Atonement in the Gospel of John

The atonement theory of John might be described, from the prologue, with its echoes of Genesis, as new creation. “In the beginning” of Genesis repeated in John ties together creation and redemption. The “it is finished,” pronounced from the cross, brackets the ministry of Jesus (his life and death), within the first and final words of creation, so that from the tree of the cross there is a planting of a new tree of life. In chapter 16, Jesus describes this new life springing from death as on the order of birth pangs. He describes the lamenting surrounding his death as giving way to an unending joy (16:22). Throughout the Gospel, the life that is imparted has this same quality – it cannot be disrupted or despoiled by death (darkness cannot overtake this light), as it is a life that has overcome death.

In chapter one, with its depiction of the first week of Jesus’ ministry and the calling of a new humanity, maybe this new creation is more of a recapitulation; something on the order of Paul’s depiction in Romans five of the second Adam becoming the head of a new race, in which life, and not death, is the controlling factor. These two Adams though are not separate but conjoined even in Irenaeus’ description (the originator of recapitulation). What was begun in the Adam of the dust is completed in Adam of the Spirit. As Irenaeus describes it, the two Adams are on a continuum: “For never at any time did Adam escape the hands of God, to whom the Father speaking, said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.’” So what was begun in the first Adam is completed in the second: “And for this reason in the last times, not by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man, but by the good pleasure of the Father, His hands formed a living man, in order that Adam might be created after the image and likeness of God.”[1] Though Irenaeus describes his theory as recapitulation, this speaks not so much of a redoing as a finishing. Maybe it is best described as creations completion.

If there is a singular theological point to chapter two, the temple cleansing pointing to Christ as ordering the true cosmic temple, heralded by the wedding supper (of the lamb) and the new wine of a new age, proleptically offered up at Cana, the singular point might fit the theory of Christus Victor (Christ’s defeat of sin death and the devil). There is direct reference to the violent destruction (crucifixion) of Jesus, which inaugurates the new temple/cosmic order: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19). This Christus Victor motif, fits with Jesus’ depiction of “being lifted up” and in the process casting out the prince of this world and dragging all people to himself (12:32). The emphasis though, is not so much on what is defeated, overcome, or set aside, as upon temple construction and a new order of life.

This cosmic vision is made personal, if not individualistic in the next two chapters with the discussion with Nicodemus and the woman at the well. Once again there is direct reference to the death of Christ, but in this instance the cross is depicted as therapeutic or curative. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life (3:14-15). This is not exactly “the hair of the dog that bit you” but it is a reordering of life in which the sting of death is accounted for. The cross, like the bronze serpent, is an antidote to death through trust in the cure or the life that God offers. There is the same lifting up as in chapter 12, but in this instance the focus is upon the individual believer rather than a universal humanity. While Jesus appropriates the sign of Moses, he is also claiming, with his “no one has ascended to the father” (3:13), that he is greater than Moses (as well as Enoch and Elijah, claimants of heavenly ascent) as he says they have not ascended, but only he has ascended. The ascent seems to be only through being lifted up, and none of them qualify. None of them have conquered death and none of them have access to the power of eternal life which defeats death.

The lifting up through death qualifies the nature of the life that Christ offers. This is echoed and stated explicitly in the story of the man by the Sheep Pool in chapter 5. The paralyzed man can find no “human” to help him into the healing waters. Christ tells the man to “rise” (5:8) and to take up his bed, bringing on the condemnation of the authorities, who claim that both Jesus and the man have broken sabbath laws. Though no resurrection has yet occurred in John, Jesus treats the miracle as on the order of resurrection: “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes” (5:21). He is making divine life available through his “work” as he presumes to demonstrate in the miracle unfolding as part of sabbath work. This healing is on a continuum with his rising into new life and in this seventh day of redemptive work (the ongoing completion of creation) the life of God is fully given and death defeated.

Death though, is not a singular thing in John, as it may be the means of access to life – as in the seed that is planted which produces new life through its death (John 12:24) or it may be the wrong kind of death, even if it is of the sacrificial kind. The death of betrayal describes not only Judas’ suicide from despair but Peter’s willingness to betray the way of Christ by killing. The two betrayers are set side by side, and all of the apostles seem to be represented in their respective stories. At the foot washing, the particular dirt which they all share is not simply that of Judas, but of the apostolic spokesman Peter. Their two stories of betrayal unfold from this point. Judas sells out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, but Peter also involves himself in betrayal.

