Month: August 2013

The Death of Jesus and the Kingdom of God

* I’m indebted to David Brondos for the bulk of what I propose below, and virtually all of the ideas below come from his book Paul on the Cross and Redeeming the Gospel. He is certainly not the only theologian to reject classical atonement theories, and I am uncertain how unique his holistic understanding of Christ’s salvation message is. Nevertheless, I thought it fair to at least give credit where credit is due and to not pass these ideas off as my own, though I may have deviated from his thought in certain minor areas, such as my brief speculation regarding the possibility of Christ not being crucified and the small detail that the Kingdom began after Christ left earth, not while he was on it. As for the former, I don’t think he ever addressed such a possibility, and as for the latter, I don’t recall what he held regarding the Kingdom, whether it was present with Christ or not until after.

It would also be prudent to add that due to the controversial nature of alternate atonement theories, I don’t ask anyone to take my word for it. Whether or not my views will change in the future, I find this position to be one of the most reasonable and elegant I’ve been exposed to so far; but one should think for himself and examine the evidence in a more thorough manner than by reading a single blog.

When I was in college I asked one of my professors how the classic Protestant doctrine of penal substitution could be in accordance with justice – a question many have asked since the 16th century when it was first expounded by John Calvin and others during the Reformation. You see, it’s often said that since God is just, he must punish sin; and since all humans are sinners, all humans must be punished; but if all humans are punished for their sin, then they cannot inherit eternal life since the punishment for sin must also be infinite and eternal, which means that God cannot save people as he wishes until that punishment is somehow meted out. Obviously those whom he wants to save can’t take the punishment, since an offense against an infinite God requires an infinite punishment, which, as I already mentioned, would require eternal punishment for the offenders.

As a solution, the Son of God became incarnate in the man Jesus, lived without sin (ensuring that he didn’t deserve the punishment himself, which would have made him just another human), and then vicariously took that punishment on the cross for the sins of humanity. This was, as I said earlier, to satisfy justice since God apparently could not simply forgive of his own accord. The problem, however, is that this isn’t really justice at all. Justice demands that the offender be punished, not just anybody. I can’t take the place of an inmate on death-row for a murder I didn’t commit. Everyone would agree that this is entirely contrary to the whole purpose of the death penalty, whatever purpose you might ascribe to it. In the case of restitution I’ll admit that one could argue that another can vicariously pay back a debt, which is different than taking punishment; but this is more akin to Anselm’s satisfaction theory, which is similar, but also different to Calvin’s. If you don’t know much about satisfaction or penal substitution, it’s okay. My real purpose in writing this entry is not so much to critique other theories as it is to lay down an alternate system that makes sense of Christ’s life and death.

I think it’s safe to say that in order to understand what happened on the cross, one first needs to understand the nature of salvation itself, which is far more holistic than people often recognize. We see in the Gospels that Jesus came announcing the Kingdom of God, which was at hand, that he came “to proclaim release to the captives, give sight to the blind, and set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18 cf. Isa. 61:1)  In saying this, he was not just offering forgiveness from sins and entrance to some ethereal heaven after death. He was setting up the kingdom on earth – planting the mustard seed that would grow into a large tree (Matt 13:31-32). In this sense, salvation included a great deal more than just some future salvation from hell, but salvation from our sins here on earth and the consequences that arise from them, along with all manner of ills and suffering that have plagued us for ages. Salvation is not just spiritual, it is also physical; and this holistic salvation is to be brought to earth through the church/kingdom, which began with the coming of the Holy Spirit.

In setting the stage for this future kingdom, we see on page after page of scripture that Jesus came into frequent conflict with the religious authorities of his day. Not all were against him, of course, but a substantial portion evidently were due to both His vicious condemnation of them as hypocrites and His understanding of the Law of Moses as something which embodied principles, rather than rules. To them he was seen as a lawless rebel who was leading the people astray. This ostensibly radical departure from standard Jewish religious thought eventually led to his execution at the hands of the Jewish and Roman leaders as is heard every Easter in churches around the world. At that point it was over. He died, never having fulfilled his goal of starting the kingdom that would one day embody the fullest principles of love and justice, or so it seemed. It wasn’t until days later that the disciples were shocked to find that this “failed” Messiah wasn’t even in his tomb anymore, and that he was in fact alive.

