one of you took me up on the offer I often make on Sunday mornings, viz.,
that you request a sermon on a particular topic.
Here is the question: "How could God the
Father, as a loving Father, allow his Son to suffer and die on the Cross?"
I think there are three answers to this, none of them very simple.
First, let me point out that the question
represents only a specific case of what God is doing all the time: letting
his human sons and daughters endure suffering. There are a lot of reasons
that, to put the shoe on the other foot, it would be bad if God intervened
to protect people from suffering. We need natural laws like gravity, but
they cut both ways. Things would be flying up in the air all the time if
gravity did not hold them down, but gravity causes avalanches too, and
people die in them.
But there could be no such thing, no
predictability in nature, hence no scientific laws and no technology, if
God decided every case one by one: gravity this time, or no? If he
suspended it to save your skin this time, mine might be in danger from the
same divine intervention. Instead, Luke says, God makes his rain to fall
on the just and the unjust alike. He's no respecter of persons when it
comes to the laws of nature.
Besides, what kind of a world would we
live in if no suffering could ever happen? Toon Town? Daffy Duck and Elmer
Fudd get mutilated, obliterated, in every cartoon but it doesn't really
hurt them. Is that what we want? It would be a world we couldn't take
seriously. It is a paradox like the one pointed out by Tillich: humans
can't be fully human, i.e., autonomous, unless they become estranged from
God who is ironically the very law of their being! Similarly, there would
seem to be no character growth possible without suffering, even though
such moral growth compels us to prevent suffering where ever we can.
It's not that reality (or theology, for
that matter) doesn't make sense. It's just that the sense it makes is
paradoxical and dialectical, not made of easy answers and one-liner
Second, as to the suffering specific to
Jesus the Son of God, our question presupposes that God began with all
options open and decided to win salvation for humanity in an inhuman, or
inhumane, way. Why on earth take it out of your own Son's hide? Isn't it
morally repugnant to require an innocent man to suffer for the sins of the
guilty even if he is willing to go along with it? Admittedly the gospels
themselves put the issue this way when at Gethsemane Jesus reminds his
Father that "all things are possible for" him. That is, Jesus imagines
there must be some other way of gaining the desired end than his having to
die, but if God insists, Jesus is still willing to go along with the
crucifixion. But this is a piece of hagiography, not soteriology. In other
words, here the writer is trying to show us the steadfast courage of Jesus
as a martyr, not to show us God's motivations.
But, as I have implied, I think the
problem of why God resorted to this bloody business when there were surely
other options open to him is an illusory one because it assumes the story
could have ended differently. But it couldn't. Assuming for the moment the
historical reality of the crucifixion of Jesus, then we have to picture
the early disciples trying to make sense of a stubborn and confusing fact:
Jesus died the death of a criminal. They would have preferred the story to
have come out some other way (cf. Matthew 16:21-23), but it was too late
for that. So they wrote the story, so to speak, from the ending backwards.
Just as early Christians thought they had to contrive some way, by hook or
by crook, to get Jesus' father Joseph connected to King David, earlier
still they had to figure some way of getting from Jesus' teaching career
to a criminal death at the hands of Rome. It had happened, so ipso facto
it had to be the will of God. Okay, let's get to work.
There were many ideas. Luke, for example,
seems to view it as a martyrdom pure and simple, one which God reversed by
means of the resurrection. But most Christians eventually came to believe
that God had engineered Jesus' death as a sacrifice on behalf of sinners.
What else could it have been?, they reasoned. It couldn't have been for
his own sins that he suffered, after all. And so the gospels contain
obviously artificial scenes and statements where Jesus is made to
anticipate and even to predict his coming death. Even the betrayal of his
own disciple Judas does not take him by surprise. In fact John deduces
that an all-wise Jesus must actually have chosen Judas in the first place
because he knew he was going to need a betrayer!
In short, the doctrine, any doctrine, of
the atoning death of Christ is a case of making virtue of necessity.
