So now, we come to the Cross – the classic example for many that sin must be punished directly by the hand of God.
One of the problems with how the Cross is described at times is that Jesus can easily sound like someone who is less than God. It is sometimes suggested that Jesus came to reconcile the Father back to us, but does it sound right to say that one member of the Trinity did something to reconcile another member of the Trinity? And, in fact, nowhere does the Bible suggest that Jesus reconciled the Father back to us. Rather, Jesus is God and God came in human form to reconcile us back to God not the other way around. Jesus came to reveal God, not to change God. Jesus also came to expose and to defeat Satan and to reveal the inherent horrible consequences of separation from God. Jesus came to re-establish a trusting relationship with his chidren. He came to offer God’s hand in marriage. Jesus came to heal and to restore his trusting children back into harmony with God and with each other. He came to restore His character within His people and to establish a kingdom that is based on the principle of other-centered love.
I like this expression of Paul Heubach: “God does not demand sacrifice. God is the sacrifice.” The question is, how do we interpret why the sacrifice was necessary: was it for us or for God?
In this article, I would merely like to list some probing questions written by Greg Boyd in order to stimulate thought. Very few individuals have had a greater impact on my own thinking about God than Greg Boyd, pastor of the Woodland Hills church in St. Paul, Minnesota. His book “The Myth of a Christian Nation” is absolutely spectacular and life changing. His weekly sermons are also wonderful to listen to. On his blog, he posted this list of questions with regard to traditional understanding about the atonement. I have cut and pasted it here and with all credits to Greg for the content.
If asked what Jesus came to do and how he did it, most contemporary western Christians would automatically say something like, “Jesus took the punishment from God that I deserved.” This is what’s usually called “Penal Substitutionary” view of the atonement, for it emphasizes that Jesus was punished by God in our place. His sacrifice appeased the Father’s wrath towards us and thus allows us to be saved.
This view has been the dominant view in western Christianity since the Reformation period, and it captures a profoundly important biblical truth. Jesus did certainly die as our substitute. But I have a number of unsettling questions about the idea that Jesus saved us by appeasing the Father’s wrath. Here’s a few of them:
*Does God really need to appease his wrath with a blood sacrifice in order to forgive us? If so, does this mean that the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the ultimate description of God’s character? And if this is true, what are we to make of Jesus’ teaching that this law is surpassed by the law of love? Not only this, but what are we to make of all the instances in the Bible where God forgives people without demanding a sacrifice (e.g. the prodigal son)?
*If God’s holiness requires that a sacrifice be made before he can fellowship with sinners, how did Jesus manage to hang out with sinners without a sacrifice, since he is as fully divine and as holy as God the Father?
*If Jesus’ death allows God the Father to accept us, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Jesus reconciles God to us than it is to say Jesus reconciles us to God? Yet the New Testament claims the latter and never the former (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:18-20). ). In fact, if God loves sinners and yet can’t accept sinners without a sacrifice, wouldn’t it be even more accurate to say that God reconciles God to himself than to say he reconciles us to God? But this is clearly an odd and unbiblical way of speaking.
*How are we to understand one member of the Trinity (the Father) being wrathful towards another member (the Son) of the Trinity, when they are, along with the Holy Spirit, one and the same God? Can God be truly angry with – and punish – God?
*If God needs someone to “pay the price” for sin, does God ever really forgive anyone? Think about it. If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? It seems not, especially since the very concept of forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.
*Are sin and guilt the sorts of things that can be literally transferred from one party to another? Related to this, how are we to conceive of the Father being angry towards Jesus and justly punishing him when he of course knew that Jesus never did anything wrong?
*If the just punishment for sin is eternal hell, how does Jesus’ several hours of suffering and his short time in the grave pay for it?
*If the main thing Jesus came to do was to appease the Father’s wrath by being slain by him for our sin, couldn’t this have been accomplished just as easily when (say) Jesus was a one-year-old boy as when he was a thirty-three year old man? Were Jesus’ life, teachings, healings and deliverance ministry merely a prelude to the one really important thing he did – namely, die? It doesn’t seem to me that the Gospels divide up and prioritize the various aspects of Jesus’ life in this way. (I maintain that everything Jesus did was about one thing – overcoming evil with love. And therefore everything about Jesus was centered on atonement — making us one with God.)
* Not to be offensive, but if it’s true that God’s wrath must be appeased by sacrificing his own Son – or if not that, sacrificing all other humans in eternal hell – then don’t we have to conclude that those pagans who have throughout history sacrificed their children to appease the gods’ wrath had the right intuition, even if they expressed it in the wrong way?
*What is the intrinsic connection between what Jesus did on the cross and how we actually live? The Penal Substitutionary view makes it seem like the real issue in need of resolution is a legal matter in the heavenly realms between God’s holy wrath and our sin. Christ’s death changes how God sees us, but this theory says nothing about how Christ’s death changes us. This is particularly concerning to me because every study done on the subject has demonstrated that for the majority of Americans who believe in Jesus, their belief makes little or no impact on their life. I wonder if the dominance of this legal-transaction view of the atonement might be partly responsible for this tragic state of affairs.
To me, these are all serious problems with the Penal Substitutionary view. I do not deny that Jesus died as our substitute or even that it was God’s will to “crush and bruise” Jesus (Isa 53:10). But we don’t need to imagine that the Father vented his wrath against sin on Jesus to make sense of these facts. One can (and I think should) rather see this as the Father offering up his Son to the principalities and powers to be bruised and crushed in our place, for this unsurpassable expression of self-sacrificial love is what was needed to destroy the devil and his works and to thus set humans free, reconciling them to the Father.”