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A Critique of the Penal Substitution Interpretation of the Cross of Christ

(2nd ed., 2022)

ABSTRACT: This essay is an attempt to recover the oldest meaning of the cross of Jesus and that of Jesus’ resurrection in their historical context. The paper argues that penal substitution, the popular conservative evangelical interpretation of the cross, is incorrect, and furthermore that it results in interpretive absurdities when applied to the text/evidence. Penal substitution claims that a just God lacks the ability to forgive, and so requires punishment for sin, where the innocent Jesus was substituted for us sinners and brutally bore the punishment for our sins, wiping our sin debt clean. By contrast, this essay presents a nonpenal substitution participation crucifixion model, where Jesus is understood to be our willing victim as a catalyst for opening our eyes to our hidden “satanic influenced vileness” and for encouraging repentance. This problem is specifically outlined in the dense passage of Mark 15:10-15, a passage dis-closing the hidden vileness of the easily incited crowd, the hidden jealousy of the religious elite, and the utter lack of commitment to justice of crowd-placating Pilate, who releases Barrabas, a known killer of Romans, but who tortures and executes Jesus without a confession or having found that Jesus did anything wrong. The oldest meaning of the resurrection of Jesus will also be shown to be what Jesus’ disciples took to be evidence for overcoming death in a blessed way, and empowering us to live righteously. The cross/resurrection argument will further be contextualized in a Second Temple framework of apocalypticism and demonology/superstition to show that the original meaning of the cross and resurrection is so divorced from most modern Christian frameworks and beliefs that many modern Christians would reject the heart of what their ancient counterpart would hold as fundamental to living a good and holy Christian life. The upshot is that the usual modern conservative interpretations of the cross and resurrection bear no, or at least merely superficial, relation to the original ancient ones. Basically, this essay argues for an understanding of the cross that is a nonpenal substitution understanding that emphasizes (1) love for enemies (Matthew 5:43-48) that is (2) manifested in such ideas as those expressed in Luke 23:34, which results in (3) transformations like those found in Luke 23:47 and Mark 15:39. This is all perfectly reasonable, but it becomes absurd when we come to see it in an ancient demonology framework.[1]

  1. The Old Rugged Cross: Penal Substitution vs. Participation
  2. Creating the Meaning of the Cross: Haggadic Midrash/Mimesis
  3. But the Question is: Why was Mark Looking to Isaiah 53?
  4. The Martyr Model of the Cross
  5. Satan and the Crucifixion/Resurrection
  6. The Archons of this Aion
  7. Satan in Paul’s Epistles
  8. The Resurrection: Christ in You to Empower You in Resisting Satan’s Influence
  9. God’s Plan of Redemption
  10. Conclusion

1. The Old Rugged Cross: Penal Substitution vs. Participation

“Atonement is the central doctrine of the Christian faith, and penal substitution is the heart of this doctrine.” (Roger Nicole)

“The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ can be abandoned only by eviscerating the soteriological heart of historic Christianity.” (Timothy George)

“Deny the vicarious nature of the atonement—deny that our guilt was transferred to Christ and he bore the penalty—and you have in effect denied the ground of our justification. If our guilt was not transferred to Christ and paid for on the cross, how can his righteousness be imputed to us for our justification? Every deficient view of the atonement must deal with this same dilemma.” (John MacArthur)

“The doctrine of penal substitution could be expunged from the biblical witness only by a perverse and criminal mistreatment of the sacred text or a tendentious distortion of its meaning.” (Greg Bahnsen).

“The belief that the cross had the character of penal substitution…. I am one of those who believe that this notion takes us to the very heart of the Christian Gospel.” (J. I. Packer)

(all above references cited in Pulliam, 2011, p. 182)

If you are a conservative evangelical Christian, you most likely believe in the penal substitution understanding of what was accomplished by Jesus on the cross. Penal substitution is the core of the evangelical Christian faith on which everything rests, and from which everything proceeds. What is penal substitution? Ken Pulliam explains it as follows:

God’s holiness demands that sin be punished. God cannot remain just and forgive man without punishing his sin. That would ignore the seriousness of sin. Therefore, God sent his son to bear the punishment for man’s sin. Jesus vicariously bears the punishment for man’s sin. Once sin has been punished, then God can forgive man without compromising his holiness or justice. (Pulliam, 2011, p. 181)

Some key passages that are often pointed to by conservative scholars in favor of the penal substitution model of the death and resurrection of Jesus include:

  • Romans 3:23-26—”All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.”
  • 2 Corinthians 5:21—”For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
  • Galatians 3:10, 13—”All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.’ … Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree.'”
  • Colossians 2:13-15—”And you, who were dead in trespasses and uncircumcision of your flesh having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.”
  • Mark 10:45—”For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
  • Mark 15:39—”And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!'”
  • Mark 14:24—”And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.'”
  • Mark 15:37-39, where Jesus dies and the curtain in the Temple is immediately ripped in half. This curtain is to be understood as separating God from humanity—he was believed to dwell in the Holy of Holies behind the curtain, and only the high priest could go into his presence in that room, and that only once a year on the Day of Atonement to make a sacrifice for the people’s sins. Now, with the death of Jesus, in Mark, the curtain is destroyed, and people thereafter do have access to God.[2]
  • Mark 15:6-15, where Jesus is killed instead of Barabbas. This is sometimes pointed to as penal substitution imagery. But this isn’t a good fit because Jesus wasn’t killed making Barabbas any less guilty, rather the prisoner Barabbas is able to go free because of Jesus’ death. This will be related below to people being a prisoner/hostage to demonic influence. Innocent Jesus wasn’t killed for sins Barabbas committed. Rather, in a miscarriage of justice Barabbas, a known killer of Romans, was released to placate and flatter the crowd, just like in a miscarriage of justice Pilate executed Jesus without cause to flatter an placate the crowd and Jewish elite.

The penal substitution interpretation is the core of the conservative evangelical Christian faith. But it’s probably historically unrelated to what the oldest Christian beliefs were about the cross. In fact, the penal substitution model only fully appeared a thousand years after Jesus, and was long predated by the ransom model (Morrison, 2014).

Devastatingly so for conservative Christian scholars and Christ myth advocates, critical scholars generally think that Jesus did not preach about his crucifixion or resurrection during his lifetime, or about the idea that these events had some special “saving” component for humanity.[3] There are numerous lines of evidence for this. One important one in the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus’ disciples seemed to have no clue that Jesus was supposed to be arrested and die as part of the mission. We can infer this from the fact that Mark says that Jesus’ disciples got violent at the arrest. Why would this violence have happened if they had thought that Jesus was supposed to be arrested? Mark obviously had an issue with reconciling the central event of Jesus’ crucifixion with the problem that no one knew that it was supposed to happen, and so Mark invented the obviously ad hoc argument that Jesus had repeatedly explained in clear terms that the crucifixion and resurrection were coming, but that the disciples were too clueless and stupid to understand him. The obvious inference here is that the disciples were well known for having clashed with the arresting party, and Mark had to explain this away. A similar line of evidence is that at the earliest stage of the Q source (the material common to Matthew and Luke that didn’t come from Mark), Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are not even mentioned. Conservative Christian scholars and Christ myth advocates are quite uncomfortable with such evidences because their whole approach falls apart if the crucifixion and resurrection are not basic to the religion. Carrier has this problem, so he denies that any history can be distilled from the Gospels, and denies that there is a Q source.

Regarding the cross, there are two basic models: the penal substitution or vicarious atonement model, and the moral influence model. Here is a helpful brief Wikipedia article on moral influence. Penal substitution is basically the idea from conservative (current and former) Christians and mythicists that the original Christians thought that we deserved to die for our sins, but luckily for us, Jesus died in our place so that we’re saved! The moral influence model counters with the logical point that if punishing an innocent child in Africa for the crimes of a felon in Chicago obviously doesn’t serve justice, how would punishing an innocent Jesus for our sins serve justice? Moreover, it imputes on the Jewish tradition a God who can’t forgive, which runs afoul of any number of Hebrew scripture portraits, like the penitential Psalms or the story of Jonah.

There seem to be a couple of things going on. Paul says in 1 Corinthians that he received (presumably from James, Peter, and John, son of Zebedee) that Christ died “for” our sins. On the one hand, this seems to reflect the Yom Kippur sacrifices of the pure goat and the violent death of the scapegoat, as well as a moral component where Jesus’ death awakens us to our moral depravity and inspires repentance. Thus Jesus dies “for our sins” to be made conspicuous so that we can repent. In this way—as in the case of Socrates in his last words to Crito—there seems to be two levels: a superficial level of Jesus dying “for our sins,” erasing them like a super blood magic version of the Yom Kippur goats, and a more essential version of making our hidden sins conspicuous so that we can work on them. After all, forgiveness is meaningless if we don’t have a contrite heart, since we will just sin again. Mark satirizes the penal substitution view of the cross with the absurd fictional account of Barabbas being released instead of Jesus. From a literary point of view, the idea that the cruel historical Pilate would release Barabbas, a known killer of Romans, thereby condemning Jesus—whom he found no fault with, just to placate a crowd of Jewish subjects that the historical Pilate couldn’t have cared less about—emphatically shows that the Yom Kippur sacrifices result in the very opposite of justice. We need to see beyond this vicarious atonement surface level to a more noble Socratic moral influence ethics, this being the key issue that conservative Christians and mythicists get wrong. This is why the early Christians were an anti-temple cult.

I think that what we’re getting is a replacement of the unethical Jewish Yom Kippur sacrifice tradition with the pagan death of Socrates and the impaled just man in Plato’s Republic tradition, the Republic being the most famous book in the ancient world. With Socrates, we have a pagan unjust death and what it inspires, like the transfiguring of the pagan Roman soldier at the cross. Socrates’ famous last words were a prayer of thanksgiving to divine Asclepius for the hemlock poison, presumably because it cures him of the prison (sema) of his body (soma), and will work as a catalyst to change the society that was responsible for his unjust death (pharmakon: poison and cure). Similarly, the impaled just man in the Republic was a challenge: how could a just man who is horribly killed for his ideals have a more desirable life than that of an unjust man who has obtained all of the pleasures of the world? Clearly, the answer conveyed is: if his death meant something.

Similarly, there seems to be an invented literary pair in Mark between the desperate Gethsemane prayer and the Psalm-22-based-cry from the cross in order to emphasize that despite Jesus’ desperation, he ultimately trusted in God. Two points are noteworthy. First, obviously, if Jesus thought that the cup could be taken from him, Mark is winking that Jesus didn’t think that he needed to die for God’s plan to be realized. But ultimately, it was probably well known that Jesus was squealing like a pig on the cross, and this didn’t fit with the later salvific mission interpretation of the cross, so Mark started spinning things: Jesus was terrified, but this just shows how obedient Jesus was to God to declare God’s will rather than his own. We thus see a contrast between the cup that Jesus wished were taken from him in Gethsemane and the cup of poison hemlock that Socrates took:

Socrates in the prison cell in Athens, according to Plato’s account, took his cup of hemlock “without trembling or changing colour or expression” [Phaedo, trans. H. N. Fowler, pp. 117-118)]. He then “raised the cup to his lips and very cheerfully and quietly drained it” [(Ibid., p. 118)]. When his friends burst into tears, he rebuked them for their “absurd” behavior and urged them to “keep quiet and be brave.” He died without fear, sorrow or protest. (Stott, 1986, p. 88)

Luke thus changed the panic stricken Jesus of Mark’s cross to a Socratic calm resolute one because it made better theological sense.

Conceptually, even on a cursory examination, the penal substitution interpretation of the cross is highly problematic. For one thing, it is logically incoherent. It appeals to God’s desire/demand for justice, but makes a claim that is fundamentally unjust—by analogy, how does a judge punishing an innocent child in Africa for a robbery committed by a felon in Boston satisfy/serve justice? A judge imposing such a punishment would be incoherent and unjust. Also, it decontextualizes Christianity from the Hebrew scripture tradition because one thing that God can always do in Judaism is forgive. We have an analogy from Psalms that one person can’t pay another’s ransom (contrary to what substitutionary atonement assumes), but it is up to the grace God to deal with death (or forgive sins in the case of the New Testament):

Truly no man can ransom another,
   or give to God the price of his life,
8 for the ransom of their life is costly
   and can never suffice,
9 that he should live on forever
   and never see the pit. …
15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
   for he will receive me. (Psalm 49:7,15 ESV)[4]

In fact, Keith Giles points out that there would be a number of reasons why Jesus having been a vicarious penal substitution atonement sacrifice would have contradicted scripture:

  1. Sin offerings had to be female [not male] animals according to Leviticus 4:32;
  2. Sin offerings could not have any wounds according to Leviticus 22:22;
  3. Sin offerings had to be taken to the priest and offered on the altar inside the Temple according to Deuteronomy 12:13-14;
  4. Human sacrifices for sin were an abomination to God according to Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10 and Ezekiel 16:20;
  5. God does not allow any man to die for the sins of another according to Psalm 49:7-8;
  6. All are accountable for their own sins. A Father cannot take responsibility for the sins of his children according to Ezekiel 18:20; and
  7. The sacrifice that took away the sins of the people was NOT put to death but set free in the wilderness according to Leviticus 16:9-10.

With the exception of 7 (the scapegoat did die a horrible death), Keith Giles seems generally reliable here, and so if Jesus’ death is to have salvific meaning, it’s not as penal substitution atonement. Giles sums up the case against penal substitution as follows:

Now, this doesn’t mean that our sins are not forgiven. Nor does it mean that the crucifixion didn’t play an important role in establishing our forgiveness.

Our sins are forgiven for one simple reason: Jesus forgave us.

What Jesus did was only what he saw the Father doing. And what do we see the Father doing when we look at Jesus? We see the Father [through Jesus] forgiving everyone he encounters, no matter what.

God’s response to our sin is forgiveness. We are forgiven.

Jesus really is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” because Jesus takes even the worst possible sin we can throw at him—the torture and murder of an innocent man [even the son of God himself]—and his response is this: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

And the result? God answers this prayer. We are all forgiven.

Where was God on the day we crucified Jesus? “God was in Christ reconciling the World to Himself, NOT counting our sins against us.” [2 Cor. 5:19]

But, I thought there was no forgiveness without the shedding of blood?! Doesn’t the Bible tell us this?

Yes, and no.

What it says [in Hebrews 9:22] is that ‘under the Law’ there is no forgiveness apart from the shedding of blood. But we are not under the Law. [Something the author of Hebrews takes great pains to point out].

Not only that, there are at least 7 examples where the forgiveness of sins WAS proclaimed WITHOUT the shedding of blood.

For example:

Application of oil (Lev 14:29)
Burning flour (Lev 5:11-13)
Burning incense (Num 16:41-50)
Payment of money (Exod 30:11-16)
Gifts of jewelry (Num 31:48-54)
The release of a live animal [the scapegoat] (Lev 16:10)
Simple appeals to God through words/prayers (Exod 32:30)

So, not only does PSA theory have very little scriptural support for the notion that God ordained that Jesus should be sacrificed on the cross to atone for ours sins, we have numerous examples in scriptural where almost every single point of this atonement theory is soundly contradicted.

Rather than complicate what happened on the cross, the New Testament authors make it very simple:

We murdered Jesus. God raised him from the dead. [See Acts 2:23; 3:15; 5:30; 10:39; 13:28]

We sinned. God forgave us. [See Ps. 103:12; 1 Cor. 13:5; John 1:29; Luke 7:48; Matt. 9:5; 2 Cor. 5:19; Heb. 10:17]

Jesus took the worst we had to offer and still extended his boundless love, grace and forgiveness to us all—before, during and after the crucifixion event.

Where does that leave us now?

Forgiven. Accepted. Redeemed. Qualified. Reconciled.

