The Table Podcast

Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

In this episode, Darrell Bock and Adam Johnson discuss the various biblical approaches to understanding the doctrine of the atonement.

Johnson’s book: Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed
Understanding the concept of atonement
Explaining the idea of Penal Substitution
Pentateuch as a background for understanding atonement
Honor and shame as themes of atonement
The resurrection and the Trinity
Cosmic implications of Atonement
Understanding the Ransom Theory
Jesus’ example and the atonement
Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture, and our topic today is the Atonement. I’m Darrell Bock, Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary. And our guest today, connecting with us via Skype is Adam Johnson, who is Associate Professor of Theology at Biola – well, Talbot Biola, which is a kind of combination. But you’re primarily involved with the Tory Honors Program, Adam. Tell us about that, so we kind of have a context for what you do.
Adam Johnson
So undergrads have the major they focus in as they’re thinking about their career, but what makes it a liberal arts university is they’re studying a whole bunch of other fields along the way and doing their general education requirements. So typically you have your English 101 and your History 101 classes and all that. We take all those intro classes in your general education and we lump them into a Great Books Program.

So we have our students reading Homer and Milton and Calvin and a whole bunch of Bible along the way rather than reading textbooks, and then we discuss them in three-hour seminars. We’re not worried so much about delivering content or summarizing fields, we’re inviting them into a conversation that’s been happen over the last 3,000-4,000 years in a way that just brings them into a life that we’re leading. It just a really different approach to their general education.

Darrell Bock
So is all your teaching in this Great Books Program, or do you do any specialized theological teaching as well?
Adam Johnson
So every once in a while they’ll let me out of my cage. Every semester I teach a Faith in Film Seminar. I co-teach it with one of the film professors where we’re looking at theological and philosophical questions in film. And then I’ll teach theology seminars probably once a year. So I’ve done an atonement seminar. I’m doing one on the doctrine of election this semester. So I get to do a little bit of that.
Darrell Bock
That’s interesting. I’m almost tempted to go in the direction and say, “All right, what interesting films have you reviewed lately,” but I’ll resist the temptation and we’ll dive right into our topic. Tell us how you got fascinated with the topic of the atonement?
Adam Johnson
So after college, I knew I wanted to be a professor. My experience had been so formative and my professors had invested so much time in me in terms of my relationships, in terms of different beliefs, books, I just spent so much time with them and I was so shaped, that I thought if I could do that, that’s what I want to do.

But I knew I needed to get a PhD and I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to focus in. If anything I was leaning towards studying Plato for my doctorate. But I spent a lot of time praying, taking with friends, talking with mentors, reading. I was sitting in my mentor’s office, this was a couple years after graduating, and we were talking and I almost had a – it was like a conversion experience. You know those art installations where you look at them and it’s a big pile of junk and then the camera with pan around and all of a sudden it all comes into focus and it’s an image, like a man smoking a pipe or a dog sitting. So what looks like trash, all of a sudden takes form. Pretty much that’s what happened in my life.

As I sat there I realized all along I’d been interested in the doctrine of the atonement and I just couldn’t see it before. The movies I’d been interested in – the first book I re-read after college was Anselm, Why God Became Man – the conversations I had had, and so that was sort of a realization happen. And ever since I’ve been working on the doctrine. I’ve just been completely in love with it.

Darrell Bock
Okay, so you decided to take on the atonement for a dissertation topic. It’s become a book. Tell us the title and kind of overview the book for us if you would.
Adam Johnson
So the book is Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed. It’s a T&T Clark series of guides. So what this book is, is an attempt to make popular or accessible my dissertation. My dissertation focused on Karl Barth, but not too many folks are gonna read that or find that to be really accessible. But it’s not just an attempt to make it popular. Really what I’m doing is going back and showing people how I got to my dissertation because Barth wasn’t the one that took me there.

So after I had this conversion experience, we’ll call it, I went from there and just started reading on the history of doctrine. That’s how I’d been trained to do. I didn’t really go read a bunch of contemporary books. I started reading Athanasius and some Aquinas, Edwards, Irenaeus. I wanted to see what those guys thought when they were asking what happened on the cross. And when I came to my conclusion, then I realized that Barth was the best guy to help me unpack this project. So in some ways this book really isn’t a popularization. It’s more like the prequel and I’m bring in all those other voices to provide a much more compelling narrative.

