Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Is This What God Felt?

Raised as a Christian, I attended Sunday School and Church throughout childhood and during those years, I heard the following message over and over again:

"God sent his Son, Jesus, to earth to die for our sins.  We couldn't ever have paid the price for them so when Jesus died on the cross, because he was innocent, he paid the price for our sins, took all of them away, and because of that sacrifice, we don't have to go to hell anymore and can go to heaven instead!"

There were many years in which I wondered, wide eyed, at the enormity of this sacrifice and focused purely on what it meant for me - I could be forgiven of all the mistakes I made and after I died, could spent eternity in a heavenly paradise.  Yay!  Yes please! I'll have some of that!  Sounds good to me!

Many years later, two and a bit of which have been spent in theological college training to be a vicar, and I now know that the technical term for this description of Jesus dying on the cross is called "Penal Substitution" - essentially this means that God sent Jesus to earth in order to be punished (penal - penalty) for our sins.  He was 'substituted' in our place so although he was innocent, he took our sins onto himself, thus paying the price for them that we could never pay.  This is a very common view among many Christians in certain areas of the church, but I also now know that there are many other ways of looking at Christ's death on the cross.  I also now believe that this view is wrong and that churches which teach it as the only true way to understand the meaning behind Jesus' death on the cross are also wrong.  An extraordinarily strong opinion I know, but allow me to explain why I feel this way:

You see for a long time, there has been one particular bit of that rather glib explanation that has really bothered me and it's contained in the first three words:

"God sent His Son..."

We describe God as Father because this is one of the ways God has been revealed to us in the Bible, with many verses talking about His overwhelming love for us and for creation (the fact that God could just as easily be described as Mother is a whole other discussion so I won't go there now or we'll be here forever).  But the thing is if God is Father then this means God as Parent has that same overwhelming, passionate love for His children as human parents have for their own children.  

I always knew in principle that parents would do anything for their children, but it wasn't until I had Adam and so became a parent myself that I really understood that anything means anything.  I would quite literally lay down my life for Adam if I needed too, I would throw myself under a bus if it meant keeping him safe from being hit by one (an unlikely event admittedly but just go with me here) and I would give up anything I had to if it meant a choice between his welfare or my own.  My point is that my love for Adam means that nothing and no one in this world is more important to me than him.  My love for Adam overwhelms me, consumes me and defines my world.  Because Adam was born, I am completely changed - forever.

So because of this love, I started wondering about some of the things I'd been taught about God and looking at them a little bit more closely.

"God sent His Son...to die..."

I started to feel uncomfortable.  And I thought, hang on a second:  God is Parent.  God therefore loves His Son, Jesus, with a similar but likely even greater, more overwhelming love than I feel for Adam (simply because God is God and so cannot be defined by human emotion).  But God sent His Son to earth...to die???  What kind of parent SENDS their child somewhere specifically to die?

Well you could say military parents come pretty close to that category, after all they know their children are signing up for a job that does come with the pretty serious risk of death.  And if you look at war memorials all over the country, it's pretty common to see the Bible verse inscribed, "Greater love hath no man than this than to lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13, King James Version)  But actually, I would argue that while military parents know their children face the risk of death, they don't send them specifically to die.  They send them, hoping (and praying) they will return.

So what kind of parent sends their child to die?  What kind of parent is God if He sent His Son to die? Did he really love Jesus all that much or was Jesus expendable?  Was he a pawn in some kind of immense cosmic plan?  Because if He was, then that's not the kind of God I can believe in.  That's not the kind of God I want to believe in.

No.  I don't think He was - a pawn that is.  I think we've got it wrong - or at least I should clarify that I think this interpretation misses a pretty big part of the message.  I do believe Jesus died on the cross and I do believe this was a defining point for us as humanity in our relationship with God but what I don't believe - no longer believe - is that God sent His Son to die.  Because I don't think any decent human parent would ever send their child somewhere to die, I also don't think God - who is infinitely bigger and more loving than any of us ever could be or can ever really comprehend - would ever send His Son to die.  I think the meaning of Christ dying on the cross was a bit more complex than that.  I don't think God ever wanted His Son to die at all, I think that while He knew it was a very real possibility (or even likelihood) that Jesus might die, I don't think He ever wanted Him to die or sent Jesus specifically to die.  I don't believe in that kind of God.

I think God made a decision more years and millennia ago than any of us can ever comprehend.  God committed Himself to a path so radical that even after thousands of years of it tripping off our tongue, we still don't really understand it - freewill.  God granted human beings both the greatest gift and also the deepest curse possible - the ability to make our own choices, an individuals, as groups, as cultures, as countries...as a mob.  Sometimes, we've made some extraordinarily wonderful decisions - Mother Theresa, Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. spring to mind - but other times, we've made some decisions that are so horrendous that we should shrink back from the consideration of them - The Crusades.  The Holocaust.  The Death of Christ.

