DID GOD KILL JESUS? by Tony Jones

did god killreviewed by Geoff Holsclaw

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.

Geoff Holsclaw is affiliate professor of theology at Northern Seminary, and director of their master’s program in theology and mission. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

 

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5 Responses

  1. BillB says:

    Geoff Holsclaw seems to me to be somewhat tied into the Harmonization theory of reading Scripture, Hebrew and/or Christian. The Harmonization theory is historically related to the Sola Scriptura theory of Scripture’s authority, wherein we have Scripture to save us from big, bad men (esp. at the Reformation, big, bad Roman officials of a corrupt RC Church). The Haronization theory gets over the humps and bumps of many writers saying many things that are quite contrary (I would even allow the word ‘contradictory’) in various books of Scripture by simply taking the path of least resistance. Sometimes this means watering down one or both sides of an inconsistency, sometimes just ignoring one side and favoring the other. (Incidentally, there are inconsistencies that have three or four sides, too!)

    But in my opinion, there is no harmonization possible between Scripture passages that hard-talk about the wrath of God and those that hard-talk with the same enthusiasm about the love of God. Different books of Scripture, or the same book at different points, reflect honest believers who want us to pay attention to what they have seen as the wrath of God, and other similarly honest believers who want us to pay attention to a love of God that is wrath-free 100%. Tony Jones does not harmonize, but he does talk about God the Father changing his mind. Thus he allows for the inconsistency to stand. I go in another direction completely.

    Rudolph Otto was a German scholar of mythology who wrote on the primitive human experience of the Sacred or the Holy. He speaks of our ancestors being fascinated with the Holy as mainly the ultra-Powerful, and attaching it equally to both power for our good and power for our bane. Now add in our history of both understanding and working with the natural world over a long, long time and with many, many fits and starts. Today, we are more likely to see a volcano as just a volcano, and not attach the wrath of a god to it (but not entirely, if it turns out that MY village is the one that this volcano just blasted away!) Likewise we are more likely to see a good crop as the lucky convergence of my hard work and good weather, not as the god of fertility smiling on me (but again, not entirely if all those waves of grain are an awesome blessing in my eyes). I find that my study of cultural anthropology, my study of current human cultures as well as historically extinct ones, shows that the same fascination with ultra-power is in us all today, even if we relegate the ancient myths to the level of mere children’s stories. I am not at all surprised that certain branches or communities or even just circles of friends in Christianity across the denominational/historical spectrum are fascinated with a god of power who will smash humans who displease this god. Other branches or communities, etc. are fascinated with a god of power who seeks to infuse humans with love, and who is never displeased with our obvious obtuseness. The existence of these distinct fascinations has in the past led to some big theological food-fights, to say nothing of wars and ethnic/religious exterminations.

    In short I am a little older now, and I hope a little more aware of our obtuse tendencies, making me a little more sorrowful when groups of people of any kind get it more wrong than right, and a little more joyful when groups of people of any kind get it more right than wrong.
    I will simply stop here and let others have a say.

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