As the initial ferment over The Passion of the Christ wanes, questions regarding the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death remain. That Jesus suffered a violent death no one denies. But to what end was this violence, this suffering and death of Jesus? What might all of it, or any of it, have to do with our salvation? In other words, The Passion provokes questions about the atonement. We will devote scarce attention to the movie, attending instead to Scripture and atonement. To speak of atonement, we confess, is necessarily to speak of God. We do so with trepidation and due modesty, but in confidence that Scripture bears faithful witness.
The Gospels describe a Roman public execution of Jesus and two criminals. Not the extent or grisliness of Jesus’ suffering (though they do describe it as extensive and gruesome), but the reality of it, and of his death, principally concern the Gospels in their passion narratives. Moreover, the Gospels and Acts lay principal blame for Jesus’ sufferings on the religious leaders in Jerusalem. While this blame has led to claims about anti-Jewish bias within the Gospels, and in The Passion, the point of the evangelists was not an anti-Jewish one. To the contrary, it was to draw the death—so also the life and the resurrection—of Jesus into the history of God with Israel, a history of judgment and salvation.
This history finds its nadir in Israel’s determined defection from God, and its interim zenith in God’s own self-determination, both of which Hosea 11 expresses in brief but eloquent compass. Here the first term is love, God’s love for Israel,
my son, love that God enacted in liberating Israel from Egyptian bondage (v. 1). But despite God’s persistent calling and nurture, Israel pursued other and false gods; despite God’s
humane leading and even healing, like that of a loving parent, Israel bound itself to defection, to betrayal, and, thus, surrendered to the power of death (vv. 2-7). But God, for reasons of compassion internal to himself, determined not to surrender Israel, even to his own justified wrath:
my heart recoils within me . . . for I am God, not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in fury (vv. 8, 9). Toward Israel, and despite Israel’s determined defection from God, in self-surrender to bondage and death, God’s decision is determined by the warm compassion of his own heart. The heart of God, that is to say, determined God’s decision and action. Expressly, God’s heart moved (v. 9); it recoiled from the decision a law would have required, from the action a man would have taken, from God’s own wrath and pain. For no reason having anything at all to do with Israel, save that Israel was God’s son whom God loved; entirely apart from anything Israel did or had promised to do or would do; entirely apart from anything outside of God’s heart, the Holy One of Israel determined to enclose his wrath within himself for Israel’s sake and for its life . . . thus, for the sake of God’s beloved son (Exod 4:22; Jer 31:9, 20).
Into this history of God with Israel, and so into God’s own life, the gospels and the New Testament draw the passion and death, the life and resurrection, of Jesus, God’s beloved son (Matt 3:17; 12:18; 17:5; Col 1:13). Here, too, we encounter judgment and salvation. The Synoptic Gospels open the story of Jesus with John the Baptist, who warned of
the wrath to come (Matt 3:7). In John’s Gospel, the Baptist announces Jesus as
the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29). The wrath of which the Baptist speaks, in the manner of Israel’s prophets, is of course God’s: the wrath of God’s judgment provoked by and directed against sin—the very sin that the lamb of God takes away. Naturally, the lamb connotes sacrifice, a connotation that other texts make explicit: 1 Peter 1:19, for example, speaks of
the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish, while Rev. 5:9 addresses the Lamb as the one who has ransomed or purchased us for God by his blood; the lamb who was
slaughtered (v. 12). Lying behind these images is Isaiah 53, and in the immediate context, Isa 53:7—
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter. This verse follows 53:5, which forms the rubric to The Passion:
But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. In its allusions to and dependence on Isaiah 53 and God’s suffering servant, the New Testament draws the life and death of Jesus into the history of God with Israel. But the New Testament also draws the life and death of Jesus into God’s history with the world, and, as we suggested above, into God’s own life. To these matters we shall turn.
Christians throughout history have struggled to comprehend the atonement. Today, questions abound whether or how the violent suffering and death of Jesus could be salvific; that is, how Jesus’ suffering, his death, on the cross effects anything like
salvation or deliverance for us. For some among us, the violent language and imagery, or the metaphors, of sacrifice, slaughter, and blood, not to mention God’s wrath and judgment—associating these with Jesus’ passion—conflict with our Mennonite convictions about peace and peacemaking, about ethics, for which we depend on the model, the life and the teaching, of Jesus as the full(est) revelation of God. It seems natural, then, to deny any involvement by or purpose of God in Jesus’ passion. Further, and as a consequence, according to J. Denny Weaver, while Jesus’ life and witness provoked
inevitably fatal opposition, his death was neither an instance nor a demonstration of God’s love, and it
accomplishes nothing for the salvation of sinners.1 The ethical commitments behind these claims we do not here challenge. The claims themselves we regard as mistaken, based on the New Testament, which provides our only basis on which to speak of Jesus, and thus of atonement, and so of Jesus’ death. We are bound to follow Scripture in this regard, even (perhaps especially) when we do not find its expressions palatable.
As an objective historian might consider it, Jesus’ death was anything but inevitable. To the contrary, it remains all but inexplicable. Jesus, and the politically negligible movement he led, on their own posed no serious threat to the Jewish religious establishment or to Jewish piety, and none whatsoever to the rule of Rome, as Pilate recognized. That what Jesus taught, and the life he lived, were radical in relation to both his own Judaism and Rome, and in relation to anything and everything that has come since—perhaps especially Jesus’ tortured rejection of the sword in Luke 22—is clear enough. But this radical alternative, even should it be for us exemplary, did not alone bring about Jesus’ death, much less encompass its significance—for us. For us, this death—not entirely by itself, but still and emphatically this death, of this Jesus, and only of this Jesus—is salvific. Every part of the New Testament insists on it. To speak as if Jesus’ death accomplishes nothing for the salvation of sinners, is to speak of something other than atonement—and of someone other than Jesus.
