Ascension: The Locus of Atonement in Hebrews

David Moffitt made his mark on the world of biblical studies with his impressive dissertation Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews.” In it, he argues against the long-standing viewpoint that Jesus’ resurrection plays little role in the soteriology of the book of Hebrews. Most modern scholars have seen the crucifixion, through the lens of a sacrificial typology, as the primary place and moment of Jesus’ atoning work. Moffitt largely builds on the work of Old Testament scholars who have proven that 1) the atonement accomplished by blood offerings like Yom Kippur were not focused on the actual slaughter of the animal but on the presentation/sprinkling of the blood and that 2) the blood represents the life of the sacrifice and not its death. Thus, using a typology of Yom Kippur, Jesus’ sacrifice triggers a series of events that leads to atonement, but is itself not sufficient or primary in the accomplishment of atonement. Moffitt uses these conclusions to argue for the primacy and importance of the resurrection in the book of Hebrews (see a good summary and review here).

While I think Moffitt is largely on the right track and much of his exegetical work on Hebrews is incredibly important, I can’t help but wonder if there is a glaring flaw in his conclusion. That is, Jesus’ bodily resurrection does not guarantee or accomplish atonement (in Hebrews itself or in Moffitt’s reading of Hebrews). It is the ascension of the bodily resurrected Christ into Heaven which does this – as he presents his blood in the actual Holy of Holies. A post-crucifixion embodied life is certainly necessary for this, but is itself just an event in the process which leads to the atonement. A resurrected Jesus, still walking around on earth, has not truly accomplished atonement according to the typology utilized in the book of Hebrews. At many points, Moffitt seems to recognize and appreciate this, yet it never seems to make a big enough impression to truly shape his conclusion.

I preached a sermon series last year on the doctrine of the Ascension, a doctrine that is mind-bogglingly  overlooked by many churches and theologians. Western churches and theologians usually tack the Ascension on as an afterthought to the Resurrection (at best), without giving thought to the specific theological work that it accomplishes and continues to accomplish in the theo-drama of God’s redemptive plan through Christ and the Spirit.  As I studied and prepared for the series, I realized how little I knew about the biblical and theological significance of the Ascension and, even more sadly, how little significant scholarship has been written about it.

However, Hebrews stands out among all of our canonical literature as exalting the Ascension as the praiseworthy and effectual moment of atonement. In fact, the data made me go back and listen to a sermon series I preached through the book of Hebrews years before and, to my embarrassment, I practically overlooked (or downplayed) the endless references to the Ascension. Like the scholars Moffitt critiques, my attention was so focused on the crucifixion (largely because of a poor understanding of the levitical sacrificial system) that I could hardly muster the cognitive or theological energy to look anywhere else.

Now, however, not only do I see the importance of the resurrection in the book of Hebrews – I also see the locus of atonement as happening in heaven at the time of the ascension. Why do we give so little attention to the  ascension as opposed to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus? Maybe because it is more theological and metaphysical? Maybe because we’ve overlooked its importance in the Scriptures? Regardless, I can no longer deny this truth: THE ASCENSION MATTERS. While the incarnation, life and ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus are all vitally important to God’s work of salvation and to our faith – the ascension must be understood as equally important and praiseworthy.

What do you think?

Have you noticed a tendency in churches or theology to overlook or downplay the importance of Jesus’ ascension?
If so, why do you think that is?

Do you agree that perhaps there is more biblical and theological weight put on the work of Jesus’ ascension than is often recognized?

Where else, other than Hebrews, might we be downplaying the importance of the ascension in the canonical literature?

‘Interchange’ in Christ

I recently did a book review for my Paul class on Morna Hooker’s From Adam to Christ: Essays on Paul and thought I’d share my summary of her main argument on ‘interchange’ in Christ.

The book is a collection of Hooker’s essays on Pauline theology, most of which focus on Paul’s understanding of redemption.  She notes early on in her introduction that Paul is distinctively Jewish and “saw redemption primarily in corporate terms,” (p 2-3).  Hooker argues that while Paul’s soteriology is originally situated within a salvation-historical framework, following his encounter with Christ Paul comes to understand salvation as ultimately participatory for God’s covenant promises are “effected through incorporation into Christ,” (3).  Because these covenant promises have become universally available to all through Christ, Paul looks to Adam as “the only figure with universal significance” to draw a link between the old and new (5).  From this connection, or juxtaposition rather, Hooker develops the idea of ‘interchange in Christ‘ and its necessary implications.

What does Hooker mean by ‘interchange’?  The idea of ‘interchange’ in Paul’s theology in that “Christ is identified with the human condition in order that we might be identified with his” (26).  Though Hooker clearly favors the term ‘interchange’ she quickly identifies it’s deficiencies, namely, it is not a simple exchange that takes places between Christ and humanity.  According to Hooker, Christ acts not as humanity’s substitute (as many scholars have argued) but as humanity’s representative.  She argues that the interchange that takes place between Christ and those who are ‘in Christ’ is necessarily participatory–as we participate in Christ everything that is true about Christ is true about us.  In other words, “to be in Christ is to be identified with what he is,” (37).

The cornerstone text for Hooker’s understanding of interchange is Paul’s simple yet perplexing proposition in 2 Corinthians 5:21, Christ was made sin in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him.  Hooker stresses the importance of the reciprocal nature of redemption, albeit unbalanced, arguing that “it is necessary, not only for Christ to identify himself with us, but for us to identify ourselves with him,” (43).  Kenosis and cruciformity (though she doesn’t use that word) are prominent themes in Hooker’s interchange framework as it is ultimately through Christ-like “self-abnegation” that we display pistis Christou, faith in the God who raises the dead, the same faith evidenced in the person and work of Christ (46).

Paul’s idea of participation in Christ is fundamental, not only for his Christology, but for his understanding of salvation, of the nature of the redeemed community, of God’s plan for humanity and the world, and of the way of life appropriate for restored humanity. Those who live ‘in Christ’ depend on him. Being changed into his likeness, they reflect his glory; but the glory of the new humanity is the glory of God’s children, who are obedient to him, responding to him in faith, who share the obedience and faith of Christ himself. (9)

Hooker offers some interesting perspectives and I’m particularly partial to her reading of 2 Corinthians 5.21.  Are you familiar with Morna Hooker’s ‘interchange’ description?  If so, any thoughts?