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The Atonement

One of the central doctrines of Christian theology is the atonement. The basic teaching of this doctrine is that the death of Jesus on the cross was a vicarious sacrifice that brought about the reconciliation of God and man; the ties between which has been severed since the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The main question here is this: did the historical Jesus actually taught such a doctrine?

As we shall see the weight of early Christian tradition, as represented in the synoptics, does not support the idea that Jesus actually taught this doctrine. By the time the gospels were written, the idea of the atonement was already entrenched, albeit in a nebulous form, in Christian theology. Of course the authors of Mark, Matthew and Luke, tried their best to include some material which purports to show that Jesus knew about his impending death and suffering (and understood its necessity). According to the synoptics, Jesus told his disciples three times that he will suffer and die:

Mark 8:31-32
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. ...

Mark 9:31
[F]or he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again."

Mark 10:32-34
He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again."

Both Matthew (16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19) and Luke (9:22; (:44; 18:31-32) simply copied Mark and obviously had nothing more to add to these three passages from Mark. But these passages from Mark are obviously unhistorical. The reasons for concluding thus are many.

For one thing it is hard to reconcile the behavior of Jesus' disciples throughout the passion and after the resurrection. [1] Why would the disciples fled if it was part of Jesus' mission to be arrested (Mark 14:50)? Mark's explanation that they did not understand Jesus (Mark 9:32) is weak, given the clear and unambiguous nature of Jesus pronouncements. Mark also said that the disciples were "afraid to ask" Jesus for clarification on this teaching: why? It is inexplicable that they, who have followed their teacher throughout Galilee would be afraid to ask for enlightenment regarding his teachings.

The three-fold repetition is another case against the historicity of the passages above. It is obviously artificial. Furthermore we know that the evangelists were very fond of making up three-fold repetitions: there were three temptations of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11), three prayers by Jesus at Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42) and three denials of Jesus by Peter (Mark 14:30;14:66-72). [2]

The predictions are just too accurate not to be a prophecy written after the event. Some scholars have described them (especially Mark 10:32-34) as "reading like a printed program of a passion play." [3] All the main events in the passion are clearly predicted (the betrayal, the condemnation by the Sanhedrin, the handing over to Pilate, the mocking by Pilate's soldiers, the crucifixion and the resurrection). Furthermore the prediction here is made regarding events (except the crucifixion) which we have already shown to be unhistorical. The balance of evidence shows that these prophecies were invented either by Christian tradition or by Mark himself.

There is another passage in the synoptics, this time in Mark and Matthew, that seems to indicate that Jesus did teach his disciples about his impending vicarious death:

Mark 10:45 (Matthew 20:25)
"For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

The full context in Mark in which the above quote was taken from is given in table 11.3 below. In this episode, James and John tried to get Jesus to recognize them as his chief disciples. It is given in full in Mark 10:35-45 and slightly altered in Matthew 20:20-28 where it was James' and John's mother who tried to persuade Jesus to that effect. This episode is also found in Luke 22:24-27 (see the right hand column in the table below).

Mark 10:35-45 Luke 22:24-27
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."
36 And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?"
37 And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."
38 But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"
39 They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;
40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.
42 So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.
43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,
44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.
45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

24 A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.
25 But he said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors.
26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.
27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

The story in Luke obviously came from a non-Markan source. But the similarity is such that this passage is recounting the same tale as found in Mark. Matthew simply copied and modified Mark and should not be considered an independent witness here. The above quoted saying of Jesus cannot be authentic for a number of reasons. [4]

Luke seems to be following a tradition which differs from Mark and is missing precisely that very passage in which the doctrine of the atonement is taught. The passage in Luke ends thus:

Luke 22:27
"For I am among you as one who serves."

These words are, in fact, more in harmony with the whole episode than Mark's. The Markan saying is out of the context of the whole episode. From Mark 10:42 onwards the theme of the passage was on service. The additional words of giving his life as a ransom is not in line with the theme and is really a change from one class of idea to another.

Furthermore this reference to Jesus' death as a redeeming act is found only here and nowhere else in Mark. This isolation is, in itself, strong evidence for its lack of authenticity. There is no evidence elsewhere in the gospels that Jesus taught of his life and death in terms of sacrifice and ransom.

We can safely conclude that Jesus did not know about his impending death on the cross (how else would we explained the disciples' actions?) and that he did not believe his death was his main mission on earth.

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1.Cadoux, The Life of Jesus: p147
Nineham, Saint Mark: p229
2.Nineham, Saint Mark: p248
3.Ibid: p278
4.Ibid: p280-281

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