These past few months, I’ve thought a lot about a conversation I had with a parent a while back. The parent was asking me: How do I explain to my daughter why Jesus died? Because my kid asked me that question, and I started to answer, but realized I didn’t like what I was about to say and I wasn’t sure I even believed it myself.
I asked her a little more about what it was she thought but didn’t say about why Jesus died, and she told me this theory to do with how bad we all are from God’s perspective, and how much God needs to punish us, and how Jesus got punished instead of us, which takes us off the hook. And as I was listening, I was nodding my head because I knew this version of the story. I’d believed and told parts of that story myself at one time. But I could get why it wasn’t something she wanted to pass on to her daughter.
Because it makes God seem so cruel. Does God really think we’re all so awful? Not just the villains of humanity, but our saints and heroes and legends? Our young children? That would seem to be a harsh perspective. And does God think we’re so awful that we all deserve to be punished badly, continually, forever, if God can’t find someone else to punish instead? If that’s what God is like, so be it, I guess, but it does sound cruel.
Now, to be clear, I don’t think this is what God is like. I don’t think this is the best way to understand the death of Jesus either. There’s more to the story. And over the next seven weeks, here on Sundays, and in a blog series I’m writing, and a daily Bible guide that Lydia and I are writing together, we’ll explore the truest and deepest and most beautiful ways we know for considering why Jesus died, and what happened on the cross. More about that later.
But I start with this story because we’re learning more and more that so much of what has been called justice is not just but is cruel. And some of the things we’ve thought and said about God and ourselves aren’t that beautiful and just either, but cruel.
And we can do better.
One place that’s gotten people thinking and talking about all this is a really popular TV show that sadly just finished its run. It’s called The Good Place. How many of you have watched this show?
It’s a comedy, but it’s a comedy that for the past few years has brought us some really rich reflection on the meaning of life. And I want to show you a little clip from the final season.
For those of you that haven’t seen it, The Good Place begins with four people waking up after death to find they’re in a kind of heaven, what’s called The Good Place, but one of them knows she’s there by mistake. The show takes a lot of twists and turns, which I won’t spoil for you, but eventually these same four people have the opportunity to redesign the afterlife. To try to make it fair and just for people. Stakes are high – if they can’t pull it off, the Judge of all things will use the powers of this not-quite-robot-not-quite-person named Janet to cancel earth itself. The main character speaking here in this two-minute scene will be a man named Chidi, who in his earthly life was a professor of moral philosophy.
Let’s have it.
Good Place Scene from Season 4, Episode 10
Chidi raises the problem of cruelty. They’re talking about our criminal justice system, for sure, but they’re also talking about the afterlife. Chidi wonders why many people should go to Hell, or what the show calls The Bad Place. In most cases, he says, “The cruelty of the punishment does not match the cruelty of the life that one has lived.” Or as his love interest Elanor says, “This is a problem of justice.”
They never mention God or Jesus or the cross, but we could ask the same question about all that. Does the cross tell us that God is cruel, but that we’re lucky to escape that cruelty? Or does it tell us something else?
For the next seven Sundays, we’ll be looking at bits of what happened on the cross through the lens of the seven things Jesus said as he was dying there. Here’s the first:
Luke 23:26-34 (NRSV)
26 As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27 A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28 But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.
This is such a cruel scene. There’s an African immigrant or refugee – Simon of Cyrene, modern-day Libya. And he’s forced by the Roman soldiers to march with Jesus, helping him to carry the tools of his own execution.
There are these women who admire Jesus, and they are beating their chests and wailing over the cruelty and injustice of his arrest and torture and impending death. But as they wail, Jesus warns them even grimmer days lie ahead for them under Rome. They’ve not seen the worst of it.
Suffering piles up upon suffering, in this place called the Skill, where hardened soldiers bet over dead men’s clothing, and where Jesus and two criminals are strapped to wooden crosses with rope, nailed down by their hands and feet, and hung up to asphyxiate and die.
It’s an incredibly cruel scene. Luke is using this powerful literary technique called juxtaposition, where you contrast two really different things so that you’ll understand them both better.
With his words he’s panning around the cross, capturing all the cruelty of the moment. And then in contrast, there’s Jesus and he is so generous and gentle. Jesus too looks out over the cruelty of it all, and says to God, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus views all the participants in his death, the spectators to his pain, more charitably than they deserve. He asks God to hold none of this against them. Jesus uses his dying breaths to love them.
