My Neighbour Wants to Know If the Atonement is Divine Child Abuse
6/26/2019 4:31:23 AM
June 23, 2019
Rev. David Williams
In the US Military, the “elite of elite” units are loosely referred to as “special forces.” The highest honor an American serviceman or woman can receive it the Medal of Honor. The headquarters for US special forces lists 54 special forces recipients of the Medal of Honor, at least 19 awarded posthumously. 2 of these recipients who died in the action that lead to their being awarded the Medal of Honor are Sergeants Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart.
Famously depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down, Shughart and Gordon were army snipers being flown in a helicopter over a battle in Mogadishu, Somalia. When 2 army helicopters were shot down, the emergency response crew was busy helping the first helicopter as a mob of hundreds of armed Somali militia streamed towards the second crash site. Shughart and Gordon, circling above the second crashed helicopter repeatedly requested permission to be inserted on the ground to fend off the militia and search for crash survivors.
The commanding officers tried to dissuade them, but the two snipers persevered, knowing they would be hopelessly outnumbered and that help would be a long time coming. Finally, their commander relented, ensuring the two understood that what they were asking was essentially a suicide mission. Because of these two brave men, the pilot of the downed helicopter, Michael Durant, survived long enough to be captured alive by the Somalis, and was eventually returned to the US. Shughart and Gordon both died saving his life.
Was their commander, William Garrison, wrong to allow them to land and look for survivors? Was he abusing his power? No. Why? Because the two men, both adults and experienced soldiers, knowingly chose to sacrifice themselves, fully aware of the danger, for the sake of their fellow soldiers. Garrison did not force them to go into such danger (although one could argue that as their commander he did have the authority to do so!). Rather, both men willingly sacrificed themselves to save someone else. It was this bravery and self-sacrifice that earned them both the Medal of Honor!
What does all this have to do with church?!? Well, our question today has to do with the Atonement and God the Father’s role in the death of Jesus.
“Some people actually have expressed that the Father sending the Son to die on the cross is a form of cosmic child abuse. How might we respond to this kind of slander?” Or, more briefly, “My neighbour wants to know if the Atonement is divine child abuse?”
Let me begin by saying that this is the first question in our series that many of us probably haven’t heard or wouldn’t think of. However, let me assure you that within some circles this is a very hot topic! Not likely a question that an unchurched person would ask, within liberal circles of Christianity there are actually some people who reject the Atonement based on the grounds that is smacks of an angry, vengeful God taking out his anger on his son!
Please turn with me to John 10:14-21. One of the tricky aspects to this question is that it reflects a degree of sophistication, at least on the surface. The question assumes God the Father and God the Son. It assumes that a penalty was paid on the cross. These are both very important, foundational beliefs in Christianity! Furthermore, the Bible does talk about God’s wrath being poured out on Jesus on the cross, that Jesus took our place. This is a very important aspect of Jesus’ work on the cross! So, then, it is a small leap to ask if this is the case of an angry, vengeful Father abusing his Son for offenses the Son didn’t even commit
Within some liberal Christian circles- some traction. Within Evangelical circles, there’s a lot of fuss, sometimes directed at the wrong people!
What It Says
There are numerous texts about the Atonement, the way that Jesus paid for our sins, that he atoned for the
wrong-doing of sin. Several were used as quotations at the beginning, but we are zeroing in on this passage in John. Jesus is addressing a crowd of Jews who knew a lot about Sacrifices of Atonement. In the temple, they regularly had to make sacrifices to “atone for” or “make up for” their sin.
Jesus is continuing his discussion of being “the Good Shepherd.” In v. 11, Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.
Here, Jesus says that his “sheep” know him through relationship. There are 2 Greek words for knowing something- one is a sort of “academic” knowledge, the other is knowledge through experience or, with people, through relationship. Jesus says here that his sheep are in a relationship with him, but not only that, but the relationship he has with his followers is the same kind of intimate relationship he has with God the Father!
Then, a second time, he says that he lays down his life for his sheep. It is because of this relationship that Jesus sacrifices his life for them.
The relationship Jesus has with his sheep is comparable to that close friendship between God the Father and God the Son.What a profound opportunity for us! What a generous offering to be in such intimate relationship with Jesus!
It is based on this profound relationship, this profound love, that Jesus lays down his life for his sheep. This is the first key piece of understanding important facets of the Atonement- of Jesus paying for our sins on the cross.
