Atonement, Violence and the Will of God:
A Sympathetic Response to
J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement
CHRISTOPHER D. MARSHALL*
Abstract: In the past generation, criticism of “satisfaction” theologies of atonement has grown in intensity, especially among feminist, womanist and black theologians. Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver has recently added his voice to this chorus of criticism, arguing that satisfaction atonement theology “depends on divinely sanctioned violence that follows from the assumption that doing justice means to punish.” In its place Weaver proposes a new, nonviolent model of atonement called “narrative Christus Victor,” which takes the nonviolence of Jesus as its starting point. This article sympathetically reviews Weaver’s proposal, then seeks to measure it against the witness of the New Testament. It argues that Weaver is correct in rejecting the violent presuppositions of satisfaction atonement, but wrong in concluding that Jesus’ violent death was neither willed by God nor essential to the work of salvation.
Exposure to the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition has been one of the most formative influences on my Christian life. My encounter with Anabaptism began with reading key books by Mennonite authors during my student days in New Zealand in the early 1970s. It developed during my four years of doctoral research in Britain in the early 1980s, when my wife and I were members of the London Mennonite Fellowship. It was deepened further by sabbatical leaves at Mennonite institutions in the United States in the early, and then again in the late, 1990s. And throughout the past 25 years it has been continually enriched by fellowship with Mennonite friends and scholars around the world.
From my contact with the Anabaptist tradition, I have come to believe that a commitment to nonviolence is an essential feature of Christian discipleship. At first I saw a peace commitment largely in connection with questions of war and militarism. It is a commitment to forswear lethal violence because it is incompatible with the worship of a crucified God. But I have since learned that violence is systemic and institutionalized, not just episodic and personal. Violence is arguably the primary social manifestation of sin (cf. Gen 4:1-16, 23-25; 6:11); it is all-pervasive in human experience. It shapes the way we view the world and influences how we exercise moral and theological discernment.
Those who take seriously Jesus’ call to nonviolence must learn to read the Bible, do theology and think about God in light of this basic commitment, which is by no means easy. The Bible itself is full of violence, much of it ascribed directly to God. Also, the long history of Christian theological interpretation has been affected by the Church’s profound compromise with violence, both in sanctioning the violence of the State and also in authorizing violence in pursuit of its own interests. This compromise has rested upon, and has strongly reinforced, a view of God as a violent and punitive deity who gets his own way-whether in the short term, through crusade or inquisition, or in the long term, through eschatological judgment and everlasting torment-by use of overwhelming coercion.
Such a God is increasingly hard for people to believe in. Many people today prefer atheism or agnosticism or some vague form of pantheism to the violent deity of traditional religion. And who can blame them, especially in these days when violence fueled by religious fundamentalism is on the upsurge around the world. In such circumstances, atheism may be the morally better choice. “When persons take leave of God,” Clark Pinnock reminds us, “we need to ask what sort of God did they take leave of'” Surely it is better not to believe in God than to believe in a violent God who bullies, hurts and humiliates people for his own ends. Given that religiously sanctioned violence puts the very existence and character of God in the balance, it is incumbent on Christian believers to think carefully about how our hermeneutics, our theological method and our vision of God have been conditioned more by Christendom’s longstanding accommodation to violence than by conformity to the revelation of God we see embodied in Jesus.
That Jesus himself lived and taught nonviolence is generally, if not universally, accepted by New Testament scholarship, and is well entrenched in the popular mind as well. But three issues arising from this fact are much more disputed. First, why did Jesus advocate nonviolence? Was it merely a calculated, pragmatic response to the particular political or social circumstances he faced? Or is it a normative principle of action for all time and in all circumstances? Second, how do Christians obey Jesus’ word on this matter? Should we confine his call to nonviolence to the sphere of interpersonal relations alone? Or do we extend it to social and political relationships as well? And third, what does Jesus’ teaching and practice tell us about the nature of ultimate reality? Should Jesus’ rejection of the sword determine not just Christian ethics but the entire theological endeavor? Is God nonviolent? Or does Jesus reserve to God alone the right to use violence to achieve his purposes?
This last question is perhaps the most acute one for the Christian witness against violence. True, Christian nonviolence does not strictly depend on the supposition of a nonviolent God. Indeed Miroslav Volf argues that nonviolence is possible only in a violent world by the conscious deferment of violence to God: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” But it makes much better sense theologically to assume that Jesus practiced nonviolence and demanded it of his followers because he believed that nonviolence corresponds to the essential nature of the deity, of whom he himself was the visible image and “exact imprint” (charakter) of his being. Christian nonviolence, in other words, is ultimately grounded in the Christian apprehension of God as a God who loves his enemies, who sends rain on the just and on the unjust, and who overcomes evil through self-sacrificing love rather than through violent retribution.
This conviction has forced me, in my own recent work, to seek to go behind the violent imagery used in the Bible to portray God’s work and to find a deeper, nonviolent reality beneath. My recent book Beyond Retribution attempts to furnish biblical and theological foundations for the so-called restorative justice movement. Its central thesis is that the biblical witness to God’s justice is better characterized in restorative or redemptive categories than in retributive or punitive ones. Two of the biggest hurdles I faced in arguing for this thesis are New Testament passages about Final Judgment, which anticipate wrath and damnation on God’s enemies, and popular theologies of the Atonement, which attribute the salvific power of the cross to some cosmic act of substitutionary punishment. In both cases, God’s justice appears to be definitively vindicated through violent, death-dealing retribution, which has disturbing implications for peace theology and practice. I am convinced, however, that in both cases the deeper reality of what transpired at the cross and what will happen at a future judgment is nonretributive and nonviolent in character. Indeed both events represent God’s ultimate conquest of violence and disclose the true nature of divinity.