So basically when people think about the atonement, they try to boil it down to one main thing, more often than not. They try to find one – it’s a little bit like when people might want to explain what’s the best thing about their home state. Maybe they want to boil it down to one thing and say, “Oh, Washington State is the best because of –” and they’ll say something. Problem is, most of us come from states that are so rich in culture and history and natural beauty and folklore that there’s just so much more to say than one thing. And folks prior to 1800, when they talk about the cross, they don’t try to boil it down to one main thing. They just try to – they’re like poets trying to unpack how beautiful an event this is and how much is going on.

So my dissertation and then this book was really a matter of asking why is there so much going on on the cross? Why is the biblical language so rich and varied? Why is the history of theology so rich and varied when it comes to explaining this? That’s what I was asking.

Darrell Bock
Okay, so we’ll go in the reverse direction and I’ll pick up the cue. Most people when they think of atonement, I think, if you were to ask them to put one other word in that space, they might just say substitution or something like that. So is that a decent starting place? But I take it it’s not the only place to land.
Adam Johnson
Yeah. Pretty much, my approach is, I’m not too concerned about where you start. Now, that could be misused quickly. Right? So if you want to start with substitution, I’ll run with you and say, “Great. That’s a wonderful place to start.” But then what I’ll want to do is be attentive, “Is that where you want to stop?” Or, “Why do you want to start there?” It’ll be a little bit like if you were telling me about your wife, if you’re married. And you might say, “Oh, my wife’s beautiful.” That’s fantastic. Are you married, Darrell?
Darrell Bock
Yeah, I am.
Adam Johnson
So I hope you would say that. But then as I got to know you, if you that’s all you could say about your wife, I’d start to be a little bit worried. Because hopefully she’s beautiful, but she’s much more than that. Like with substitution, is Jesus Christ our substitute? Well, obviously, all throughout, Paul is talking about Christ being our substitute. And there’s something that happens on the cross that happens so that it doesn’t have to happen to you and to me. But then is that all we can say? Because Paul will also say things like, “I died in Christ,” or, “I was raised in Christ.” And that’s a very different category of thought than substitution.

It’s much more along the lines of representation where if this event didn’t happen so that it wouldn’t happen to me, it happened to me in Christ, so that that really happened to me in some way. So substitution? Absolutely. But scripture is much more diverse. It includes a number of other ways of thinking about it that I would want to be able to tie in.

Darrell Bock
Okay, so let’s go through some elements of the list here. We put substitution out on the table. I’m taking this in Christ thing, I’m gonna try and boil it down to a single word. If I’ve over simplified it let me know. You said, representation. Participation might be another word that we could put with that perhaps. So that’s two categories. So how deep does this list go?
Adam Johnson
Okay, that’s fine. So there are a couple ways of thinking about this. In my experience so far, this has been a shorter list. But then there’s a different list that’s a little bit longer. So one other major category I’d want to add to this is revelation. So all through the Gospel of John, something is happening in Christ in which he is a substitute, in which he does represent us, but also there’s this light that is cast from Christ, which puts all else either in light or in shadow, and which is the objective standard for us to know God, to know Christ, to know God’s ways, to know ourselves. So there’s a powerful element of revelation going on there as well.

Now I mentioned a second list. The first list that we’ve been talking about is asking, how are we connected to the person of Christ? Is he just another man? No. But as a man, he does something that happens so that it won’t have to happen to us, but there isn’t that much distance, because what’s happening to him is pulling us into that event, and yet in that, he’s opening up and revealing things in a way that is objective and truth bearing. He’s casting a light so that we can see clearly for the first time. That’s a very elemental, foundational list. It is trying to explore, how are we connected to this man.

There’s another list that people like to talk about, and that has to do with different theories of the atonement. Lots of folks that heard that Jesus is – well, one major theory is that Jesus defeats Satan, that’s the Christus Victor. That Jesus is in some way the one who provides satisfaction or is the penal substitute, that has to do with Anselm and Calvin and that line of thought. And then a third element on this list is that Jesus is the example. That his way of life is a way of loving and living so inspiring that it catches us up into this way of life.

The funny thing is, that list goes back to Gustaf Aulén who was writing in the 1930s, early 1930s, I think. In his context, all he heard was penal substitution. So when people wanted to talk about, “What was Jesus doing on the cross or what was God doing on the cross,” all people could talk about was penal substitution. And as he was reading around in the history of theology, he realized, “Oh, there’s more to this.” We don’t just have to say our wives are beautiful. We could also say they’re really intelligent or gracious or they’re amazing hosts.