And—most of all—loved beyond measure, scope, expectation or imagination. [Eph. 3:18; Rom. 8:38-39; 1 John 3:1]

PSA is bad news. The Gospel of Christ is Good News. (Giles, 2020)

As we will see below, it is in fact God sending Jesus to die that becomes the ransom (i.e., pays the price) that breaks the spell of Satan, who was holding the minds of humans hostage. But this has nothing to do with substitutionary atonement; rather, it concerns turning the mirror on oneself and dis-covering vileness, inspiring repentance so that God can forgive. A “payment of the sin debt” interpretation argues that Jesus (either as God incarnate or a highly favored human prophet) paid the punishment for sin that we deserved because a just God demanded retribution for our sin. But Psalm 49:15 doesn’t talk about a death that satisfies God’s demand for justice; rather, it concerns a price paid that breaks the stranglehold of death, which in the New Testament constitutes sin, e.g., in Romans 8. Look at verses 5-6: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” So we read in Barnes’ commentary on Psalms 49:15:

But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave—literally, “from the hand of Sheol;” that is, from the dominion of death. The hand is an emblem of power, and it here means that death or Sheol holds the dominion over all those who are in the grave. The control is absolute and unlimited. The grave or Sheol is here personified as if reigning there, or setting up an empire there.

It seems that the drama of the crucifixion that unfolded in the New Testament was a copying or mimesis/haggadic midrash of Psalm 49, except death is reinterpreted as sin and the dominion of Satan. The central New Testament theme is thus pure literary invention out of the Hebrew scriptures. Mark uses the same technique when he imitatively portrays John the Baptist as the new and greater Elijah, as does Matthew when portraying Jesus as the new and greater Moses. But we should not think that the first Christians read Psalm 49:15 as referring to a Trinitarian “God incarnate Jesus” as defeating death/sin. Rather, they likely read it as the human prophet Jesus enacting God’s will. There is a similar God/David expression in 1 Chronicles 14:11: “So he went up to Baal-perazim, and David defeated them there. David said, ‘God has burst out against my enemies by my hand, like a bursting flood.'” Clearly, here God acts through David; the implication is not that David is God.

God manifesting through people is a pretty consistent Jewish theme with God acting through people to demonstrate his power and glory. For example, Moses defeats the magicians of Pharaoh because the Jewish God is in charge, not the Egyptian gods. And Elijah demonstrates the sovereignty of the Jewish God by defeating the prophets of Baal. Jesus displays the superiority of the Jewish God by overcoming the will of Rome and its son of God Caesar by Jesus being resurrected following the Roman execution of Jesus. Grammatically, Paul points out that Jesus is being raised by God, that it is not something that Jesus is doing to himself, and so there is nothing of a Trinity metaphysics going on here. That was a later development, and one that isn’t even logically coherent because to say that Jesus was fully man, fully God, and fully Holy Spirit imputes 300% being to Jesus, which is mathematical gibberish. Conservatives thus say that the Trinity is a mystery, although I would say that it’s more meaningless than mystery.

Finally, it’s unclear what proponents of the conservative interpretation of the cross think Jesus’ death accomplished, since it is basically unrelated to whether one goes to Hell or not, and without the resurrection it is meaningless (1 Corinthians 15:17). The death of Jesus is of no effect (even in conservative Christian theology) if you commit a crime and don’t repent. If you do repent, then you are forgiven; so if forgiveness works, why did Jesus have to die in the first place? Such an interpretation results in the ethical absurdity that a person can be paradigmatically moral their whole life, and yet still go to Hell if they have incorrect beliefs, whereas if Hitler had quietly repented and asked for forgiveness before he died, he would be in paradise right now. The penal substitution model is certainly an easy way to attain a holy life, but it is unlikely to be historically biblical.

A more reflective interpretation of the cross has been proposed by scholars like Derek R. Brown (2011) and Paula Fredriksen (2018) in their studies on Paul, which concluded that what the cross actually did was render a proleptic judgment on all evil powers—the eschatological defeat of Satan (Christ the Victor). There is certainly merit in this reading, but it results in the interpretive absurdity that Christ’s death nullified the power of Satan/demons, but Satan and the demonic were still in control (see, for instance, Fredriksen, 2018, pp. 88-89).

This essay proposes an interpretation of the cross and resurrection that sees Luke-Acts as an exemplar for reading Paul and Mark where what is at issue is not reconciling man with God by wiping away the sin debt, but rather how Jesus as the specially chosen paradigmatically holy man of God, through his horrific torture and unjust murder by society, dis-closes (aletheia) the hidden satanically/demonically vile nature of humanity. This inspires repentance and change, an awakening of what Paul called the law God wrote on human hearts (Romans 2:14-15). The repentance and change mirrors that which followed Socrates’ death, or that which ensued from Plato’s paradigmatically righteous impaled just man in book 2 of the most famous book in the ancient world, Plato’s Republic.

2. Creating the Meaning of the Cross: Haggadic Midrash/Mimesis

To begin to explore this, there seems to have been an adoption by the New Testament writers of the Greek mimesis technique (which in Second-Temple Judaism could perhaps be called Haggadic Midrash), the practice of rewriting old stories in order to show that the copy is superior to the original. So, for example, as Bart D. Ehrman points out, Matthew’s story of Jesus retells the story of Moses to present Jesus as the new and greater Moses (Ehrman, 2012). Similarly, Mark frames his portrayal of John the Baptist in the account of Elijah, which had the added bonus of paralleling Jesus with Elisha, who was Elijah’s successor and superior (Price, 2005). This technique has profound consequences for the New Testament portrayal of the crucifixion and resurrection.

For example, according to most evangelical Christian scholars, likely the clearest Old Testament prophecy about Jesus is the entire 53rd chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah 53:3-7 is especially unmistakable. However, the consensus of critical scholars is that 2 Isaiah (what scholars call Isaiah 40-66) wasn’t making a prophecy about Jesus (Spong, 2011). Mark was doing a haggadic midrash, inventing a story about Jesus by using Isaiah 53 as a model. So, Mark depicts Jesus as one who is despised and rejected, a man of sorrow acquainted with grief. He then describes Jesus as wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities. The servant in Isaiah, like Jesus in Mark, is silent before his accusers. The book of Isaiah says of the servant with his stripes that we are healed, which Mark turned into the story of the scourging of Jesus. This is, in part, where penal substitution atonement theology comes from, but it would be silly to say 2 Isaiah was talking about atonement. The servant is numbered among the transgressors in Isaiah, so Jesus is crucified between two thieves.

Further, in a peer-reviewed article for the Encyclopedia of Midrash, Robert M. Price argues:

[T]he substructure for the crucifixion in chapter 15 is, as all recognize, Psalm 22, from which derive all the major details, including the implicit piercing of hands and feet (Mark 24//Psalm 22:16b), the dividing of his garments and casting lots for them (Mark 15:24//Psalm 22:18), the “wagging heads” of the mockers (Mark 15:20//Psalm 22:7), and of course the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34//Psalm 22:1). (Price, 2005, p. 553)

The Septuagint, a Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek made before the Common Era, has “they dug my hands and feet,”, which some commentators argue could be understood in the general sense as “pierced.” Notably, the team of specialist scholars who put together the Jewish Annotated New Testament (2nd edition) also affirm the dependency of Mark’s crucifixion narrative on Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22.

3. But the Question is: Why was Mark Looking to Isaiah 53?

If you were to ask a Christian child the meaning of the cross, they would probably say something like “Jesus died for my sins.” This isn’t the end of the conversation, though, but rather the beginning of it. We see a similar statement in the oldest references to Jesus’ death, the pre-Pauline Corinthian creed that Paul cites, which says “Christ died for our sins according to scriptures.” But what does “for” mean here? Does for mean that Christ died in substitution for us, in order to pay the debt of our sins? Or does it mean that Christ died because of our sins, that our corruption resulted in the unjust horrific death of the highest favored man of God? We started thinking about Isaiah 53 above, so let’s keep the ambiguity of “for” in mind and think about that passage.

Perhaps an initial question is what “sin” means in the context of the New Testament. The most direct definition is when we read: “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). So, sin is lawlessness. And what is this law that is being transgressed even to the degree of being in opposition to God? Jesus says that the essence of the law is loving God with all of your heart and loving your neighbor as yourself, even to the point of love of the enemy. An exemplar of this “sin” would be the world that unjustly turned on Jesus even though he was God’s specially chosen one: Pilate denied him justice; the Jewish supreme council conspired against him, though they knew that it was not God’s will to have Jesus killed; the crowd turned on him; and his disciples repeatedly denied (e.g., Peter), betrayed (e.g., Judas), failed (e.g., violence at arrest), and abandoned Jesus. For Jesus’ death to rescue us from “sin” specifically means washing the scales from our eyes so that we can soberly see our failings, thus serving as a catalyst for change. If we don’t clarify what we mean by “sin” and “law” in a Christian context, we fall back on the Old Testament commandments and animal sacrifice purity, and completely misunderstand the New Testament as penal substitution. Christian law isn’t followed because you fear punishment, but because “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). It is this sense that Jesus was sinless. Though a person is basically guilty of sin just in virtue of living (“if your eye offends you pluck it out” [Matthew 18:9]), Jesus was blameless in the sense that he showed love of God and humanity—the pillars on which all the commandments stand—in an exemplary way. Despite every fiber of his being wanting to flee and hide, he submitted to God in Gethsemane, a perfect relation to his “commanding officer” that was recognized by the transfigured “soldier” at the cross in Mark. In Luke this becomes the soldier being transfigured by Jesus showing perfect forgiveness.

An important starting point is how we’re going to interpret the key word in Isaiah 53:5. Does (i) “for” = “in place of,” or does (ii) “for” = “because“? For the conservative evangelical reading to hold, “for” has to mean “in place of.” But it’s ambiguous. We could translate:

“But he was pierced in place of us for our transgressions,
he was crushed in place of us for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.”


“But he was wounded (for) because of our crimes,
crushed (for) because of our sins;
the disciplining that makes us whole fell on him,
and by his bruises we are healed.”

So, “for” can be understood in either way in Isaiah 53:5—as in place of, or because—and so we need to appeal to the context. In other words, “FOR” can mean:

  1. “In place of”: go to the store for me; “On behalf of”: speaks for the court

…but just as possible is reading “for” this way:

  1. “Because of”: I can’t sleep for the heat; I can’t win for trying.

The consensus of critical scholars agrees that the passage from 2 Isaiah above is referring collectively to Israel, not the vicarious atonement of the messiah (as conservatives suggest). So, as Marshall Roth explains, one possible reading is:

Isaiah 53 is a prophecy foretelling how the world will react when they witness Israel’s salvation in the Messianic era. The verses are presented from the perspective of world leaders, who contrast their former scornful attitude toward the Jews with their new realization of Israel’s grandeur. After realizing how unfairly they treated the Jewish people, they will be shocked and speechless…. Indeed, the nations selfishly persecuted the Jews as a distraction from their own corrupt regimes: “Surely our suffering he did bear, and our pains he carried…” (53:4) [emphasis mine] (Roth, 2011)

If this is right, it could be why Mark is looking to Isaiah to construct the crucifixion narrative. In Mark, the Roman soldier looks up at Jesus, who was faithful unto death despite his plea in Gethsemane, and says “Truly, this man was God’s son.” This could be interpreted as vicarious atonement, but it could just as easily refer to the transformative experience of the soldier seeing his culpability in the holy Jesus unjustly crucified that brings about the realization of one’s hidden vice and results in repentance. This is precisely the generally accepted meaning of the cross in Luke.

The idea of the mighty nations being humbled before the chosen of God certainly has precedence in Hebrew scriptures (e.g., in Micah 7:16). The nations who confronted God’s people were humbled (i.e., “put their hands on their mouth) (e.g., Judges 18:19; Job 21:5; 29:9; 40:4). It will be so again because under His renewed covenant, people go forth in His power and presence (cf. Psalm 2).[5] As we will see later with Paul, it will be the Christian community, not just Jesus, that is victorious over Satan.

So, perhaps Jesus “fulfilled” Isaiah 53, not as a prophecy of Jesus as a penal substitution atoning sacrifice, but rather “filled it full of meaning”—which, according to Ehrman (2015), is what fulfilled means in a Jewish religious context. Regarding whether to choose “for” as “because of” or “in place of,” Roth adds:

Isaiah 53:5 is a classic example of mistranslation [by conservative Christians]: The verse does not say, “He was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities,” which could convey the vicarious suffering ascribed to Jesus. Rather, the proper translation is: “He was wounded because of our transgressions, and crushed because of our iniquities.” This conveys that the Servant suffered as a result of the sinfulness of others—not the opposite as [conservative] Christians contend—that the Servant suffered to atone for the sins of others. Indeed, the [conservative] Christian [interpretation] directly contradicts the basic Jewish teaching that God promises forgiveness to all who sincerely return to Him; thus there is no need for the Messiah to atone for others (Isaiah 55:6-7, Jeremiah 36:3, Ezekiel chapters 18 and 33, Hosea 14:1-3, Jonah 3:6-10, Proverbs 16:6, Daniel 4:27, 2 Chronicles 7:14) [emphasis mine]. (Roth, 2011)

This is important, but we will explore it later with James McGrath. Portraying God as unable to forgive runs against the grain of Hebrew scriptures.

So, Roth gives a helpful analysis as to why the reader may not need to take Isaiah 53 to refer to penal substitution. Now Andrew Perriman argues that the key to understanding Isaiah 53 is that the innocent servant, Israel, also suffers because of or as consequence of the past actions of Israel, not for them in the sense of substituting for others. Perriman explains the meaning of the passage in its historical context:

It’s an integral part of the story of the exile and the return from exile.

In view of this, I suggested that the suffering servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is best understood as the community of Israel or Jacob that “grew up” in Babylon as a consequence of the sins of the previous generation. They have borne the punishment of Israel, but they will also be the means of redemption and the basis for a new future: “when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand” (Isaiah 53:10; cf. Isaiah 53:12 LXX). [emphasis mine] (Perriman, 2019)

In fact, the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that the New Testament writers were working from, renders Isaiah 53:5 as: “He was wounded because of our acts of lawlessness, and has been weakened because of our sins” (Pietersma, 2007, p. 865). “For” in the sense of “in substitution for us” doesn’t work with the Greek here. “Because” is the correct reading. So, clearly, from Roth and Perriman above we see in Isaiah 53 that the suffering servant refers to Israel as a whole, not the individual messiah that penal substitution advocates want, and that the innocent servant suffers because of others, not in substitution for others. As we will see, this fully supports an interpretation of the cross as an innocent suffering because of others, not in penal substitution for others. In other words, there is good reason why Mark modeled his crucifixion narrative on Isaiah 53, just not any reason that conservative evangelicals want.

Moreover, Breytenbach (2009, p. 348) shows that lying behind Romans 4:25—if the Septuagint version of Isaiah 53:4-6, 12 is at work there—is the idea that Christ died “because” of our trespasses rather than was handed over “for” our trespasses, the latter constituting the incorrect translation of the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition (NSRVue). Consider the Moises Sylva translation:

This one bears our sins
and suffers pain for us,
and we accounted him to be in trouble
and calamity and ill-treatment.
But he was wounded because of our acts of lawlessness
and has been weakened because of our sin;
upon him was the discipline of our peace;
by his bruises we were healed
All we like sheep have gone astray;
a man has strayed in his own way,
and the Lord gave him over to our sins (Septuagint Isaiah 53:4-6, Sylva translation)

Therefore he shall inherit many,
and he shall divide the spoils of the strong,
because his soul was given over to death,
and he was reckoned among the lawless,
and he bore the sins of many,
and because of their sins he was given over (Septuagint Isaiah 53:12, Sylva translation)

Romans 4:25 is a much disputed translation. Agreeing with my translation of cause/because, rather than for, are NLT, NKJV, NASB, ISV, and YLT. Translations that disagree and use for include the NRSVue, NIV, and ESV.

To relate this to Paul’s citation of the beginning of the Corinthian Creed, I reference in note 9 that Blasi translates this as “Christ died because of our sins according to the scriptures,” rather than the more common “Christ died for our sins” (i.e., paying the sin debt). I think that Blasi is right to highlight the “because”—but we should then reintegrate the “for” in a non-penal-substitution manner. Why?

