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On the Redundancy of the Cross: A Good Friday Meditation

What, precisely, does it mean to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal?  What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? … A debt is the obligation to pay a certain sum of money… This allows debts to become simple, cold, and impersonal–which, in turn, allows them to be transferable…
…a topic that will  be explored at length in these pages, is money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic–and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene…
However, when one looks a little closer, one discovers that these two elements–the violence and the quantification–are intimately linked.  In fact it’s almost impossible to find one without the other.
~David Graeber, Debt: The First 500 Years, 13-14.

A particularly fine example of those outrageous or obscene outcomes, intertwining violence and quantification, are substitutionary atonement theories proposed by Christian theologians regarding the crucifixion of Jesus.  From such a perspective, humanity is in infinite debt to God but is incapable of paying that debt.  Therefore, God chooses to pay the debt himself (yes, the male pronoun is appropriate for God in this theory) by sacrificing his son or, from a different angle, by laying down his own life, and his death then abolishes or pays or satisfies  or nullifies this debt and makes possible the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and so on.  Variations of this go back to the very origins of Christianity — references to Jesus as a sacrificial Passover lamb can be found in the some of the earliest Christian texts found in the New Testament, “substitution” and “satisfaction” atonement theories are heavily favoured by the streams of Christianity that like to refer to themselves as “orthodox” (even if the various “orthodox” parties also have a history of condemning one another as “heretics”).
Sin as debt… owing God… perhaps with the devil acting as the repo man… quantification and violence… justifying obscene actions (like killing one’s own son, like suggesting killing an innocent atones for the sins of many, like suggesting that this is the only way things could play out)… all these things are woven together in such atonement theories.
I can’t say that it makes much or any sense to me.  Does God really have to sacrifice his own son, does Jesus really have to die, in order to restore right relationships with us?  How does that work exactly?  What kind of God would do this?  Who chooses to organize things in this way?  Or did God make some sort of gentleman’s agreement with the devil and this was his (yes, his) only out?  Despite all the suffering and harm that would happen to the world, God kept his end of the deal, but then forced the devil to overplay his hand (causing him to lose his “right” to humanity)?  Really?  Again, what would this say about God?  What kind of God would this be?  Why would the devil by given any “right” to humanity?
For a long time, I tended not to worry about such things because I favoured the Christus Victor atonement theory (which harkens back to the earlier ransom theory of Origen).  From this perspective, the cross of Christ wasn’t so much about satisfying God’s wrath, or abolishing a debt, but was, instead, the moment when God triumphed over all the coordinated powers of Sin and Death (and the devil, too, but I focused mostly on the former two — with Sin being nothing more than the physical and material outworkings of Death in the world).  I was content to leave things at that for several years and not worry too much about it (because, after all, this theory has problems, too: for example, what kind of God would choose to go about winning a victory in this way?  Why wait til then?  Wouldn’t this mean that God had been defeated up until this point?  Why would God permit that?).  To be honest, atonement theories related to Jesus (much like justification theories related to Paul) haven’t captured my interest all that much.  How God saves us hasn’t been an intense area of interest for me, that God saves us — and may save us in the here and now — has captured my attention to a far greater degree.
However, a few things got me rethinking this subject — not least, Graeber’s book, which made me ask: what if I think about this outside of the monetary language of business and commerce? — and asking myself what I actually do believe about all of this.
The truth is that I don’t actually accept any of the standard atonement theories.  They don’t make sense to me (including the moral influence theory which, although it has more going for it than substitutionary theories, still has its problems).  Here’s the catch: I can’t imagine that anything changed — at least as far as God was concerned — on the cross or after the cross.  Instead, what we see in the stories of the cross and resurrection is the way in which God chooses to be when in the company of a world that is broken and marked by Sin and Death.  What we see, if we believe the stories, is the way God has always been from the beginning of creation.  And what is this way?  The way of self-giving love, of solidarity, of kenosis, and the pursuit of the beloved.  What we see is that God is with us and there is no place so low, so terrible, or so godforsaken, that God is not also with us there.  Not only that, but God is with us in order to love us, to make us new, and give us life.  All that the cross of Jesus “does” is provide us with a particularly stark example of this.  Hence, the cross is redundant to the extent that it does not inaugurate this way of God being with us — it just helps some of us to (finally) get the point that this is how God always has been and always will be.  It is an apocalypse, a revelation of that which is, not an event that changes everything that was or will be.
Therefore, from this perspective, Jesus dies for the sins of the world — not because sin used to prevent God from saving us and now longer does so — but because that is what God chooses to do when in relationship with a world defined by Sin and, most especially, Death.  God dies everyday for (i.e. because of) the sins of the world.  That is God’s way of being with us.  The crazy message of Easter is that this dying is not futile.  And if the dying of God is meaningful then perhaps our living-unto-death is also meaningful.  Perhaps death is not the last word for us.  Perhaps, like the cross of Christ, we are redundant but not without meaning.

