I have been dealing with the question of Jesus’ death in the Gospel of Luke and have been arguing that Luke does not appear to have understood Jesus’ death to be an atonement for sins. He has eliminated the several indications from his source, the Gospel of Mark, that Jesus’ death was an atonement, and he never indicates in either his Gospel or the book of Acts that Jesus died “for” you or “for” others or “for” anyone. Then why did Jesus die?
It is clear that Luke thought that Jesus had to die. For Luke it was all part of God’s plan. But why? What is the theological meaning of Jesus’ death for Luke, if it was not a sacrifice that brought about a right standing before God (which is what the term “atonement” means)?
You get the clearest view of Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ death from the speeches delivered by the apostles in the book of Acts. As you probably know, Acts is about the spread of the Christian church throughout the Roman Empire after Jesus’ death and resurrection. About a fourth of the book of Acts consists of speeches by its lead characters, and a number of these speeches are delivered to non-Christian audiences in order to get them to convert. You will find such speeches, for example, in chapters 2, 13, and 17.
It is widely recognized by scholars of ancient history that ancient historians almost always composed the speeches they record – that is to say, they are not giving the speeches that were *actually* delivered on this or that occasion. They are figuring out what (in their opinion) would have been appropriate for a speaker to say on the occasion, and then composing a speech that fit the bill. One reason we know that this is what historians did is that one of the very first, the great Greek historian Thucydides, actually *tells* us that this was his procedure. Another reason is that there is no other way an author would know what a person said in his speech.
Think about it for a second. Many of you heard Biden’s State of the Union address. OK, so write it out for me. You obviously can’t do it, even though it happened less than two years ago. Ancient people couldn’t do it either. But suppose you did want to write out his address. You’d have to come up with something. Or make it more like the situation with Luke. Luke is writing about 55 years after Peter would have delivered a speech (if he did deliver a speech) in the year of Jesus’ death (around 30 CE). So suppose you wanted to give, from memory (without any written materials to base it on), JFK’s first State of the Union address, and you had no written record of it. How would you do it? You’d have to compose it yourself.
The downside is that we can’t really know what any speech-givers in antiquity actually said. But the upside is that you can study speeches found in ancient histories (whether Thucydides or Luke or anyone else) and you can see what *they*, the authors, wanted to emphasize.
When you do that with Luke’s speeches in Acts, it is very interesting. Jesus’ death is regularly discussed. And it is never called an atonement. Then why did Jesus die?
For Luke, Jesus died because he was a great prophet of God who was rejected by his own people. They, the Jewish people, were ignorant of what they were doing. They didn’t realize who Jesus was. But in fact he was completely innocent of all charges brought against him. The people who are hearing the speeches are told all this, and they are told that they too are responsible for the death of God’s great prophet and messiah. This makes them feel their own guilt for their own sins. When they realize how sinful they are, they are driven to turn to God and beg for his forgiveness. And he gives it to them, so they are saved.
To make the matter as succinct as possible, for Luke, Jesus’ death drives people to repentance. It is an occasion for forgiveness.
Here is my key point: there is a difference between an atonement for sins and the free forgiveness of sins. Mark thinks Jesus’ death is the first (as does the apostle Paul, for example); Luke thinks it is the occasion for the second.
Here’s the difference between atonement and free forgiveness. Suppose you owe me a thousand dollars. But you don’t have a thousand dollars to pay me back. There are two ways we could deal with this (apart from my taking you to court). On one hand, you could find someone who would be willing to pay your thousand dollars for you. If they did so, I would accept the payment and then let you off the hook. I wouldn’t care who paid the money, so long as I got paid. Alternatively, on the other hand, I could simply tell you not to worry about it, that I don’t need the money and you don’t have to repay me.
The first option is like atonement. Someone pays a debt owed by another. The second option is like forgiveness. I forgive you and your debt and no one pays it.
Mark, and Paul, have a doctrine of atonement. Jesus’ death is a death “for the sake of others.” He dies in the place of others. His death is a sacrifice that pays the debt that is owed by others. Luke does not have a doctrine of the atonement. For him, Jesus’ death makes you realize how you have sinned against God and you turn to God and beg his forgiveness, and he forgives you. No one pays your debt; God simply forgives it.
Jesus’ death, then, continues to be vitally important to Luke. Jesus is God’s messiah, his very Son, the final great prophet sent here at the end of time to deliver God’s message of forgiveness. But rather than accepting him, the Jewish people rejected him and killed him. When you realize with horror what has happened, you turn to him – and to the God who sent him – and ask for forgiveness for your sins. God forgives you, and you then have eternal life.