Throughout the New Testament, many of the passages that mention Jesus’ death make use of brief formulas to ascribe salvific significance to it. Among these are passages such as the following:
“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a means of redemption for many” (Mark 10:45; Matthew 20:28).
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
“Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28).
Jesus our Lord… was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification (Romans 4:24-25).
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by means of his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life (Romans 5:8-10).
Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3).
The Lord Jesus Christ… gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age (Galatians 1:4).
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses… (Ephesians 1:7).
He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself (Hebrews 9:26).
You know that you were redeemed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish (1 Peter 1:18-19).
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24).
The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).
Jesus Christ… loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood (Revelation 1:5).
“You were slaughtered and by your blood you redeemed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
Because these formulas are so brief, terse, and enigmatic, in order to make sense of them, we need some kind of underlying story or narrative framework. At least since the time of the Protestant Reformation, the narrative framework that has been used to interpret them is that which was originally put forward by Anselm of Canterbury in his work Cur Deus homo or “Why God became human,” completed in the year 1098. According to Anselm’s narrative, God’s perfect and inflexible justice would not allow God to forgive human beings their sins freely. Therefore, in order for human beings to be saved from the punishment due to those sins, it was necessary for God’s Son to become human and render satisfaction to God’s justice on their behalf. Since the sixteenth century, it has been claimed that in his passion and death Jesus made this satisfaction by enduring in the place of sinful humanity the punishment to which all were subject on account of their sins. Because that punishment or penalty was inflicted upon Christ as their substitute, human beings are no longer under God’s wrath, which was placated by Christ’s death. As a result, they are delivered from the condemnation that was justly and rightfully theirs.
Almost from the time it was originally formulated, this understanding of Christ’s death has been heavily criticized on theological grounds, especially because of the view of God and God’s justice upon which it is based. In recent decades, those criticisms have become even more harsh and widespread, with the result that in many churches today the traditional penal substitution interpretation of Christ’s death is no longer articulated openly. Nevertheless, even among those who find such an interpretation problematic for theological reasons, it is common to claim that it is indeed present in the New Testament texts and thus constitutes part of the biblical witness, whether we like it or not. To reject such an interpretation of Christ’s death, therefore, is to reject a clear teaching of the New Testament.
In fact, however, the New Testament teaches no such thing. As I have argued extensively elsewhere in my work, prior to the time of Anselm, such an understanding of Jesus’ death is nowhere formulated clearly or explicitly in any Christian writings of antiquity, including especially the books of the New Testament. The only New Testament passages that proponents of such an interpretation can cite in favor of it are those that use the type of brief, enigmatic formulas just considered above to allude to Jesus’ death or blood. Yet precisely because those formulas are so brief and enigmatic, they lend themselves to having read back into them all sorts of ideas that in reality are foreign to them, including especially the ideas of satisfaction and penal substitution.
My research on this subject goes back for over forty years. Much of that research has been aimed at demonstrating that the interpretations of Jesus’ death that are based on the ideas associated with Anselm’s thought mentioned above are not in fact found in the New Testament. Because those interpretations of Jesus’ death have been read back into the biblical texts for centuries and have become so deeply ingrained in Western Christian thought, however, to argue that they are in fact contrary to biblical thought is a monumental task. It involves attempting to dismantle interpretations and arguments that have long been taken for granted among biblical scholars and questioning some of the most basic assumptions on which those interpretations and arguments are based. For that reason, after doing my doctoral research in this area and publishing several articles and books on the subject from both a theological and biblical perspective, in 2010 I began work on an exhaustive study of the biblical texts and other writings from antiquity in order to argue in favor of an interpretation of the New Testament allusions to Jesus’ death that breaks radically with the traditional interpretations of those texts. Eight years and over 1,200 pages later, this work was published in two volumes under the title Jesus’ Death in New Testament Thought (hereafter JDNTT).
