November 24, 2017

Rob Grayson: The judgement of the cross

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Note from CM: This week we will feature posts by several guest writers, starting today with our friend Rob Grayson from across the pond. You may find some of these posts to be a bit controversial, and I chose them because I thought they would prompt lively discussion. I ask you to think before you comment and commit to being good listeners and kind even if you happen to disagree. Let’s show some good iMonk hospitality to our guests.

One more note: in deference to British English, I retained Rob’s spelling of “judgement.”

• • •

The judgement of the cross
By Rob Grayson

“Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.”

• John 12:31

Christians are generally accustomed to speaking of the cross as the place and time where God enacted judgement on the world. But what does this actually mean, and what are its implications?

Usually, the cross as the place of judgement is understood to mean the physical location where God poured out his wrath upon Jesus. Here, wrath is understood as the punishment for our sin which God, in his justice, is obliged to mete out: namely death. And Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, gamely hangs on the cross in our place and bears the brunt of God’s implacable justice so that we, in spite of our sin, can escape punishment.

And the cross as the time of judgement is understood as the point in history when God sovereignly intervened in human affairs to solve humanity’s sin problem as described above.

So there we have it: time and place come together at the cross as Jesus bears God’s punishment for our sin. This, then, is the judgement of the cross: a resounding verdict of “Guilty!” pronounced upon the human race by God, accompanied by an unappealable death sentence. The twist is that Christ comes in as an innocent victim to serve the sentence in our place.

This is what I believed without a second thought for most of my Christian life. Until I began, through a process of reading and thinking, to see some gaping holes in it:

Hole number 1: In this view, God is not free to simply forgive sin; he is beholden to a higher principle of justice that must be obeyed. This is a major philosophical and theological problem, because if God is God, there clearly cannot be any higher principle than himself by which he is bound.

Hole number 2: Following on from hole number 1, since God is bound by a higher principle of justice that must be satisfied, the only way he can forgive us is through some kind of transaction. His end of the transaction is that someone has to die, since the wages of sin is death. Jesus agrees to be that someone, so God can now forgive us because his perfect son has died in our place, thus balancing the scales of justice. The problem here is that this is supposedly the same God who elsewhere in scripture instructs us to freely forgive others, even as we have been forgiven. So God requires a different standard of his children – free forgiveness – than he himself is prepared to meet. Hmm.

Hole number 3: This understanding makes God into a God who uses scapegoating to accomplish his purposes. In this view, Jesus is a God-ordained scapegoat. The groundbreaking work of French philosopher and anthropologist René Girard has shown that scapegoating is a uniquely human phenomenon that lies at the very foundation of human society. Scapegoating is an evil practice because it shifts blame for a community’s ills onto an innocent victim and then buries that victim so that life can go on as before. The innocent is made to pay the price for the guilty, so that the guilty can carry on unreformed. Do we really think the God who is supposedly the apex of love and compassion would endorse such a practice, let alone deliberately use it as a mechanism of justice?

Hole number 4: This view treats sin as a legal problem to be settled, an equation to be solved. In doing so, it shifts sin from the concrete to the abstract. Thus, the event of the cross does little or nothing to actually address the here-and-now reality of humanity’s sin; it merely promises a clean legal record to anyone who puts their faith in Jesus.

I could go on, but I think those holes are already quite large enough.

In this classic view, then, the outcome of the judgement that takes place at the cross is this: humanity is found deserving of death because God must actively mete out punishment to all sinners; and God is not averse to engaging in the evil practice of scapegoating in order to see Lady Justice satisfied. This judgement, I contend, is as much an indictment of God as it is of humanity. Both humanity and God are found wanting: humanity because of our sin and God because of his willingness – nay, his requirement – to deal out violent death in response.

How, then, are we to understand the judgement of the cross? If not sin as a universal abstraction, what exactly was being judged at the cross?

Let me first make a statement, which I will then try to unpack: the cross judges the world in that it proves that none of our violence or accusation was ever rooted in God.

Humanity’s number one problem is and always has been violence. Physical violence, verbal violence, mental violence. Violence expressed in war, in oppression, in racial hatred, in intolerance. Violence manifested in mistrust, suspicion, accusation and blame. We don’t mind talking about sin because it’s such an imprecise, abstract term that it’s easy to hide from its implications. But as soon as we talk about violence in its many and various expressions, we are all implicated.

So what has this to do with the judgement of the cross? Well, one of the main ways in which humanity has sought to justify its violence throughout history is by claiming it to be divinely sanctioned, or even divinely ordained. We can see this in various places throughout the Old Testament, and we can still see it in the world today. And if God, the ultimate authority, sanctions human violence, how can the cycle of violence ever be broken? Answer: it can’t, and so the world keeps on spinning ever faster along a trajectory of escalating violence. That way lies apocalyptic destruction.

What happened, then, at the cross? Far from revealing God to be the ultimate dispenser of violence, the cross showed that God would rather die than engage in violence of any kind.

The cross drew a sharp distinction between humanity and God. Humanity gravitates towards violence as the final solution for every problem, and is prepared to engage in scapegoating and lynching to preserve the status quo. God, on the other hand, eschews all forms of violence and, in going to the cross, exposes scapegoating as the structural evil that it is.

God is not judged and found wanting at the cross: on the contrary, he is decisively shown to be genuinely, truly, perfectly good and non-violent. What is judged is the world, the kosmos, civilisation and the wicked systems of violence and injustice that underpin it. And, most importantly, humankind’s favourite excuse for its violence – God told me to! – is forever obliterated.

I must draw this to a close before it turns into a ramble. But before I do, let me make one final point. I believe the cross was and is a judgement that has power to transform individual and collective life in the here and now, not simply to leave the status quo undisturbed pending a post-mortem deliverance. And how does it achieve such transformation? It does so by starkly revealing the problem of human violence and showing the only way in which the cycle of violence can be broken: free and unconditional forgiveness, first from God to humankind, and then from human to human. As he goes to the cross, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”. And as he returns from the grave three days later, he announces not vengeance but peace. The cycle is broken.

The cross is a judgement, yes, but it is a judgement of light and life. The question is, are we prepared to see it that way, release our tight grip on violence and enter into the virtuous cycle of forgiveness and peace?

Comments

  1. I like this but if God is totally non violent why did he kill the guy who caught the ark as it fell?. Striking him down was an act of violence no matter the reason behind the judgment.

    • When I studied Hebrews a year ago, one question that popped into my head was, “Why all the requirement for blood and death in the OT?” It seems so counter to Jesus, the exact representation of God (Hebrews 1:3).

      As I began to pray and study more (OT and NT, especially Hebrews), it occurred to me that the requirement for blood and death wasn’t so much because it is God’s nature, but rather it was to show the Israelites the huge chasm that exists between God Almighty and his creation. It’s more God telling them (and us), “Do you want to know what it will take to close that chasm, and do you want to know what it means to be as Holy as I am? It requires an impossible amount of blood and death, and I am so Holy that even touching the ark will result in death.”

      I don’t see God’s reaction to Uzzah as God being violent. It’s more, “Look, you all wanted to know what My Holiness is and looks like, this is it. Even a simple touching of the ark brings death.”

      What I see with Jesus, and what Rob brings out so well, is God turning the impossible requirements of blood and death into a new covenant of life and light. With Jesus, we are MADE holy rather than worrying about BEING holy, and we no longer need worry about touching the ark bringing death, because Jesus’ blood and death does away with all that crap that the Israelites demanded of God.

    • Thanks for commenting, Jeremy. I have my own view on questions such as the one you raise, which some here will no doubt find hard to stomach. Namely, I do not bend God to the text. My starting point is that God is entirely non-violent. If that is the case, then God did not strike down down Uzzah for touching the ark. It may be that *something* happened that resulted in Uzzah’s death, and the event was later sacralised and divinised.

      • James Warren elaborates on the idea that *something* happened to Uzzah in “Compassion or Apocalypse” which also happens to be one of the best introductions to Rene Girard out there.

      • Rob,

        For me, to read the Bible through this lens (starting with God is non-violent) is a much more consistent, sense-making, way to read the text than the literal, factual “things went down exactly like this” method. There’s so much less to have to explain away or make fit with everything else.

        Joe

        • Exactly, Joe. Thanks for your comment.

          • The truth is, whether everyone wants to admit it or not, we all start with a perspective, even the ones that say they do t have a preconception when they come to the text

        • Well, you have to explain away that character in the Old Testament who liberated his people by unleashing violent plagues against their enemies, and then told his people to exterminate the peoples in the lands that he was giving to them. That’s a lot of splain’n…

    • Marcus Johnson says:

      Interesting question, one which assumes that the story of Uzzah’s death was meant to be told as a historically accurate/authentic event. Much of the Torah was compiled during the Babylonian exile, when the Jewish nation was struggling to understand how their great nation could be overthrown if they were God’s people. This was also a time when people attributed unknown happenings to the Divine. Basically, if someone dropped dead in an unusual manner, and there wasn’t a knife sticking out of the guy’s chest, the standard diagnosis was, “God did it.”

      Put these two factors together, and you have the writers of the Old Testament, inspired to create a narrative that showed how the actions of God’s people were to blame for their own downfall. I could go into much greater depth here, but suffice it to say that the meaning of this story was not “God kills people who touch his stuff” as much as “Best explanation we can give for our captivity is that we, as a people, corrupted the divine and broke faith with God.”

      • How would you interpret the account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts? This story, whether or not it is merely legendary, seems to illustrate at the least that the early Christian community considered God capable of very specific acts of wrath, even after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that it did not consider that perceived characteristic to be inconsistent with the idea that God is love.

        • Ananias and Sapphira is an interesting one. This is all speculation, of course, but I would say the story is some sort of mythologisation and post-sacralisation of an event in the early church (perhaps an expulsion?).

          • I always viewed it as two stress induced heart attacks! Why do we need to mythologize it?

          • To Michael Bell: I didn’t say we “need” to mythologise it. It just seems to me to be a much more likely explanation.