Any number of analogies show the incoherence of penal substitution. Conservative Christians claim that Jesus had to die to serve God’s mandate for justice: sin must be punished and not simply forgiven. But how would punishing an innocent child in Africa for the wrongs of a felon in Chicago serve justice? Similarly, Christ’s sacrifice supposedly wipes the sin slate clean for new believers. If they sin after that, they can repent. But if repentance works, why did Jesus have to die in the first place? Jesus was executed as “King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26), the Davidic heir (Romans 1:3) who was specially favored and chosen by God to restore David’s throne. Jesus proved who he was through his healings and miracles. For a man to believe that Jesus was the Son of God in this sense meant that he saw in himself the angry crowd, the corrupt religious elite, and the indifferent-to-justice Pilate who horribly tortured and executed God’s chosen one. Why? Seeing the actuality/potential for the crowd/religious elite/Pilate in ourselves is the recognition that inspires the change of heart and repentance: walk a mile in the other person’s shoes/but for the grace of God there go I. Think about how if things had gone just a little bit differently in your life, you would have turned out to be a completely different person. If you were born in ancient Roman times, could you have been cheering in the stadium as the Christians were fed to the lions? That’s why Paul says that the corrupt part of us is crucified with Christ. Paul writes: “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not the written code. Such a person receives praise not from humans but from God” (Romans 2:28-29). Paul announces that it is the condition of one’s heart that makes him or her a true child of God. Jesus’ death awakened our hearts to renounce the fleshly in all its forms.

One of the main problems with the interpretation that Jesus died to pay a sin debt is that it doesn’t solve the principal problem of scripture—that the people had corrupted hearts: The reason for Israel’s exile is the corruption of sin within the human heart (Genesis 6:5-6; 8:21; Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 30:6; Psalm 51:10; Isaiah 1:4-6; 29:13; 32:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 17:1-10; 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:26-36). The problem isn’t that Christ must be killed because God can’t forgive sin, as the penal substitution interpretation presumes. If there is one thing that God can do in the Bible, it is forgive. Rather, God can only truly forgive if people have a change of heart. Otherwise it would be analogous to the meaninglessness of a wife continually forgiving a spouse who won’t stop cheating. The change of heart is the key component. That is why I argue for a Lukan moral influence interpretation of the cross rather than the conservative penal substitution one:

  1. Penal Substitution: Christ died for our sins (instead of us)


  1. Moral Influence: Christ died for our sins (to dis-close our hidden corrupt hearts, making them conspicuous for us and hence inspiring repentance) and because of our sins (we killed him, the crowd, religious elite, and Pilate in all of us)

Penal substitution assumes that man, God’s highest creation, is essentially defective. Moral influence assumes that there is inherent goodness in man (the law written on his heart: Romans 2:15), and that it just needs to be woken up.

Jesus claims in Matthew 5:17-18 that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (e.g., make it stricter—adultery includes a lustful eye). What does this mean? Starting at Psalm 19:7 (18 in the Septuagint) of the New English translation of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament that the New Testament writers were working from, the verse says:

The law of the Lord is faultless, turning souls…. Transgressions—who shall detect them? From my hidden ones clear me.

The most recent NRSVUE translation of the Hebrew text of verse 12 is similar: “But who can detect one’s own errors? Clear me from hidden faults.”

In either case the issue is the turning and converting power of the law—and the problem of hidden faults and what is to be done with them—for how can you repent of sins that you’re not aware of? This, in a nutshell, is the question that the New Testament writers are answering. The answer: The world turns on the specially chosen and favored one of God without cause, revealing to them their hidden sin nature and making repentance possible—hence the soldier at the cross in Luke says: “Truly this was an innocent man.” The idea is to see yourself in the humanity that turned on Jesus. Analogously, if you had been a citizen in ancient Rome, you probably would have enjoyed the horrors of the arena as much as any other Roman of the time.

How is this to be understood? Our earliest source, Paul, was from the birthplace of the Stoic enlightenment, and all of our Gospels were written by native Greek speakers. So apparently the Jews had become more culturally literate and inclusive with the expansion of the Roman Empire, and adopted the idea of Socrates offering a prayer of thanksgiving for the poison hemlock, as well as the idea of the impaled just man from Plato’s Republic, the most famous book in the ancient world. That is, these Greek philosophical/ethical ideas had disseminated into Jewish theological thinking. Jesus is the “truth,” in the Greek sense of “aletheia,” because he un-covers (a-letheia) hidden sin par excellence. Why? He simultaneously un-covers the essence of the law, which then inspires a “turn” or “conversion,” or better, “a change of heart.” In this way, regarding Psalm 19:7, the New King James translation is faithful to the septuagint επιστρέφων, turning or converting, inspiring a change of heart like the soldier at the cross in Mark and Luke. This is also the sense in which Jesus is sinless or unblemished (άμωμος; Psalm 19:7, LXX). Why? Jesus does not fall under the law like sinful humanity does, but re-veals it. Jesus, like God, is above the law. Jesus un-covers the essence of the law, such as in showing that adultery is not just the act; Jesus redefines it to include a lustful eye. Similarly, the essence of the law as hesed love is redefined from love of God and neighbor (widows, orphans, strangers) to selfless agape love of enemy as more important than self, or Jesus loving God and His plan in the Gethsemane prayer more than himself (“your will, not mine”). Jesus is the “agapetos” or specially beloved. Jesus on the cross as the specially favored one of God being wrongfully horrifically tortured and executed makes him the Law incarnate (personified). It is meant to inspire a change of heart, a turning or conversion, and so Christ fulfills the law with the cross not as penal substitution blood magic, but rather dis-closing or making conspicuous our hidden sinful nature to inspire repentance, since the point of the religion is God’s forgiveness is powerless if you don’t have a contrite heart, and so Jewish religious history is saturated with a forgiving God. But this wasn’t enough because they still ended up in a dystopian world under the Roman imperial thumb with a wicked Jewish elite and crowd whom Pilate would rather satisfy than bring to justice. I have received some pushback from mythicists such as Richard Carrier, who maintain a conservative penal substitution theory of the cross. This pushback is good: whatever personal pride we have in our ideas, in the name of honesty and accountability, they need to be subjected to the most severe peer evaluation possible. That said, I simply don’t see how anyone can maintain a mythical outer space Jesus interpretation of Christian origins, for the whole point is that it isn’t just what Jesus did “for” us, but what we did “to” him. I have an index of my online writings on this topic of Christian Origins here.

Psalm 19 seems to be particularly fruitful here since the New Testament writers were creatively re-writing the Old Testament, especially Psalms. Mark’s narrative of the crucifixion rewrites Psalm 22 (and Isaiah 53), for instance. In Psalm 19, verse 7 we get the idea of the law inspiring a change of heart, and in verse 12 we get the idea of a sin nature that is hidden from us and must be un-covered: we are blind to ourselves, analogous to a teenager in a toxic romantic relationship who is too close to it to see the forest for the trees. This is moral influence theology, not penal substitution blood magic.

In the section on Isaiah 53, I presented both Perriman and Roth as providing nonpenal substitution explanations for Isaiah 53. Yet, they provide very different interpretations. What I meant is that scripture sometimes serves dual functions, one of them that describes a situation presently pertinent to an author (Perriman’s reading), and another filled full of meaning in the future (Roth’s reading). We see this double technique, for instance, when Matthew appropriates Jeremiah as a prophecy (compare Matthew 2:17-18 to Jeremiah 31:15). Some view Daniel 8:17-26 this way, referring to Antiochus (the historical) and a later time (the prophetical). As I said above, as with the case of my interpretation of the Roman soldier realizing his wrongdoing with Jesus, so with Roth on Isaiah 53, the world coming to see how they wronged the Jewish people would serve as a good model for Mark regarding the world coming to see how they wronged Jesus. As will be shown below, this has to do with Satan’s control over the world ultimately being crushed under the feet of the community of the faithful, not just by the returning Jesus (Romans 16:20).

In Isaiah 53 we read:

Surely he has borne our infirmities
   and carried our diseases; …
yet he bore the sin of many,

Regarding this, it’s important to note that Matthew 8:17 refers to Isaiah 53, and this is used by some to argue that Jesus bore our sins in penal substitution like he bore our sicknesses. But this interpretation makes no sense and actually shows that the exact opposite is true. Matthew 8:17 says: “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.'” Penal substitution proponents are clearly importing modern notions of the idea of “bore” here since, as Ray Fowler points out, it is obvious that Jesus did not contract leprosy when he healed the leper, transferring the disease from the sick person to Jesus’ own body. All that is being said is that Jesus removes sickness as God removes/forgives sins if you repent (compare Psalm 103:2-3). The problem was getting people to realize that they were being controlled by hidden vileness, and so became aware and wanted to repent. For instance, Ezekiel 33:11 says “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways”—and so the moral influence of the cross came to be.

What does the scriptural coloring by the writers of Jesus’ death tell us about the historical details that we can know about his death? As the team of scholars behind the Jewish Annotated New Testament conclude, it may not be possible to locate historical material behind the heavily theologized death account imitating Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. The above suggests that the central aspects of the religion can be completely derived from the rewriting of Hebrew scriptures. As to the source for the resurrection on the third day, Matthew prooftexts the story of Jonah being swallowed for three days in the big fish. Our earliest source for the crucifixion, Paul, understands Jesus being hung on a tree/crucified (Galatians 3:13) pointing to Deuteronomy: everyone hanged on a tree is cursed (Deuteronomy 21:23). Again, conservative evangelicals want this to mean that innocent Jesus bore our sins on the cross, but this is probably not what the passage means. Daniel R. Streett comments that:

(1) When Paul says that Jesus “became a curse,” he is saying not that God cursed Jesus but rather that Jesus condescended to the humility of the cross, was executed by his countrymen in a miscarriage of justice, and was considered by his people to be under a divine curse. (2) When Paul cites Deut 21:23, he does not intend to say that all crucified victims are de facto cursed. Rather, for Paul and his contemporaries, the charge and its validity matter. Because Jesus was innocent, he was not under the curse of Deut 21:23. Paul likely cites the passage to explain how Christ’s death brought special humiliation in the eyes of the Jewish people. (3) Finally, I have argued that Gal 3:13 is not intended to explain the mechanism of atonement, that is, some behind-the-scenes divine transaction. Rather, the text is meant to emphasize the extent of Christ’s suffering in order to redeem his people. The mechanism of redemption is more properly sought in other passages, most likely those that refer to the work of the Spirit in baptism, uniting believers to Christ in his death and resurrection. (Streett, 2015, p. 209)

Elsewhere, Streett clarifies:

Paul deliberately says that Christ “became a curse” rather than “became accursed.” His language evokes the OT covenantal threat that sinful Israel would become a curse and a byword among the nations. Paul is not, therefore, claiming that God (or the Law) cursed Christ, as is so often claimed. I adduce two key linguistic parallels from early Greek texts (Protevangelium of James and Acts of Thomas) to demonstrate that “becoming a curse” refers to a loss of social status as opposed to becoming the object of divine wrath…. Paul does not cite Deut 21:23 in order to establish that everyone who is crucified is divinely cursed. I examine early Jewish (and Christian) readings of Deut 21:23 to establish that no one believed crucifixion per se brought God’s curse on the victim. Indeed, Paul slightly but significantly modifies the wording of the verse (changing κεκατηραμένος ὑπὸ θεου to ἐπικατάρατος) to steer the audience away from this misunderstanding…. Modern readers miss the point of Paul’s statement because they approach the text with questions about the mechanics of [penal substitutionary] atonement. I urge that the passage should rather be read as a description of the status loss (“becoming a curse”) that Jesus underwent in order to redeem Israel. The passage is thus akin to Phil 2:5-9 and other texts which do not provide a theory of atonement so much as they describe the social texture of Christ’s shameful death. (Streett, 2014)

To see what is going on in the New Testament, we have to understand how the authors are playing with two levels of understanding of Yom Kippur goats sacrifices. So we have the commonplace average understanding of the sin saturated scapegoat set free corresponding with the Markan satire of the release of Barabbas, and then the true meaning of the scapegoat suffering an excess of violence as it is torn apart crashing down the cliff (so that the people can ponder the excess of violence of their sins). In this way we see with penal substitution people arbitrarily being released from their sins by the cross of Christ like the murderer of Romans Barabbas bafflingly being released on a whim by Pilate—as a caricature. Penal substitution is not the meaning of the New Testament; rather, penal substitution is what the New Testament is lampooning. Seeing the deficiency of the common penal substitution approach (and the efficacy of the deeper moral influence approach) is the key to unlocking the mystery of the Jesus cult insofar as it was the mystery faith that Mark said it was in Mark 4:11-12. The everyday Jewish tradition taught the pure goat was sacrificed for unintentional sin, and the scapegoat carried away intentional sin, and this dealt with the sin problem for one year. This is the surface meaning of the ritual that the Christians were satirizing and correcting with a deeper level moral influence sense of the cross.

With Barabbas as the personification of what Pilate (as a Roman judge) would have seen as evil in the Jews, it makes sense to initially see Jesus dying instead of Barabbas, which allows Barabbas to go free. Some interpreters thus see Barabbas as sin personified getting away: the scapegoat. Penal substitution theorists thus see Christ taking away our sins, allowing us to go free. However, there is disagreement in the literature here because the scapegoat typology fails on this reading, for there is no ritual abuse or killing of the scapegoat Barabbas. As is often the case with New Testament writing, we have a theme that is “conspicuous by its absence.” What is actually going on with the Barabbas story is that Mark is lampooning the average everyday understanding of the Jewish Yom Kippur pure goat and scapegoat ritual by showing the absurdity of it if Pilate was doing it—as though cruel Pilate would release Barabbas, a known killer of Romans, to cultivate favor with the Jewish crowd. Analogously, executing an innocent child in Africa for the crimes of a murderer in Chicago obviously makes no sense, and this crude understanding of atonement is precisely what the Christians were lampooning.

Mark satirizing the common understanding of the Yom Kippur sacrifices by showing their absurdity if Pilate were doing something analogous with Jesus and Barabbas is actually a very clear example of John Loftus’ outsider test of faith, that is, of viewing one’s own faith from the skeptical point of view of an outsider. Analogously, when a man is in a bad romantic relationship, he often can’t see the negative even though his partner’s toxicity is obvious to his friends. It would make sense that this Christian satirical writing would emerge in the first century in the Roman empire since Horatian satire had become an influential form of Roman writing just prior to Jesus’ time:

Horatian satire, named for the Roman satirist Horace (65-8 BCE), playfully criticizes some social vice through gentle, mild, and light-hearted humour. Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) wrote Satires to gently ridicule the dominant opinions and “philosophical beliefs of ancient Rome and Greece” (Rankin). Rather than writing in harsh or accusing tones, he addressed issues with humor and clever mockery. Horatian satire follows this same pattern of “gently [ridiculing] the absurdities and follies of human beings” (Drury). (Wikipedia, 2023b)

The Gospels are Horatian satire mainly in the sense that they are didactic—that is, they are intended to teach. It is only under the supposition that we are reading satire that the writings can maintain their own logic—for instance, in the idea that the disciples can’t believe without seeing the risen Jesus (even though the reader is expected to believe without doing so), or in the idea that the Cana wine miracle is supposed to be the genesis for belief (even though the author is clear that it never happened, and is just a creative rewrite of the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 17:8-24 LXX per Helms, 1989, p. 86). Skeptics are correct about the absurdities in the New Testament as literal history, but often the nonsense is intentional. In fact, the great irony of the Gospels is that they are mostly presenting as history stories that are actually historical fiction that never happened and are basically made up of creative rewrites of Jewish, Greek, and Roman stories.