He wanted to add to this list, so he did. Problem was he made the list small and stunted. As you read back through the history of the churches reflection on this, as you read through the Old and New Testaments, you end up finding a far greater number of theories of the atonement, we might call them, throughout the history of the church. I read one book that puts the number at thirteen. I’m not very interested in putting a number on it. I just have fun trying to find new ones.

Darrell Bock
So let’s work through some of these. ‘Cause actually what strikes me is that there is a list that has to do particularly with how I’m involved in the transaction of what atonement is about, if I can say it that way. That’s your substitution and representation. But then it sounds like this other list has to do with what’s going on more cosmically, what’s going on beyond me. What’s the big deal in the atonement? And that big deal extends beyond what’s just happening to me as an individual. It’s what God is about in the whole of what it is that he’s doing. Is that a fair way to divide these two lists that you’ve given us?
Adam Johnson
Okay, yes. That is a fair way to do it. And another way of connecting them is to say that substitution representation and revelation are fairly generic categories and they’re waiting to be unpacked. A little bit like grits. The first time I was in Tennessee, I was in a diner and I saw grits on the menu. I’d read about them, but I didn’t know what they were. So I didn’t know if I wanted lots of them, so I asked the waitress if I could have a grit. ‘Cause I didn’t know if it was like pancakes and I was gonna get a stack of them. But what if I didn’t like them. So she said, “Honey, they don’t come all by themselves.”
Darrell Bock
[Laughter] Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone ordering a grit before. That’s an interesting – that is a fascinating metaphor.
Adam Johnson
So substitution is a little bit like ordering grits, but grits often don’t come by themselves from what I understand. They’ll come with bacon or with a sauce or with something. They’re a little bit like mashed potatoes. They often have something on them. So a substitute. In Dickens, when one of the main characters is going to be beheaded, someone comes in, changes clothes with him and takes his place and suffers the judicial consequences in his place and that feels a lot like penal substitution.

But penal substitution, the word penal there is very important. That’s one form of penal substitution in which the penalty that I ought to receive is taken by someone else. But there are other kinds of substitution. For example, let’s say that we’re in a context in which shame is a huge matter. Someone could try to restore the honor of someone else.

Let’s say I shamed someone by accident. A friend of mine could be my substitute and go and try to repair or restore the honor of that person in a public way in my stead, which is still a form of substitution, it’s just not working with penal categories any more. It’s working with the categories of honor and glory and shame. So that basic list of substitution representation and revelation, it’s so basic that it’s waiting to be unpacked in different ways. Penal substitution is one of the ways of unpacking substitution, but there are others.

Darrell Bock
Okay, so let’s go there. Let’s stop for a second and say – most people know what penal substitution is. They know that Christ bore the penalty for something that I deserve and bares the consequences of that, and if we were to think about what passages we would connect to that kind of idea, what passages might we elude to. You don’t need to give a full list, but maybe one or two sample passages that would be good illustrations that suggest that the atonement has a penal element to it?
Adam Johnson
Sure. One of the staples is Romans 3:25 and 26, right around in there, but the fuller passage. The New Testament draws fairly heavily on Isaiah 52 and 53 for thinking through this. And then probably the best way, I think, is not going to an individual passage but going to the overall structure of the covenant in the Pentateuch where the sacrificial system is happening within the covenant. But then at the end, in Deuteronomy, when God is saying, “And when you break this covenant,” then there are a series of threats or punishments of what will happen.

Penal substitution, as I understand it, is really – is the fulfillment of the judgement of God upon a people that breaks it’s covenant. So the whole framework of the Pentateuch, as it’s summed up in Deuteronomy, around 30 thru 32, if I’m right, but right around there, is a great place for thinking about how the Old Testament approaches that topic too.

Darrell Bock
Okay, so now you’ve brought in this other element of honor and shame. How does that one work and what passages or themes might we connect to it?
Adam Johnson
Oh, sure. Okay, so my students just don’t know what to do with this one when I take them to it. Exodus, I think it’s right around Exodus 32-33, the golden calf incident has just happened, and God is angry at the people of Israel. He tells Moses, “Stand aside. I’m gonna destroy this stubborn and rebellious people and we’re starting over with you.” So on the one hand, that’s just sort of apocalyptic judgement. We’re just gonna destroy this whole people. But on the other hand, God’s still gonna be faithful to all his covenants and promises because he’s gonna be keeping on working with the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That all sounds like it’s gonna go the route of judgement.