Both the Bible and the best Christian thinking about God have said that Jesus is the clearest picture we’ll ever get of what an invisible God is like. You want to see what God looks like? Look at Jesus. You want to hear what God sounds like? Listen to Jesus.
And here, despite the cruelty all around him, Jesus is gentle, and is fiercely loving kind. Co-suffering, self-giving, radically forgiving.
So where did my friend and so many of us get this idea that the story of God we find on the cross is cruel?
Well, one theory of what happened on the cross is known in technical terms as “penal substitutionary atonement.” Penal substitutionary atonement – it’s kind of an unfortunate name for a theory, because if you say the first word just a little bit wrong, as I have several times – penile – well, then it sounds like a very different kind of theory.
But what penal substitutionary atonement means is: that we’re so bad as far as God is concerned that God needs to punish us. That instead God punishes God’s child Jesus, who is also in some ways God’s self, by letting him be killed, even though he isn’t bad. And this punishment satisfies God’s anger and sense of justice, so that God can forgive people that trust this system to work for them.
Now there are a few places the Bible says something that if you read it a particular way, sort of sounds like this theory. And now and then, in Christian history, there were bits and pieces of this theory that were expressed. But it really got popular based on the teaching of a Swiss Protestant reformer named John Calvin who – not surprisingly – was trained as a lawyer and so thought a lot about crime and punishment and thought of God on these terms.
But this theory has a lot of problems.
For one, as I’ve shared, many of us don’t want to share it with our children. It seems to portray a vindictive, violent, punishment-obsessed God, a God who would also kill his own child to save others. Awkward.
Two, belief in this theory has not borne the best of fruit in the Prostestant-influenced Western world. Worship of a sometimes violent God has usually made it easier for people to do violence on one another. There’s this deep and true phrase: we become what we worship. Worship a violent God, and well… Christians with this view of God have happily colonized, enslaved, and executed others in the name of this God.
Three, a belief that justice mainly requires punishment has helped us make peace with things like mass incarceration. But – as even The Good Place implied – we have learned that most of our practices of punishment aren’t just and don’t heal or change the world for the better. So, most of us parents for instance don’t beat our kids anymore. If we ever did, we regret it. It’s not even legal around here anymore.
And four, this theory just doesn’t sound like good news to most of us. The story and life of Jesus – including his death – is supposed to be cleary good news to us all. But this makes God seem cruel.
On our blog, and in our Bible guide, and in the sermons in the weeks to come during Lent, we’ll share some other understandings of what was happening on the cross, and why Jesus died there.
But I want to first point out that God forgiving humanity our cruelty isn’t something God figured how to do on the cross when Jesus died. It’s always been what God is like.
The psalms, written hundreds and hundreds of years before Jesus died, will now and then celebrate how good it is that God forgives God’s children, that God loves us and that it gives us freedom to make our mistakes and faults known to God and know that God hasn’t rejected or abandoned us.
The Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament, also mainly speaking and writing hundreds of years before Jesus, are wrestling with the public and social sins of the nation – with messed up religion, with economic injustice, with public cruelty and foolishness – ancient versions of all of today’s dilemmas. And they do this in colorful language, full of threats and warnings, but underneath it all, they do this because they take for granted that their community is in relationship with a God who wants better for them but is also happy to put all their history behind them once they’ve made amends. The God of the prophets wants to stay engaged with the people because God loves them and will forgive them their grave public errors.
The law of the Old Testament too makes provision for people’s understanding that before God, you are not the sum of your worst thoughts or worst qualities or worst actions. Sometimes at great expense to the lives and blood of small mammals, people were to have these visual, sensory reminders that God loves to clean the slate, that God loves second and third and fourth chances.
When Jesus calls his God, Abba – Father, this is part of what he assumes to be true of this God.
This isn’t easy for all of us. We’ve spoken often about how when Jesus or the Bible calls God Father, it’s not implying God is a man. God is mother to us all as well, and there is language about this in the Bible as well – not as much as Father language to be sure, but it’s there.