In this essay, I want to revisit the question of the Atonement, not to examine the link between atonement and justice, as I do in my book, but to explore more specifically the connection between atonement and violence. I also want to engage in some initial dialogue with the book The Nonviolent Atonement, which appeared shortly after mine. Its author, Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver, shares my concern to expose and break the link between atonement theology and retributive violence, although we do so in different ways and although I remain uncertain about some features of his position.
ATONEMENT THEOLOGY AND VIOLENCE
To say that Jesus died on a cross is to make an objective historical statement. To say that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3) or that “he was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25) is to offer a theological interpretation of the meaning of that death. It is to assert something unique about the dying of Jesus, to claim that it achieved something no other death achieved-it effected the salvation of the world. That is what we mean when we speak of Christ’s death and resurrection as the “Atonement.”
There is no single or definitive way of explaining the atoning power of Jesus’ death. In the history of Christian thought, several different theories have been elaborated to account for how and why Christ’s death secures salvation. These are often grouped into three great families-the “Christus Victor” model, which stresses Jesus’ triumph over Satan; the “Moral Influence” theory, which emphasizes the transforming impact on observers of the cross as a demonstration of God’s love for humanity; and the “Satisfaction” model, which sees Jesus’ death as satisfying the demands of God’s honor or justice. Each of these theories has enjoyed currency at some time, but none of them, on its own, is fully adequate to comprehend the mystery of the cross.
The satisfaction model has exercized the greatest dominance in Western theology. It was formulated by Anselm in the eleventh century and was refashioned by the Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century into the more strictly legal doctrine of “penal substitution.” Several scholars have argued that substitutionary punishment is basic to how the New Testament, especially Paul, understands the atonement. Furthermore, in popular Christian thought some version of penal substitution remains the dominant way of explaining, and proclaiming, the work of the cross. Tom Smail deems penal substitution to be “one of the main bastions of evangelical orthodoxy, second only in importance to the supreme authority of Scripture. . . .” According to the penal theory (which comes in several versions), God passed the verdict of condemnation on humanity that God’s law demanded, but applied the penalty to a substitute. A legal transfer took place. Our guilt and its punishment were imposed on Christ, and his righteousness was imputed to us. The genius of the cross lies in the fact that it allowed God to satisfy the demands of retributive justice by inflicting the penalty of sin on Christ, while at the same time satisfying his desire for mercy by conferring forgiveness on sinners.
There have always been dissenters from the satisfaction or penal theory. But criticism of it has grown in intensity in the past generation, especially among feminist, black and other advocacy theologians. Criticism has centered not simply on the logical coherence of the model, but on at least four other, interrelated features as well-its underlying concept of God, its class or gender interest, its ethical abstraction and its pastoral impact.
1. Many feminist critics allege that traditional satisfaction theology evokes the horrifying scenario of “divine child abuse.” It portrays God the Father in an abusive relationship with the Son, demanding unquestioning obedience and imposing unmerited suffering upon him in order to defend his own dignity. As Julie Hopkins writes, “It is morally abhorrent to claim that God the Father demanded the self-sacrifice of his only Son to balance the scales of justice. A God who punished through pain, despair and violent death is not a God of love but a sadist and despot.”
2. Critics also assert that, although satisfaction theology masquerades as objective, universal truth, it actually represents the interests and perspectives of particular groups. All theology is contextual or “interested” in nature, and satisfaction theology is no different. Anselm’s account depends on the logic of the medieval penitential system and the presuppositions of feudalism, where protecting the lord’s honor was an all-important consideration. Penal substitution similarly reflects the “law and order” priorities of those thoroughly identified with the prevailing system-ruling-class, white, male clerics.
3. In addition, the abstract or mythical nature of such atonement theology has permitted the ruling elite to participate in systems of oppression without any sense of inconsistency with their Christian commitment. If salvation from sin is a purely spiritual matter that takes place outside of history through some invisible transaction between Father and Son, and if the benefits of this act of salvation are appropriated by individuals solely on the basis of their believing it has happened, then theology becomes divorced from ethical commitment, which permits oppression to continue unchallenged. Accordingly, a pious slave-owner could believe all the “right” theology and feel secure in his salvation without ever questioning his participation in the violence of slavery. A John Wesley could accompany condemned criminals to the scaffold, encouraging them to pray for the salvation of their souls, without ever questioning the violent institution of capital punishment. Not only can satisfaction atonement accommodate violence, it may even encourage violence. As Timothy Gorringe has documented, the belief that God punished Christ retributively for the sins of the world to uphold his law has frequently been used in western history to justify excessively harsh treatment of criminals. “Wherever Calvinism spread,” Gorringe observes, “punitive sentencing followed.”
4. A fourth major criticism of satisfaction atonement concerns its pastoral impact. Its depiction of Jesus obediently accepting death without protest to meet some divine obligation represents an unhealthy pattern for other victims of oppression to emulate. The model exalts innocent suffering as somehow salvific and discourages active resistance to injustice. In this way it contributes to the victimization of marginalized groups. If those who live in abusive or oppressive situations are encouraged to forge their faith identity by identifying with a Jesus who sacrifices himself utterly for the sake of the One who demands his submission to suffering, their own victim-status is reinforced and sustained. In accepting a worldview of divinely sanctioned redemptive suffering, victims can even become complicit in their own oppression by failing actively to resist and repudiate it.