As he testifies after the foot washing, he is willing to lay down his life (13:37), and as it turns out, he is willing to lay down the life of as many as he can kill in fighting for Jesus. Before this, he is portrayed as attempting to prevent Jesus’ death, and Jesus identifies Peter (as he did Judas) with Satan: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matt. 16:23). This misdirected following, and misoriented willingness to kill and die, gives rise to Peter’s denial of Christ (18:15-27). Peter’s betrayal may be of a different order than that of Judas but is it somehow more acceptable? Or is his attempted homicide more acceptable due to our sense that killing for Jesus is more socially respectable than betrayal for greed. Isn’t Peter also a potential suicide when Jesus finds him and restores him through his three-fold demand for love displacing his three denials? The point is, there are many ways to die, but there is only one form of dying that is salvific.  

As Jesus had already warned Peter, the one who would prevent him from facing death is the devil, and ultimately, in his manner of death Jesus takes on death and the devil. However, the lifting up on the cross, the lifting up in resurrection and ascension, is also, as explained above, the lifting up associated with his healing. As he describes in the most explicit terms after his healing of the man by the pool, he has life within himself, like the Father: “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself” (5:26). Resurrection, healing, therapy, making whole, are all facets of the life he gives. As Jesus says in the Apocalypse, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades (Revelation 1:17–18). Christ’s passage through death, his becoming dead, opens up the “risen” quality of life which is divine life. He shares in the quality of life of the Father, in that they both have life in themselves and are the source of life, but this is a life realized through his death.

The whole of the book of John may seem to offer too many sides to the saving work of Christ to call each a facet of salvation, but this is the writer’s description of his purpose: “these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31). The life he gives is made evident in his healing ministry. Those paralyzed are raised up, those who are blind are enabled to see.  Jesus heals where life is defective and provides sustenance where life is short. There is a cosmic theme in Jesus’ identity as the Logos behind creation and in his identity as true temple. This cosmic salvation is inclusive of individual orientation, and there is consistent depiction of life, new life, spiritual life, and the accessing of this new life through a specific and individual reorientation to death. Atonement or redemption cleanses of death through life, it heals, it is spiritually therapeutic, and it resolves the problem of desire. At the cosmic and individual level, death is displaced with life. This might be called new creation, recapitulation, Christus Victor, or simply creation completion.

[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.1.3.

The Lure of Death Defeated in Christ

There is such a vast difference between eastern and western notions of atonement that in the eyes of the west it may sometimes appear that the east is lacking any theory at all, and maybe inasmuch as “theory” presumes to say it all, sum it up, or offer a complete understanding this is true. Recapitulation, for example, pertains to every area of human life and the working out an understanding of its breadth of impact is to be able to describe creation made new. There is no end to the realization of this re-creation. So too with Christus Victor (Christ came to defeat death and the devil) and ransom theory (Christ came to rescue from enslavement to Satan and sin), in that both depict subjection to sin as a disease or corruption called death. Being cured of a disease, freed from the devil, set free from slavery, overcoming death, is the initiation of an unending process of being made new. The western focus on legal guilt, punishment, and payment makes for a neat package of debt (or punishment) owed and paid, but what gets left out of this narrow scheme is the horror and reality of death. So too, what tends to be overlooked is the disease model of sin and death (death is a corruption that infects all of life) and full appreciation of the healing power of Jesus. In a sense, the health and wealth gospel and the focus on physical healing in Pentecostalism may be a demand for something concrete resulting from an atonement theory in which the legal fiction of debt and payment has proven abstractly inadequate. The demand for something concrete on the order of health and wealth, misses both the concrete predicament of death and the healing of resurrection life.

The centrality of death found in the Fall, emphasized in the lie of the serpent, described as the covenant with death in Isaiah, called the last enemy by Paul, described as the enslaving fear under the control of Satan in Hebrews and Romans, depicted as the orientation to sin by Paul, and described as a horror in the eastern fathers, is a predicament which does not figure fully into the western focus on a legal predicament. In turn, salvation from death (as the orientation to sin) through the death of Christ, tends not to register in the western theological emphasis.

The biblical conception of sin and the sinful Subject is built upon a very specific deception, detailed in Genesis, renamed the covenant with death in Isaiah, described as a poisonous lie, a throat shaped sarcophagus, and a bloody path of violence in the Psalms. Paul’s summation of the sin problem calls upon the fulness of this Old Testament depiction, both to describe the problem and Christ’s defeat of the problem. Being baptized into the death of Christ directly confronts the sin condition because sin is entangled with the primordial deception regarding death which amounts to an active taking up of death. Death as a lifestyle speaks not only of outward violence but of an inward destructiveness, and salvation from this orientation to death (death-in-life) is through life in the midst of death.