Obviously such events needed to be understood since they were such a drastic departure not only from their religious expectations, but also from the ordinary course of human life. Unfortunately we don’t know what Jesus told the disciples when “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24: 27, 32, 45), but we still have the writings of the Apostles from which to learn and infer what was believed among first century Christians.

I am going to here suggest that the death of Jesus was not, strictly speaking, actually and atoning sacrifice and did not serve as a means in taking away the sins of the world. Jesus died in fighting for a cause – the cause of God’s kingdom, which he was seeking to inaugurate. But much as we would say a soldier who died in battle sacrificed his life, so too can we say that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice, which is why the Apostles use sacrificial language in describing what took place. God is free to “have mercy on whom he will have mercy” (Rom 9:15) and doesn’t require any satisfaction of justice. He requires no balancing of the scales to remit sin. Jesus died in seeking to alleviate our suffering, much of which is the result of our sin, while also teaching us how to live right and whole lives. In this way, he died for our sins. He was obedient to God unto death, thereby showing us true perfection and holy living, which serves as our example as we follow him.

What if Jesus hadn’t been crucified? I maintain that he would have died anyway, after which the Holy Spirit would have been sent and the Kingdom inaugurated. But if he had died in an accident or from natural causes, we would have never seen a perfect example of faithfulness. Yes, he still would have been perfect, but the example he left us wouldn’t have been one of obedience unto death, which is the highest and most dedicated form, and it is for this reason that God ordained his execution rather than a natural death. Nevertheless, he was not to remain in death but was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures, so that He could return and fully establish the kingdom he set into motion.

Those who believe this message are counted among the covenant people of God, that is, they are justified. It’s not by believing that Christ appeased the Father’s wrath as a sacrifice. It’s by believing in the promises of God — the promise that God will mercifully forgive our sins and someday establish his just kingdom in its fullness throughout the world. To believe in Jesus is to believe in his cause and to believe that he has been raised to one day return to not only champion that cause but to complete it — to believe that God made good on his word once and will do so again. In so doing we are counted righteous, and as such we will one day partake of a new and restored physical creation free from the suffering and evil we experience here.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering. The professor didn’t have an answer for me. He could only say that it must have been different in the case of Jesus. I guess he would pretty much have to say that, wouldn’t he?

Why All the Hate?

I’m getting tired of people slamming Reza Aslan for not being “qualified” to write a book about Jesus just because he doesn’t have a Ph.D. in history, religion, or something of that sort. In fact his doctorate was in sociology with a focus on the history of religion, which I suppose doesn’t count. Add to that a bachelor’s degree in religion with a masters in theological studies from Harvard and you’re still left with a man who’s not allowed to write a scholarly book about Jesus all because his Ph.D. isn’t the right kind. Seriously, I think people only bring these arguments out when someone writes a book they don’t like, just as people did when Dr. Lillback from Westminster wrote a book on the Christianity of George Washington a few years back. In fact, I think a doctorate in church history, a discipline which includes studies of the Christian religious climate of the early modern period, makes him far more qualified than someone with, say, a doctorate in ancient history.

But anyway, say what you will about these works, whatever errors are contained within them didn’t come from a lack of training as many assert or seem to imply, but instead from an agenda that leads them to the conclusions that they want to see and possibly even laziness that causes one to overlook information vital to the argument. Competence quite simply isn’t the issue and never was.

Interestingly I just stumbled across this quote from Aslan’s doctoral advisor:

“Since I was Reza’s thesis adviser at the Univ of California-Santa Barbara, I can testify that he is a religious studies scholar. (I am a sociologist of religion with a position in sociology and an affiliation with religious studies). Though Reza’s PhD is in sociology most of his graduate course work at UCSB was in the history of religion in the dept of religious studies. Though none of his 4 degrees are in history as such, he is a “historian of religion” in the way that that term is used at the Univ of Chicago to cover the field of comparative religion; and his theology degree at Harvard covered Bible and Church history, and required him to master New Testament Greek. So in short, he is who he says he is.”

