Atonement: I’ve Got a Problem–But So Do You

As I mentioned a couple days ago, I had a chance to listen to the Roger Olson interview on Homebrewed Christianity’s podcast. He articulated something that I’ve heard from quite a number of theologians. It’s a beautiful answer to the problem of God giving God’s Son to die for us, an answer to accusations that the cross is tantamount to divine child abuse.

It goes something like this: the idea that God is abusing his Son misses the point that Jesus is God. This is not God sacrificing some human, but God giving Godself for humanity.

This is a challenge to me on two fronts.

First, as a biblical scholar, this is not the language that the NT uses to describe the relationship between Jesus and God as it comes to describe the cross.

Even the high Christology of John puts it like this: “God so loved the world, that He gave his one and only son.” Indeed, John’s Jesus says that the Father loves him because he does the Father’s will–going to the cross to die for his friends.

Mark is more stark, with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane praying for deliverance from the cross.

In the “high Christology” passage of Philippians 2 says that Jesus’ exaltation comes because he was obedient to the point of death on the cross. This is the same act of which Paul speaks in Rom 5–the one act of obedience through which the many are made righteous.

Jesus is pleasing to the Father, to God, precisely because as Son he obeys the command of the Other, the Father, to die.

When, for example, feminist critics of atonement complain about the atonement as divine child abuse, they are basing their hermeneutical dissatisfaction on a more accurate exegesis of the New Testament than the theologians who defend the cross by saying that God gave Godself.

It is, in fact, God the Father “who did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all.” Those are strong and troubling words, and I’m not sure that we can hear them on the basis of the Trinitarian objection. This is not self-giving love in that Trinitarian sense, but the sacrificial love that gives the most dearly loved other for the sake of salvation.

The second reason I am hesitant to jump on board with the Trinitarian answer to the problem of atonement is this: the suffering of Jesus the son is the story of the other sons and daughters of God as well.

It’s all well and good to say that God gave Godself, not another, to suffer on behalf of the world.

But what, then, are we to do with Romans 8? There, the way that we know we are children heading toward eternal inheritance is that we are suffering with the Suffering Child.

The Trinitarian formulation makes this worse, to my mind. God chooses to suffer of God’s own accord. As incarnate God, Jesus executes this divine decision. And then, God calls those who are not God to suffer if they want to be like the God who chose suffering freely. The Messiah suffers of his own decision, but those who would follow him are bound to follow the order that Jesus had from within (not from without): to take up their crosses.

Or, again, if it’s out of character for God to give up another, to not spare this human Messiah, what then are we to make of the God “who did not spare the natural branches” for the sake of the gentiles?

To remove the scandal of the Messiah’s death by pushing the Messiah back into the divine person only takes the problem of the suffering people of God and edges it back one notch. Left behind is still the entire NT ethic that insists that the identity of us–those who are not members of the Eternal Ontological Trinity–is also cross shaped.

If the only answer to the divine child abuse accusation is to appeal to the Trinity, doesn’t that make God a divine child abuser for having us, his earthly children, suffer with Christ if, indeed, we are to be glorified with him?

So yes, my late high Christology causes me a problem. I can’t simply say that when the NT says “the Father gave the son” that this really means “God gave Godself.” But the Trinitarian answer has its problem as well.

26 thoughts on “Atonement: I’ve Got a Problem–But So Do You”

    1. God was doing the work in and thru the Messiah. “In Christ, God was reconciling…”is a more clear rendering for out ears, methinks. N T Wright overreads this toward some sort of divinity, but that’s out of step with the remainder of the passage.

  1. Was it God’s will to sacrifice His son or to bring salvation to the world which could only be done through the sacrifice of His son?

  2. Daniel, 
    Just pulling out one chunk of the conversation to get some clarity: You said “God chooses to suffer of God’s own accord. As incarnate God, Jesus executes this divine decision. And then, God calls those who are not God to suffer if they want to be like the God who chose suffering freely. The Messiah suffers of his own decision, but those who would follow him are bound to follow the order that Jesus had from within (not from without): to take up their crosses…doesn’t that make God a divine child abuser for having us, his earthly children, suffer with Christ if, indeed, we are to be glorified with him?”

