Moffitt, David M. Atonement and the Logic of the Resurrection in Hebrews (NovTSup 141; Leiden: Brill, 2011)
Twice (in both cases by people qualified to say such things) in recent weeks I have heard David Moffitt’s recently published dissertation referred to as “revolutionary.” So what’s all the fuss?
Moffitt’s argument has two strands that may earn the title “revolutionary.” The first is that the resurrection of Jesus, far from being peripheral or non-existent in Hebrews, actually plays a crucial role in the author’s argument that Christ is the exalted Son of God, our faithful high priest, and our forerunner in the faith who has already received the eschatological inheritance promised to us. The second is that atonement, rather than being enacted at the cross, takes place in the heavenly sanctuary where Jesus presents his life (not his death) on the altar. In Moffitt’s own summarizing words: “[h]is death sets the sequence into motion. His appearance before God in heaven effects atonement. The bridge between the two is his resurrection” (294).
The focal points of Moffitt’s arguments are as follows. First, Jesus is presented as an embodied human being in heaven—this can only be the case if he was raised from the dead. Second, Jesus is the forerunner of those who will inherit a “better resurrection” (11:35)—this can only be true if he himself has undergone that resurrection. Third, Hebrews is very clear that Jesus was not a priest on earth (8:1–4) but only in the heavenly sanctuary, and so we need to rethink the idea that Jesus’ offering of himself took place while on the cross. Fourth, Moffitt draws on recent studies in Leviticus observing that the significance of blood is not in the death of the animal but in its life—Jesus is approved as high priest by his offering of his own “indestructible life” (7:16), the resurrected life that he offered on the altar in heaven following his resurrection and ascension. Prior to the resurrection he did not have that indestructible life, and so he can hardly have offered it to God as a priest.
Much more could be said; undoubtedly many reviews will be appearing in print and online contexts in the months to come (See my more thorough, and largely positive, review in a forthcoming issue of Themelios). For the moment, however, my question is this: is the logical sequence of the atonement as Moffitt has presented it consonant with the rest of the New Testament? Without undermining the significance of the resurrection, other NT authors do speak of an atoning death: “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3); “we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Rom 5:10); “by his wound you were healed” (1 Pet 2:24). One also wonders about John 19:30—“It is finished.” What was finished, if not the mission of Jesus, part of which was to offer himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins?
We should not dismiss a theory about how Hebrews views the atonement simply because it does not seem to be what every other NT author says about the atonement. But I will be very interested to see how Moffitt’s proposal works not only in Hebrews (on which I find it rather convincing) but in a broader NT perspective on the atonement. To offer one brief example: Romans 3:24–25 states that we are justified (no, I’m not going to get into that discussion!) through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation.” If we take up Moffitt’s perspective, must we understand the “public” element of Jesus’ self-offering as taking place in the heavenly sanctuary before the heavenly court, rather than on the cross before the crowds?
Moffitt’s book is mostly deserving of the hype it has received. Whether it moves past hype and becomes a turning point in how we understand the atonement in the New Testament remains to be seen.