Whether or not this is a legitimate quote I don’t know. Maybe I’ll look it up later. Maybe I won’t. Probably not; but suffice it to say that no matter how good or bad the man’s work is, the training he received was more than enough.

Who Still Carries Their Lunch in a Brown Bag Anyway?

Yes, radical, right-wing conservatives often annoy me with their nonsensical intolerance and occasionally merciless demeanor toward those who are different; but Ellen Bronstein and lawmakers in Seattle have proven once again that many modern liberals on the far left are even worse by proffering one of the most half-baked, dimwitted ideas to ever come forth from a human brain. That this could even be considered makes me wonder if these individuals shouldn’t be kept from procreating so that their moronic ideas don’t have to live on and poison the minds of the next generation. One step at a time, though. Let’s first make sure that President Obama has undergone his gender sensitivity training before we move on to more lofty projects.

Dual Scalar Situationism

Joseph Fletcher once said, “If the ends don’t justify the means, then what does?” Personally I find this to be a very pithy question and for some time now I’ve tended to agree with him on the basic utilitarian premise that consequences are to be considered the determining factor in assigning a moral value to a particular act. In Fletcher’s case the well-being of humanity was to be the end of each action, hence his focus on agape love, while in the case of Bentham, Mill, and other classic utilitarians happiness was the desired result of all our choices.

The problem with these systems in their earliest forms, however, is that they generally tend to stress only one right option in any particular case. “The greatest good for the greatest amount” is said to be the proper goal, which of course leads one to wonder about good acts that don’t necessarily provide the greatest good for the greatest amount, but only some good for some. Obviously it’s quite counterintuitive to consider these lesser acts as morally blameworthy, and one can’t help but notice that the absolute precision needed to achieve the greatest good in each scenario is far too impractical for virtually all of us in our everyday lives. Furthermore, these systems also often fail to take into account the heart and motives of the doer, which is clearly crucial to any moral judgement as we all know deep down. That Mother Theresa did many wonderful things there is no doubt; but if she had confessed before her death that all the good she had done was simply for the sake of recognition and admiration, most of us would be willing to condemn her as a fraud, even though we would still continue to recognize the general goodness of what she did.

Now, there have certainly been many corrections made to utilitarianism over the years as these questions have been seen and addressed by a variety of philosophers, but I’m going to offer some of my own thoughts, however flawed and dependent on others as they might be. As I see it, though, in each case regarding moral acts we make two judgements: one regarding the deed and one regarding the doer. The moral value of a particular act, I say, is based on the consequences of that act (I agree with Fletcher that love and the well-being of humanity are in focus and prefer to avoid using the term “happiness”, as it appears too fleeting and transient), while the moral status of the actor is determined by something intrinsic, such as motive.  In the first case, then, we can say that there is a scale on which a gradation of goodness and badness exists on each side, with morally neutral acts in the middle. The greatest acts which bring the greatest good for humanity are at the one far end, while the worst acts are at the other. Classic utilitarianism would say that only this greatest act on the one end is acceptable in any particular circumstance, as I mentioned earlier; but assuming this gradation of moral value, why should we consider only one option to be the right one? Could it not be that there are a variety of right choices, some better than others, but none morally blameworthy insofar as they remain on the good end of the scale or at least in the neutral zone?

This eliminates the rigidity and impracticality of the classical system by allowing a greater degree of freedom in the choices that can be made but still doesn’t provide criteria for determining the moral status of the one doing the act, which is a key element; but in this case too I think there must be a scale of motivation or something of the sort. The better the motives, the more morally praiseworthy the individual; the worse the motives, the more morally blameworthy. Unfortunately, at this point I haven’t yet determined what constitutes a good motive and what a bad; and explicating the subtle interplay of desire and intention proves to be more difficult than one might at first think. Nevertheless, I believe the general thrust already mentioned still stands: the moral value of an act is determined by its consequences and is to be kept as a distinct judgement from the moral status of the actor, which status is determined by the goodness or badness of his/her motives. This I shall call dual scalar situationism.