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


(2021)

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. 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.

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.[1]
  • 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).

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. 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). 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. 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.

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.”

vs.

“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).[2] 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)

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.

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).

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)

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).

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.[3] 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)

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.[4] 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.[5] 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”[6], 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.

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. As we will see below, the resurrection was such a central role that Jesus had to die.

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[7]:

  • 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.[8] 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

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 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.”

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)

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)

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.

Notes

[1] 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”)

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

[3] 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).

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

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

[6] 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).

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

[8] 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.

References

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