    But hasn’t this early church also been called to suffer as Jesus was called to do so? Phil 2:5 says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is YOURS in Christ Jesus, who…” (2:5). So, just as Jesus individually humbled himself, suffered, died, and was vindicated, the Philippians corporately have the same mind as they imitate him, being humiliated, persecuted, perhaps killed, in the hope of being vindicated with him.  The theological rhetoric of Ro 8:29,30 that he will be the “firstborn” from the dead”, followed by many other “brothers” is intended to reinforce the idea that, along with the chosen Messiah, there is nothing accidental about their situation either. They are not less a chosen servant community (or less empowered?)  than Jesus was the chosen servant through whom God would restore his sinful people. Their suffering is not less predetermined or enabled than Jesus’ suffering was predetermined (Acts 4:28). And since this chosen, martyred servant community, will be glorified with Christ (Rev.20:4-6) doesn’t this exonerate God the child abuser in some way? “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne”. (Rev.3:21). 

    Yeah, I know, my argument is weak, none of this will get God off the hook. But knowing that chosen, servant community was chosen and empowered to uniquely deal with their eschatology and, finally, would be glorified helps my conscience.  

    1. Yes, Bob. That’s exactly my point.

      It seems that the Trinitarian argument wants to get God off the hook for requiring horrific suffering of his Son by having the Son participate in the counsel–it becomes a self-giving, and so Jesus isn’t handed over by an Other, but God gives godself. But this entire line of thinking you’ve laid out, well gleaned from the NT, is that God requires the same of us–who are not divine self-givers, involved in the counsel. We stand in the place of Christ as non-God. Isn’t that as problematic as Jesus standing in that place as non-God?

  3. The ‘real problem’ here is that the term “Atonement” is being misunderstood. There is no such “problem” because God the Father didn’t ‘punish’ or ‘dump His wrath’ on His Beloved Son. Period. No difficulty.

    The whole issue of “divine child abuse” only sticks if one is espousing Penal Substitution. Paul says that if the Pagans knew what they were doing “THEY would have never crucified the Lord of Glory”.

    The Father Providentially delivered Jesus into the hands of persecutors, which is a lot to think about, but that has nothing to do with the Father punishing Jesus in our place.

    1. Nick, see my comment below. Does moving away from punishment really help? No matter what the metaphor, we still have the Father sending and requiring of the son death in order to rescue the world. God sends Jesus to die. Gives Jesus to be killed. Does what he even kept Abraham from doing. That’s all still very serious, even if God isn’t punishing Jesus on the cross, no?

      1. Hi Daniel,

        Moving away from punishment helps because it allows the atonement to be seen more accurately (similar to how the “New Perspective” helped re-frame more accurately Paul’s thesis).

        The Father sending Jesus to die is only ‘disturbing’ if we envision God as having built up wrath all these centuries only to finally “vent” on whomever can handle it. But once the “punish” motif is abandoned, a much more “medicinal” angle can be taken. For example, most people don’t know this, but in Isaiah 53:5 where it says “the punishment that brought us peace was on him,” the Hebrew word here is not “punishment” at all, but rather “chastisement,” which is a unique Hebrew word dealing specifically with fatherly correction, not “retributive justice”. That same Hebrew word is even used in a Proverb that the New Testament quotes and applies to Christians being called to endure “chastisement” from God (Heb 12:4ff). You might want to see this article: Is Job the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53?

        One common example I use is that when God sends someone to preach, knowing full well they are being sent to a group that doesn’t want to hear the truth, then martyrdom is a certain outcome. Yet God sending that preacher has nothing to do with God being angry with them or punishing them. That’s the essence of “obedience unto death”. That explains why Jesus’ path was ALSO an example for us to follow (which makes little sense if this is about transferring punishment). That is why I love 1st John 3:16 and the parallelism.

        The only “shock” is that God didn’t provide rescue from this persecution, when we would all think His Beloved Son would be the first one to have such protection. It was blasphemy to Jewish ears because the Messiah was supposed to be a warlord, not defeated on the battlefield.

  4. Maybe the objectors are just too much influences by western individualism where we’re all free atoms with natural rights.

    Instead of the biblical picture of the son as property of the patriarch of the family, in the likeness and image of the father, to bless and curse as he sees fit (and if righteous, he will do righteously) ‘differing nothing from a slave’.

    Plus: The Son, like Job, has to demonstrate that he loves the father not for the unconditional love and blessings that come to him from the father, not because of the inheritance that is his due, but even if the father finds it necessary to demonstrate his justice to the world by punishing sin through the cross.

