Jesus as Exemplar

Over at “A Tippling Philosopher”, Jonathan MS Pearce has been talking a lot about the Resurrection, and more specifically what’s wrong or inconsistent with it, as he has a book out on that very topic.  Recently, he wrote a post talking about the idea that the Crucifixion is about atonement and made it clear that he thinks the idea is completely and irretrievably incoherent.  I do think that we can make sense of what the Crucifixion was about, and noted that I might make a post here on that since I needed a Friday post anyway and it was probably short enough to work, so this is that post.

Before I start, note that my idea here is philosophical, not theological.  While I think it can be reconciled with theology, that’s not the point here and it certainly isn’t the standard theological views that we all know and love.  In fact, anyone who knows me will have no problem believing that it’s pretty eccentric,  So comments that say “That’s not what religion X says!” will not be comments that I take at all seriously.  Also, the idea is going to take the Bible “at its word” and so be derived from the Biblical accounts, as that’s what’s expressing the idea.  So comments of “That never really happened!” won’t really be entertained either.

After all of that, on with the show!

First, let me highlight a pet peeve.  Pearce’s focus is on why Jesus would say on the Cross that God has abandoned him but that that in general doesn’t make sense, and in doing so says this:

It makes absolutely no sense of the Holy Trinity – why would God be talking to himself and claiming he had forsaken himself?

Sigh.  This always comes across as a cheap attempt at a “Gotcha!”, but anyone philosophically minded — as Pearce is — will be able to come up with all sorts of ideas of how that could work, with things like aspects and avatars and incarnations and all sorts of things that would make this make sense.  Yes, some of them don’t work theologically and I believe that Edward Feser comments that we can only ever attempt to understand it by analogy, but in general there are ways for that to make sense, so that sort of “talking to himself” line doesn’t really address the overall issue in any way.  And this is especially bad because it turns out that there is a key difference that would explain why Jesus would have to address God, even in the Trinity.

Fortunately, Pearce does add some more philosophical complaints against the line, but I’m not going to address them directly.  Instead, I’m going to outline my own view, which I think will either address or dodge most of his complaints.

To start with, to understand Atonement here we have to go way back to the beginning to the thing that needs to be Atoned for, which is Original Sin, and the eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden.  It will surprise no one that I have an eccentric view of that story, but one that I think works whether or not the Garden of Eden story is meant to be allegorical or literal (I lean towards it being an allegory myself).  The basic idea is that the key takeaway is that after Adam and Eve ate the apple, they gained knowledge of right and wrong, and that is the key to the rest of the story and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  It is, for me, less a punishment for their having dared to do what they were told not to do, but instead a sad realization that moral agents who know are capable of knowing right from wrong cannot live in a paradise anymore, at least not immediately.  They need to be able to act on that capacity and so through that develop a moral character, and only if they develop a moral character that will always choose the right can they be readmitted to paradise.  Such a life must be difficult because it’s only through adversity that our moral character gets tested, and so again it’s less a punishment and more a necessity.  And the story shows that you cannot have people who do not have that capacity simply inhabit paradise either because if there are any rules whatsoever they cannot be trusted to follow them because they don’t know that it’s wrong to break them.

So the Original Sin, to me, is not a taint that we need to overcome, but instead a recognition that to develop as moral agents we must be capable of being tempted to do wrong and yet also capable of resisting those temptations to develop our moral character.

This then leads into what is important about Jesus, which is made clear in the Bible:  Jesus was made human.  In doing that, Jesus gained a unique ability to understand what making those sorts of decisions are for us, and importantly the ability to be tempted.  And the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus can be tempted and can fall prey to human foibles.  I think it’s early in John that the Devil takes Jesus to the desert to be tempted, and the story makes it clear that while Jesus rather easily resists his temptations, we are supposed to believe that Jesus was tempted by that.  Crucially, the Devil also notes that Jesus could use the powers He gained for His own benefit, and Jesus refuses.  This will be important later at the Crucifixion.

As we proceed through the New Testament, we can indeed see Jesus being tempted and acting human.  He flies into a rage at the moneychangers in the Temple.  He curses the fig tree for not having figs.  We see on a number of occasions that Jesus is indeed human and shares our foibles, but in general He’s able to resist them and do the right thing anyway.  He feels our temptations, but for the most part, except in a few cases, is able to resist them.

Importantly for the specific topic of feeling abandoned by God, long before the actual Crucifixion we can see that Jesus does not want to go through the Crucifixion and does not want to face that suffering.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, He asks repeated for the cup to be taken away from Him, but submits to God’s will anyway.  On the Cross itself, He is taunted by at least one of the criminals who says that if He really is the Son of God He would have the power to free himself and should do it, but refuses to do so and praises the one criminal who rebukes the other for it.  Thus, like us He is frightened of the sacrifice and suffering He is called upon to make and doesn’t want to go through with it, but unlike a lot of us He goes through with it anyway.

