Sunday, July 22, 2007

Why Jesus Died

Did God the Father send the Son to suffer and die on the cross for our sins? Or did the Father send the Son to make disciples who learn how to live in right relationship with God and neighbor?

This is not a merely academic issue in some parts of the Episcopal Church.

I think one of the warrants for setting up this dichotomy comes from a series of sermons published in a very influential and popular book entitled The Will of God. The author is Leslie D. Weatherhead.

In this book, Weatherhead makes a distinction between three modes of God’s will: God’s intentional will, God’s circumstantial will, and God’s ultimate will.

According to Weatherhead, God’s intentional will was for Jesus to make disciples, to fashion followers, who would help us live into right relationship with God. But when things went awry, God resorted to “Plan B” (God's circumstantial will) which involved Jesus’ betrayal, passion, and death on the cross.

Here's what Weatherhead says:

Was it God's intention from the beginning that Jesus should go to the Cross? I think the answer to that question must be No. I don't think Jesus thought that at the beginning of his ministry. He came with the intention that men should follow him, not kill him. The discipleship of men, not the death of Christ, was the intentional will of God ....
But when circumstances wrought by men's evil set up such a dilemma that Christ was compelled either to die or to run away, then in those circumstances the Cross was the will of God, but only in those circumstances which were themselves the fruit of evil [The Will of God (Abingdon Press, 1972), p. 12; emphasis in text].

According to this version of the gospel, God did not intentionally will for Jesus to suffer and die. That was an unfortunate (and unforeseen?) monkey-wrench thrown into the original plan. So in response to the sinfulness and brutality of human beings, God adjusted and adapted the plan to effect His ultimate will, which was bringing us back into right relationship with Him.

In other words, the cross wasn’t supposed to happen. The passion and death of our Lord was not a part of God's intentional will. And so Jesus did not die for our sins; rather, Jesus died because of our sins.

If I’m reading the argument correctly, the whole idea that God’s intentional will could have been to send the Son to suffer and die on the cross is viewed by Weatherhead as morally offensive. It makes God out to be a sado-masochist. After all, what kind of a father would will for his only son to be brutally tortured and murdered if not a morally vicious one?

It concerns me that this kind of reasoning finds a foothold within the Episcopal Church. I note, for example, that Forward Movement has published a pamphlet that wholeheartedly endorses Weatherhead's argument (I cannot, at the moment, recall the author or title, but I do remember reading it a few years back).

My problem with Weatherhead’s argument - and the reason it concerns me that it is so popular and influential - is that it contradicts the entire tone and tenor of the New Testament and the basic narrative of salvation outlined in the historic creeds. In doing so, it sets up a false opposition between Jesus’ mission of suffering and dying on the one hand, and his mission to make disciples on the other.

When we look at the canonical Gospels, we find messianic mission statements that fly in the face of Weatherhead’s theology. Here's one example:

" … the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28; cf. also Mark 10:45).

Here's another:

"I am the good shepherd … and I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10:14 & 15).

Then there are the passages that form the scriptural basis for the institution narrative in our Eucharistic prayers:

"This is my body given for you. ... This is my blood shed for you."

Moving to the Acts of the Apostles, Peter’s preaching of the early Christian kerygma is insistent:

"God foretold through all the prophets that his Christ would suffer" (Acts 3:18).

Here's what Peter tells his audience:

"This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge" (Acts 2:23).

If Peter and the other New Testament authors are right, then Jesus’ death on the cross was not an accident or an afterthought. It was no “Plan B.” It was a central reason for why he came.

The whole point is to free – not just Jesus – but all of us “from the agony of death” (Acts 2:24). That can’t happen if Jesus doesn’t die. So if Jesus’ suffering and death were accidental to his mission, then it is correct to say not only that the crucifixion was an unforeseen tragedy, but even more, the resurrection was an afterthought. Sort of like God’s way of taking a lemon and making lemonade.