So, in a sense, skeptic Carrier (accepting a penal substitution/vicarious atonement interpretation) and progressive Christian McGrath (accepting a moral influence interpretation) are both right, for they really are seeing mutually exclusive elements in the same texts. Carrier is right when he sees early Christianity as another dying/rising savior cult. But when we dig deeper than Carrier and look beneath this surface, we find a deeper meaning: that it is not what Christ accomplished on the cross, but what the cross accomplished in us—by getting us to see ourselves in the indifferent-to-justice Pilate, the corrupt Jewish religious elite, the quick-to-anger crowd, and the disciples that abandoned and betrayed Jesus—that the law written on our hearts can convict and expose our hidden sinfulness and thereby act as a catalyst for repentance. Mark’s whole point is that a penal substitution cross without a contrite heart is meaningless because the person will keep on sinning: freed evil Barabbas will not change his ways just because he got released consequence-free on a technicality. John Dominic Crossan is thereby correct that the Gospels are not only history, but also parables starring Jesus, parables that we have to deconstruct to get to the hidden intent beneath their surface meaning. Sometimes they are like onions with layer under layer—for example: (1) on a surface level, Jesus dies and Barabbas goes free, (2) pointing to a commonplace surface meaning of scapegoat and penal substitution, (3) then leading to a still deeper meaning of moral influence because the ritual abuse and death of scapegoat Barabbas is “conspicuous in its absence.” It is highly technical religious and social satire masked as simple biography.

One of the biggest advances in New Testament studies in this generation has been uncovering the sophistication of the documents. We have gone from looking at them as the reports of the eyewitness testimony of peasants to so much more. There is serious intertextuality going on in them, referencing imitation of Hebrew scriptures (per Robert M. Price) and Greek/Roman literature (per Dennis R. MacDonald). It was a bit of a trick to see this sophistication in Mark because Mark’s Greek seems more crude, Matthew being written in a better Greek than Mark. In response to this Carrier made the rather brilliant observation that Mark is deliberately written in a “low Greek” analogous to how Mark Twain wrote Tom Sawyer in a “low English.” Regarding the sophistication of the New Testament and satire that I mentioned above, the New Testament writers take the term “gospel” from two main sources: (Augustan) Imperial propaganda (Mark, euaggelion) and comic “excessive sacrifice” in Aristophanes’ The Knights (Paul). As Crossan points out, in one sense the message of Peace through Victory of Caesar is being contrasted with the Peace through Justice of Jesus. In this case “gospel” means good news as propaganda about Jesus. In the second sense we have “gospel” as the satire/parody image from Aristophanes’ The Knights. In The Knights by Aristophanes (424 BCE), the comic character Paphlagon proposes an “excessive sacrifice” of a hundred heifers to Athena to celebrate good news: εὐαγγέλιον (Aristophanes, The Knights, 654-656)—as though relating to the divine is now becoming the one who cultivates the greatest bribe for the god. We see further evidence of lampooning the idea of “good news” in the Old Testament. Just as Jesus as the messenger of God is put to death for delivering/proclaiming God’s word, the New Testament writers would have been working from The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament), which uses the word in 2 Samuel 4:10: “when a man told me, ‘Saul is dead,’ and thought he was bringing good news [εὐαγγέλια], I seized him and put him to death in Ziklag.”

The irony is that interpreting Jesus as an “excessive sacrifice” is precisely how many readers, such as Carrier, see Jesus without recognizing the parody/satire intended in the image. So, Carrier and many others say that Christian origins are about the idea that animal atonement sacrifices were insufficient to deal with sin, so a super sacrifice of God’s specially chosen one Jesus was needed once and for all: vicarious atonement/penal substitution. Once we realize that we are dealing with irony/satire here, this comic notion of Jesus as the “excessive sacrifice” can be overcome and points us to a moral influence cross: “Truly this was the son of God/an innocent man.”

The satirical reading in this example has the following three levels: first, Jesus was executed as a criminal; second, Jesus’ death paid the sin debt and atoned for humanity’s sin; and third, what Jesus’ death really did was dis-close our hidden sin nature as we see those who wronged Jesus as a mirror of ourselves and so becomes a catalyst for repentance. Like the satirical reading of the scapegoat Barabbas that I gave above, we have a clear three-part Hegelian dialectical structure (thesis-antithesis-synthesis). In the Barabbas case, we needed to dig deeper beyond the average, everyday meaning of scapegoat to see the richness of the esoteric scapegoat Christian interpretation. In The Knights, the savior or pharmakoi is the sausage-seller who undergoes a baffling transformation at the end of the story to complete his role as savior pharmakos. We can think of the transformation of Jesus from crucified criminal to risen savior. The Greek pharmakos represented a shared belief that the community was saved from disaster by the loss of certain of its members. The loss of Jesus solved the riddle of the approaching apocalypse threatening the the world because it was a path to salvation. Wikipedia explains the allegorical significance of The Knights thus:

Agoracritus—miracle-worker and/or sausage-seller: The protagonist is an ambiguous character. Within the satirical context, he is a sausage seller who must overcome self-doubts to challenge Cleon as a populist orator, yet he is a godlike, redemptive figure in the allegory. His appearance at the start of the play is not just a coincidence but a godsend (kata theon, line 147), the shameless pranks that enable him to defeat Paphlagonian were suggested to him by the goddess Athena (903), he attributes his victory to Zeus, god of the Greeks (1253), and he compares himself to a god at the end (1338). He demonstrates miraculous powers in his redemption of The People and yet it was done by boiling, a cure for meat practised by a common sausage seller. (Wikipedia, 2023a)

The conservative approach to the cross ignores that while the image of a sacrifice is used, the more common presentation is participation, which I will explain below. But in any case, as I said above with Roth, the conservative penal substitutionary view of Jesus’ sacrifice runs counter to what a sacrifice means in the Hebrew scriptures. The idea of sacrifice has to do with a relationship with God or others, not simply wiping the debt clean so that, even though you deserve to die, lucky you because God takes it out on a sheep! The image of sacrifice is used, as is that of participation.

The God of the Bible consistently forgives, and the penal substitution model where God can’t forgive flies in the face of the penitential psalms and the story of Jonah. To portray God as one who lets a criminal go free because an innocent was punished instead renders God unjust. McGrath comments:

Probably even more helpful than “Moses” was 4 Maccabees 6, which presents a martyr praying “Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (4 Macc. 6:28-29). Clearly there were ideas that existed in the Judaism of the time that helped make sense of the death of the righteous in terms of atonement. But the New Testament does not use the language of punishment and exchange in the way 4 Maccabees does…. Paul can talk about sacrifice (and discussing what sacrifice meant in the Judaism of this time would be a subject of its own), but he prefers to use the language of participation. One died for all, so that all died (2 Corinthians 5:14). This is not only different from substitution, it is the opposite of it. Jesus is here understood not to prevent our death but to bring it about! This fits neatly within his understanding of there being two ages, with Christ having died to one and entered the resurrection age, and with Christians through their connection to him having already died to the present age and thus made able to live free from its dominion. One point is Biblical, the other is moral. First, the Bible regularly depicts God as forgiving people. If there is anything that God does consistently throughout the Bible, it is forgive. To suggest that God cannot forgive because, having said that sin would be punished, he has no choice but to punish someone, makes sense only if one has never read the penitential psalms, nor the story of Jonah. And for God to forgive, all that the Bible suggests that God has to do is forgive. The moral issue with penal substitution is closely connected with the points just mentioned. Despite the popularity of this image, to depict God as a judge who lets a criminal go free because he has punished someone else in their place is to depict God as unjust. (McGrath, 2010)

McGrath further notes: “I will not try to argue that penal and/or substitutionary imagery is never used. But the case can be made that it is neither central to the bible as a whole or to the theology of specific writers…. For instance, the Levitical background to Hebrews … helps us understand that the imagery there is of purification of the sanctuary so that God can dwell in the midst of a sinful people” (McGrath, 2010).

Scholars have long thought that Jonah was a “type” of Christ, meaning that Jesus’ story imitates/reverses the story of Jonah on many issues, and presents Jesus as greater than Jonah. Matthew writes:

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. 41 The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! (Matthew 12:38-41)

The difference between the people of Nineveh from the aforementioned Jonah story, and those of Jesus’ generation, is that the people weren’t repenting in Jesus’ time, and so, since the apocalypse was thought nigh, something needed to happen to save as many as possible (something needed to spur them to ask for forgiveness). We can see that imitations and reversals of the Jonah story were used to form the story of Jesus. For instance, we read from one commentator:

  1. Both received a mission from God to go preach. However, Jesus obeyed the Father willingly while Jonah refused at first and only obeyed reluctantly after God let him pout inside a fish.
  2. Both went down to Sheol for three days (Jonah 2:2). Jonah’s experience was more like extreme discomfort (in addition to it being against his will). Jesus went to his death willingly in obedience to the Father and in love for his people.
  3. Both were delivered from their trip down to Sheol, but Jesus was resurrected and offers that same resurrection to whoever would follow him. Jonah was merely spat out of a fish and offers a half-hearted sermon on repentance.
  4. Both preached a message exhorting people to repent in the face of impending judgment. Jonah preached the bare minimum and had no power to save. Jesus preached relentlessly for years…
  5. Both saw sinners repent and believe in God for the forgiveness of sins. Sadly, Jonah hated the Ninevites and didn’t want God to have mercy on them. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, rejoiced when sinners (especially Gentiles) repented and believed.
  6. In dramatic fashion, Jonah selfishly wished for death to escape his discomfort and to avoid seeing his enemies enjoy God’s mercy. Jesus, in quiet obedience, endured torture and death intended for sinners…

What is the moral of the story of Jonah? No person can sink so low as to be beyond forgiveness. As a prophet of God, Jonah had sunk about as low as he could, but God would still forgive him. Nineveh was wicked enough that God intended to destroy it, but He could still forgive them. The primary theme of the story of Jonah and the huge fish is that God’s love, grace, and compassion extend to everyone, even outsiders and oppressors. God loves all people. This story is the exact opposite of how many conservative Christians understand God: for them, God couldn’t forgive, and so Jesus needed to die. This conservative interpretation clearly makes no sense in a Jewish context.

One key to the Jonah story is that Jonah laments the successful teshuva/repentance of Nineveh, but this terrible rejection of God’s will paradoxically encourages the reader to their own teshuva/repentance, specifically to overcome the desire that we have to self-righteously criticize Jonah for being callous, clueless, etc., because we can “turn the mirror” and see Jonah’s failings in ourselves: for example, when we are angry that good things happen to bad people. For an elaboration of this point, see Rachel Rosenthal’s “Our Prophets, Ourselves: Jonah, Judgment and the Act of Repentance” (September 29, 2014).

Last Judgment

In his fresco The Last Judgment, Michelangelo depicted Christ below Jonah (IONAS) to qualify the prophet Jonah as a "type" of Christ, Jesus being the new and greater Jonah in the same way that Matthew forms his narrative to make Jesus' story imitate and improve on the story of Moses: Jesus as the new and greater Moses.

And this is exactly the point of the Jesus story. It is seeing the vileness of those who wrongly executed Jesus present in ourselves that inspires repentance. For the first Christians, the True Holy of Holies was not the in the temple containing the Law, but storing the Law in our heart: Jesus apocalyptically thought that he was inaugurating the kingdom of God at the end of the age as he changed the hearts of men one at a time (Luke 17:21). This is done by Jesus un-covering (“a-letheia,” truth) the hidden law written on our hearts through discovering ourselves in those who tortured and killed Jesus, and letting this law shine through (Romans 2:14-15; Jeremiah 31:33-34). Why? As the saying goes, but for the grace of God any one of us could have been part of the inflamed crowd, corrupt religious elite, or indifferent to Justice Pilate, all who wrongly sent Jesus to his death. In other words, walk a mile in the other person’s shoes and see the log in your own eye before criticizing (cf. Matthew 7:5). God was willing to forgive, but this needed Jesus—not because of penal substitution, but because Jesus was the catalyst for a change of heart. Why? Jesus, the specially chosen one of God meant to restore the Davidic throne (Romans 1:3), was crucified by the world as the lowest criminal. To believe in who Jesus was (the anointed Davidic heir) meant to understand that we slapped God in the face by executing Jesus, and rejected his ultimate plan for Jesus. Of course, the real secret plan was for Jesus to die (1 Corinthians 2:7-8) to lift/clear the fog from our eyes, but in any case that was the two-fold logic of the original Christian argument.

Penal substitution simply doesn’t have any logic to it. Executing an innocent child in Africa for the crimes of a criminal in Texas simply doesn’t serve justice: God thinks that you deserve to die but, no worries, God is going to take it out on a little innocent goat. And, contra penal substitution, if repentance is acceptable for new sins, why isn’t it acceptable for old sins—why did Jesus need to die? And what has the average moral unsaved person ever done that warrants the punishment of death for their sin of lack of belief? Paul says that the gentiles who do not have the Law still show that they have the Law written on their hearts when they follow their conscience. Rather, we see in the penitential psalms that God is a God of forgiveness, not punishment. These psalms declare that God can’t resist a repentant heart. He accepts a humble and contrite heart (Psalm 51:19). In your repentant fear of Him, He wants you to be confident that “with [Him] is forgiveness” (Psalm 130:4). Of course, this is all steeped in first-century Christian apocalypticism and superstition foreign to the enlightened modern secular mind, but at least this interpretation allows us to understand the origin of Christianity in a way far more sensible/reasonable than the internally incoherent and contradictory penal substitution interpretation that makes everything about the inception of the religion look silly, ridiculous, and/or opaque.

The sacrificial imagery of the New Testament book of Hebrews has to be understood in its historical context. Jewish atonement with the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) involved 2 goats, one that was sacrificed, and another on which sins were supposedly placed and thus was considered unsuitable for sacrifice and released into the wilderness. This second kind was the scapegoat, and was not the model for Jesus. Rather, Jesus was the sacrificial one whose death made it possible for a sinful mankind to enter into the dwelling of God like the prodigal son story, accomplishing this by (i) disclosing humanity’s hidden vileness and prompting repentance and (ii) allowing Christ who transformed from a corpse into a spirit at the resurrection, who could then be welcomed in angelic possession as “Christ in you” to possess the welcoming believer to provide strength and strategy to overcome the temptations of Satan (Christ being the overcomer of Satan par excellence). This death/resurrection sanctified, or made it possible, for sinful man to enter into God’s holy presence: reconciliation. That was the meaning of the goat’s blood of the atoning sacrifice of Yom Kippur, the other “scapegoat” being something completely different and not the role that Christ serves in the New Testament, since obviously Christ is not spared and released like the scapegoat on the traditional Day of Atonement. It is in fact conflating the sacrificial goat with the scapegoat in interpreting Christ that historically led to the penal substitution interpretive lens error. As Gordon Wenham has argued, the blood in the Day of Atonement ritual is thought to purify the most holy place from the sin and uncleanness of the people, so that God could dwell there in their midst. McGrath comments that:

None of this can be understood literally. To suggest that Jesus, after his death, somehow literally ascended to heaven with his literal blood with him and applied it to a literal tabernacle in heaven is to turn symbol into silliness.

When we ask what the sacrificial metaphor is conveying at its core level, it turns out to be the same thing that Paul emphasizes in 2 Corinthians 5 using a different metaphor, that of dying and rising to newness of life in union with Christ. In both cases, despite the different metaphors, the core message turns out to be expressed in terms of reconciliation between God and human beings, with God being the initiator in making this possible.

The biggest problem I have with a lot of contemporary Christian talk about the atonement is that it depicts God as the problem, one whose hands are tied for this or that reason, with Jesus’ death as the only way to get God to forgive us.

The New Testament emphasis is thoroughly different. It focuses on human injustice, lack of compassion, hatred, mercilessness, ruthlessness, jealousy, and all the other things that we know we are capable of and which make us ashamed. And it focuses on God as wanting to free us from those things and transform our lives.

A lack of clarity about the atonement imagery of the 2 goats in Hebrews/Leviticus has led many intelligent, careful authors to construct incorrect penal substitution interpretations, notably Richard Carrier in the Internet Infidels interview that I did with him. Although, as I argue in this essay, mythicism fails on any number of grounds.