    The torah said do this and live, and Jesus does this, but not to live, but to die.

    i think some theopascianism helps more with the issue that anything else. It did ‘hurt’ the Father more that we allow. The child abuser just gets off on abuse. Also ressurection. Any father will put his kid through SOME pain (sports, learning to use a hammer, math drills, making them talk to the clerk in the store) if there is something better on the other side.

    Too many of the critics are enamored of their moral superiority and the idea that the see through the fog with their special insight.

    Is there any compelling data or anecdotes that those holding to penal substitution are doing worse than anyone else on the child abuse front?

    see also

    http://www.hornes.org/mark/2011/04/06/when-israels-sin-requires-a-son-to-die/

    and

    http://www.hornes.org/mark/2011/04/19/my-imagination-or-pauls/

  5. I am duly aware of Pauline atonement theories which render obedience to be associated with death/suffering; though, is this the primary (ontological) function of obedience? Didn’t Jesus suffer and die precisely because he was defeating death while living, which is to say, he suffered because of his obedience to ministry and life-affirming vocation (which prefigured his resurrection)? Of course, power structures will extinguish those who claim power over death, as it makes their station and clout much weaker in the public eye, and so, death may plausibly come from obedience to life; but it seems that it ought to go in that order (obedience to life brings about suffering and death, and not the other way around).

    In SUM: self-sacrifice and suffering is not the basic constituent of Christian discipleship; the flourishing of life and vocation is.

    1. But Christian life in a world that’s still sinful and fallen is known, so it seems from the NT witness, through our suffering conformity to Christ. Suffering isn’t the goal, but it’s still the road we’re called to walk.

      1. If it is often the case that the Bible is misinterpreted by seeking universal principles rather than local history, maybe that Christians have to suffer is only locally connected with the initial persecution by the Jews.

  6. Maybe the objectors are just too much influences by western individualism where we’re all free atoms with natural rights.

    Instead of the biblical picture of the son as property of the patriarch of the family, in the likeness and image of the father, to bless and curse as he sees fit (and if righteous, he will do righteously) ‘differing nothing from a slave’.

    Plus: The Son, like Job, has to demonstrate that he loves the father not for the unconditional love and blessings that come to him from the father, not because of the inheritance that is his due, but even if the father finds it necessary to demonstrate his justice to the world by punishing sin through the cross.

    Plus: when God kills David’s son, its because David (God’s son, has caused the gentiles to blaspheme (instead of fulfilling Genesis 12); When Israel (God’s son) has caused the gentiles to blaspheme, it is again time for a son to die. This one is the king himself.

    The torah said do this and live, and Jesus does this, but not to live, but to die.

    i think some theopascianism helps more with the issue that anything else. It did ‘hurt’ the Father more that we allow. The child abuser just gets off on abuse. Also ressurection. Any father will put his kid through SOME pain (sports, learning to use a hammer, math drills, making them talk to the clerk in the store) if there is something better on the other side.

    Too many of the critics are enamored of their moral superiority and the idea that the see through the fog with their special insight.

    Is there any compelling data or anecdotes that those holding to penal substitution are doing worse than anyone else on the child abuse front?

    1. Let’s hope that we don’t allow such a “biblical picture” to inform what we think is holy and just! That’s a terrible vision of patriarchal power, one that I’d hate to affirm as normative, and would even be loathe to see as the lens for making sense of Jesus’ obedience.

  7. Daniel,
    How do you see Hebrews 11:17-19 fitting into this scenario?

    “17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”

    Abraham is being praised for offering up his human son. He had faith in the God who resurrects.

  8. Daniel,
    1. Please correct me if I have misunderstood, but it looks like you want to explain atonement chiefly or entirely in terms of Jesus’ human Messiahship. I think you are entirely correct to have said in other posts that the more conservative wing of the Church pays scant attention to the import of Jesus’ humanity, especially in soteriology. But sometimes I wonder if you lean towards the opposite trend, if only by way of correction. And I only say that as a reader who has greatly benefited from your determined attention to the texts (for which, thanks!).

    Yes, John’s gospel says that it’s the Son, not the Father, who gives up his life for the world. But I can only interpret that within the terms of the Prolog to the gospel, which says that the Word of God is God. Further, can we really interpret the gospel’s repeated comments on the unity of the Son with the Father only in term of obedience and not in terms of an ontic relation?

