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Resurrection and Atonement

I’ve been wondering for a while about a peculiarity in Paul’s theology of the atonement. This is the apostle’s insistence that the resurrection is essential to the Atonement. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul not only says that ‘Christ died for our sins...’ (v3) but also, ‘if Christ has not been raised your faith is futile and you are still in your sins’ (v17). Put simply, without the Resurrection, there is no atonement.

Paul doesn’t explain his logic, but in Romans 4.25 he writes again ‘he was delivered up (to death) for our trespasses and raised for our justification.’ It seems reasonable to conclude that any view of the atonement that speaks exclusively of Christ’s death as dealing with sin doesn’t do justice to Paul’s understanding of atonement. Bluntly a dead saviour is not enough to take away our sins. Why does Paul think that the resurrection is essential to the atonement?

Two explanations are helpful but not enough. One is that Paul’s thinks of the death and resurrection of Jesus as a victory over the powers, including the power of sin. I’m sure Paul thinks of Jesus’ work like this (the so-called ‘Christus Victor’ view of atonement) but it doesn’t seem to be what he is talking about in Romans.

Another explanation of the place of the resurrection in the work of Christ is that the resurrection is the vindication of Jesus, indicating that God accepts Jesus’ sacrifice. Certainly Isaiah 53 influences Romans and it says that the one who dies for the sins of the people is also rewarded for his sufferings (Is 53.10b, 12a). In one form or another I’ve heard this preached quite often as a kind of afterthought on the cross and I’m not unhappy with it as far as it goes – it just doesn’t seem enough to bear the theological weight that Paul places on the resurrection.

The context preceding Romans 4.25 gives us two better clues for integrating cross and resurrection in the atonement. One is roughly objective (an inference from the work of Christ) and the other roughly subjective (an inference from the nature of faith).

First let’s look at the objective work of Christ in Romans 3.21-26. This text has a good claim to be regarded as the heart of Paul’s gospel – it’s the first place in this crucial letter where Paul explains the good news of the gospel. It includes Paul’s explanation of how the Christ saves: it is ‘through the redemption in Christ Jesus whom God set forth as a hilastērion by his blood.’ (Rom 3.26)

There have been long arguments over whether this special word hilstērion should be translated as ‘expiation’ (Jesus’ death deals with sin in us) or ‘propitiation’ (Jesus’ death deals with the offence caused to God by our sin). But actually hilstērion means ‘mercy-seat’ (‘place of atoning sacrifice’), a fact confirmed by the reference to the ‘blood’ of Jesus. This language that takes us right to the heart of the work of Christ. It also plunges us into the language of sacrifice in Leviticus – often not the most familiar bit of the OT.

Leviticus 16 prescribes the ceremony for the most solemn of all Jewish festivals – the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the sins of Israel. He offers two goats as a single sacrifice: one is slaughtered and its blood sprinkled on the hilstērion ‘mercy-seat’, the other has hands laid on it and is chased away into the wilderness as a ‘scape-goat’, carrying away the sins of the people. The two goats – one living, one dead - form a single sacrifice of atonement, bearing away sins. The sacrificial ritual emphasises both aspects of atonement. A sacrifice to God is required to deal with our sins before him (the dead goat signifies propitiation) and our sins are taken away and we are left righteous (the living goat indicates expiation).

When we think sacrificial language we usually think of an animal being sacrificed and thus specifically of sacrificial death. But on the Day of Atonement both sprinkled blood and a live sacrifice together make a single work of atonement. So it is with Jesus, both his death and his raised life together atone for sins: ‘he was handed over for our sins and raised for our justification’.

The second clue to Paul’s insistence on the importance of the resurrection is more subjective – it comes in the example of Abraham’s faith. Paul doesn’t say that Abraham is justified through ‘faith’ in general. Rather Abraham believed in the living God – the God who performs his promises, even confounding death by giving life to the dead (4.17). In Abraham’s case this meant believing that God would give him an heir even though his body was old and ‘as good as dead’ – thus life ‘from the dead’.

So for us too the faith that renders us righteous is faith in the God who raises the dead, in this case raised Jesus. Paul concludes: as with Abraham, so with us. Faith will be counted to us as righteousness ‘who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord…’ To be justified we must put our trust in the living Lord and the one who raised him from the dead.

What might we conclude about the relationship between atonement and resurrection? I’m tempted just to say ‘that we need to know our OT better’ and leave it at that. But here are some (other!) simple observations. First that the language of ‘the cross’ can only be shorthand for all that God did in the death and resurrection of Jesus that first Easter weekend. Secondly, Jesus dying for our sins is neither real or effective without the resurrection and we can never fully preach the cross without the resurrection being part of that proclamation. The same Paul who insisted on knowing only Christ crucified was also clear about the centrality of the proclamation of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 2&15). Thirdly when we press to the heart of what Jesus has done for us we hear the language of sacrifice. But it is the language of a specific sacrifice - the sin offering of the Day of Atonement which requires both a dead and living victim to bear away sin: ‘if Christ has not been raised you are still in your sins.’