          • Marcus Johnson says:

            I would say that we need to mythologize this story, but that depends on one’s definition of the term “mythologize.” Myths, in the realm of literary interpretation, are almost never defined as “stories people tell that are intentionally false.” The primary definition is “a story about the origins/early history of a people, or about natural/social phenomena, usually involving a supernatural event.” To mythologize, then, would be to convert something into a myth, for the purpose of explaining the past, or defining a people.

            Given that definition, the entire Bible is mythology, not necessarily because the stories are not historical, but because the stories were written, then included in the overall canon, with a primary goal of explaining where the church came from, and how it came to be.

          • Michael Bell: I agree with your definition of myth as used in general literary interpretation. However, I tend to follow Girard’s more specific definition in which myth is a story about the origins/early history of a people, some aspect of which is specifically formulated to hide/cover up instances of human violence and conceal their victims. And, of course, the method most often used to cover up this human violence is to ascribe it to God.

        • Marcus Johnson says:

          Bear in mind that, unlike the story of Uzzah, the writer of this story never actually states that God killed Ananias and Sapphira; Peter even announced only Sapphira’s death, not Ananias’.

          But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the writer intended for the reader to infer that this was an act of divine retribution. Again, I would argue that the point of the story is not the penalty for the crime committed, but the crime itself, and what it affirms about the value system of the church. In other words, the point is not, “God kills people who piss him off,” but “Selfless communal giving is one of the central values of the Church; this is who we are as a community.”

          • I think that’s incorrect. Peter states in the text that the transgression of the couple is that they lied about how much they gave, not that they didn’t give enough. The text is very clear that they were free, as Christians, to keep what belonged to them. He charges them with dishonesty, not selfish greed; furthermore, he says that they lied to God, not merely to human beings.

          • According to the text, the crime was lying, not selfish greed.

      • Very nicely explained, Marcus. My view is quite similar.

  2. Good stuff, Rob. Hole Number 1 is the shape of a box. It’s the kind of theology that puts God in a box, a box which demands God does things according to that box we’ve put Him in. “The Bible says…” often puts God in a box, by the way.

    I think God often does a face-palm when He hears our limited views of Him touted as absolute truth.

    • Thank you, Rick. And I agree.

    • While I still don’t have a definitive position on either side of the issue, I believe Hole Number 1 (closely-tied Number 2) is really more of a straw-man argument. I have never heard people on that side of the issue propose that *there is some higher principle God must abide by,* or that somehow God is subservient to this idea called *justice.* Rather, being just could simply be in God’s nature. Just like any other personal characteristic you can envision. Goodness. Love. Holiness. Generosity…the list goes on. It seems to follow from the logic in the essay above that God couldn’t possess any of these qualities either because that would mean He is being forced to adhere to some higher principle of Goodness/Love/etc. In defense of the other position, I would say that God isn’t *loving*; rather God *is love*. And His love is perfect. Along with all His other attributes. God is perfectly generous. He is perfectly holy…

      • Yes, I think you’re correct. That first hole is a straw-man. The argument is really about the nature of God, and the nature of love.

      • David, I hear you, but that’s not quite what I’m thinking. My thinking is that if God is love, there is no room within God for justice of a kind that is not compatible with love (namely, retributive justice). As Robert F says, that means what we’re really dealing with how we define love as the character of God.

        • True, all of his attributes must be compatible and co-exist (e.g. his love is generous, his forgiveness is good, etc). Now, “retributive justice” as a specific subset of justice, that’s an interesting distinction worth exploring. I think some might view the cross still as “restorative justice” or perhaps some kind of unclear combination

          • I would go further and say that his attributes must not merely co-exist; rather, every aspect of his character is subservient to and defined by love, as lived out in the life and death of Jesus.

  3. Perhaps in order to fully enter the life of humankind God through Jesus had to endure the fate of humankind, suffering and death. Only in that ultimate moment could the union of the divine and the human be fully realized. As a consequence we are only able to fully partake of the divine because the divine was at last fully able to fully partake of the human.

    • Stephen, I think there is some truth in that. I believe it was Gregory of Nazianzus who said “That which is not assumed cannot be healed”. Nevertheless, what’s most important for me is that it was humanity’s violence that Christ suffered, not God’s active punishment.

  4. The cross is a judgement, yes, but it is a judgement of light and life. The question is, are we prepared to see it that way, release our tight grip on violence and enter into the virtuous cycle of forgiveness and peace?

    Who does that? Name one person who doesn’t live a life implicated in the violence of the social world they inhabit? Even the Amish depend on a kind of retributive justice, shunning, to control rebellious members of their society; you could say it’s not violent, but the effect of ejecting someone from association with family and friends is an act of coercion, it involves the ability to mobilize the power of a sub-culture against an individual. In addition, the Amish are involved in economic dependence on the larger, outside world for survival, and the economic system of the outside world depends on violence to function.

    Was the life of Jesus completely free from the violence of the society he lived in? Or did he participate in, and benefit from, an economic/social reality that depended on violence to thrive?

    What about violence against non-human creatures? Does that count? If not, why not? What human life has ever been free from violence against non-human creatures? Jesus ate meat, and cursed a fig tree to wither; the Buddha crushed insects with every other step he took during his long journeys across India on foot.. Our bodies are furnaces in which micro-organisms die in countless numbers.

    What human being, what living creature, has ever existed for even a few minutes without offering violence to the living world around it?

    • Isn’t this rather defeatist? Surely you’re not suggesting that because violence exists in the world and we are all implicated in it to some degree, we may as well just accept it and carry on regardless?

      • I’m not suggesting that. I wonder, though, where do we choose to start, and where do we choose not to start, living in peace. And how do we live at peace with the inevitable inconsistency, and partiality, of our practice.

      • I also wonder why a God who is completely non-violent would have created a world in which it is impossible for any of his creatures to be completely non-violent. Beyond this, it’s also a world that seemingly depends on predation, violence and death for the sustenance of life. What an odd world for a non-violent God to have created. The nature of this world makes me wonder if the primary problem of humanity is actually violence. I came across this idea about violence, scapegoating and victimization being the original sin of humanity decades ago when I read Rene Girard, but the same doubts arose for me then.

      • You’ll note, my doubts don’t involve your soteriology, but your speculations (against the grain of quite a bit of the biblical text, and some of the words spoken by Jesus himself in the New Testament, who, if those words were truly spoken by him, held certain warriors of the Old Testament in high regard) about the nature of God, and the primary spiritual problem of humanity.

        • There’s lots here, and I have little time due to a busy work day.

          A discussion of the “why” of violence will inevitably lead into the free will debate. In summary, I would say that a God who is love cannot *not* create, and at the same time has to create creatures with the ability to choose to reject him and peaceful coexistence with their fellow creatures.

          As to where we choose to start, I would say we start where we can: by choosing forgiveness and non-retaliation in our own personal lives. (As an aside, I’m not sure I agree that it is impossible for anyone to be completely non-violent (at least, if we limit the debate to human beings.)

          The question of why nature is “red in tooth and claw” is a wider one that I don’t have time to get into here. Sorry.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            I agree with much of the post…

            “””” and at the same time has to create creatures with the ability to choose to reject him and peaceful coexistence with their fellow creatures.”””

            But I am exhausted by this meme. It doesn’t help, and it seems ***terribly*** convenient. Every time I hear it I think theologian-letting-himself-off-the-hook-by-claiming-there-is-no-such-thing-as-string.

            “””As to where we choose to start, I would say we start where we can: by choosing forgiveness and non-retaliation in our own personal lives”””

            But I am back on the train here. Because this is the only really relevant question: “So what do I do?” One sermon I heard, years ago, simply stated “the need is the call”. What to do? Look around you. How often do we debate this question in order not to be ‘called’ to do anything? Is the task of collecting liter and trash beneath us, if that is what we see when we look around ourselves? ‘Clearly I have a higher calling than that!’

            “”” I’m not sure I agree that it is impossible for anyone to be completely non-violent “””

            It depends on how widely one draws the circle of moral culpability. Because we all, in the affluent 21st century west, benefit mightily from brutality visited upon the much less powerful elsewhere in the world.

          • In reply to Adam Tauno Williams: re conveniently letting oneself off the theological hook, you are assigning motive to my position that isn’t there. Re the rest, I’m not sure we disagree.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            “”””you are assigning motive to my position that isn’t there””””

            Nah, it isn’t about you, it’s about me. 🙂 I’m just expressing my frustration, generally, with this line of thought. It sounds so much like looking a at disaster and saying “God works in mysterious ways”.

  5. The Lord told me yesterday, the cross brings rest. God determine not to hold mens sins against them, and in this we are set free from bondage, slavery and obligation to a life of misery into the true light and life of fellowship with abba father and our brother Jesus Christ.

  6. Paul Fitzgerald says:

    Excellent. Now, I hope you can follow-with part two and share more of your theological journey from a non-violent God.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Paul. I’m not sure there is a part two to this specific post. But there will certainly be more ruminations to follow, yes.

  7. Karl Walker says:

    You beautifully put it….thanks Rob.

    Now. Going to share this on my wall….bless you!

  8. 15 comments before 6am EST? I didn’t know we had that many readers across the Pond. 😉

    For me, it starts and ends with “Hole” 1. I would say that our minds, as created beings, start with the assumption that laws and standards are “higher” than us, because that’s how we were built. It’s dangerous to transfer that notion to God Himself – as you correctly point out, He is in Himself the standard.

    As for the violence and transactional nature of atonement… Well, I’m still a sorta Calvinist, at least as far as human depravity is concerned. We just. Don’t. Get. How BAD we really are. Push comes to shove, we deserved the Flood – and whatever else God could and might send our way. (How’s that for controversial? 😉 )

    Last word and I’ll bow out for now. Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane – “If there is any other way, please let this cup pass…” But there was no other way. Our problem required God to become human and be slaughtered on a cross. The extremity of the solution points to one hell of a problem – no pun intended.

    • Eeyore, thanks so much for your comments. While I’m very far from being a Calvinist, I agree that “we just don’t get how bad we really are”. And I contend that the primary aspect of that misapprehension of reality is our individual and collective blindness to violence.