It’s also hard because not all of us have known fathers, or mothers for that matter, to be full of love and forgiveness, or very good at expressing it. A few of us have known outright cruel parents. Most of us have known parents that tried their best and never wanted to be cruel, but were cruel on occasion nevertheless, sometimes cruel without wanting to be, sometimes cruel without even realizing that was the effect they were having.
Jesus seemed to get this, when he said, you parents are evil. (And I’m paraphrasing here, but only a little – it’s in Luke 11 and Matthew 7.) He said: Even though you’re evil, for the most part, when your kids ask you for bread, you don’t give them stones. When your kids ask you for fish, you don’t give them scorpions. (Unless you live in a part of the world where people eat scorpions, which Jesus didn’t, so we’ll forgive him this insensitivity.) How much more, Jesus says, will a perfectly loving parent like God give you all that you need, especially the kindness and compassion and forgiveness that you need.
God’s not a crueler or meaner parent than us. God is not obsessed with punishment and blame, bound by the need to satisfy his own anger before he can associate with us. Our instincts that tell us this can’t be true, and so does Jesus.
Jesus shows us this on the cross as well when surrounded by cruelty, he says: Father, my Abba who loves to forgive, forgive all these people too.
If the cross is the center of the life of Jesus, and Jesus reveals what God is like to us, then we can say that the nature of God is and always has been forgiving.
God is love, and not just generally, not just sentimentally. But as the contemporary theologian Brad Jersak says, God is self-giving, co-suffering, all-forgiving love.
There’s an irony to this with the excerpt I showed you from The Good Place. Because The Good Place highlights that at least some traditional religious conceptions of God and justice and the afterlife are inherently unfair and cruel. And they’re right.
Hang with me on just a quick bit of moral philosophy here, since we’re in a college town and all.
The philosopher that Chidi mentions in the episode wrote about this too. Judith Shklar taught down the road at Harvard and she died across the river in Boston just a few years before this church was founded in the 1990s. The essay Shklar wrote that Chidi is referring to is titled Putting Cruelty First. She’s arguing that cruelty is the first of our vices, that it should be at the top of any list of moral evils. But in that essay, she argues that we have to be thoroughly secular, non-spiritual, non-religious, to put cruelty first. Because religions need their problems to be affronts against God and God’s standards of moral purity. So Christianity has for instance headed up its traditional sin lists with pride, an affront to God. Shklar notes that cruelty is not one of the church’s traditional seven deadly sins, it’s not outlawed in the 10 commandments either, maybe because it’s not an affront to God, merely a horrible way to treat one’s neighbor. And if churches haven’t put cruelty first, no wonder that historically, many churchgoers have been – along with their non-churchgoing neighbors – really cruel.
I love Shklar’s sense of morality here. I too think we need to put cruelty aside, in the ways we treat friend and stranger and self in this life. But the genius of Jesus is that love of God isn’t a barrier to this, it requires this. Jesus taught that love of neighbor was inextricably tied to love of God. He even taught that we love God through our love of neighbor, and his first followers taught that if we can’t love other people but say we love God, then we are liars.
And Jesus showed us that cruelty is in fact an affront to God, one of the gravest of sins, because God is not one bit cruel, so cruelty is a repudiation of the nature of God.
If our God sounds cruel, it is us talking, not God. And if our conception of what happened on the cross sounds cruel, then we are not listening to what Jesus said there: Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.
The God we confront on the cross is a God who confronts cruelty by entering into it, suffering its effects, and by countering it with fierce lovingkindness, and with all-forgiving love. This is a good and beautiful and just God, who has no cruelty in Godself, and wants to love the cruelty out of us all as well.
I want to wrap up with a couple of implications or invitations I see in this, about how we see Jesus, and forgiveness, and the cross, and about how we see ourselves and one another.
With Jesus, part of how we ended up with this punishment-centered, cruel version of what happened on the cross was that we turned a subject into an object. We turned a person into a formula. Our logical minds want to understand – if Jesus’s death is tied to our life, and if part of that is that Jesus’ death is connected to God forgiving all our cruelty and all our other sin, then we want to understand exactly how this works.
We want a formula. Our problem was X. Jesus did Y. And so the outcome was Z. Who said we couldn’t put a little algebra in our sermons?
