The provocative title underscores that what we say about the death of Jesus has dramatic implications for what we say about God.
But if the question, “Did God kill Jesus” provides the provocative entrée into the question, the subtitle captures what I take to be the book’s driving theological impulse: “Looking for love in history’s most famous execution.” Tony wants to find not only love, but the love of God in the story of Jesus’ death.
This is the first of two posts in review of the book.
Starting Strong, Ending Strong
To my mind, the places where the book shines most brightly are at the beginning and the end. It is there that we read the most theologically creative articulations of the problem and the way forward.
In the opening chapters, Tony wrestles with the manipulative nature of many gospel presentations. He also does a good job of creating the expectation that the answer to the atonement question (i.e. what happened in Jesus’ death and what did God have to do with it) might be complex, multifaceted.
Perhaps the best word he issues at the outset, however, is contained in his chapter, “The Bible and the Smell Test.” There Tony insists that any theology is inseparable from the kinds of lives and communities it generates. He makes us all aware that our preferences among atonement models and theories are going to be part of a subjective enterprise, one involving judgment and aesthetics.
The ending once again offered strong and important words for readers. Perhaps most important was the return to the coalescence between theology and action.
Tony focuses on the power dynamics entailed in Jesus’ incarnation and his going to the cross. More specifically, he focuses on Jesus’ choice to refuse violence and to stand in solidarity with the poor and suffering of the earth.
These dynamics help create a theology that demands of us, too, that we forswear violence, leave off the manipulation of power games for our own advantage, and embrace solidarity with those who do not have power or standing.
Perhaps most provocatively, Tony claims that the crucifixion changed God as God in Christ got to know what it was to be fully human. God now can not only sympathize with humanity, but empathize. God is with us in the fullest sense, a sense in which God was not with us before.
The Bible: Should Have Been More Troubling
As a biblical scholar reading a theologian’s work, I know that I am going to have some personal hangups that not many others will care about (insert professorial red ink here).
But there are other issues that are crucial to the overall argument of the book.
If I have one beef with the overview of the biblical data it’s this: the book ignores the verses (or the parts of the verses) that make it sound like God killed Jesus and/or that speak of Jesus’ death being, in part, our salvation from the wrath of God.
In going through the Gospels, there is no coverage of the divine necessity that seems to lie behind Jesus’ death. Why is it necessary (δεῖ) for Jesus to die? Why does Jesus pray to God for the cup to pass? Moreover, I’m not convinced of Tony’s claim that God arrives just as Jesus dies in Matthew and Mark. Does the curtain rending mean this? In Mark and Matthew, Jesus dies abandoned by God. How does that affect the question of how God’s love is made known in this most famous execution? In Luke Jesus says that scripture demands that the Christ suffer and enter into his glory. If scripture demands it this is only because scripture is God’s unbreakable word for a first century Jewish author and audience.
Paul should have been more troubling as well. Tony talks about Rom 3, but what does it mean when Paul says “God put forward Christ as a sacrifice”? God seems to be bringing Jesus for the purpose of killing him and enabling the people to find mercy. In a passage that echoes the Abraham narrative, Paul claims in Rom 8 that God “did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all.” This, again, sounds like God sacrificing his son, Jesus.
Some of these are quibble. Overall, though, they need attention because they allow too much distance to form between God and the responsibility for Jesus’ death. This not only makes it perhaps too easy to find an answer to the book’s title question, it also makes it easier to dismiss atonement theories that represent portions of scripture that have been ignored.
But there’s another passage that is not discussed that I think opens up a view toward a more pervasive problem for the book:
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:8-11)
Here Paul invokes the most important measure deployed throughout the book: the love of God. And, this love of God is expressed in the shedding of Jesus’ blood so that we can be justified. Moreover, that justification enables us to escape God’s wrath.
Did God’s love express itself in God having Jesus killed so that we could be rescued from God’s wrath?
Often there is an inherent connection between love and the death of Jesus in scripture. In fact, I would say that the cross of Christ itself becomes the measure for how Christians know love when they see it. But this definition of love is not the one used to measure biblical passages or atonement models in Did God Kill Jesus?
Adopting such a definition is tricky, because it then makes it almost impossible to use the love criterion to distinguish the value of various atonement models. It makes it possible for any of them to claim that they are depicting the love of God—as, indeed, their proponents all do.
Where to from Here?
I need to take up Tony’s run-down of atonement theories in a subsequent post. Stay tuned for that later this week.
In the mean time, I’m trying to figure out if I just said that my biggest gripe about a Tony Jones book was that it wasn’t provocative enough.
Yes, I might have.
But if I did, it’s because I think that scripture provokes us here. It gives God a role in the story that many of us find discomforting. There is increasing debate about the atonement as people voice such unease.
The book overall might have been stronger had Tony named the passages that cut against the grain of our modern understandings of love and asked us to apply his smell test to their depictions of God. I think that he has created the theological categories for making such a move.
And, I think the readers need to be walked through the process of making an intentional decision about what to do with passages that might not seem to pass.
I hereby disclose to you, the good and faithful reader that I, the otherwise trustworthy author of this post and host of this blog, did in fact receive a free copy of the book under review from HarperOne. There are some people in Washington who think that you have a right to know this. I, of course, concur with their judgment. Whether I do nor not, however, letting you know that I received a free copy is the law of the land. Consider yourself duly informed. I hereby invite you to reread the post with renewed skepticism, asking yourself where I might have blurred the lines or softened my critique in light of the fact that I am reviewing a product that I received for free from the publisher. But really, I’m doing my best to call it like I see it. Is my sight clouded by the gift of a $20 book? Ah… there’s the rub…