Saturday, July 30, 2016

Is God "Primarily Angry"? (4) - Cross

This is the 4th in a series posts centered around the question of "Is God primarily angry?".

The 3 previous posts are here:


I believe that God’s disposition towards humanity is revealed in Jesus' cross (though the cross can't be viewed independently of incarnation and resurrection).  It's ground zero.  Start here.  Many Christians would confess as much, yet what is actually intended and communicated by the assertion to "start here" isn't without ambiguity.  

“To know if God loves us we must look to the cross.”  But what do we see?  When we hear that “God did not spare His Son but gave Him up for us all”, what exactly do we hear?

Many modern Christians have been indoctrinated into a way of thinking about God in which He IS primarily angry.  This includes me.  I've had to come to terms with that, rather reluctantly at first but then quite relentlessly and unapologetically.  

Despite assertions to the contrary (assertions which, at times, seem to me to be quite empty) the way that the cross is understood often subconsciously (or quite consciously) displays a God who IS angry, who’s default position towards humanity is anger that is purely retributive.  Rather than holding on to a “primarily angry” God in spite of the cross, we hold to an angry God precisely because of the cross, because the way that the cross is theologically interpreted actually requires an angry God.  It makes little sense without one.

Now I realize that the (large) majority of people probably don’t think they even have an atonement theology, and/or that excessive talk of it is irrelevant and impractical gobbledygook.  But that's not true.  Everybody has some sort of "atonement theology", and I catch hints of it regularly. 

“Jesus died for your sins.”

Ok, what does that mean?  It’s not actually as unambiguous as it might sound at first, though the ambiguity might be well hidden due to deeply embedded and largely unchallenged ways of hearing it.  And that deeply embedded view (within western theology) is usually clarified like this:

“He died to pay the price for your sins.”

Again, not as unambiguous as it might sound at first.  What is the “payment”?  And to whom is it “paid”?  What does it mean to say that "It's finished?"  How does it all work?  Is it just "magic?"  I think the answers to these questions are so prevalent and assumed within popular theology, contemporary music, etc. as to be basically invisible and largely unquestioned.

When working it all out, the whole thing is conceived as a sort of economic transaction that goes something like this ("quotations" intended to call attention to our presuppositions):

God has rules.  Humanity as a whole and each of us individually broke and continue to break these rules.  This creates a “debt” with a God who is holy and all-knowing and thus keeps track of every single breaking-of-the-rules, every single failure, every single careless word, every failure to live up to goodness.  This rule breaking makes God infinitely angry.  It brings humanity under the condemnation of God's judgment and it forces God’s hand.  He’s bound by the law and by “justice” to exact retribution because retributive punishment, in the end, is what it means to “take sin seriously”.  God cannot "just forgive."  

Now, the verse “the wages of sin is death” means that because of sin, humanity is under the active judgment of God.  Judgment is not a mere "natural consequence" - it is an active and retributive wrath.  These are God’s rules being broken, so the “debt” that is created is infinitely higher than a human being can “pay”. The cross, then, is Jesus somehow transactionally and metaphysically "paying the price" by “becoming sin” and being punished in our place.  Jesus becomes a substitute, and God, "in his mercy", turns away from, forsakes ("why have you forsaken me"), tortures and kills Jesus rather than humanity.  

So God kills Jesus, thus fulfilling both divine justice and His own wrath.  God is now "satisfied".  His wrath has been appeased.  He is propitiated.  Justice has been done in the form of Jesus "paying the price".  The "payment" of the atonement is then "credited as righteousness" to the believer through faith via a transactional exchange.  Instead of seeing dirty old me, God's sees Christ's "righteousness."  IF you "have faith", and what "faith" entails varies.

That then is the meaning of "pierced for our transgressions".  Pierced BY GOD.  He "suffered the retributive wrath of God in our place".  The death of Jesus, thus understood, is a “payment” for sin - the suffering, death, and blood being the “currency” which effectuates the possibility of divine forgiveness..... if we "accept the payment."  And the suffering itself is an important part of the “payment terms” (lest the suffering of the cross be unnecessary gratuitous violence independent of the “payment” of death).  