Above, we remarked that Isaiah 53 serves as the rubric of The Passion and that it lies behind certain statements in the New Testament. Here we highlight the references in Isa 53 (Greek version) to the servant’s having been delivered or handed over (vv. 6, 12).
For our sins, the text says, and
to death, the servant was handed over. The Greek word is paradidomi, which appears repeatedly in the gospels and beyond them. Indeed, John Milbank claimed that
The only consistent thread in these [passion] narratives is that Christ was constantly handed over, or abandoned to another party.2 Judas handed him over or betrayed him. The priests handed him over to Pilate. Pilate handed him over to Herod, who handed him back to Pilate, who finally handed him over to a mob that screamed for his crucifixion.
Whether or not this is the only consistent thread in the passion narratives, it certainly constitutes a theologically significant thread in the New Testament. First, Jesus found no reception, but only rejection and betrayal, on all sides, including abandonment by his own followers. Second, Jesus, setting his face like flint (Isa 50:7; Lk 9:51), submitted himself to being handed over, from one to another to another. Jesus saw that his mission to Jerusalem included his being handed over, even to death:
See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again (Mk 10:33-34). Third, Jesus recognized that his mission was also and at the same time God’s, so that his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection, were necessary (Mk 8:31). Jesus’ handing over for crucifixion
according to the Scriptures was by
the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23) or
in accordance with the (divine) decree (Luke 22:22).3 In this regard, Jesus was handed over, not only by those who rejected him, by sinners, but precisely by God on their behalf and, thus, ours—
for all of us (Rom 8:32). At the same time, and for the same purpose, in the same action, Jesus handed himself over:
the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me;
Christ loved us and gave himself up for us (Gal 2:20; Eph 5:2). Finally, then, the self-giving of the Son, from incarnation through death and resurrection and the sending of the Spirit, is an act of love that is also and definitively God’s costly act of love for the world (John 3:16; 1 John 4:10).
We have proposed Hosea 11 as an expression of God’s history with Israel, a history of judgment and salvation, in which God enclosed his wrath within himself for Israel’s life and for God’s own. The New Testament continues this history, but with a rupture. This rupture, which takes place in and through Christ, opens the whole world to God’s history and to God’s life—God’s intra-Trinitarian life. Because of God’s holiness in and as justice/righteousness, and the injustice, the evil, the
sin of the world, this opening involves divine judgment. It did so in Israel’s case; God’s compassion toward Israel did not exclude exile, which the Old Testament understands as God’s great act of judgment. Neither in the New Testament does it exclude judgment. However we may speak of it with the apostles—as sacrifice, ransom, purchase, expiation, reconciliation, liberation, victory, healing—the bearer of God’s judgment is Jesus Christ, who is also its subject and the end of Israel’s exile. As Karl Barth put it,
The passion of Jesus Christ is the judgment of God in which the Judge Himself was the judged.4 By no means was Jesus God’s victim; he was ours, the world’s, and both the author and embodiment of God’s suffering love. We should understand this in the sense that 1 Peter 2:24 gives it:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. This bearing of sin, the very death of Jesus, was an act of obedience (Phil 2:8)—not only to God, but within God. So far from denying the deity of Christ, it defines it, defines what non-pagan deity means:
it belongs to the inner life of God that there should take place within it obedience.5 The atonement depends on it.
self-giving as the inner life of God, we cannot hope to grasp anything of the atonement.6 The atonement is the supreme act of love.
The true presupposition of the atonement, Vincent Taylor wrote,
is the fact that God is love and that in the work of reconciliation, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are at one.7 It does not consist (merely) in either martyrdom or ethical heroism. H. D. McDonald:
Jesus did not die merely as another volunteer in the regiment of the heroic. His death belongs to another category altogether. For John Milbank: Jesus
Christ died for the ungodly (Rom 5:6);
while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).
did not die the death of a martyr, as a witness for a universal cause, although later martyrs have died in cause of him. Rowan Williams: the church’s attention to Jesus
is not reflection on the inspiring example of a hero; of course, it is common to appeal to the example of Jesus as innocent and non-retaliating victim, but this is not the same as the appeal to a continuing and determinative presence that qualifies the believer’s relation to God.8 We offer the testimony of the Anabaptist Pilgram Marpeck: Christ
surrendered His human life and eternal bliss on the cross in unbroken patience, a submissive and silent Lamb of sacrifice for the sins of man and his salvation… For God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death, effective through faith.9
The Passion displays the surrender, the submission, and some of the sacrifice, not to mention the sin, and climactically the death. It provokes, but does not itself provide, reflection on the atonement, whose
final mystery and sublimity lie deep in the nature of God. And for faith its ultimate secret is darkened by its own excess of light.10 This same light shines in the darkness—the light of all humankind who is the incarnate word, speech, sermon of God—which the darkness did not, could not, cannot overcome or turn into its own (our own) echo. This excess of light, God’s luminous excess in Jesus Christ, is all we know of God’s nature, and we can say no more. But, by God’s grace, we dare say no less.