The cross of Christ is much more than just a horrendous method of torturing someone. The cross reveals to us the heart of humanity, rather than the heart of the Father. The cross gives us a picture each and every year of the depths of human depravity and violence.
For the life of me, I cannot make sense of any atonement theory that says the Father punished Jesus, emptied his wrath upon Jesus, used Jesus as a cosmic go-between to save people from the fury and anger of the divine dungeon master or any variation thereof. Folks, that is extremely basic faith. The church fathers didn’t propose PSA1 as a view on the atonement because it laid waste to the Trinity. We’re so inundated with modernity though, we have no idea why.
To propose that the Father turned his back on the son, poured out his wrath on the son, or otherwise judged him for our various actions (except other religions and gayness, Jesus didn’t include those in his death) we say that there was a moment when Father and Son were not “of the same being, of the same substance”. They become a cosmic good cop, bad cop with Jesus becoming the happy hippy arm of the furious old man in the sky.
Never mind that Paul said “God was IN CHRIST reconciling the world unto himself”. Sort of hard to forsake or “turn on” someone you’re in.
Folks, the issue with any atonement theory that offers us a picture of God needing to be paid, or pay anyone for our “sin”, “guilt” or anything like that is not that God necessarily becomes a monster (though He does). The issue is in the assignment of fiduciary exchange to a kingdom that doesn’t operate that way. You know, God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything and all. If we’re going to proof text the Father, let’s at least do it in a favorable light.
So then what is the cross and what is it all about.
Brad Jersak said (something I’ll misquote) that the crucifixion was what we did to Jesus, but the cross is the Father’s reply. Meaning something along these lines.
We killed him. The Father used that rage and hatred, the worst parts of us, to bind us up in the son, hence “God was in christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses against them”. Remember that Jesus is just as much a part of “the world” in the moment of his death as we were. To then assert that Jesus was somehow “absorbing the wrath of God” as punishment for sin says that God was in fact, imputing trespasses against us. Jesus was human. I know, I know. Isaiah says “he was bruised for our iniquities” well…that little word “for” could actually more rightly be read “by” (Thank you Sharon L. Baker). He was bruised by our iniquities. Yep, our collective condition of sin bruised him, beat him, murdered him, and the Father’s reply echoes down through the halls of history “it is finished” or in other words “you’re all consummated (reconciled, at one)”.
The cross reveals the heart of humanity, and the very thing I believe the Father did want to lay waste to. Violence and rage in the face of peace and love. That is the collective human condition the Father gave us the out for. In looking to the crucified Lord we see no retaliation, no revenge, no anger or malice, no retribution. The justice the Father offers is always a justice that is distributive, not retributive (Thank you Marcus Borg).
In a time when the Jews—due to a loudmouthed prophet or two—were expecting a violent, vengeful messiah to come and wipe Rome off the earth, Jesus comes in the most subversive way, reprimanding his disciples for brandishing their swords, and telling them to “love their neighbors” (Rome). And just in case they didn’t get what he meant, he said “love your enemies” (Fine, also Rome). I mean, Jesus must’ve been a big wimp right? Especially if he were here in 21st century America. Can you imagine the guts of Jesus to look square in the face of Isis, the federal reserve, or the illegal immigrant and say “hey guys, love your neighbors, love your enemies”.
So then what does the cross show us? The crowd’s demand “Barabbas, give us Barabbas” doesn’t really do justice to what was happening. The more literal would be “Jesus Barabbas, give us Jesus Barabbas”. The name Barabbas means “Son of Abba”. Wait, what?
Yeah, that hit me like a ton of bricks too. So there’s this guy in prison for murder and theft, Jesus Barabbas. And there’s this other one Jesus, who says his Father is Abba. Now this might be speculative, but it seems to me there are two “Messiahs” on the scene, one peaceful and one retributive. One that reveals the heart of a Father and one that reveals the heart of Man. One that says he came to bring peace and another that gave the Jews exactly what they wanted, violence and rage. Note, Rome nearly wiped Israel off the face of the map just 40 years later. It seems calling for the Son of violence renders nothing different in the human experience.
The cross then is the full revelation of the depths of human insistence upon violent retaliation, as well as the Father’s reply to that insistence. We demand violence and retribution, and he fully subverts it by surrendering to our violence. We demand that “Rome” (ISIS, Big Government) be dealt with, and he answered by pulling all that is or will be into himself vis “if I be lifted up, I will draw ALL MEN unto me”. Our issue is not, nor ever will be Rome, Iran, Islam or even far right or far left politics. Our issue is and always will be our own desire to see Jesus Barabbas released in hopes that he will respond violently to those we hate.
The cross reveals our utter failure at discerning the power of violence. We give preferential treatment to the smart bomb toting messiah and all the while the Man of Sorrows is quietly whispering “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing”.
The death of Jesus, the atonement has absolutely nothing to do with God’s wrath, his justice, his judgment, or revenge. The death of Jesus has everything to do with Man’s wrath, our sense of justice, judgment and revenge. And Jesus has forever shown us what we receive in exchange for our tendencies—our own vicarious death. In him, we died.
And every time we insist on violent retaliation, we die a little more. Thank God that Easter teaches us that death and the grave will not have the final word. But we’ll only realize that when we allow our violence to be nailed to the cross, beaten and bloody by the hands of our oppressors, pierced, bruised, broken and dying. It is only in the death of violence that we will ever see the resurrected Lord in full glory. It is only in the death of death that we find the truth of Jesus’ atonement. In taking our rage, he forever revealed to us what will happen when we insist upon retribution. Rome will lay waste to our lives.
We can choose, Jesus the Christ, or Jesus Son of Abba. We worship empire, nationalism, violence and war, or we worship peace, love, grace and hope. We worship fear and trembling, or we worship grace and truth. We cannot have it both ways, and each Easter we are once again faced with the choice; “Will I demand violent retribution or release the Prince of Peace?”
1 – Penal Substitutionary Atonement, the belief that God killed Jesus in our place