You see, I do believe that Jesus - God Incarnate - came into our world but I don't believe He came to die.  I believe Jesus came willingly with a message - He knew it was a risk, and he knew His message may not be accepted, but He chose to come anyway to give us the chance - and the choice.  He came to tell us that God loves us and wants to have a relationship with us.  He came to tell us to love each other and to honour one another by considering each other's needs before our own.  He came to tell us to spend a little bit less time judging each other and a little bit more time loving each other.  He came to tell us we were making some mistakes but he didn't come with a big stick to beat us into submission, he came to show us where we were going wrong and to help us get it right.  He came to ask us to have a relationship with a God who loves us with a passion and in committing ourselves to that relationship, to also commit ourselves to a life where we, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself.  On these two hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:36-40)  Because that kind of love - if we had accepted it and agreed to let it fill us - would have changed us.  It's simply not possible to be consumed with love and also filled with hate - or anger - or bitterness.  A pure love that consumes an entire heart, an entire soul and an entire mind, ultimately pushes out what is dark because there is no room for darkness.

And what did we do?  How did we react?  Some of us listened, some of us thought what Jesus was saying was a pretty good idea.  But some of us were uncomfortable with what Jesus was saying.  He was challenging the way we were living our lives, the things we were doing, the things we weren't doing and we didn't like it.  Very few children actually like it when a parent corrects them for doing something wrong or challenges them to do something differently, sometimes children throw tantrums when they are corrected and things get kind of out of control for a while.  In this case, some of us didn't like the message so much that we killed the Messenger.  We did something so unconscionable that we can never make it right on our own.  God came to us in the form of a human man and told us we were loved more than we could ever possibly understand...and we killed him for it.

But in that moment, when Christ was hanging on the cross, if He really was God then He could have gotten Himself down, saved Himself from torture and death.  One of the men watching the scene firsthand suggested precisely this (Matthew 27:38) but Jesus ignored him.  Similarly, if God really is all powerful and if God really did love His Son that much, then surely He could have taken Jesus off that cross - why didn't He?  What kind of sadistic parent watches their own child in abject suffering and does nothing?  

But you see, God couldn't have taken Jesus down off that cross.  His hands were tied - by us.  Now don't misunderstand me, I believe God as the all-powerful Creator of the universe did have the literal, physical (so to speak) power to take Jesus down but if He had chosen to exercise that power, he would have undone millenia's worth of freedom.  In an instant, He would have taken away human freewill and turned us into robots, puppets; He would have taken away the essential thing that makes us human - the power we have to decide and then to act.  The power we had when we chose to hang Jesus on that cross.

So instead, the God who had so utterly, completely and profoundly committed Himself to creating a species that had the power to choose, stood by and watched while His own Son suffered in the most appalling way imaginable.   I think in that moment, God was caught up in a storm, a storm so overwhelming that it shook the universe because, as a result of a decision made more millenia ago that we can imagine, God was powerless to save His Son.

So why on earth am I writing all of this?  This is hardly the usual subject for a blog about Adam which sometimes details his struggles, and at other times details the love and joy we experience in our lives with him.  I'm writing it precisely because these ideas that have been floating around in my head for quite some time now have crystalised into sharp focus for me.  

When I wrote of my experience with one of Adam's overwhelming tantrums yesterday, I spent some time reflecting on it afterwards.  And I realised something that, for me, really felt quite profound - when I was sitting on the floor with my arms wrapped around my son as he screamed, thrashed and was completely taken over by an experience very likely triggered by Autism; he was overwhelmed by a storm that he could not control and that I could not control.  In that moment, I would have gladly changed places with him and endured his suffering if it meant taking it away from him...but I couldn't.  I could have chosen to abandon him to his suffering or rebuked him for his "bad behaviour" - but of course there was absolutely no way that was going to happen because he wasn't "behaving" badly.  The fact that he was screaming, flailing and hitting me was not a symptom of naughtiness, it was a symptom of illness and suffering.  My son was suffering and as a result, I was suffering as well.

So I did the only thing I could have done: I wrapped my arms around my son and I endured the storm with him.  I sat in the middle of that storm and I told him over and over and over again that he was safe and that I loved him.  At that moment, I'm sure he didn't feel safe because circumstances (an illness) beyond his control were overwhelming him, but because I knew what was causing it, I also knew that eventually, we would come out the other side and he would be safe.  He would be safe because I was right there with him and there was absolutely no way I was going to leave him.  

