for the Kingdom of God

What if Jesus didn’t die on the cross to assuage the wrath of a just God bent on vengeance?

A little while ago I wrote about how and why substitutional atonement doesn’t grab me (that’s an understatement) as a way of understanding Jesus. Now, after a journey that has lasted since I first felt uncomfortable with substitutional atonement (I remember I was thinking about it at least around age 10), I think I finally have an alternative that works, and so I want to make a positive statement of what I do believe. Understand this is not a definitive, for-all-times-and-all-places statement, but one that helps me make sense of the Christian story from my perspective.

Traditionally, we are told that Jesus died as a substitute for us – that is, we are going to hell because we have sinned (offended God, in this case) and the punishment for that is eternal death (hell) when we die. Jesus was used by God as a substitute punishment, and so if we accept Jesus into our life (whatever that means – usually praying a certain prayer involving asking for forgiveness and repenting – turning from our sins), we are forgiven and will go to heaven when we die.

I prefer the original meaning of atonement – not the guilt-inducing meaning we’ve come to associated with it, with all its bloody, sacrificial imagery – but the reconciliatory, restitutional meaning, literally AT-ONE-MENT.

To summarize a couple of reasons why substitutional atonement is unsatisfactory:
1. Jesus life and ministry before his death becomes fairly irrelevant. It’s kind of nice to hear some stuff that God reckons, but the sense is that its less significant than the ‘real show’ in Jesus’ death. Under substitutional atonement, even the manner of his death is not all that significant – who did it and why are almost irrelevant – although the more we play up his suffering, it seems (ala Mel Gibson) the more Jesus had to go through to pay for our sins, and therefore the more he seemingly (yet perversely) earned it.

2. God is made out to be a monster, bent on securing someone’s death as punishment for his offended ego, even if it’s his own son. A “Must…kill…something” kind-of-a-God. Plus God then asks something of us that he doesn’t do himself – namely, forgive without being repaid or restituted.

3. The resurrection also has less significance under substitutional atonement. Jesus would’ve ‘atoned’ just as satisfactorily for our sins had he remained dead. Resurrection, then, becomes like the lovely but unnecessary bonus prize rather than the central motif it was for the disciples. Living on (or again) was, for them (when they finally got it), the fulfillment of Jesus’ life, not a supernatural party trick that impressed them enough to go through with the rest of it.

4. It is disempowering. You have debts that you owe that the system is stacked against you having the wherewithal to pay. Some would say that’s why we need to throw ourselves on the arms of grace – but what kind of just system is stacked against you from the get-go?

5. It often makes your life after being “forgiven” or “converting” or “being saved” (conceived as a point-in-time) fairly irrelevant. I always used to puzzle over this, because as a Christian there was little or no incentive to better myself or even be obedient to God. Sure, there was the “God wants you to” guilt-trip, but when God will forgive you when you ask anyway, what’s the point? Salvation is too far removed from action.

So what am I proposing? Well, nothing new in a lot of ways, but new for me. Maybe a different, more genuine, way of seeing Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Probably just a lens – but for me, one that works and inspires rather than one that leaves a nasty taste in my mouth, holding uncomfortable contradictions (not to be confused with paradoxes) that can’t be satisfactorily resolved. It also makes much more sense of the biblical witness – with gospels in which Jesus talks more about the kingdom than anything else, and talks about himself as a sacrificial lamb rarely if ever. With Paul who focusses almost completely on the suffering inherent in being a Christian, not because of that specific time and place, but because Christians as people who are for life-in-all-its-fullness necessarily clash with a system that is bent on destruction and hate and death (even when that system doesn’t appear to be that way).

Jesus, in other words, shows us how to participate in the building of the Kingdom of God, a new society characterized by self-giving love; but more than that, he enables its happening in and around us. In that sense, in the context of Jesus’ life, his death is not merely one of many possible endings, it is the fulfillment of the way of God, and his life prior to that. This (his persecution and death) is the kind of thing that happens when you follow this way of life – but the positive flip side of that is that this is the way to truly live, not merely the negative consequences of it. This is how to effect the Kingdom of God – by lovingly giving of oneself (not just in death either).

Jesus did pay as a result of our sins, but not to assuage our guilt or in place of a wrathful God bent on vengeance. He did it to show us that there was another way; not just to show, but embody the way to life. The sense in which Jesus took our sins upon him was the he bore the brunt of the very kinds of things we do – hateful, violent, ugly things (sin). Whether they hurt ourselves or others, they embody a way of death in and of themselves. The sins Jesus bore are our sins because we are complicit in the system that killed him – it is something we do every day.

But it is the way he bore them that is perhaps of ultimate significance, as it shows us not merely an expedient method of getting your own way, but demonstrates the way of God. He bore them nonviolently. Nonviolently does not mean passively – it means actively breaking the power of those who oppose you by sheer force of rightness and integrity, and by your commitment to those things. It is a very different way to the way we are taught and socialised into acting to make things happen; the ends justify the means, don’t let it cost you, lie cheat and steal your way there if necessary, step on whoever you need to to get there. As John H Yoder puts is, “Suffering is not a tool to make people come around, nor a good in itself. But the kind of faithfulness that is willing to accept evident defeat rather than complicity with evil is, by virtue of its conformity with what happens to God when he works among men [and women], aligned with the ultimate triumph of the Lamb.”