      • I wouldn’t say we are all blind to it – but it is deeply ingrained in the order of things – so deeply that it is even necessary at times, to prevent even worse violence. Cue barfight over “just war theory” in 3… 2…

        • I agree. Not too long ago, I aspired to pacifism. But as I have reflected about it, I’ve come to believe it would be wrong, for instance, to allow someone to violently attack my wife without doing everything possible to stop it, up to and including counter-violence. At the same time, I believe it’s important for Christians to work toward the peaceful resolution of problems, even when it’s costly and their is risk of failure involved. And there is a place in the Church for those with a vocation to Christian non-violence, who would serve as prophetic signs and embodiments of the coming eschaton, when shalom shall rule.

        • So you know that it’s only the ones who believe in just war who are willing to turn it into a barfight, yes? 😉

    • IndianaMike says:

      It is precisely God as the standard that the author is sidestepping and attempting to allow Him to be forgiving without also allowing Him to be determinative of right and wrong flowing out of His character.

      • I’m not sidestepping it at all, Mike. Nor am I trying to prevent God from being allowed to be “determinative of right and wrong”. What I’m suggesting is that God’s character and actions are not based out of his determination of right and wrong. That’s how we humans operate (Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, anyone?), not God.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Then how do you avoid Calvin’s & Mohammed’s solution to the Paradox of Evil where they put God beyond Good & Evil; God Wills Whatever God Wills and who are Us Worms to call it Evil? That way all too easily becomes “God Holds The Biggest Whip Of All, So There!”

        • IndianaMike says:

          You have the wrong end of the stick. The determination of what is truly right and wrong flows out of the character, actions, and express will of God. The same can be said of love and forgiveness. Otherwise, I think does what I think you are doing – imagining something greater than God.

          But as much as I wonder about your Theology Proper, I wonder as much about your Christology. This person you say “gamely hangs on the cross” says “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” If God demanded the penalty I was due to pay from another, I might wonder about His justice. If He demands it of Himself, where is my complaint?

          • Mike, I’m tempted to say that since you clearly think you’ve got me all worked out, why bother to answer?

            In any event, I think the conversation is likely to go in circles. Clearly I don’t think I have the wrong end of the stick, but that we are talking past each other. And I think you’re over-interpreting when you attempt to define my Christology on the basis of one expression that I deliberately used mainly for literary effect.

    • IndianaMike says:

      Rob, I think that there is an issue related to Theology Proper to be addressed. Is there a standard outside of God’s essence and character? If so, what is that standard and what are the implications as to God’s relationship tot he rest of the universe. If not, then what is God’s character as it determines right and wrong?

      As to Christology, please note that I used the word “wonder”. I did not assume. Feel free to make your argument. It does make a difference if God is extracting a penalty from some other party who “gamely hangs on the cross” of if in Christ “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them”.

      FWIW, I do think I recognize in your argument one of the major theories of the atonement that theologians have expressed and debated throughout Christian history. I thought it worth engaging.

      • No problem Mike, no offence taken. Unfortunately I just don’t have time to take the discussion any further. It’s been a crazy busy week, and it isn’t get any less busy!

  9. Regarding Hole number 1: In my experience, forgiveness has always involved someone freely taking on a burden that doesn’t rightly belong to them, and the suffering that comes with that burden. That’s what forgiveness involves. When the Mother Immanuel survivors forgave their assailant for the havoc he had wreaked in their lives by his violence, they shouldered a great burden of suffering that they will struggle with for the rest of their lives; saying that they “simply forgave” would not be quite accurate to describe the existential commitment and burden, and the process, that they undertook. They took up a cross, and they could not come to this forgiveness except by taking it up.

    • Two quick thoughts on this.

      First, one could argue that, since the violence had already been done, it was a burden they were going to have to bear whether or not they chose to forgive their assailant. And, since unforgiveness carries a huge emotional toll, they arguably lightened both their own burden and that of their assailant by choosing the way of forgiveness. (For clarity, what I am *not* trying to imply is that forgiveness is an easy choice and is not costly.)

      Second, saying that forgiveness involves someone taking on a burden is entirely different from saying that forgiveness requires someone to suffer punishment or “wrath”.

      • I don’t think it would be poetically untrue to say that the experience of anguish that is involved in the forgiveness of certain serious transgressions is the experience of a kind of wrath, with the accompanying desire for revenge, that arises from the depths of one’s own being. I have no problem believing that Jesus experienced this anguish and desire for revenge, this wrath, as he hung on the cross, and it must have been a very punishing thing; that he overcame it speaks to the heavy work that forgiveness involves.

        • Thanks for your thoughts, Robert. I have no doubt that, if we could share an hour or two in discussion over a coffee, bear or whatever your favourite poison is, we could find much to agree on.

          • I do agree that it’s wrong to think of this wrath as something that the Father visits on the Son as he hangs on the cross. If God can suffer (and I think that God can and does suffer), then whatever the Son experiences on the cross is shared by the totality of the Godhead.

  10. I love this discussion and your post Rob. I’m always looking to learn and look more deeply into these things and you hav helped me to do that. The Father’s heart is wonderfully gentle and kind, and the Son is so good to show Him to us, in dying and risIng as us. Keep us the good work. So inspiring.

  11. Nice post Rob. Well thought out and we’ll said. 🙂

  12. Rob,
    As usual you have written a thought provoking post. But I’m still too much of an evangelical (which I don’t think is a bad thing) to agree with a lot of what you argue in the post. The argument is primarily philosophical which for me isn’t enough, I need to see the Scriptural argument that would back this up as well. In scripture we don’t see a totally non-violent God. You might reject those scriptures, but that is putting God in a philosophical box. Jesus said his blood was poured out for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28). Why did his blood need to be poured out? Why does the book of Hebrews say that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin (Hebrews 9:22)? What do you see from scripture that backs your argument up?

    • Jon, thanks for your comment. Two quick points.

      I cannot give you an unassailable argument based out of scripture, and you can’t give me one either. Well, two reasons actually. First, scripture is not univocal. It certainly contains the voice of God, but it also contains various other voices. It’s not so much a consistent presentation of a position as it is an argument between dissenting voices. That’s my view, anyway. And two, scripture, like all literature, has to be interpreted. Ergo, if you say you present me with a sound scriptural basis for your position, what you are really presenting me with is an interpretation of scripture moulded to fit your particular position.

      As regards the Hebrews 9 passage, my interpretation is that it’s saying that *under the law* there was no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood.

      • Rob,

        I think your two reasons concerning scripture demonstrate why we would never be able to come to an agreement on this issue. We disagree about the very nature of scripture and interpretation itself. While I agree that there is a diversity in scripture, there is also a unity in that diversity. It is not an argument between dissenting voices. And yes scripture has to be interpreted. The post modern period has taught us that we need to be humble in our interpretations and open to the possibility of being wrong. But I don’t believe that all we can do is mold our interpretation to fit our preconceived positions, or that we can’t have a correct interpretation of scripture. If we follow that to its logical conclusion it makes scripture unintelligible, or at the very least useless, as well as all other written forms of communication since they all have to be interpreted in some way or another. I think you would rightly correct me if I interpreted your post as really teaching the penal substitution theory of atonement. If there isn’t a correct interpretation of scripture, then we might as well quit talking about how Jesus really shows us who God is, since the vast majority of what we know about Jesus comes from scripture, which has to be interpreted. Any view of the atonement, if it is correct, should have some scriptural support.

        • I think you make good points, Jon.

          But be aware that there are some here at iMonk who will invoke the “Apostolic Hypothesis”, whereby only the early Church in its institutional unanimity and integrity was capable of rightly interpreting the Scriptures, and that we should defer to those interpretations in recognition of the authority of that early Church when talking about the interpretation of the Scriptures, which in turn means deferring to either the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions of interpretation. Not that I agree with that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it came up.

          • I don’t really have the resources myself, but I do think listening to the early church is a good exercise in understanding Scripture. However, I do not think this means deferring to either the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions, as in my own opinion they don’t always follow the early church, but rather traditions that have layered up over the last two millennium.

        • I have no qualms about admitting that we clearly have very different views of scripture. However, and that as such, agreement may not be possible. However, remember that the only alternative to an infallible/inerrant view of scripture (which, in my view, is not intellectually credible) is not simply the free-form moulding of scripture any which way one chooses. As Marcus points out below, there are various levels of context to be taken into account: historical, political, cultural, theological, etc. So I’m not advocating for making scripture say whatever we want it to.

          As to whether or not scripture contains dissenting voices, I’m absolutely convinced that it does. On that we will have to agree to disagree.

    • Marcus Johnson says:

      While I don’t know how you are defining a “correct” interpretation of Scripture, we’re still talking about a text, which has historical context, an audience, and an author. If you do not accept that people, while divinely inspired, wrote the books of the Bible in various times and places, for different reasons, and to different audiences, then there is a logical failing that is happening here; I’m just not so sure it’s Rob’s.

      Interesting that you specifically bring up the books of Matthew and Hebrews, books which were pretty obviously written to an audience of people who identified as Jews, yet believed Jesus was the Messiah. As such, they would have understood concepts such as redemption and atonement specifically through the sacrificial system. So, of course, Jesus would have spoken about blood and altars and lambs. That was how Jesus’ immediate audience would have understood God, and that would have been how the audience of the writers of Matthew and Hebrews would have understood God.

      • By correct interpretation I’m mean getting back to authorial intent as much as we can. Now I think application can often be very broad. For instance, many people like to quote Jeremiah 29:11 as if in that passage God is talking to each person individually. As an interpretation that isn’t right, he is speaking to the nation of Israel in exile. But as an individual application it does have merit in teaching that God takes care of his people. Getting back to that authorial intent requires paying attention to the historical context, the audience, and the content of the entire book. And for those of us who believe divine inspiration it also requires the possibility that the human author was saying more than he realized. I also agree that people, while divinely inspired, wrote the books of the Bible in various times and places, for different reasons, and to different audiences. So no worry there.

  13. Rob G wrote: “Humanity’s number one problem is and always has been violence. Physical violence, verbal violence, mental violence.”

