What is the best symbol of the atonement

Many Christians (myself included) automatically default to the cross when answering that question. I’ve decided it’s unhelpful. The cross by itself is insignificant (symbolically) – Jesus could have died on anything, they could have drowned him, burned him, or drawn and quartered him – the cross was just a functional means to putting Jesus to death. The resurrection (as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15) is where it’s at for Christians. If there was no resurrection I wouldn’t be a Christian – and Paul says I wouldn’t be atoned for either.

The empty tomb is a heaps better symbol. It just doesn’t look as good on a necklace.

There’s a bit of a difference between “died and was raised” and “died, AND was raised” – I think too often we fall into the latter category – and indeed change our emphasis to “DIED…and was raised” – I don’t think Paul does that in 1 Corinthians 15, and I don’t think the creedal confessions do that either.
I’ve been thinking about this after a news report called Good Friday the most significant day of the Christian calendar, and following a couple of conversations, one in the real world, and the other at Gary’s blog where he warns about “bait and switch” gospels.

Your thoughts?

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The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

21 thoughts on “What is the best symbol of the atonement”

  1. Do you think the word "symbol" always needs to mean sacrament, sign, or seal. I think words can be symbols too. And if I asked you to sum up the atoning action in one word I don't think you'd say "baptism"… Many would say "cross" I would say "resurrection"… that's the cut of my jib in this post…incidentally idiomatic "cut of one's jib" is a reference to a sailing term
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    1. Nope, sometimes symbol can just mean symbol.
      I'm just exploring why we need any others than the ones that Jesus intentionally gave us.
      I also agree that words can be symbolic. Gospel itself is one. It embraces a whole lot of teaching.
      While you're considering different atonement symbols, what about the two goats from Exodus 16? One goat is sacrificed and the other remains alive, bearing the confessed sin of the people into the wilderness. Both of these goats prefigure the atoning work of Jesus. Interestingly one does so while remaining alive.
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  2. I'm not with you here Nathan. And I don't think the Apostle Paul is either – at least not in the first few chapters of 1 Corinthians.

    The fact that Jesus died on a cross is hugely significant. It wasn't just the functional means of killing him. It was the place of cursing and total ignominy. The thought of a Crucified God was offensive in the extreme to the Jews of the day. Had he been drowned or beheaded then it would have been very different.

    I don't think that the empty tomb is a better symbol for the atonement than the cross. Apart from 1 Tim 3:16 which speaks of vindication I can't see anything in the NT that supports you.

  3. Yeah, I'd point to 1 Cor 1 and Gal 3:13 to say that the means of death isn't incidental.

    I agree with you, though, that many evangelical circles tend to underdo the resurrection (with all that it means for vindication, declaration of lordship/judgment, and so on, e.g. Matt 28; Acts 17:30–31; Rom 1:1–4; 4:25, etc.).

    But again, swing that pendulum too far, and you miss the fact that the power of the resurrection is often power to be 'weak', or power to suffer and endure well — Phil 3:10; 2 Cor 13:4; Col 1:10–11; 2 Tim 1:7–8 etc. (thanks, Tim Chester). And in response, I want to hear O'Donovan's word that the gospel must be able to shape the lives of those who are rich and powerful — 'martyrdom' is a reality for some, but it's not necessarily the place for me to begin thinking ethically.

    Anyway, there's a complex discussion here which gets twisted if you don't talk about the whole story of Messiah Jesus.

  4. I don't disagree that the cross is significant – I understand that he died in a manner that was "written" but there was nothing written (that I know of) that stretched past being hung on a tree (cursed) and pierced (for our transgressions)… it may have been hyperbolic to suggest otherwise, but I'd suggest that any death, followed by a resurrection, would be important. It could have been a wooden stake, he could have been hung from a tree and shot with arrows. The means of his death is significant, but not as significant as the end of his death. References to the cross after the fact could just as easily be references to being shot with arrows – if that was how it happened.

    My argument is that we often don't preach the atonement as a package. We say "Christ died for you" as though that sums up our message, and the cross becomes symbolic for that act.

    The truth, as affirmed by the "creedal" confession in 1 Corinthians 15 – to me suggests that the death, and the resurrection, are the atonement. It's not just the death. This is the passage I'm talking about:

    1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

    3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

    The reason I would distill the gospel down to "resurrection" if I had to use one word is that it implies death – where as death by itself offers no hope. I'm pretty sure 1 Corinthians 15 supports the position I am trying to articulate.

    Al,

    "The thought of a Crucified God was offensive in the extreme to the Jews of the day."

    As was the thought of a resurrected man to both the Jews (at least the Sadducees), and to the Gentiles, at least if the response in Acts 17 is one to go by… I'd go further to say that it was the resurrection that was "foolishness" to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews…
    Acts 17…

    29 "Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man's design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."

    32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject."

    And then it's the resurrection that gets him into trouble in Jerusalem (not the cross – which is pretty much what Peter and the others had been preaching constantly earlier in Acts).

    6Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead." 7When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8(The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.)