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    • Thanks, Beth. It’s good to hear from you — I hope you are well.
      I believe that the proper way to discern if a person is “orthodox” or not is to ask them if they are. That approach would probably make the best sense of the multitude of orthodoxies that have existed and continue to exist (in competition and contradiction) throughout the history of Christianity.
      Of course, this whole multitude of orthodoxies is part of my reason for considering any discussion about what is or is not “orthodox” a waste of time — the other thing being that the multitude of orthodoxies don’t have a great track record when it comes to living out the model of Jesus which is established, for example, in Phil 2.5-11, and I care more about that than about the “orthodox” label.
      In fact, a lot of orthodoxy has been little more than the religion of the victors and the powerful, who have then had the ability to vilify and eradicate, or co-opt and incorporate, other expressions of faith and their alternative commitments — so, unfortunately, from this perspective, there is much about “orthodoxy” that embodies the worst of the Christian tradition.

  1. Dan,
    I appreciate your post as well – in a Good Friday service this morning, it dimly occurred to me that the sermon moved a bit too quickly from the actual story of the crucifixion to the typically Reformed theological interpretation of the atonement.
    And as for orthodoxy, it’s quite interesting how neither the Apostles’ nor the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creeds endorse or even mention any theory of the atonement. So you might not have escaped orthodoxy yet – not that it matters! I merely raise the point because I sense some early Christians’ conception of what was central to their faith is very different from our own.
    Did I hear a little bit of Michael J. Gorman in this post?
    Oh and by the way, I _really_ appreciated your Palm Sunday sermon.

  2. Yes, but the Creeds do mention the descent to hell or to the dead… which I take to support my position! (And which is why I think we gotta read “Mysterium Paschale” by Balthasar alongside of “The Crucified God” by Moltmann, since it fills out and completes the picture.)
    And, yeah, there is definitely some Gorman in my response to Beth. I’ve just finished writing a chapter about honour and shame in relation to the Pauline epistles. Phil 2.5-11 was at the core of the chapter and I think Gorman has nailed that in his writings (he’s one of my all time favourites, especially “Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross” — that’s a book you can read and spend the rest of your life trying to embody).
    Thanks for the kind words.

  3. Dan,
    Thanks for this post. It’s definitely kept me thinking into Holy Saturday here while I try to study for my Greek final. Been reading along with you for years still without posting any comments (typical of many I am sure).
    Granted, you may dismiss this comment as not having enough concern for a life lived in cruciformity now, and also recognizing your valuable corrective to much of the praxis (and theology) typically resulting from the atonement theories you refer to, I still have one question.
    Could we not say that much of the good in atonement theories has been an attempt to do justice to the manner in which (the how?) the biblical testimony speaks to the vision of life that the God whose primarily revealed perfection is self-giving love ‘gives’ to his creatures and his Son (you referred to this yourself as something realized at the cross, c.f. vv. 9-11 of Phil 2)? In other words, the self-giving love of the crucified God, poured out in death, ultimately was not held there (leaning back to a Christus Victor model… maybe? – though I’m not so convinced about that either).
    I am realizing now (takes me a while, I know) that your polemic is more against the how than the what. There is still part of me, though, that thinks that the ‘how’ is critical for imagination and vision of our participation in the self-giving love of the crucified God, in death unto life. Perhaps now I’ll have to take some to reflect on the ways in which meditating on the how is a good distraction from the what.

    • Hi Steve,
      Studying for Greek finals was one of my least favourite things about my studies. Although, as David notes below, the Greek certainly did influence my thinking in this case (in that “for” can also mean “because of”).
      I do think you’re correct that a lot of atonement theories are efforts to make sense of “the how” of salvation but, like many theories that develop around “the how” of God and God’s work, I do think that it’s mostly a distraction and not something that we can answer all that well.
      In terms of leaning back to a Christus Victor model, well, the model isn’t all that bad but I think the point I’m making as that Christ has always been sovereign from the beginning of all things, just as Christ has always been crucified from the beginning of all things as Rev 13.8 states.
      Anyway, a friend just sent me a link to a post by Andrew Perriman which explores similar themes and may be a useful help as we think through this:
      All the best on your finals!

  4. Sweet. I’ve had my own issues with financial metaphors, but from the angle of resisting neoliberalism. After reading Lakoff and Johnson I could never say “Pay attention!” the same way again. Even CV, which I like a heck of a lot more than sub. atonement, seemed to hinge on a metaphor intimately tied to violence and colonialism. I may need the oppressor’s language to talk to you, so what’s the new language you see coming out of this understanding? Organic metaphors of newness and (rhizomatic?) growth? What are the metaphors of death-dealing ways that we North Americans must problematize?

    • Hey BronzeArcher,
      I suppose my go-to with this is not to immediately try and think about the “new language” or “metaphors” that arise out of this understanding but, instead, to ask: what are the actions that embody this?

  5. “God dies everyday for (i.e. because of) the sins of the world.”
    I remember when it dawned on me that prepositions in Greek and Hebrew can become hugely important theological points of clarification. I was thinking of the same shift in that sentence this Easter.