the law or kill the husband, as in Paul’s illustration. For example, the church came to decide that the institution of slavery, though widespread in the ancient world, was incompatible with the New Testament’s vision of the freedom and dignity of human beings. Those New Testament texts that seem to support slavery (such as Eph. 6:,5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; I Tim 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10, I Peter 2:18) must be coordinated with the clear undermining of the institution of slavery by other passages and by the whole of the Gospel narrative. This undermining is accomplished not through directly attacking slavery, but through a revolutionary subordination, which even those passages seemingly allowing for slavery point to. As in Philemon, radical subordination to Christ (on both the part of Onesimus and Philemon) is a mode of undermining the accepted cultural norms. The slave or servant of all is now the position to be sought as the servant is following the example of Christ. Texts which accommodate slavery should not be used to perpetuate slavery in the church nor should those passages accommodating the traditional role of women be allowed to distort the point of salvation. Freedom in Christ is not simply a metaphor for release from authoritarian oppression, it is breaking the bonds of oppression in every form (but most especially in male/female relations).

The nature of the Christian revolution is an undermining of the Powers (slavery, marriage customs, powers of the state) through submitting but not succumbing. Jesus refuses to remain in the grave, though he willingly went there. Paul offers up his head to Rome, not in defeat, but knowing that “by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead” (I Cor. 15:21, NASB). Scriptures commanding subordination of women and slaves, or subordination to the power of Rome, are not meant to preserve authoritarian roles but to undermine them. Paul is beheaded, Jesus is crucified, and the apostles are martyred, not because they obeyed and hoped to preserve cultural norms, but because they submitted in such a way as to overturn those powers through an alternative Kingdom.

The story of Fall and redemption is to be read as pertaining directly to overcoming of authoritarianism, forms of subordinationism, oppression and alienation.   There might still be slave/free, male/female, and Jew/Gentile, from the perspective and logic of the world but in the Church these categories are suspended (Gal. 3:28), as with the law. Gender, class, and ethnicity, are not dissolved but a different logic applies and one can treat these categories, in Paul’s explanation, as “if not” (I Cor. 7:29-30). They are no longer definitive, they do not pertain, as this symbolic order is displaced with an alternative “Spiritual” grammar.  To miss this deep grammatical shift, from the letter that kills to the Spirit which gives life, (and it is missed and obscured both by the closed economy of this world and a theology grounded in this economy) is to miss the transvaluation of Christianity.

 While there is undoubtedly accommodation behind male/female instruction given in the New Testament, I am afraid Christian complementarianism, focused as it is on a few verses, is missing the narrative force of the story of salvation.  Though Paul commends a woman apostle, women evangelists, deaconesses etc. he also recommends male elders. Is the conclusion that women are excluded from Church leadership, or is this a dogged commitment to the oppression the Gospel is overcoming? In Timothy, is Paul commanding a peculiar submission of women to men or is he commanding that women too should study and learn? N.T. Wright claims, that his command that women be “in full submission” (I Tim 2:11) may in fact mean not in submission “to men” or “to husbands” but in submission to God or the gospel – as with the men. In the most perverse of examples, where Christ is portrayed as “head” who sustains and serves all, it has been presumed that a husband as head is the one who is the authority figure. As in the recent evangelical controversy (appealing to I Cor. 11:3), subordination of women to men has led to reinstituting of the heresy of subordinationism (the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father). (I have dealt with this here). The Godhead has been redefined, and one fears that the role of the Son as true head is lost.

Where these passages are cut off from their life situation and where theory is formed in isolation, some of these verses may be deployed as proof texts for complementarian forms of female subordination but this would seem to contradict the suspension of the law and its oppressive authority. This is the potential tragedy connected with reifying traditional roles captured in complementarianism. It misses the fact that the Gospel is overturning fallen norms of what it means to be male and female.

