For those of you who have known me closely as a Christian over the years, you know I have wrestled with the meaning and accomplishment of the death of Jesus, the Son of God. I've wrestled through many issues and obstacles, painfully, from the land of the modern Calvinistic conception of "limited atonement". I've thought through, struggled with, and dealt with issues involving details that seem too complex to be helpful and that many don't have the patience, or feel the need, to work through. But I do. To me, it is important. To me, understanding the death of Christ is the single most important thing to understand in all of life. There is nothing higher.
Lately, I have taken up this topic again in my thinking and reading. A lot of personal things and very in-depth subjects I have been working through have prompted me to think through things afresh and take another look. I think it is helpful to always take another look at Scripture, again and again, and another look at what it is we believe, again and again -not to be tossed to and fro, but to refine our understanding and wisdom and appreciation.
Today, in any kind of evangelical "non-denomination" or conservative Christian (protestant) denomination, by far the prevailing understanding of the death of Jesus Christ is that referred to often as "vicarious satisfaction". That is, Jesus basically suffered horribly as a way to pay off the debt we all owe to God for our sins. Other's call this the "objective" theory of the atonement, named thus because it implies that the death of Jesus effected an "objective" change in God toward us. He was once angry and hostile, and now he is not because the bloody death of Jesus satisfied the debt we incurred for impugning his honor and legal requirements.
This theory traces itself back through history to a number of men, most notably Anselm. It seeks to answer the questions concerning why Jesus died, why he had to die, and what His death actually did. Calvinistic proponents of limited atonement especially hinge their view upon this theory, relying heavily on the very commercial understanding of "debt" and "payment."
Truth be told, there is something to be said for this "objective" view, overall. It seeks to take seriously the commercial-sounding metaphors used in the Bible, and it seeks to find a way to deal with all the issues relating to God's wrath, our justification, and the connection involving Christ's death. However, there are a number of problems that are raised and a number of questions that cannot be answered very well.
First of all, it can tend to confuse something about God. I remember reading John Calvin's commentary on John 3:16, and he was quick to note that it was God's love and mercy which sent Jesus to die for us. The Bible depictes God as being merciful by nature, and it was His mercy that sent Jesus into our world to live, die, and rise. It was not the other way around. It was not the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus which made God merciful and compassionate and forgiving toward us. It was the reverse.
Second, it gives the impression that there is something in God that prevents Him from being merciful to us. There is, according to this theory, some higher principle to which God is bound. God, it seems, cannot just forgive and be merciful because He wants to. His justice must be satisfied. The debt must be paid.
And this raises a third and rather obvious problem, if you think about it. Is it really mercy if He has to be paid off? Aside from asking the other obvious question, "Can God be paid off?" - a question which assumes a lot of theorizing and speculation, we must face the fact that there is a bit of a conflict here. If the debt is paid or required to be paid, it is not mercy... it is justice. It is not really forgiveness, is it?
Fourthly, it breeds a kind of endless speculation. Theorizing built upon theorizing. Just like the aforementioned question, "Can God be paid off?", we are forced to ask more questions that are paired with speculative answers. We have to leave earth, if you will, and float up into the stratosphere. Some have asked the simple question, "Well, if the reason that Jesus' death alone could pay for our sins is because He is the perfect Son of God, then why did He have to live so long? Why didn't God have Him killed for us as a baby?" And one of the common answers is something like, "Well, Jesus had to go through everything we would as a person and fulfill it perfectly as a perfect adult human being in order to pay for our sins." Sounds like a good theory, but where is that written? I know people will throw our verses that they believe can imply such a thing, but isn't this just more speculation to make the theory sound? It leads to a lot of peering up into the clouds, a lot of theorizing, and a lot of leaving the main and plain, concrete events that sit right before our faces.
I believe that when unbelievers bristle at the idea of Jesus dying to pay for our sins there may be, to some degree, good reason. They may be bristling at the picture it paints of God. At the risk of sounding disrespectul in case I am wrong, it can portray God as a blood-thirsty tyrant who demands his pound of flesh before He will be merciful.
So where do we go from here? I have been thoroughly enjoying the thinking of the late Lutheran theologian, Gerhard Forde. There are a number of things I like, but the two most important things I see in his thinking are, first, his willingness to ask the hard questions, and second, his insistence on keeping our eyes "on earth," on not floating off so far into the land of speculation and instead just going on what we see, what happened right here on earth, and what we are told in Scripture. There is a reason why God came to meet us here on earth in Jesus Christ. He wants our attention to be here, not up in the clouds of religious philosophizing and scholasticism. The answer, I believe, is found in the down to earth.
