Ted Grimsrud—December 11, 2011
I recently read and discussed with my Contemporary Theology class three books on atonement theology. Each answers the question of the meaning (or lack thereof) in Jesus’ death.
Hans Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition, sees the most meaning in the crucifixion of Jesus in his defense of traditional atonement models (his is not simply a straightforward defense of traditional satisfaction and substitutionary views, though).
J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement challenges the view that Jesus’ death is necessary for salvation, but as he does still work with the language of atonement, there is some ambiguity in his treatment of Jesus’ death. The death was strictly an act of evil, not something God in any sense willed. But Jesus’ death is part of the story of salvation that in some sense is dependent upon Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection is the saving act, but—though Weaver does not state it like this—there had to be a crucifixion for there to be a resurrection. So Jesus’ death has meaning in relation to his resurrection.
Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in their book Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, utterly reject any kind of positive role for the story of Jesus’ death. They believe that Christian theology that valorizes Jesus’ death, especially that sees his death as necessary for salvation, is actually advocating a kind of “divine child abuse” where the “father” requires the violent death of the “son.”
As it turns out, Boersma’s view is pretty complicated. He tries to hold together all three of the tradition models: satisfaction, moral influence, and Christus Victor. There are other arguments for the satisfaction model and its substitutionary atonement variant that are stricter. One recent example is this book by British theologians Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach: Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. The subtitle makes the stance of the authors clear.
The two approaches: Satisfaction or mercy “all the way down”
One way to approach this topic is to note that, at bottom, there are basically two ways to think about Christian salvation: the satisfaction view and the “mercy all the way down” view.
The first is the satisfaction view—that God requires some kind of satisfaction in order to effect salvation. This is the case because human sinfulness has so disrupted the moral balance of the universe that some kind of payment is required to restore the balance. The disruption may be understood in terms of the violation of God’s honor when God’s human creatures, by their sinfulness, do not honor God as they should (the view attributed to Anselm). Or it may be understood more in terms of God’s holiness that is violated by human impurity, requiring punishment from God unless some way of covering the impurity might be found (the post-Anselm penal substitution view, often linked with John Calvin). In either case, Jesus’ death is required as a sacrifice that restores the balance—providing adequate honor, covering the impurity in respect for God’s holiness.
The second is what we could call the “mercy all the way down” view—that from the start God’s response to human sinfulness has been mercy. What is required is not payment to God but a breaking through of human blindness to the forgiving and transforming mercy of God that when, trusted in, provides healing from the brokenness caused by human sin.
Quite a few theologians have sought to find ways to bring these two views together—Boersma is a recent example; he draws heavily on the early Christian theologian, Irenaeus’s “recapitulation view” that in Boersma’s view provides a basis for holding together the various major atonement models (though admittedly Anselm’s satisfaction view postdates Irenaeus by almost a millennium). Part of the argument for the synthetic approach is that the satisfaction view itself (at least in Anselm’s rendering, if not Calvin’s) posits God’s mercy as the driving force behind the sacrifice that restores the possibility of salvation.
Perhaps such syntheses are the best reading of the evidence. However, it seems to me that the two general approaches are so fundamentally different that mixing them is like trying to mix oil and water. If God’s response to human sinfulness truly is mercy all the way down, then there should be no need for God to require some kind of satisfaction. If satisfaction is required, some moral dimension at least equally fundamental as mercy is at work. It seems incoherent to argue that God’s mercy initiates a process whereby some kind of sacrifice happens that then allows God to act mercifully toward sinful humanity. If God’s mercy can initiate such a process, why can’t God simply forgo the sacrifice?
No matter how the satisfaction view is adapted in an attempt somehow to place the priority on God as merciful, there still remains the necessity of Jesus’ oh-so-violent crucifixion for salvation to happen. This alleged necessity raises numerous problems. It does seem to impose a kind of mechanistic dynamic onto the free and dynamic God of the Bible. God can’t simply forgive breeches of God’s honor or holiness because God is governed by the moral dynamics of a universe that limits what God can do. God can only respond with forgiveness when certain conditions are met (and, in effect, at that point God has to respond thus). As well, as emphasized by Weaver and by Brock and Parker (and, interestingly, also acknowledged by Boersma), the motif of God-required violence that is central to the Jesus as necessary sacrifice model of atonement invariably leads to justifications of human on human violence. If God is punitive, so too (like it or not) will be God’s worshipers.
Can Jesus’ death be meaningful in a non-satisfaction way?
For those who would affirm the “mercy all the way down” view alone, the question remains, though, about whether Jesus’ death is meaningful. If you reject the satisfaction view that sees the meaning in a necessary sacrifice that makes salvation possible, is there any other way to see meaning in the crucifixion?
There is a major problem for those who would simply and unequivocally say, no, there is no way to see meaning is this unmitigatedly evil act of violence. This is that the New Testament itself tells the story in a way that highlights throughout that Jesus’ death is meaningful. The gospels are written in such a way as to highlight the passion narratives (some interpreters have gone so far to label the Gospel of Mark, at least, as a passion story with an extended introduction). The writings of Paul, the book of the Acts of the Apostles, and the book of Revelation—along with the rest of the New Testament’s shorter writings (including especially the book of Hebrews)—all in various ways refer to the cross as central to the basic salvation story.