This carries over to the abandonment line that Pearce references.  Briefly, Jesus calls out to God asking why He has abandoned Jesus and left Him to his suffering.  This is a moment of human weakness that many religious people have experienced when enough bad things happen to us.  But nevertheless, at the end Jesus accepts his fate and commends His spirit into the hands of God, something He would not have done if He still felt abandoned by God.  So through all of this, while even His faith is shaken, it is not destroyed.  So Jesus faces the same temptations and fears and feelings of abandonment that we do, and yet He goes through with what He, at least, knows is the morally right thing to do anyway and accepts its necessity.

Now you can argue that that’s all fine and good, but that only works if that’s the morally right thing to do, and we need something for Jesus to be Atoning for for that to work.  But I don’t see it that way.  Following on from my view of Original Sin, Jesus isn’t really Atoning for our sin, but is instead providing an Exemplar for us as an ideal of morality to follow.  If we look at the Old Testament, morality is very much following rules and being punished if we don’t, but in the New Testament while Jesus does talk about Hell morality is far more a matter of doing the right thing even if we have to suffer for it, and not letting potential suffering stop us from doing that.  Jesus is the example to demonstrate that transition as He shows us that we, as humans, can act morally no matter how much we suffer or have to sacrifice for it, and even when there is no terrible punishment waiting for us if we don’t act morally.  Jesus comes when we are at the stage where we can accept that new sort of morality and don’t need the simple rules-and-punishment-based morality anymore.

This also ties into the idea of sacrifice.  In the Old Testament, animal sacrifices were required and there was a lot of ritual involved in worshiping God, which I submit was necessary in the time to build a community around it and to get people at that level of civilization to follow the rules and not stray, and to be moral.  But Jesus minimizes ritual and focuses more on doing the right thing and having a more direct and personal and not public relationship with God.  So, then, He can also be seen as the last sacrifice that, again, marks the transition from the more primitive religion to the new more modern religion, where the sacrifice is not literal in terms of sacrificing an animal that was raised and designed as a sacrifice but instead sacrifice is seen as every day being willing to sacrifice everything, even your life, for the right thing and to do what God wants you to do.

Thus, Jesus “atones” for our sinful nature by being both the example that we can be better and putting Himself in a position to help us overcome that nature and refuse to sin.  He can do this because He was human and so has experienced the pull of our sinful nature and our temptations, and so knows both how tempting it can be and from experience that we can, in fact, overcome it.  Because of that, He needed to feel that sense of abandonment by God so that He can overcome it and not use His powers to save Himself and so that, in the end, He can commend his spirit to God secure in the knowledge that ultimately, at the end, He did what was necessary and what was God’s necessary will.

3 Responses to “Jesus as Exemplar”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Examining the gospel accounts without looking into the Old Testament ideas is a bit like reading 1984 without reference to the Russian Revolution – it works as a story, but you aren’t really “getting” what it’s about.

    Consider the incidents with the fig tree and the temple. The initial response may indeed be “Jesus is indeed human and shares our foibles”. But this misses the story being told. It’s actually a story about Jerusalem. I’ll run from Mark’s account in chapter 11 as he makes it simpler.

    Firstly, Jesus turns up at Jerusalem, riding on a donkey’s colt, and people celebrate. This is a shout out to Zechariah 9, where God’s king comes to Jerusalem on a donkey. But it ends up being an anti-climax. Jesus goes to Jerusalem, looks around at the temple, and then just heads back to Bethany for the evening.

    The following day he heads back in. On the way he sees a fig tree, looking leafy & green, but no figs. The key here is that the fig tree is an image of Israel’s prosperity. Israel looks green & leafy, but there’s no substance. It’s also a link to Jeremiah 8, where God comes looking for goodness from his people but “there are no figs on the fig tree”.

    He then arrives at the temple and sets to work. The narrative doesn’t present this as a unthinking reaction. Firstly, Jesus arrived at the temple the day before and then left – he’s had a whole evening to plan this. Secondly, look at Mark’s language – he twice describes Jesus’ words about the event as “teaching”.

    The following morning they head back in again, and Peter remarks that the fig tree has withered. Jesus response starts with “Have faith in God” and ends with an exhortation to “forgive so that God will forgive you”. If the curse was a fit of pique, this response makes little sense. But withered fig trees are a mark of God’s judgement. Both the cleansing of the temple and the withered fig tree are to be taken as signs that the time of reckoning is at hand.