    I have always thought humanity’s original problem mirrored the sin of Lucifer – pride. I suspect that the problem of pride is the reason God gave this as His first command to Moses:”You shall have no other gods before Me.” And yet more often than not, we choose to obey/worship that “other god” – the unholy trinity of me, myself and I – pride at its zenith.

    Might the problem of violence be just one result of the presence of pride?

    I think we tread in prideful territory when we begin to think that the cross is all about us. Ezekiel 36:22,32. We matter to God, but we don’t matter most (Dwight Edwards). This line of reasoning may cause us to consider some cosmic implications for the cross rather than limit it to earthy concerns and outcomes . . .

    • When I say that humanity’s number one problem is violence, I am giving an opinion, not quoting from scripture. But I believe it’s a justified opinion, given humanity’s history.

  14. Interesting stuff.

    I’m sympathetic to where you’re going, but feel that some of your holes are not quite watertight themselves.

    For example, you yourself seem to be contradicting your number Hole 1 about God’s sovereignty, when you state in your comments that “a God who is love cannot…”. One might retort: “a God who is just cannot…”

    There was a debate on forgiveness here recently where I discovered that I was in the minority in considering that forgiveness isn’t to be “freely given”, but requires repentance. Not sure if that unbuttons your Hole 2 or not.

    I don’t understand the relevance of the fact that scapegoating is a uniquely human phenomenon, surely sin is too?

    Regarding Hole 4, I agree that it’s not abundantly obvious how penal substitution (that’s what we’re talking about here, I believe?) feeds directly into ‘newness of life’, my understanding was that that is related more to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

    But beyond your Holes, I have difficulty ‘explaining away’ the generations (and chapters) that God seems to have dedicated to inculcating a ‘blood sacrifice’ mentality in the Jews. I admit I haven’t reread the whole of the New Testament in the light of this new interpretation of Jesus’ death, but are you sure that the New Testament authors saw things the same way as you?

    • Ben, thanks for your comments. Sadly, I simply don’t have time to engage them in any depth. (That’s not a cop-out, believe me; I have piles of work to get through today.)

      I will just say this: when I commented that “a God who is love cannot…”, I was not speaking of an external imposition upon God’s freedom to act. I was saying that “if God is love, then it follows that he cannot…”.

      • I think Ben’s point remains though, for instance: “if God is just, then it follows that he cannot…”

        And looking throughout human history, including what’s contained in all of the Scriptures, it’s hard to omit “justice” as one of God’s attributes. We’re not just talking semantics over a couple passages here and there; it appears all of creation, and God’s interaction with it through all of time (past, present, and future), hinges around that particular principle (among others of course too).

        • The problem with the retort “A God who is just cannot…” is that the Bible is loaded with examples of His seeming breaking of justice. We have Ninevites spared after Jonah preaches to them, we have Jesus being killed despite his total innocence, we have David and Bethseba’s first son being struck down because of DAVID’S sin, we see generations tainted by a father’s sins, we see a man killed because he merely touched the ark when it teetered and fell, we see God allowing Job to be harmed even though Job did nothing wrong. The Bible is LOADED with injustices (both the guilty spared and the innocent harmed) seemingly ALLOWED by God and sometimes even CAUSED by God.

          I have not doubt God is the God of Ultimate Justice, but what that Justice looks like is really vague after reading the Bible.

          • Perhaps you answered your own question. As the saying goes, justice delayed isn’t justice denied. There sure seems to be a complete “lack” of justice throughout history. What it all exactly looks like is a mystery to all of us still, although I think we can all agree that all things will be restored and made right in the end (Revelation 21:4): “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Also, I think the other side’s argument is that Jesus *was* the very answer to that age-old dilemna. It brings to mind a particular passage (Romans 3:25): “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” We all still suffer the consequences in this life from both our own decisions as well as those of others, but probably not to the full or complete extent, seeing as much of our wrongs are directed towards an infinitely good God. (I’m sort of playing devil’s advocate, I’m still not completely decided one way or the other on this issue. I’m guessing the true answer is something far more deep and complicated, beyond our current understanding)

          • If justice was not delayed, the creation might not exist.

          • Emendation: If justice was not delayed, the creation might not continue to exist.

          • David, your parenthetical says it all: “I’m guessing the true answer is something far more deep and complicated, beyond our current understanding.”

            Yep. Because of that, I refuse to put God in a theological box He can’t get out of, and it’s tough to watch people do that to God and themselves.

          • Are you sure you’re not doing it yourself? I’m never sure myself, and I’d be apprehensive if I felt certain that I wasn’t that I’d fallen into “Thank you Lord for not making me one such as he…”

          • Hell, I’m apprehensive that I often fall into that anyway…whenever I think that I’ve gotten any of it right, or that someone else is wrong.

          • As Robert states, both sides in this discussion can be equally accused of putting God in a box as you put it though…

        • David, the reason I gave the answer I did is that in seeking to sum up what God is like, the author of 1 John chose to say “God is love”. Even today, if pushed to pick one word to describe God, most Christians would choose the word “love” (at least, I hope they would). I don’t believe that God is love, justice, and a hundred other things in equal measure. I believe that he is love. Whatever his justice looks like must therefore be consistent with his love.

          • I agree; however, simply saying “God is love, therefore He couldn’t…” still seems like a bit of a naive position. I can’t bring myself to leap to the conclusion that because God is love (which in itself is a loaded word), the cross couldn’t have also been about Him displaying ‘justice’ (whether it be retributive, restorative or some combination) somehow in a way that redefines how we understand it.

            You’re probably right too in that those attributes don’t all exist in equal measure, though perhaps the reason being because it is like comparing apples and oranges; they can’t be measured on an identical scale anyways.

          • If choosing to believe in the primacy of God’s self-sacrificing, self-giving, other-centred love over any and every other aspect of his character is naive… then yeah, I’m guilty as charged.

          • I said naive because *both* sides are claiming their positions on the same premise, that because God is love, He does what He does. People on both sides of the topic believe in the primacy of God’s self sacrificing love etc., so how does that make your position any more viable? That is somewhat of a cop-out response (well because *this* is how I view love, therefore God must act according to that viewpoint…I’m guessing it’s not quite that simple, and that His love and justice work in a way that is beyond our ability to simplify in a short statement)

          • (Not even saying your position is necessarily wrong, just that it doesn’t distinguish it from that single premise, I hear that from both sides)

          • Rob,

            My intention is not to insult you, or question the sincerity of your beliefs, but such a statement can be interpreted as being as much a lauding of ones own character as of God’s. We all believe God is love, but we have different understanding of what that entails.

          • Robert F: I understand, and of course I don’t take your comments – or anyone else’s – personally.

            In fact, you illustrate nicely how absolutely bound up we all are in interpretive manoeuvring. There’s just no getting away from it. The logic I’m trying to pursue goes like this:

            “God is love.”

            “But what is love?”

            “Well, Jesus came to show us what love actually looks like in practice.”

            “And what did Jesus show us that love looks like?”

            “Well, he showed us that love – the kind of love that God is – is radically inclusive, endlessly forgiving, other-centred, risk-taking, self-giving, etc.”

            You could, of course, argue that this is just one interpretation of how Jesus’ life and death defines love… and you would be right.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            In fact, you illustrate nicely how absolutely bound up we all are in interpretive manoeuvring. There’s just no getting away from it. The logic I’m trying to pursue goes like this:

            “God is love.”

            “But what is love?”

            “Well, Jesus came to show us what love actually looks like in practice.”

            “And what did Jesus show us that love looks like?”

            This assumes nobody in the exchange is trying to pull an infinite-regression loop to WIN by having the last word when the other guy gives up.

    • Ben…read and carefully study Hebrews. It was eye-opening when I did that about a year ago. It shed new light on the whole “why all the blood and death of the OT”. As I thought about and prayed about it, it dawned on me that much of the OT rules weren’t God saying “Here’s what you must do!” but rather, “Since you’re asking what’s required to be holy and approach me, I’ll give you all the rules and maybe it’ll dawn on you how difficult it is.”

      Holiness on our own is impossible. Jesus does the impossible. He is the blood and the sacrifice, he’s the temple and the priest, he’s everything that the Law requires “to become holy”.

      So give Hebrews a good read and some deep thought and prayer. It might be illuminating; you might have a new revelation.

      • try harder; do more

        • Yes, there’s a lot of that going on on this thread…Lol.

          “Suffer the little children to come to me…”

        • ?
          Stuart, not sure what you’re referring to. Are you suggesting that my pointing out how much Hebrews has helped me in my understanding of Jesus and that telling someone they might get the same benefit falls in the category of “try harder; do more”?

          If anything, Hebrews will help someone understand it’s NOT about “try harder; do more.”

          Lord have mercy…

  15. Jefferson w. Slinkard says:

    I will forever view the violence in the bible as man made, not punishment from an angry g-o-d. Our view of the Father/God has to be looked through the lens of Christ. In John 14:7 He shows us this truth. There is no “but, but, what about so and so scripture?” As you have shown in your post here Rob, Christ was never retributive, before death, or after, so we should all rethink John 14:7 a little more deeply.

  16. The main hole I see is the one that Anselm dug a thousand years ago and which is mostly inhabited by Evangelicals today, tho the influence extends wide. It is responsible for much of the rejection of the Good News by those who recoil from it’s ugly distortion of God, with good reason in my view. Thanks, Rob, for throwing down a rope for anyone wanting out of the pit.

    I believe the crucifixion was much more than a demonstration of God’s goodness and love, tho certainly that. Something tangible happened at the moment of death that would appear to involve a legal transaction or judgement, tho it is mostly the eastern wing of the church that seems aware of this. Up until the death of Jesus, all the dead from Adam on apparently were confined to the place of the dead as pictured in Jesus story of Lazarus and the rich man. Apparently after the death of Jesus all those who were held captive and chose to follow Jesus out were released. It would appear that this involved a legality which may go back to the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent. So even if Anselm was full of baloney and harmful to the church, there may be small elements of truth in his legalistic understanding.

