As long as I’ve been a Christian, I’ve believed that the primary message of the cross is that God loves us. There are few Christians who do not believe this about the cross.
But how does the cross demonstrate God’s love?
Well, until relatively recently, I’ve believed that God’s love was demonstrated in the fact that Jesus was prepared to come and take God’s punishment for sin in our place.
Now, for Jesus to take God’s punishment in our place would certainly be an act of love, no doubt about it. But when I take a step back and really think about it, I have to concede that it seems like it would be an act of placation as much as an act of love. It almost seems analogous to a sibling stepping in to take a beating from an angry step-father in my place. Such an act would make me deeply grateful to my sibling, of course; but would it make me change my view of my angry step-father?
And here we have what I think is perhaps the biggest problem with the classical satisfaction theory of the atonement: our hearts are moved with gratitude to Jesus for taking our punishment, but the question of God’s anger towards us remains moot.
One could even go so far as to say that if we’re not careful, we end up dividing the Trinity: Jesus shows us great mercy, compassion and forgiveness, but this is over against the Father’s anger. Indeed, in this view, it is only the fact of the Father’s anger that enables Jesus’ sacrifice at the cross to have meaning.
Here’s another problem with this wrath satisfaction view of the atonement. While we might feel thankful to Jesus for heading off God’s fury against us, we are very likely also to feel beholden to Jesus: to feel like we need to somehow make it up to him. To put it another way, our gratitude for his mercy and grace might very well be tainted by a sense of guilt that he had to go through such a gruesome ordeal in our place. That being the case, our response to his great mercy – what the New Testament calls our worship – might be driven as much by a sense of duty as by freely reciprocated love.
It seems to me, then, that this view of the atonement, in which Jesus takes the punishment for our sinfulness, depends entirely on God’s anger against us. If you take God’s anger out of the equation, the whole scheme collapses.
(You might argue, of course, that God is angry not with us but with our sin. Theoretically, I might almost concede the point. But here’s the thing: we and our sin are so intertwined – that’s why I prefer to use the word sinfulness – that, for all practical purposes, you can’t really separate one from the other. This is the problem with any approach based on “love the sinner, hate the sin” type thinking. I sin because I am a sinner; if you hate my sin, by implication you hate me too. And even if you didn’t mean it that way, that’s the way I’m inevitably going to take it.)
So, I think I’m now confident enough to say that I reject any conception of the atonement in which God’s wrath is poured out on Jesus upon the cross.
Yet, as I hinted earlier, I do believe that Jesus’ death on the cross is the clearest possible demonstration of God’s love for us. How so then?
Well, what if Jesus went to the cross not because the Father said “Son, I need you to go and take my punishment for sin in their place”? What if, instead, the Father and the Son wanted to come up with a way that would absolutely convince us of God’s unmitigated love for us, beyond any shadow of doubt?
What if, instead, the conversation went something like this:
The Father: “Son, I want you to go and take on flesh and announce my kingdom and preach peace and heal the sick and raise the dead. I want you to tell people who are hurting, doubting and wondering where I am that I love them fiercely and passionately.”
The Son: “Okay, I can do that. Sounds like fun!”
The Father: “I want you to try and show them that I’m not angry with them – unless, of course, they try to deliberately distort who I am for their own religious and political ends.”
The Son: “Got it. Sounds like a great plan. When do we start?”
The Father: “There’s just one thing. You need to realise that this is going to upset some people. The ones with no power and no vested interests, they’ll lap it up. But the self-sufficient and the ones who hold the religious and political reins – they’re going to be mightily offended.”
The Son: “Okay…”
The Father: “In fact, they’re going to be so offended that they’re going to plot and scheme and connive and they’re going to find a way to accuse you and sentence you to death. And they’re going to nail you up on a wooden cross outside the city, like a common criminal.”
The Son: “[Silence]… I see. Well, maybe that doesn’t sound like so much fun after all.”
The Father: “But you see, before this happens you’re going to go around telling them how much I love them and care for them, how I’m overflowing with mercy toward them, and how I freely forgive them, not once but over and over again. And so when they unjustly condemn you, when they mock you and humiliate you, when they spit on you and flay the skin from your back, and when they hoist you up on an executioner’s cross, all you’re going to be doing is proving to them that everything you told them about me is true. You’re going to be showing them that ‘turn the other cheek’ is not just a neat moral aphorism: it’s how I myself respond to their violence and aggression. You’re going to be giving them a visual aid in how to love their enemies. You’re going to be demonstrating to them how to freely forgive.”
The Son: “I get it. In fact… that’s brilliant. Perhaps they’ll finally see the truth. Perhaps they’ll finally realise that anger and violence and defensiveness and self-promotion will never get them anywhere. And perhaps they’ll finally begin to understand that all that stuff about you being angry and needing to be satisfied with blood and sacrifice – that was always misguided.”
The Father: “Well, some will get it. Those whose desire to know the Way, the Truth and the Life outweighs their desire to be right and clever and in control – they’ll get it straight away. But those whose very identity is wrapped up in their reputation, their power and their control… well, they might be harder to convince. But we’ll get there in the end.”
The Son: “Okay then, let’s do it. It sounds scary, but I know it’ll be worth it.”
The Father: “I knew I could rely on you. And I know you’ll do a great job. Just be yourself, and you’ll show them exactly what I’m really like”.
The Son: “No problem. Let’s get to work.”
The Father: “Oh, and Son? One last thing…”
The Son: “Yes, Father?”
The Father: “I don’t want you to worry about anything. Everything’s going to be all right.”
[ Image: Lawrence OP ]