Jesus’ Death Does Not Save

The misdiagnosis of the human disease is itself a manifestation of the disease.  Jesus dies at the hands of those who need and require death as a part of their religion.  The great travesty of a failed theology is to employ the logic of those who killed Christ as an explanation of the atonement.  To conflate atonement with the death of Christ is to imagine that death itself is efficacious and redemptive.  This is precisely what the death of Christ is aimed at dispelling. This reversal of the meaning of the death of Christ is itself a manifestation of the evil which he came to conquer.  From Genesis 3 the reversal which the serpent brings about in the mind of the first pair is to have them confuse life and death and to imagine that they are innately immortal (“You won’t die) and that death is only a doorway or transition to “being like God.”  Death and violence with Cain and Lamech are a demonstration of how this original deceit works out in practice.  Cain would gain access to God through the sacrifice of his brother.  Lamech would institute the righteousness of God by sacrificing the one who has transgressed against him by “wounding him.”  The logic of pagan religious sacrifices is that of Cain and Lamech – death is assumed to be efficacious and “righteous slaughter” institutes immediate redemption.  The Judeo/Christian faith is aimed at undoing this death dealing orientation.

The tabernacle and priestly system was aimed at ridding the elements of the system (e.g. the ark of the covenant, the Holy of Holies, etc.), representative of the cosmic system, from anything to do with death.  Death is a pollution, as in the Garden scene, which is at once physical and moral.  The moral link to death in its connection to sin is one side of the purification system (with its goat sacrifice on the day of atonement).  The goat sacrifice was not representative of a death that is offered to God but a life dedicated and offered to God.  The ritual purification needed due to “issues of blood,” contact with a dead body, emission of semen, were also connected with the loss of life or coming into contact with death.  The rights of purification were aimed at a purification from death.  If the Tabernacle is a cosmic representation, then sin and death constitute the pollution of this cosmic system, and the rites of the Tabernacle pointed to the One who would rid the cosmos of the pollution of sin and death.

The point of the sacrifices is not that God requires death or that death is brought into his presence as represented by the blood.  The blood is representative of life and this life dedicated to God points to the One who mediates life to all. Jesus death is not one of blood spilt for an angry God who needs death to satisfy his wrath.  This gets each element wrong.  Death was not what the sacrifices represented and it is not what God requires.  In the goat sacrifice, the blood of the goat is applied to the altar and its elements, not to bring death before God but to point to the One who would dedicate all of his life (immortal and unending) to overcoming death.  To imagine that Christ offers up death in the Holy of Holies constitutes a form of blasphemy (something like God requiring Cain’s sacrifice of Abel.) Hebrews makes clear, it is the resurrected-ascended Christ who enters the Holy of Holies of God’s presence.  It is the life of Christ, which has overcome and defeated death, which we need mediated to us.

Hebrews describes the cleansing of the conscience as of the same kind as the cleansing of the tabernacle and the priests – it is a cleansing from death.  The way in which sin plagues our conscience is on the same order as the way sin pollutes the priest and tabernacle.  The pollution of the conscience, as the writer has described in chapter 2, has to do with the fearful orientation to death which enslaves.  Sin and death are integral to one another in that sin is an orientation toward death which incorporates death into the human Subject.  In Paul’s description, one is no longer animated by life but by sin and death. The slavery is one which is only relieved by being ushered into God’s presence in the “promised rest” of Sabbath.  This is accomplished when the life blood of Christ, applied to the conscience, brings us into union with the life of Christ which enables a life of obedience (Heb. 4:2).  What Christ displaces is death, and what he displaces it with is his resurrection life mediated to his siblings.  So, death is not the answer to our problem – death is our problem.  The answer to the problem of death is life and life precisely in the place of death.

While the writers of the New Testament speak of the death of Christ synecdochally (a part for the whole) the point is not to isolate his death from his life, resurrection, and ascension.  Paul provides us with an early Christian formula in which the death of Christ is clearly central: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Co 15:3-4).  In the same passage, he warns of taking death as some sort of isolated end point: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1 Co 15:17).  In his explanation, the entire sweep of the life of Christ is salvific as he “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Ro 4:25).

