Christ's Suffering – Divine Punishment?

Is God a sado-masochist?  This provocative question comes, as one might expect, from Richard Dawkins, who loves parodying Christian doctrines, in order to demonstrate their absurdity.   In his book The God Delusion, he condemns the theology that suggests that God insisted on punishing sin, and so put his own son Jesus to death instead of those who had offended him.    For once I find myself in agreement with Dawkins.  It is, to say the least, difficult to understand how a just God could act in such a way, punishing the innocent in order to forgive the guilty. 

            And yet many Christians do apparently believe something like this, seeing God as demanding punishment for sins, and transferring them to Jesus, in some kind of travesty of divine justice.  Justice?  Is this the act of a righteous and loving God?  What has gone wrong?

            But let us begin at the beginning – and that means, with the suffering and death of Jesus.  When anyone dies prematurely, whether through accident, illness, or malice, our first question tends to be 'Why?'  A child is run over – Why?  A woman dies of a brain tumour – Why?  A man is murdered in the street.  Why?  You can answer all those questions at what we may perhaps call the factual level.  The child died because she ran out onto the street, and because the car driver was going too fast; the woman died because the disease was particularly aggressive, or because she sought treatment too late.  The man was murdered because his assailant was violent and his victim happened to get in his way.

            Dig a little deeper, and you might come up with yet more answers, for the events that lead up to a tragedy are rarely simple.  The child was run over because her mother was distracted, and failed to hold her hand, or perhaps because the speed limit in the road was too high; the woman died because she inherited particular genes, or perhaps because traffic pollution affected her.  The man was killed because his murderer was high on drink or drugs, or perhaps had a mental illness.

            Sometimes the questions end there, and the victim’s relatives will nurse their loss and try – in vain – to forget.  But often the 'Why?' will take another twist; no longer just 'Why?' in the sense of 'What caused this to happen?' but

something approaching 'What purpose does it serve?'  Grieving relatives and friends try to find some meaning in what happened, and to bring something positive out of the tragedy.  They campaign for safer roads, for medical research, for gun-control; they set up scholarships to help others, plant trees or commission benches to bring pleasure to others.  Look no further than this College to find examples of these things.

            Why did Jesus die?  At the historical level, there are some obvious answers: he died because he offended the Jewish authorities, who regarded him as a blasphemer; he died because he was seen as a danger by the Roman authorities, who dealt with him as they dealt with all possible rebels and trouble-makers.  Ask a few more questions, and you may say his death came about because one of his own disciples, Judas, betrayed his whereabouts, or even because Jesus himself insisted on going to Jerusalem, and so putting his head into a noose.   But when Christians ask the question 'Why did Jesus die?' they are not particularly interested in the historical problems, but mean rather 'What was the purpose of Jesus' death?'  For if it happened, that must surely mean that God allowed it to happen.  Does this mean that he intended it to happen?   If so, why?

            I do not intend to get myself enmeshed tonight in a debate about predestination and freewill – far too big a topic for one address.  It is enough to point out that the first disciples of Jesus, devastated by his death, did not have long to wait for an answer to their question.  Three days after Jesus’ death, they became convinced that he had been raised from the dead.  Here was the answer – here was the meaning.  God had vindicated Jesus, proved him innocent.  But more than this, they themselves, believing in what God had done, experienced a sense of new life, which they described graphically as the coming of the Holy Spirit, enabling them to start all over again.  They realized that God was, as it were, on their side, and that in some mysterious way Jesus' death had led to their new life.  The answer to the question 'Why?' was found in their own changed lives.  There was no need for them to campaign for safer roads or gun control,

or to plant trees or donate benches.  It was enough for them to start telling everyone what had happened, and turning the world upside down.

            But how were they to explain what had happened?  How were they to convince others that the death and resurrection of Jesus were meaningful?

Read the New Testament, and you will find its authors groping to find good ways to express their significance.  And of course they used the language and images of the day.    

One of the earliest explanations is the simple 'Christ died for our sins'.  But what does that mean?  How does his death affect our sins?   An obvious metaphor for what had taken place was that of sacrifice, for sacrifice was an everyday occurrence in the ancient world.  Why did one offer sacrifice?  One reason was to appease the anger of the gods – but that’s not an image that is used in the New Testament.  Another was to offer thanks – a gift, as it were, to God – a common idea in the Old Testament.  And yet another reason was to atone for sin – the blood of the slaughtered animal in some mysterious way cleansing the people and opening up the way to God.  The notion of sacrifice belongs to another era and another world, and yet we still use the image; we speak of someone sacrificing themselves for the sake of others – a demonstration of love.  And love is a term used frequently in the New Testament for what happened in Christ's death.  Perhaps the most famous quotation in the whole book is found in John 3:16: 'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….' 