Such, then, are some of the ill effects that have been imputed to satisfaction theologies of atonement. In view of them, it is not surprising that several critics jettison atonement theology entirely. All talk of atonement, they urge, is inextricably bound up with the promotion and justification of violence and so must be dispensed with altogether. This position usually goes hand in hand with an attempt to recover from the gospel tradition an emphasis on love, justice, peace, inclusiveness or liberation as the true center of Christian faith. But to abandon the doctrine of atonement entirely is surely a counsel of despair and one that threatens to dissolve the heart of the biblical gospel. The real challenge is to find ways to understand and articulate the salvific character of Christ’s death and resurrection that makes sense to our generation-ways that stands in continuity with the rich diversity of images New Testament writers use when they speak of the cross and ways that do not depend on discreditable views of God nor sanction violence of any kind.
One recent attempt to do this is found in J. Denny Weaver’s new book The Nonviolent Atonement. Weaver proposes a new atonement model of “narrative Christus Victor,” which takes the nonviolence of Jesus as normative for atonement theology (and Christology as well). “Narrative Christus Victor,” he writes, “is atonement from a nonviolent perspective.” It is also “the dominant and preferred reading of atonement in the Bible.” Before assessing this claim, a brief summary of Weaver’s position is in order.
ATONEMENT THEOLOGY AND THE NONVIOLENT CHRIST
Developed from a historic peace church perspective, Weaver’s basic methodological assumption is that “the rejection of violence, whether the direct violence of the sword or the systemic violence of racism or sexism, should be visible in expressions of christology and atonement.” Weaver observes a similar conviction at work in many feminist, womanist and black theologies as well, and devotes the central chapters of his book to reviewing, and largely validating, the criticisms each of these streams has leveled at traditional atonement theology (and christology). He also adds several fresh criticisms of his own and makes some intriguing observations about how the early development of Christian doctrine served the interests of Constantinianism.
Weaver’s chief assertion is that satisfaction atonement theology depends on the idea of a God who sanctions violence-indeed, a God who requires violence in order to satisfy his own honor or justice. The accumulated violence of our evil deeds is balanced by the compensatory violence of God’s retributive punishment. “Make no mistake about it,” Weaver asserts, “satisfaction atonement in any form depends on divinely sanctioned violence that follows from the assumption that doing justice means to punish.” Historically, this fact has not much bothered Christian theologians, but it deeply perturbs Weaver, and for similar reasons to those listed earlier.
First, it exhibits a disturbing view of God as a violent and vengeful deity, which is not merely distasteful but also creates significant theological problems. The God of satisfaction theology is said to act in ways that contradict the nonviolent Christ of the gospel tradition. God uses the violence that Jesus rejects. That, in turn, undermines classic Trinitarian doctrine, which holds that all the attributes of God are present in each person of the Trinity, and that what is true for each person of the Trinity must also be true for God as One. Since Jesus’ life and teaching are the benchmark for understanding the reign of God, and since Jesus’ rejection of lethal violence is fundamental to his vision of God’s reign, satisfaction atonement must go.
Second, in common with feminist and womanist critics, Weaver objects to the way that satisfaction theology makes passive submission to abusive authority, rather than active resistance to it, a positive virtue. This theology is both a destructive model for other victims of injustice and a problematic ethical example for all other Christians. It also overlooks the fact that throughout his ministry Jesus himself engaged in active, though nonviolent, resistance to injustice and evil.
Third, satisfaction atonement not only exalts divine violence, it actively accommodates human violence, both the overt violence of the sword and the systemic violence of racism and sexism. It does so because it conceives of atonement as something that takes place outside of actual history. It depends on some abstract transaction between Father and Son that somehow cancels human guilt and preserves God’s honor or sense of justice but does nothing to confront or change actual historical structures of oppression. Satisfaction atonement also takes place outside the particular history of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It reduces the meaning of Jesus’ life to some elaborate scheme whose purpose was to produce his death. Like creedal Christology, it moves directly from incarnation to crucifixion, with all that transpired in between having no ultimate significance for salvation or atonement. Consequently salvation becomes separated from ethics, permitting orthodox Christianity to regard violence as compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Fourth, satisfaction theology acknowledges no necessary role for the resurrection. Payment is rendered by Christ’s death, with the resurrection serving some other purpose. But the resurrection in the New Testament is the ultimate victory of the reign of God over sin and evil. As Weaver puts it, “The resurrection signifies that the order of the universe has been determined, that the reign of God has been revealed as ultimately established, whether or not rebellious human beings recognize it.” If such a victory was the outcome of God’s act of retributive violence, then it merely shows that might is right, not that there is a power in the universe greater than violence.
Finally, Weaver’s Mennonite perspective becomes most obvious when he links the ethical abstraction and violence-accommodating nature of satisfaction atonement with the legacy of the Constantinian synthesis-that coalition between church, state and culture known as “Christendom.” Weaver argues that atonement theology and Christology give expression to an underlying ecclesiology; that is, they reflect the place the church occupies in society. In the pre-Constantinian period, the church existed on the periphery of society. It saw itself as the earthly manifestation of God’s kingdom that stood in contrast to, and as a witness to, the prevailing imperial order that did not acknowledge God. The dominant atonement model at this time was Christus Victor, which, in its various forms, emphasized the cosmic victory of God over the forces of Satan and evil. Believers had been set free from these evil powers, but the powers were still seen to exert their baleful influence in the surrounding social and political order of paganism.