Jesus came down to earth. He was born. He grew up. He was baptized and anointed with the Holy Spirit, and He immediately began preaching repentance and forgiveness and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. It seems right to start with this. These are concrete facts and concrete events. God's desire to bless all nations and have humanity back climaxed in Him sending His Son to come for us. And He came with "grace and truth", it tells us. He came forgiving. He came proclaiming a Kingdom unlike anything any of us were comfortable with -and that is the greatest understatement. God did not be merciful to us in the abstract, as if that would mean anything. The ultimate manifestation, the tangible and true realization of His desire to love and reclaim and be gracious to us is His sending of Jesus into the world.
And what was that met with? It was met with rejection.
To quote Forde:
"...[W]hy did we kill him? It was, I expect we must say, a matter of 'self-defense.' Jesus came not just to teach about the mercy and forgiveness of God but actually to do it, to have mercy and to forgive unconditionally. It is an act, not an idea... Now we are, no doubt, quite open, generally, to the idea of mercy and forgiveness in God and his "heaven," but actually doing it here for God is quite another matter... The idea is nice, but what shall we do with one who actually eats with traitors, whores, outcasts, and riffraff of every sort and just blows away our protests...We should make no mistake about it. One who comes actually to have mercy and to forgive in God's name is just an absolute and total threat to the way we have decided we must run things here. So either Jesus must go or we must... Jesus is ultimately the most dangerous because his opposition is total; he gives unconditional forgiveness. He has the razy conviction that such unconditional saving mercy is what God and his 'Kingdom' are all about, and that it is the true destiny of human beings which will make then new and pure and whole and won't ultimately hurt them at all.... In short, Jesus is most dangerous because he actually believes in God and his Kingdom, and because he himself realizes it, does it among us. To consent to that would mean (just as he said!) for us to lose the life we have so carefully hoarded. So he must go. It is a matter of self-defense."
And a little further:
"The fact that we had to kill the Jesus who came to forgive exposes us for who we are."
A God who comes close, who forgives us, who is good and longsuffering, who wants us to be part of His Kingdom and who will move heaven and earth to come for us and actually be merciful to us, to knock on our door and come inside our world -that is a threat to us. It challenges our entire paradigm of human existence in this little reality we have created for ourselves without God in it, or with Him in it only to the degree we will allow -right down to the personal, individual lives we each live. Don't believe me? Look at the facts. That is why Jesus was killed. He came, the Son of God, bearing grace and truth and mercy and God's Kingdom, but we knew it meant a total upheaval of man's kingdom and, in particular, our own personal mini kingdoms we call our lives.
This is, I believe, the place we must start when looking at why Jesus had to die and what His death accomplished. Why did He have to die? Because we would not have it any other way and God would not leave us -He would go the extra mile to come for us and bring forgiveness and His Kingdom. So, He sent His Son knowing what it would cost Him, what we would do. And in seeing that, we see ourselves as we really are. The veil is lifted. It is not God who is against reconciling with us (unless some kind of payment is made). It is we who are against reconciling with Him. For all of our talk about how we would like a loving God, the truth is that that is a lie when the rubber meets the road. If we want a God at all, we may want a God who loves us from a distance... but preferably a distance we can control.
And what of God's wrath? God's wrath is, as Forde notes in this same essay, the obverse side of His love and mercy for us. It is his jealousy toward a people who will not let Him in.
I realize this is far from a complete understanding of everything in this massive subject, but, as I said, I believe this is where we must begin. Perhaps Forde is guilty of speculation, and perhaps I am, too. But I believe this is the type of thinking we must have -to look at things from down here, from the concrete, from the actual events, from what is unfolded painstakingly in the Gospel accounts for us. In other words, before we jump to theorizing, we must listen and observe. I will leave you with two passages of Scripture with some short comments.
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!" (Matt 23:37)
Can we really say that within God is the obstacle to reconciliation? No, we must admit that it is in us, but can we? Can we admit, for all of our desire to think of ourselves as good people, that underneath it all is a resistance to anything that would really bring God near and allow Him to love us, for it would mean giving up too much?
"Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?'" (Acts 2:36-37)
Here, at the end of Peter's sermon to fellow Jews, Peter delivers the cold hard fact that I have sought to put forward. God came down to reach us, and we resisted and killed Him. The death of Jesus opens our eyes to see us how we are. It did for these Jews. It says they were "cut to the heart."
But, lest we think that the way of the world would have its victory over God's desire to seek, find, and have us, Jesus rose from the grave. Our resistance did not ultimately have the last word. It was defeated and swallowed up in God's merciful purpose toward us.
For further reading, check out Matthew 21:33-46