Rachel Bell

Thank you so much for raising the issue of the necessity of the resurrection. It’s something I’ve wondered about before but never really resolved. It seems to me that the penal substitution logic doesn’t require a resurrection, except insofar as it is an added bonus to prove that the trick really works! – I guess this approximates to the second of your suggested ‘helpful but not enough’ explanations. I’ve also come across “Christus Victor” ideas which I like a lot, however, as your article reminds me, this perspective doesn’t really deal with the guilt aspects of sin.

I really enjoyed your thoughts about the two Leviticus lambs; it has encouraged me to think afresh about the whole subject again. However, for two reasons I can’t fully make sense of the parallel drawn:

Firstly, it seems to me that although the scape-goat was presented alive to God, and never actually slaughtered, it is nonetheless sent out to the desert to near certain death, and at the very least to utter exclusion from the Israelite community. In these ways it seems very dissimilar from the resurrected Jesus who rose to everlasting life, and lives not to carry our sins away to oblivion with himself, but rather lives to restore relationship with us.

Secondly, if “hilstērion” refers to the ‘place of atoning sacrifice’, does that indicate that Paul is alluding primarily to the altar where the slaughter sacrifice occurred (or the lid of the ark on which the blood was scattered?), and less to the scape-goat which was sent away into the wilderness?

I’d be grateful to hear your thoughts on these questions Mark, that is, provided it’s ok for ex-Kings people to join the theolog discussions! Thanks.

Mark Bonnington

Great to see you keeping up with the Theolog! Both of your questions are in the area of: How far do we push an analogy?

Paul can use some analogies in quite complex ways. For example in Romans 7.1-6 he draws an analogy between dying to sin and a widow losing her husband and so being free from the binding law (of marriage). It looks here as if Paul is teaching both that the believer is the man who has died (to sin) and the woman who is free to be married to another.

On the scapegoat question, then, I think they key point is that both goats form a single sacrifice. The point of the scapegoat is to show the bearing away of sin which both parts of the sacrifice achieve. The fact that a goat later dies is not really the point, though, in fact, the Judean wilderness is not so without sustenance that a stray goat could not have survived quite a long time.

To call Jesus the 'mercy seat' and mention his blood in the same sentence is certainly to make a primary reference to that part of the Yom Kippur ritual in which the High Priest sprinkled blood on the mercy seat over the Ark of the Covenant. But again these references allude to and evoke the whole ritual of national atonement. The blood of the dead goat sprinkled on the hilastērion is the same sacrifice as the living goat chased into the wilderness.

Ben Blackwell

Thanks for your thoughts. I really found this helpful.


I am currently working a research proposal for a phd thesis on the causal link between resurrection and justification. I was delighted to stumble across this post and it has certainly given me some things to think about, espcecially the two lambs of lev.

My particular question concerns the possible implications Paul's connection between resurrection and justification might have for explaining the temporal diversity of justification language in Rom (esp 2.13 and 3.24). My current thought is that the theological nexus between eschatological vindication and resurrection in Second Temple Judaism (future justification who take the form of resurrection) provided Paul with a soteriological pattern which necessiated the doctrine of present justification in view of Jesus' resurrection.

This sort of logic has been used to explain Paul's motivation for the gentile mission and the jerusalem collection. I don't see why it shouldn't apply to justification as well.

Rom 4.25b, according to this reading, goes beyond the vindicatory explanation of Rom 1.4 and understands the resurrection as the eschatological event which generated the temporal context into which God's future verdict could be brought forward into the present.

If this is the case, then Wright's suggestion that present justification is an accurate anticipation of a still future verdict is the wrong way around. Jesus' resurrection creates the temporal environment in which that verdict can be made now; thus making present justification a real, if proleptic, declaration.

Again, thanks for the post

Mark Bonnington


Thanks for the comment - still not clear that I have got all the long words, but really good to hear of you research proposal - it sounds like a really worthwhile area and I look forward to your work.

I'm sure that a look at justification in the light of the Second Temple Judaism theme of the vindication of martyrs etc. should be fruitful.

Your comment made me wonder three things: First what is the relationship between vindication and justification? Vindication presumably has a large honour/shame reversal dimension. Is not vindication something that happens on the basis of righteousness or is it a 'declaring righteous' which takes us close to a Pauline doctrine?

Secondly, can vindication be vicarious, as a doctrine of justification requires?

Thirdly, and most importantly, isn't justification related not to final resurrection but to final judgement? Presumably it is not our final resurrection as believers that is our final justification but 'the hope of righteousness' is the hope of being declared righteous at the 'Great Assize'.

I'm not sure how to judge the difference between your view and NTWs on justification as anticipation/declaration, though I hear the 'temporal' point with interest. Surely one could own 'real' and 'proleptic' without denying that it is also an 'accurate anticipation' of future judgement? I would say that present justification is a real, anticipated declaration of a future judgement of 'not guilty' on the Last Day. I am declared not guilty by God now on the basis of Christ's work. This is 'accurate' in the sense that although future, and therefore, in principle, contingent, the final verdict of God is rendered certain by the declaratory promise of a faithful God.

All the best with the project!

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