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.

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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