In Chapter 1 of JDNTT, I examine carefully the most important of the assumptions and ideas on which the traditional interpretations of Jesus’ death are based in order to point out the problems associated with each of them. That chapter is reproduced in this section of my website under the title “Interpretations of Jesus’ Death: Questioning the Traditional Views.”
Rather than simply questioning and critiquing the traditional readings of the New Testament passages that speak of Jesus’ death, however, most of my two-volume work is dedicated to offering a rereading of those passages. In order to make sense of the formulaic allusions to Jesus’ death that run throughout the New Testament, it is necessary to reconstruct the underlying narrative regarding Jesus and his death on the basis of which those allusions were originally understood. Rather than revolving around notions such as substitution, satisfaction, atonement, or participation, that narrative recounted Jesus’ commitment to the formation of a community in which all would live in the same type of love and solidarity seen in Jesus’ own ministry, dedicating themselves to seeking the well-being and wholeness of others together with their own as they looked to Jesus as their Lord. It was Jesus’ unbending dedication to the task of laying the foundation for that community and his refusal to back down from that task in the face of threats of a violent death that ultimately led to his crucifixion. At the same time, however, Jesus’ willingness to give up his life in order to make the existence of that community possible not only led to its establishment but also stamped and defined it forever as a community whose primary characteristic would be the same love that the New Testament writings associate with Jesus himself, a love that is willing to give itself fully to and for others while holding nothing back.
For those who wish to undertake the task of rethinking the understanding of Jesus’ death found in the New Testament by reading the material I have placed here on my website, I would recommend beginning with my article, “The Roads Not Taken: Why Jesus Went Up to Jerusalem.” This article consists of a paper that I presented to the Historical Jesus Section of the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society for Biblical Literature. In effect, it represents a summary of the argument that appears at much greater length in Chapter 5 of JDNTT, which I have reproduced in this same section under the title “Jesus’ Death in the Context of His Ministry.”
What I argue in these two writings is that, in many different ways, throughout his ministry Jesus was attempting to lay the foundation for a community in which all would be joined together in a common commitment to seeking actively the well-being and wholeness of all together with their own. When Jesus called on others to follow him as his disciples, it was because he sought to bring about in them this commitment, the same commitment that was his own as their Lord and Master.
Jesus’ activity on behalf of this objective, however, was rightly seen as subversive by those in power. From their perspective, Jesus’ message and his work on behalf of the alternative community of which he spoke constituted a threat to their interests. His teaching regarding God’s reign and his claims to be God’s spokesperson undermined their authority by calling into question their legitimacy as those whom God had established to speak and act on his behalf as his representatives in the social, political, and religious spheres. For these reasons, Jesus’ activity generated conflict. This conflict was exacerbated when Jesus refused to back down from his activity in the face of the opposition he encountered and instead stood up even more firmly to those who opposed him. Eventually the situation reached a point at which Jesus had to make a decision: either he had to stop what he was doing or else he would have to be willing to endure the violent consequences of his work on behalf of others at the hands of those who wished to silence him.
Out of faithfulness to his Father and to the task his Father had given him, Jesus chose to remain steadfast in his dedication to the work he was doing. When the threat of violence against him continued to escalate, Jesus did not tone down his message, scale back his activity, go into isolation, or flee from danger out of a concern for his own safety, since to do any of these things would have meant giving up on his objective of seeing the alternative community that he had worked to establish become a reality. Eventually, it became evident to Jesus that if he truly wished to attain that objective, it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, the center of power, to proclaim there his message and denounce the oppression and injustices that were being justified in the name of Israel’s God.
Jesus was aware that the decision to go to Jerusalem and intensify his activity there would almost certainly cost him his life, especially because he intended to carry out an act of prophetic protest at the temple and proclaim openly his message on the temple grounds. Yet he also knew that if he refused to go to Jerusalem to continue his ministry there, the type of community he sought to establish would never be brought into existence through him, a community in which all would be willing to dedicate themselves to the same objectives that Jesus had in spite of the consequences and would trust fully in God rather than being paralyzed by fear in the face of opposition and threats of violence. For that reason, Jesus went to Jerusalem, not because he wanted to suffer and die, but because he knew that he had arrived at a moment in his life and ministry in which the objectives he was pursuing could be achieved in no other way. And as a result, he was arrested, sentenced to death, and crucified outside the city walls.
