Where did we get the whole idea of Atonement from?  – A response to Matthew Parris

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Matthew Parris has written in the Spectator arguing that:

Christians should face up to this: the whole atonement thing is a terrible muddle, a tangle of primitive and modern thinking, a proselytising salesman’s wheeze, a mess. Trying to make sense of it is a waste of time. Blame Paul. But don’t blame Jesus: it was never his idea in the first place.


Parris has followed the well-travelled path of many sceptics, atheists and even liberal Christians before him in arguing that the whole idea that Jesus died in order to offer atonement for sin was a later invention, nothing to do with Jesus himself but rather the apostle Paul who created a religion, fitting for Gentiles in order to meet their need for sacrifice and rescue.

Let’s have a look in a bit more detail.  It’s worth noting from the start that in assuming that Paul offers something different to Jesus’ words, that Parris is by implication accepting that we go to the Gospel writers to hear the words of Jesus.  As both a believer in Jesus and someone who has taken time to check out the historical reliability of the Gospels I am very happy to affirm that they offer a reliable and trustworthy recording of what Jesus said and did. However, the idea that the Gospels provide an authentic interpretation of the life of Jesus in a way that Paul’s letters cannot, is a surprising conclusion to come to.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are contemporaries of Paul both in that the men were around and in contact with each other at the same time (Luke and Mark accompanying him on mission trips, Matthew and John meeting him at Jerusalem with the other apostles before John goes on to lead one of the churches Paul was involved in establishing) and that the books were written at a similar time with many scholars presuming that many of Paul’s letters predate most if not all of the Gospels. 

We also need to observe that it was neither Paul, nor the Gospel writers who invented the concept of atonement.  It was there in the Jewish Scriptures.  The focus on animal sacrifice in Hebraic religion arose out of the belief that humans sin, they rebel against God and so reconciliation with him is needed.  Leviticus 23:26-32 institutes the day of atonement when sacrifices are to be offered on behalf of the people in order to make atonement, in other words so that they can be reconciled with God, their sin forgiven, God’s wrath propitiated.   

The Torah made it possible for some sin to be dealt with through animal sacrifices.  However, the prophet Isaiah makes it clear that those animal sacrifices were pointing to a person who would deal fully with the problem of sin. Speaking of someone identified as the Lord’s servant, he says:

But he was pierced for our rebellion,
    crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
    He was whipped so we could be healed.
All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
    We have left God’s paths to follow our own.
Yet the Lord laid on him
    the sins of us all.

Isaiah 53:5-6.

It is important to remember then, that when Paul and the writer to the Hebrews, talk about atonement and use the imagery of priest, temple and animal sacrifice to point to the need for a substitute to take our place so that we can be forgiven, they are thinking with the same thought patterns and drawing on exactly the same belief system or world view that Jesus functioned in.  Their teaching was not something that they put together in order to appeal to Gentile thinking. Indeed, Paul comments that his Gospel is considered ridiculous nonsense or foolish by Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:22). So, when Paul and the other letter writers offer their interpretation on what Jesus was saying and doing, it is likely that their understanding was going to share the same interpretation as the Gospel writers and of Jesus’ own self-awareness.

In other words, we might expect Paul to use more explicit language to help Gentiles to understand what Jesus was saying and doing because they would have had a different language and different worldview to start with but this does not mean that he is disagreeing with Jesus and the Gospels.

It’s worth then looking at what the Gospels actually say about Jesus both in terms of what he said and did. His actions are important as well as his words because his actions will have demonstrated his understanding of what the Law and Prophets were saying about him.  Let’s go specifically to Mark’s Gospel because this is often assumed to be the earliest of the Gospels.  What do we find there?

Well, in Mark 8:27-31, Jesus asks his followers who they think he is.  Peter responds by declaring Jesus to be the Messiah or Christ.  In other words, he was recognising Jesus as God’s promises king, the descendant of David, the anointed one who would bring liberation and restoration for God’s people.  Jesus clearly accepts this identification of him and then goes on to explain what this would entail.  Rather than his identification as the Messiah leading to his immediate exaltation and coronation, it would lead to his rejection.  He would be handed over to die but his death would be followed by his resurrection. 

The question then, is why was it necessary for the Messiah to die.  First of all, we can see by way of implication that Jesus was associating his identity as Messiah with the Isaiah 53 prophecy.  A significant person would die but not because of their own failings. 

Secondly, when we get a little closer to the death of Jesus, he takes time to explain to his disciples what it is all about.  Mark reports that on the night before his execution, Jesus arranged to share a meal with his disciples, in effect a Passover meal. The Passover was the meal Jews ate together to remember how God had rescued them from Egypt.  The night they left Egypt, each household had taken a lamb, killed, cooked and ate it then sprinkled its blood on the doorposts of their house so that their firstborn son would not die. The lamb had acted as a substitute in his place.

At this particular meal:

22 As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take it, for this is my body.” 23 And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 And he said to them, “This is my blood, which confirms the covenant[e] between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice for many. 25 I tell you the truth, I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new in the Kingdom of God.”

Mark 14:22-25.

Jesus explicitly describes himself as a sacrifice, a substitute offered in place of others.  He takes the place of the lamb. This year, it is his body that will be sacrificed, so they will metaphorically eat of him.  It’s his blood that has to be poured out.  Notice too the language of covenant.  A covenant between God and his people was about what it meant for them to be able to live in his presence, under his rule and reign, experiencing his blessing.  In other words, a covenant was dependent upon atonement.  Jesus is, in Jewish terms, explicitly stating that he is about to be offered up as sacrifice to make atonement.

There’s one other clue in Mark 14, when we get to verse 58, Jesus is on trial having been betrayed by Judas.  Witnesses are brought to accuse him. They can’t get their stories straight but they do seem to agree on one thing, Jesus had claimed that the Temple would be destroyed and then within three days he would rebuild it.  When Jesus made this claim, the Gospel writers tell us that he was speaking about himself, it was another prediction of his death and resurrection. 

Now for Jesus to say this was telling us something important about him.  The Gospel writers pick up heavily on the idea that Jesus took the place of the sacrificial lamb.  John the Baptist pointed to him as “the lamb who takes away the sin of the world.”  However, they are also fascinated by him associating himself with the Temple.  In John 7, Jesus draws on the language of Ezekiel 37 to describe himself as like the promised temple from which streams of living water flow out. 

Why is this important? Well, the Temple was the place where sacrifices were brought.  Jesus is saying that he is both the sacrifice, the offering that brings atonement and the temple, the place where atonement is made.  If we are to be reconciled to God, then we need to be “in Christ”.

This is all important then because when Paul describes Jesus as the one who becomes sin for us, who enables us to be forgiven and justified and when he insists that all of the blessings of the Gospel are in Christ, he is agreeing with what Jesus said and did. He is agreeing with the Gospel writers.

Matthew Parris is wrong. If you have a problem with the Christian Gospel, then you have a problem with Jesus himself.

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