Rereading Sacrifice in the Old Testament

The Following is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

What alternative is there to atonement theories that do not seem to grasp or be grasped by what God did through Jesus? A shift needs to be made, if God is not violent, who is? If God did not come up with the idea of a sacrifice, who did? To find an answer, the story of the first sacrifice and the story of Cain and Abel will be analyzed below that will challenge the presumption that God requires sacrifice of a deadly kind; that God is angry and is violent. Could it be that humans are the author of sacrifices, and it is humans who are angry and violent?

This question challenges another popular misconception: “If it is in the Bible, God wanted it.” It is important to state that just because something is in the Bible does not mean that God requires it, or that it is a need of His, or that He agrees with it. There are many sinful things written in the Bible, there for the purpose of teaching humankind to practice the opposite. [1] Given the question of the origin of violence and the challenge to this basic presupposition, let me propose an alternative reading to the first sacrifice and the first murder.

Sacrifices Before the Law And God’s Sacrifice

To demonstrate the consequence of evil initiated by Adam, God makes the first sacrifice in order to clothe them (Genesis 3:21) because they are ashamed.[2] This is important theologically because, “The garment given them is special…. A kuttōnet is always worn by one in authority (Genesis 37:3, 23, 31–33; Exodus 28:4, 29–30 … [15 x in all]; 2 Samuel 13:18–19; 15:32; Isaiah 22:21; Job 30:16; Song of Solomon 5:3).”[3] God covers their nakedness (shame) with something better than what they could do on their own (Genesis 3:7). In Galatians 3:27 Paul says “all of you who were baptized (Romans 6) into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:20).”

It is important to see that the first sacrifice made was by God in order to cover humankind’s shame. God had to appease a soon-to-come wrathful humanity (the next chapter, in Genesis 4). This is the complete opposite of what most atonement theories teach.

Cain and Abel’s Sacrifice

Cain and Abel brought an offering to God. Cain gave from the fruit of the ground, while Abel brought from the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. Things get complicated when God accepts Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. In a traditional reading, God seems to be demonstrating favoritism toward Abel. And many Apologists give several explanations of why this is so, some of these explanations include:

  • Cain brings what he wants, Abel brings the best.
  • The soil was cursed by God (Cain is offering from what is cursed).
  • Cain brings less than what he is supposed to. Abel brings the exact amount.
  •  God required a sacrifice of blood, not fruits

What is never asked and answered is, when did God ask them to bring an offering or sacrifice? What were God’s requirements? Hebrews 11:4 only says that “Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain did.” But nowhere in Genesis 4 – or the rest of the Bible – is there any request from God to do such a thing. So, why did Abel conceive this idea of an animal sacrifice? The only previous recorded example was when God clothed Adam and Eve after the Fall. As suggested previously, given a retrospective view, perhaps it was God appeasing humanity’s wrath, not humanity appeasing his wrath. Both brothers may have had a mistaken assumption.

Abel brings a sacrifice to a God who did not ask for one, because in reality there is no wrathful God to appease.  On the positive side, at least he demonstrates a willingness to please God, and so the Lord had regard for Abel. On the other hand, Cain sacrifices Abel since his previous sacrifice was not pleasant to God. Abel found an outlet in the bloodletting of the sacrifice for the violence inherent in all human beings, Cain had no such outlet and so killed his brother instead.[4]

If we follow this logic, the significance of the sacrifice takes on a completely different meaning than that found under the logic of traditional atonement theories.

A mistake is made; the lie of sin and death remains intact. Abel offers an animal’s blood to appease God’s wrath (the lie of sin), something God did not ask for. Cain, in turn, offers his brother’s blood (the lie of death), even with God’s forewarning against such an act, the murder was committed. Two options arise: kill your brother or love your brother. These are the two options open to humankind. Unfortunately, humankind chooses – frequently – to murder the brother.

Given this understanding, Jesus mission does not begin in His death. In order to expose the lie projected onto God (that it is divine anger that requires sacrifice), Jesus exposes the source of anger in his encounters with the leading Jews. With His death the exposure of the lie is complete as is his absorption of human anger. With His resurrection there is an overcoming of the worst that human anger can mete out. He exposes and displaces the lie with the truth of love for the brother. “For one will hardly die for a righteous man…. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).