On his blog, McGrath comments that:

[T]he broader context of 2 Corinthians 5 and other specific statements are clearer and articulate a view that is not penal substitution, while words often taken to mean penal substitution are ambiguous and likely mean something else. On the one hand, “made sin” does not necessarily mean “made to bear sin” and the whole statement could be understood in terms of participation and exchange—he became what we are that we might be made like him, he got entangled in this world of sin to disentangle us from this world of sin, and so on. Meanwhile elsewhere in the immediate context we find the following:

God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.”

That makes restoration of relationship the focus, and depicts God as simply forgiving rather than requiring substitution or other satisfaction [emphasis mine]. (McGrath, 2010)

Most decisive for McGrath “is the other statement in this immediate context”:

[O]ne died for all, and therefore all died…” It is not that one died because all should have and thus substituted in their place. Rather, the one dying means that all who are in Christ die as well to the present evil age, and begin to benefit and share in the new life of the age to come. The image is of a “second exodus” not from bondage in a particular place in the world, but from the bondage to sin and death that characterizes the present age as a whole [emphasis mine]. (McGrath, 2010)

Thus, Paul talks of being crucified with Christ and in Christ.

For those of us who do not believe in the Pauline two-age model, McGrath sees the image of the cross in terms of the crucified supposed Davidic Messiah who forgives his enemies, and what that literary model challenges us to do, such as to break cycles of violence. The language of Jesus paying our debt is not biblical.[6] Moreover, McGrath points out that the penal substitution interpretation renders meaningless/opaque the Lord’s Prayer, because it would mean that Jesus was teaching the disciples something that was meaningless and ineffective at the time. McGrath also points out that the entire Jewish Bible has similar prayers and God forgiving. As McGrath notes, the language of The Lord’s Prayer is “forgive our debts,” not “repay our debts”; and as I said above, forgiving is exactly what Paul claims God is doing.

In contrast to penal substitution, the moral influence theory recognizes that Christ’s death on the cross was a loving sacrifice and revealed the supreme love that God has for humankind. Rembrandt’s famous painting of the homecoming of the Prodigal Son reflects the moral influence theory of the steadfast love of a father (God) towards his son (humanity), who comes home seeking forgiveness and repentance (see Luke 15:11-32). We get a very different message if we don’t assume penal substitution and instead orient ourselves from Luke. Ehrman comments:

It is easy to see Luke’s own distinctive view by considering what he has to say in the book of Acts, where the apostles give a number of speeches in order to convert others to the faith. What is striking is that in none of these instances (look, e.g., in chapters 3, 4, 13), do the apostles indicate that Jesus’ death brings atonement for sins. It is not that Jesus’ death is unimportant. It’s extremely important for Luke. But not as an atonement. Instead, Jesus death is what makes people realize their guilt before God (since he died even though he was innocent). Once people recognize their guilt, they turn to God in repentance, and then he forgives their sins. (Ehrman, 2017; compare Ehrman 2022a, 2022b, and 2022c)

I have long tried to connect the words of the centurion at the cross in Luke (“truly this man was innocent”) with the same in Mark (“truly this was the son of God”). I have received the occasional response that Mark was being sarcastic, unlike Luke, but I don’t think that this interpretation can be maintained. In an interview, biblical hermeneuticist Ali Ataie gives the following example illustrating my point. In agreement with my reading of the centurions at the cross, consider the case of Cleomenes III:

So Plutarch wrote a book of biographies called Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, commonly called Parallel Lives, at the beginning of the second century. It is considered a work of considerable importance, not only as a source of information and traditions about the individuals described, but also about the times in which they lived. One of them, Cleomenes III, was a Spartan King and radical political reformer. Cleomenes was stabbed in his side and his body was crucified around 220 BCE. As he hung on the cross, a snake coiled around his head and prevented the birds from mutilating him. A group of women were watching this. When the King of Alexandria saw this, he was suddenly seized with fear. Maybe this was a righteous man, beloved to the gods. So, he gave the women the rights to perform purification. Plutarch then says the Alexandrians started to worship Cleomenes, and would come to the cross and address Cleomenes as a hero and son of the gods. (Ataie, 2023, 2:42:48-2:44:38) [see Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, “The Life of Cleomenes,” section 39]

This is exactly the moral influence reading I make of the soldier at the cross in Mark (“Truly this was the son of God”) and Luke (“Truly this was an innocent man”). I follow the general moral influence interpretation of the cross instead of penal substitution, which is most conspicuous in Luke. Mark has the miraculous sign and the statement just like with Cleomenes III, and so we read: “38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion who stood facing him saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:38-40). In fact, the genuineness of the soldier at the cross in Mark is crucial, because it is particularly foreshadowing the success of the message with the gentiles. Ehrman explains:

No one throughout this Gospel has fully understood that Jesus is the Son of God who has to suffer. Until now. And strikingly, it is not one of Jesus’ family or followers who understands. It is the Roman centurion who has presided over his crucifixion. This pagan soldier, seeing Jesus die, proclaims, “Surely this man was God’s Son” (15:39). This brings the recognition of Jesus’ true identity around full circle. It was proclaimed at his baptism at the beginning of the Gospel (from heaven); it is now proclaimed at his crucifixion at the end (on earth). Moreover, it is significant who makes the proclamation: a pagan soldier, one who had not been Jesus’ follower. This in itself may intimate what will happen to the proclamation of Jesus as the suffering Son of God down to the time when Mark pens his account: the proclamation in fact will not find fertile soil among Jews, either those who had known Jesus or those who had not. It will be embraced principally by those outside of Judaism, by Gentiles as represented by this Roman centurion. Jesus is the Son of God, rejected by his own people, but acknowledged by the Gentiles. (Ehrman, 2014)

In Greek understanding, everything turns on the distinction between physis kryptesthai philei (loves to hide) and aletheia (un-hidden/dis-closed). For instance, the high point in the Oedipus drama comes when it is dis-closed to Oedipus that he has fulfilled the prophecy and killed his father and married his mother. The way that Jesus’ death dis-closes the hidden vileness of the crowd is thus a literary type. For example, Louis Markos points out with Philoctetes, as with Hamlet, turning the mirror:

Philoctetes has a dual effect on Neoptolemus that pulls him in two opposing directions. On the one hand, Philoctetes draws out depths of courage and integrity that Neoptolemus never knew he possessed; at one point, Philoctetes even allows the young man to hold the bow. On the other hand, as Hamlet does for his mother Gertrude, Philoctetes turns the mirror upon this deceiver-in-training that he might see the depth of the villainy into which he has fallen. Neoptolemus is horrified. “All is disgust,” he cries, “when one leaves his own nature / and does things that misfit it” (902-3). In the end Neoptolemus does steal the bow from Philoctetes, but then in a fit of remorse he returns it to him. His experiences, however, have matured him, and he prevents Philoctetes from using his bow to kill Odysseus. Instead he begs Philoctetes to come with him to Troy, where he may not only help the Greeks defeat their enemy but be healed of his wound by the sons of Asclepius. Though Neoptolemus speaks well in an ennobled rhetoric purged of the deceit of Odysseus, Philoctetes stubbornly refuses his request. (Markos, 2009, pp. 164-165)

Above, Markos connects the turning of the mirror with Hamlet and Gertrude, but interestingly Shakespeare goes further and links this mirroring imagery specifically with the cross of Christ, and hence anticipates my nonpenal substitution cross interpretation in my present article. Shakespeare writes in Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 4:

Have you forgot me?

No, by the rood [cross of Christ], not so.
You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife,
And, would it were not so, you are my mother.

Nay, then, I’ll set those to you that can speak.

[Gertrude starts to leave. Hamlet angrily prevents her from leaving]

Come, come and sit you down, you shall not budge!
You go not till I set you up a glass [mirror]
Where you may see the inmost part of you.

So, just as in the Garden of Eden, where the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil caused self-awareness of nudity in Adam and Eve, so too on the cross with Jesus as the fruit (1 Corinthians 15:23) on the tree (“hung on a tree”). (On three occasions, Acts refers to Jesus’ crucifixion as ‘hanging on a tree’—5:30; 10:39; and 13:29—as does Galatians 3:13.) Jesus on the cross awakens us to become self-aware of our hidden inner vileness and inspires change. This is made possible, according to Paul, because God wrote the law on our hearts (Romans 2:14-15).


Visual illustration of the mirror metaphor provided by religious scholar David Pecotic. The "Reflections" drawing was drawn by Australian artist Norman Lindsay (1879-1969).

Ottmar Elliger the Younger's drawing illustrating the parable of the mote and the beam

The Parable of the Mote and the Beam, drawn by Ottmar Elliger the Younger (1666-1735). See Matthew 7:3-5: "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye" (cf. Acts 9:3-5, John 8:7, and Philippians 2:12)

So much of our culture and history has been formed around the idea that Jesus was paying our sin debt on the cross; for instance, Dante’s Paradiso, Canto VII. But what if that interpretation of the cross was unhistorical when thinking about earliest Christianity? How might we think of the cross differently if we start with Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son?

Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661-1669. 262 cm × 205 cm. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

Even a Christian theologian as conservative as Monica Schmelter has pointed out the very core of the encounter of the individual with Christ is one of revelatory mirroring: ‘Do I really look like that? I need to change!’ For instance, we read in the epistle of James:

23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. (James 1:23-25).

The argument that the first Christians were making was not that Jesus paid a sin debt, but rather that it is through the example and teachings of Jesus that we are compelled to see ourselves as we are: as guilty as the naked Adam, like the naked young man was guilty by association with Jesus in man’s eyes (Mark 14:51-52—but fully clothed in God’s eye, Mark 16:5, as Jesus was also innocent in God’s eyes, God vindicating him with the resurrection).

For instance, Jesus spoke in exaggeration for effect, such as in the idea that enough faith will move a mountain, or that you have to sell everything and give it to the poor to follow him, or you must hate your family to be able to love him, and so on. It is in seeing our “positive” as pale compared to the “superlative” that encourages growth, not just blind and ridiculous imitation of the superlative. A good example of this is the log in one’s eye saying (Matthew 7:4-6) mentioned above. So, too, the purpose of the parables is for people to stare in the mirror of their lack of understanding to provide fertile soil for the seed to be sewn in. We read:

10 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12 in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand.'” (Mark 4:10-12).

Skeptics like David Madison have recently shown that Jesus’ sayings are very ethically problematic if we take them literally. I would agree, but why take Jesus, who engaged in an economy of symbolic parables, literally? Does Madison really think that Jesus took this literally:

20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20).

Jesus himself never performed such a wonder!

Clearly, Ehrman is right that penal substitution doesn’t fit Luke’s Gospel as an explanatory framework, which is quite evident in the universal claim that “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). Moreover, Ehrman’s reading fits exactly with Luke’s portrayal of the soldier’s words at the cross: “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was righteous/innocent'” (Luke 23:47).

The key for us will be to see how Luke is not different from supposedly penal substitution New Testament authors, as is sometimes believed. Rather, Luke provides us an interpretive clue for reading Mark and Paul in a non-penal-substitution way, and thus for seeing remarkable consistency about the meaning of the cross and resurrection among the New Testament authors. Matthew and Luke seem to want to relate the symbol of the cross to examples of martyrdom in the Hebrew scriptures as blood being on the hands of the executioners, so that the light is not simply shone on the victim, but on how the death accentuates and brings to light (aletheia: truth or un-hiddenness with the alpha privative) the vileness of the perpetrator. Most modern Christian commentators identify Zechariah with the one whose murder Jesus alluded to in Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:50-51. In Matthew 21:28-23:39, Jesus derides the Pharisees and then says: “Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar” (Matthew 23:34-35).

4. The Martyr Model of the Cross

Socrates’ last words to Crito were: “let us offer a rooster to Asclepius for the pharmakon (poison/cure).” The meaning seems to be that just Socrates, in being killed by society for silly reasons, un-covered (truth: “a-letheia”) the hidden vileness of society and hence acted as a catalyst for social change. Socrates’ death lifted the fog from people’s eyes and let them see their inner hidden vileness. Thus, as a result of what Socrates’ death showed about the hidden vileness of society, we no longer kill people for doing what Socrates did with his life. Analogously, the image of the just, impaled man is also a key image for Plato in book two of the most well-known book in the ancient world, the Republic. The soon-to-be future Pope Ratzinger comments in his Introduction to Christianity:

The Cross is revelation. It reveals not any particular thing, but God and man. It reveals who God is and in what way man is. There is a curious presentiment of this situation in Greek philosophy: Plato’s image of the crucified ‘just man.’ In Republic the great philosopher asks what is likely to be the position of a completely just man in this world. He comes to the conclusion that a man’s righteousness is only complete and guaranteed when he takes on the appearance of unrighteousness, for only then is it clear that he does not follow the opinion of men but pursues justice only for its own sake. So, according to Plato, the truly just man must be misunderstood and persecuted in this world; indeed Plato goes so far as to write: “They will say that our just man will be scourged, racked, fettered, will have his eyes burned out, and at last, after all manner of suffering, will be crucified.” This passage, written four hundred years before Christ, is always bound to move a Christian deeply. (Ratzinger, 1969, p. 292; cf. Plato, Republic, II.362a).

Socrates gives thanks for the poison for re-vealing the corruptness of society. This is all the more emphatic where Jesus is the uniquely chosen and favored Son of God, and so powerfully re-vealing (a-letheia) evil in order to bring about that people see through Satan’s wiles tempting/influencing them, and thus can repent and be fairly judged at the imminent end of the age. (I will demonstrate the centrality of Satan to this drama of redemption below.) This is the meaning of the impaled just man in book 2 of Plato’s Republic. Just as Socrates’ death dis-closed (“a-letheia”) the hidden corrupt nature of his society, infinitely more emphatic is this, the case of Jesus as the specially chosen son of God who continually demonstrates the power and wisdom of a paradigmatically holy man, but with the counterintuitive result that Jesus is hated by the crowd and the Jewish elite, convicted as a common criminal by a Roman who doesn’t even get a confession, sees Jesus as a nuisance, and executes him to placate the crowd, where Jesus suffers a horrific flogging and crucifixion, the most terrible of executions, and finally pleads to God as why he has abandoned him. Then, in Mark, Jesus is given a dishonorable burial! But the cross wasn’t just a revelatory ethical indictment of the hidden vileness of humanity; it was also a religious indictment of the satanic nature of man, because God had chosen Jesus as messiah to reinstate the throne of David—Jesus, who had continuously proved that he was specially chosen and favored by God through the signs and wonders that he performed—and so humanity’s response to brutally torture and execute him as a criminal was basically a slap in the face of God.

I would argue that it isn’t at all clear that the words of the soldier at the cross imply vicarious atonement, because the Roman soldier at the cross could simply have realized what he had done to the holiest of holy men, Jesus, and said “Truly he was the son of God” because Jesus willingly died so that the fog would lift from the people’s eyes and they could realize what they had done and repent. Recall above with Isaiah 53 that the verses are perhaps presented from the perspective of world leaders, who contrast their former scornful attitude toward the Jews with their new realization of Israel’s greatness. After realizing how unfairly they treated the Jewish people, they will be shocked and speechless. The contrast is with a transformative seeing going from Jesus viewed as a vile criminal, with Jesus, despite the desperate Gethsemane prayer, going beyond Isaac and being obedient unto death to redeem the people.

Just as we no longer execute people like Socrates for being a nuisance (gadfly), civilized society no longer horribly tortures and executes people for idiosyncratic theological opinions. Hence, in Colossians 2:15 we read: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities [probably referencing both demonic powers and human ruler who had been corrupted by them] and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them in him.”