Then Moses says, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. What will the Egyptians think?” And it’s the most bizarre argument. It’s almost like Moses is using a peer pressure argument against God. “What are the Egyptians gonna think?” And you would think that God would say, “I’m God. I don’t care what the Egyptians think. I just judged them in a series of 10 plagues and showed my glory among them. What do I care about the Egyptians?” But God responds to that. God cares about his reputation and his name and his glory throughout creation.

And so what he does is he then gives a partial judgement upon Israel but continues to work with that stubborn and stiff-necked people in order that his reputation in Egypt will remain as a God who’s powerful and removed his people from slavery. That’s just one funny little instance where it seems to be going the route of judgement and penal substitution and instead ends up working with the categories of name, glory, honor, and those kinds of topics. As you start looking for that stuff, you end up finding it all over scripture.

Not that it’s more important than penal substitution, but if we trace this back to who God is, penal substitution relies on thinking about God as judge or being one who is just and righteous. Now, is God just and righteous. Absolutely. And anyone who wants to hedge on that is really gonna have a hard time interpreting who sections of scripture. But is God also one who is honorable, who is worthy of honor and who’s name is a glorious name and that name ought to be recognized and praised and worshiped throughout all creation by angels and ourselves and all creation? Absolutely. So is God more just than he is honorable or glorious? No.

What these theories do is they each take one part of who God is and unpack the work of Christ from that perspective in a way that does us a real service. It helps us understand how God is just and how he brings about his justice in creation. But then another theory will do the same thing, drawing on another aspect of God’s character in a way that will help us scripture. So this is helping us get a fuller picture.

Darrell Bock
So I’m tossing this back to you. Let’s develop this some more. What’s going on when we think about Christ dealing with themes of honor and shame and advocacy on our behalf?
Adam Johnson
Okay, so right at the beginning in Genesis when Adam and Eve sin, the first thing they want to do is hide. Which is a pretty strange thing until you realize, okay, they felt the redness in their face and the burning in their ears. They were feeling the shame of knowing that God was watching them and they wanted to hide because they had done something shameful.

Then one way of reading the arch of scripture is how does God bring himself glory when he’s been shamed as his creation is rebelling against him, but how does he restore us to glory and clothe us again in white and pure garments. You could paint the whole picture in terms of we fell into shame and God restores us into honor. To do that well, you need plenty of tools at your disposal.

One of the big ones is the resurrection. Most people can talk a long time about the atonement and just talk about the cross. And the cross is a huge component of what’s going on. By the way, he was crucified in a public way to be shamed. It was primarily a shame strategy in terms of what the crucifixion actually means. But the resurrection, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Christ hadn’t been raised, we’d still be in our sins, we’re fools, and we haven’t been justified.

The resurrection is really the key mechanism here by which everything is reversed and then we are brought into honor and glory and we’re given his name. We’re crowned – all these things happen which restore to us what was lost in the Garden of Eden. So there’s this beautiful picture of God finding a way to restore something to us in restoring honor and glory to his creation so it can be restored to him too.

Darrell Bock
Yeah, I think the resurrection is a very important idea. We tend to think about it, and I actually talk to my students about this, that most Easter messages you hear is, “He’s alive, so we’ll be alive one day,” that kind of theme. And my point is, the resurrection is really about the vindication of Christ in many ways and the claims that he makes. It’s God’s vote in this dispute, in which he has been shamed, if you want to put is – on the cross. The cross was a way of trying to discredit Christ from the people who sent him there. And the resurrection is God’s discrediting of the discrediting. And so two negatives make a positive.

So God is vindicating Jesus and demonstrating that Jesus is actually who he claims to be, and of course the idea coming out of the resurrection, particularly developed in Luke-Acts of Ascension, is the idea that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. He shares the presence and glory and authority of God, which is the product of this vindication. So what you’re saying to us is that you can’t tell the story of the atonement and the cross without telling the story of what came out of the cross, which is the resurrection and ascension that emerged from it. Is that right?

Adam Johnson
Absolutely. So when I try to communicate this to my students, I’ll say, “Look if you’re goal in life is to get a divorce some day, you gotta get married first. You just can’t get divorced if you haven’t gotten married.” Of course that just a funny way of trying to make the point, what God wants to share with us is himself in the fulness of life in accordance with the way that he intended all of creation to be. He wants to share that blessing of life with him as he meant creation to be. To do that, he enters our situation from within, suffers the full reality and consequence of it, but then brings us up into that. So the resurrection life is life as it was meant to be and life like we’ve never seen it.