After the Constantinian settlement, however, the church moved from the periphery to the center of society. It came to identify with the institutional structures of the empire, which were no longer thought to stand over against God’s kingdom but were now under the control of divine providence and could be used to advance the church’s own goals. Whereas the pre-Constantinian church looked to Jesus as the norm for its faith and practice, and hence was pacifist, the church of Christendom looked to “Christian” society, and to the interests of the emperor himself, for its norms, and hence accepted the sword. “In a manner of speaking,” Weaver observes, “not applying the teaching of Jesus became the ‘Christian’ thing to do.”
At the same time, employing the abstract ontological categories of Greek philosophy, conciliar Christology became preoccupied with defining the two natures of Christ and the oneness of divine substance uniting Father and Son. The creeds said nothing about the social or ethical character of God’s reign, as made known in Jesus’ life and teaching. “If all we know of Jesus is that he is ‘one substance with the Father’ and that he is ‘fully God and fully man,'” Weaver observes, “there is nothing there that expresses the ethical dimension of being Christ-related, nothing there that would shape the church so that it can witness to the world.” In a sense that was no longer necessary, for the church had now made peace with the world and with war:
I suggest that it is the church which no longer specific-ally reflected Jesus’ teaching about nonviolence and his rejection of the sword that can proclaim christological formulas devoid of ethics as the foundation of Christian doctrine. The abstract categories of “man” and “God” in these formulas allow the church to accommodate the sword and violence while still maintaining a confession about Christ at the center of its theology.
The same applies to atonement theology. Weaver points out that satisfaction theory, unlike Christus Victor, has no real place for Satan in the mechanics of atonement. After all, there were few, if any, structures left for Satan to rule in Christendom! His activity could be limited to deviant individuals and infidels beyond the boundaries of Christian Europe. Hence, banishing Satan on the one hand, and accepting the prevailing hierarchical structures of feudal society on the other, Anselm rethought atonement around the image of God as an offended overlord exacting satisfaction from his human vassals.
The time has come, Weaver suggests, to put the devil back into the equation, not as a personified being but as a way of speaking about the accumulated sinfulness of institutional structures that refuse to acknowledge the rule of God and so become the vehicles of evil and oppression. Christ has triumphed over these powers in his mission, and thus secured atonement.
NARRATIVE CHRISTUS VICTOR: A NEW MODEL
This leads to Weaver’s proposal for a new “narrative Christus Victor” model of atonement-a model that stands in continuity with classical Christus Victor but also differs in important ways. As the name implies, the model emphasizes Christ’s nonviolent victory over the forces of evil, as recorded in the biblical narrative of Jesus’ life and teaching and confirmed in his resurrection.
The purpose of Jesus’ mission, Weaver suggests, was to make the reign of God visible and to overcome the forces of evil that resist God’s rule. In his actions, Jesus brought healing, deliverance and restoration to the victims of oppressive situations and systems. In his teaching, he dealt with how people’s relationships change when they are governed by the reign of God. In both word and deed, he actively but nonviolently challenged the structures that oppress and dehumanize people. When he encountered evil or violence, he refused to respond in kind, thus exposing and breaking the cycle of hatred and revenge. Jesus was ready and willing to die for the sake of his mission, Weaver says. But death was not the goal or culmination of the venture, even if it was an inevitable consequence of resisting the powers, especially those represented by imperial Rome and the Jewish holiness code. These powers were so threatened by Jesus that they conspired to kill him. Jesus submitted to their violence rather than meeting it on its own terms, thus showing that the rule of God does not depend on violence. He died a violent death. But God raised him from the dead, demonstrating that God’s power is greater even than the annihilation of death that comes from the exercise of violence. Jesus’ resurrection serves as objective evidence that the fundamental balance of power in the universe has now shifted.
RESPONSE TO WEAVER
Weaver makes a compelling case, and I concur with a good deal of what he says. I agree that it is necessary to think through atonement from a nonviolent perspective; that our understanding of atonement must square with and make sense of the New Testament narratives of Jesus’ proclamation and embodiment of God’s kingdom; that salvation is more a matter of liberation from the grip of evil than the discharging of a debt owed to God; and that Jesus’ refusal of the sword and his call to love of enemy are a crucial clue to understanding how he defeated sin and brought deliverance. So I am in general sympathy with the direction of Weaver’s thought. But there are two features of Weaver’s explanation that I am less sure of.
First, because he considers it “very important to underscore that violence originates with humans and not with God,” Weaver is adamant that the death of Jesus was not willed or intended or orchestrated by God. Nor was it a demonstration of God’s love. “In narrative Christus Victor,” Weaver writes, “the death of Jesus is anything but a loving act of God; it is the product of the forces of evil that oppose the reign of God. While God loved sinful humankind enough to send Jesus to witness to the rule of God, Jesus’ death is not a loving act of God, but the ultimate statement that distinguishes the rule of God from the reign of evil.” Nor did Jesus choose death. “Jesus came not to die but to live, to witness to the reign of God in human history. While he may have known that carrying out that mission would provoke inevitably fatal opposition, his purpose was not to get himself killed.” Weaver seems to believe that any suggestion that Jesus’ death was intended by God or chosen by Jesus is tantamount to sanctioning violence. To say that God willed Jesus’ violent death is the same as saying that God approved of or even perpetrated the violence that killed him. But is this necessarily so?