Excuse me for saying the obvious.
Third, assuming we believe in some
doctrine of the atonement, my parishioner's question raises the question
of whether any of the proposed explanations of the idea of "Christ dying
for our sins" makes any sense. C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity offers to
us that basic faith (shall we call it a "lowest common denomination"?)
which is content merely to believe that the Cross of Jesus saves but
demands no particular theological explanation of how it saves. Such
doctrines are secondary, he urges. Nothing to divide the church over. But,
as often with Lewis, he is too facile. There is a deeper problem than
Christian factionalism here. Why is there all that debating over cross
doctrines? Simply because all of them are beset with severe problems. If
any one of them made any sense, everyone would probably be happy to agree
Is it any help to say that Jesus' death
was an expiation, i.e., that his shed blood cleansed us of sin in the same
way that the blood of a helpless, squealing sacrificial animal supposedly
washed away the sin of the ancient Israelite? The animal sacrifice idea is
itself no more intelligible than the cross business! You are trying to
explain one puzzle by means of another.
Is it any better to say Jesus' death is a
penal substitution, letting John Wayne Gacey go free if Mother Theresa
were willing to take his place in the gas chamber? Hardly! What sort of
justice is this? If you piously believe this one, maybe you never notice
the problem, any more than Gacey would question the propriety of the
substitution as he packed his bags and left Death Row behind. Don't kick a
gift horse in the mouth.
How about Athanasius' doctrine that God
had to live a truly mortal life (including a death) in order to infuse
mortals with his own immortality? Sounds good, but besides the
questionable business of picturing immortality like some kind of a
permeating grease, this one runs aground on the rock (as Thomas Altizer
noted) that no mortal dies for only a couple of days. This theory would
work better if there were no resurrection in the story. Now that would be
a real death. As we read it in the gospels, we have a docetic charade.
Gregory of Nyssa formulated a theory
whereby Jesus' death was a scam to outwit a kidnapper named Satan, who
held the whole (sinful) human race hostage. God the Father knows how much
Satan would love adding Jesus' immortal soul to his collection (think of
Mr. Scratch with his collection of moths in The Devil and Daniel Webster),
so he offers to barter Jesus' death for the return of the hostages. Satan
falls for it, poor dope, not realizing that he can't keep a good man down.
Jesus rises from the dead, escapes Satan's domain, and leaves the poor
devil holding the bag. The crass mythological character of this hardly
requires comment. We have only lengthened the line of defense here, not
Peter Abelard tried to short-circuit all
these theories (and more like them) by saying simply that Jesus' death
saves us by demonstrating the love of God. But this is exceedingly lame.
How is the mere fact of a death, implicitly one that would otherwise have
been avoidable, show love? The death could only show love if dying were
the only way to save us. If I jumped in front of a speeding car to get you
out of its path, and I died, then my death would indeed show my love for
you. But if you are not in any danger and I say, "Watch this!" and jump in
front of a car, I'm just crazy. Abelard was making Jesus into John
Little better is Donald Baillie's
Neo-Orthodox classic God Was in Christ, where he argued that the
sufferings of the incarnate Christ boil down to the sentimental truism
that there is no forgiveness without a painful cost. The father of the
Prodigal Son had to blink back the tears of painful memory in order to
accept his wayward son back, is that it? On the contrary, the Prodigal's
father hasn't a thought about the past. He runs to embrace his son
joyously. Just the way Jesus (before the Last Supper, anyway) says God
forgives sinners--freely! As Harnack pointedly asked in his What Is
Christianity?, are we to imagine that Jesus went about preaching God's
free forgiveness to the repentant, only to change the terms of forgiveness
after the crucifixion? Now it seems to require a cross, and that you must
believe in a cross. Here again, the change must have come as a way of
making sense of the death of Jesus: if he had to die for sins, then we
must have needed him to die! From "effect" to "cause."