    To me the best way of understanding the savagery of much of the Old Testament, as well as medieval times and today, is to see it as the slow spiritual evolution of humankind as a whole. I do believe the world grew in understanding over the course of the Old Testament story and took a jump upward with the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. I believe we have slowly been growing ever since, and seem to be taking another significant jump today, not that we don’t have a very long way to go. Thanks, Rob, for your contributions to the wake up call.

    • Charles, thanks for your kind words and for sharing your thoughts.

    • Dana Ames says:

      Charles,

      this:
      “…that would appear to involve a legal transaction or judgement, tho it is mostly the eastern wing of the church that seems aware of this.”

      is not a part of the awareness of “the eastern wing of the church.” There is absolutely no element of legal transaction or judgment. It is all forgiveness, freely given – the self-giving of God in order to enter into death and free us from it (and its manifestations, of which violence toward one another is certainly high on the list).

      Dana

      • Dana, from the small amount of reading I’ve done around the EO church, that’s my understanding too.

      • Sorry, Dana, if I appeared to speak for the Orthodox Church, which obviously I do not. When I say that it seems the knowledge of what is popularly called the harrowing of hell is mostly known in the eastern wing, it is because I searched fairly extensively and only found good information on it there, even if details differ with the teller. As far as I can tell, the knowledge pretty much was gone in the western church by the time of Augustine. Would gladly be corrected with better information.

        Are you saying you don’t believe Satan and Death had any right to detain the souls of Adam thru Zachariah, so to speak, that they could have walked out at any time? Are you saying you believe that their release was only coincidental as having happened just after the bodily death of Jesus? To me there is some obvious cause and effect going on here, tho I don’t pretend to know the details. I believe that just as Satan had a perfect legal right to inflict as much damage on Job as happened and no one could say no, he had a perfect legal right to hold as captive Adam on down upon their bodily death. UNTIL the death of Jesus. Something happened, something huge, but I wasn’t there and have to depend in large measure on stories and traditions passed down mostly in the eastern wing of the church as far as I have been able to find. No offense intended, that’s just my experience.

        • Dana Ames says:

          Charles, we don’t talk about these things using legal terms, including Satan’s “right” to anything. The great Fact, the result of our turn from God is our death, and only God can undo death – see St Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation.” Here is a little summary by Fr A. Schmemann about the meaning of Holy Saturday.
          http://www.antiochian.org/content/orthodox-celebration-great-and-holy-saturday

          If you want to peruse the liturgical hymnography of Holy Saturdy (which is where the Theology of EO is), then do a search for the Orthodox Liturgy of Holy Saturday. If you have time – the whole thing is about 2 1/2 hours long – you can watch it on YouTube.

          I don’t know about the services in the ancient Church in the west. I do know that pre-Vatican II, the last thing that happened at a Catholic Mass was the reading of John 1.1-18. This is the same Gospel lesson that is read in the Paschal Liturgy proper. So there is a connection.

          Another good source for the Eastern understanding of this is the Paschal Sermon of St John Chrysostom. It has been the only sermon given in the Orthodox Church on Pascha for centuries. It is usually read by a senior priest. When the priest gets to the “it was embittered” part, the congregation responds to each of them with “It was embittered!” and we all raise our lit candles in honor of Christ’s victory.

          Dana

          • Thanks, Dana. It’s hard in the west not to deal with things in legal terms. That’s really the main point of Rob’s message above and his point(s) are also my main method of working my way thru the morass– what is wrong with this picture? The substitutionary atonement theory he presents is still widely used and misused, drives away many from the Kingdom of God, causes others to live in fear and judgmentalism. You can trace it on back thru the Evangelical church over the last several centuries, you can find it featured in Calvinism, you can go back farther to Anselm and Augustine, and eventually you come to Paul speaking in legal terms and even Jesus in his parables and teachings. Much of education at that time was a legal education. The Jehovah’s Witnesses that were coming to my door, I finally figured out were basically lawyers arguing a case, and good ones, along with much of the Protestant Church.

            I guess I would prefer to join you in boycotting any mention of legal understandings connected with the Good News, but I feel the need to be able to answer those described in Rob’s message and to deal as correctly as possible with law and legality as discussed by Jesus and Paul and others in the early church, not to forget the Old Testament story.. Where did things go off the rails? How do we get back on track? How does Jesus inform our understanding?

            I feel there is so much to be learned from the understandings preserved by the Eastern Church that has been mostly lost in the west, but at the same time I feel we need to press on to newer understandings as they are being revealed today, balanced and measured against all that has come before. I’m glad you are here to provide much of that balance.

          • Dana Ames says:

            You’re welcome – and I think there is no one who better takes things out of the legal framework and helps me think about how to answer those legal objections, at least in my own mind, than Fr Stephen Freeman. I hope you’re reading his blog.

            Dana

  17. David Cornwell says:

    “Humanity’s number one problem is and always has been violence. Physical violence,…” …. Jacques Ellul says “The will of the world is always a will to death, a will to suicide.”

    And this problem is one we seemingly never learn to recognize. We respond to violence with more violence. We attempt to thwart violence by the threat of violence. We have huge fights about gun laws, somehow thinking that carrying a gun with us will prevent violence. This morning I saw a photograph of “48 US B-61 nuclear bombs. Each of those bombs has a yield of up to 340 kilotons, which is not particularly large by modern standards. By way of comparison, each warhead has an explosive power about 22 2/3 times larger than the Hiroshima blast.” These represent 16.3 million tons of tnt or 30 million dead people.

    This is like saying that if all else fails, we will commit mutual suicide, perhaps the ultimate violence. We call it MAD, or “mutual assured destruction.” In the US we have names for it on the personal level, such as “stand your ground.” And we even practice it on the highway as we erupt in “road rage.”

    We have desensitized ourselves to violence, showing all the gore we possibly can in our military/police tv and movie dramas. The human body is shown ripped, torn, violated, and mutilated for all to see. Its sacredness no longer exists. The games we permit our children to play (and play ourselves) are won or lost through our skill, or lack of it, in killing the other person.

    If we follow Jesus, there is a better way as we pray “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth….”

  18. Janet Maley says:

    I think this is a well thought out post Rob, and I agree with where you’re coming at and from, in your unpacking. Years ago John 14:9 dawned on me when Jesus said “if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father”. At His own revealing and actions to reject violence, I had to ask whether I served a schizophrenic God who said don’t murder but it’s okay if I do it or if I tell you to do it, OR, if maybe man’s justification and recording of events in both the old and new testament were perhaps their own take on the situations. They were after all, very familiar with appeasing the gods of their time such as molech and many others. If we view the scriptures as inerrant and infallible, we’re left with this huge elephant in the room because of all of the contradictions in their writings. Enough for now, I agree with you also Jefferson Slinkard, you nailed it. Thanks for the article Rob, well done!

    • “Years ago John 14:9 dawned on me when Jesus said ‘if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father’.”

      Yes, and this matches up perfectly with my own “dawning” when reading Hebrews 1:3 “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.”

      In other words, LOOK AT JESUS TO KNOW THE FATHER’S EXACT CHARACTER. That’s why I think reading the gospel accounts is so vital for a better understanding of God. Look at who Jesus interacts with and supports and look at who he clashes with and why. If ever I doubt God and wonder about his apparent schizophrenia, I just remind myself of Jesus.

      • Janet Maley says:

        Very well stated Rick To. And thanks for bringing out Hebrews 1:3, imo, you nailed it!!

      • And Jesus expressed wrath, toward the religious authorities, as you’ve pointed out in one of your comments. It’s most clearly seen in the Cleansing of the Temple, but his anger, his wrath, flares up in interactions with the religious authorities on other occasions. In the heat of that prophetic wrath, he called them “white-washed sepulchers” and “vipers”! “Hypocrites”! Do you honestly imagine he was not full of white hot wrath, anger, when he said those things?
        If Jesus was capable of such wrath, and we learn who the Father is by knowing the Son, then God the Father is also capable of them.

        • Matthew 23 is one of my go-to chapters in the Bible. It’s a great set of verses to share with those still hung up on the Law, and it’s a great mirror to look into and see where I’ve gone off the rails.

          • Well, yes; but your comment only underlines the fact that every one of us is capable of playing the role of hypocritical Pharisee, and so subject to the same wrath Jesus expressed toward the Pharisees and other religious authorities in the New Testament.

          • I don’t see how your comment responds to mine.

          • I guess I was confirming what you were saying by pointing out the chunk of scripture where this comes up. But it does appear Jesus’ wrath is limited to people in-grained in the Law and doling out bad religion. And since I call myself a Christian, I better examine myself frequently to see what kinds of bad religion (aka focused on the Law) I’m doling out.

            It’s almost like God and Jesus are saying, If you want to live by the Law, you’ll be judged by the Law….and it won’t be pretty and you won’t like it and that’s not who I prefer to be.

          • But… Jesus was castigating a group of people who were perverting the law, not the law itself. And not all Pharisees, either.

            His ststements had context, but we so often universalize them in a way that, imo, does violence to the text and to what is being said there.

    • Thank you, Janet!

  19. Jesse Ireland says:

    So after reading the comments, thanks everyone for posting by the way, I see a common threads. One of the common threads is that we view love as being one of God’s attributes rather than being who He is, His essence. One might ask, well what is the difference? The difference lies in how we interpret or view his attributes through the essence of love. For instance wrath. My take is that the wrath of God is more about Him allowing sin to take its natural course which leads to destruction/death, then it being God destroying someone. The next question may be, well how do you know? That answer is Jesus. Throughout the New Testament it states that Jesus is the perfect image of God and He is God’s exact imprint, His essence. What is that essence? Love, self-sacrificial love. So any discussion about God must start with Jesus. The prophets, scribes, and Old Testament all tried to but never really were able to describe who God was like, hence comes along Jesus. Over and over again Jesus states that if you have seen me you have seen the Father, and the only way we saw Jesus was love, hence that must be who God is. Anyway just my thoughts. I think until we view God that is just like Jesus, then we can justify all sorts of our own actions that lead to destruction and violence. Just my two cents.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The next question may be, well how do you know? That answer is Jesus.