The second feature of Weaver’s explanation that creates difficulties for me is his claim that the cross was not a salvific necessity. Jesus’ death, he says, “accomplishes nothing for the salvation of sinners, nor does it accomplish anything for the divine economy. Since Jesus’ mission was not to die but to make visible the reign of God, it is clear that neither God nor the reign of God needs Jesus’ death in the way that his death is irreducibly needed in satisfaction atonement.” His death was an unavoidable consequence of his ultimate threat to the powers of evil, but it was not a necessary outcome for the work of salvation. Yet, insists Weaver, “while Jesus’ death was not the will of God, the ultimate power of the reign of God manifests itself in the resurrection of Jesus because he was killed. Then resurrection overcomes death, the last enemy.”
In a sense, then, Weaver transfers the work of atonement from the cross to the earthly ministry of Jesus on the one hand, and to the resurrection of Jesus on the other. Narrative Christus Victor proposes “a how explanation that focuses on Jesus’ life as the reign of God rather than on Jesus’ death as an act of God.” The cross happened because the evil powers made it happen; but there was no soteriological necessity for it to happen. When it did happen, God achieved victory over the powers by raising Jesus from the dead. This would seem to imply that, in principle, Jesus could have achieved universal redemption without the cross. His ministry of healing the sick, delivering the oppressed, embracing the outsider and loving the enemy was enough to establish God’s rule. His death was an inevitable, but unessential, circumstance, although one turned to greater good by God’s response of resurrection.
Now both of these claims-that Jesus’ death was not willed by God and that it was not a saving necessity-seem to me to fly in the face of the accumulated weight of New Testament evidence. Nor are they indispensable to a nonviolent account of atonement. What if there was no possibility of defeating violence without enduring violence nonviolently? What if Christ’s victory actually required him to absorb the worst that the powers could do, yet without retaliation? What if there was no other way to overcome death but to pass through death? What if God could not will our salvation without willing a final and definitive showdown with the supreme power of sin, its power to inflict violent death on the innocent? Is that why the New Testament writers do not shrink from presenting Jesus’ death as God’s will for the salvation of all?
THE AGENCY OF JESUS’ DEATH IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Weaver, as we have seen, is insistent that the cause of Jesus’ death lies solely with the powers of evil. God had nothing to do with it. But when measured against New Testament teaching, it appears that Weaver is correct in what he affirms but wrong in what he denies.
Clearly, the prosecution and execution of Jesus are attributed in the New Testament records to the powers of evil, operating through human malice in general and the self-interest of the Jewish and Roman authorities in particular. Mark, for example, frequently comments on how the Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees plotted to kill Jesus out of fear, resentment and jealousy. Matthew echoes this perspective, accenting even more sharply the combined hostility of the Jewish leaders to Jesus. Luke attributes the betrayal of Jesus to Satan entering Judas, and he aligns the temple authorities who seize Jesus in Gethsemane with “the power of darkness.” John also ascribes Jesus’ betrayal to Satan entering the heart of Judas. Under the influence of its evil “ruler,” the world in general hated Jesus without cause, for people “loved darkness” and “their deeds were evil.” The speeches in Acts frequently accuse the Jewish leaders of having “betrayed,” “rejected,” “murdered,” “condemned” and “crucified” Jesus despite his complete innocence. A conspiracy of Jewish and Gentile powers united to destroy him.
The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah. For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
Paul also notes the involvement of the Jews and “the rulers of this age” in the killing of Jesus. The writer to the Hebrews speaks more generally of Jesus enduring “hostility from sinners,” and 1 Peter speaks of him being “rejected by human beings.” Finally John’s Apocalypse posits a radical opposition between the Lamb who was slain and the powers of evil, which continue to “make war on the Lamb.”
So when Weaver attributes responsibility for the violent death of Jesus to the powers of evil or “Satan,” a term which designates “the accumulation of earthly structures that are not ruled by the reign of God,” he is certainly echoing a notable New Testament motif. But when he goes on to eliminate God’s agency entirely from the explanation of Jesus’ death, he departs significantly from what is the prevailing emphasis of New Testament teaching. By setting up the responsibility for Jesus’ death in simple either/or terms, Weaver flattens out an important New Testament paradox. And to affirm this paradox is not simply “to play a sleight-of-hand language game”; it is to do justice to the full witness of the text.
THE SYNOPTIC NARRATIVES
In several ways the synoptic writers indicate that the death of Jesus fulfilled the will and purpose of God. To begin with, all portray Jesus as always being in control of his own destiny. From the moment of his baptism onwards, where the voice from heaven unites his messianic appointment with the mission of the suffering servant of Yahweh, Jesus freely embraced a vocation that he knew would end in death. This does not mean that Jesus passively accepted all suffering and rejection as invariably the will of God. Far from it. On several occasions when he encountered attempts to arrest or assassinate him, he acted to protect himself and his disciples, for his appointed “hour” had not yet come. Nor did he encourage an unhealthy martyr complex among his followers, even though they too must reckon on the certainty of arrest, torture and execution in the future. So Jesus did not court death as such, and he did not sanctify all suffering. Yet he knew the time must come when the “bridegroom” will be forcibly “taken away,” and he did not seek to evade this climactic event.