    Before Felix in Acts 24 – again it's the Resurrection that seems the root of controversy:

    " 17"After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. 18I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance. 19But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me. 20Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin— 21unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: 'It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.' "

    Cont…
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  5. In Acts 26, while talking to Agrippa, Paul doesn't even mention the cross when proclaiming the gospel:

    6 And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. 7 This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. 8 Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?

    19 "So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. 20 First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. 21That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. 22 But I have had God's help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— 23 that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles."

    But I agree with Stuart that to split the issues creates a twisted circumstance – I'm just suggesting they deserve equal coverage and that the resurrection is a better single word summary (or symbol) of the gospel than the death.
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  6. Well it looks like now you've changed your argument. You started off by speaking of "atonement" and now you're talking about "the gospel."

    i.e.… the resurrection is a better single word summary (or symbol) of the gospel than the death.

    But I still don't agree with you. It looks to me like you're falling into the same problem you complained about in your first paragraph. The gospel cannot be reduced to a single word. It is the proclamation of good news. That good news involves, inter alia, Christ's sinless life, his atoning sacrifice, his resurrection and his ascension.

  7. "Well it looks like now you've changed your argument. You started off by speaking of "atonement" and now you're talking about "the gospel.""

    And yet I think Paul makes the point that without the resurrection there is no atonement. Unless I'm getting my terminology wrong – I see atonement = sin paid for, justification = no longer considered sinful, sanctification = no longer being sinful in nature (or the process of maturing to that point – the jury is out a bit on the best definition there for me…) and the gospel as the summary of all of these points with the extra bonus of Jesus being the resurrected Lord.

    The sign that all these things are the case is the resurrection.

    "But I still don't agree with you. It looks to me like you're falling into the same problem you complained about in your first paragraph. The gospel cannot be reduced to a single word. It is the proclamation of good news. That good news involves, inter alia, Christ's sinless life, his atoning sacrifice, his resurrection and his ascension."

    Indeed, it was never my intention to rob the cross of its significance – just to give the resurrection its due. The resurrection is what makes the cross magnificent.

    All of the claims of Jesus are verified by the resurrection – it is not just a claim in itself but also the means by which we know all his other claims to be true.

    The word "resurrection" as a summary accounts for both his death, his resurrection, and our hope. I don't see how describing the gospel as "the cross" (which was the issue I was originally raising) takes the latter two into account.

    It's funny that you seemed to agree with Jeff on his blog when he said a nearly identical thing…

    Perhaps the semantic range of the words summary and symbol are causing dramas – I think that was the case with my discussion on Gary's blog…

    1. It's funny that you seemed to agree with Jeff on his blog when he said a nearly identical thing…

      No I didn't. And no he didn't.

      I agreed with this statement of his: "I've often thought the Resurrection is a theological category which doesn't get enough attention or application. I get the impression that our 'gospelling' often leaves it out. We seem to stop at the Cross."

      What I'm talking about on your blog is whether the resurrection is a better symbol for the atonement than the cross and whether the cross is nothing more than a functional means of putting Jesus to death.

      I don't want to misunderstand you here but your having moved from "atonement" language to "gospel" language has confused the issue for me. If your argument is that the resurrection is the "proof" that Jesus cross-work was a sacrifice of atonement then I agree with you.

      1. Did the atonement happen without the resurrection?

        The cross is significant because that's what was used, it is not significant because it's a cross. That was my point there. Like I've said, I don't think there's anything that specifically suggested Jesus had to be "crucified", the OT passages would seem to require piercing, and a cursed death. They're descriptive, rather than prescriptive.

        I'm not arguing that it's not significant – just that its significance is created by the resurrection. I am arguing (as I believe Paul does) that the resurrection is more pudding than proof when it comes to the atonement.

        Can one of you tell me where I'm going wrong at that point – if we are still in our sins if Christ was not raised this must surely mean that his death alone didn't absolve our sins?

        I find it hard creating a distinction between the gospel and the atonement. I tend to conflate them in my thinking because I think the good news is that our sins have been paid for by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and our hope is to share in that resurrection…

        In sum… if someone asked me if Good Friday was more important than Easter Sunday I'd pick the Sunday every time. I'd pick the resurrection over the death as the most significant act in both the gospel and the atonement. At the moment. Mostly because I'm a reactionary and it seems to me that a correction needs to be made in order to bring people back to putting the two parts on an equal footing.
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        1. What would you say was accomplished on the cross when Jesus said, "It is finished"? Perhaps all Paul was saying in 1 Cor. 15 was that if Christ didn't rise from the dead, then he wasn't who he said he was.
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  8. Also, if we're going to be pedantic, I don't think the gospel is the proclamation of good news but the substance. If we say it's the proclamation of the good news then any time Paul talks about preaching the gospel – or having preached the gospel – he's saying "preaching the preaching of the good news"… that seems redundant.

    Furthermore, "that which Paul passed on as of first importance" in 1 Corinthians 15 ie the gospel – did not include his sinlessness, or his ascension – I don't think those are "core" though they are important. According to Paul, in the little Corinthian creed thing that historians bang on about, the key is this…

    "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep."

