Jesus and The Cross: Necessity, Meaning and Atonement

Laughlin, Peter
Pickwick (2014)
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In her massive doughnut of a book, The Crucifixion: Understanding The Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge bemoans the terrible failures of post Reformation theology in respect of its understanding of the Atonement, advising after the sorry catalogue that it needs a complete overhaul; but rich and varied though her presentation is, there is a massive hole in the middle: she never mentions what Jesus might have thought his own death was all about. Indeed, you would think from her text that the first and last words on the subject belong to Paul not the Christ he followed.

Peter Laughlin, somewhat unevenly but valiantly, attempts to fill the hole In Rutledge's doughnut by taking as his starting point the notion that the person to whom we should pay most attention in understanding the death of Jesus is the man/God himself. Laughlin brings to his aid the impressive battery of critical realists who can, to his mind, reconcile the difficulties experienced when history and theology collide because history is too self-confident of its conclusions and theology without faith is hollow, notably N.T. Wright, James Dunn, Scot McKnight and B.F. Meyer. Put simply - which he never really does, it's just not his style! - Laughlin says that we can know what Jesus thought about his own death through what he said and did: first, having seen the death of John the Baptist he knew he ran a high risk of not dying a natural death; secondly, in his supposed "cleansing" of the Temple (it wasn't a cleansing as such because Jesus and his followers never challenged the sacrificial observance right up to the building's destruction in 70 AD) Jesus declared that the old, nationalist, apostate, rite needed to be replaced by a new, universal rite and possibly a new Covenant; thirdly, based  on Daniel 7, the "Son of Man" must necessarily face a time of trial to bring about the new dispensation; Fourthly, at the Last Supper Jesus made it clear that his death was a necessary precondition for saving Israel for establishing the Kingdom of God in a new eschatological Exodus; fifthly, his followers would participate in his death through the Eucharist; and, finally, by his death his followers would be spared going through the same "time of trial" mentioned in the Lord's Prayer. The crucifixion was, needless to say, an historical event whose violence God did not will but which humanity perpetrated as a result of its deliberate withdrawal from God and to which Jesus assigned meaning. Put even more simply, then, the followers of Jesus will be part of the Kingdom of God and will, in some unspecified way, be protected by the death of Jesus from the ultimate struggle with evil which has already taken place on the Cross. But to say that we are saved as followers by Jesus says nothing about our individual or collective sin; it simply says that just as Jesus died for the "nation" of Israel, under a new Covenantal arrangement, those who followed him would be saved; Jesus saw his death as a necessary precondition but his own statements in no way proclaim a quasi-judicial or quasi accountancy model.

That, says Laughlin, is about as far as you can go. He does not deny other explanations but requires that these fit with the understanding which Jesus had and in which we must share as faithful Christians. To that end, by way of example, he analyses the shortcomings of Alan Mann's ontological approach, S. Mark Heim's Girardian approach and John Milbank's reconciliation approach as far too limited. Too often, he says, in a much stronger voice than Rutledge, atonement models are logically constructed and then Scripture is forced to fit whatever shape they takes.

Having said all that, Laughlin, for all his technical facility and groundwork based on Thomas Aquinas and Bernard Lonergan, frequently skates on thin ice with statements which transpose from being not impossible to becoming part of the chain of his reasoning.

Nonetheless, in this intensive year of study on the Cross, this is the best book I have found. Some may find the argument technical and tortuous but it is worth the hard work because even if Laughlin is not right on every point it is surely important to consider carefully what Jesus said and did as indicators of the purpose of his premature death.

Kevin Carey
June 2017