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Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Review)

What does Hebrews say about the bodily resurrection of Jesus? David Moffitt, in the revised version of his doctoral dissertation at Duke University entitled Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews, seeks to answer this question. Moffitt’s thesis is two-fold: First, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is essential to the argument of Hebrews and is not by-passed or conflated with exaltation as others have argued. Second, in the logic of Hebrews’ argument, the bodily resurrection is crucial for atonement to be accomplished—it is the presentation of Jesus’ resurrected flesh and blood in heaven that results in atonement. Moffitt thus argues against the predominant view that Hebrews presents Jesus’s death as the central soteriological reality that accomplishes redemption. This volume is one of the most important among recently published monographs on Hebrews, and was the feature of an entire session at the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society this year.


Moffitt begins by setting forth his thesis and the structure of his argument. He claims that Jesus’s resurrection is not only an important event for the author of Hebrews, but that the author’s entire argument is grounded on the resurrection as the event where Jesus obtained indestructible life. Furthermore, the author of Hebrews views the presentation of Jesus’s glorified humanity in heaven as the culmination of the sequential process of blood sacrifice—the presentation of the blood / life of the victim before God. Moffitt then assesses and responds to prevailing views on Jesus’s resurrection. Moffitt faults interpreters of Hebrews for overlooking the importance of the bodily resurrection in the author’s theology. Some interpreters have claimed that though the author affirms the resurrection, he passes over it to focus on death and exaltation. Other interpreters conflate the categories of resurrection and exaltation, view the resurrection as a spiritual ascension, or deny that Hebrews affirms the resurrection altogether.Capture

In chapter 2, Moffitt argues that Hebrews 1–2 presents Jesus as superior to the angels by virtue of his embodied entry into heaven as a human being. Jesus is qualified to reign over the world to come only because of his embodied humanity. First, Moffitt argues that the primary contrast between the Son and the angels in Heb 1 is embodiment—the Son is a flesh-and-blood human being, while angels are spirits. Second, Moffitt considers the eschatology of Hebrews, focussing on οἰκουμένη (world) in Heb 1:6 and 2:5. He argues that Heb 1:6 refers to the Son’s entry into the same coming world that is referenced in Heb 2:5. Third, Moffitt claims that the use of Ps 8 in Heb 2:5–9 shows that Jesus’s entry and enthronement as ruler of the heavenly world to come is proleptic of the entry of the heirs of God’s promise. Most importantly, glorified embodiment qualifies Jesus (and human beings) to reign over the heavenly world. Thus, concludes Moffitt, Jesus’s bodily resurrection is vital for the argument of Heb 1–2.

Chapter 3 addresses the question of Jesus’s resurrection in Hebrews in two steps. First, Moffitt surveys contemporary Second Temple literature to establish the plausibility of a bodily entry into heaven. Moffitt argues that in early Jewish apocalyptic texts, ascension of a human body into heaven is made possible through some kind of glorification. Second, Moffitt probes Hebrews for the author’s theology of resurrection. Moffitt argues not only for the presence of Jesus’s resurrection, but also that the author’s conception of “perfection” includes resurrection. Since Jesus’s high priesthood is predicated on his perfection, Jesus’s bodily resurrection is a necessary prerequisite to his service as the great high priest. This is Moffitt’s major claim, and the foundation on which the rest of his work is built: if Hebrews teaches that Jesus’s high-priestly heavenly offering is ­post-resurrection, then Jesus’s death on the cross does not have the atoning significance traditionally ascribed to it by most interpreters of Hebrews.

Moffitt addresses this issue in chapter 4, by arguing that in Hebrews, Jesus’s death does not accomplish atonement, but rather that it is “the event that triggers the process that results in [Jesus] being qualified and equipped to offer his indestructible life to God” (220). Moffitt builds on the work of OT scholars who argue that the slaughter of the victim in the sacrificial process has minimal significance; what in fact accomplishes atonement is the ritual manipulation and presentation of blood, which represents the life of the victim. Thus, in Hebrews, it is Jesus’s heavenly presentation of his blood / life as the resurrected high priest that accomplishes atonement rather than his death. Yet Jesus’s death is not devoid of significance in Hebrews, because it is exemplary of endurance, and because it sets in motion the events by which Jesus is qualified to make his heavenly offering to God. Thus, Moffitt claims, the early Christian kerygma, that Jesus died, was raised, ascended, and is seated at the right hand of God, is the narrative substructure of Hebrews.