    Fast forward to the crucifixion, and the call “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”. It is a cry of anguish. But, more importantly, it’s a call-out to Psalm 22. The chosen of God will suffer and be despised, but God will bring salvation, and “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nation shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.” (Psalm 22:27-28).

    Likewise, we are supposed to see the supreme irony in the accusation in verses 31-32: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.”.

    The key thing is that none of the New Testament authors see the crucifixion as a mistake. Mark has Jesus predict the event in 10:32-34 – Jesus initiates the journey to Jerusalem predicting his death and subsequent resurrection. And in case you missed it, reiterates it 10:45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”.

    It is portrayed as a tragedy of sorts, but it is a tragedy that is set in motion by the events of Genesis 2-3 and reiterated throughout the Old Testament. Moreover, the NT authors portray the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection as the single dramatic event that _undoes_ the all the previous tragedy.

    That’s a dramatic and literary take on the events. How does that impact our philosophical discussion?

    Firstly, it cuts off several avenues of speculation. Firstly, Jesus is never portrayed (by the original authors) as an ordinary guy seeking to do good and make a difference; they quite clearly portray him as a prophet carrying out a specific divine mission. And not just a prophet, but an utterly unique human with an utterly unique role.

    This creates an interesting puzzle when speculating on the origin of the accounts. For example, there is only light narrative overlap between (say) Matthew’s & John’s accounts, with many events and even focus of Jesus’ speech differing, yet very strong coherence in who they think Jesus is and what he is doing.

    Likewise, consider the endings of Matthew, Luke & John and we see clear vision of just how unique the authors think these events are:

    Matthew 28:18-19: ‘And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit …’

    Luke 24:44-48: ‘Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’

    John 20:30-31: ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’

    Finally, the bible authors would disagree with you on blood -> not blood (“sacrifice is not literal in terms of sacrificing an animal that was raised and designed as a sacrifice”). They would instead see it as “weak blood” -> “perfect blood”.


    Hebrews 9:22,26 “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. … But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

    Revelation 5:9 “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

    None of this denies “Jesus as exemplar”, but the bible authors clearly view that as a derivative role. At the time of writing, there had been lots of prophets and even good men who could have been held up as examples if that was what it took. And yet all the New Testament authors focus on this one man, describing him as utterly pivotal to everything.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      At the time of writing, there had been lots of prophets and even good men who could have been held up as examples if that was what it took.

      I don’t think we’re disagreeing that much here, but I think your response here focuses too much on the Old Testament and not enough on what is important about Jesus specifically, so you downplay the fact that Jesus had BOTH a Divine and Human nature. The Bible talks about these events forging a new Covenant, and the only way that that Covenant could be formed is by the appeal or intercession of something with a Divine Nature, and that is Jesus. So that explains why Jesus is pivotal in a way that the prophets couldn’t be. However, that doesn’t make His Humanity less important or derivative. We need His Divine Nature to forge the Covenant, but we need the fact that He is Human and has experienced life as we have experienced to, perhaps, DEFINE the New Covenant, and to show us the path that we can now accept and follow. A Jesus who was purely Divine would not feel our temptations and so there wouldn’t be any meaning in the examples where He resists them. Essentially, Jesus is the bridge between us and God, as He explicitly straddles the line between the two, having aspects and possibly even the pure aspects of both.

      There is a LOT of emphasis on Jesus’ Human Nature in the New Testament, so any interpretation of Atonement has to account for that in an equally important way.

      This also applies to the blood sacrifice. Again, it’s a sign of forging the New Covenant that Jesus makes a blood sacrifice — even to perfecting the blood — but that that is the last blood sacrifice we need. So Jesus’ sacrifice eliminates the need for any further sacrifices, transitioning us from the Old Covenant to the new where the focus is more on acts than on rituals.

      Also, in the fig tree example Jesus talking about forgiveness later makes more sense under my interpretation than yours, since the trees withering would be a sign of judgement but not forgiveness, and Jesus was highlighting the need for forgiveness. If in a fit of human weakness Jesus momentarily forgot that, then there is a reason for Him to admonish Peter and Himself for not being quick to forgive, but unless later He restored the trees there was no forgiveness if that was a valid judgement.

      • Andrew Says:

        I’m with you until the last paragraph.

        Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

        Or 2 Cor 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

        But that prompts the really interesting question, that probably deserves its own article rather than a comment response – How do you understand the interaction between morality & people?

        Example questions:

        * is there such a thing as a “good person” or “bad person”. Why / why not? If so, how would someone be one or the other?

        * Is there any meaningful form of afterlife? Is there any connection between afterlife and current moral behaviour?

        I’m sure there are plenty of other places you could springboard onwards from there, but lets start close to the core.

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