God is most perfectly revealed in the crucified Jesus. The vast majority of Christians out there would agree with this. But if this is true, what does it say about our view of God? What does our understanding of the cross say about what we believe God to be like?
Penal substitutionary atonement is all over the place in evangelicalism. It is in our systematic theology textbooks. It is in our favorite hymns. “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe…”, whether the old version or the more modern version that Passion came out with a few years back. A more theologically precise formulation might go something like this: “Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for our sins so that we could be saved from the curse of sin and death and spend eternity with God.”
But at the heart of all this is one simple word: Paid. This suggests that at the heart of the cross is, in essence, a business transaction. There was a price to be paid, and Jesus paid it on our behalf. A divine deal was done wherein the punishment that was due to us for our sins was transferred to Jesus so that we could be released from our guilt.
This has implications for what we believe about God. Namely, it implies that God deals with us on a transactional basis. If the very central event of the cross was indeed a transaction, then how can we possibly expect God to deal differently with us on any other occasion–unless He is fickle and unreliable, and there is no way to stomach that possibility. A key question to ask at this point: If a price was paid at the cross, then who was it paid to? According to penal substitutionary atonement, the answer is that it was paid to God. Why? Because God has rules, and they must be followed. Fail to comply with the rules, and someone has to pay for it. This is an inescapable fact of God’s very nature. And the punishment for infringing upon the rules that we are talking about here is no mere slap on the wrist; it is death, death of the most violent, excruciatingly painful and shameful kind–no less than the very death Jesus died in our place.
The upshot: God deals with His wayward children on a transactional basis, by setting impossibly high standards and decreeing death to all who fail to measure up. But there is an escape clause: Just believe–and by believe we mean give mental/intellectual assent to the idea that–Jesus died in your place the death you should have died, and it’s all good.
Okay. That is a caricature. But it serves to illustrate that what we believe about the cross has clear implications for what we believe about God. Penal substitutionary atonement has some truth to it–the seriousness of sin, the consequences of sin which are our due and which Jesus took in our place. But it is a flawed truth, a limited truth, an incomplete truth. If the truth of penal substitutionary atonement is all there is, then it leads inescapably to a God who is all about punishment and who deals with His wayward children on a transactional basis; a God who is all about quid pro quo, to whom something must always be given–be it obedience, time, money, zeal in worship, evangelistic fervor–before any sort of blessing will issue. “He died for me, I’ll live for Him”–another slogan which many of you have probably heard around evangelicalism at some point, in some form or fashion. And living for Him–well, there’s no limit to what sort of demands this could entail.
But consider another way of looking at the cross, in which the cross is not necessarily about Jesus paying to God the price of our sin in the form of his life; but about Jesus suffering the effects of humanity’s sin, submitting Himself to the worst that humanity could possibly do to Him, and proving that it could not overcome Him. When humanity committed its worst possible atrocity–killing God, and killing Him in the most violent, painful, disgraceful way possible, Jesus did not respond in kind, with violence. Instead He responded with forgiveness. “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Even as the nails were being driven into His flesh. And when Jesus returned from the dead three days later, it was not with violence or the threat of violence, but with the promise of peace. Even for Thomas, who would not believe until he could probe the nail marks in His hands. Even Peter, who swore to be faithful to Him to the end but denied Him on multiple occasions, even to a middle-school girl.
I am a mess. I will just tell you that straight out. I like to think of myself as a charming individual with a delightfully quirky personality and a wicked sense of humor. But reality dictates otherwise. For though I am able to pass myself off as a normal human being most of the time, with a certain degree of success, I am unable to pass myself off as COMPLETELY normal. It isn’t anything obvious that anyone would be able to readily put their finger on. Instead it is the sum total of a million little things–a funny glance here, a funny twitch of the facial muscles there–which, when taken together, all add up to the sum total of “There’s something about Joe that is not quite right. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it makes me very uncomfortable in ways I cannot quite articulate.”
Last year at Internet Monk there was a review of a book by a military chaplain who served in the Middle East. He described a visit to the Sea of Galilee, a freshwater lake which sits atop a layer of salt water down deep, thusly:
. . . We are all staying at a kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee. I am told it is a freshwater lake that sits atop another layer of saltwater, way down deep. This fascinates me, the salt below the fresh. The pressure of the massive amount of fresh water pushing down on the saltwater, holding it in its place. There are things I cannot know. All I know is that deep down , there is a salty darkness inside of me that is starting to mix with the fresh water on the surface. I have kept it down all my life and now the war has taken too much of the fresh and left me with too much of the bitter. I keep it down with my jokes, my smiles, and “I was only there for a year.” But I can feel it coming up. I have touched the rage that lies beneath the thin veneer of what we call civilization . I know what is down below, so I turn from the lake and go to bed.
Though I have never been in a war, I can relate to this. I know that there is a salty, bitter darkness deep down on the inside of me. I am able to keep it down very well for the most part, able to present myself as a charming, delightfully quirky individual. Yet despite my best efforts, sometimes the salt water underneath leeches out and poisons my relationships with other people, poisons others’ perceptions of me, in ways I do not even recognize, let alone understand. Not that I would want to even if I could. Some things you’re much better off not knowing.
“He makes me/us feel uncomfortable.” Those words have been spoken over me, in some form or fashion, by enough different people in enough different situations that I know they are true. They have to be. I fear that the salty darkness inside of me is, despite my best efforts, leeching out into the world and tainting my relationships with other people, tainting others’ perceptions of me. Perhaps it has tainted me as well, making me unfit on a very basic level for the blessings of human community, attachment, and belonging.
Because of this, I have no use for the God of transactionalism, the God of the quid-pro-quo. I know that I do not have a prayer of making it under such a system, with such a God. I need a Jesus who is strong enough to take the worst we have to offer and not be overcome by it. I need a Jesus who is strong enough to take all of me, even the worst of me, the salty darkness deep down inside of me that leeches out into the world despite my best efforts and causes people to feel uncomfortable around me, to not know what to do with me, and not be overcome by it.
It matters to me that Jesus died on a cross, a victim of the most violent, excruciatingly painful and shameful death humanity could possibly bestow upon him, and was not overcome by it. That is the only hope I have. If we are honest, I think it is safe to say that is the only hope any of us have.