On the contrary, Jesus choose to walk into the very jaws of death. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up,” Luke says, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He is therefore unfazed by reports of Herod’s plans to kill him, “because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” On his journey to the city, Jesus repeatedly and explicitly spoke of the fate that awaited him at his destination; his predictions sometimes employed the impersonal verb dei (“it is necessary,” “must”) to underline the divine necessity of what is to come. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” A sense of divine purpose is also implied in sayings where Jesus spoke of having a “cup” (of suffering) to drink, a fire to kindle, and a baptism to undergo. It is even clearer in the important saying where Jesus declared that the Son of Man came “not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
After a carefully choreographed entry to the city, Jesus engaged in highly confrontational tactics with the temple rulers, which finally sealed his fate. The authorities were anxious to move against Jesus but were afraid to do so because of his popular support. Knowing this, and that he was about to be betrayed, Jesus effectively delivered himself into the hands of his enemies by going to the one place where his betrayer knew he could be caught alone. He was unsurprised when the authorities turned up, and he did not resist arrest. When put on trial, he refused to defend himself against any of the charges brought against him, much to the irritation of his accusers and the amazement of Pilate.
So throughout their respective narratives, the gospel writers depict Jesus moving steadfastly and knowingly towards his divinely given destiny of suffering, death and resurrection. They see his death as more than simply the foreseeable or inevitable consequence of his confrontation with injustice, though it is that too. They portray it as a unique event, the climactic expression of his vocation of manifesting God’s reign and the fulfilment of God’s intention for his mission.
This is nowhere more clearly evident than in the Gethsemane episode where Jesus spoke explicitly of his struggle to submit to this dimension of God’s will. In the garden he prayed, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Each synoptic account has a different way of underscoring the fact that, for Jesus, to accept death was to accept the will of God. Mark has Jesus pray the same prayer three times before submitting to God’s will. Matthew records only two petitions, but the wording of the second (“My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done [genethet to thelema sou]”) intentionally echoes the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“your kingdom come, your will be done [genethet to thelema sou] on earth as it is in heaven”). The implication is plain: it is precisely through Jesus embracing death that God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. Luke records an angel appearing from heaven to strengthen Jesus for what lies ahead, rather than to deliver him from it (Matthew has Jesus consciously forego the possibility of angelic deliverance).
Another way in which the gospel writers underscore the divine necessity of Jesus’ death is by presenting it as the fulfilment of scripture. The entire Passion narrative is constructed as a kind of dramatization of a large group of psalms-in particular Psalm 22-in which the righteous person suffers unjustly and cries out to God for vindication. Sometimes selected details of Jesus’ passion experience are expressly said to “fulfil” specific Old Testament texts, including an occasional reference to Isaiah 53. Furthermore, in several of Jesus’ own sayings he expressly declared that his sufferings are attested in scripture. “Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.'” In refusing Peter’s sword in Gethsemane, Jesus says:
Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way’
In Luke 24 the risen Jesus explained to his confused disciples-first to the pair on the Emmaus Road, then to the eleven hiding in Jerusalem-that the Messiah’s sufferings were both necessary and foreshadowed in the scriptures.
“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary (edei) that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory'” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must (dei) be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
Now in presenting the death of Jesus against the backdrop of biblical testimony, the evangelists were not necessarily regarding all the specific texts they have in mind as predictive prophecies. They viewed them more as prefigurements in redemptive history of what God has now definitively accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it is the existence of such divinely given anticipations and foreshadowings in scripture that proved that the death of Jesus accords with, and brings to fullness, the will of God.
In John’s gospel, Jesus is identified at the outset as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Throughout the ensuing narrative, Jesus moved steadily toward the appointed “hour” of his death, which is also the hour of his “glory.” John’s Jesus speaks of God “sending” and “giving” his Son to save the world as an expression of his great love, and declares that “my food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” In contemplating the hour when the Son of Man will be “lifted up from the earth” on the cross, Jesus asked:
“What should I say-‘Father, save me from this hour” No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.
Several times John suggests that the details of Jesus’ prosecution and death fulfill scripture. Even more striking, however, is John’s emphasis on the fact that Jesus’ life is not taken from him against his will but is freely laid down by him:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . . I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. . . . For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.
At his arrest, Jesus identified himself to the soldiers and forbade Peter to defend him, since he must “drink the cup the Father has given me.” Accordingly, when Pilate claimed authority to crucify him, Jesus retorted: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” It is impossible to avoid the conclusion, then, that John understands the death of Jesus to be willed by God and freely chosen by Jesus.
Acts and the Epistles
As noted earlier, the author of Acts expressly ascribes the death of Jesus to the malice and ignorance of the prevailing religious and political powers, and holds them culpable. But that is only one side of the story, for Luke also states quite clearly that these evil actions enabled God’s will and plan, as attested in scripture, to be accomplished. The mysterious interface between divine will and human responsibility is captured well in Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2: “This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed.” A similar juxtaposition features in Peter’s sermon at Solomon’s portico in Acts 3: “Now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.” The same idea features again in Paul’s sermon at Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:
Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.
In his own writings, the Apostle Paul himself constantly asserted the divine initiative behind the death of Jesus. He discerned in Jesus’ death, not just a tragic expression of human evil but a purposeful act of God, foretold in scripture, to achieve the redemption and reconciliation of the world. “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,” Paul affirmed, just as “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” Not only his resurrection but also his death and burial manifest the will and eternal purpose of God. Accordingly, Paul spoke of God “sending his own Son” into the world to “deal with sin” and to “redeem those under the Law” from its curse. God “did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us.” In giving him up to death, “God put [him] forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood . . . to show his righteousness.” In some mysterious way, God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” However we understand this text, God’s active involvement in Jesus’ death is clearly asserted. For “in Christ,” Paul says, “God was reconciling the world to himself.” He was also “proving his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
As well as God’s initiative, Paul also stresses Christ’s willing submission to death. He was not merely killed by others against his will; he graciously “died for us” as an “act of righteousness” and “obedience” and as a demonstration of self-abnegation and self-surrender. The crucifixion of Christ is therefore an event to be “proclaimed” as a demonstration of God’s power and God’s wisdom, as well as an event to be shared in and emulated by others.
