Honestly, I get why some people make fun of us church nerds. Our claim is this: a man got the death penalty one day, and his expiration somehow matters twenty centuries later to a CPA named Ernie in West Virginia. And, oh, by the way, we reenact a 40 day journey toward this event every year all over the world.
To be clear, it would not be readily obvious to anyone standing on the hill outside Jerusalem that day why this man’s death should matter to Ernie. But Christians have grown so accustomed to the idea that it does, we treat it like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. So I want to write about one very unhelpful way of getting from Jesus to Ernie, which many Christians treat like it’s as matter-of-fact as gravity, and then suggest a more helpful way.
The upside of “the fall” is that it sets up a very clear cut problem in the world that God needs to solve. The human mind enjoys clear cut things. The downside is that it’s usually not very biblically savvy to take an idea like that too far and make it THE explanation for everything.
When we read the Bible, we need to always remember that ancient Jewish thinkers tended to speak in story rather than dogma. They probably held this narrative with a light grip, intending it to open up conversation about the human situation rather than shut it down. It was old, “concupiscent” St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) who calcified this heavily mythological language into a pseudo-scientific explanation of the genetically transmitted disease called “original sin.”
Since then the equation in most Christian minds has looked like this:
God – Jesus = Angry God.
So deep has this assumption run for the majority of Christians that anyone who would question it is immediately accused of being loosey-goosey or even worse (gasp) liberal in their interpretation of scripture (read: their interpretation of Genesis 2-3 and not the hundreds of stories that suggest something completely different). So the burden of proof seems to always be on any theologian who would show how Jesus was able to persuade, cajole, or otherwise satiate God into no longer being angry.
In other words, the only remaining question on the table is to show how
God + Jesus = Happy God.
Many theories as to how Jesus “atones” for our God-angering ways have been suggested: Jesus as a ritual sacrifice for our sin, Jesus as a ransom (in the sense of a payment for the release of slaves) for our sin, Jesus as substitute or surrogate for the punishment we deserve, Jesus as payment to the devil, Jesus as trick played on the devil, Jesus as moral exemplar, and subtle variations of the same. Since it seems we’re all agreed that God is angry in the first place, the common thread in all of this is that something has to happen to change God’s mood.
Like the idea of “the fall,” not one of these “atonement theories” is totally unbiblical. The problem is in the taking them too far. In the wrong hands, they can all ossify what is intended to be a loosely gripped metaphor or image into bone-hard dogma. They put a white-knuckled stranglehold around something that should be held lightly. It’s as if the women weeping at the foot of the cross looked at each other with the self-evident realization, “Ah, yes. Clearly this gruesome death is payment to God for the sins of humanity.”
But in the 16th century, there was another ingenious theologian with at least a chronically guilty conscience if not a neurotic suspicion of human sexuality. Driven nearly mad by his own self-loathing and resentful of a God who would create a flawed humanity only to punish them for being what they are, he began to ask a different kind of question:
What if Jesus isn’t a sort of burnt offering that we give to God (or that God gives to Godself)? Instead, what if it is he who reveals how God is to us on the cross? What if the cross is not where Jesus satisfies God’s thirst for bloody, retributive justice? What if the cross is where Jesus shows us how God responds to our bloody, retributive justice?
If all previous theories were like pieces added to the atonement puzzle, Martin Luther was sweeping all the pieces off the table. He was not tacking one more atonement theory onto an already overgrown list but was turning the whole way in which we think about atonement on its head. He saw clearly that, rather than let Jesus inform how we see God, most “atonement” theology had actually been one big effort to protect our core assumption about God from being contradicted by the actual Jesus—what he actually reveals, if we take incarnation seriously.
What actually happened is we put Jesus to death, and he died saying, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” We found a clever way to twist that into yet another story about God being the wrathful one. That is to say, Luther realized that most Christian theology was being done sans Christ. It’s as if Jesus became human, talked, healed, was crucified, was risen, and we all paused for a second, stroked our beard a couple times, and said, “Huh, that was weird.” Then we went right back to speculating on how to turn the God-up-there-in-the-clouds’ frown upside down just as we had been doing before.
At one point, Luther called any theory that would make Christ’s death into a satisfaction that God demands for our sin the “beginning, origin, door, and entrance to all the abominations” (WA 51:487, 29). Satisfaction, he said, “Should be done to humans but not to God…otherwise Christ would have stayed with his entire satisfaction for us in heaven” (WA 302:291, 34ff.).
In other words, if it were God whose anger needed to be appeased the whole crucifixion could have taken place up in the clouds. There would be no need play out the drama on earth and make us, at best, third party spectators. Jesus’ suffering and death as a flesh and blood human would only be necessary if it was we who demanded satisfaction.
Suddenly Luther’s world, Bible, and Trinity made sense in a way they never had before: if Christ is not the handler of God but the revelation of God, then one need only look around at the plain facts at the foot of the cross to see that it is not God who requires Jesus’ death, it is humanity. Putting all speculation aside about what God must be thinking up “in the heavens,” these are the plain facts on the “hill of the skull”: we are the angry ones, God is being gracious; we are the violent ones, God is refusing to retaliate; we are the grudge-holders, God is forgiving; we are the ones who refuse to drop it, God is saying, “It is finished.”
The irony that gradually became clear to Luther was that, for all of their talk about the seriousness of human sin, the atonement theories of the medieval theologians all had a subtle way of insinuating that God was the problem. Not us. It’s as if they were all saying, “Hey, man, don’t look at us. We all want to forgive and forget. It’s God who won’t let it go until someone suffers.”
Notice how other atonement theories imply that God is inconsistent at best, a mad tyrant at worst. God creates humanity somewhat shoddily and then gets mad at them for being what they are. Rather than just fix the problem, God requires the one good one be tortured to death so that all the bad ones can be forgiven, and this is called “justice.”
Luther’s new paradigm preserves God’s integrity. God has been consistent all along. God created the world and loved it. The Word came into the world as flesh and loved it. The world put him to death, he responded by loving it. On the third day, God raised him for the sake of the world because he loved it.
We try to ignore God, we try to distort God, we try to mock God, we try to put God to death, and through it all, God just goes on “[making] his sun rise on both the evil and the good” (Mt. 5:45).
That’s the only “Good News” that can really be called either “new” or “good.”
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.