This represents a distinct way of viewing the Christian narrative and the plight of humanity and a particular way of viewing the cross, one that is supported by a number of pillars (allegedly).  We might point to the OT sacrificial system which is viewed as a systematic way to appease God, a system that (so it goes) was pretty much right on in that God needed to be appeased, but that a sacrifice sufficient to appease God on our own just hadn't been made available.  We might point to the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.  We might point to the blood, wrath, and retribution in the Old Testament.  We point to any number of isolated verses that speak of “sacrifice”.  We might point to a handful of verses in the New Testament - "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins", etc.  Perhaps more than anything, we simply trust the principle of retributive punishment that rules our world.

Note this tweet by John Piper:

That says it all.

For another helpful visual of this particular view of atonement theology, see this chart.


A few qualifications or clarifications might be needed here or there, but this represents the dominant narrative of the cross in the mind of many people, is in many a church "statement of faith", in books, etc.  This is not a caricature.  I'm not portraying something that nobody actually believes.  LOTS of people in the pews of the church that I attend understand it this way.  It's all rather logical after all.  It fits our pre-existing understanding of retributive justice, I guess.

To return to the original question of if God is "primarily" angry, is it really believable that anger/wrath is not a primary ingredient here?  

No.  This widely accepted view of the cross simply doesn't make sense without anger....primary anger.  It's predicated on anger.  The entire thing is conceived of as a forensic solution to a forensic problem, a way to escape the wrath of an all knowing despot who had to kill and torture his own Son in order to gain the necessary capital to forgive.


In my own life, the wrestling with a vengeful and retributive God has led me to the cross.  The cross is either the end of this angry, retributive God, or the ultimate and eternal affirmation of this God.  It is HARD to think through these things.  It can be scary.  It might feel like "losing your faith."  It's been all of these things for me.  

But there are many out there who have helped me.

Many are familiar with CS Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Well, God is not the witch.

We intentionally ask the question of "Who Killed Jesus?" and "How Does Dying For Our Sins Work?"  We look to "The Crucified God".  Only if we ditch the retributive and forensic models of the cross entirely (not even grant them status as "one facet") can we can assert that "God Is Not a Monster" and that "Jesus Died for Us...Not for God".

If you dare to, witness the vitriol in some of the comments of these posts.  Note the accusations of “making a God in your own image.”  Again, these simply point out the degree to which an angry God is vigorously defended and even needed for the cross - and therefore the entirety of the Christian narrative - to make sense.

Bottom line, I don’t think there is much possibility of truly believing, unequivocally, that God is love and light without a robust, well understood, and liturgically practiced way of understanding the cross that eliminates “appeasement” and the literal nature of “payment” all together.  We can't simply say that "the cross displays love" but still retain that forensic "God-punished-Jesus-so-that-he-could-forgive me" thing.  There is no actual "forgiveness" in this transaction after all.  There is only payment.  What sense does it make to speak of "forgiving" a debt that has been paid?

Simply calling a thing beautiful (the cross) doesn't make it so.

"Oh, yes.  They say so.  And then they tell you something good about him that isn't good, and go on calling him good all the same.  But calling anybody good doesn't make him good, you know."
---Robert Falconer (by George MacDonald)

I speak from experience here.  This is hard for me, and is very much an ongoing process.  The groundwork for the above "penal substitutionary atonement" model was laid early and deep.  It is not dug up easily.

In the end though, it's necessary to either (1) prayerfully challenge and deconstruct ALL that implies that the cross is a payment that appeases an angry God and then reconstruct deeply understood ways of thinking about the cross non-punitively, or (2) concede that God IS "primarily angry" and stop pretending otherwise.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

David Bentley Hart’s Inconsistent Triad (2): Comparing DBH to Tom Talbott

In my previous post, I identified an inconsistent triad in the essay  “God,Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilo”...