A better way of understanding the doctrine of creation is Jesus’s resurrected life than anything that happens in the Garden of Eden. This is creation as it was meant to be and one Person and all who are in him will someday taste that as well, when the new city rejoins a new Earth and all things will be as God meant them to be. But the key for that is God enters it, makes it his own, and then brings it to where he wanted it.

Darrell Bock
Yes. Now, there are two ways I could go here, and I think I’m gonna stop and pause and go one way versus picking up the participation and representation idea that’s going out of where you’re going. But let’s stop and pause. I sometimes get this question. In fact I got asked this question – I was lecturing in Manhattan at King’s College on Jesus, and the question I was asked is, “Isn’t the atonement ultimately unjust because God is asking his – putting his Son to death?”

And so there’s something inherently unjust about that. It’s like God committing “suicide.” That’s the way the question was posed to me. And my answer was, “Well, if the death were the end of the story, you might be able to raise this as an objection, but the fact is the death is not the end of the story and the resurrection completes the story and it’s actually a very important element in telling the story. Isn’t that part of what you’re saying by extending the cross into the resurrection? That what happens with atonement is very much related to the vindication that comes out of it?

Adam Johnson
Yeah, so that’s a very big part of it. But it’d be really hard to build a house using only rebar. You have some rebar in the foundation, so it’s a vital part of building a house. But you need a lot of different kinds of materials to build a house. The resurrection is one of the fundamental ones. But another doctrine you need to have on the table, if you’re gonna play this game, is the doctrine of the trinity. So that question relies upon the relation between the father and the son, basically like I would relate to my first born.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a Navy Seal. I wanted to go to war. I thought that would be glorious. The thought of going to war meant nothing but glory to me. The thought of sending my own son off to war, I don’t know if I could do it. I’d go in his place a hundred times, but to send my son for that, I wouldn’t do it. That question relies on the father and the son being two separate persons and personalities, two gods, and one sends the other, and why wouldn’t you send yourself. So to do this well, God has to be one God who lives out his life, these three eternal ways as father, son, and Holy Spirit, but if we affirm the monotheism that’s the basis of this whole doctrine, then it’s God telling God – God sending God, not God sending another God.

Darrell Bock
So he’s sending himself into the battle?
Adam Johnson
God is sending himself into the battle, and it doesn’t map on to father-son relationships the way that I could send my son into battle or send myself in his place. So a way of thinking about this is – one way is the father sends the son. And that raises this question. Here’s a different way of thinking about it, when the Son is sent – and the Son doesn’t actually leave God. God isn’t somewhere and God sends him.

Another way of picturing what’s happening is God is bringing the human problem into the life of God. Instead of sending the son, he’s just bringing the problem here. Then God can deal with this problem within his own life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, rather than just judging and punishing his creation at a distance.

There’s a lot going on here with the doctrine of the trinity, and the more you think about God as three different Gods, the bigger this problem gets. The more you think of this as the work of one God who is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but one God not three Gods, then it’s a very, very different sort of conceptual terrain for thinking about that question.

Darrell Bock
So this is a natural question. The picture that people usually use, this is the analogy for what’s going on on the cross, is picture of what Abraham is asked to do with Isaac and the association is made there. Is that a poor association to make with reference to this event or not?
Adam Johnson
That’s a good question. So if I was gonna pull that in, and I would want to, I’d want to do it in a really careful way. ‘Cause we don’t want to say Isaac – Abraham is Isaac – good grief. I’m getting all tongue tied. We don’t want to say Abraham is the father and Isaac is the son. Because then we’re on this problem of what kind of a father does this?

If we want to say the experience of Abraham was the experience of God and the experience of Isaac was the experience of God, that God was experiencing both of these realities and perhaps the experience of his mother as well. ‘Cause you have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit here doing this work. This is one God making this problem his own, because he doesn’t want someone else to have to deal with it or to have to suffer the full reality of it. You know what? Basically I want to be really careful about mapping on Abraham and Isaac onto that and just saying, yeah, that’s like the father and the son. I’d be doing a lot more hedging than I would affirming.