Critical Evaluation

Moffitt’s volume is stimulating and warrants careful engagement. Moffitt writes with great clarity and structures his argument carefully. The volume is also packed with exegetical insights. I found many of Moffitt’s arguments to be persuasive. I was convinced by his interpretation of oἰκουμένη in 1:6 as referring to the promised heavenly world to come. His argument for a new conquest theme in Hebrews is compelling, including his proposal of an allusion to Num 13:3 in Jesus as the “pioneer” (ἀρχηγός) of salvation. I was also persuaded by Moffitt’s interpretation of the use of Ps 8 in Heb 2:5–8.

However, Moffitt’s argument is flawed on multiple fronts. First, his emphasis on Jesus’s embodied humanity leads him to almost completely overlook the emphasis on Christ’s deity in Hebrews 1. Moffitt does not really show how texts that emphasize the Son’s superiority over angels by virtue of his deity fit into the argument—while Hebrews 1 does present the Son as the enthroned (human) Davidic King, it also asserts that the Son is the eternal agent of creation who upholds the universe by his powerful word (1:2–3, 10–12). Moffitt also seems to miss the fact that in Heb 1, the author freely applies to the Son OT texts that refer to Yahweh in their original contexts. Moffitt’s downplaying of Christ’s deity here results in a deflated christology, which affects his interpretation of other texts and his understanding of Christ’s high-priestly appointment. Moffitt’s christology thus falls short of Hebrews, which despite its emphasis on Jesus’s embodied humanity, always presents Jesus as the eternal, divine Son of God.

Moffitt makes compelling arguments for the presence and importance of Jesus’s resurrection in Hebrews. He rightly argues for a reference to Jesus’s resurrection in Heb 5:7. Also convincing is his argument for the centrality of resurrection hope in Heb 11. However, Moffitt’s insistence that Jesus’s high priesthood is predicated on his resurrection is questionable. This point is crucial because Moffitt builds the edifice of his remaining argument on this issue.

Moffitt claims that the main contrast between the Aaronic priesthood and Jesus’s priesthood is “the respective relationships of Jesus and the Levitical priests to the power of death” (197). Further, Moffitt claims that Jesus was appointed as high priest according to the order of Melchizedek only after and because of the resurrection. Moffitt makes strong arguments, but he misses other points of contrast between Jesus and the Levitical high priests that imply that Jesus was a priest prior to the resurrection. For instance, Jesus’s high priesthood is superior by virtue of his sinlessness (7:26), his sonship (7:28), and the superiority of his sacrifice (7:27). Jesus’s high priesthood is certainly contrasted with the Levitical priesthood on the basis of his “indestructible life” (7:16), which Moffitt argues that Jesus obtained post-resurrection. But here again, Moffitt misconstrues the text. Melchizedek is not only said to be different from the Levitical priests because his life extends forward eternally, but also because he has no father or mother or genealogy, and is without beginning of days. Hebrews also states that Melchizedek resembles the Son of God in this respect. Perhaps then, Jesus’s “indestructible life” is one that he always possesses, by virtue of his deity, and this “indestructible life,” together with his priesthood, is vindicated at the resurrection rather than obtained post-resurrection. Perhaps Moffitt’s interpretation here is affected by his lack of attention to Jesus’s deity in Heb 1. Yet, even if as Moffitt argues, Hebrews conceives of Jesus obtaining his “indestructible life” post-resurrection, this does not entail that Jesus did not hold his priestly office in any sense during his earthly life. Hebrews makes clear that Jesus was Son throughout his earthly life (5:8), but still allows for an appointment as Son post-resurrection (1:5). Similarly, there is sufficient evidence to show that Jesus held his priestly office prior to his death and resurrection, despite the designation as high priest that occurs post-resurrection. Moffitt’s argument fails on another count: If Christ attained his priesthood only post-resurrection and was not a priest in some sense prior to his bodily resurrection, would it not render his death as an improper sacrifice? After all, in the Yom Kippur ritual the sacrificial offering had to be made by the high priest, who was also responsible for the slaughter of the victim.[1] The rest of Moffitt’s argument rests heavily on Christ becoming a priest exclusively post-resurrection. If this idea is disproven, then the rest of Moffitt’s schema collapses.

Moffitt also insists that Jesus’s self-offering in the heavenly tabernacle is not an “incoherent and inconsistent metaphorical appeal to Jewish sacrifice and high-priestly service intended to explain the spiritual significance of the historical event of the crucifixion” (228). He then forces the author’s typological interpretation of the Yom Kippur event into a rigid literal paradigm that seemingly drives a wedge between Jesus’s heavenly offering and earthly death. This is problematic for two reasons. First, Hebrews uses more than Yom Kippur alone to interpret Christ’s death (as does the rest of the NT). Moffitt’s rightly privileges the Yom Kippur ritual as the primary lens by which Christ’s death is interpreted in Hebrews, but in doing so, he obscures the other sacrificial imagery that Hebrews (and the NT) employs. Second, it seems like Moffitt pushes the typology too far here—the language of heavenly offering need not be interpreted literally, but can function metaphorically to indicate the superior value and significance of Jesus’s sacrifice.