      Unless you’re a cage-phase convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, at which point the answer is “Orthodoxy! Orthodoxy! Orthodoxy! (insert string of Greek theological jargon)” 🙂
      Or a Hypercalvinist, at which point the answer if “Predestination! Predestination! Predestination! TULIP! TULIP! TULIP!” 🙂

    • Bingo, Jesse! And who does Jesus most seem to condemn or have conflict with? The religious folks who’ve turned God into something He’s not: a God ready to smite everyone who breaks the rules of “holiness”.

    • @ Jesse, Ireland

      We also believe Jesus was fully human, and that his humanity did not exist in contradiction to his divinity. If he was fully human, he felt the desire for revenge against, and he felt wrath toward, those who unjustly violated him. That he also overcame this desire for vengeance and this feeling of wrath does not undo their having existed in the first place. This is why the Psalms are often called the prayer of Jesus, which we as the Church that identifies with him may pray along with him, despite the imprecatory character of a number of them.

      Jesus was fully human, and feeling such things is fully human. Since his humanity did not exist in contradiction to his divinity, that must mean that God is also capable of experiencing wrath at injustice, and the desire for vengeance against it, even when opting to absorb the suffering and burden of that injustice for the sake of forgiving and redeeming. We can also learn these things about God’s ability to feel from looking at Jesus. Jesus’ love, and by extension God’s love, is not the smiley faced love of a Hallmark greeting card, but the love which has paid a price in anguish and suffering.

      • Jesse Ireland says:

        And who unjustly violated him? The Pharisees and religious folks of the day. He acted vastly different towards people we would called sinners. In fact He dined with them, called them friends, had them in His inner circle, showed them grace and forgiveness. The ones that were trying to hold back God’s love and mercy towards others were the ones that Jesus was stern with, not the other way around. Throughout the New Testament we see Jesus trying to change the minds of people about what they thought God was like. People didn’t like that because they thought they had God figured out, and those were the ones Jesus rebuked.

      • Dana Ames says:

        Robert, his humanity was perfect humanity, the way we were meant to be; self-giving in love, just like God. To say that Jesus felt anger is one thing; to say that he took out wrath on people is quite another. (Scripture doesn’t say he used the whip on people; it does say he used it to drive out the *animals* from the temple precincts, but I seriously doubt he did it in such a way as to hurt them.)

        Dana

        • If you check my comments, you’ll see that I do not believe that God took out his wrath on anyone, Dana. Wrath is an emotional state, and I believe God knows it, and it was amped up in the Passion of Jesus.

        • The point I’m making is that I believe Jesus did experience the wrath of God on the cross, because wrath is an emotional state that God is capable of feeling, and Jesus has the divine nature. Wrath wasn’t visited on Jesus from an external Father, but rose up in the Godhead in response to the injustice Jesus was experiencing, and had to be suffered, or vented. Jesus chose to suffer it, god chose to suffer it, and that suffering is of a depth we’ll never plumb.

  20. Excellent, Rob!

  21. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Hole number 1: In this view, God is not free to simply forgive sin; he is beholden to a higher principle of justice that must be obeyed. This is a major philosophical and theological problem, because if God is God, there clearly cannot be any higher principle than himself by which he is bound.

    i.e. Socratic Atheism.
    Example Hyper-Calvinism, where God is just the biggest puppet of Utter Predestination, Willing only what He Hath Been Predestined to Will. (My writing partner has actually had run-ins with twentysomething Young Restless and Really Truly REFORMED who have told him this in so many words. In’shal’lah.)

    Hole number 2: Following on from hole number 1, since God is bound by a higher principle of justice that must be satisfied, the only way he can forgive us is through some kind of transaction. His end of the transaction is that someone has to die, since the wages of sin is death. Jesus agrees to be that someone, so God can now forgive us because his perfect son has died in our place, thus balancing the scales of justice.

    i.e. Penal Substitutionary Atonement.
    Has anyone traced the history of this? (Besides the claim that “God Saith” and “SCRIPTURE” a la 33 AD.) I would not be surprised if the original theologian was a lawyer (or a bean-counter).

    • It might have always been around in some form, and condemned as heresy by many, but I imagine that yeah a lawyer type nailed it down.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_substitution

    • Penal substitution derives from the idea that divine forgiveness must satisfy divine justice, that is, that God is not willing or able to simply forgive sin without first requiring a satisfaction for it.

      That’s a HUGE assumption. One given without proof.

      Why? Is God a man that he can be offended and must have retribution of some sort for any slight or wrong?

      We know we didn’t mess up this earth, so none of us needs to apologize to Him for the “state of sin”. Have we offended His Holy Sensibilities by not perfectly doing things His Way And Preference?

      Just how rooted in a medieval lawyer monarchy sense is this doctrine and so many others?

      • Anselm held that to sin is for man “not to render his due to God.” Comparing what was due to God and what was due to the feudal Lord, he argued that what was due to God was honour.

        Well there you go.

      • Anselm was trying to address other heresies which had crept into soteriology – possibly ransom theology, where God owed a debt to Satan in order to save humanity. In the process of fixing one problem, he created a new one.

    • House of cards.

      Calvin appropriated Anselm’s ideas but changed the terminology to that of the criminal law with which he was familiar—he was trained as a lawyer—reinterpreted in the light of Biblical teaching on the law. Man is guilty before God’s judgement and the only appropriate punishment is eternal death. The Son of God has become man and has stood in man’s place to bear the immeasurable weight of wrath—the curse, and the condemnation of a righteous God. He was “made a substitute and a surety in the place of transgressors and even submitted as a criminal, to sustain and suffer all the punishment which would have been inflicted on them.”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        And I remember Calvin’s lawyering (as quoted above) in SO many of those Altar Call Gospel Tracts from my younger days; even in churches and evangelist groups which had nothing to do with Calvin or Predestination.

  22. The story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts, even if it’s completely legendary, indicates at the least that the earliest Christian community thought God was sometimes violent, even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that it did not consider God’s violence as incompatible with his love.

    • But let’s examine that story in light of the idea of a God of Justice. Where’s the justice in killing two people who’s only sin was to hold back some of their gain from the sale of property. I mean, they even GAVE most of it to the church! Complicating matters, this occurs AFTER the death and resurrection of Jesus, when they should’ve been covered by his sacrifice and blood of the Lamb.

      • Well, yes, the story is rife with ethical problems. I hope that it’s completely legendary. Still, it exhibits exactly what I said in my comment: the earliest Church community, soon after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, thought God capable of violence, and did not see that violence as being incompatible with his love. We don’t have to accept the historicity of the story, or its exact moral shape and ethical deficiencies, to take it seriously when talking about the nature of God, and whether or not he is capable of violence.

        • I just re-read the story to see what the nuances are/were. It’s funny, because in the case of Ananias it seems he’s almost struck dead by his own conscience and that God didn’t even have a hand in his death. In the case of Sapphira, Peter simply says (paraphrasing) “What happened to your husband will happen to you,” but again without any claim that God is killing her.

          So the fear the people felt afterward might’ve been wrongly associated with God and their long-time view of Him being “wrathful.”

          • Empathetic Peter. But I think you’re interpretation is stretching the literary signals of the text. Especially in Acts, the Apostles are depicted as being in intimate connection with the Holy Spirit, such that what they say happens without fail. Even just the thought, however, that the Holy Spirit has as little empathy as Peter does in this passage is frightening.

          • Peter’s lack of empathy for the wife in this passage really disturbs me, always has. This was one of the leaders of the New Testament Church? What a perfect bastard he could be, if the portrait is accurate.

          • Can you imagine what would rightly be said here at iMonk about a megachurch pastor who did the exact same thing that this account describes Peter as doing?

      • Yes there are strong warinings in Acts and in the Gospels that God is just and holy, and that His matters are of highest consequence. And yet the Lord showed the world love and compassion like no other. I think Ananias and Saphira’s sin was to deceive, to put on a show of holiness while having selfish motives behind that. Kind of similar to the Pharisees actually. The early church was so pure that this stood in stark contrast to what she was about.

    • Robert,

      Yes… it does give us incite into what the community of that period was thinking. Too many times we get wrapped up in what our point of view is in the 21st century. What is the norm and the view now is much different than at the time the event was occurring or at least written down. At the time when there was much God Wrath in history violence was the norm, a loving God that coddles its followers may have even seemed weak to the peoples of other “gods”.

      • Radagast,
        Violence is still, sadly, the norm in history.

        • Nature itself is violent. Long in tooth and claw.

          This is not the result of some mythical sin and fall of man in a garden somewhere that has cursed the whole earth magically into sin and violence and death. This is the nature of the universe and always has been. A meteor colliding with the earth is no less violent than a brother slaying another over an offering.

          So why is nature violent? Survival of the fittest?

          What counteracts that? Love? And where does that come from?

          • Good questions, though unanswerable, as far as I know. Yes, nature has been violent and full of strife from the beginning, and human beings have participated in the nature of nature, since we took shape in nature’s womb. I do believe, however, that we are called to something higher, however miserably we fail to imagine or live it, and that nature itself will one day be pacified by its creator. Love is the future.

    • I repeat here my comment from above:

      “Ananias and Sapphira is an interesting one. This is all speculation, of course, but I would say the story is some sort of mythologisation and post-sacralisation of an event in the early church (perhaps an expulsion?).”

    • Great point Robert.

      This is the kind of thing that sometimes makes me despair of ever coming to any kind of coherent view of scripture. You think you’ve got a hold on a palatable/bearable way of understanding, and then up pops a verse which blows a hole in it. At which point you can give up, or double down in a dialectic kind of way and work that in to your theory too. But with the nagging doubt that maybe this time you’ve gone too far and are now just pegging the products of your own mind onto the texts. Or you can be tempted to throw the towel in and conclude that this is just a human text and there is nothing more to expect from it than from Moby Dick.

      Obviously the solution is to dedicate one’s life to exploring and understanding the text, al the while prayerfully requesting that you will be kept on the straight and narrow…

      I also wanted to say – again – that the quality of the discussion here on iMonk, the respectful but no-nonsense way in which each person’s point of view is considered, the way in which people ‘riff’ off reach other’s insights is truly inspiring. It would be amazing in every day life, but given the general quality of internet discourse, it’s almost miraculous!