Darrell Bock
Interesting, because many people will see that particular exchange as an important kind of analogy. It’s interesting, ’cause you’re doing this within a trinitarian web, if I can say it that way, to make sense out of it. My approach to this has been to say that – not to separate the persons but to say, “You’ve got to know the whole story to understand the nature of the sacrifice.”

The sacrifice, it doesn’t lead to a permanent death, because there’s a vindication on the other end of it, and it is the vindication that actually is as key a part of the story as the sacrifice. And when you ask the question, you’re asking the question in such a way that the entire focus is on the sacrifice and not, if I can say it this way, the epilog. The epilog is actually pretty important to this whole journey.

Adam Johnson
Yeah. No, and just to be clear, I absolutely agree with everything you just said. There is an awful lot going on in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have politics going on. There’s history. There are the role of the covenants. We have the sociological forces, implications of different people. The triune God is at work here. All the divine attributes are at play. This is both God and man. There are physics, chemistry, as Jesus is suffering a suffocating death on the cross.

You’re pointing out the narrative and the role that narrative plays in helping us think about this properly, and that’s absolutely correct. From what I was emphasizing just a moment ago was the role of the trinity within this narrative. So that’s just another angle that gives us a fuller picture. So yeah, just to be clear, I wasn’t trying to say in anyway that what you were doing was a bad direction. It’s just, this takes a lot of tools.

If you want to be a really good coach, as you think about like an NFL coach – you watch some football. Right? Houston’s your team. Those head coaches, they’re not just thinking plays. They’re managing a whole business. They’re thinking at so many levels at once in order to be a good coach. That’s what we have to do as Christians in order to think well about this even, because there’s an awful lot going on here. And that’s what I’m trying to unpack a little bit.

Darrell Bock
Okay, well we’ve dealt a little bit with the honor and shame substitution. We’ve dealt a little bit with the penal substitution. I think the other key category that we can probe a little bit with the time that we have left is this whole cosmic dimension of what’s going on. That’s certainly has been a part of the theological discussion about what atonement is about. You bring in the name Anselm and people like that and you’re into this part of the conversation, let’s talk a little bit about that. Do we talk about ransom in relationship to atonement or not?
Adam Johnson
Okay. There’s a fantastic passage in scripture that talks about God reconciling all things to himself through the Son in Heaven and on Earth and under the Earth. What does it mean for God to reconcile all things to himself in Heaven? So when the Bible wants to talk about the death and resurrection of Jesus, it wants to talk about the problem of our sin. That’s there front and center.

But then it has all these other little things that it wants to talk about too. You have the angels kind of longing to know what’s going on and the idea that God is gonna reconcile the heavenly things to himself. Well what are the heavenly things? I take it that those are the angels. But then Romans also talks about the Earth groaning. So it’s not just our sin. The Earth is groaning and waiting to be restored.

And then you have the whole animal kingdom which was at peace with us in Genesis, is at peace with us at the end in Revelation, and in the meantime we have the prophets looking forward to that time. But right now it’s a time of rebellion and of strife with animals. So the Bible invites us to think about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ not just in terms of our sin, but in terms of God bringing all of creation back to it’s proper order and place.

Part of that is defeating the rebellious angels, Satan, and the demons and putting them in their proper place. But another part of that is restoring the animal kingdom, is bringing the earth back to a place where it’s no longer groaning with the pain of childbirth. And even C.S. Lewis in his space trilogy in Out of the Silent Planet and That Hideous Strength and Perelandra, he had a vision where the death and resurrection of Jesus restores the Earth to the music of the spheres, which was this ancient idea that the Greeks and the Romans had that the planets made a song.

So the death and resurrection of Jesus restores the earth to that song within the heavens, so even the heavens themselves have a fuller experience, are as they were meant to be because of Jesus’s work. So the more you start poking around the scripture with an eye for this, the more you see it’s thinking about us, but it’s thinking about more than that. It’s thinking about all of creation.

Darrell Bock
Okay, so I’m back to the ransom question then, is there – and I think this is – as you know, in the history of the discussion of this, there’s huge discussion about if we’re gonna use the image of ransom, who gets the payment? And is that even the way to think about this?
Adam Johnson
Oh, yeah. That’s a great question. Okay, so yes, there’s absolutely a ransom, and Satan features prominently, not just in some theories of the atonement, in reading contemporary books you might think, “Oh, that’s a theory. Some people thought that.” The hard thing is to find a theologian who didn’t believe that prior to 1800. Even then, afterwards most of them still affirm it. So what’s going on there?

