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What happened at the cross?

This book’s title may mislead you. It is really an examination of the main theories of the atonement; the idea that God killed Jesus on the cross is just one aspect of the Payment Model of the atonement. The book is Did God Kill Jesus?: Searching for love in history’s most famous execution by Tony Jones (HarperOne, 2015. ISBN: 9780062297983).   

The ‘atonement wars’ are raging right now, in spite of the fact that many Christians naively believe that the Payment Model (or penal substitution theory) that they have been taught—and which remains the commonest view in the Western world—is the only one there is. Jones’s book sets out all the major (plus a few minor) theories of the atonement and tries to reach a balanced assessment of each one.

The major ones he designates the Payment, Victory, Magnet, Divinity and Mirror models. He assesses each against the answers it offers to six basic questions:

  1. What does it say about God?
  2. What does it say about Jesus?
  3. What does it say about the relationship between them?
  4. How does it make sense of violence?
  5. What does it mean for us spiritually?
  6. Where’s the love?

He wisely concludes that there is probably some merit in all the models, though he is convinced that God did not kill Jesus and so keeps his biggest reservations for the Payment model. He writes lucidly and maintains a charitable spirit even when describing aspects of doctrine that he strongly rejects, but I find him a little over the top sometimes in noting the negative aspects of each model. The bottom line for him is solidarity: God’s with us, expressed in the cross, and, as a result, ours with him. That, he believes, is what the atonement is really all about.

Most thought-provoking of all his insights is the notion that God is by nature self-limiting, choosing to use his sovereign freedom to unite himself to humanity in the person of Jesus, and especially in the sufferings of Calvary. God is love, so we err if we think his primary trait is power. He calls us to the same kind of self-limiting love that makes room for others and quietly reaches out to the marginalised of society.

While Tony Jones is associated with the ‘emergent’ stream of Christianity, he is no wild extremist, but shows himself wise, balanced and sensibly biblical in his conclusions. He really does have something worthwhile and stimulating to offer to the current debates about the essence of the Christian faith.

[I have done a synopsis of the book, which you can find here.]

Sure, there’s the occasional verse that talks of God’s anger at particular sins or human behavior that God considers an abomination, but the overarching message of scripture is clear: God created us, God loves us, and God wants the best for us. In fact, the Bible is rife with stories of God going out of his way to set people on the right path—despite our failures, despite our sins. Indeed, the Apostle Paul assures us that God loved us “while we still were sinners.” (p8)

After two thousand years of Christian history, we wonder why our world is so flooded with war and violence and ethnic hate. We fret that church attendance is low and dropping. And we worry that many see the Christian faith as irrelevant or even bad for the world. Could viewing God as vengeful and wrathful and bloodthirsty be the source of our problems? (p9)

How did the act of following Jesus go from something that was a response to God’s love in the first century to a bloody, fear-based, avoidance-of-hell decision in the twenty-first? (p10)

If God is wrath, then violence is inevitable. But if God is love, then violence must be surmountable. And the crucifixion of Jesus, while violent, must be the key to ending violence. (p16)

Behind each explanation of the crucifixion is an implied view of God. God is either strong or weak, in control or abdicating control, engaged or absent, gracious or vindictive. (p19)

Each of the theories about the crucifixion is historically contingent, reflecting the place and time of its invention and even the personality of its author. Each sets out to solve a particular problem, and in each case the death of Jesus is the solution. Throughout Christian history, the death of Jesus has been the answer—it’s the question that has changed. (p22)

A lot of us have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the regnant interpretation of Jesus’ death as primarily the propitiation of a wrathful God. For one thing, we don’t experience God as uber-wrathful toward us. For another, it simply doesn’t make sense that God would game the whole system so that he has to kill his own son just to vitiate this wrath. It just doesn’t smell right. (p26)

How did our human ancestors convince themselves that the death of an animal or, worse, a fellow human would appease an angry deity? And why did they seem to think that the bloodier the death the better? For that matter, why did they think that the gods were mad at them? No one has provided a better answer to the first of these three questions than René Girard. (p43)

An Israelite in the sixth century BCE could not have imagined worship in the Temple without the death of an animal. To put it quite plainly, God wanted blood sacrifice. Either the Israelites got it wrong—and very wrong for a lot of years—or else that’s what God wanted. (p59)

If pressed, I’d say that this is the core of Jesus’ message: a new age is dawning—the rules by which followers of Yahweh lived their lives, while not irrelevant, are in need of a serious overhaul; the spirit of those rules has been forgotten amid the attempts to keep those rules; I’ve come to redefine the relationship between God and humanity. (p70)

The blood of Jesus, according to the Gospels, is the blood of deliverance. Like the original Passover lamb, whose blood saved Israel from the plague of death and freed them from bondage, the Gospels cast the blood of Jesus as liberating the people by bringing new life. (p83)

