More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 1)

Ted Grimsrud

I appreciate the numerous responses to my two recent posts on salvation, “The Bible’s salvation story” and “A message to President Obama about salvation.” It has taken longer than I would have hoped, but I want to reflect further on the issues raised by these responses. [Here is part 2 of these reflections.]

Why did Jesus “have to” die?

I appreciate “Tommy’s” affirmative comments about the “Bible’s salvation story” post. He raises a good question. In light of my suggesting that the core content of the salvation story is established at the very beginning and remains in effect throughout (i.e., salvation through God’s mercy in a way that does not require humans offering sacrifices to satisfy God’s requirements), then why does Jesus seem to say that he “had” to die? Thus, “the death obviously holds some significance.”

I strongly affirm that Jesus’ death “holds some significance.” In fact, in my forthcoming book, I devote five long chapters to the significance of Jesus’ death. The issue is what is this significance. I would ask what “had to” means. And, even more, why did he “have to” die? This all comes back, then, to the basic issue—did God need Jesus’ death in order to make salvation possible in a way that it wasn’t otherwise? Did Jesus “have to” die in order to make salvation possible on God’s side—or did Jesus “have to” die in order to make God’s already present (and fully sufficient) mercy sufficiently visible to encourage of response on the human side?

I am uncomfortable with the deterministic connotations of using “had to” in this discussion. However, I would be comfortable saying that Jesus’ death was inevitable given the way he undermined the Domination System of empire, temple, and legalistic cultural boundary maintenance. Because the Powers are so set on opposing agents of the true God, such an agent who embodied God’s will for humanity as thoroughly as Jesus did “had to” die should the Powers not be overthrown. The power of the true God, though, was that this death (that was intended to defeat the will of the true God) actually boomeranged on the Powers. Not only did Jesus not stay dead, but his resurrection underscores how the Powers are hostile toward the true God, and it thus undermines the potential of the Powers to hold sway.

The tragedy is that Jesus’ death came to be misinterpreted. Instead of being seen as a denial of the idea that God is retributive it came to be interpreted in a way that makes God so retributive that God’s will to punish leads to God endorsing the necessity of Jesus’ death for the establishment of salvation.

One can reject the idea of understanding Jesus’ death in terms of satisfaction atonement and still affirm that this death was significant for salvation. Not as something that enables God to forgive but as something that underscores that God’s forgiveness is our starting point and that we need to see and turn away from the Powers that usurp God and keep us from trusting in God as merciful.

How should we think of God’s justice and God’s love

Mark McCulley makes some very interesting comments. He seems to have me labeled as a “Socinianist.” I admit to having to look up what that might have means since I certainly have never thought of myself in those terms. There are some attractive things about “Socinianism” (especially its skepticism toward original sin, substitutionary atonement, and predestination). However, I am trying to frame my argument at this point in terms of the Bible and not later theology. A consideration of “Socinianism” will have to come later.

I do think that the basic message concerning salvation in the Bible is extraordinary simple. It is just one issue—God is merciful and will forgive and bring healing to anyone who wants it. Nothing else has to happen to make salvation available. It is just a matter of human appropriation (which, due to the power of the Powers is not easy, even if simple). All the views of salvation that posit Jesus’ death as necessary for salvation to be available seem to me to be much more complicated. In those views, there has to be something beyond simple mercy. But it is quite difficult actually to explain what that is. What is it, precisely, in God that needs to be “satisfied”? And why? How can it be that the God who initiates the means of satisfaction is also the one who needs to be satisfied? There are answers to these questions, but they seem inherently to be complicated (and, maybe, irrational).

Mark asserts, in effect, that it is wrong to suggest that there is an either/or between “justice” and “mercy” that means that “just retribution” cannot be merciful. Part of the issue here is definitions. I agree that “justice” and “mercy” belong together and should not be posed in either/or terms. However, I think “justice” and “retribution” are opposing concepts. That is, the Bible presents salvation as linked with both justice and mercy. But the justice that makes salvation possible is not retributive justice but rather restorative justice. This justice does not require an eye-for-an-eye or a balance wherein sin must be paid for to even out the scales of justice. Rather, biblical justice responds to sin or brokenness or wrongdoing by seeking healing and to restore relationships. For example, in the book of Amos, “justice” is the alternative to “judgment,” not its expression. So, justice is a subset of love. It is not an either/or between love and justice, though it is an either/or between mercy/healing and retribution/punishment. The latter simply is not necessary in the divine economy as expressed most clearly in Jesus but also present from the beginning in the Old Testament portrayal of salvation.

Still, I am happy to affirm that Mark can be a pacifist and still believe that God’s “wrath” means that God directly participates in retributive justice. This is close to the views of important pacifist (or near-pacifist) writers such as Willard Swartley and Miroslav Volf. The basic idea is to leave the violence to God and to thereby underwrite human beings being pacifist. That is much better than to say either (like most of Christianity) that God is violent and we should (at times) be so also or to say (somewhat like Reinhold Niebuhr at times seems to have) that God is pacifist-like but that in the real world we must (at times) affirm violence as a tragic necessity. Yet, I think Mark’s apparent view is not really sustainable because we tend to imitate the things we believe characterize God. It seems too likely to me that the view that God is violent and we must not be will prove to be incoherent and undermine our pacifism.

The centrality of Jesus’ death in the gospels (and rest of the N.T.)

Bill Samuel reads me as minimizing the significance of Jesus’ death and thereby missing the emphasis of the four gospels and also much of the rest of the New Testament. As I mentioned above, I my book I look at Jesus’ death in great depth. I  think in my summary I do make this point as well, but I am arguing for a different understanding of what that significance is.

Perhaps for Bill, and other respondents, it is not persuasive for me to say that indeed Jesus’ death is significant even as I also say it was not necessary in order to make salvation possible. That is the burden of my book, but I know it won’t convince everyone.

Still, I think we have several pieces of evidence that we should try to hold together. That is why I do want to suggest both that Jesus’ death is hugely significant and that Jesus’ death was not necessary to make salvation possible. That is, I make a case for other reasons why it is significant.

The “pieces of evidence” are (1) the devastating tragedy of Jesus’ death that is indeed discussed at length and referred back to often in the New Testament; (2) the fact that Jesus himself, the gospel writers, and, when read carefully, Paul and Revelation (as well as other N.T. writers) present themselves as in full affirmation of the Old Testament story of salvation, especially the notion that salvation (in the exodus, the giving of Torah, the gift of the land, the restoration after exile, et al) was simply an unearned expression of God’s mercy; (3) the Powers that put Jesus to death are linked closely with earlier expressions of idolatry (the empires, the temple, the use of Torah to underwrite violent boundary maintenance); (4) the utter absence in Jesus, Paul, Revelation, et al, of any kind of argument that suggests that God is satisfied by Jesus’ death in a way that makes salvation something other than what the prophets affirmed (“mercy, not sacrifice).

Yes, Jesus’ death is indeed significant—the gospels and apostolic writings and teaching make that clear. But its significance must be found elsewhere than as a necessary sacrifice to God that satisfies God’s holiness/justice/honor. I present the case that, instead, the significance of Jesus’ death is to be found in how the story of the cross fits with and illumines all the other main parts of the story—and makes powerfully clear the extent of God’s mercy, the extent of the Powers opposition to that mercy, the need for us to turn from trust in the Powers to trust in God’s mercy, and the power of that mercy that cannot be squelched by the most “disgraceful” of deaths (crucifixion).

[Part 2 of my responding to the responses is here.]


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