And thus the plethora of bizarre atonement
theories. Washington Gladden hit the nail on the head: "The figures used
by these theologians are so grotesque that it is difficult to quote them
without incurring the charge of treating sacred themes with levity" (How
Much Is Left of the Old Doctrines?, p. 178). Again he says, "It is easy to
see why these theories have either perished or become moribund. It is
because they are morally defective. They ascribe to God traits of
character and principles of conduct which are repugnant to our sense of
right. It is because men are compelled to believe that the Judge of all
the earth will do right, that they cannot believe these theories" (Present
Day Theology, p. 162). To these morally reprehensible atonement doctrines
one must add any doctrine of the cross that leads to the conclusion that
people will be damned to eternal torture for not believing in it.
Bultmann recognized the difficulties with
rationally explaining the atonement, and he saw them as prime evidence for
his claim that mythology taken literally contradicts the point the myth
itself seeks to make. For example, myth says that God lives up in heaven.
In philosophical language, the point would seem to be the transcendence of
God. But literally the heaven business implies that God is simply far
removed in space, as if he were an alien being living on another planet
(which is just what some literal-minded eccentrics have made him! Remember
all those books with titles like God Drives a Flying Saucer!). So the
point is reversed and negated if you pause for a second to notice and then
to insist on a literal application.
The same goes for the atonement. Bultmann
says the point of the myth that a god should come down from heaven, assume
human flesh, and die for the sins of mortals, is to say that God forgives
by grace, not by any human effort. It's all from his side, not ours. But
all these atonement theories assume that there was a literal transaction
of some sort on the cross the day Jesus died. And the implications, as we
have seen, are absurd. It's like asking how the Pharisees came to be
noticing that Jesus dined with publicans and sinners unless they did, too
(Mark 2:15-17). How else would they have known? Or why would the woman
sweep her whole house by lamplight searching for a lost drachma until she
found it--and then blow the money by inviting her neighbors over for a
party to celebrate it!? (Luke 15:8-10) You're missing the point. Get real.
In the same way, from Bultmann's
perspective, the ugly scenario of a supposedly loving Father condemning
his innocent but obedient Son to crucifixion is an unintended consequence
of the powerful myth of the atoning cross. You're not supposed to take the
details literally. Any more than you would ask if the prince and the
princess really lived happily ever after--with no quarels? No money
I once saw the ultimate example of someone
following out the atonement myth to its most grotesque extreme. It was an
evangelistic tract in which a kid's dad punished him for swearing by
making the kid whip dad with his own belt, insisting on it even when his
shocked son quails at the prospect of lacerating his beloved dad. One can
hardly imagine Ward and the Beaver in such a kinky scenario. But you have
to give the writer credit for being consistently literal. He had followed
out the premise of the innocent suffering on behalf of the sinner to its
bitter end. And in the process he had proven that this was exactly the
wrong way to go!
Maybe Bultmann was right. It seems to work
pretty well when Billy Graham preaches forgiveness through the cross
without digressing into theology lessons about how this might work. The
power of the myth shines through the myth only when it is not obscured,
ironically, with rationalistic attempts to make it make sense (which it
Or, on second thought, does it work simply
because Billy is not letting his buyers get a close look at the product he
is selling them? If they thought it all the way through, would they still
think it sounded viable? Maybe Bultmann's is really little more than an
attempt to cover up the problems with a band-aid. Is his non-theology of
the cross any better than those desperate chauvinists who admit Paul's
specific arguments against women's equality are fallacious but insist that
we have to accept his conclusion anyway? Accept the conclusion after
kicking away all the supports for it?
And has Bultmann forgotten that the whole
doctrine of the saving cross arose in the first place as a way to
rationalize the mystery of why Jesus died on a criminal's cross? If it
weren't for the very rationalizing tendency Bultmann deplores, we never
would have had all the talk about the atonement in the first place!
If the point of the cross of Christ is
really the amazing grace of God, then why do we need to keep talking about
the cross, since it engenders all these confusions? Why not just talk
about the grace of God?
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