Penal substitutionary atonement fills in this formulal nicely. It says our problem is that we’re horrible. And innocent, non-horrible Jesus took God’s massive punishment of us all onto his dying soldiers, so we can be free of punishment, declared innocent and just and so able to live at peace with God in this life and the next.
The formula has a certain legal logic to it, except it kind of doesn’t make sense. No court randomly punishes the wrong people and calls that justice. And every time there’s a crime, you can’t go back and punish the same person again and again – the person who didn’t do the crime at all – call that justice. That’s just weird. And, as I’ve said at length, this formula implies that God is cruel, and that God has a hard time loving us as we are. Both of which are disastrous to healthy private life and healthy public life.
This formula breaks down because it isn’t the truth, it’s a metaphor. It’s an image to get at one little piece of a bigger truth. And it’s well known that if you push any metaphor too far, it breaks down.
This is why the Bible gives us so many metaphors for what happened in the life of Jesus to make things right again. I write more about this in part two of the series on the blog, “Why did Jesus die?” but a psychologist I like named Richard Beck has this table of 22 metaphors the New Testament uses to describe what happened between God and people in the life of Jesus.
There’s a legal metaphor. Our problem is guilt, Jesus is punished, we are free. But there are at least 21 more. Our problem is sickness, our doctor Jesus’ prescriptions for life are medicine, and we can be healthy. Our problem is alienation, God adopts us into a big family with God’s kid Jesus, and so we are kin. Our problem is aloneness, but God in Christ joins us in all our suffering, so God is with us. And on and on it goes.
So many metaphors to understand the real and true person of Jesus at the heart of all the good news. Jesus, good news, an eternal kind of life — all that stuff is not metaphor. But we have lots of metaphors to help us welcome it all into our minds and hearts.
If nothing else, take this away from today and from this whole Lent. God is not cruel. God is self-giving, co-suffering, all-forgiving love, delighting in being good to us.
This Lent, we take an image – the cross – that has been cruel to many. An image of colonization and war to Muslims, an image of anti-Semitism to Jews, a flaming image of racial terror to Black Americans, an image of God’s cruelty to many of us, and we reclaim it as the worst thing humans could do to one another reclaimed by God as an instrument of all that God has, which is fierce and holy, gentle and kind, love for us all.
Forgiving love isn’t God’s back-up plan to make things right again. It isn’t an exception to God’s character. Forgiving love is at the center of God’s nature.
And then With ourselves, we become like what we worship. If we worship a God that fights cruelty with love, that has no cruelty inside of God, then we will inevitably have more inclination and more power to put cruelty aside ourselves. And to confront the cruelty we see in ourselves and in others and in our world with fierce and gentle love.
I know myself, what I regret most in life isn’t my pride, it isn’t my moments of being irreligious, it is my cruelty. Things I’ve said or done, or left unsaid or undone that have been cruel to my children. That have been cruel to the students or communities I’ve served professionally. That have been cruel to my family, cruel to my friends, cruel to my wife. Even the attitudes I’ve had about God and self and world that have led to me being cruel to myself, causing myself wounds and pain that God never wanted for me. If I could take anything back in life, it would be all this cruelty.
Whenever we discover someone we admire was horribly, horribly flawed, as I did just yesterday morning for instance, we realize that a part of them was so still so mean or so broken or so unhealthy, that they were cruel there.
The cross tells us that this is not our destiny. This is not the end of our human story.
Jesus forgives us our cruelty, if we’re humble enough to admit it and to want to make amends – to chart a healthier and more just future for ourselves. And in worshipping this forgiving, gentle Jesus, we’ll grow in our desire and power to be like him, to put cruelty aside for fierce, gently, just, forgiving love.
More next week, friends.
Two invitations for this week:
Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing
In your personal and public life, how can you reduce cruelty and magnify kindness, gentleness, and forgiving love?
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Give Lent a shot this year. Our guide starts today and continues M-F until Easter.
I’ll talk a bit more about Lenten practices next week, but this week: engage this daily devotional guide. If you miss a day, so be it, but they’re shorter than they used to be, and I hope you’ll give it a whirl. Go to one of our community groups and talk about it, or find a friend or two to connect about it. Read the blogs too if you want – that’s bonus. Lots of other great things going on – a group to unpack your baggage if you need a restart to your faith. Lots more. But this season is for you, all of you, take advantage of this time.