The Meaning(s) of Easter, Part 4: Participatory Atonement

In the previous post, I endeavored to show that sacrifice, both within first-century Judaism and in Jesus’ own understanding, had little (or nothing) to do with substitution.  That is, for Jesus and his audience, sacrifice was not about one creature dying in place of another so that God would be satisfied.  Unfortunately, in the centuries following the initial Easter event, the notion of substitutionary atonement (of Jesus dying in place of a condemned humanity) has become and remains the dominant interpretation of these narratives.  It is unfortunate because this notion, which is foreign to both Jesus (in Mark, anyway) and Judaism, also seems to mask some important meanings that are present in the Gospel narratives.

If substitionary atonement was not a part of Jesus’ own self-understanding (and his conception of his role in the kingdom of God), the question should be raised about what Jesus sacrifice likely would have meant to Jesus and his audience.  In other words, if substitution is out, what is the sacrifice of Jesus about?

A Call to Discipleship

In Mark, one answer to this question can be found in three successive prophecies in which Jesus “predicts” his impending death and resurrection.  In each of these, Jesus specifically tells his followers that he will die, only to be raised again soon after; and in each instance, his words are met with failure to comprehend.  In these following paragraphs, I do not delve into much detail about the specifics of these passages, nor do I intend to address any questions of historicity (for example, could Jesus see the future?).  Instead, I only highlight on some common features running throughout the three prophecies and what these prophecies reveal about the sacrifice of Jesus.

These three prophecies, found in Mark 8.31-38, 9.31-35, and 10.33-34, all share several common themes.  To begin, all three involve Jesus explaining the road that his journey must take–that is, the way of Jesus, which is a way inevitably leading to death (and through death, resurrection).  And each of his predictions are met with either incomprehension or outright opposition by his followers.  They consistently fail to understand his words; or, even worse, they seek to rebuke Jesus for offering such explanations.  In this, then, we see that the way of Jesus is one that simply does not fit within the mental models these disciples had crafted about their Messiah.  The way of death-to-resurrection was not the way they wanted their leader to take.

Aside from this explanatory nature of the end result of Jesus’ road, each of the prophecies also serves as an invitation to discipleship.  Not only for the Twelve, but also for the crowds, Jesus invites his hearers to join him on the road to Jerusalem, to confrontation with the oppressors and their religious collaborators, and to death and resurrection.  In this way, Jesus uses his prophecies to underline what it means to follow Jesus.  And what it actually means is not something that the disciples want it to mean.

  1. In the first prophecy, Jesus explains that his road will lead to his death, then takes the opportunity to invite his audience (any who are willing) to walk with him on the path to the cross.  To take the road into self-sacrifice (to lose their lives, and thus to find them) for the sake of the kingdom vision, and to be prepared in this journey for the likely result–death (Mark 8.34-37).
  2. In the second case, Jesus explains that his way is a way that goes against the normalcy of society.  The disciples fight over prestige and places of honor even as Jesus explains that he will suffer and die.  They have failed to understand that his road leads away from the self-aggrandizement and power-plays; it is opposed to the clamoring for power that is displayed by the domination systems and their ilk.  To follow Jesus, then, means to die metaphorically; to become a slave, a child, the last (Mark 9.33-35).
  3. Finally, in the third prophecy, Jesus implicitly displays his call to discipleship.  He travels in front of the crowds, and they follow fearfully behind.  In this, he leads his followers toward confrontation and death.  They are right to be afraid, for any who take the road of Jesus will likely face execution by the domination systems he opposes (Mark 10.32).[1]

In these narratives, then, Jesus creates a framework for understanding what it means to follow him (and, indeed, what his own sacrifice means).  It is an invitation, not to a simply religious life of sharing in the post-Easter Jesus, or of basking in the victory that he alone wins on the cross.  Instead, it is a call to a sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal journey through death to resurrection.  To follow Jesus is to walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward confrontation with “Rome,” and toward the cross–toward death and then resurrection.  It is a call to the cross, not as a religious icon to be bowed before, but as the expected outcome of the discipleship process.  Jesus followers, particularly in Jesus’ own time, should expect a literal death for following the way.

Participatory Atonement

For Mark’s Jesus, then, the road of the disciple is to be understood as participation with Jesus, rather than substitution by Jesus.[2] It is not about Jesus walking the road to Jerusalem alone, facing off against Rome alone, and dying alone on our behalf.  It is about all who would follow Jesus taking this journey with Jesus.  The sacrifice of Jesus is, essentially, a call to all who would respond to engage in a participatory atonement, a communal journey through death to resurrection.

To follow Jesus does not mean believing that the death of a first-century rabbi-activist somehow satisfies God’s hunger for vengeance against a sinful humanity.  To follow Jesus means to risk that final journey with Jesus, to risk standing against imperial domination and violence (and its religious justifications), even knowing that such a journey will likely lead to the disciple’s death.  The sacrifice (and resurrection) of Jesus is not the once-for-all substitution of a righteous man for a sinner; it is the prime example of what following Jesus leads to.[3]

Following Jesus, at least for Mark, is about walking with Jesus through death to resurrection, not simply skipping that painful journey and reaping all the benefits of Jesus’ courage.


[1] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: The Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week, eBook, (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), loc. 217-26.

[2] Borg and Crossan, loc. 236.

[3] Borg and Crossan, loc. 229.


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