This focus opens up a new vocabulary that passes beyond the strictures of guilt and payment to a more holistic focus on shame, disease, contamination, alienation, cured, respectively, through fearlessness, wholeness, cleanness, and participation in the Trinity. As described in Genesis and captured in the notion of a sinful desire, there is a lure which draws humans out of or beyond life. There is a pursuit of an unreachable excess that cannot be integrated into the life process. This excess hovers around death in that the beyondess of death seems to hold out fulfillment of the infinite craving – beyond the Garden, beyond life, in which Something is traded for an ontological Nothing. This delusion, which describes the ontological condition of all subjects, makes of the world a horizon or marker of what lies beyond it, so that what is gives body to that which is not. This symbolic fiction or lie, is not a desire for any existing thing, but for that which does not exist. The serpent calls it being like God, in that it seems to open up the realm of experience to the transcendent, but what is beyond life is nothing at all. Thus, it can be understood how God’s prediction is fulfilled, “In the day you eat of it you will die” (Gen 2:7). Shame names the experience of the nothing called death. It describes, in the words of the Psalmist, what it is like to die (Ps 31:17). It describes the nature of the disease, in that it contains within it the entanglement with death, alienation, and corruption. The corruption of death, according to the Psalmist, is the ultimate shame.

It is not that the western church is without the analogy of sin as sickness. Billy Graham, for example, demonstrates a profound insight into sin sickness: “Sin is a spiritual virus that invades our whole being. It makes us morally and spiritually weak. It’s a deadly disease that infects every part of us: our body, our mind, our emotions, our relationships, our motives — absolutely everything. We don’t have the strength on our own to overcome its power.”[1]  Graham, however, does not provide any idea of how the disease is generated. He is not able or does not choose to say why sin acts as a deadly disease. The prognosis is on the order of saying you are really sick, but leaving out the name of the disease. Thus, when he points to Christ as cure, it is unclear why or how Christ addresses the illness. In describing the cure, Graham says the Holy Spirit “tugs at our souls” in order to tell us “we are not right with God.” He says sin is the “clogger” and the blood of Christ is the “cleanser.” The blood of Christ is reduced to something like spiritual Liquid Drano. He references I John, which does say his blood cleanses from sin (1:7) but it also adds the explanation as to why. We have fellowship with Him as we walk as he walked. We pass into truth, out of a deception – a deception which would claim we can be in the truth without practicing the truth (see 1:5-10). In other words, Graham’s mistake is the Augustinian mistake and perhaps simply the western mistake, which misses that sin is an orientation to death. Sin is not mysteriously or indirectly related to death; it is an active involvement with the nothingness of death and the grave.

Subsequent to Augustine’s mistaken reading of Romans 5:12, both sin and salvation, disconnected as they are from death, have been mystified. Augustine’s misinterpretation makes nonsense of Paul’s explanation of the propagation of sin through death and, as a result, in the history of the Western church, sin’s propagation is a mystery. In Paul’s explanation, it is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout Romans 5 is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around. This then lays the foundation for explaining why the death of Christ addresses the problem of sin. Christ exposes the lie of sin; he exposes the lie of death as empty of the sham promise of transcendence.

The alienating and desirous aspect to death’s reign has to take into account this lying aspect to death: death is taken to be a power for life. Where prior to the fall humans are pictured as existing in harmony with nature and obeying their natural drives, with the fall a sense of disharmony and of shame enter in, but the split evoked by shame and disharmony creates the realization of a possible synthesis. The gap separating man from nature, from himself and from God is precisely the gap in which he imagines he is to be constituted. The dream of closing the gap is the sinner’s dream, which Paul states in various formulas in chapters 6-7 of Romans (equating sin and grace).

In other words, the sinner has joined himself to death as a means to life. But the Subject ‘in Christ’ has been joined to the ontological reality of God in Christ. Romans 8 describes this joining as being ‘in Christ’ (8.1), living in the power of the Spirit (8.5), belonging to Christ through the Spirit (8.9), living now and in the future in the resurrection power of the Spirit (8.10-11), being adopted as a child of God (8.15), and being joined to the love of God (8.37-39). Where the lie of sin is the active taking up of death, being joined to God and entering into communion with God through the Spirit is simultaneously the reception of truth and life. The truth, in this instance, is not an abstraction but is a life-giving truth which specifically counters the death dealing lie. The lie takes up suffering and death (alienation) as primary, but Paul dismisses the power of death in light of God’s love: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (8.35). Where death is the orienting factor in sin, Paul sets out that which trumps death: the love of God in Christ by the Spirit.

[1] Billy Graham, “Sin is a spiritual virus, and Christ is the cure” (Chicago Tribune, June 6, 2019)–tms–bgrahamctnym-a20190606-20190606-story.html