One of the major beliefs of Protestantism is that the church is in constant need of reformation. Challenging the church's practice and teaching, evaluating it in the light of biblical insights and changing it if necessary is thus a well-founded tradition, at least in the European Protestant churches I feel most attached to.
The belief that God sacrificed His son in order to atone for the sins of mankind has been challenged in the last centuries. In the footsteps of Immanuel Kant, many Christians question if it is moral that someone else atones for the sins oneself committed. Guilt and liability cannot be transferred from one individual to the other. Many believers find the idea of God/father submitting his son to death most difficult and consider the cruelty of this act to contradict the idea of a loving God.
Questions like this stimulated theological research and drew attention to the biblical logic of atonement as it is to be found in the Hebrew Bible and to the New Testament traditions which interpret Jesus's death on the cross.
The Book of Leviticus, for instance, describes atonement as God's gift to his people which enables it to cope with its shortcomings and wrongdoings. Bad deeds create a reality which affects and endangers those who committed them and their community. By providing atonement, God offers a means to eliminate this dangerous reality and protects sinners and those who live with them.
The discovery of this logic opens our eyes to the interconnectedness of our existence. Man is not just an individual, as the Enlightenment mainly describes him. He lives as a social being in all kinds of contexts which are affected by his deeds. He always lives at the expense of others.
Current New Testament exegesis is in constant dialogue with Jewish studies and views the traditions about the atoning effects of Jesus's death in the light of ancient beliefs in the atoning quality of the death of the righteous which came up in Israel during the Maccabean revolt. When innocent people who kept true to their faith were killed, does this mean that God had forsaken His people? Jewish thinkers discovered a different way to deal with this problem: God makes use of the death of the righteous and transforms it into something positive which has healing effects on the community (2 Maccabees 7:38; Bavli Rosh Hashana 18b).
For the followers of Jesus, the death of their teacher created a similar problem, and they discovered that God did not allow his death to be a sign of his defeat, but transformed it into an event which provided access to God even to those who had no share in the covenant of Israel. Jesus's death did not solve the problem of God's wrath, rather God solved the problem of Jesus's death.
Even if many Protestants are struggling with this logic, it still challenges common convictions and shows us a God who "can and will bring good out of evil" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945).
The writer is pastor of the Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem.