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June 27th, 2012 @ 11:59 am by Kevin
In the context of Derek’s upcoming book “Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice and the Cross,” we were discussing non-violent views of the atonement. That is, many Christians believe the reason Jesus had to die on the cross was to appease God’s wrath so that God could forgive our sin. This view is often buttressed with Scripture passages like Hebrews 9:22, which says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” This is called the penal substitutionary view of the atonement.
However, Derek is part of a growing number of Christians who have some serious reservations about this view. Without getting into too much detail, Derek argues that the shed blood in Hebrews isn’t about punishment, it’s about cleansing and healing. This speaks to the overall paradigm through which we view the gospel. Is it a sin/punishment matrix or a sickness/healing matrix? Big difference. We run into the same conflict when dealing with something like drug addiction. Do we treat the addict primarily as a criminal in need of punishment or as someone who is sick and in need of healing?
One way Derek seeks to resolve this is to say that while the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Christ are God’s doing, the Crucifixion is our doing. Jesus did not have to die in order to fulfill some sort of divine, cosmic plan. And yet, you could also say that his death was inevitable, because, as Jesus laments,
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)
This is simply how we treat people who threaten the status quo. We crucify them, either figuratively or literally. Jesus came to expose this mechanism so that we could see it for what it is and then break free from it. How? By liberating us from the fear of death. See Hebrews 2:14-15 on this:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms.
The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity–designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.
Fear of death makes us self-centered, acquisitive, predatory, defensive, etc. We see everything and everyone as a potential threat to the thing we value the most–our life. But if Jesus has defeated death, we are now free to begin building a civilization based not on fear and violence but on self-giving love.
Which brings us back to the Crucifixion: On the cross, Jesus submitted himself to our violence in order to expose it. Think of the cross as a mirror that reveals who we truly are. This is is the length to which we are willing to go in order to protect ourselves from death. That’s why Jesus referred to himself as the bronze serpent in John 3:14. The curse of humankind needed to be literally be lifted up so that all who looked upon it could be saved from the cycle of self-destruction in which we find ourselves. The Resurrection becomes the ultimate solution to humankind’s true predicament. It’s not that we’ve offended God. The problem is we have brought death upon ourselves by turning away from God and making ourselves “the model,” to put it in the terms of Rene Girard. Rather than imitate God, we imitate each other–all the way to the grave.
The good news is, instead of condemning us for it, God has mercy upon us and sets us free. Then he shows us a new way to order our lives. Rather than self-centered violence and scapegoating, our new organizing principle becomes self-giving love. Even if living this way leads to our death–as it did with Jesus–we can look forward to the resurrection. This is truly good news for all people.
So where do the “no’s” fit in? Simple:
- The Incarnation is God’s “No!” to our violence.
- The Crucifixion is our “No!” to God’s “No!”
- And the Resurrection? It’s God’s “No!” to our “No!”
God simply will not take “No!” for an answer. God refuses to abandon us to our self-destruction despite our best efforts to persist in this way of life. This is essentially what Paul argues in Romans 5:6-8,
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
To illustrate this, I often think of the old Seinfeld episode where George Costanza tries to break up with his girlfriend Maura, but she but she refuses to accept his decision and carries on as if nothing has happened. This is kind of like what God has done with us–minus Maura’s weirdness. Of course, this also introduces another matrix through which to view the gospel: divorce/reconciliation, which may be the most accurate of all. But we’ll leave that discussion for another day…