[1] For example, many people in the Old Testament were polygamists, even many of the key characters (heroes of the Bible), but God did not want this or looked at it as if it was right (Genesis 2:24; cf. Matthew 19:3-12). The Bible is written not to tell humankind God’s needs, it is written to tell humankind what humankind needs in order to be the “image-bearer of God.

[2] This is an assumption; Genesis 3 does not specifically describe a sacrifice. “…but immediately in chapter 4, Abel knows to bring an animal sacrifice to God. And the Israelite reader would think of sacrifice, as well, because in the Tabernacle the skins of the animals went to the priests for clothing and additional income. (Allen Ross y John N. Oswalt, Cornerstone biblical commentary: Genesis, Exodus, vol. 1 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 57.)”

[3] David W. Cotter, Genesis, ed. Jerome T. Walsh, Chris Franke, David W. Cotter, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 35–36. N. T. Wright explains in The Day the Revolution Began, “Humans were made to be ‘image bearers,’ to reflect the praises of creation back to the Creator…. Humans are made to worship the God who created them in his own image and so to be sustained and renewed in that image-bearing capacity.” After the Fall, humans “abdicated their vocation to ‘rule’ in the way that they, as image-bearers, were supposed to.” Humans had authority, and even after they exchanged it for a lie, God covers them with an authoritative garment.

[4] David W. Cotter, Genesis, ed. Jerome T. Walsh, Chris Franke, y David W. Cotter, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 42.

The Gospel According to . . . Romans?

The following is a guest blog by David Rawls.

“If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”

Augustine of Hippo

 Recently I was listening to a podcast and the speaker was sharing thoughts on the important role which the gospel plays in each believer’s life and in the life of the church. He used the term “gospel” repeatedly. I agreed with his assessment on the centrality of the (whatever we mean by the word) “Gospel,” but, though he said “gospel” repeatedly, I found myself questioning what he really meant when he used the term. “Gospel” has been used so much within evangelical Christianity that no one really thinks about its meaning. It is one of those buzz words which it is expected every Christian or church going person should know. But do we?

For many years I understood the gospel as simply the good news of Jesus making a way for me to go to heaven. I am guessing this is the view many others have as well. The book in the Bible which I thought best supported this view was the book of Romans. My understanding of Romans and the gospel came while I was in seminary. This gospel of going to heaven could be summed up in a popular approach to sharing Jesus called “The Roman Road.” For me the book of Romans existed to share how one could escape the punishment of hell and go to heaven.

The Roman Road goes something like this: We all have a problem, it is sin (Romans 3:23). The problem with sin is that it leads to death (Romans 6:23). God then steps in and makes a provision for us through his son who takes on our death and punishment (Romans 5:8). This is a free gift which we cannot earn (Romans 6:23b). If we want this free gift then we must confess Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9). For many the Roman Road ends there, though I saw baptism as an essential part of the road as well, as Paul talked about baptism in Romans 6.

This is certainly a simplified look at the Roman Road, but I do believe it represents what many people think about when they think of the Gospel. They believe the good news is that we are doomed but thankfully Jesus died on the cross, so we don’t have to go to hell but can go to heaven. Yet, is this what Jesus meant by good news, and is this what Romans is claiming is the good news?

The heart of the Roman Road is a false understanding of what God desires and what he is trying to accomplish. Central to its thinking is the belief that God’s justice has been violated and that he must receive punishment for sin. This idea sets up a pagan belief that God’s anger must be avenged [sic, satisfied?]. Sin, if it is to be paid for by humans, will mean an eternity in hell. But instead, God allows Jesus (who is perfect) to take on the full wrath of the Father. Once the son takes on this wrath, he is able to impute his righteousness (his good deeds) on us. Inherent in this view is that our main problem is a judicial one. The Father is seen as a judge who is “righteous and holy.”