This line of reasoning trivializes Jesus’ passion and death. It guts the Gospels of the telos that drives their depictions of the story of Jesus, for in each of the Gospels, the shadow of the cross is central to the plot.

This reasoning also undermines the uniqueness of Jesus. If Jesus died, not for, but merely because of, human sin, that makes Jesus no different than any innocent person who dies because of human sin. Jesus would then be no different from someone wrongly convicted for murder and executed by lethal injection. Or any number of untold millions of persons who have died tragic and unjust deaths.

Weatherhead's argument also subtly suggests, in a way that strikes me as veering towards the Gnostic, that God could have, and indeed, wanted to, effect His original will without this messy business of suffering and death.

God sending the Son to suffer and die on the cross can only be construed as sado-masochistic if – as Arius taught – the Son is less than the Father. But if, as the Nicene Creed affirms, the Father and Son are one, then Jesus’ willing submission to the cross is not a concession to the Father’s vicious will. Rather, the Divine will is ONE will - a loving, redemptive will for Jesus' death to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.  When we see Jesus' voluntary submission to the cross, we see God's will for the redemption of the world unfolding. We see the reason why Jesus was born.

On the question of why Jesus died, Weatherhead and his present-day followers propagate a false dichotomy. It's not an either/or: either Jesus died for our sins, or Jesus died because of our sins. On the contrary, it's a both/and: Jesus died for our sins, and Jesus' death happened because of human sinfulness in rejecting and murdering the love of God incarnate.

The path of discipleship cannot be separated from the cross of Christ. It is precisely because Jesus died for our sins at the hands of sinners - and then rose victorious from the grave - that we are called to be his disciples and to learn from him what it truly means to love God and our neighbor.


bls said...

I think you're right that people who argue that God is sadistic for "demanding the death of his Son" are having problems further upstream- namely, with the whole concept of Trinity.

And I think this is where this idea must come from - to keep God a good God, and not an evil one. I'm sure it's partly in reaction to "Penal Substitutionary Atonement" and retribution as well.

The thing I object to in this - and first I'll admit I haven't read all your links so maybe I'm not getting something - is that, like the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, it attempts to rationalize what is essentially a mystery. As it stands now, there is no one definition of "Atonement" and how it is effected; no one theory explains it, and we are not asked to accept one particular theory.

But this seems like an attempt to pin it all done and explain everything - and, as you say, to destroy the old world without out the messiness of death. Anyway, you're right about the references made during Jesus' life - and there are many. "A ransom for many"; "after three days I will raise it up again"; "Jesus turned his face to Jerusalem"; etc.

I will read the links, though, when I can.

Bryan+ said...

I agree that any theory of the atonement is an attempt to give rational explanation to something that ultimately transcends reason's ability to fully comprehend. No single theory of the atonement is adequate to fully capture the mystery of what Jesus accomplished - or how he accomplished it - on the cross. (Ditto for theories of what happens to the bread and wine during the Eucharistic prayers.)

Theories of the atonement are, at best, secondary to the narratives - the story told - in the Gospels. That's the primary theology of the atonement. I think that telling that story is far more powerful and potentially tranformative than trying to explain to someone Anselm's theory of penal substitution.

Speaking of which ...

It may be true that folks like Weatherhead (and others in TEC today who resonate with his argument) are primarily aiming their guns at Anselm's atonement theory. The problem I have with Weatherhead's argument is that it jettisons not just one particular theory of the atonement. If it was not God's intentional will for Jesus to suffer and die on the cross, then it also jettisons the primary story which all such theories attempt to explain.

The same holds true when clergy take upon themselves the authority to "cleanse" our liturgies of references to Jesus' death on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. Besides the fact that doing so usurps an authority that belongs only to the General Convention (and thus constitutes a violation of ordination vows), it also marks an intention to depart from the faith of the Church.

Once someone says that the primary story is wrong (a story in which going to the cross is central to Jesus' mission), then I think we're talking about something other than the Christian faith.

bls said...