I think the best way to think about the role of Satan is not as a separate theory, “Oh, that’s the ransom theory.” Satan is one of the characters that’s involved in every theory of the atonement if we develop it properly. Who receives the payment? I’m inclined to side with Anselm and say Satan is not being paid anything, but God is a God who treats his creatures according to the rules that he sets up.

When he says, “You are the ruler of this land,” he will treat you as the ruler of this land and you will be judged or blessed as you fulfill that role. But he will treat you as the ruler. And if you play the role of a corrupt ruler, he will still treat you that way. So he’s treating Satan as the corrupt ruler of our land, but he still gives him the dignity of treating him the way God – with the role that God gave him. So God plays by his own rules. In doing that, he’s not paying Satan, giving him anything that he owes in an exchange so Satan comes out with like – with money or some benefit or something like that. But he’s playing according to his own rules, and that means he’s giving Satan what Satan deserves.

And so in the process, Satan gets what he asks for. He gets the death of Jesus. He gets a lot of suffering throughout creation. But in the process, God’s undermining his power. So I think ransom theory is primarily a matter of God undermining the power of Satan while playing by his own rules and not cheating, not just destroying Satan, in a way that will restore Christ as the head of creation. Where Satan was trying to take that from us.

Darrell Bock
Okay. I think that takes us through that category. We’ve got time for one more category. Let’s talk about Christ as the example, which I think is a very underdeveloped idea in relationship to atonement. So help us with that one.
Adam Johnson
Okay so the standard storyline goes that exemplarism, Christ as example was invented by Peter Abelard. And his idea was Christ is such a powerful inspiring example that it changes us, and that’s how the death and resurrection is saving. Well, that all comes from about a five-page selection from his commentary on Romans, which has now finally been translated in 2011. If you read the whole commentary, Peter Abelard is not an exemplarist. So that view became popular during the enlightenment and 1800s. It’s not a standalone theory of the atonement like you would read in a lot of textbooks.
Darrell Bock
It’s a way of neutering and neutralizing other aspects of the theology, which the enlightenment tended to do.
Adam Johnson
So it’s just an enlightenment thing. But that’s if it’s meant to do everything by itself. That’s a little bit like your mom cooking only pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. Pumpkin pie is fabulous. If that’s all you’re cooking, I’m sure you’re gonna get sick soon. Maybe not as fast as if you only ate at McDonalds, but that’s another story. So if all you’re trying to do is cook with that pie, you’re in trouble. But there’s a huge line of thought throughout scripture.

God wants to be known. God wants to be known and worshipped accordingly. But we don’t have the tools for knowing him given our fallen condition. Even though creation might be testifying and witnessing, we are not the kinds of creatures who can absorb and respond to that properly. So part of what God is doing is coming, and as the God who wants to be known, he’s making himself known through his own activity.

Darrell Bock
And he’s showing who he is by what he does.
Adam Johnson
Yes, showing who he is – exactly – by what he does. He’s sweeping us up into the story of his life in a way that makes himself known so that we and all creation can respond. So this is just a massive self revelation of God that puts aside every other false God, false witness, false testimony, so that creation can respond in worship.
Darrell Bock
And the example is, if I can use the analogy, just as Jesus washed the feet of the disciples in John 13 as he was preparing to tell them about his death, his death is the consummate illustration of the service that reveals the character and care of God.
Adam Johnson
And then the resurrection pulls into – can pull that storyline right to it’s completion. The resurrection then says, “And this is the joyful existence of the life that lives that way, affirmed in the life of God.”
Darrell Bock
And exalted and honored after the suffering to show this is something that God approves of.
Adam Johnson
Absolutely. And so if you go that route, then that sort of exemplarism, sort of just the revelation of God who triumphs over all idolatry. That I can affirm – we have to affirm that.
Darrell Bock
Yes. So our time is up, amazingly. And so we’ve gone through penal substitution. We’ve gone through honor and shame substitution, if I can say it that way. We’ve gone through cosmic redemption and the ransom theory, and we’ve gone through Jesus is the example. Just a variety of ways to think about the atonement beyond the simple penal substitution that everybody tends to think of. Adam, I thank you for helping us get unperplexed as we’ve looked at the atonement.
Adam Johnson
Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Darrell Bock
We’re glad to have you, and we’re glad that you could be a part of our discussion here on the table. We discuss issues of God and culture and we look forward to seeing you again soon.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Jun 30, 2020
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