The Cross: Divine Child Abuse, or Astounding Love?
by Ron Sider
Holy week is a good time to ponder recent challenges to the traditional understanding of the cross.
In the last couple of decades, a growing number of theologies have rejected the traditional understanding of substitutionary atonement—i.e., that at the cross Jesus Christ became our substitute, bearing our sin in a way that resulted in our Holy God (who rightly punishes sin) offering unconditional forgiveness to those who trust in Christ. Denny Weaver's The Nonviolent Atonement is one striking example of this rejection. Weaver charges that this view (a) involves divine child abuse, as some feminist theologians have charged and (b) undermines ethics because (allegedly) one can have one's sins forgiven and thus be saved and on the way to heaven without any ethical transformation.
Weaver denies that God willed Jesus' death and rejects any role or importance for the cross in our salvation. The only acceptable view of the atonement is what he calls a "narrative Christus Victor" understanding.
This widespread recent rejection of substitutionary atonement profoundly affects our understanding of Holy Week—indeed of the whole Christian life.
Four issues are important. First, biblical authority is at stake in this debate. For more than 1,500 years, all branches of the Christian Church (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) have taught that the whole Bible is God's special revelation and is our reliable norm for faith and practice. To deny that God willed Jesus' death or to claim that the cross has no significance for our salvation flatly contradicts clear and numerous New Testament passages.
Second, the New Testament presents several models or images to help us understand the cross. The moral view associated with Peter Abelard rightly captures NT texts that say the cross revealed God's love to us (e.g., 1 John 3:16). The Christus Victor model (associated with Gustav Aulen) reflects many passages that say Christ came to conquer evil (e.g.,. John 3:8; Heb. 2:14-15). And the substitutionary model (often associated with Anselm, Luther, and Calvin) expresses texts that say that all who sin stand under God's wrath but at the cross Christ died as our substitute (e.g., Gal. 3:10-13; 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 3:21-26).
If one reduces an understanding of the cross exclusively to the model of substitutionary atonement, then one does cut the link between the atonement and our life of ethical obedience. If justification by faith alone through Christ's substitutionary death for us is the total meaning of salvation, then that is a one-way ticket to heaven and we can live like hell until we get there. But to understand the atonement and salvation so narrowly and individualistically is to ignore important parts of NT teaching. It ignores the fact that Jesus came to show us how to live and reveal God's love. It ignores the passages about Christ coming to conquer evil with his life and resurrection. And the gospel Jesus preached was the fantastic news that the long-awaited Kingdom of God was breaking into history, and now by the power of the Holy Spirit Christians can increasingly live the life of ethical obedience Jesus modeled and taught. The substitutionary atonement model is just one of several important NT models of the atonement. Instead of picking and choosing according to modern whim, we should embrace everything the NT tells us about the cross.
Third, many modern views of the atonement ignore half of what the Bible says about God. Yes, God is astounding love and mercy. But God is also searing holiness. Our holy God rightly punishes sin (e.g., Rom. 1-3; Acts 17:30-31; Rom. 5:9; Matt. 25:41).
Finally, to speak of divine child abuse at the cross is to ignore the Trinity. The cross is not an angry God bludgeoning an innocent man. We should reject as totally mistaken and dreadfully wrong any view that sees three independent actions of the guilty party, an angry judge, and an innocent victim at the cross.
No! The Trinity is present at the cross. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit suffer equally at the cross. The One hanging limp on the middle cross is the Eternal Son of the Father. Somehow, in a way that we will never fully understand, God chooses to substitute Godself for us on the cross.
We should never claim to fully understand this mystery. But the Bible tells us that a God who is both holiness and love, who both rightly punishes sinners and loves sinful persons, chooses to bring together God's holiness and love, God's justice and mercy, by substituting Godself at the cross.
That is not to say God of necessity had to bring together his wrath and mercy in this way. We simply know from biblical revelation that this is what God did. Such an action underlines in an awesome way how serious our sin is. It also reveals in an utterly astonishing fashion how overwhelming is God's love. For at the cross, divine love for disobedient sinners prevailed. As John Stott has said, "Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice."
One can only fall to one's knees in awe and gratitude. Because of what the Trinity did at the cross, we can now stand before our Holy God in confident trust that we are forgiven. That is only one (wonderful!) part of the atonement. Every part of Christ's life, death, and resurrection is essential for a fully biblical understanding of the atonement. The incarnate Christ has taught us how to live. He has and is conquering evil. In the power of the Resurrected One, we can and must now live like Jesus, working against every evil, oppression, and injustice.
This Holy Week, let's embrace the full biblical Christ. Hallelujah, what a Savior!