DID GOD KILL JESUS? by Tony Jones
Everyone who follows the way of Jesus wonders about how exactly his death brings us life, how his death overcomes sin. The death of Jesus seems so central to Christian thought and life, and yet it seems perpetually surrounded by a cloud of mystery. In his book Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution, Tony Jones hopes to dispel this cloud as he seeks to answer “What did Jesus’ death really accomplish?” and “Did God kill Jesus in order to do it?”
The book is divided into seven parts. The first is an introduction to the problem of the crucifixion and whether God killed Jesus because he was really angry at humanity. The second part focuses on an evolutionary and Old Testament understanding of sacrifice, and part three shifts to focus on the death of Jesus and its New Testament interpretation.
In the fourth part Jones engages what he sees as the majority understanding of the atonement, the “penal substitutionary” view (or “payment model”). He spends much of the book showing how this view is not the only true option and also how it creates a confusing doctrine of God and denies God’s love. For Jones the “penal substitutionary” view could be summarized with this joke couched in terms of Revelations 3:20:
Jesus stands at the door and knocks, saying, “Let me in.”
“Why?” you respond.
“So I can save you.”
“Save me from what?”
“From what my Father will do if you don’t let me in.”
Jones finds this logic deeply flawed for two theological reasons: (1) because it pits two members of the Trinity against each other; and (2) it makes God so bound by his own attribute of justice that he has to balance the cosmic scales of justice (which does not sound much like grace).
In part five Jones considers several minority options for understanding the atonement, renaming tradition categories with more approachable ones. The Christus Victor view becomes the Victory Model. The Moral Influence view becomes the Magnet Model, and the Orthodox view of theosis becomes the Divinity Model.
In the last two parts Jones discusses his particular view and how this view manifests in the world. Jones notes that from creation to the cross God has been limiting God’s self in order to create room for creation to flourish. Jones calls this God’s humble love, a love that even on the cross would not use power to persuade us from sin, but lives with us in freedom.
But what does this mean for us? What actually happened on the cross? Well, for Jones, in the incarnation and ultimately in Jesus’ death, “God was learning. In Jesus God crossed the line from sympathy with the human condition to empathy with humans—that is, God went from pitying us to truly understanding us by actually becoming one of us” (emphasis in original). Indeed, in the cry of dereliction in which Jesus feels abandoned by God (Mark 15:34), Jesus as God experiences the absence of God, an absence that marks human existence. In the crucifixion we know that God is with the powerless, the hopeless, and the broken. The revelation of the cross is that God is with us in the depths of human misery, that God has learned what it is like to be God-forsaken, and that from this revelation (for God as much as it is for us) we are set free from sin.
Jones’ book will be readily received by those who already view a “penal substitutionary” atonement with suspicion. However, I have a couple of questions about his proposal. The first concerns his biblical sources. Jones repeatedly leans on the Gospel of John for an understanding of God as love (and rightfully so), but he then quickly moves to the Gospel of Mark’s cry of dereliction to show the atheism (even if momentary) of God. But if Jones had stayed with John he would have had to contend with the deep and intimate unity of God, which is not even disturbed on the cross, an event that in John’s telling is the ultimate triumph of Jesus and is God’s glory. Instead Jones moves to Mark’s more ominous cry from the cross (although many would contend with Jones’ reading), which makes for interesting speculation but lacks biblical integration.
Second, in Jones’ proposal it is God who learns from the crucifixion to live in solidarity with humanity. That sounds well and good, but it seems merely to echo the problems of the “penal substitutionary” view of God. In that view God has to overcome God’s own wrath, while in Jones’ view God has to overcome God’s own ignorance. But what has this all done for humanity? Did God save humanity or just himself? Jones clearly, and rightly, says that God did not kill Jesus, and Jones rightly shows how God is with us. But Jones seems to lack a clear answer on how God is for us.