      • “This is the kind of thing that sometimes makes me despair of ever coming to any kind of coherent view of scripture.”

        I know exactly how you feel. I alternate between thinking the whole thing is made up or that the Bible is the obvious result of what happens when finite minds try to record the thoughts and ways of One who is infinite; I guess it’s God’s grace that I continue to have faith.

        “Obviously the solution is to dedicate one’s life to exploring and understanding the text…”

        If this exploration leads us to a fuller understanding of Jesus. As has been pointed out already by several (and the author of Hebrews), Jesus is the clearest picture of God’s character and, in my mind, if we are not reading and studying the Bible to see Jesus more clearly we’re doing it wrong.

        “I also wanted to say – again – that the quality of the discussion here on iMonk, the respectful but no-nonsense way in which each person’s point of view is considered, the way in which people ‘riff’ off reach other’s insights is truly inspiring.”

        Absolutely! I haven’t been able to participate today but have read everything and have much to ponder. Thanks to everyone for an enlightening discussion and thanks to Rob Grayson for a thought provoking post.

  23. Christiane says:

    Hi ROB,
    These verses have great meaning for me:
    (Hosea 6:6)
    “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”

    (Matthew 12:7)
    “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”

    ROB, I often think that we are still trying to ‘go and learn what this means’ when we kneel at the foot of the Cross and mourn.

  24. Hole 1.5 – who is this God and how has this God developed over time into the utterly supreme super God we currently have today?

    Hole 2.5 – is the wages of sin death or is that just the natural result of being alive? Even a sinless man died and would still have died a natural death if he hadn’t been crucified; anything that grows can die.

    Final thought – violence is the opposite of love. However it is a tool of justice.

    God is love? Well God is also just, as the kneejerk response tends to be, which completely obliterates to a listener any former statement about God being love.

    Love wins? No. Law wins.

    • Regarding the holes, I suppose I’m asking where the presuppositions and assumptions are that lead to the conclusions, and do we need to look at those and readdress them. There seemed to be many “because so and so is true” statements, and I’d ask how we know those to be true.

    • Violence is a tool of protection. I used to think otherwise, but I now know that I would use counter-violence, if necessary, to protect my wife against violent attack. If that makes me unacceptable to some god, then to hell with that god; he’s not the real thing. My love for my wife wins over my desire to remain morally pure. Moral purity is cheap; moral responsibility is costly, and difficult.

      • AMEN

        Nonviolence is one area where I can’t get onboard with pacifists of any type.

      • Jesse Ireland says:

        Of course God doesn’t think you are unacceptable, that was one of the reasons Jesus came to throw out that garbage to begin with. On the other hand Jesus did not seek vengeance when He came back from the dead, in fact the first word He said was Peace. Look if I was in the same situation that you described above, I’m not totally sure how I’d react but I think it is important to think of those events happening ahead of time to try to come up with other solutions than violence, and at the same time realize that Jesus laid down His life instead of using violence of any means. We are on a journey to live our lives more like Jesus, are we there yet? No, also realize we say Jesus would be okay with us killing even if it means protecting.

        • Jesse Ireland says:

          Mean last sentence to be: Also realize that Jesus would not be okay with us killing even if it means protecting.

  25. Thanks for this post. I think it takes us in the right direction. I remember learning about the various atonement theories in seminary but none of them seemed entirely satisfactory (no pun intended). To some extent the exact nature of what occurred on the cross will always be a mystery, but at the same time, how we characterize it affects our theological direction, our messaging, how we relate it to believers and unbelievers, and a host of other issues.

    I see the cross in large part as the ultimate nonviolent response to a violent world; a response that the world believed would lead to its victory, but that, because of its nonviolence and because of who Jesus was, led instead to its defeat.

    The traditional atonement theories all put God in a man-made transactional scheme of some type. I think what God did may have been a transaction, but it’s nature and character were something completely outside our man-made experience or expectations. I’m still not sure exactly how that worked in its entirety. I think we’ll all be surprised, and delightedly so, when we see Jesus and know these things fully.

  26. Dana Ames says:

    Rob, thanks for the article. Well and clearly stated. Those holes, and more, were significant for me as well.

    Re being the “classic” understanding of Christianity, it is not. Anselm c. 1000 a.d. picked up on some themes from Augustine and ran with them (also with influence from the mythology of the just-barely-converted Germanic tribes who sent soldiers and advisers to Rome to help the Popes out of some military troubles). The truly classic understanding of Christianity is found in Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” – which is actually a treatise on why Christ had to be crucified. Nobody in the East, and almost nobody in the united Church before about 800 a.d. posited such an understanding. The farther back in the history of the Church I read, the more apparent that became. Augustine was an anomaly in this regard.

    Dana

    • Amen. The more I study history and theology, the more of a house of cards it all becomes. Assumptions built upon long forgotten assumptions. Most ideas had a single creator as opposed to one or several people compiling what everyone is already thinking and believing.

      Which makes the strength of scripture that we have a record of various thoughts and writings about God from multiple people spanning millennia. No one voice dominates and we’ve all agreed these are our forefathers.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Dana. When I speak of the “classic” understanding of Christianity/the cross/the atonement, what I really mean is “what has come to be widely accepted as the classic understanding”. I’m well aware that Anselm’s penal substitution theory, later refined by Calvin, was a later anomaly.

  27. While we talk, more violence is unfolding in Ferguson. Pray, and those who are in a position to do something that would tangibly help, do it. Our nation is staggering under the weight of its historical sins, and people are dying in the streets as a result. Lord, have mercy…

  28. Wow! 151 comments prior to the placement of this note and not one serious allusion to God’s mercy. What an angry, law-consumed bunch today, save for Dana who attempts a redirect. Asserting that God is just shoots an arrow wide from its mark. Justice like other sin-tarnished human concepts confines God to a restricted scope of behaviors refereed by a defined set of rules and performance expectations. Instead, justice is subordinate to God’s character and the greater gift of mercy, exhibited throughout the biblical text, as he continually extends to us, the undeserved, the graces of forgiveness.

    God, or “God in his wrath” did not kill Jesus. Humans did. And if given the opportunity, we would likely do it again. In many respects we do it every day. For goodness sake, literally, Jesus forgave his persecutors; even forgave his traitor from the cross. On the way there Jesus gave us the Beatitudes as instructions for how to apply his brand of justice — which is mercy. Not paybacks, retribution, or rewards for conduct, but the means for us to live as he did.

    The Mother Immanuel congregation chose not a burden, but to apply the healing balm of mercy instead. Difficult? Certainly! But justice hardly gets the job done.

    • I think you must be tone deaf, because not a person on any of these threads says that we are saved by God’s justice or wrath. Read the comments again, and try to discern the subtlety of the statements of those you disagree with. Not much anger there, except what your projecting.

    • “151 comments prior to the placement of this note and not one serious allusion to God’s mercy. What an angry, law-consumed bunch today…”

      Okay, you’re either going for sarcasm or you only read 6 of the comments posted today. Most of what I’m reading today challenges the idea of a “just God” and I see very few “angry, law-consumed” folks. Dang, every post I’ve made has been about the problem with bad (aka Law-focused) religion and the beauty of Jesus’ grace.

  29. Maybe in the crucifixion it was the Father who suffered most..does not the scripture say that God offered His own Son for our sins? Also God asking his friend Abraham to sacrifice his son was maybe God asking for companionship for an act He knew He would have to do..he bore the punishment and i think that is the emphasis in the Bible.

  30. It would appear from the article and general consensus of this conversation then that, in conclusion, Universalism is the only sound belief system?

    • (Since any sense or implementation of justice at its core would be contrary to the very principles of God’s infinite, undeniable love and grace)

    • If God, through Jesus Christ, wants to let everyone into Heaven, who am I to argue?

      • Flip side: If God, through Jesus Christ, wants there to be some restorative justice, who am I to argue?

        • I won’t argue against that, either. I think the point is that most Christians believe in the latter take on God (restorative justice), while universalism is considered heretical in most Christian camps.

    • My own belief that Jesus knew the wrath of God on the cross, which was his own wrath, both human and divine, in no way undermines my hope for universal redemption. It’s what I pray for. What room is there for eternal hell in the face of God’s radical grace? What room is there for an eternal “No” in the context of God’s eternal “Yes”?

      • I guess there could be the “No” that we ourselves might pronounce?

        • Would God abandon a creature to its limited and ignorant “No” forever? Once again, I hope not.

      • “Will it really be all men who allow themselves to be reconciled? No theology or prophecy can answer this question, but love hopes all things (1 Cor 13:7). It cannot do otherwise than to hope for the reconciliation of all men in Christ. Such unlimited hope is, from a Christian standpoint, not just permitted but commanded.”

        — Hermann-Josef Lauter, “Pastoralblatt”

      • All I know is that if God is letting even *me* in via Jesus Christ, there’s hope for everyone. If He were to judge me according to what I deserve, it’d be ugly.

  31. “This is a major philosophical and theological problem, because if God is God, there clearly cannot be any higher principle than himself by which he is bound.”

    It’s as if divinity were accursed with self-absorption. No wonder so many people find such an image of god so attractive.

    • I’m not sure quite what you mean here… Care to expand?

      • The idea that God is first and foremost concerned with His own holiness paints a picture of a self-obsessed deity. It means the cross had nothing to do with love for a fallen and hopeless humanity. It was just business. God out of love must remain immutable. But God’s motivation is not His own immutability. If Anselm was inspired by medieval feudal lords when he came up with his doctrine of satisfaction, it may be no wonder he could not grasp the idea of a gracious and unconditionally loving God.

  32. Here’s a quote that beautifully sums up some of the theology that I was trying to illustrate in this post:

    “God enters into the position of the victim of sacrificial atonement (a position already defined by human practice) and occupies it so as to be able to act from that place to reverse sacrifice and redeem us from it. God steps forward in Jesus to be one subject to the human practice of atonement in blood, not because that is God’s preferred logic or because this itself is God’s aim, but because this is the very site where human bondage and sin are enacted. God “puts forward” the divine word into this location as part of the larger purpose of ransom, of transforming the situation from within.”