And yet, the New Testament valorizing of Jesus’ death does not easily settle the discussion. It could be that the writers were misled. They were so close to the event and had such a stake in understanding it in a way that would not undermine their movement, that they were forced to lift it up as something meaningful. Being further removed from that historical moment, we could now say that the New Testament overemphasizes the significance of that event and in unhelpful ways turns something that actually was without meaning into something they could claim was full of meaning. The movement has survived regardless, and we Christians now have no need further to perpetuate those positive interpretations of Jesus’ death.
A variant on this point would be to say that part of what fueled the very first Christians take on Jesus’ life was their view of God. They could not imagine that God would not have been in control of events. So, they had to see Jesus’ death as meaningful because to think otherwise would be to see God as not in control after all. Since then, we have developed theologies that allow for more nuance in thinking about God’s relation to the world. We can now understand that recognizing God’s limited power does not require us to deny that God nevertheless is real and does relate to the world in redemptive ways—just not in controlling ways. So it is possible to affirm God’s reality and also accept that Jesus’ death was empty of meaning.
Some thoughts on the question of meaningfulness
There is another approach, though, that is possible. It could be that the New Testament has something else altogether in mind when it portrays Jesus’ death as meaningful than satisfaction atonement theology. It could be that Jesus’ death is meaningful in ways other than as a necessary sacrifice to God required for salvation to be possible. And, in fact, the New Testament does not present Jesus’ death as a necessary sacrifice to satisfy God’s honor or holiness. The New Testament simply does not explain the inner workings of how Jesus’ death is a meaningful act that is linked with human salvation. The satisfaction view has become so embedded in Western theology that its adherents simply assume that it is based on the Bible. However, at its core it does not have direct biblical warrant.
How, then, might we think further about these issues? Here are some thoughts.
(1) The actual events in the story of Jesus’ death show that the conflicts leading up to his death, his arrest, his encounters with the religious and political leaders, and his execution were evil and without positive meaning. Jesus was put to death in a terrible miscarriage of justice by people whose acts had no redemptive value. There is no positive meaning in these events beyond Jesus’ own courage and steadfastness and the loyalty of a few of his closest friends.
(2) It was not God’s will that Jesus be crucified. This event happened strictly due to the social structures that coalesced in hostility to God in killing this profoundly faithful prophet. Religious institutionalism, political authoritarianism, and cultural exclusivism—the Powers that Jesus overtly opposed—joined together to put him to death. Though they claimed to be acting on behalf of God (or the gods) in eliminating this “trouble-maker,” their motives were not faithfulness of self-preservation. They are revealed to be enemies of God, not God’s agents. Their killing Jesus was pure rebellion against God’s intentions.
(3) Therefore, if we do find positive meaning in the story of Jesus’ death, it is meaning that is retrospective. We read back into the story a sense that here, amidst the strictly evil and meaningless actions of the agents of structures in rebellion against God, nonetheless something that did prove to have positive meaning occurred. Whatever positive meaning we find in this story is a consequence of seeing after all the events were over that the evil did not prevent goodness from also occurring—not because of the evil but in spite of it.
(4) There can be positive meaning drawn such evil acts. It is meaningful to learn from those acts that we need to do all we can do to prevent their recurrence. We must work to echo Jesus’ resistance to the violence of religious institutionalism, political authoritarianism, and cultural exclusivism that scapegoats, persecutes, and executes prophets of restorative justice and compassion. It is meaningful to learn the lesson from the story of Jesus’ death that governmental and religious structures tend toward domination. They can all too easily become idols. People who see Jesus as revelatory of the true God will treat these structures with great suspicion, especially when they claim to be acting as God’s agents in their violent practices.
(5) To draw positive meaning from acts of evil such as Jesus’ crucifixion is a way of challenging the hegemony of the Powers responsible for the evil acts. If we see that even in face of the events leading up to and including Jesus’ death, horrendous as they were, Jesus remained committed to his path of resistance and solidarity with vulnerable people, we can affirm that the evil is not ultimate.
(6) In light of these points, Jesus’ call to his followers to “take up the cross and follow” also has positive meaning. It is not a call to see suffering and death as anything but evil. It is not a call to passivity in obeying a “holy” God who deals out “righteous and necessary” punishment. Rather, it is a call wholeheartedly to resist any and all acts by people in power to harm, punish, violate, scapegoat, disempower, and impose order through violence. Recognize that such resistance might lead to suffering, even death. But the actual meaning is in the resistance, not the suffering. But the suffering does not negate the meaning; the evil does not conquer the good.
(7) Finally, the meaning of Jesus’ death only becomes clear in relation to the larger story of which it is part. Very briefly, we may say that the heart of this larger story is the mercy of God that brings salvation to humanity from the very beginning. When we look at the Old Testament part of the story, we see over and over how God brings salvation utterly apart from needing satisfaction. In fact, as Hosea 11 emphasizes, it is precisely because God is a holy God that God comes with mercy and not retribution. So, the path to salvation has been opened from the start—Jesus’ death adds nothing to this opening beyond its (extraordinary powerful) witness to the reality of God’s mercy. The next part of the larger story, of course, is how God vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead—not as an act that makes salvation possible in a way that it wasn’t before, but simply as an (extraordinarily important) act that reveals as nothing else ever will God’s merciful character and the power of God’s love to defeat the Powers.
[For a much longer discussion of many of these themes, see my book length manuscript: Mercy, Not Sacrifice: The Bible's Salvation Story]