Martyrs like Jesus and Socrates made their societies conspicuous and explicit in terms of their hidden vileness. When in the Bible God destroyed everything with the Flood, he made the promise that he would never do that again. Jesus’ sacrifice in an evil world allowed the people to really see themselves—to see the terrible things that they were doing and capable of, and to repent—and so permitted God to fairly judge the people, keeping his promise. Jesus was meant to initiate the apocalypse, the judgment at the end of the age. But what we will really see below with Paul is that the core of what Jesus was trying to do was expose the vileness of satanic influence/temptation on society, and hence break Satan’s spell to make it possible for humans to understand and repent. It is precisely because Christ’s sacrifice awakens the inner law written on human hearts that Satan’s spell can be broken, reconciling us with God. Hence, Paul says: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Jesus received an exponentially worse punishment than the arch villain among the Jews: Haman from the book of Esther.[7] Ironically, while the punishment of impalement and crucifixion was meant to humiliate and send a message about the criminal, Jesus’ horrific death sent a message about indifferent and impatient Pilate, the Jewish elite, and the crowd who unjustly condemned him. Haman was furious that Mordecai would not honor him, and Haman acted in anger. He came up with a plan to kill ALL of the Jews in King Xerxes’ kingdom. Remember, this was a huge, far-reaching kingdom that included many countries. Xerxes didn’t even investigate, but simply agreed to Haman’s wishes, a theme later echoed in Mark’s portrayal of Pilate simply wanting to placate the crowd and be done with the nuisance. Pilate didn’t even obtain a confession! Compare Micah 7:3-4: “the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice.”

As helpful as the syncretism imitation/mimesis/haggadic midrash study explained above is, it has limits. For example, Richard C. Carrier adopts the untenable syncretic position in On the Historicity of Jesus and Jesus from Outer Space that Jesus was a mythic, celestial dying/rising savior deity that was killed in outer space by demons and never existed on Earth.[8] Carrier claims that Jesus was later euhemerized or placed in fictional earthly tales. Against this, Paul says that Christ crucified was a foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews (1 Corinthians 1:23). If Jesus was just another dying/rising God, it is difficult to see why the Gentiles would see this as a foolishness. Carrier attempts to answer this objection by saying that maybe the foolishness was that the drama unfolded recently instead of in the distant past, as it had with other savior deities. But Carrier’s response is unsatisfactory because Paul explicitly says that Jesus’ death and resurrection were part of God’s plan from the beginning of time (1 Corinthians 2:7). More importantly, Carrier’s Christ myth theory simply can’t be true given the interpretation of the cross being put forth here. Jesus’ death and resurrection make the most sense from the point of view of a man who the New Testament authors argued was put to death because of the crowd, Jewish Elite, and Roman leadership under the spell of Satan (who Paul called the god of this world). The whole point is to disclose the hidden wickedness of the world with the cross so that humanity could have that a transformative experience, dying with Christ in the evil demonic age and with a renewal of Spirit where their inner law could shine through and be cultivated. But this makes no sense under Carrier’s mythicist model, where Jesus was never on Earth and is crucified by demons in outer space!

5. Satan and the Crucifixion/Resurrection

One of the important trends in recent scholarship on the Pauline interpretation of the death/resurrection of Jesus is emphasis on Paul’s apocalyptic message (as Jesus also had an apocalyptic message before Paul: “This generation will not pass away…”). Paul argued that the resurrected Christ was the “first fruits” of the general harvest of souls at the end of the age, a harvest that had begun. Recent Pauline scholarship also emphasizes that Paul thought that the world was saturated with the influence of demons and Satan (e.g., Brown, 2011; Fredriksen, 2018), and this has to be taken into account when interpreting Paul.

Christ crucified/resurrected brings about the start of the general resurrection, whereas prior to that, people feared death and had all sorts of problems due to that fear, notably the fleshly mentality: “I’m here for a good time, not a long time; life is short, so eat, drink, and be merry.” Also, if death is soon, inevitable, and negative, why bother going the extra mile to be benevolent? In the face of death, which brings with it no hope, life becomes a meaningless mistake, and people abandon the pursuit of righteousness for whatever distraction temporarily satiates them:

Are not the days of my life few?
Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort
21 before I go, never to return,
to the land of gloom and deep darkness,
22 the land of gloom and chaos,
where light is like darkness. (Job 10:22)

One important meaning of the resurrection was that many people were living “fleshly,” engaging in all kinds of fleshliness (i.e., carpe diem: “seize the day”) because the alternative was to face the inevitability of their soon death with no reason to think that the dead were raised. Christ being raised was the catalyst for the general resurrection, and so fear of death as the major impetus for sin was nullified for the believer. The appearances of Christ were evidence that the dead rise. The notion of the resurrection of the dead was around since the second century BCE and continued with the Pharisees, but for Paul, the pagans’ apostle, it was of crucial importance to change skeptics’ minds by convincing them that the dead indeed rose: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15:12).

There may well have also been doubts in the minds of those who believed in the resurrection, which could have been causing problems. I would argue that this be understood in the specific Christian context of the resurrected Christ dwelling within you to help combat the temptations of Satan. Christ in you, as we will see later, is crucial for preparing people for just judgment at the end of the age. Interestingly, Robert Crotty (1995) makes the connection that 2 Maccabees recounts a vision in which Onias the Just commissions Judas Maccabeus as protector of Jerusalem and its Temple. This account belongs to a specific genre. Onias was a martyred zaddik or “righteous one” who, by means of the vision, nominated his successor. The New Testament resurrection appearance stories can perhaps be understood as zaddik vision traditions that have been overlaid with apocalyptic imagery—such scriptural dependency perhaps casting doubt on the historicity of the appearance accounts.

Similarly, what does Christ’s sacrifice on the cross accomplish? It nullifies Satan, who has the power of death. This concept is from the Greek term katargese, which means “to counter, negate, deactivate, or abolish.” So, Christ negates Satan’s power of death. Paul saw this world as under the power of Satan and demons, which principally meant that humans were under the spell of Satan, hypnotized by the fleshly, as opposed to the spirit of those in Christ (also compare 1 Peter 6:8-9). The crucified Christ was the truth, “aletheia,” not because he was “correct” or “certain,” but, as I argued above, because he dis-closed or re-vealed (“a-letheia” with the alpha privative like “a-theist”)—in a way infinitely more powerful than Socrates (because of who Jesus was as the specially chosen by God)—the hidden vileness and corruption of a world/people that would convey their most horrific torture/punishment on a man so holy that he was infinitely favored by God. We mean truth in this sense when we first see/uncover the hidden image in a gestalt trick picture, and then can’t unsee the newly discovered image. We do something similar when we model mathematical sentences for children with manipulatives. Christ negated Satan’s power because he dis-closed to people the malignancy of the influence that they were under, which was a stark contrast to how God made them, with, in Paul’s words, the Law written on their hearts (Romans 2:14-15).

As I (and Brown) discuss below, many Second-Temple writers were rewriting scripture by putting Satan in a central role, such as in the Testament of Job. Mark did such rewriting of Jesus’ life story to create his Gospel. The major inception event in Jesus’ ministry is the temptation by Satan. Satan immediately tempts Jesus for 40 days (Mark 1:12-13), and Satan goes after believers when the word is sewn in them (Mark 4:15). Jesus sees Satan’s influence as lurking behind those who question his mission (Mark 8:33). While Satan is mainly behind the scenes in Mark, the lower demons are everywhere. Mitchell Lewis counts at least nine distinct pericopae in Mark’s Gospel related to Jesus casting out demons, or to others casting out demons at Jesus’ direction or in Jesus’ name. Some are longer narratives describing specific exorcisms or the encounters that led to them—e.g., the man in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:23-27), the man among the tombs in the region of the Gerasenes (5:1-13), the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman in Tyre (7:25-30), and the son of the man whom Jesus encountered after coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration (9:17-27). Others are more general references to the fact that Jesus cast out demons in the course of his ministry. He cast out many impure spirits in Capernaum (1:32-34). He traveled through Galilee casting out demons (1:39). He twice sent out his twelve core disciples with authority to cast out demons (3:13-15 and 6:7-13). There were others who also cast out demons in Jesus’ name (9:38-40).

Mark wraps the story of the withering of the fig tree with the temple story: just as it is no longer the season for figs, it is no longer the season for the temple cult. The temple was a symbol for corruption for Mark, hence Jesus’ temple tantrum episode. After all, Mark had to explain why God would allow His temple to be destroyed. And earlier, Paul reasoned that if Gentiles could be good apart from the law, then God wrote the law on people’s hearts, and hence the counterproductive stress of attending to every Jewish law and ritual was unnecessary. But the penal substitution model stumbles on this point because the Jewish Paul, writing far earlier than the destroyed temple context that Mark was writing in, had a favorable view of the Law and temple for the Jews when considered apart from the Gentiles. For the Jewish Paul, it was not a burden but a privilege (e.g., Romans 9:4-5; 1:3; 15:9; see Fredriksen, 2018, p. 25, 35, 154, 165). Fredriksen comments:

This is not an either/or situation: for Paul God’s spirit dwells both in the Jerusalem temple and in the “new temple” of the believer and of the community. (Fredriksen, 2018, p. 154)

Why, then, should Paul, or any other apostle who was a member of this covenant community, have ceased to live according to the Law? The Law was a curse for gentiles…. The Law was a service of death for gentiles. But for Israel the Law, God-given, was a defining privilege. (Fredriksen, 2018, p. 165)

Fredriksen argues that Paul does not reject the temple, but likens the new pagan believers to it (1 Corinthians 10:14-22; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16). Christ’s death in a sense rendered the temple superfluous for the Gentiles, not because of penal substitution, but because Christ’s sacrifice began the breaking of Satan’s stronghold on people’s minds, allowing the inner light of the inner Law in people to begin to shine through: the problem wasn’t reconciling man with God through penal substitution because God couldn’t forgive, but reconciling man with God because people were failing to see/care that how they were living was wrong, and so were failing to have the catalyst/motivation to repent. To say Jews and Gentiles were fundamentally stained, as conservatives hold, would imply that God had erred in creating man, but Paul emphasizes that even Gentiles could follow the Law even though they were not given it, since the Law was written on their hearts.

Given a correct understanding of Isaiah 53 (as presented above), we can understand Paul quoting the Corinthian creed that “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures,” where “for” doesn’t mean “instead of us,” but rather “because”[9], with the scriptures including Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, and Deuteronomy 21:23. And we see the end of the Corinthian creed/poetry: “Christ was raised on the third day according to the scriptures,” like Jonah and his three days in the big fish that Matthew prooftexts. The ancients literally thought that death was going underground, and that Jonah miraculously emerged after 3 days.

Still others see Isaac as a type of the “Word of God” who prefigured Christ. What is interesting is the willingness of Isaac to die; that is key to pleasing God, not his actual death. Just as God miraculously sent an angel to save Isaac from Abraham, Jesus seems to have thought that God would miraculously send Elijah to save him. The desperate, terrified Gethsemane prayer seems to emphatically make the point that Jesus thought that God’s plan could be realized without him having to horrifically die, perhaps with the idea that, analogously, Isaac was rewarded for his willingness to die, not for actually dying.

The binding of Isaac by Abraham was not a sacrifice, but a near sacrifice with two important points. By killing his son, Abraham would lose his firstborn, as well as the future people that he was supposed to found. The later sacrifice system would be a reminder of the faith and obedience of Abraham. The daily sacrifices further would have the positive content that people as servants were literally attending to the food needs of God literally indwelling in the tabernacle:

Happily for us, the story of the passion in the Gospels makes no mention of Jesus “paying God back” for the cost of our sins. As David Yeago has observed, “There is no invisible transaction going on behind the scenes of the narrative we rehearse each Passiontide. Jesus is doing just what appears in the story: he is being faithful to his Father even to death, and in this way realizing in himself, in his own person, the covenant partnership that is Israel’s vocation and God’s ultimate purpose for the whole human race.” (Anderson, 2023, p. 317).

Part of the confusion of penal substitution proponents is that they misunderstand the purpose of the sacrificial system, such as that the blood of the pure goat is meant to purify the holy site so that God can dwell among the people. Gary Anderson comments:

For our purposes, the key feature to observe is that the tamid sacrifice is not an atonement rite. There is a tendency among Christian readers to presume the centrality of atonement in Israel’s cultic life. Because Christ’s sacrificial death is an atoning act, and since it brings the sacrificial system of the Old Testament to closure, it is easy to understand why theologians have inferred that Israel’s cult was one large atonement mechanism. But as biblical scholars have repeatedly argued, this understanding grossly misrepresents the character of the tamid sacrifice. Jonathan Klawans is right on target when he writes: “The typical understanding of the way daily sacrifice [= tamid] and grave sin are related is, I believe, backward. It is not that the daily sacrifice undoes the damage done by grave transgression. Quite the contrary: contrary: grave transgression undoes what the daily sacrifice produces.” Klawans goes on to observe that the difference between these two formulations is of fundamental importance. “What it boils down to,” he argues, “is whether a sacrifice is considered, in and of itself, a productive act. Those who argue that expiation is at the core of all or most sacrificial rituals ultimately view sacrifice not as something productive in its own right but as a correction or a reversal of something else that was wrong.” The question then becomes in what way is the tamid a productive act? That is, in what way is it an action that does not simply remove an error, but possesses a good internal to itself; an act that one would wish to undertake even if there was no sin to remove? The answer to this question, as we noted earlier in chapter 4, lies in the immediate literary context of the tamid rite (Exod. 25-40): the installation of the deity into his new home. As Jeffrey Tigay has shown, the running of the temple is modeled on a royal palace.10 Service of the human king becomes an analogy for service to the King of kings. Like any king, God needs a house suited to his majesty. On this understanding, sacrifice can be construed as the provisioning of the deity’s banquet table. It is simply one among a number of ritual acts that symbolize the miraculous availability of God within the temple and provide a liturgical means of displaying one’s service and devotion to God. Within the biblical narratives, the tamid sacrifice is the single most important feature of the liturgical life of the temple. The tremendous importance of this sacrifice is certainly related to the fact that it—unlike the other dimensions of temple life—required daily maintenance and upkeep by the community of worshippers. In other words, this mode of affording honor and reverence toward the deity is unique, insofar as it requires constant human attention. (Anderson, 2023, pp. 322-324)

Obviously, the positive content of the sacrifice was to remember and remind God of the self-sacrifice of obedient Abraham and willing Isaac, and how all people are born out of that level of obedience and faithfulness.

So, following the Gethsemane prayer, Jesus might have thought that he would accomplish lifting the fog from people’s eyes as a paradigmatically holy man unjustly suffering terribly, but then be miraculously saved from the cross by Elijah (Mark 15:35-36)—thereby showing that Jesus was uniquely favored by God, and thus that the rulers were guilty of condemning a paradigmatically holy man without just cause. Analogously, it was Isaac’s willingness to die that was key, not his actual death, and the angel saved Isaac at the last moment. It seems problematic to suppose that penal substitution was the central meaning of the cross if Jesus believed God’s plan could be realized without him having to die. This call by Jesus for Elijah is Mark recapitulating Psalm 20:6, which says that God will save or help his anointed one. As we will see below, the resurrection was such a central role that Jesus had to die.

In the desperate Gethsemane prayer, Jesus says: “Abba Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). This clearly seems to be an allusion to divine protection against death from psalm 16:

5 The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.

7 I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
8 I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
10 For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful/holy one see the Pit
. (Psalm 16:5-10)

We also see the idea that Jesus thought that he was going to be rescued from the cross in Hebrews 5:7:

7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.

This puts into doubt the historicity of a number of narrative elements. It is questionable that Jesus taught in parables because this provides a specific theological point. Just like Joseph called God the creator and interpreter of symbolic dreams (e.g., Genesis 40:8), Jesus reserves the creation and interpretation of symbolic parables for himself:

10 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12 in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'” (Mark 4:10-12)

Often considered historical bedrock, the violence and fleeing of the disciples at the arrest in Mark may simply serve to show that they wrongly interpreted what Jesus taught was going to happen. Finally, Jesus calling for Elijah to save him on the cross may simply have been a narrative element meant to show that Jesus was not God, and so due to his finite understanding and interpretive abilities, he misinterpreted God’s response to the Gethsemane prayer: Jesus thought that God would send Elijah to save him, while God will actually raise him after the fact because Jesus needed to die. The point? Mark says that Jesus identified himself as a fallible human prophet who could do no great miracles in his hometown due to unbelief, and needed to escape at one point from the enthusiasm of the crowd at the water. In Mark he is linked to the Son of Man from the Hebrew Scriptures, who was not God, the Ancient of Days; rather, the Son of Man was a secondary powerful being. Jesus, in other words, is not God in our earliest Gospel, Mark. Neither is Jesus God in Paul’s epistles, where Jesus does not raise himself but “is raised,” something that God does to Jesus. Similarly, even in the Gospel of John, Jesus is depicted as praying to God (presumably not praying to himself!)

