Where is God in the story of Jesus’s death? A response to Tony Jones’s Did God Kill Jesus?

Ted Grimsrud—August 22, 2016

A review of: Tony Jones. Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015. viii + 296pp.

Popular emergent church blogger, writer, and teacher Tony Jones begins this lively exercise in popular theology with a story of a typical summer camp revivalist preacher trying to scare 11- and 12-year olds into a Christian conversion. He points out with horror the spiritual abusiveness of such manipulation. He uses this story to set up his agenda for the book—how can we redeem, as it were, the hurtful story of salvation that summer camp preacher used on the kids?

Jones argues that the way to redeem the Christian notion of salvation is to insist on always putting love at the center. Notions of salvation that are not ultimately about God’s love do not pass the “smell test” and need to be discarded—or at least reshaped.

Looking at the traditional atonement models

Although Jones is critical of received salvation theology and is committed to finding new ways to articulate how Christians should understand salvation that make love central, he still accepts the basic framing of the issues that have characterized evangelical Christianity for the past one hundred years. He starts with a discussion of sacrifice as the central biblical motif and sees Paul’s theology as the core of the biblical teaching.

And, he accepts the approach to atonement theology that has become standard, to consider the various “atonement models.” So he begins with by devoting a section to the “payment model” (i.e., Anselm’s satisfaction model). He then takes up the “victory model” (a.k.a., “Christus Victor,” the approach Gustaf Aulen attributed to the early fathers) and the “magnet model” (i.e., Abelard’s “moral influence” model). These three have stood for several generations as the core “atonement models.” Like many other writers have recently done, Jones seeks to draw on what he sees to be strengths in each model, rather than focusing on one as superior to the others.

He adds two additional models—the “divinity model” (summarizing the general approach of Eastern Orthodoxy that sees the dynamics of salvation more in humans being made divine than in some sort of “work of Christ”) and the “mirror model” (drawing on the thought of René Girard with its emphasis on the dynamics of scapegoating and the biblical witness that exposes sacrificial violence as deeply problematic).

With each model, Jones offers a brief summary and evaluation. He asks questions about what the model says about God and Jesus and the relationship between these two, how each makes sense of violence, and its spiritual impact. This set of questions provides a helpful way to evaluate the various models comparatively.

Jones adds to the discussion briefer treatments of several more models, drawing on an eclectic collection of thinkers such as James Cone, Richard Beck, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, Andrew Sung Park, and Slavoj Zizek and Peter Rollins. By this point, Jones has made is clear that we do have a “complicated puzzle” (p. 203) in relation to atonement theology.

The final two sections of the book are Jones’s attempt to bring order to this puzzle and articulate in a constructive way his synthesis. The heart of his position are the close identification between God and Jesus—how God is present in Jesus’s crucifixion. Ultimately for Jones, the core truth to Christianity is that in Jesus God enters the world as never before. Salvation becomes possible because of God’s new way of relating to the world—not through penal substitution but through intimate identification.

We appropriate the healing presence of God through a mystical appropriation of God’s love that then empowers us to feel at peace with God and to cultivate peace with other human beings. In the end, Jones concludes that God indeed did not kill Jesus; rather God dies with Jesus and thereby reveals the depths of God’s love for the world and for each of us.

Does Jones’s argument achieve his goal?

Ultimately, Jones’s good intentions probably are not fulfilled. He does do a good job of covering the terrain of traditional atonement theology and of reworking it in ways that do highlight God’s love over God’s mechanistic “justice.” There is very little fear in this theology. For that reason, along with the generally clear writing and broad scope of perspectives considered, this book will be a good choice for an undergrad theology course, especially in evangelical schools—and adult study groups. Jones does a good job of stimulating discussion.

At the same time, by continuing to work within the parameters of standard atonement theology, he leaves us with a God who seems nonetheless to need Jesus’s death in order to effect salvation. The relationship between Jones’s core conviction that God’s love is at the heart of everything and his focus on Jesus’s death as standing at the heart of salvation remains confusing and troubling.

Jones begins the book by asking about Jesus’s death, not about salvation. That starting point limits his ability to place God’s love at the center of salvation and faith. He centers his discussion of the Old Testament on the practice of sacrifice rather on the love of God that stands at the center of the creation story, the calling of Abraham and Sarah, the liberation of the chosen people from slavery, and the sustenance of the promise through all the drama of Israel’s history. And Jones centers his discussion of the New Testament on Jesus’s death, not Jesus’s embodiment of God’s kingdom in his life and teaching.

Jones’s argument does not ask: How did Jesus approach salvation? He does not note that Jesus is in continuity with how Torah presents salvation and how the prophets reiterate Torah’s message: God loves, is present, and only asks for human beings to turn (repent) to be part of God’s kingdom (see Jesus’s opening words in Mark 1:15). Rather than reading Paul in light of the Old Testament and the story of Jesus, Jones reads him in light of later theology that assumes that Paul is preoccupied with Jesus’s death as the necessary condition for salvation to be available.

