Thursday, April 18, 2013

Is God a murderer?

Did God kill his son?

That was the question I had to address last Saturday night.

On Saturday nights, generally, we have a get-together in our community house; a time of singing, sharing, a zany game or two, a mug of tea or twenty. Last Saturday, one young woman led us all in a reflection on God’s forgiveness, which included reading out something she’d recently read.

It was good, edifying stuff, on the whole. But in the middle of it came this:
“When God says he forgives...he is referring to a sovereign decree of his will to extend grace to an undeserving person.
“He did this by killing his Son.

That’s a blunt statement, but it’s true.”
A blunt statement, certainly. But it isn’t true.

I grant, the wider purpose of the text was to emphasise both the steadfastness and sacrificial nature of God’s forgiveness. But to say that God ‘killed his son’ is simply wrong.

Theologians sometimes talk about a way of understanding Christ’s death called ‘penal substitution’ – that Jesus, in his death, took God’s punishment of sin instead of us. But the weakness of this emphasis is that it too easily descends into caricatures like ‘God killed his son’.

And this caricature – and others like it – often makes Christians have a hazy sense that God only loves them today because he took out his fury on Jesus yesterday.

Not surprisingly, this can leave them a tad insecure. Imagine how you’d feel if your mum was always nice as pie to you, but you knew it because she’d spent all her filicidal anger years before when she murdered your older brother.

Happy families, anyone?

There are people in my household group who I know are inclined to feel insecure like this. They know the bible says God is a God of love, that God loves them. But they’re caught up in a view of the central event of the bible as being mainly about not God’s love, but God’s anger, God’s punishment. And so in their heart of hearts, they’re not sure if they can trust his ‘love’.

At its worst, another caricature comes into play: ‘nice Jesus saves us from nasty God’.

It’s a travesty of what the Bible actually describes. God loves us. Before we care two hoots about God, God loves us. And, yes, before Jesus dies, God loves us.

And God forgives us. Yes, God's forgiveness begins before the cross and reaches its glorious climax at the cross.

It is because God loves and forgives us that he sends his son, and his son willingly comes. Forgiveness is not only the result of this rescue mission, it is what motivated the mission in the first place; the result is reconciliation. The way is opened for us to be reunited with God – even to the extent of his Spirit living within us.

It goes like this: love – forgiveness – rescue – reconciliation.

Reconciliation is a two-way process – it requires our ‘yes’ – but the good news is that the way is open back to a God who has always loved us and always will.

So – who did kill Jesus?

Sin killed Jesus. Read the Gospels. It was the corruption of Caiaphas, the apathy of Pilate, the cowardice of Peter, the bigotry of the Pharisees, the betrayal of Judas, the hypocrisy of the people... Panning wider, it was political sin, moral sin, social sin, economic sin... Or read the epistles for a spiritual take on the same answer: it was demonic sin – the powers behind human sin – that killed Jesus.

Sin – their sin, my sin, your sin, the devil’s sin, all sin – drew itself to its full height like a putrid river in flood and attempted to sweep away the son of God.

And the son of God let himself be swept away. And his Father didn't prevent him being swept away. This is as close as we can come to the notion that 'God killed Jesus' - he didn't rescue him by force: 'more than twelve legions of angels' stayed in heaven that day.

God – Father, Son and Spirit – refused to fight sin with sin, refused to fight fire with fire, to repay evil with evil. He turned the other cheek. He went the extra mile. He did not resist. He refused to keep evil in circulation. The result was that sin spent itself fully on him. Death used up its last on him. The putrid river emptied all that it had upon him until there was nothing left.

Away it flowed with him into death. And there it stayed. But Jesus didn’t. Which is why the resurrection is the first light of the dawn of a new world – a world without sin. And it offers me and you the possibility of a new life – one in which sin no longer has the final say.

Love has freed us. Freed from sin's domination. Reunited with God who loved us to hell and back.

Happy families remixed? Imagine how you’d feel if your mum was always nice as pie to you, and you knew that when you were little she'd watched your big brother rescue you from a mugger and get knifed in the process. Your brother nearly didn't make it. But he did, and you know they love you more than life.

So I had a little word with my household on Saturday night: 'God loves you' I said. 'He's always loved you; he always will. Be reconciled to God, and learn to live his way. Turn the other cheek. Walk the extra mile. Defeat evil. Walk the way of life.'


Aidan Ashby said...

So because God forgave us and wanted reconciliation He needed, in Jesus, to remove Satan's rightful claim of bondage and death on the human race as given him by the first Adam. Jesus is effectively an Adamic representative of the human race, the second Adam.

Let's not forget that God knew Jesus would survive death.

n0rma1 said...

Yes, Aidan. The atonement is a wondrous, multi-faceted reality. In this post I've attempted to give some airtime to what theologians call the 'Christus Victor' approach - that God in Christ rescues us from the tyranny of Satan, sin and death as an act of unconquerable love. For reasons I've tried to outline, I think it's a more helpful controlling metaphor than some others like penal substitution (or at any rate, the caricatures that penal theories are prone to). What God condemned on the cross was not Jesus, but sin - albeit in the body of Jesus - so that we could be freed from sin's grip and therefore sin's condemnation.

At root what I really wanted to convey is that God's outlook towards us, all of us, is love - from start to finish.

AG said...

Penal Substitution is a way of explaining the gospel, it is not the Gospel. The Gospel is that "Christ died for the ungodly." We illustrate this with theologies like penal substitution, Christus Victor, Ransom theory, moral influence, satisfaction theory, or another way. All are inadequate in some way becuase they illustrate or explain the Gospel in part, none completely expalin the mystery of the Gospel.

Brian Sorensen said...

Nick thought i should share some praise for your blogg that we discussed on a chat so here it is :-)

[10:24:48 PM] By the way, I read james' blogg about a week ago. The "is God a Murderer?" is probably the best religious text i have read (outside of the bible)

Marcus Lander said...

Hi James, I just noticed your blog entitled 'Is God a Murderer?'. I thought it contained some very valid points, however I'm afraid I do have a reservation about the order of your flow-chart. What you seem effectively to be implying is that the causal relationship between Yeshua's sacrificial death and God's forgiveness in is the opposite direction to that implied by such verses as: -
Leviticus 4:20
Hebrews 9:22
Hebrews 10:22.
Now, I accept that God's action in sending Yeshua was an expression of his love and as far as human-beings are concerned expressions of love towards an offending party often denote forgiveness, however I don't think this is the case with God, 'who sends his rain on the just and on the unjust'. According to Wikipedia, forgiveness is defined thus: 'Forgiveness is the renunciation or cessation of resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offense, disagreement, or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution.The Oxford English Dictionary defines forgiveness as 'to grant free pardon and to give up all claim on account of an offence or debt'.' I would argue that by this definition forgiveness cannot appear in second place in your flowchart. I agree that God is not a murderer though!