I really think the way to fix this is to re-emphasize the Trinity. I used to have trouble with this sort of thing myself, but once I settled into an acceptance of Trinity, the rest came much more easily and it seems eminently clear that there's no sadism involved. It's clearly about God's self-giving, not the sacrifice of another.

I bet some mystical writings on Trinity would help people get back on track on this topic. Which Fathers - or others, even current-day - are good on that, do you know? I know Meister Eckhardt did some of this, but I'm not sure who else.

bls said...

Here's a quick Meister Eckhardt thing on Trinity:

"“When the Father laughs at the Son and the Son laughs back at the Father, that laughter gives pleasure, that pleasures gives joy, that joy gives love, and the love is the Holy Spirit.”"

I know he wrote more extensively on this - that's just a well-known quote from him.

Bryan+ said...

I'm not a patristics scholar, and at this late hour I don't have access to my library, so for the time being I'll have to defer your question about patristic resources on the Trinity to others.

Poking around the Internet, I came across a book that looks like an interesting one for this particular topic. Written by Vincent Brümmer, it’s entitled ATONEMENT, CHRISTOLOGY, AND THE TRINITY: MAKING SENSE OF CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE (Ashgate Publishing, 2005). You can read more about this book here and here.

I think that Jürgen Moltmann’s THE TRINITY AND THE KINGDOM: THE DOCTRINE OF GOD (Augsburg/Fortress Publishers, 1993) would also be worth a look. Read more here.

Moltmann's THE CRUCIFIED GOD: THE CROSS OF CHRIST AS THE FOUNDATION AND CRITICISM OF CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY (first published in 1974) is an important work to read as well.

When you talk about the atonement in terms of God’s self-giving, I’m reminded of James F. White’s SACRAMENTS AS GOD’S SELF-GIVING: SACRAMENTAL PRACTICE AND FAITH (Abingdon, 1983). Read more here and here.

Bryan+ said...


I don’t know if this addresses your question about understanding the atonement in terms of God’s self-giving, but here’s a passage from Peter Abelard (1079-1142) on his understanding of the love of Christ in redemption. I found it in THE CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY READER, edited by Alister E. McGrath, 2nd Edition (Blackwell Publishing, 2001).

First, some introductory comments by Alister McGrath:

"Abelard was one of Anselm’s earliest critics. In his commentary on Romans, dating from the early decades of the twelfth century, Abelard argued that one of the chief consequences of the death of Christ was its demonstration of the love of God for humanity. It is through our response of love to Christ that we are joined to him, and benefit from his passion" (p. 342).

And now, an excerpt from Peter Abelard’s EXPOSITIO IN EPISTOLAM AD ROMANOS:

"Love is increased by the faith which we have concerning Christ because, on account of the belief that God in Christ has united our human nature to himself, and by suffering in that same nature has demonstrated to us that supreme love of which Christ himself speaks: 'Greater love has no one than this' (John 15:13). We are thus joined through his grace to him and our neighbour by an unbreakable bond of love. … Just as all have sinned, so they are justified without respect of person by this supreme grace which has been made known to us by God. And this is what [Paul] declares: 'For all have sinned, and all need the grace of God' (Romans 3:23), that is, they need to glorify the Lord as a matter of obligation. … Now it seems to us that we have been justified by the blood of Christ and reconciled to God in this way: through this singular act of grace made known in us (in that his Son has taken our nature on himself, and persevered in this nature, and taught us by both his word and his example, even to the point of death) and has more fully bound us to himself by love. As a result, our hearts should be set on fire by such a gift of divine grace, and true love should not hold back from suffering anything for his sake. … Therefore, our redemption through the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear – love for him who has shown us such grace that no greater can be found" (p. 343).

robert said...

The way to test the atonement theories is to see what Jesus said about the atonement. Nothing. He never used the word, nor identified himself as a lamb.

He identified himself as the shepherd who would fight to the death to protect his lambs.