The cross is like a giant reset button that God pushed in his relationship with humans and with all of creation. As a result, new things were revealed about God and humanity. Some elements of that relationship, like blood sacrifices and circumcision, were made unnecessary; other elements, like hospitality to the stranger and love of neighbor, were amplified. The whole cosmic state of affairs was rejiggered by Jesus’ death. (p88)

In Romans 3, the entire sacrificial history of Israel is concentrated in Jesus the Messiah, so in Romans 7–8 is all of human sin concentrated in him. Then, on the cross and in the person who represented Israel most perfectly, all sin is condemned. What this doesn’t mean is that Jesus died because you and I sinned. Instead, it means that sin is endemic to the human condition, that it needed to be conquered, and that on the cross it was. What some see here—that God demanded sacrificial recompense because his holy honor had been disparaged—isn’t really there. Yes, Jesus acts as a substitute for us, but it’s not to appease a wrathful God. Instead, it is to vanquish sin. (p91)

For the writers of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John, the death of Jesus was seen exclusively through the lens of the Passover sacrifice—a Messiah leading the people into liberation. While Paul acknowledges this, he also introduces the idea that Jesus was the Yom Kippur sacrifice, an atonement in blood, meant to cleanse sin. It’s not that Paul disagrees with the Gospels; it’s that he emphasizes a very different part of Jewish sacrificial life. (p92)

[Re hilasmos in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10]   You can see how much hinges on the translation of this one word. If John is saying that God required a sacrifice to free us from sin, then God is standing with his arms crossed, shaking his head at every sacrifice humans have offered until finally his own son meets the requirement. But if instead God looks at sin as separate from humanity and acts himself to end the tyranny of sin by sweeping it away in one loving and self-sacrificial act, well, that’s a whole different story. Looking more broadly at 1 John, it seems clear that the latter is implied. The entire letter, and these two passages in particular, are predicated on God’s love, not God’s requirements. Reading 1 John, God’s love drips from every page. (p99)

The Bible lacks one particular perspective on the cross, instead offering us a plethora of ways to understand Jesus’ death—a surplus of meaning. That means the church has had a lot to draw on when trying to make sense of this event. (p107)

We’ve…got to find a perspective on the cross that doesn’t make Jesus or God helpless or beholden to a system of justice that’s bigger than they are. (p109)

Calvin and others upped the ante from Anselm. Now it’s not just that Jesus made our payment for us, but that he pays a penalty on our behalf—a penalty that we cannot pay. In theological jargon, this is how it goes from substitution to penal substitution, the “penal” connoting the penalty. This change happened during the Reformation, and it remains popular today. (p113)

I assumed that the doctrine of original sin was a biblical notion and that all Christians accepted it as gospel truth. As it turns out, neither is true. (p116)

[Re Romans 5:12-14, 17-19]  If one believes that there is some kind of spiritual nature that is passed from mother (or father) to child by a biological process, as Paul likely believed, then this passage will be taken one way. If, however, one does not believe that the taint of Adam’s sin is genetic but is instead an archetypal account of the human condition, then it will be taken another way. (p122)

One can acknowledge the universality of the human proclivity toward sin without affirming either Calvin’s total depravity or Augustine’s original sin. One merely has to accept simple human fallibility. We’re neither immortal nor perfect. We’re fallible. We make mistakes. And we die. It’s not such a big hurdle to accept those facts, and we can do so without the theological gymnastics required for the doctrine of original sin and all of the corollary doctrines that flow out of it…  If we simply embrace the Eastern notion that we inherit death but not guilt from Adam, then many of our theological problems are solved. (p126)

In 2013, the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational song decided to leave a song out of its new hymnal. The song, “In Christ Alone,” contains the stanza, “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” The committee asked the song’s authors if they could change those lines to “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.” The songwriters rejected the change, leaving the committee to debate the merits of the hymn and of that particular stanza. One committee member reported, “It would do a disservice to this educational mission, the argument ran, to perpetuate…the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger.” The committee voted to remove the song from the hymnal. (p131)

If we are supposed to learn about love from God, then the idea that God predestined us to sin, which results in our eternal damnation and requires God’s Son to die on the cross, teaches us very little about love. (p132)

The God behind Payment/Penalty/Punishment is a quid pro quo God. God won’t do this unless his subjects do that. But his subjects are constitutionally incapable of doing what he demands. Instead of realizing that fact and coming up with an alternative solution to his problem, God looks around for someone else who can satiate his thirst for justice, and he settles on his own son. (p138)

It seems rather unlikely that God would set up the cosmos in such a way that Satan could gain the upper hand and force God to negotiate a deal. But in the Victory theory, God does seem to have given up a significant amount of power. In fact, God is reduced to a sparring partner with Satan. (p152)

Socinus thoroughly refuted Anselm’s Payment model. Among his arguments is this: If grace and mercy are eternal aspects of God’s character, then they must also be infinite characteristics, just like God’s wrath. So why does Payment assume that the demands of God’s wrath must be met, but not the demands of his mercy? Why is wrath a more powerful motivation for God than love? (p160)