Jesus lays down his life as a substitute for his sheep- a role reversal! On the one hand, a normal shepherd might risk his life for his sheep, perhaps fending off a wild animal. But, more significantly, in the discussion of laying down one’s life as a substitute for another, in the Old Testament it was the sheep who died for the person, not the other way around! In the Mosaic Law, in the sacrificial system of Israel, it was sheep that were substituted for people, not people who were substituted for sheep! -Jesus then alludes to sheep from “another sheep pen” meaning Gentiles- non-Jews who would later become Christians. They too will be in close relationship with Jesus.
The Father’s love for the Son is linked to the Son’s willingness to die for the sheep. What does this mean? The text reads, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to [or in order to] take it up again.” At first blush, it may seem that the Father withholds his love until Jesus agrees to give up his life on the cross and rise again. But this is not the case! [Carson, p. 388] Remember, the Father and Son are both God, in perfect unity of purpose. And the Father and Son were in an agape love relationship before creation. So how do we understand this link? “The Father so loves his Son and so loves his world that, out of this deep double love, the Father is thrilled that his Son is willing to lay down his life for his world.” [Bruner, p. 625]
We love Jesus for his sacrificial death that reconciled us to the Father. The Father loves Jesus for his sacrificial death that reconciled us to the Father too! And remember, Jesus’ death on the cross is not the end of his work! He says here that he lays down his life with the purpose, in order to, be resurrected. The resurrection of Jesus then, and our future resurrection when he returns, are also part of God’s redemptive story. Jesus’ death on the cross is one (important!) step in God’s cosmic design for creation. The return of Christ, the general resurrection, believers receiving new bodies, creation being renewed and God’s people living in eternal, reconciled relationship with him are also part of the story, the key to which is Jesus laying down his life.
Jesus lays down his life deliberately. Nobody takes it from him, he lays it down intentionally, of his own free will, deliberately. This is VERY important for discussion today- Jesus was a willing, active participant in the Atonement!
Lastly, look at the response of the people who originally heard this. They were divided! Some thought Jesus was crazy! (In their worldview, all mental health disorders were the result of demon possession.) Others, though, said these were not mad ravings and that a crazy person cannot heal the blind! Jesus’ miracles are a key piece of evidence that we can believe what he said about himself and about God.
So we’ve some very interesting things about our relationship with Jesus. It’s comparable to his relationship with the Father! His relationship with the Father is linked to is sacrificial death. Jesus’ laid down his life as a substitute for us. He did this completely willingly. This was not the end of the story, but a major step in God’s larger redemptive plan- Jesus laid down his life in order to take it up again in the resurrection.
To answer our question today, we need to put these pieces together and gain a better understanding of the Atonement.
The Resurrection was not an afterthought following the Atonement. [Carson, p. 388] While it is important to study the Atonement, what it means, why it happened, etc., we must not divorce it from its broader purpose- the resurrection of Jesus, the defeat of sin and death, opening the door to reconciliation between sinful people and God, and ultimately the re-creation of all of Creation for eternity! The Atonement is a major part of God’s redemptive plan, but not the only part.
From before creation, the Trinity anticipated the Atonement, Resurrection and Return of Jesus. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus were not “plan B” for God after we sinned and corrupted His creation. Rather, before God said, “Let there be light,” the Father, Son and Spirit already had a plan in place that included the Son’s arrival on Earth as a baby, his life, death and resurrection. That plan also included his Ascension to Heaven, and his return to Earth to redeem creation, resurrect his people and live in intimate union with us in that renewed creation for eternity!
This means that before Genesis 1:1, the Son willingly chose to take upon himself the wrath of the Trinity against sin. Two things to point out about the amazing love this describes. First, when the decision was made for the wrath of God against sin to fall upon Jesus on the cross, Jesus was a fully responsible agent in the decision. He was an “adult” so to speak. Like the 2 snipers I discussed in the introduction, he knew what he was planning on doing, he knew what he was getting into. Second, the wrath Jesus took upon himself was also his own wrath against sin. Jesus hates sin just as much as the Father hates it, and the Spirit hates it too!
The Atonement and Resurrection are God’s complex solution to the difficult problem of sin. This sheds some light on the depth of the problem of sin- that even God had to come up with this complex, nuanced solution! And he came up with the solution before the problem arose. God’s desire in creating us was to have creatures that could enter into a mutual, self-giving loving relationship with Him. That self-giving love requires free will. But free will opens the possibility of sin! And God cannot abide sin, he cannot live in intimate relationship with sin or sinful creatures. So the solution God anticipated, before creating free-willed creatures, was to take the consequences of sin upon himself, die and be resurrected to defeat sin!
Then, to return and resurrect his people, transforming them and, having tasted the consequences of sin for their whole lives, these redeemed and resurrected free-willed creatures with new life from the Holy Spirit would then no longer sin!