And Jesus did so because this is definitional of both the personhood of God and life-in-all-its-fullness itself (though the two are inseparable). This is what we have failed to grasp; that God is not interested in the kind of power that dominates, that forces its will on others. This is the kind of power that instead prefers to love, even when it costs everything. And the Christian story is that this kind of love, this kind of power, wins. That is perhaps the most counter-intuitive, most staggering truth ever devised, let alone embodied. That is the significance of Jesus.

His sinlessness consists in his complete lack of complicitity in the system that killed him, the system that we daily participate in and perpetuate as human beings. It’s not that God needed some kind of unblemished sacrifice because he’s incredibly fussy about the kind of sacrifice that is made to him, but because it only makes sense in the context of someone who does not give in to the sin systems around us – what Wink calls the Domination System.

Jesus’ life takes on much more significance because i
t’s his demonstration of how we are to truly live, not just exist (or even have a “happy” or “successful” existence). Resurrection, then, becomes central because it means that for people who choose this way death is not the end; life wins anyway, even in apparent defeat. It’s a no-holds-barred, no-fear approach to life (after all “perfect love casts out fear”!(1 Jn 4:18))

It makes more sense of grace too, because grace is not merely a free ride (Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace”), but is the way that God actively withholds the natural consequences of our sin in order to enable our choosing of life-in-all-its-fullness. There is no tension between salvation by faith or works here.

Salvation is not something that we achieve or even receive at one point in exchange for our loyalty – our salvation lies precisely in the acting out of that loyalty to the kingdom above all else. They are one and the same. Thus we “work out” our salvation, rather than receiving it. We are nonetheless graced (and therefore receive it) in the sense that God did this regardless of our potential-or-actual reaction to it, but because of who God is. Grace is free precisely because it is something we cannot effect on our own. God’s grace in withholding the deathly effects of sin enables us (through God’s power, because “no-one loves apart from God”) to “work out” our salvation. All questions, then, of whether one can “lose one’s salvation” become moot.

So nonviolent love is the expression of God’s kingdom on earth. How else can we see Jesus’ pronouncement to Pilate, “You have no authority except that which you have been given from above” (Jn 19:11) except as a concretely political statement of nonviolent commitment to an alternative kingdom? It’s a slap in the face for the powers of this world, a denial of their power in real terms – not just as a statement for beyond the grave, but for here and now. Again, Paul in Col 2:15 “He disarmed {Or [divested himself of]} the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [his cross].” As Walter Wink puts it, “The powers had used their final sanction against Jesus and had failed to silence him. Not even death could hold him. But if a mere Galilean artisan has withstood the entire Domination System and has prevailed, then the power of the Powers is not, after all, ultimate. There is another power at work in the universe that, like water, cuts stone: nonviolent love.” (The Powers That Be, p. 80) In other words, if you can’t win even when you do your worst, what is left but defeat?

Try reading the whole New Testament this way and suddenly it all makes so much more sense. Of course there’s more – lots more – to the story in terms of revisioning heaven and hell, sin, separation from God, etc. but this is a start at least. And it’s probably not been expressed very well. But for me, it’s an energizing, exciting, inspiring message, one that I can’t help sharing and living out. That’s gotta say something for it.

3 thoughts on “for the Kingdom of God

  1. I like your thinking! I recently had an interesting conversation with someone who had travelled through the majority of his sixty-something years as a christian believing that God’s fogiveness and grace was dependant on his confession. In other words, this man believed that a sin that is not confessed could not be forgiven or absolved. There are heaps of reasons why I disagree with this idea, but I suddenly realised that the majority of preaching I’ve heard on substitutionary atonement reinforces this idea. I reckon it’s got a lot to do with control – if God will forgive me and I get to heaven by praying the right prayer, then I maintain choice.
    i reckon acknowledging God as God means that he can blinking well forgive anything he wants, whether we know about it or acknowledge it or not.
    It’s amazing to me that the substitutionary atonement theory claims to give God authority and credit, but doesn’t truly assent to God’s power and love – this mean little God who can’t get over himself…
    🙂 Jude

  2. I think the control thing is the biggest part of it. It’s not just that I maintain choice over whether or not I confess, it’s that with this understanding I maintain who is capable of being in and who is out. It’s certainty, which is always about control of one’s environment.

    On the confession thing, I got that idea from Keith Green’s No Compromise, but quickly rejected it after realising its oppressiveness and ultimate impossibility in practice. who is even aware of all their sins, let alone is able to confess them? You’d be constantly freaked out that you’d forgotten one. And all it would take is forgetting one when you were 20, and then you’ve spent 60-something years of your life confessing for nothing because that one had already cancelled your ‘salvation’…

    more to come in a post.

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