Jesus did not die for our sins. He told us before he died how to have our sins removed:

1. Repent

2. Forgive others and the father will forgive your sins.

3. Though her sins were many, they are forgiven because she loved much.

Pretty simple, no blood required.

He died in a gladiatorial combat with Satan. If Satan could cause him to sin, humans would remain the slaves of Satan. Satan caused him to be beaten, spat upon, tortured and nailed and hung in a tree, but he failed to break Jesus.

By killing an innocent man, Satan drew the curse of Deut 27:25 on his own head and was toppled from the throne of death. His hold on humans was broken. Jesus died to break Satan’s hold on us.

When he cried out Telemakos “It is finished”. It was the cry of gladiator who had triumphed over his foe.

He died for us just as a faithful shepherd will die in combat with a wolf. But it was not for our sins, it was to open an escape route from the wolf’s den. Now all those who follow the narrow path of the Gospel can escape the land of death on the Resurrection Day.

Robert Roberg

Gainesville FL

Bryan+ said...

Robert, thank you for your comments.

You note that Jesus never described himself as a lamb, but that he did identify himself as “the shepherd who would fight to the death to protect his lambs.”

I’m curious as to why you accept the designation of Jesus as the Good Shepherd on the one hand (cf. John 10:1-18), but reject the concept of Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” on the other (John 1:29 NRSV; cf. also John 1:36), particularly when both ways of understanding Jesus come from the same Gospel.

Isn’t it inconsistent to pick and choose some parts of John’s Gospel as authoritative while rejecting other parts of John as non-authoritative?

What is the locus of authority that allows one to make such a distinction?

If making that distinction is inconsistent, I think it suggests that we have to accept as central to the New Testament’s proclamation that Jesus did, indeed, die for our sins.

I note, as an added warrant for the view that Jesus died for our sins, that another part of the Johannine witness – the first epistle of John – says this: “ … the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7 NRSV), and, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10 NRSV).

robert said...

John the apostle designated Jesus as a lamb, but he himself said he was a shepherd. So whose word takes precedence?

The anonymous writer of 1 John spoke of blood and sacrifice, but Jesus never taught his blood cleansed us, nor the atonement. In fact just the opposite he said God does not want sacrifice.

The locus of authority are the words of the Messiah and not those of his followers.

He said his words are spirit and life.

Unfortunately tradition has elevated the words of his followers to the status of divine and equal to his own.

If Jesus says God doesn't want sacrifice, and his foillowers go on about atonement, and blood, who should I listen to?

The sheep hear his voice and flee from the voices of strangers.

Bryan+ said...

Robert, I disagree with the premise that we can stand outside of tradition and pass judgment on it, picking and choosing what we like and leaving the rest. I think that philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre have rather decisively deconstructed the myth of autonomous, tradition-independent reason.

I also think that we cannot separate Jesus from the tradition the bequeaths him to us - a tradition that especially includes the Holy Scriptures. So I reject pitting the words of Jesus against the words of his followers (in particular, I mean the writers of the NT).

In other words, we cannot separate the real Jesus from his Body, which is the Church. And the Church as the Body of Christ has maintained - utilizing various biblical images and theories of atonement - that, whether it's viewed as a sacrifice or in some other fashion, Jesus' death deals decisively with the problem of sin, that Jesus died for our sins.

There is no non-interpreted, scripture-and-tradition-independent Jesus to which autonomous reason has privileged access. So the question then is: whose interpretation is authoritative? My private interpretation? The interpretation of a particular group of individuals in the Church or in the academy (like the Jesus Seminar)? Or the interpretation of the Church as embodied in scripture and tradition?

BTW, when Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 to the Pharisees by saying, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice," (Mt. 12:7), he's talking about ritual animal sacrifice of the kind that took place in the Temple. Indeed, some English translations bring this out clearly, like Today's English Version: "It is kindness I want, not animal sacrifices." It does not follow that because Jesus says God does not want animal sacrifices that his offering of himself on the cross was not God's will for dealing with sin.