Think of it this way: before creation, the 3 persons of the Trinity want to create us. The Father says, “They will sin. That leads to death.” The Son says, “I will redeem them by dying in their place.” The Spirit says, “I will bring you new life through resurrection and then bring them new life too.” The Son says, “I will return and finish the work of creation by renewing it.” The Father says, “OK. Let there be light.” God had the end in sight before the beginning!
So what are we to do with this? And how does this help us answer the charge of divine child abuse? First, I hope it has given you a deeper or at least renewed sense of the Atonement. The penalty Jesus paid on the cross was the penalty we deserve! He took our place, something called “substitution.” This is the most important aspect of the Atonement. There are other dynamics to it, such as Christ’s victory over sin, his obedient example set for us to follow, and others. But the substitutionary aspect is the central aspect of most importance.
The Atonement has been divisive, even since Jesus’ day because it sounds crazy. That was how some people responded even in Jesus’ time! And on one level, it makes sense that our infinite God’s complex plan for the difficult problem of sin may not make sense to us at first!
Coming from an ordinary man, this plan would be crazy! But that’s the point of the deity of Christ. Because he was both God and man he could pull this plan off! And how do we know he was God and not a nut? His powerful miracles and ministry while on earth as well as his resurrection after his death!
So confusion and disagreement, even bafflement over the Atonement today should not surprise us. It’s nothing new!
Now, to bring this to answer our question: The Atonement cannot be “child abuse” because the Son was not a child when he chose to lay down his life. The Son, the second person of the Trinity, made the decision to
lay down his life on our behalf before the dawn of creation. He made that decision out of his love for us before he even made us! He made it willingly, with full knowledge of the consequences of the decision, and with the broader purpose of both his own resurrection and our future resurrection so that we could be redeemed and renewed, given new life through the Spirit for eternity. The Atonement was always part of the Trinity’s plan for creating free-willed creatures that do not sin and, therefore, can live with the Trinity intimately and eternally.
The cross is not about a wrathful Father punishing an innocent Son for offenses not even his. That is a caricature of the Atonement. First, the wrath of God against sin is not just the Father’s wrath. It is also the Son’s wrath and the Spirit’s wrath. The Trinity is united in its wrath against sin! So the wrath that Jesus experienced on the cross was also his own wrath against sin!
But what about the wrath of God? Isn’t wrath bad? It depends on what causes the wrath and how the wrath is handled! Theologian Miroslav Volf writes about how he thought a loving God could not be reconciled with wrath against sin, until Volf’s homeland of Yugoslavia was plunged into war. Volf’s own hometown was devastated. Suddenly he understood that loving people means having wrath against evils like war, genocide, death and destruction. He points to Rawanda and asks how can a God who loves people not have wrath against the slaughter that took place there? This is the thorny problem of sin! It means a God who is love is suddenly confronted with that which is completely abhorrent to him and it attacks and corrupts those whom he loves! Wrath is the only appropriate response! In another work, Volf suggests that the idea that a loving God cannot have wrath can only be born in the luxury of suburbia!
So how do we respond to the suggestion that the Atonement is cosmic child abuse? Clarify what the Atonement is really about. Explore the questioner’s personal experience of sin. Hopefully this message has given you some clarity on the Atonement. Hopefully it will form a foundation for you to answer questions about the cross. But if confronted with such a question, after clarifying what the Atonement is really about, I want to encourage you to go one step further. Seek the question behind the question! Ask your questioner what he or she has personally experienced of sin. Perhaps they had a vengeful father or mother? Perhaps they were abused or know people who were.
Our own experiences with our earthly parents form the foundation of our understanding of God and His character. Our parents’ brokenness in sin means our foundation for understanding God is also broken.
So fathers- show affection to your children! It is key for them to come to believe in a loving Heavenly Father! Mothers, show your children love, but also show them that sin that affects them, or their sin that affects others, is horrible and deserves wrath. Show them love for people and appropriate anger against sin.
When confronted with skeptical questions about God’s wrath, ask the skeptic what God’s response should be to evil. People get angry no matter what God does. If he leaves sin unchecked, they complain he is not good. When confronted by his wrath against sin, they say he must not be loving. Either way, it’s a dodge to avoid repentance! But a loving God has to hate what hurts his beloved. That God is love is shown that he not only created us, but knowing we would sin, he chose ahead of time to take upon himself his own divine wrath against it! Like the soldiers in our introduction, knowing full well what would happen, he entered into the warzone of sin in order to rescue us, and died in the attempt! That’s not abusive, that’s heroic! Amen.
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