Moffitt’s argument that blood is a reference to “life” and that death / slaughter is not the focal point of atoning sacrifice in the OT and in Hebrews does not do justice to several texts that use “blood” as shorthand for death, both in the OT and in the NT. Even within Hebrews, blood clearly seems to refer to death of a sacrificial victim in Heb 9:15–22. In Heb 9:15–22, Christ’s death is interpreted through the lens of covenant inauguration, and death is equated with blood. Moffitt begs the question when he uses his construal of the larger argument to inform the interpretation of this text, instead of letting this passage affect his understanding of the larger argument—in 9:15–22, death clearly stands at the center of the sacrificial process. Moffitt does not comment on Heb 12:24, where Jesus’s blood is juxtaposed with a reference to Abel’s blood, and the latter clearly refers to death.

Moffitt also overlooks language in several texts in Hebrews that attribute soteriological significance to Christ’s death. For instance in 2:9, Jesus tastes death “for everyone” (ὑπὲρ παντὸς). In 2:14–15, the author states that Jesus through death destroys the devil and delivers those who were subject to lifelong slavery. In 9:27–28 also, Christ’s being offered once to bear the sins of many most likely refers to Christ’s death (rather than heavenly offering), as it is set in parallel to the death of men, and also because this text seems to be a clear allusion to Isa 53:12. Additionally, Moffitt assumes the views of OT scholars who argue that blood refers to “life” rather than to death, but these points are debated even within OT scholarship. Also against Moffitt’s thesis that death is not central to atonement are OT and NT texts in which atonement is linked to death rather than on ritual manipulation of blood (for example, Num 25:6–13; 35:33; Mark 10:45; John 11:50–52; 12:32–33; Rom 3:24–25; 5:9–10; 1 Cor 15:3; Gal 3:13–14; Eph 2:13–16; Col 1:20; 1 Pet 2:24; 3:18; Rev 5:9). This point brings me to some methodological issues with Moffitt’s work.

Perhaps the most serious deficiency of Moffitt’s volume is his failure to integrate his findings in Hebrews with the rest of the NT, particularly the Johannine and Pauline literature, in which Christ’s death is clearly emphasized the central act which procures redemption / atonement. Moffitt appeals to 1 Cor 15:17 and Rom 4:25 to claim that even for Paul “the cross is not sufficient for atonement” (292, fn. 159). But this is also misleading, because in these texts Paul states that the resurrection vindicates the atoning significance of Christ’s death. For Paul, the resurrection does not achieve atonement, but it vindicates the atonement achieved at the cross. If Moffitt’s thesis is accepted, it creates strong tensions with the atonement theology of the NT as a whole. At times, one wonder what Moffitt even means by “atonement,” a term that he never really defines with any clarity. This failure to integrate things biblically and theologically is related to the nagging issue of the relationship between “biblical studies” and “theology.” The kind of bifurcation evident in Moffitt’s volume may work in the larger academy, but it will not help evangelicals who are committed to teach and proclaim the “whole counsel of God.”

Similarly, Moffitt’s volume suffers from a lack of any engagement with pre-modern readings of Hebrews. Apart from two brief footnote references to Faustus Socinus (and not to Socinus’s work itself, but to Demarest’s summary of it), Moffitt engages no interpreters from before the 20th century. Since Moffitt wrestles with issues that are rooted in age-old debates (eg., the question of when Christ becomes a priest), his work is severely weakened by his passing over of 1900 years of interpreters of Hebrews who have already examined these issues at length.

Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews is an important contribution on Hebrews. Moffitt is to be commended for this carefully argued volume that raises important questions, new and old. Careful readers will profit from Moffitt’s numerous exegetical insights, particularly his emphasis on the clear presence of Jesus’s resurrection in Hebrews. However, while scholars of Hebrews must respond to Moffitt’s study and build on its foundation, this book is limited in its value for pastors because of the deficiencies I have noted above.

[1]John Owen, arguing that Christ held his priestly office prior to the resurrection, rightly identified this issue—Christ could not have become a priest only post-resurrection, because this “excludes his oblation in his death from being a proper sacerdotal act.” John Owen, The Works of John Owen: An exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, with Preliminary Exercitations, ed. William H. Goold, vol. XXII (London: Johnstone and Hunter), 452. Moffitt does not engage Owen’s arguments against the Socinians—arguments which also apply against Moffitt’s own proposal. See Ibid., 513-571. In fact, Moffitt’s work is marred by a failure to engage any interpreters of Hebrews prior to 1903.

Aubrey Sequeira is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. 

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