A verse in Romans which has been misused to support this view is found in Romans 1:17 which says, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” The key word which has been misused is the word righteousness. To correct this misunderstanding, I will seek to show two things: First, I will define the word “righteousness” in the way Paul uses it. Second, I will show how this word takes on practical meaning in Romans 8:18-24. By looking at these two things I believe we will have a better picture of what the word “gospel” means.

The Greek word for righteousness which Paul is using in Romans 1:17 is δικαιοσύνη. This word can imply restorative justice as well as judicial justice. Paul uses it in the former sense, instead of the latter. Scholar N.T Wright when defining δικαιοσύνη uses the phrase “God’s covenant justice.” Covenant justice implies not that God must punish people for sin, but that God is committed to making things right in the World. This promise to make things right can be traced through the whole story of the Bible, including Genesis 12 when God said to Abram that he would bless the world through his seed. Any talk of “gospel” must include this idea of making the World right. Anything short of this will misinterpret what God is doing in the World.

When we turn to the book of Romans, we realize that this is the gospel message Paul has been presenting. Paul does not focus on people being punished because God must somehow appease his anger, but Paul shares how δικαιοσύνη is God being faithful to complete the task he has promised. There are many passages which we might turn to in Romans to show how covenant justice works but I want to focus on Romans 8:18-24. In this passage we get a beautiful glimpse of God keeping his covenantal faithfulness to fix the whole World. The passage reads:

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved.

Paul says in verse 24 “for in this hope we were saved.” This is a key verse that tells us quite a bit about the gospel Paul is preaching. In chapter 8 Paul has been talking about those in the spirit and those in the flesh. We know that in Christ there is no condemnation. Those in the Spirit are those who are in Christ who have given their allegiance to him.

Earlier in this chapter Paul gives hope for those in Christ reminding them that even though their bodies will die they will be raised again. The resurrection becomes a focal point of the Gospel message. It is the good news which says, even when believers are going through difficult times they will rise again.

Now as great as our bodily resurrection is, we find that the human body is not the only thing which will be restored. In the section quoted we find that the Earth waits in eager anticipation for its own redemption. This redemption is one in which Paul says that after the saints receive their new heavenly bodies that the creation will receive its new cosmic body. In Ephesians 1:10 Paul says that Christ is bringing all things under him both in heaven and earth.

God’s plan has been to restore all things, things in heaven and things on Earth. The gospel message is not some bodiless experience separate from creation, but it is very much a physical presence on a renewed earth in a redeemed cosmos. Just as our bodies will not be subject to decay, so the earth will no longer be subject to decay. It is in this hope that we have been saved.

The picture which Paul gives of the gospel is one which is vibrant and multifaceted. It is a gospel which takes the creation project that went off track in the garden and puts it back on course again. Once we realize the true nature of the gospel road, we are able to give people hope and a way to live now. Our hope for a renewed and restored creation pertains to life now in this created order.

Christian Nationalists?

As the President promotes the term “nationalist” in the midst of two terrorist attacks by men who seem to have also embraced Trump’s nationalism, the question arises as to the meaning and associations of the term. UNESCO claims that with “the birth of modern nations, anti-Semitism became essentially ‘nationalist.’”[1] The UNESCO report connects the rise of modern nationalism to a new and more virulent form of anti-Semitism. While the United States, in the words of George Washington in his letter of assurance to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R. I., “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” there is a clear rise in anti-Semitism (the Anti-Defamation League logged a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017) as the rhetoric of nationalism heats up. With the murder of the 11 worshipers in Pittsburgh (the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history), it is clear that Jews can no longer depend upon this country being a sanctuary from anti-Semitism.[2] Inasmuch as Christian evangelicals are key supporters of the source of this amped up rhetoric, the question is whether one can be a follower of Jesus and a nationalist? Contained within this larger question is the question whether Christianity is inherently nationalistic and anti-Semitic and, of course, there are historical moments where this appears to have been the case. Continue reading “Christian Nationalists?”