Paradoxically, however, by being willing to pay the price of his life in order to accomplish what he had sought, Jesus made it possible for the type of community he had envisioned to be brought into existence. When his earliest followers became convinced that God had raised Jesus from the dead and had exalted him to his right hand in power as Messiah and Lord of all, they committed themselves to living as members of that community and sought to bring others into that community as well so that they too might find there the well-being, healing, and wholeness that came from following Jesus. What led to the new life and salvation that they found through Jesus as members of his community of followers, therefore, was not Jesus’ death per se but his willingness to do all that had been necessary to lay the foundation for that community, even to the point of giving up his life. Had Jesus not been willing to pay such a price, he could never have hoped to establish a community in which all would be fully dedicated and committed to seeking the well-being and wholeness of all, since he could hardly have expected to bring about in his followers a dedication and commitment that had not been his own.
These basic ideas lie at the root of all of the formulas that the New Testament uses to refer to the salvific significance of Jesus’ death. When the members of Jesus’ community of followers used those formulas, they did so from the perspective of the new reality that they had come to experience within that community. Because of the new life they found there, they said that Jesus had died or given up his life for them in the sense that he had laid down his life rather than seeking to save it in order that people such as they might be brought to experience the joy, peace, and healing that he and his Father had sought for them by living as part of Jesus’ community of followers. Because in the context of that community they were enabled to leave behind their sinful ways in order to live in ways that promoted instead their happiness and well-being, they said that Jesus had died for their sins. What they meant by that phrase was that Jesus had given up his life so that they might be saved from their sins—that is, from their sinful way of life and the destructive consequences of that way of life—by living as members of the community that called him “Lord.” Because Jesus had been willing to endure the bloody death of the cross in order that there might now be a community in which they could attain God’s blessings of well-being and wholeness by being brought to live in accordance with God’s loving will, they spoke of having been redeemed from the futile ways inherited from the past and having been made God’s own by means of Jesus’ precious blood.
In other words, by means of his willingness to give up his life to establish the type of community that he had sought to bring about through his ministry, Jesus had attained the salvation and redemption of all who would come to live as part of that community. His faithfulness to that objective all the way to his death had also made it possible for all who would come to live in love, justice, and righteousness as his followers to be accepted as righteous by God in spite of their sins. They could therefore say that they had been “justified by means of his blood” (Romans 5:9). At the same time, they could affirm that they had been “reconciled to God by means of the death of his Son” in the sense that Jesus’ willingness to give up his life in order to lay the foundation for a community in which all would live in harmony with God’s will rather than living as God’s enemies had made it possible for them to be brought to form part of such a community (Romans 5:10).
For the same reasons, because Jesus had given up his life so that they might come to be purified and redeemed from their sinful way of life by living as his followers, they spoke of themselves as those who had been cleansed and redeemed by means of his death or blood. What they meant, however, was not that Jesus’ death or blood in itself had cleansed and redeemed them in some mysterious way, but rather that as a result of Jesus’ willingness to lay down his life in order to establish a community in which all might find cleansing and redemption from their sinful and destructive past, they had now found precisely these things as members of that community. Undoubtedly, they also found there the forgiveness of their sins, but the basis for that forgiveness was not Jesus’ death or blood per se but rather the new life that they received from God by pure grace through Jesus and the Spirit given through him. While they remained far from perfect and continued to fall into sin in their daily life, they could be confident that as a result of their relationship with Jesus their Lord, God graciously accepted them and forgave them their sins. Yet the reason that God accepted and forgave them was not that Jesus’ death or blood had satisfied his inflexible justice or appeased his wrath, but rather that God could have full assurance that as long as they continued to live under Jesus in faith as his followers, they would be brought into greater conformity with his will for their own good and the good of others as well.