Mark depicts Jesus’ words from the cross being understood by everyone there as him calling for God to send Elijah to rescue him. The specific words in our oldest Gospel, Mark, say:

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

Conservative Christians assume a penal substitution interpretation, and argue that these words mean that Jesus took on himself the sin of the world and became sin, and so a just God couldn’t look at him. This interpretation clearly makes no sense, for why would Jesus ask God why God abandoned him if the reason was clearly because Jesus had become sin. Instead, Jesus clearly thought that God would send Elijah to rescue him, and couldn’t understand why he continued to suffer horribly. The cry from the cross in Mark is a quotation from Psalm 22 that says:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2)


Psalm 22 is about a person who is crying out to God to save him from the taunts and torments of his enemies, and (in the last ten verses) thanking God for rescuing him. The plain meaning of the allusion by Mark is Jesus is crying for help. The penal substitution interpretation makes no sense here.

6. The Archons of this Aion

Fredriksen and Brown underscore Paul’s use of the phrase indicating the demonic, the archons of this aion (rulers of this age per 1 Corinthians 2:6-10), which seems to refer to the demons influencing the human rulers. Fredriksen and Brown point out that demons would not have crucified Jesus, the lord of glory, if they knew that this was God’s plan since the beginning of time. We see similar imagery of Satan controlling the King of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:11-19. The biblical reference to the Prince of Persia can be read this way as well. Fredriksen offers that perhaps 1 Corinthians 2:8 means that Paul thought that Jesus was executed by astral powers (Fredriksen, 2018, p. 140), but I don’t think that this interpretation fits the evidence.

Paul says that he was determined to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified, but also that the central teaching of the faith was Christ as the apocalyptic first fruits of the general resurrection harvest of souls at the end of the age, so much so that if Christ is not raised, your faith is futile and in vain, and you are still in your sin (1 Corinthians 15:17). The cross was not enough! Below we will see the crucifixion is one of participation, not penal substitution: the part of myself controlled by Satan is crucified with Christ so that the demon’s spell over me is weakened, and I might clearheadedly repent and prepare for Christ to judge me once he has returned and defeated Satan.

Analogously, the demonic fog is lifted from Judas’ eyes by his realization that his actions helped bring about the humiliating, horrific death of Jesus. After learning that Jesus was to be crucified, Judas was overcome by remorse and attempted to return the 30 pieces of silver to the priests, but they would not accept them because they were blood money, so he threw them on the ground and left. Afterwards, he committed suicide by hanging himself. This is reminiscent of Acts 26:17-18: “I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

In Matthew 4, Satan offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world. In John 12:31, we’re told that Satan is the “ruler of this world.” Satan leads a hierarchy of demons (Matthew 12:24), a divergent and highly capable army, which implies that he is leading an otherworldly ‘outfit’ that personally tempts individuals (Colossians 2:15, 1 Peter 5:8-9). Analogously, in Revelation 2:10, Jesus states that Satan is in the process of influencing Smyrna’s legal proceedings by throwing a collection of Christians into prison. Likewise, in Job 1:17, he manipulates the Chaldeans, encouraging them to steal Job’s livestock. In popular discourse we say “the Devil made me do it.”

Paul uses Eve’s action in Genesis 3:13 to warn his audience: “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). As we saw with Eve in the Garden of Eden, the serpent was characterized by an ability to shape people’s thinking such that they thought that sin was a good idea. Most commentators hesitate to identify this serpent with Satan in Paul, but it is still a malevolent tempter. Paul identifies Satan as the ruler of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4; also see 1 John 5:19; Ephesians 2:2; Revelation 12:9; John 12:31; Matthew 4:8-9). Brown points out that one of the key traits of Satan that we see in the Second-Temple period is tempter.

The crucifixion of Christ helped to lift the satanic/demonic-influencing fog from believer’s eyes and thus come to see the vileness of Satan, who had influenced/corrupted them and this age. In seeing their own vileness, and the source of that in satanic influence, people become free to will the fleshly part of them, which had been under the influence of Satan, to die as a living sacrifice, and hence live a new resurrection life in the Spirit:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20).

As I said above, this is not a penal substitution model of the cross, but a participation model. In seeing what we did to God’s specially chosen son, we see through the satanic-influenced fleshly part of us that has corrupted our lives, and so we might truly repent, which crucifies the fleshly part of us and turns us into a living sacrifice:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

The principal image for Christ’s crucifixion seems to be “participation,” though an important image is also “sacrifice.” But sacrifice doesn’t mean penal substitution in the conservative evangelical Christian sense. Korbanot or offerings have no expiating effect unless the person making the offering sincerely repents of his or her actions before making it, and also makes restitution to any person who was harmed by the violation. Marcus Borg notes that animal sacrifice in Second-Temple Judaism was not a “payment for sin,” but had a basic meaning as “making something sacred by giving it as a gift to God,” and included a shared meal with God (Borg, 2013). Sacrifices had numerous purposes, namely thanksgiving, petition, purification, and reconciliation. None of them was a “payment or substitution or satisfaction,” and even “sacrifices of reconciliation” were about restoring the relationship. In Rabbinic Judaism, people achieve atonement through repentance. Christ helps us to see, through his sacrifice, how we were corrupted by satanic-influenced fleshliness, and repent by crucifying the fleshly part of ourselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 8:5, 6:4, 13:14, Galatians 5:16-17, 6:8). The conservative evangelical penal substitution interpretation of the cross, where we deserve to die but, what luck, God is willing to instead mete out justice on a sheep, is absurd. In Ephesians we read “to put off your former way of life, your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be renewed in the spirit of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). The essence of a sacrifice is that the sacrifice is something made holy.

Moreover, the traditional understanding (Brown, 2011; Fredriksen, 2018) of the eschatological defeat of Satan (Christ the Victor) blatantly makes difficulties in reading the text where there shouldn’t be any. For instance, Paul says that Christ’s crucifixion breaks the power of Satan, but Paul also says that even after the crucifixion, Satan is still the god of this world. The traditional Christ the Victor interpretive model tries to explain this by arguing that Satan was nullified, but won’t be truly destroyed until Christ returns. The implication of the traditional Christ the Victor interpretation of the cross is that (i) the cross accomplished everything, but (ii) accomplished nothing, and (iii) only the returning Christ defeats Satan in any meaningful way. Such reasoning must give the god of logic an aneurysm!

Far from bestowing power on the cross of Christ, these interpretive models render it useless. That is not what the text means. The cross, as Ratzinger said above, is re-velatory, it re-veals (“a-letheia”) us and our being corrupted by the demonic. This is done so that we might be resurrected/rebirthed in our approach to life (Romans 12:2, Colossians 3:10). The goal is to be renewed in the spirit of your mind (Ephesians 2:10, Psalm 51:10, Ezekiel 11:19, Romans 8:6, 1 Peter 1:13). Christ is not a substitution for us, but gives his life for us whose lives have been spiritually kidnapped/held hostage by the influence/spell of Satan: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Interestingly, the full penal substitution interpretation of the cross didn’t come about until a thousand years after Jesus, and was long predated by the ransom interpretation.

A ransom is something that secures the release of hostages. Mankind was fleshly in Paul’s sense, held hostage under the spell of Satan, like a brainwashed member of a cult. Hence, Paul speaks of other apostles as agents of Satan tempting away and deluding his followers, and in Galatians 3, he uses the word ebaskanen or “bewitched” by demonic influence, to exert an evil influence through the eye, as with the ‘evil eye.’ Jesus’ death initiated the breaking of that spell, which would be completed when he returned to destroy Satan. This allowed man to recognize his sin and repent if he wished, making just judgment possible by God at the imminent end of the age, with such just judgment being impossible if man couldn’t be honestly accountable for his actions because he was still under the spell of Satan. Passages like Hebrews 2:14 tell us that when Christ died on the cross, He destroyed the power of the evil one.

7. Satan in Paul’s Epistles

Paul told the Corinthian believers[10]:

  • to hand the incestuous person over to the dominion of Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5);
  • that husbands and wives should not deprive one another sexually lest Satan tempt them because of their lack of self-control (1 Corinthians 7:7);
  • that they should reinstate the presumably repentant offender so that Satan might not outwit us (2 Corinthians 2:11);
  • that Satan masquerades as angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14);
  • and that the apostle himself was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment him so as to prevent him from becoming conceited (2 Corinthians 12:7).

He also informed the Thessalonian believers:

  • that Satan prevented him from revisiting them (1 Thessalonians 2:18);
  • and that “the coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing” (2 Thessalonians 2:9-10).

In addition to these references to ‘Satan,’ we find in Paul’s letters several references to the Devil, referring, of course, to the same adversary of God’s people. In the disputed letter to the Ephesians, believers are:

  • warned about giving the Devil a foothold (Ephesians 4:27);
  • and urged to put on the full armor of God so that they can stand against the Devil’s schemes (Ephesians 6:11).

In Romans 16:20, Paul says that Satan will be defeated, not just by the returning Jesus, but by the members of the churches:

  • that, despite his awareness of Satan’s activity in all sorts of ways to wreak havoc among God’s people, God will most certainly crush him under their feet. (This last bullet will be important below.)

Brown wrote a helpful doctoral dissertation (archived online) on this topic titled The God of This Age: Satan in the Churches and Letters (Brown, 2011). I find Brown’s overall account very reasonable, though I do disagree with him on certain points. On Satan’s role in the Second-Temple period in which the New Testament was constructed, Brown argues that Satan was a major player in their thought, and that they often rewrote scripture to cast Satan as a central figure, such as in the Testament of Job. However, a problem with Brown’s interpretation (one also seen in Fredriksen, 2018, p. 89) is that it still has a somewhat traditional understanding of the meaning of the cross, and so its proponents paint themselves into a corner given the absurdity that I outlined above—namely, that the cross both did, and didn’t, conquer the demonic.[11] So Brown draws the problematic conclusion:

Second, and perhaps most important for the present study, Paul seems to have an intensified understanding of “evil powers.” Moreover, not only are powers of evil intensified in Paul, but they are viewed from a different (eschatological) perspective since Paul considers the Christ event to have rendered a proleptic judgment on all evil powers. Thus, in one sense all evil powers and malevolent figures have been defeated through the cross; in another sense, however, they remain at work in the world until the end of the present age. Colossians 2:15 therefore aptly encapsulates Paul’s interpretation of the significance of the victory of the cross over such powers: “he [i.e., Christ] disarmed (a) the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” That is to say, the powers of evil have not yet been fully defeated (final judgment), but they have been stripped of their full power and authority over humanity and the cosmos. Nonetheless, for Paul in the current age the powers of evil—including principalities and powers, Satan, and death—remain powerful forces capable of inflicting serious harm. In sum, Paul’s theology presents a distinctly new manifestation of Jewish apocalyptic theology. With the death and resurrection of Jesus as the fulcrum of his apocalyptic theology, Paul finds himself at the juncture of the two ages, a unique moment in history in which the powers of evil have, in one sense, already been defeated through the Christ event and thereby “disarmed” of their full power, but in another sense endure in the present age with residual, but deleterious power against the people of God [emphasis mine]. (Brown, 2011, p. 75)

Clearly what Brown and Fredriksen miss is that the New Testament author is saying here that the demonic forces influencing human rulers were negated of their powers of influence on those rulers via humanity experiencing Jesus’ innocent martyrdom. Given this new beginning, Paul feels that it will be a process of people coming to disentangle themselves from the demonic that has, up until now, held them hostage to their very core, and it is in fact the Christian community becoming righteous that will eventually crush Satan beneath their feet, not simply the return of Jesus (see Romans 16:20).

Brown provides a helpful framework for understanding these demonic forces who rule the world by holding people’s minds hostage in the fleshly:

But what are these (apocalyptic) powers of evil, and is there any basis for including the figure of Satan within this group? According to [J. Christiaan] Beker “the apocalyptic power alliance” is comprised of death (Rom 5:17; 6:9, 23; 1 Cor 15:26), sin (Rom 3:19; Gal 3:22), the law (Rom 6:14, 15; Gal 3:23), and the flesh in Rom 8:5-7; cf. Gal 5:17). Moreover, in Paul’s thought this “apocalyptic power alliance” operates as a whole, as can be seen in Rom 7 where Paul describes how each of the members of this “alliance” plays a role in his description of human sinfulness. Collectively, the apocalyptic power alliance exercises its power “under the sovereign reign of death.” … Although, for Paul, Satan and evil powers have been judged in Jesus’ death and resurrection and will be ultimately defeated in the eschaton, such forces remain at work in the present age. As we noted above, Paul believed that the present era—the juncture of the old and new ages—was characterized by intensified activity of evil powers in the world, so much so that he could refer to Satan as “the god” of this age who possesses the ability to “blind” the minds of unbelievers (2 Cor 4:4). Satan’s capacity to prevent unbelievers from comprehending the Gospel demonstrates the genuine threat posed by Satan to the plan of God. Furthermore, the uniqueness of both Satan’s title and activity in 2 Cor 4:4 reveal that Paul regarded Satan as an exceptionally powerful figure within his apocalyptic worldview. For though Satan, like all other powers of evil at work in the world, is condemned to destruction, he nonetheless seems to have unequaled authority among the powers of the world to influence human affairs in the present age (2 Cor 4:4; cf. 1 Cor 5:5) [emphasis mine]. (Brown, 2011, pp. 76-80)

As I said above, what is key for Paul is that it will be the community of believers who will ultimately destroy Satan’s influence through resisting him, not simply Jesus’ return (Romans 16:20). I would argue beyond Brown that Satan as tempter seems to include influencing the Gentile rulers, especially since Paul speaks of rulers negatively in their crucifixion of Jesus, but then Paul in Romans 13:1-5 says that rulers are good and chosen by God. So, the fault doesn’t simply lie with people, but also with satanic influence on them, which makes sense of Paul saying that the Gentiles were a hotbed for the fleshly, but are still inherently good because God wrote the Law on their hearts.

8. The Resurrection: Christ in You to Empower You in Resisting Satan’s Influence

1 Corinthians 2:5-16 describes believers as having “the mind of Christ.” This doesn’t refer to faith in the vicarious atonement of Christ, for demons also believe in Christ and are still not saved (James 2:19). Rather like having a gestalt hidden image emerge un-covered before your eyes, our guilt in Jesus’ death has the scales fall from our eyes, and we see the hidden wickedness that we were operating in—and now see ourselves and the world in a new light, from a new perspective. This un-hidden mystery is “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). Jesus was special because he was the specially anointed and loved of God (agapetos) whom the world destroyed, making humanity guilty of a crime beyond measure. In other words, Jesus experienced the world differently from everyone else. He saw beyond the Letter of the Law to the Spirit of the Law, recognizing that the Law was an expression of the principles to (1) love God above all else and (2) do this by loving your neighbor as yourself, specifically by loving one’s enemy more than oneself. Starting from these two principles, Jesus was able to cut through the common understandings of the Law to the Spirit of the Law—e.g., “adultery is even a lustful eye” and “murder is even being angry.”