    — S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross

  33. I think the key word in the account of the Last Supper is “ransom”. I never got the sense that Jesus was offering himself up as satisfaction for the Father’s wrath, but as payment to something or someone that has been holding us captive, which is why none of the “penal” theories about the Atonement (and what an odd word that is) ever satisfied me, either.

    I suspect Purgatory is all about justice–healing what has been wounded, repairing what has been broken, etc., but being a n00b Catholic I can’t be sure. I hope that’s what it’s about, otherwise it would be utterly unbearable.

  34. Many of the comments disagreeing with Rob’s ideas have focused on “justice” and the intonation I am getting is the sense of justice that punishes the doing of wrong, specifically God’s judgment of sin. Don’t forget there is another side of the justice/injustice concept. It’s getting what you don’t deserve. When God addresses the injustice of people in the Bible, mostly Israel’s, the sense I get is that there are suffering, marginalized people, people who are poor and downtrodden, and they don’t deserve it, and you/we should have corrected it, and you/we didn’t. And that ticks God off just as much as what we would consider moral acts of sin, if not more. This idea of justice=sinners being punished I think is more of a Western, maybe specifically American idea, and when I can disassociate (it’s hard, growing up fundamentalist, but I try) that concept of justice and instead think justice=correcting the injustices I see in this world, then I think we’re more in line with God’s heart.

    • That’s actually a great point, and I almost even mentioned that myself earlier. It probably should have been more clearly defined what we’re talking about when we discuss the incredibly broad term ‘justice.’ I think it is unanimously agreed about that other side though, that all the wrongs that occur to innocent people will be made right, and as I referenced in Revelation, every tear will be wiped away. I think the disagreement comes in when discussing *how*, and *to what extent* sinners are punished. At least for now, *restorative justice* seems to be a better compromise on this complex issue than *retributive justice* (which I believe tends to be more the focus).

    • Along these lines, maybe from a slightly different angle, if God is a God of justice, He would also look at the GOOD a person does, right, and weigh that in their favor? And sure, we could argue that none of the good we do ever overcomes all the bad, but still…if He is a JUST God, He’s counting all those little things in our favor.

    • Great comment, Joe.

  35. It would seem that in order to maintain any definition of *justice*, you would have to maintain both sides of the coin, as you mention

  36. Rob, there are tremendous gaps in your reasoning here, aside from the fact that you are using poor logic to overturn clear Biblical teaching and refusing to engage what the text actually says about this.

    Your model is the “moral example” theory of atonement, which in and of itself, is not untrue, but a helpful way of looking at things. But to say that this view is the only correct one, or that it rules out certain other views, solely on the basis that you find them offensive, is not remotely fair to the text. If you have a problem with the text, that’s fine, but then you’ve entered the realm of “make-it-up-as-you-go” religion.

    Hole 1: God is not “beholden to a higher justice.” The justice with which He always acts is an expression of His own character. He is not a slave to these rules. Rather, his behavior reveals his character. A character which defeats and triumphs over evil. This is something we should find comfort in, not fear as needlessly violent.

    Hole 2: Forgiveness is never free. Not from anyone, period. For me to forgive you requires me to embrace the harm you have done to me, and to accept it gladly out of love for you. That costs. The kind of “free grace” you are advocating here is dishonestly stoic, brushing aside things as if “meh, it’s no big deal.” It is a big deal. Murder is a big deal. “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” is completely fair, and the person who says, “My eye, but not yours” is paying the price of an eye to forgive you. It is a price you initially stole, but in the act of forgiveness, he gives you willingly, after the fact, that which you took by violence.

    Hole 3: Not all forms of scapegoating are equal. There is a kind of denial that pushes “evil” onto the “other” to avoid the hard work of self examination. The cross is not this, and neither is the sacrificial system of ancient Judaism. These are about simply calling a thing what it is. By transferring your sin to the goat and sending it away you are clearly not trying to cary on without reform, but rather, acknowledging the severity of what was done and the the justice owed you. The fact that the “other” willingly bears your shame is an act of mercy, not a deplorable barbarism.

    Hole 4: This can be the case with how penal substitution is often presented, especially within the context of “decision theology.” However, the ancient church had a more health understanding of this, whereby the cross is where our ransom is won, and the means of grace are the food by which we feed on this victory. Instead of a one time contract signed and guaranteed, we recognize death as an ongoing reality that continues to infect us so long as we are sinners, even justified sinners, and thus our continual need for the “medicine of immortality” to sustain us in a faith that alone has the power to lead us to truly good works.

    But you cannot avoid this, no matter how much you dislike it: God is a supreme dispenser of violence. All humans who have ever lived have died or will die, and this is because God has decreed it. He kills us all. Deal with it. You are going to die because God has sentenced you to it.

    But God is not squashing you like a bug. He joins you in your death, in order that you might join Him in his eternal life, by the power of His resurrection.

    The mercy of God is not to whitewash sin. It is to overcome it with mercy even at great cost to Himself. He doesn’t defeat evil by a display of strength that says, “Look how effortlessly I can erase it!” That God you will never find in Jesus. He defeats evil by His weakness, and overcomes death by dying. Rather than saying “I forgive you because it’s no big deal,” He lets us do our evil worst to Him, showing us His righteousness in response to it, and offering those of us who hunger and thirst for this righteousness to be filled.

    Jesus wasn’t the reluctant societal outcast of a scapegoat to justify the status quo. He gladly embraced the grave in order to rescue His bride out of it.

    • Miguel,

      Pardon my directness, but I do not think you understand what Rob is saying.

    • I’m with you on this one, Miguel. It’s hard to put into words, but there’s something just a little off about filing all forms and manifestations of violence away as works of the Devil. I’d hate to think of a woman fighting back against a rapist as evil — or a parent defending a child. I might go so far as to say that there are some circumstances in which true, Godly, Christlike love can be manifested in violence. I keep thinking of Ransom and Weston and the Green Lady on Perelandra. I can’t provide an airtight rational argument for this — or a diatribe more in keeping with current moral philosophy — but some instinct tells me that God can and does engage in violence, and, in spite of the outrage such a notion might bring to the postmodern mind, His perfect love is not deminished because of it.

    • Just by creating us, God also commits us to death.

      God as depicted in the OT clearly performs violent acts, and Jesus does not in anyway disavow that depiction of God; just the opposite. Furthermore, our New Testament canon closes with a book, Revelation, in which God engages in multiple cataclysmic, violent acts.

      Now, I’m not a literalist; I hold neither to the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible. But just on a literary reading of the Bible, there are large swaths of the text we simply have to pass over to suggest that the God of the Bible is a non-violent God, or that Jesus, when he was pointing to the OT God as his Father, was pointing to a non-violent God. If we want to prioritize certain places in the texts over others because they support the values we prefer, and the description of God we prefer, that’s fine. I do that, as a progressive. But then I have to acknowledge that the Bible as a whole does not support what I’m saying, and, from the texts we have in front of us and what they have to say about this specific issue, neither did Jesus. I think that to do otherwise is to is to engage in an interpretative illusion.

      And despite my progressive tendencies, I really do not believe that humanity’s primary problem is violence. I think humanity’s primary problem is pride, which leads directly to idolatry, and from there to murder and mayhem in the service of false values and false gods.

      • Just by creating us, God also commits us to death.

        Not unless he is also responsible for the decisions we make to do evil. This would mean you are equating foreknowledge with foreordaining, which makes God the author of evil either way.

        We chose to embrace death by sin. We don’t get off by blaming God for it and saying “well then why’d you create us anyways?” I, personally, am glad he did. His grace is stronger than my wickedness.

        But I really appreciate your honesty! We all do a at least a little of what you’re owning there, which is why it’s important to have these kind of conversations.

    • Well.

      I honestly don’t have time to give a point-by-point reply. So I’ll just say that my reading of scripture is very different from yours, and also you’ve read all kinds of meanings and motives into my words that I didn’t put there and which can’t be assumed. This is an inherent danger to which one exposes oneself when one tries to say almost anything about theology in short form, so I’ll take it on the chin.

    • Great, eloquent points Miguel. It is also unfortunate the “either/or” blocks many of us (myself included) keep stumbling over in many of these discussions, as if it’s entirely “this view” as opposed to “that view.” As an illustration, in Revelation for instance, Jesus is referred to as both a lion and a lamb. To us, a lion and lamb are polar opposites, how could they possibly be reconciled? People could argue back and forth that He’s more like one or the other, but at the end of the day we must accept that somehow they must both work together in unison. I try to be careful now before dismissing a viewpoint just because it *seems* incompatible with a truth I currently believe.

      • Indeed, the perfect metaphor! I really believe that atonement theory is one of the most important places for us to practice a generous diversity. It is too dogmatically narrow to insist on one view here to the exclusion of all others. Aside from the fact that this is not the historic practice of the church catholic, it is also very helpful to be able to look at the cross from various angles, because it reveals to us a more full picture of how good the Gospel really is. I’ve yet to see one good reason why it has to be either/or here. Most advocates of their new found atonement theory has a lot of baggage against their previous one, but without exception, I hear them arguing every time against a poor caricature, rather than a fair and accurate representation.

    • “He kills us all. Deal with it.”

      Is this a direct quote from a Chaplaincy handbook?

      Good points Miguel.

      Thank you for sharing your P.O.V. Rob Grayson

      • It is my impression that the sick and the dying do not need to be told this. It is pretty obvious to them that what they are experiencing is either, at least, passively allowed by God, or else, if He even exists he is most certainly impotent to save. A person in these troubles needs to know what God does for them in their misery. Answering “why” probably wouldn’t help, were it even possible. But the hope of the cross is a balm for hurting souls and much more.

  37. While the law of non-contradiction says that both *A* and *not A* cannot both be simultaneously true, that doesn’t mean that both *A* and *B* cannot both be true (even if they seem entirely different or contradictory).