None of these texts requires a satisfaction theory of atonement. But the cumulative weight of New Testament evidence does strongly suggests that Jesus’ death is understood to be, in some sense, an act of God that demonstrates God’s love and faithfulness, exemplifies Jesus’ utter self-giving for the sake of others, and clarifies and fulfils the biblical testimony to God’s saving purposes. This feature cannot simply be ascribed to the rhetorical tendency of the biblical writers to see God as responsible for everything that happens, even while not holding God responsible for sinful actions. God’s initiative behind and saving achievement in Jesus’ death is positively celebrated. The crucial issue is not whether God intended Jesus to die, but why he did and whether doing so is tantamount to God underwriting sacred violence.
A BRIEF PROPOSAL
To accept that God did will or need the death of Jesus is not to say that God wanted or required it to satisfy his own holiness, as satisfaction atonement maintains. God willed it for a different reason. God willed it because he willed our salvation, and the only way to achieve our redemption was for Jesus to tread the path of suffering and death, for only thus could sin’s power be broken.
I began by suggesting that violence is the foremost social manifestation of sin; it is all-pervasive in human experience. Sin has usurped God’s loving rule over humanity, and violence is the principal external evidence of sin’s deleterious lordship. “Sin came into the world through one man,” Paul writes, “and death came through sin.” Through death “sin exercises its dominion.” Death destroys relationships, and the fear of death dominates the human psyche and governs human behavior. Significantly, the first recorded death in the biblical story is a violent death, stemming from the envy or covetousness that most reveals sin’s interior grip on the human heart. Just before Cain struck out against his brother, God observed Cain’s jealous anger and warned him that “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” But instead, sin mastered Cain and he turned to violence. This connection between internal desire and external violence is highlighted in the epistle of James: “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”
Because of sin, we seek to impose our will on others, and violence enables us to do so through engaging the fear of death and pain. Sin creates rivalry between people, and violence, or threatened violence, is the ultimate power sin employs to bring success. At the same time, however, the imposition of violence evokes in the victim a “pay-back” response, an intense desire to strike back in kind, to retaliate blow for blow, stripe for stripe, loss for loss. For victims this seems to be the only way to appease the pain they have suffered and the resentment they feel. But the pay-back instinct actually manifests the most terrifying characteristic of sin’s lordship, its pernicious power to turn those who have been sinned against into sinners in their own right, to suck victims into a pattern of imitative behavior that allows violence to spiral on forever.
So, in real sense, the power to inflict violent death, and the capacity to evoke counter-violence from victims, is the most potent evidence of sin’s grip over humanity. If sin is to be defeated, then, violence must be overcome once and for all. This, among other things, is what Jesus sought to do. But to succeed in doing so, it was not enough simply to avoid inflicting violence on others, or to teach people to love their enemies. He also had to withstand the temptation to hit back; he had to break the cycle of violence and revenge, hatred and counter-hatred. He even had to endure violence himself-the supreme violence of an unjust execution-without seeking or desiring retaliation. He had to absorb the very worst that the powers could do. He had to go to the very limits of human desolation and at that point pray: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” In so doing, Jesus deconstructed the power and logic of evil.
The power of sin was broken, then, not by some violent act of substitutionary punishment but through Jesus’ own definitive refusal to perpetuate the cycle of violence and revenge. In his passion, Jesus adopted the position of supreme victim of human evil and depredation. Yet he refused to respond to his victimization by victimizing those who victimized him. Instead he absorbed the sin of human violence in his own bodily experience without retaliation. “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that free from sins we might live for righteousness. . . .” In so doing Jesus broke the mimetic or pay-back mechanism that lies at the heart of sin’s power (something beyond the reach of any display of coercive power, even God’s power) and unleashed the liberative power of forgiveness.
God sent his Son into the world for this purpose. It was God’s will to make “the one who knew no sin to be sin for our sake, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” This highly compressed, shorthand summary of what happened at the cross does not mean that God made Christ into a sinner in order to punish him retributively for our sins. It means that God made the sinless one to bear the full consequences of sin’s dominion over humanity, displayed most graphically in the inescapable logic of violence. In Christ, sin did its very worst and Christ died. But God raised him from the dead and in so doing triumphed over the power of sin and death. “The death he died he died to sin, once for all,” with the result that “death no longer has dominion over him.” And those who by faith are united with Christ in his death share also in his liberation, “so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Supremely characteristic of this newness of life is freedom from the fear of death, on which violence feeds, and participation in a new humanity in which hostility is put to death and “the things that make for peace” are pursued.
[*]Christopher Marshall teaches New Testament at the Tyndale Graduate School of Theology in Auckland, New Zealand. He presented this paper to the Wellington Institute of Theology Symposium “How Does God Do Justice in a Violent World'” St Paul’s Cathedral, Wellington, New Zealand, May 25, 2002.
1. See C. D. Marshall, “Following Christ Down Under: A New Zealand Perspective on Anabaptism,” in Engaging Anabaptism: Conversations with a Radical Tradition, ed. John D. Roth (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 41-52.
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. Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30. See Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), esp. 275-306.