In Hebrews, Jesus embodied, resurrected life is the means and mode for his high priestly office. Death constitutes one moment in the movement of the work of atonement which Christ is depicted as having completed with his ascension into the Holy of Holies. “Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 9:26). What is sacrificed is a life (“Himself”) continually offered up to God in which the Son is seated at the right hand of the Father making intercession for the saints.

Jesus is pictured as offering his body, and blood, and himself. The movement of this offering is one that places him in the resurrected and ascended body in the presence of the Lord so that the offering is ultimately delivered by Christ, in the Holy of Holies. As David Moffitt describes it, “The writer is not denying the importance of Jesus’ death in effecting salvation but clarifying where that event fits in a larger process.”  He or she (Priscilla?) does not conflate the death of Christ with the moment of atonement. “Rather, he locates Jesus’ death at the front end of a process that culminates in the atoning moment” (David Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews, 292-293).  This atoning moment is when the ascended Christ enters into the Holy of Holies to make continual intercession.

It would be a mistake to too quickly collapse this moment into the death of Christ or to spiritualize it. In the writer’s explanation, he is describing a literal event: “For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Heb. 9:24).  The conflation of the death of Christ with the atonement means apprehending his death figuratively/spiritually as presenting himself before God.  Hebrews point though, is to pass from a figurative to a literal understanding of what Christ has done.  Jesus appeared before God’s presence (9:24) not to offer himself many times, but now once for all time.  The presentation of himself is being contrasted with the presentation of the blood of the animals of Yom Kippur which were a figurative shadow pointing to this reality the writer is describing.  The author goes on in 9:26 to say that Jesus appeared once for all time at the consummation of the ages for the purpose of the annulment of sin through his sacrifice. As Moffitt puts it, “He is arguing that Jesus’ presentation of his blood/self before God in the heavenly holy of holies is the sacrifice. Jesus’ self is the object (the sacrifice) that he offered when he appeared before God. Jesus “self” is therefore the sacrifice that effected atonement” (280-281).  His death is not his “self” nor is any moment, in isolation, himself.  It is as the resurrected, glorified, ascended Lord that the movement of atonement is consummated.

In this understanding, the conceptual center of Jesus work of atonement is not his death but his human life (his indestructible life) raised and seated in the presence of the Father.  This holds together the sense in which it is the entirety of his life which is the sacrifice – his incarnation, his life, his death, his resurrection and exaltation which is presented to God.  His resurrection and his ascension along with his death accomplish the work of atonement.  “And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:9-10).  His priesthood is not bound by mortality as he has put on immortality in his resurrection and ascension.  “The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek’” (Ps 110:4–5).

The high priest who intercedes for us does not intercede simply on the basis of his death but through his eternal life.  Certainly, his death is a prerequisite and a foregone conclusion to his life, resurrection and ascension.  Death, however, is defeated and dealt with in his own life, death, and resurrection.  Instead of making his death an isolated sacrament separated from his manner of life this understanding joins his life to an orientation to death modeling for us resurrection life.  Taking up the cross is not primarily about death at all; it is a form of life in which death is already defeated and one’s entire life can be made a living sacrifice.  It is this sort of living sacrifice the Father desires.  “First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’—though they were offered in accordance with the law.  Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will” (Heb 10:8-9, NIV). This resurrection life entails an ethic and orientation as holistic as the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  It is inclusive of a form of Subjectivity/psychology/conscience that has put to death the self which is continually cathecting death unto itself.  No longer a slave to death this new Subject can enter into the Sabbath rest of the presence of God.

While one might still speak of the salvific nature of the death of Christ, this is precisely the opposite of the traditional exclusive focus on the death of Christ.  It is as much the resurrected and ascended Christ interceding at the right hand of the Father who saves.  Jesus death, in isolation, does not save.  As Paul says, if he is not raised we are left in our sins.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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