Simon Gathercole opens his short but very erudite discussion of the theology of substitution with the question “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Of course I was, in that “I am crucified with Christ” (Galations 2:21). But, Gathercole points out, maybe I wasn’t, because Christ died alone, without His disciples, and instead of me. By substitutionary atonement, Gathercole means that “Christ did something, underwent something, so that we did not and would never have to do so.” This idea has fallen out of fashion in recent years for a number of reasons. Some say that it poses too many theodicean problems because it makes God look like a monster for killing his own Son. Others reject the legalistic definition of sin implied by subsitution and say that Jesus defeated “evil” in general, thereby doing away with the need for sacrificial atonement. There are lots of different ways of thinking about what Jesus did for us when He died on the cross, but in Defending Substitution (2015) Gathercole argues that substitutionary atonement is so important that it “can and should be regarded as integral to the biblical picture of the atonement.”
I found the introduction and first chapter of this book to be someone ponderous and boring. Gathercole works through the scholarly literature on atonement and evaluates the alternative arguments. But the second and third chapters are fascinating. Chapter two is dedicated entirely to asking what Paul meant when he said “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). The exegetical key to this passage, Gathercole says, is Isaiah 53. After using structural and literary similarities to prove that Isaiah’s prophecy probably inspired 1 Corinthians 15:3, Gathercole focuses on “And the Lord has handed him over for our sins,” (Isaiah 53:6) as proof that Paul did have an Old Testament basis for the idea of someone dying vicariously for the sins of others. He writes of the Suffering Servant that “His death … is not merely caused by the sinful behavior of his persecutors but also regarded as a punishment in place of the people for their benefit,” and reminds us of verse 5: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.”
In Chapter three, Gathercole uses a discussion of classical Greek and Roman literature to explain what Paul was thinking about when he wrote that “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8). Who would die for a good man? A few people, apparently. Gathercole points us to Euripides’ play Alcestis (438 BCE), in which Apollo tells Admetus, the king of Pherae, that he will be killed unless he can find someone else to die in his place. His wife, Alcestis, proves willing to die “on behalf of” (huper) her husband, proving that the idea of someone dying instead of someone else was available to Paul from classical pagan culture. We also have an inscription from first century Sardinia about a woman named Pomptilla who “died as a ransom for her sweet husband.” Her epitaph reads that “in my place she has died,” showing once again that Paul had cultural models for the idea of vicarious dying. Gathercole provides other examples of people dying for friends or family members in the classical world, but always the implication is that they died for someone who was worth dying for. The contrast with Jesus’ death is striking. He comments, “picture the baffled Cicero or Seneca trying to make sense of this person called Jesus dying for people who had renounced all the obligations of the relationship – to such an extent that the relationship no longer existed in anything like its original form.”
This is a persuasive little book, but its arguments are highly intellectual and I had trouble finding a practical take-away that would enrich my own spiritual journey. It is so short and esoteric, in fact, that I have trouble understanding why it is a book at all, and suspect that it might have been more efficient if the author had been forced to whittle it down into a couple of concise journal articles rather than padding out the literature review to make it into a book. Gathercole has persuaded me that substitution is important. What he hasn’t done is convinced me that I needed to read the book.