In the end, Jones presents salvation mainly as something that seems individual, spiritual, religious, mystical, and heaven-oriented. To his credit, he calls for peacemaking efforts in the present, but his sense of the Bible’s story is pretty apolitical and abstract, focused on doctrines and beliefs more than on practice and transformative action.

A better picture

A better picture would recognize idolatry as central and recognize how important Jesus’s own life of freedom from the Powers and his embodiment of a politics of compassion was. A crucial part of the story is why Jesus got into do much trouble. Only in recognizing Jesus as troublemaker for the Powers of empire and religiosity are we able to recognize that the importance of his death may be found in how it reveals God’s rivals for what they are. Jesus’s death thus points to the perennial nature of the problem humans face and its solution—trust in love and reject domination.

Surprisingly, Jones has little to say about Jesus’s resurrection. His Paul is not so much a theologian of cross and resurrection as simply a theologian of the cross. He has no discussion of how Jesus’s resurrection ultimately becomes a vindication of his path toward salvation.

Finally, Revelation plays no role in Jones’s account of Jesus’s death and salvation. That is too bad, because the picture there helps drive home the message of the pattern of Jesus—faithful life, crucifixion, resurrection, exaltation as ruler of the kings of the earth—that catches up the message of the entire Bible and places the story of Jesus’s death in its proper context.

Contrary to Jones’s portrayal, in the Jesus’s death is not the locus of the message of salvation (at least this is what I argue in my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness). The locus of the message of salvation is God’s healing love from the very start. Jesus’s death is the consequence of life lived in a broken world that witnesses to a politics of compassion over against a politics of domination. This is the model for all who would follow.

The point is not death; the point is a life free from bondage to the idolatrous Powers. God’s love is found in the story of Jesus’s life—a life that was lived without fear of death. He did die, and God was present in that death. However, the story concludes with Jesus’s resurrection—a vindication of his life and a promise of life to those who follow his path, not a celebration of his death.


4 thoughts on “Where is God in the story of Jesus’s death? A response to Tony Jones’s Did God Kill Jesus?

  1. Thanks for such a thorough and helpful review. (Also “fair”, according to the author himself, in the comment section.)

    The book seems clearly to express the broadening re-thinking of atonement theology in the Evangelical and borderland Evangelical/progressive world (which I see as long overdue). However, from what you report on the book, I agree that Jones doesn’t get properly to the true foundation. I believe your point about the free (and fearless) LIFE of Jesus is critical… the impact it had on earliest Christianity right on through to today.

    We actually don’t know… can’t see clearly in NT texts or non-canonical ones… just what WAS the atonement theology of most of the earliest Church. It clearly was still in formation. But already the life and teachings of Jesus had made the impact that would never diminish as it inspired incredible growth and cultural change.

  2. Ted, I’m responding to your observation that Jones “leaves us with a God who seems . . . to need Jesus’s death in order to effect salvation. The relationship between Jones’ core conviction that God’s love is at the heart of everything and his focus on Jesus’ death as standing at the heart of salvation remains confusing and troubling.”

    As I see it, the “confusion and trouble” you identify stem from the erroneous assumption that “the atonement” entails some change in God (capacity, intention, desire, etc.) that enables me to be saved from death.

    Jones’ view is not confusing if we focus instead on what must change within history to save the world from destruction. Then Jones’ emphasis on God’s love and Jesus’ death is coherent (though still troubling for all of us who seek an easy salvation).

    In our discussion of the Gospel of John, John K. Stoner and I quote Jesus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). We then state: “In other words, for the world to be saved (John 3:17), the innocent must be willing to suffer publicly while trusting YHWH for what happens next” (If Not Empire, What?).

    1. So, I don’t really disagree, Berry, with the need to focus on “what must change within history to save the world from destruction.” The question would then be whether that is what Jones is focusing on. I don’t think he’s totally clear.

      What is clear is that the Christian tradition has (and still does) focus on how “the atonement” must “entail some change in God.” I would like to think that Jones, in his desire, to “find love” in the story of Jesus’s death would resonate with what you’re saying if he encountered that view. But I really don’t think that is what he is arguing in the book. He is still operating within the “God must change” paradigm, it seems to me.

      The thing is, almost all talk about Jesus’s death and “the atonement” in the Christian tradition is also operating within the “God must change” paradigm, which is why that theology underwrites violence.

      I address all this in my book, Instead of Atonement. I would expect that you would like what I have to say there. I spend about 1/3 of the book discussing how to understand Jesus’s death in a way that underwrites nonviolence instead of violence.

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