Thursday, July 29, 2010

Does The Bible Teach Substitutionary Atonement?

There are a number of passages that are used as “proof” of Substitutionary atonement. I am not going to deny that they are about that particular theory of atonement, but I see no evidence that they “prove” one particular view of atonement. Rather, they speak about atonement in general without speaking to how atonement works. I’m going to cover each one, and it will sound as if I’m a naysayer to all of them. My real evidence against the atonement theory comes later. This isn’t evidence. It is simply showing that the passages don’t have to be speaking of one particular theory:

I Peter 2:24—“He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” The evidence for a substation comes in the phrase “bore our sins in His body”. Thus, the idea is that Jesus took the sins of (at least) believers when He died, offering salvation. Note that it does not speak of paying the penalty for sin, though, nor of bearing the wrath of God. And the term “bore” has implications in English that don’t exist in Greek. In fact, the Greek word anaphero is often used in sacrifice language to bring to an altar or, more simply to “carry away”, as it is translated in the New Living Translation. Thus, it just means that Jesus is on the cross due to our sins, and that His death in some way gives us freedom from sins. But it does not imply any kind of substitution or of payment for a penalty. That is read into the text. In fact, it says that Jesus did this for the purpose of not living in sin anymore, but living for God’s righteousness. However, a simple substitution would imply the opportunity to live as we will, not necessarily to encourage a change of lifestyle.

Isaiah 53:4-6—“Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.” This is certainly the passage that I Peter 2:24 is quoting. And Isaiah 53 is certainly speaking of a person’s death acting as an atonement for other’s sins. The story of it, however, doesn’t have to be a vicarious substitute, however. In fact, the broader passage seems to emphasize something else.
The people, in their sin, see the prophet of God as being reject by God and so they punish him severely. Thus he was “crushed for our iniquities”—because of the sin of the people they saw HIM as the sinner. However, God, seeing the evil of the people and the innocence of the sufferer, places the one who suffered unjustly as the ruler of the people. And instead of taking vengeance on them, he teaches them the way of justice and establishes the rule of mercy. If one reads from Isaiah 52- 53, this story comes out clearly. Substitution might be possible, but not necessary.

II Cor. 5:21-- He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
The language there isn’t necessary. The Greek says, “He made him who knew no sin to be a sin offering for us.” So this is sacrifice language. How does the atonement work? That depends on how sacrifice works, which I will discuss later.

Genesis 22—The offering of Isaac is often seen as a type of Jesus’ death, and that very well could be. However, it can be shown in this story that human sacrifice is rejected as a demonstration of God’s love, that Isaac isn’t a substitute for anyone’s sins, but rather the sacrifice would be a demonstration of Abraham’s ultimate devotion to God. I don’t see how this works for Substitutionary atonement at all.

Romans 3:25; I John 2:2; I John 4:10— All three of these passages uses the word iesterios, which is often translated “propitiation”. Propitiation is a word that means an offering to set aside wrath. However, there isn’t a clear connection between the idea of “propitiation” and “iesterios”. Most Greek lexicons, including the UBS lexicon and the Lowe-Nida lexicon translate the word as “the means of forgiveness” or “the place of forgiveness”. In other words, the negative idea of God’s wrath being appeased need not apply. Jesus death is simply the means of God’s forgiveness. How that works isn’t specifically mentioned.

II Cor 1:9—“We had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” This passage is occasionally used to speak of the sentence of death. However, it is in the context of Paul and his companions suffering that this passage is used. A better passage about all humanity being under Death is Romans 3:23.

John 19:30
—“It is finished.” When Jesus died he made this final statement. But what is finished? Anyone can invent what Jesus was intending there.

So, from these passages we can say clearly that Jesus’ death is meant to be a kind of sacrifice, that Jesus death is due to our sins, and that Jesus’ death is meant to offer forgiveness. Also, it is mentioned in a couple of the passages that Jesus’ death is to cause us to become righteous and put away our sin. But how does sacrifice work? And how does Jesus’ death cause us to set aside our sin? And how do we get forgiveness? None of that is explained in these passages. However a broader look at Scripture will give us a better idea of how Jesus’ sacrifice worked.

My interpretation of the Scriptures above might seem dissatisfactory. After all, I haven't proved that they don't talk about substitutionary atonement. I've only shown that they are general statements of atonement. Again, in this place, I am not trying to prove an atonement theory, nor am I trying to prove that substitutionary atonement is wrong-- I'll save that for later. Instead I am showing that the Bible doesn't necessarily teach it, and thus it cannot be used as a doctrine for salvation. Because there are different interpretations, we have to allow for diversity. Jesus died for our sins -- that is enough to believe.


  1. I have also come to doubt substitution atonement. I think there is more evidence of the rejection of the sacrifice, that God is turning away from men's violence and violent solutions through sacrifice in the resurrection of Christ. Christ did not die for us, he died because of us, and that sacrifice on the cross, his death, was rejected by God, as is all similar forms of sacrifice and the notion that God is vengeful and demands human death as an atonement.

  2. Enjoyed your thoughtful reflections. I've had similar, which lead me to wonder if the doctrine of vicarious/substitutionary atonement is not Biblical so much as it is a hangover from a pagan outlook that sees God as basically vengeful and needs innocent blood to appease him. Our guilty consciences reads this into Scripture... If God is as a loving Father, then He wants sons and daughters who reflect His pure image, not people who are left in their sins but "imputed" a righteousness they do not have.