    2. Nick has put his finger on the center of the second problem. While the Bible does use punishment language with reference to the cross (cf. Isa. 53 and the NT references to it), this is a minority metaphor. It never appears, for example, in the gospel of Luke, which treats Jesus as the Rescuer who has come to beat up on our oppressors (disease, demons, hunger, ignorance, sin, etc.) so that we can have “salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us … , and to remember His holy covenant, … to grant us that we being delivered from the hand of our enemies might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days” (Luke 1:71-75). At last he beats the final enemy, death, by submitting to it and being raised again from the dead, so that “repentance for forgiveness of sin should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations” (Luke 24:47).

    This is not so much punishment as it is a rescue.

    1. John, on 1: I do lean this way, and I’ve freely confessed! But even if I grant that it’s b/c it’s God’s self-giving, where then does that leave Christians called to the same? Also, even in John Jesus does what he does because he’s obeying the Father. We can’t undo the clear words even in light of the prologue.

      On 2: Does it matter which metaphor we’re using? Why does the Son have to die to rescue the world? Luke perhaps gets out of this by having it simply as a means to bring Israel under the umbrella of “needing forgiveness”. But then there’s the rest of the NT where Jesus’ death actually accomplishes our salvation somehow, and the Father sends him to do it. That isn’t a problem that I think we get out of by changing metphors, is it?

      1. Examining the metaphors doesn’t get us out of the problem, but it changes my understanding of the problem.

        Is the problem that God demands a quid pro quo justice, so that somebody has to pay? No. Justice in the Bible has more to do with restoring the good, and not so much with balancing a punishment for each transgression.

        Is the problem that we have offended God and somebody has to settle him down? No.

        The problem is that we’ve gotten ourselves into a nasty fix and only the God-man can rescue us. The Son had to die to achieve our deaths. We needed to be unmade, destroying the anti-God orientation, and remade into fellowship with God. Thus Christ dies to accomplish our death (II Cor. 5:14) was raised to accomplish our life (II Cor. 5:15-18).

        But our life isn’t just a more durable version of the independence we sought with the earlier one. We live in Christ, and therefore we are hated by the same forces that hate him, both in the world and within ourselves.

        And, as Barth said, God expressing himself in the world IS the Son. It would be a contradiction in terms to say that the Father or the Spirit hangs on the cross.

        I hope that doesn’t just add layers of confusion.

      2. Daniel, as always thanks for your insights. They are much appreciated.

        Why does it have to be either-or. Why can’t it be both-and. Isn’t that what the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation not only allows but requires.

        A point where you are right is the ministry implications of this. I’ve had some pretty intense discussions about Christ’s divinity/humanity in this regard recently.

        One guy couldn’t believe that Christ could identify with him in his sufferings, struggles, etc. because he was “really God” and had it all planned out. In other words, he didn’t really suffer “in the same way” but simply executed a pre-approved transaction.

        Another could only accept a human Jesus – that way he could be inspired to do the same – but not a divine one. As far as he’s concerned that detracted from his humanity and he could no longer “be like Jesus.” One of his difficulties is that he couldn’t see his need for one who rescues him from his own sin and isn’t simply an example to follow.

        I would say that for both of these men what they needed to grasp – but really resisted – was an intellectual receptivity and existential grasp of the Incarnation – the full humanity and divinity of Messiah.

  9. Daniel, something to also note is this: In the Philippians 2:6-11 passage what we see is that Paul states that Christ “emptied himself”; the emptied himself isn’t in connection with the “obedience unto death.” This is important, because prior to the incarnation, it was the self-will of God (Jesus) to empty or pour himself out upon humanity. Thus, if we assume Jesus had foreknowledge of his mission prior to creation, he knew also that he would have to be obedient unto the Father.

    Now, with the lack of foreknowledge Jesus has in his incarnate state, he lived as one of us, exemplifying the model Paul is exhorting to the Philippians. This is the walk we have to walk, us, the people of God, the body of Christ, incarnate with God’s Spirit.

  10. Our understanding of God in trinity is three persons and one being. What each does God does because each is God.

    I do take the point that the distinctions are to the fore in Scripture in the atonement. It is the Son who dies sent by the Father. However, in the strictest sense do we read that the Father punishes the Son. God lays on him the iniquity of us all. It pleases the Lord to bruise him. God was in Christ reconciling…

    At this moment I cannot think of a text that envisages the Father punishing the Son. The Father forsakes him to be sure.

  11. Jesus said, “No one takes my life from me; of my own will I lay it down, and of my own will I take it up again.”

    It diminishes the act of our Lord if we think he didn’t want to be sent, or if we think that he himself did not choose to endure the cross “for the joy set before him.”

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