This understanding of the salvific significance that Jesus’ first followers ascribed to his death can be grasped even more clearly by considering the words attributed to Jesus by the author of the Gospel of Matthew in his account of the Last Supper. There, after Jesus has spoken of the bread as his body given for others, he says of the cup, “This is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). Jesus’ words in this passage should not be understood in the sense that his death in itself would obtain for others the forgiveness of their sins. Rather, what Jesus is saying is that through his death—the pouring out of his life in love for others—, a community of followers who would live under the covenant he was establishing would be brought into existence, and that all who would come to form part of that community would find there the forgiveness of their sins.
In other words, the idea behind this passage is not that Jesus was dying or shedding blood because his death or blood was necessary in order for God to forgive sins, but rather that he was dying and shedding his blood as a result of his dedication to bringing into existence a community in which his followers would find forgiveness as they lived under the covenant established through him and his death. And what would define that covenant forever was precisely the love for others of which Jesus spoke when he referred to the bread as his body given for others and to the cup as his blood poured out for others: those who would partake of that bread and cup would thereby be partaking as well of the same commitment to giving their lives to and for others that defined Jesus himself. Any who did not share that commitment could not rightly call Jesus their Lord, since from that moment on it would be impossible to truly call him Lord without living in his same love. In effect, any who refused to live in that love would be denying his lordship over their life, no matter what they professed with their mouth.
In short, Jesus’ first followers did not believe that Jesus’ death or blood had atoned for human sins, made satisfaction to God’s justice, or appeased God’s wrath at the sin of the world. Rather, what they maintained was that through his death or blood—that is, his violent death, or more precisely, the uncompromising love for all that had led him to embrace that violent death rather than fleeing from it—Jesus had brought into existence the community that God had sought to establish through him from the very beginning, a community in which the lives of all would be filled with the same love seen in Jesus himself, their crucified and risen Lord.
In this section of my website, in addition to the articles already mentioned above, I have included a number of other selections from JDNTT as well as The Parting of the Gods that address the question of how the formulaic allusions to Jesus’ death in the New Testament were originally intended to be understood. For those who wish to explore the subject further, after reading the articles mentioned above that discuss the reasons for Jesus’ death in Jerusalem, I would recommend the selection from Chapter 6 of JDNTT titled “The Crucified Jesus as Lord and Mediator,” followed by the selection from Chapter 10, “Jesus’ Death for Others: The Story and the Formulas.” The selection that appears in “Jesus’ Death in 1 Peter” is also helpful for rethinking the interpretations originally given to Jesus’ death among his followers. All of the other readings in this section of my website examine the understanding of Jesus’ death that is found in particular writings of the New Testament, including the epistles of Paul, the writings of John, and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Of course, there is also much material from JDNTT that is not found in these selections and therefore must be accessed from the work itself.
As I have presented my arguments regarding the manner in which the New Testament allusions to Jesus’ death are to be understood, one of the reactions that I have most frequently encountered is that of those who wish to fit my interpretation of those allusions into the category of what is known as a “moral influence” theory of atonement. According to this understanding of his work, Jesus gave his life and went to the cross in order to provide others with a model or example that they were subsequently to follow and imitate. In reality, however, I reject categorically such an idea, not because the love for others that Jesus manifested in his death is not exemplary or something that believers are to imitate and reproduce, but rather because the idea that Jesus went to his death for the purpose of laying down an example for others must be considered foreign to the New Testament. Neither Jesus nor his Father had intended for Jesus to be crucified so that he might give others an object lesson in love. Such an idea is extremely problematic for both theological and historical reasons. Rather, when Jesus went to the cross, it was simply because he had chosen to remain faithful to the end to his commitment to bringing about the type of community described above. What would lead to the establishment and consolidation of this community was not Jesus’ death per se but all of the activity to which Jesus had dedicated himself up to the moment of his death, as well as the immense love for others that had led both to that activity and to the death that was the consequence of Jesus’ refusal to put an end to that activity.