    At this point I'm happy to suggest that because the word resurrection first implies death it is suitable practice to use "resurrection" as a one word summary of the gospel – and to say "Christ rose, so that you could rise too" is more important than "Christ died for you to pay the penalty for your sins"…

    Regarding the atonement, nobody has explained to me how Paul is not talking about the atonement in 1 Corinthians 15:17…

    13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.

    If we're still in our sins then we have not been atoned, or am I missing something?
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  9. You chose a dangerous place to be pedantic, Nathan :P

    1. You could write thousands of words on what ‘atonement’ (khfr/hilasterion) means (I’d be very surprised if it didn’t come up in a doctrine essay for you at college). For me, in Romans, I’m happy with the ‘short story’ of the NIV footnote: it denotes turning aside God’s wrath, which has relational/covenantal overtones, rather than being merely an impersonal transaction.

    2. Any ‘reductionist’ version of the gospel just has to contend with the Biblical data. Sure, Paul has a ‘creed’ in 1 Cor 15, but he also is happy to put in parallel ‘gospel’ and ‘word of the cross’ in 1 Cor 1:17–18, and to say “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Elsewhere, of course, Paul’s gospel nutshell has to include judgment (Rom 2:16) or David (Rom 1:1–4; 2 Tim 2:8). (The more you start to push on this, the more asymptotic ‘gospel’ grows to ‘the whole counsel of God’.)

    3. I’d prefer not to start with theological notions like ‘propitiation’, ‘justification’, and ‘sanctification’. They’re all important, but not my starting point. I think I want to start with Mark: the gospel is the events of Jesus the Christ — the events of his life, rooted in history. (I think too much of our gospelling remains in the more abstract realm of theology, and doesn’t do enough business with Jesus and his narrative.)

  10. Re 1: Yeah, I agree, though I think it is completed at the resurrection, not at the death.
    Re 2. Indeed. I don't think at any stage in this discussion I've suggested that I think a one word summary is a good idea, just that if I had to, I'd pick "resurrection"…
    Re 3. Again, I'd say that it's the historicity of the resurrection that matters when assessing the historicity of the events of Jesus Christ. If he didn't literally and historically rise from the dead then I wouldn't be a Christian, and if somebody could prove to me that he wasn't raised, then I'd pack it in tomorrow. No other event in his life matters if not for the resurrection.

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  11. Hmmm…There's a more complex argument to have here about Pauline theology in general, and about 1 Cor 15 in particular. Sorry I don't have time to mount it here. Suffice it to say that I think linking 'hilasterion' to 'resurrection' in this way is, er, too strong.

    Meanwhile on 3, your emphasis makes it sound like you've spent too much time talking with atheists, and not enough time in the NT. While the historical reality of the resurrection is there in the Scriptures and important, there's a whole lot more hanging off it than historical truth. And there's a lot more to Christology than resurrection.

    Attempting to redress a balance doesn't feel like a win if you career into another error :/

    1. At this point it's probably worth pointing out this post – I actually would class it as a win if the discussion helped establish my position better (by fleshing it out from your arguments) and if it helped move other people towards a more healthy (less extreme) position – I'm not suggesting you guys are at the extremes. I just think we need to glory in the resurrection rather than just in the death of Jesus.

      your emphasis makes it sound like you've spent too much time talking with atheists, and not enough time in the NT.

      Not really, here's how it works in my head. Paul wrote most of the New Testament. Paul says his faith (and ours) is in vain if the resurrection didn't happen. That's as far as I'd take it. If the resurrection isn't physical and historical then I may as well just eat, drink and be merry.

    2. At this point it's probably worth pointing out this post – I actually would class it as a win if the discussion helped establish my position better (by fleshing it out from your arguments) and if it helped move other people towards a more healthy (less extreme) position – I'm not suggesting you guys are at the extremes. I just think we need to glory in the resurrection rather than just in the death of Jesus.

      your emphasis makes it sound like you've spent too much time talking with atheists, and not enough time in the NT.

      Not really, here's how it works in my head. Paul wrote most of the New Testament. Paul says his faith (and ours) is in vain if the resurrection didn't happen. That's as far as I'd take it. If the resurrection isn't physical and historical then I may as well just eat, drink and be merry.

  12. P.S. I didn’t want to say too much, but I figured I hadn’t said enough. It might just be worth opening up this piste: the resurrection (and the whole Christ event) aren’t just about having your sins forgiven. They involve the salvation of humanity, but also things like the judgment of all sin, ‘putting to rights’ of the whole creation, the fulfilment of God’s purposes in creation, and a proclamation and vindication of God’s character. These things are part of the ‘momentous news’ that is proclaimed.

    This cosmic view changes the footing of the discussion a little, and may explain why there’s been a bit of a deaf men’s dialogue.

  13. At this point it's probably worth pointing out this post – I actually would class it as a win if the discussion helped establish my position better (by fleshing it out from your arguments) and if it helped move other people towards a more healthy (less extreme) position – I'm not suggesting you guys are at the extremes. I just think we need to glory in the resurrection rather than just in the death of Jesus.

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