The spirit of the resurrected Jesus engages in angelic (as opposed to demonic) possession of the believer who invites him in as Christ in You, which is meant to help you to resist falling under Satan’s spell and temptation. So, the spell of Satan and being stuck in fleshliness and sin is not fully cured by realizing that your approach to the world and mindset caused your fellow humans to bring about supremely holy Jesus’ death. But the experience of Jesus’ death is the first step, like being unplugged from the simulated reality in the movie The Matrix. The resurrected Christ becomes “Christ in you” for the faithful, which gives them the power to resist the temptations of the Devil as Jesus resisted him at the beginning of his ministry. Hence, Paul says that it’s not the just the cross, because “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). In this sense, we read in the Johannine epistles: “Little children, you are from God and have conquered them, for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit came upon certain people to empower them for service, but then He would leave again. New Testament believers have a different experience, as the Spirit indwells in them permanently: per Romans 8:10, “Christ is in you”: “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is life because of righteousness.” 2 Corinthians 4:6 speaks of “Because the God who said, Out of darkness light shall shine, is the One who shined in our hearts to illuminate the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels that the excellency of the power may be of God and not out of us.” In Galatians 1:15-16 we read—”His Son in me,” and “But when it pleased God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called by His grace, to reveal His Son in me.” Again, in Galatians 2:20—”It is Christ who lives in me,” and further “I am crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live in faith, the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me.” In Galatians 4:19) is “My children, with whom I travail again in birth until Christ is formed in you.” In Ephesians 3:17 we read “That Christ may make His home in your hearts through faith, that you, being rooted and grounded in love.” Most famously, we read in Colossians 1:27: “To whom God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Early Christianity stresses the transformative power of belief, regardless of whether it is true belief or not: “23 Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you” (Mark 11:23).

Clearly, the importance of the resurrection is the believer gaining the spirit of the resurrected Christ in you, because Christ was the resister of the temptations of Satan par excellence:

Satan’s promise in Matthew 4:8-9 and Luke 4:6-7 to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth implies that all those kingdoms belong to him. The fact that Jesus does not dispute Satan’s promise indicates that the authors of those Gospels believed this to be true….

According to the Parable of the Sower, Satan “profoundly influences” those who fail to understand/accept the Gospel. Luke 22:3-6 states that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus because “Satan entered” him and, in Acts 5:3, Peter describes Satan as “filling” Ananias’ heart and causing him to sin. John 13:2 describes the Devil as inspiring Judas to betray Jesus and John 12:31-32 identifies Satan as “the Archon of this Cosmos,” who is destined to be overthrown through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Throughout the New Testament, Satan is referred to as a “tempter” (Matthew 4:3), “the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 12:24), “the God of this Age” (2 Corinthians 4:4), “the evil one” (1 John 5:18), and “a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8).

The Book of Revelation represents Satan as the supernatural ruler of the Roman Empire and the ultimate cause of all evil in the world….

Dragon the Great was thrown down, that ancient serpent who is called Devil and Satan, the one deceiving the whole inhabited World—he was thrown down to earth and his angels were thrown down with him.”….

Most early Christians firmly believed that Satan and his demons had the power to possess humans and exorcisms were widely practiced by Jews, Christians, and pagans alike. (Wikipedia, 2021b)

The Devil is not only a tempter but perhaps rules over the kingdoms of earth (Mark 4:8-9 and Luke 4:6-7)….

The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of the Devil as the one who has the power of death but is defeated through the death of Jesus. (Wikipedia, 2021a)

As Ephesians clearly says regarding satanic influence: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:1-2). The early Ephesians document aptly summarizes the life of the believer as a struggle against the demonic:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-17)

Now obviously the members of the community quoted above, who said “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” did, of course, struggle against human opponents, and struggled to convert unbelievers. But here we have a clue to understanding what the author meant when he called certain apostles, who he saw as perverting his message, agents of Satan. Just as the spirit of “Christ In You” empowered you to act righteously (Galatians 3:2-4), there were various kinds of demonic influencers, with different degrees of power, that could tempt/persuade/possess you, too. Accordingly, Acts 26:17-18 says: “I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'” Satan comes to steal the faithful when the word is sown in them, which is why Paul was so worried about his communities (compare Mark 4:15).

For certain kinds of demons, the response was casting out, as with the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark. But with other powerful tempter demons, a different approach was needed, as that exemplified by Job remaining faithful, and hence shaming Satan, in the Testament of Job; or the model Jesus provided for responding to the temptations of the Devil at the start of his ministry. In fact—and this is key—Satan was regarded as so cunning that God says in the Book of Job that Satan was able to incite Him to move against Job without cause (Job 2:3).

9. God’s Plan of Redemption

I have argued that for the oldest interpretation of the cross, “God’s Plan of Redemption” (which would permit the just judgment of humanity, thereby apocalyptically ending the age) was for the people of the world (who were hypnotized under Satan’s influence, like a Maenad possessed by the spirit of Dionysus) to crucify the holiest man in the world, God’s chosen one, Jesus. God’s plan was for the satanically-influenced people to crucify Jesus in order to effect shock in the people, so that they would come to realize the horrific thing that they had done (namely, brutally and ruthlessly flogging and crucifying God’s specially chosen Jesus). Then “the satanic influence fog” would begin to lift from their eyes, and their inner righteousness could reawaken: “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39). Jesus was obedient to God’s plan for the redemption of humanity, even to the point of dying on a cross to help man (Philippians 2:8).

Due to what Christ accomplished on the cross, then, the people could start the process of seeing/understanding how corrupt Satan’s influence had made them. This realization would create space in the believer to literally receive the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ (the Jesus who had resisted the best attempts at temptation by Satan), that is the “Spirit of the Resistance of the Temptation of Satan,” a spirit which was called “Christ in You,” for that Christ-Spirit could enter into the believer and empower him/her in righteousness. This Spirit, upon entering, supercharged believers in their quest for righteousness. Through an angelic possession that was the opposite of demonic possession (the Spirit of Christ is invited, unlike demons who overtake), this spirit of “Christ in You” could empower a believer to start the process of understanding and repenting, and of making themselves and others righteous, confidently resisting the demonic, and hence reconciling themselves with God.

The first Christians’ Hebrew scripture tradition demanded a just judgment by God because God had promised Noah and his descendants that He wouldn’t simply destroy humanity again were the world to simply become evil again. So, in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, Jesus compares Noah’s flood with the coming Day of Judgment:

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the coming of the Son of Man. (Luke 17:26)

For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:38).

The key difference between God’s judgment against humanity in Noah’s time, and the apocalyptic expectations of Jesus and Paul, is that for the first Christians the “Noahic covenant” (Genesis 9:1-17) after the Flood applies to all of humanity and all other living creatures. In this covenant with all living creatures, God promises never again to destroy all life on Earth in summary judgment, and creates the rainbow as the sign of this “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” So the difference in judgments is (i) a summary judgment against all life in Noah’s time versus (ii) an individual case-by-case judgment for humans. The first Christians believed, thanks to what was accomplished with the cross and resurrection, that people could, if they were good people, overcome Satan by repenting, and renounce the fleshly in favor of the spirit, making them a holy living sacrifice in God’s eyes and so ready for the final judgment.

A key to all of this was faith. The believer needed faith that Jesus really was God’s special chosen one to thereby understand and take to heart the horror of what was done to Jesus, who was unjustly condemned by the world. Only then can one’s inner Law/light be awakened and, if you welcome the spirit of Christ to possess you, you can repent and begin the process of becoming holy. As I said above, what is key for Paul is that it will be the community of believers who will ultimately destroy Satan’s influence through resisting him, not simply Jesus (Romans 16:20). Brown comments:

The end goal of the betrothal is the eschatological presentation of the bride, the Corinthians, to the groom, Christ. During the period between these two events—betrothal and presentation—Paul fears that the Corinthians might be deceived and thereby jeopardize their purity and devotion to their “one husband” . Moreover, because Paul plays a significant role in this betrothal, he therefore considers it his responsibility to ensure that the Corinthians remain faithful to their pledge to Christ….

After defending his financial practices in 2 Corinthians 11:7-11, 16 in vv. 13-15 Paul launches an ardent attack on his opponents: “for such ones are false apostles, workers of deceit, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And it is no wonder, for Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. (Brown, 2011, pp. 201-202)

10. Conclusion

None of the rulers of this age [archons of this aion = demons influencing human rulers] understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Corinthians 2:6-8)

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. (Colossians 2:14-16)

This essay has attempted to reconstruct what the cross and resurrection meant to the first Christians. However, it must always be kept in mind that a strong case can be made that Jesus never taught anything related to the cross and resurrection during his lifetime, and that the followers simply rewrote his life after he died as a triumph over Satan—such rewriting being common in the Second-Temple period, as Brown has argued and as was noted above. For instance, John S. Kloppenborg has effectively argued against the presence of an atoning interpretation of Jesus’ death in the Q source, the material common to Matthew and Luke that didn’t come from Mark (Kloppenborg, 1996, pp. 331-332). Certainly, it would take a highly sophisticated line of argument to trace cross/resurrection words and themes present in the text back to the historical Jesus, since such apparently theologically motivated passages could certainly have been invented by the early Church and placed on the lips of Jesus. And such criteria-based attempts are highly suspect. A classicist would not try to argue that specific words can be traced back from the Platonic dialogues to the historical Socrates, for instance.

In terms of interpretation, best practice is to withhold judgment as to whether a described event actually occurred in history if it has an obvious theological coloring, since the early Church would have had reason to invent it. The crucifixion narrative is so much a rewrite of scripture that it’s difficult to say if there is any history behind it. And it is undisputed that the authors were in the habit of inventing events that never happened to suit their purposes. For example, after Mark, Matthew invented the story of guards placed at Jesus’ tomb to defend against the accusation that the disciples stole the body. This question of the justified lie in Christianity can be explored in my first essay on the Secular Web, “The Justified Lie by the Johannine Jesus in its Greco-Roman-Jewish Context” (2020).

It’s unlikely a redemptive death and resurrection had anything to do with what Jesus taught while alive. Roth comments that:

In the days of Jesus, nobody ever understood Isaiah 53 to be predicting the death of the Messiah. When Jesus said, “I am going to Jerusalem where I will suffer and die,” the Apostle Peter did not relate this in any way to the suffering described in Isaiah 53. Rather, Peter rebuked Jesus, saying, “Be it far from you Lord, this shall not be unto you.” In other words, “God forbid—that cannot happen to you!” Peter never expected the Messiah to be tortured and killed (see Matthew 16:21-22). (Roth, 2011)

The disciples wouldn’t have gotten violent at the arrest if Jesus’ death and resurrection was part of the overall plan. Elements like the Gethsemane prayer, when Jesus was by himself pleading with God to change his plan, seem to serve as an apologetic arguing that it was God’s plan all along for Jesus to die. (The claim is that the disciples didn’t know this, in other words, but Jesus and God conspired behind the scenes!) The likely absence of cross/resurrection theology during Jesus’ lifetime would make sense of why the early Jewish Christian document dubbed the “Didache” pays no mind to Jesus’ death and resurrection. James D. Tabor comments:

The most remarkable thing about the Didache is that there is nothing in this document that corresponds to Paul’s “gospel”—no divinity of Jesus, no atoning through his body and blood, and no mention of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. In the Didache Jesus is the one who has brought the knowledge of life and faith, but there is no emphasis whatsoever upon the figure of Jesus apart from his message. Sacrifice and forgiveness of sins in the Didache come through good deeds and a consecrated life (4.6). (Tabor, 2017)

The “redemptive death/resurrection” material was probably a post-Jesus’-death invention, though I think that Tabor is wrong that traditional atonement is what Paul had in mind. What all of this probably means is that it was well known that the historical Jesus was terrified and pleading/screaming from the cross for someone to help him, and this was then turned into the Gethsemane prayer story, an apologetic argument claiming that Jesus knew all along that it was God’s plan that Jesus needed to die—though the historical Jesus had no such mindset.


[1] On love for enemies, note:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-48)

And Luke 23:34 reads:

34 “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.'” (Luke 23:34)

This is what results in such transformations as Mark 15:39 and Luke 23:47:

39 when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he (a) breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39)

Mark 15:39 (a) Other ancient authorities add “cried out and

Mark 15:39 (a) Other ancient authorities add “cried out and

47 When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” (Luke 23:47)

James D. Tabor, for instance, points to the epistle of James for a repentance/forgiveness model rather than a penal substitution one. See Tabor’s short video from time index 12:00 onward.

[2] Interestingly, Ehrman (2017) points out Luke changes the scene significantly: for him the curtain was ripped, but it was before Jesus died. Now it doesn’t show that Jesus’ death brings access to God. It is a symbol of God’s destruction of the temple because of what the Jewish people have done to Jesus. (As Luke says “the hour of darkness has come”)

[3] See the June 16, 2023 MythVision clip of an interview with Bart D. Ehrman titled “These Gospels Contrast with Paul! at 7:34-9:55.

[4] I deviated from the NRSV translation of the important Psalm 49 passage because sometimes the NRSV, though excellent, makes odd linguistic choices, such as having Jesus say that the disciples will be made “fish for men” rather than the better and otherwise universally accepted “fishers of men.” So the NRSV translates Psalm 49:7 as: “Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it,” which doesn’t really fit the context here. The NRSV offers the alternative, arguably better reading of “no one can ransom a brother.” The ESV offers a better reading and keeps the monetary/ransom sense and imagery. We see comparable translations in the NIV and NASB renderings:

No one can redeem the life of another
   or give to God a ransom for them—
8 the ransom for a life is costly,
   no payment is ever enough—
9 so that they should live on forever
   and not see decay …
(Psalm 49:7-9 NIV)

No one can by any means redeem another
   Or give God a ransom for him—
8 For the redemption of his soul is priceless,
   And he should cease imagining forever—
9 That he might live on eternally,
   That he might not undergo decay …
(Psalm 49:7-9 NASB)

In light of this Hebrew scriptures background/context, it’s odd to think of Jesus as a substitutionary atoning sacrifice. And why would the death of John the Baptist, the paradigmatic holy man who Jesus called the greatest among mankind (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28), failed to have served to pay the sin debt? It’s made clear in this essay why an interpretation of Jesus’ death as penal substitutionary atomement—Jesus’ death as paying the sin debt of all past, current, and future mankind—really doesn’t fit the scriptural evidence in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament as well as a Lukan moral influence cross interpretation does.

[5] See Bob Utley’s Study Bible Commentary on Micah 7.

[6] Note, for example, that even sympathetic members of Christian Forums find attempts to find biblical support for the idea that Jesus paid our debt to be strained: “Jesus Paid Our Debt?” (March 17, 2011).

[7] See Rabbinics professor Abraham J. Berkovitz’s “Was Haman Hanged, Impaled or Crucified?” (February 23, 2021) at TheTorah.com.

[8] See, for instance, McGrath’s (2014) analysis of Carrier.

[9] Here I translate the beginning of the Corinthian creed from “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” to “Christ died because of our sins according to the scriptures,” but I am not alone in translating the passage this way: see Anthony J. Blasi’s Social Science and the Christian Scriptures, Vol. 1 (2017, p. 73).

[10] Cf. David Bentley Hart’s (2018) “Everything You Know about the Gospel of Paul is Likely Wrong.”

[11] In a 10-minute interview uploaded to YouTube on December 3, 2018, N. T. Wright similarly argues that the cross of Jesus is specifically intended to defeat demonic forces. Wright also explains what it means for Christ to die for our sins in relation to Romans 8:3-4 at time index 8:10, where Wright says that God didn’t condemn Jesus, but condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus. In other words, through Jesus, it becomes possible for sin itself to be condemned, which is somewhat similar to what I am arguing, just from a different perspective than that of Wright.

It’s interesting how the interviewer continually presses Wright on what Jesus dying for our sins actually means, as Wright’s answers clearly come across as confusing to viewers. Thus, at the end of the video interview, even though Wright (by my lights) is correct hermeneutically, he approaches the questioning from the wrong perspective, such that it remains unclear how Christ dying has any helpful, let alone salvific, value. Consider: How does a man suffering a criminal’s death on the cross, like thousands of others at that time, defeat the forces of evil? In any case, Wright is particularly interesting on the penal substitution question, arguing that the concept is nowhere to be found in Romans 3:24-26. See Wright (2016) for a more extensive treatment of this point, and Perriman’s (2020) commentary on Wright’s treatment.


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