“Why did Jesus have to die?”
We’ve all asked this basic question about our faith before. And as Sunday School teachers, preachers, theologians, and Bible college students try to explain it–using simple language or complicated concepts, I’ve always felt the answer was a little bit lacking. “He died to forgive our sins.” Yes, but why did it have to involve death? “He died to pay for our debt.” Pay our debt to whom? “He died to take our punishment.” How does punishment of an innocent person do anything?
Today I’m going to review the book Executing God: Rethinking everything you’ve been taught about salvation and the cross by Sharon Baker. In this book Baker brings up all these questions and more as she demonstrates the way theologians in the past have defined and understood the death of Christ, showing their strengths, weaknesses, and implications for how we think about God. She also gives us an alternate way to understand salvation and the cross. Last year Deb and I presented a series along with some fantastic guest bloggers about some of the theories of atonement, even explaining what atonement it. Check it out here.
I picked this book up last year at the beginning of Lent after hearing an interview with the author on Homebrewed Christianity podcast. My goal was to read it during Lent as I prepared to remember the crucifixion on Good Friday and celebrate the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Sadly, I have to admit that I was unable to finish the book at that time. Life got…busy. But this year when Ash Wednesday came around again, I picked up the book and was able to read it in 2 weeks. Her style is simple and easy to follow. She has the depth of insight and knowledge of a theology professor, with the ability to distill that down to a layperson’s understanding.
Why does it matter?
We sinned, Jesus died, God forgives. Christians of all theological and denomination persuasions agree on this. So why does it matter how we understand the atonement?
“There’s a lot at stake in theories of the atonement, because they show us certain things about God. The very nature of God is expressed in how we interpret the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.” (Baker, 65) For instance:
- Christus Victor teaches us that God is deceptive, because God deceives the devil in order to win us back
- The Penal Substitution and satisfaction theories teach us that God requires violence in order to forgive (which negates the entire concept of forgiveness, but more on that later)
- The Moral theory teaches us that God equates love with suffering
Baker encourages us to keep re-thinking and re-imagining the atonement. We often hear people claim that if the church has believed something for centuries, why question it? Wesley gave us a fourfold approach to understanding and forming doctrine which includes the tradition of the church. However, he also encouraged us to interpret Scripture and tradition along with reason and experience. Baker puts it this way: “the tradition is to reinterpret the tradition. We reinterpret continually, with a repetition of reinterpretation that preserves the relevance of the living and active Word of God” (p. 81).
What are the problems with traditional theories?
- Forgiveness vs. transaction: The atonement has often been explained as Jesus “paying our debt” or “taking our punishment,” but that really misses the point of forgiveness. How can you forgive a debt that has been paid? Even if it was paid by someone else, it has still been paid. Traditional theories tend to see the atonement as a transaction: Jesus pays, God is satisfied.
- Retribution vs. restitution: Traditional theories of the atonement talk about Jesus satisfying the wrath of God. When we understand God as vengeful, we begin to see justice as retribution, “an eye for an eye,” you stole my belonging, you owe me money. You hurt me, I hurt you. But true justice is about restitution: you wronged me, our relationship is damaged, I want to restore the relationship. As Baker puts it: “Justice born from love restores; justice born from hatred breeds and seeks retribution” (p. 97).
- Bloody sacrifice vs. life laid down sacrifice: Ancient Israel understood sacrifice as a way to appease God’s wrath by shedding blood, but God never wanted a bloody sacrifice. The blood represented the life, and the animal’s life represented the person’s life. Sacrifice is about dedicating our lives to God and following God’s path of love and restitution. Traditional theories see a bloody sacrifice as appeasing God’s wrath, but the Psalmist tells us this about sacrifice: “for you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17)
A new way of thinking
“So instead of saying that God inflicted the pain of the cross on Jesus as a penalty for our sin, we can say that the horrific nature of the cross exposed and condemned the gravity of our sin. After all, human beings are the ones who put Jesus to death, not God” (Baker, p. 134).
The bulk of the book focuses on deconstructing our traditional theories, exposing their weaknesses and their violent nature. But Baker does not leave us empty-handed. In the final chapters she spells out an alternate view of atonement. She builds up to the “So what?” and answers it. So what is the point of Jesus? What is the point of the crucifixion?
Her understanding of the atonement focuses on the incarnation of Jesus, God becoming flesh. By becoming human, Jesus committed to living as a human, living among humans, and suffering the sin of humans, ultimately ending in the most gruesome and violent death imaginable for his time. She sets up the atonement as the story of God becoming human, teaching us about the extravagant love of God, and demonstrating that extravagant love by not seeking retribution for the abuse he suffered. Jesus actually prayed for the forgiveness of his abusers. “Even though God grieved at the sight of such horrific abuse, God let Jesus finish out the life he commited himself to live on Earth–which ended with a horrible death at the hands of the people. Despite the fact that God didn’t need or condone such a terrible execution and hated the evil that prompted it. Instead, God interrupted the cycle of violence with good. God created something good in spite of the wickedness of human sins” (Baker, 157).
Jesus didn’t die for God, he died for us. He didn’t die in order to give God what he needed to forgive us. He died to give us what we needed to accept the forgiveness from God.
Should you read it?
I highly recommend Baker’s book. For those of you who have become weary of violence in the name of Christianity, this books demonstrates a non-violent way of understanding the cross. For those of you unsure why we have such violent theories of atonement, this book explains how church history shaped the current theories. For those of you who want to understand all this without getting a theology degree first, this is definitely the book for you. Baker’s simple explanation is not too simplistic nor too academic. I found it very understandable and I think you will, as well.
How about you? Have any of you read this or any other book about non-violent atonement? What did you think? What books would you recommend for understanding the atonement?