I’m enjoying Tom Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Began. Here’s a great passage in a much longer argument. He says that if we believe God is love then the Cross ought to be shaped by love, not by hatred:
People naturally ask: Does the Bible justify violence? And, in particular: Is the death of Jesus a supreme example of the God of the Bible using violence—violence, it seems, against his own son!—as a way of achieving his purposes? (I once heard that argument made explicitly in the 1970s by some who wanted to use violence to oppose South African apartheid; they were saying, in effect, if God could do it, so can we.) Even supposing those purposes are ultimately loving and aimed at rescuing people, is this an appropriate way for the one true God to behave?
These questions come to a head when some preachers and teachers present the meaning of the cross in relation to punishment. Here we have to be careful. There are many ways of talking about the “punishment of sin” and how that might relate to the event of Jesus’s death. At least one of those ways is clearly taught in the Bible, but it means something significantly different from what many people suppose—many, that is, of those who teach it and many who oppose it. But another way in which the cross has been interpreted in connection with “punishment” has been very popular in some quarters. In this view, God hates sinners so much that he is determined to punish them, but Jesus more or less happens to get in the way and take the death blow on their behalf, so they are somehow spared. It would (I think) be difficult to find a work of serious theology in any tradition that puts the matter as baldly as that. Theologians will almost always say, “But of course this was because of God’s love for us.” But at a popular level, in sermons and talks to young people, enthusiastic preachers will often throw caution to the winds and use illustrations or explanatory stories that fall into this trap.
The day after I wrote that last sentence I received an email that included a link to a short video claiming to sum up the gospel in a way that, I was told, I would find refreshing.
It would build up my faith. Intrigued, I watched it. It was well put together, with clever sequences and plenty of hi-tech touches. But at the centre of the message was a line that made my blood run cold. The video had described how we all mess up our lives, how we all do things that spoil God’s world, and so on. Then said the narrator, “Someone has to die,” and it turned out, of course, to be Jesus. That sums up the problem. What kind of “good news” is that? What kind of God are we talking about once we say that sort of thing? If God wants to forgive us, why can’t he just forgive us? (Voltaire famously suggested God would indeed forgive us, since after all that was his job.) Why does “someone have to die”? Why death? Why would that help? And could it just be ‘someone,” anyone? Did it have to be God’s own son? How does it all work?
The danger with this kind of popular teaching—and examples of it are not hard to come by—is that ultimately we end up rewriting one of the most famous verses in the Bible. I already quoted the King James, Version of John 3:16: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” Look at the two verbs: God so loved the world that he gave his son. The trouble with the popular version I have described is that it can easily be heard as saying, instead, that God so hated the world, that he killed his only son. And that doesn’t sound like good news at all. If we arrive at that conclusion, we know that we have not just made a trivial mistake that could easily be corrected, but a major blunder. We have portrayed God not as the generous Creator, the loving Father, but as an angry despot. That idea belongs not in the biblical picture of God, but with pagan beliefs.