And so, finally, I come to my point:  I wonder if that's how God felt when His Son, Jesus, was in utter agony, hanging on that cross and dying.  Did He feel as I felt in that moment?  Did he feel overwhelmed by the storm of human decisions to the point that all He could do, all He could focus on was to wrap His arms around His suffering Son and say into His ear, "I love you.  You're safe.  I love you.  I'm here.  We're going to get through this.  I love you."  And as His Son suffered, did God's silent tears drip down onto His head and did His Son have any awareness that His Father was crying over Him in the midst of the storm?  When Jesus cried out from the cross, "My God!  My God!  Why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)  Was this similar to the screams of utter anguish my son was letting out yesterday?  Screams in which he could no longer hear me, could no longer feel me, could no longer do anything except be caught up in the storm?  Screams in which I'm sure he was convinced he had been abandoned?  And, in response, was God actually saying, "I'm here, I love you, I'm here."  

I believe God was doing precisely that and I think the Bible makes this pretty clear:

"Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised." (Matthew 27:51-52)

What moment of profound parental love could ever be more apparent?  God's Son cries out in desperation as he dies...and the entire universe shakes.  That's not a God who sent His Son to die, that's a God who is grieving as His Son dies.  That is a God who would stop the universe if He could ease His Son's suffering but a God who knows that if He does so, then he alters the entire course of human and cosmic history.

But still, what's the point?  If God was really all that powerless, then why should I believe in Him; why should I follow Him?  Unsurprisingly, I think the ultimate answer to that question lies in the Resurrection - but perhaps not precisely in the way you might at first think.  I could focus on the simple yet amazing fact that God is so powerful that He brought Jesus back to life again after He died.  But for me, it's more than that.  Yes, God is powerful enough to conquer death and that's pretty amazing in itself but the most simple and yet profound thing about the Resurrection is this:
Jesus came back.

God came back.

In the words of one ordinand (a person training to be a Vicar) from Westcott House in Cambridge:

"And you could imagine this story was saying: the whole of religious history, of human history, of cosmic history was designed in order that God could come to us as a friend, face the worst we had to throw at him, and somehow stay with us.  And then?  Then, He shares breakfast with the friends who betrayed Him.  So he offers them a reconciliation that doesn't even need them to say sorry first.  Well, it's ludicrous.  But I realised that, to me, it's so ludicrous, it rings true."  ("Glimpses of God", Westcott House, 2004)

For me, this is the truth about Jesus death on the cross (or the Atonement to use the theological term).  God came and walked among us; we didn't listen when he sent people to tell us about Him (prophets) so instead, God sent His own Son to us - surely they'll listen to My Son? (and funnily enough, Jesus told precisely that story in one of His parables before He died, you can find it in Matthew 21:33-42)  But just like the tenants in the parable, we still didn't listen and our not listening got so big that we killed Him.  And as He died, God wrapped his arms of love around His Son, just as I wrapped my arms of love around my son while he was suffering, and He whispered as I did, "I'm here.  I love you.  You're safe.  I'm here."  

And then, he did the most amazing thing of all - something that proves He is God because He has more ability to love and to forgive than any human being (including myself!) has:  after watching His Son die in the most appalling, terrible way, God came back to us and said, and keeps saying to us:  "I'm here.  I love you.  You're safe.  I'm here."

Now that's overwhelming, passionate, parental love.  That's the kind of love that no storm will ever shake.  That's the kind of love that overwhelms, subsumes and recreates destinies.  That's the kind of love that would prompt a parent to allow themselves to die if it meant saving their children.

That's the kind of God I can believe in.

Cradling my desperately ill son in hospital


  1. The Church has tentatively considered this view as perilously close to heresy! HOWEVER, that the death of Christ (except possibly from old age) might NOT have been inevitable is reflected in
    1 Corinthians 2:6-8
    6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory

  2. Actually, I think you'd be surprised (as was I) to learn how relatively recent theories of penal substitution and even substitutionary atonement are (understanding 'relatively recent' in light of a 2,000 year old institution) This theory was first seen in Anselm of Canterbury, hugely formed by Calvin during the Reformation and developed by Charles Hodge in America in the eighteenth century.

    But the main point is that it is one theory among many, so questioning it isn't actually heresy, even though it may seem so if that's the only theory that has been learnt.

    If you're interested in reading more on the topic, try any of these: (and there are plenty more where they came from!)

    1. Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, "The Lost Message of Jesus" (Zondervan, 2003)

    2. J. Denny Weaver, "The Nonviolent Atonement" (WB Eerdmans Publishing, 2011)

    3. John Goldingay (Editor), "Atonement Today" (St John's College, 1995


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