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Cross Examination


Recently 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 explanations.

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 on it.  

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 shortened it.

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 Hinckley.

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 problems?

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 doesn't anyway!).

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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