To consider a modern-day analogy, when Martin Luther King Jr. refused to put an end to his work against racism and was killed as a result, it had not been his intention to die. He had not sought to be killed. Much less had he orchestrated or planned his death in order to demonstrate his love for others or to serve as a model for others to imitate. Like Jesus before him, Martin Luther King knew that his life was in danger as a result of the work he was doing and that he might be killed if he did not put a stop to it. Yet he chose to continue in that work, in effect stating by his actions that he would rather die than back down from what he was doing. While his willingness to die for everything that he had worked for undoubtedly demonstrated his love for others and laid down an example for others to imitate, these things had not been the purpose of his death. Strictly speaking, his death had not had a purpose, since he had not wished to die or sought death. What he wanted was to live so as to continue to carry out the work to which he had dedicated himself out of love for others, yet because that love was so intense that it would not let him desist from that work, ultimately it led to his death at the hands of an assassin.
Similarly, Jesus was crucified, not because he or his Father intended his death to accomplish some purpose or objective, and much less because God needed Jesus’ death in order to be able to forgive human beings or save them from their sins without compromising his inflexible justice. Rather, Jesus had ended his life on a cross because, even in the face of the threat of a violent death, he had refused to back down from his efforts and commitment to laying the foundation for a community of followers who would be fully dedicated to seeking the wholeness of all out of love for them in the same way that he was. Even though he was aware that his decision to continue in those efforts could cost him his life, Jesus preferred to remain faithful to his God-given task in spite of the consequences.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ death had not had any purpose or objective, since what he had sought was not to die but to continue to live for God and others. However, he had gotten into a situation in which living for God and others and attempting to bring them to do the same was going to cost him his life. And rather than going into hiding or fleeing from such a death, he embraced it, since only in that way could he hope to see the type of community that had constituted the objective of his ministry be brought into existence.
At the same time, of course, in many ways Jesus’ death was fundamentally different from that of Martin Luther King Jr. Unlike King, Jesus lived and died as the only-begotten Son of God and the one sent by God to serve as God’s instrument to bring about the salvation of all. What makes Jesus’ death unique as well is that, according to the New Testament, his faithfulness unto death to the work God had given him led God to raise him from the dead and exalt him to heaven as Lord over all. In this way, Jesus’ desire that he be enabled to continue to live for others and dedicate himself to bringing about everything that he had sought for them in life and death was fulfilled. It is this absolute and total commitment to doing whatever is necessary to enable others to experience the salvation and healing that God desires for all, no matter what the cost, that forever distinguishes Jesus from all human and earthly lords and rulers and sets him far above them as Lord of all.
The interpretation of the New Testament texts that speak of Jesus’ death that I offer here and throughout my work, therefore, does not fit under any of the categories that theologians and biblical scholars have traditionally used to explain how Jesus’ death saves human beings. In fact, it represents an explicit rejection of the idea that anyone is or was saved by Jesus’ death. To speak in such terms would be as problematic as affirming that Martin Luther King’s death at the hands of an assassin was something good and desirable in itself because it benefited others in some way. It was not his death but his willingness to die for everything he had lived for that changed the world in important ways. Similarly, in the case of Jesus, what led to the salvation of others was not Jesus’ death but his willingness to give up his life in order that everything that he sought to see accomplished out of love for others might become a reality through him.
Rather than proposing one more “theory of atonement” to add to all the others that have been put forward in the past, therefore, the interpretation of the New Testament texts that I present in my work represents a rejection of all of those theories, as well as a rejection of the idea that Jesus’ death was in some way atoning or salvific. Instead, what the writers of the New Testament repeatedly affirm is that, by means of Jesus’ faithfulness to death to his God-given task of laying the foundation for a community in which all might find salvation, justification, redemption, forgiveness, cleansing, healing, new life, and reconciliation with God through him, he has obtained all of these things for those who come to live under his lordship as part of that community.
David A. Brondos