A recovery of the Magnet model in modern times holds great promise. So many people teeter on the edge of Christian faith, and the metaphysical answers of the Payment and Victory models of the atonement fall short. People are often not attracted to a theory of a cosmic transaction between God and the law or God and Satan. They want a personal, relational connection to God. And this is just what the Magnet model offers. (p164)

To the Orthodox, [the problem is] not about what we do, it’s about what we are. We are mortal; we are condemned to die. We are hedged in by our mortality and our always impending death. That’s what defines us, and that’s what separates us from God. The problem is death, not guilt. In the resurrection on Easter morning, God defeats death and gives us the ability to once again claim our divinity. (p171)

Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “Sure, God is loving, but his love is balanced with his justice” or “Without justice, love is not possible.” These statements speak of God’s love as an attribute of God. But, for the Divinity model, God’s very nature is love. Love is not an aspect of God’s being; love is God’s very being. (p173)

Girard’s view of the crucifixion can be understood like this: When we look at Jesus hanging on the cross, we are looking in a mirror. God is reflecting back to us the outcome of our systems of rivalry, sacrifice, and violence. Jesus’ death shows conclusively that those systems are bankrupt, that they do not assuage guilt, and that they do not minimize violence. Jesus is the final sacrifice because he reveals the fiction behind the entire enterprise of sacrifice. (p180)

[Girard says that] sacrifice was efficacious at mitigating rivalry, but only temporarily. And it was based on a fiction, that the victim somehow deserved it. So Jesus’ death is not the last in a long series of sacrifices, the ultimate sacrifice, better than any dove or goat or ox or virgin or prisoner of war. Instead, Jesus’ death shows that the entire system of sacrifice is bankrupt, that it never pleased God, and it never really solved human problems. (p184)

God’s story is a story of humility, of self-limitation. Before the creation of the cosmos, God was all there was. For there to even be anything other than God, God had to withdraw, to retreat. That is to say, God had to make room for something that was other-than-God. You and I and everything else that’s not God exist because God withdrew enough to make room for us. God began creating with an act of self-limitation. And that act set the course for God’s activity up to the present day. (p211)

Our definitions of God hinge on God’s power and freedom. But part of freedom is the freedom to give up that freedom. That’s what God started in creation, and that’s what God did most poignantly in the birth of Jesus. (p215)

We can say that in Jesus, God was experiencing something that God had not experienced before. To take it one step further, we can surmise that in Jesus, God was learning. In Jesus, God crossed the line from sympathy with the human condition to empathy with humans—that is, God went from pitying us to truly understanding us by actually becoming one of us. (p225)

Famously, Mother Teresa preached the presence and love of God to kings and lepers her whole life, but letters published after her death told a different story: she had not sensed God’s presence for decades. (p229)

When Jesus cried out from the cross in despair and anguish, God experienced something that God had never before experienced: God experienced the absence of God. (p232)

God is present, on the gallows, in the gas chambers. To the cry of godforsakenness—Where is God?—the response is quiet presence. (p236)

Jesus is the most fully realized revelation of God that we’ve got, and what we can see of God in the life of Jesus is the perfect example of self-limitation and humility. (p238)

The amazing thing about the cross is that both the victim and the victimizer, both the oppressed and the oppressor, are liberated. God plays both of those roles in the event of the crucifixion. In Jesus, God is the victim; in God the Father, God is at least allowing the oppression. In God and in this event are wrapped up everything it means to be human. So the crucifixion does not valorize victimhood, it redeems the victim. And in an unexpected twist, it also redeems the victimizer. (p239)

Sin must be thought of as a condition rather than an activity. (p243)

God has forsaken power in order to give creation freedom. In other words, God’s primary posture in the world is that of weakness, not strength. This is a tough pill for many Christians to swallow—we’ve been taught to claim God’s power in our lives, to pray for power, and to trust God’s power and perfect plan for our lives. But we’ve got something to learn from Jesus’ cry of forsakenness, and from God’s response. God’s power, it turns out, comes in God’s willingness to abdicate power. God saves the world through submission to the point of solidarity with human weakness. (p252)

Cut off from cultural power, Jesus died on the margins, among the marginalized. Surely that’s also the place for the church founded in his name. (p264)

The way of the cross is God’s solidarity with us, and ours with God. When we look at the cross, we should be reminded that God identified with us. And we, in turn, identify with the dying Jesus. In that two-way identification—God with us and us with God—we are gathered up into the Trinitarian life of God. This is atonement, this two-way identification. This is the good news of Jesus’ crucifixion: that you and I can be made one with God. That happens because God identified with our most human frailties in Jesus, and God invites us to identify with Jesus’ victory over death in the crucifixion and resurrection. (p268)

God as defined by Greek philosophical categories—omnipotent, immutable, impassible—is not the God found in the Hebrew Bible. (p272)

The crucifixion is a source of peace. It’s a magnet that draws us into the all-encompassing love of God. It’s a mirror that shows us the result of all our violent tendencies. It’s a spark that relights the flame of divinity within us. It’s a symbol of God’s victory over the forces that oppress us. (p276)


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