            The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews used the imagery of one particular sacrifice which was offered once a year in the Jerusalem Temple.       He likens Jesus to the high priest, who would enter the holiest part of the Temple on the Day of the Atonement, and cleanse the altar of sin, with the blood of an animal.  But Jesus needed to do this only once – and the sacrifice he offered was himself!  So sin, the barrier that separated men and women from God, was done away for all time.  St Paul uses all sorts of metaphors.  Christ’s death, he says, is like that of the Passover lamb, killed when in Egypt, and seen by the Jews as the means by which they escaped from slavery in that land.   Paul talks very little about sins, but rather about Sin – an alien force, which enslaves men and women and from which they need to be set free.  Through Christ’s death, he declares, men and women have been redeemed, set free, from slavery to sin.  Or again, on the cross, Christ did battle against the powers of darkness and defeated them.  But whatever image Paul uses – and there are plenty more – the words he uses   again and again are ‘grace’ – a word which refers to God’s gifts – and 'love'. 

One of our problems, of course, is that the metaphors used in the New Testament are no longer familiar to us: the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, and with it Temple worship came to a full-stop.  Unless we are Jewish, we no longer celebrate the Passover each year, in remembrance of what happened all those years ago in Egypt.  Nor do we use the word 'redeemed' any more – unless, that is, we are driven to pawning our property, and then want to ‘redeem’ it – to buy it back; but in Paul’s time, slaves were regularly redeemed from slavery – they bought their freedom and were set free.  And though millions religiously read their horoscopes to see what the astrological forces may be up to, we no longer think of malevolent powers controlling the universe.  If theology is to be relevant, then theologians need to use the language and ideas of each successive age, not just those of the past.    

So where did this notion that God was unable to forgive our sins without exacting punishment come from?   I have two suggestions.  Firstly, it is easy to take a particular biblical idea out of context and distort it.  Our biblical writers do take sin seriously.  The last two verses of our NT reading recognized that those who refuse to accept God’s offer of forgiveness are turning their backs on God.   When salvation is refused, what we call ‘punishment’ is inevitable.  But the rest of the parable stressed God’s incredible forgiveness.  Or take passages which

Stress the sinlessness of Christ.  Did that mean, people asked, that he died as asubstitute for the guilty?

My second explanation is this; later theologians did what our New Testament writers did, and what I have just said all theologians need to do – they used the ideas and language of their times to express their beliefs.  Because they lived in a world ruled by Rome, where ‘justice’ demanded that wrongdoers were punished for their sins, some of them stressed the idea that God was a judge, who insisted that the debt must be paid.  Whereas Paul, for example, had insisted that the grace of God was far greater than all human sin, and that this grace was demonstrated in free forgiveness for those who turned their backs on their old lives, God was now seen as a God who demanded punishment.  And if sinners could not pay the debt, then it must have been paid by Christ.  Justice demanded it!  How else could God forgive them?   One can see the logic in their reasoning, but somewhere along the line the loving and gracious God of the Bible became the ‘just’ (or perhaps we should say ‘unjust ’!) and unforgiving God of the law-courts.   And here is the basis for Richard Dawkins’ parody.  But what he is mocking is not the God who revealed himself in the cross, but a God who has been created in the image of man.  

Early theologians spent many years trying to define the person of Christ, and they wanted, too, to explain why Christ died.  But they found it impossible to come to agreement, and when it came to summarizing their faith in the creeds, they wisely stuck to that simple 'Christ died for our sins', and left believers to work out 'how' for themselves.  For ultimately, what they were trying to define is an experience – and an experience is, by definition, something that we interpret in our own terms.  Christians may well experience forgiveness following sin, life emerging from death, without being able to say how or why.  Which, of course, is why the author of our second hymn[1] was wise enough to confess that though she could not understand how or why, she nevertheless knew that Christ was her Saviour, and left it at that. 


[1] Dora Greenwell.  Her hymn begins:

  ‘I am not skilled to understand

   What God has willed, what God has planned;

   I only know at his right hand

   Stands one who is my Saviour.’

                                                       Dora Greenwell.

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