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. See, for example, G. Auln, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement, trans. A. G. Hebert (London: SPCK, 1931); Thomas N. Finger, Christian Theology: An Eschatological Approach (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985), 1:303-48.
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. Some scholars seek to address this problem by blending all three approaches. The problem is that each model rests on differing presuppositions and the resulting synthesis still tends to favor one approach over the others.
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. “Satisfaction atonement assumes that the sin of humankind against God has earned the penalty of death, but that Jesus satisfied the offended honor of God on their behalf or took the place of sinful humankind and bore their punishment or satisfied the required penalty on their behalf. Sin was atoned for because it was punished vicariously through the death of Jesus, which saved sinful humankind from the punishment of death they deserved. That is, sinful humankind can enjoy salvation because Jesus was killed in their place, satisfying the requirement of divine justice on their behalf.”-Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, 3; cf. 16-17, 179-224.
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. See, e.g., J. I. Packer, What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution (Leicester: TSF Monograph, 1974); L. Morris, The Cross in the New Testament (Exeter: Paternoster, 1966), 382-88.
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. For an excellent review of feminist, womanist and black theology, see Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, ch. 4-6. See also E. Moltmann-Wendel, “Is There a Feminist Theology of the Cross’,” in The Scandal of a Crucified World: Perspectives on the Cross and Suffering, ed. J. Tesfai (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), 87-98; N. J. Duff, “Atonement and the Christian Life: Reformed Doctrine from a Feminist Perspective,” Interpretation 53:1 (1999), 21-33. On advocacy theology generally, see D. Patte, The Ethics of Biblical Interpretation: A Reevaluation (Louisville: Westminster Jn Knox, 1995).
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. See, e.g., T. Talbot, “Punishment, Forgiveness and Divine Justice,” Religious Studies 29 (1993), 151-68; Fiddes, Past Event, 83-111; T. J. Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1996); Smail, “Can One Man Die’,” 84-86; R. D. Brinsmead, “The Scandal of God’s Justice,” Christian Verdict 8 (1983), 3-11; C. A. Baxter, “The Cursed Beloved: A Reconsideration of Penal Substitution,” in Atonement Today, ed. J. Gondingay (London: SPCK, 1995), 68-70.
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. The charge of divine child abuse is not leveled solely against satisfaction theology. Insofar as all the traditional models portray God demanding unquestioning obedience from the Son and imposing suffering on him in order to achieve some higher good, all have been accused of depicting abuse in a positive light. But the main target of the accusation has been satisfaction atonement.
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. Ibid., 85. For an account of how this became reflected in Christendom’s initiation processes, see A. Kreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999).
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. Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, 93. It should be emphasized that Weaver does not regard the Nicene or Chalcedonian formulas as wrong or invalid or superfluous to Christology, but says only that they are contextual rather than universal or timeless statements and that they are inadequate in themselves for a Christian peace theology.
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. Although scattered references to satisfaction can be found in earlier writings, Gorringe insists that “to all intents and purposes the theology of satisfaction begins with Anselm.”-God’s Just Vengeance, 90.
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. Lk 22:53, cf.23:45. On the symbolism of darkness in the crucifixion narrative, see C. D. Marshall, “Crime, Crucifixion and the Forgotten Art of Lament,” Reality 9:49 (2002), 16-22.
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. Jn 15:18, 25. The term “world” in Jn’s Gospel, when used negatively, represents the sum of everyone and everything that sets its face against God’s revelation in Christ. See S. B. Marrow, “Kosmos in John,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 64:1 (2002), 90-102.
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. Ideally the perspective of each gospel writer should be considered separately. But there is substantial enough narrative agreement between them in how they present the purpose and outcome of Jesus’ mission to permit some broad generalizations about features common to each account.
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. It is often noted that the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism (Mk 1:11/Mt 3:17/Lk 3:22) unites the messianic designation of Psalm 2:7 with the identification of the Servant of Yahweh in Isaiah 42:1, whose task involves suffering and rejection. There may also be an allusion to Gen 22: 2,12,16.
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. Lk 22:42, cf. Matt 26:53. Even the writer to the Hebrews suggests that Jesus’ prayers were heard by “the one who was able to save him from death because of his reverent submission . . . and obedience” (Heb 5:7-10).
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. For a full listing of the texts and how they are reflected in the passion narrative, see J. F. Jansen, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ in New Testament Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), 68-75.
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. See, e.g., Mk 14:27/Matt 26:31; Mk 14: 62/Matt 26:64; Lk 22:37, cf. also Jn 13:18; 18:9; 19:23, 28, 36; Acts 8:32-33. The place of Isaiah 53 in New Testament reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ death, and especially its role in the mind of the historical Jesus, has long been debated. For a thorough, helpful and up-to-date review of this issue, see Jesus and the Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 and Christian Origins, eds. William H. Bellinger, Jr. and William R. Farmer (Harrisburg PA: Trinity Press International, 1998).
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. Gal 2:19; 6:14; Rom 6:3-14; 2 Cor 1:5; 4:10; Phil 3:10; Col 1:24, cf. 2 Tim. 2:11. See further C. D. Marshall, “‘For Me to Live Is Christ’: Pauline Spirituality as a Basis for Ministry,” in The Call to Serve, ed. D. A. Campbell (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 96-116, esp. 111-13.
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. Lk 19:42, cf. Rom 14:1-15:13; Gal 3:25-29; 2 Cor 18-21; Eph 2:1-22.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Atonement, Violence and the Will of God