Why did Jesus have to die? Was it to appease a wrathful God’s demand for punishment? Does that mean Jesus died to save us from God? How could someone ever truly love or trust a God like that? How can that ever be called ”Good News”? It’s questions like these that make so many people want to have nothing to do with Christianity.
Healing the Gospel challenges the assumption that the Christian understanding of justice is rooted in a demand for violent punishment, and instead offers a radically different understanding of the gospel based on God’s restorative justice. Connecting our own experiences of faith with the New Testament narrative, author Derek Flood shows us an understanding of the cross that not only reveals God’s heart of grace, but also models our own way of Christ-like love. It’s a vision of the gospel that exposes violence, rather than supporting it–a gospel rooted in love of enemies, rather than retribution. The result is a nonviolent understanding of the atonement that is not only thoroughly biblical, but will help people struggling with their faith to encounter grace.
DEREK FLOOD is an author, theologian and artist. He holds a masters degree in systematic theology from the Graduate Theological Union and is a featured blogger for the Huffington Post and Sojourners Magazine.
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Q & A WITH AUTHOR DEREK FLOOD
1. Healing the Gospel is focused on understanding the meaning of the cross. Why should the average Christian reader be interested in a book on the atonement?
Most of us were taught that Jesus needed to die to appease a wrathful God’s demand for punishment. This brings up a number of difficult questions: Does that mean Jesus died to save us from God? How could someone ever truly love or entrust themselves to a God like that? How can that ever be called “Good News”? It’s questions like these that have made so many people want to have nothing to do with Christianity.
These are deeply relevant questions for us to face that have a profound impact on our relationship with God and others. Countless people filling our pews have adopted a hurtful view of God and themselves which has led them to internalize feelings of shame and self-loathing. Others have lost their faith entirely, unable to worship a God who seems to them to be a moral monster. Faith motivated by fear, threat, and feelings of worthlessness. How could things have gone so wrong? When did the good news become bad news?
Healing the Gospel is about breaking away from that hurtful image of God and instead learning to understand the cross in the context of grace, restoration, and enemy love.
2. Many people would say that the idea that Jesus died to appease God’s demand for punishment is simply what the Bible teaches. How would you respond to that?
First, I would want to stress that this has not always been how Christians understood the atonement. For the first thousand years, the work of Christ was understood primarily in terms of God’s act of healing people, and liberating them from the bonds of sin and death. This understanding is known as Christus Victor. But gradually there was a shift towards a legal focus, and with it a focus on violent punishment. With this shift the message was flipped on it’s head: instead of the crucifixion being seen as an act of grave injustice (as it is portrayed in all four Gospels), it was now claimed that God had demanded the death of Jesus to quench his anger. Not coincidentally, this coincided with increased violence perpetrated by the church, and it went downhill from there.
As a society we’ve increasingly come to recognize the damage punishment can do―not just in the realm of religious violence like the Crusades, but spanning a wide scope of issues ranging from how we raise our kids to international conflict. Across the board we have come to see that restorative justice works and punitive justice doesn’t. It’s about making things right, rather than perpetuating hurt.
At the same time, it has been deeply ingrained into our thinking that God demands retributive justice. For many Christian this is inseparable from how they understand salvation. Consequently, in an effort to be true to the teachings of the Bible, many Christians struggle to believe it, even though it seems immoral and hurtful to them. They hate it, but think this is what God wants them to believe.
Healing the Gospel takes a deep look at the Bible and makes the case that this view is neither representative of Jesus and his teachings, nor is it reflective of the New Testament. Rather, it is the result of people projecting their worldly understanding of punitive justice onto the biblical text. Jesus was focused on confronting those cultural and religious assumptions. What we see in the New Testament is the gospel understood as God’s act of restorative justice. This is the master narrative of the New Testament, and entails a critique of the way of retribution and violence rather than a validation of it.
3. But doesn’t that entail being soft on crime, and not taking sin seriously? How can God be just if there are no consequences?
There most certainly are consequences. The choice is not between action and inaction, it is between allowing hurt to be perpetuated or acting to repair the harm. The Greek word for “saved” used throughout the Gospels is sozo, and it means both “saved” and “healed.” This is deeply significant because it reflects the fact that salvation is not conceptualized by Jesus in a legal framework, but in terms of healing and restoration. We see in Jesus that God’s response to sin is not to punish it, but to heal it. In other words, the guiding metaphor here is not sin as crime in need of punishment, but sin as sickness in need of healing. It’s a model of restoration not retribution.
This entails a much deeper understanding of sin because it recognizes its deep roots, and offers a real solution that involves changing a person’s heart, whereas a legal focus stays on a superficial level of outward behavior, and only perpetuates hurt through punishment.
In short, love heals. The real problem I think is that people don’t trust in love and so they revert to punishment and fear. But that is not the gospel. Real justice is not about punishment, it is about making things right. Likewise, biblical mercy is not about looking the other way, it is precisely about seeing. Compassion means that we do see the real problems and hurt around us, and therefore act in compassion to help. Justice is not in conflict with compassion, on the contrary real justice only comes through acts of compassion.
4. What about the the many passages that seem to support Christ being punished instead of us? For example Jesus is described as our sacrifice, and the book of Hebrews says that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Heb 9:22)
This is an important question, and Healing the Gospel spends a considerable amount of time carefully looking at key passages like this one in order to articulate an understanding of the cross that is at the same time both life-giving and grace-centered as well as thoroughly biblical.
In this particular example, it’s important to note that you have only quoted half of the verse. Context matters. The full verse reads: “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” So the stated purpose of the sacrificial blood is not to appease, but to cleanse, to purify, to make holy. We see this theme of sacrifice understood as cleansing repeated throughout Hebrews. It tells us the sacrifices were a symbol of the reality in Christ, and the focus is on how Christ acts to make us pure, cleansed and holy.
We see this in Paul too: A central focus of Paul’s throughout his epistles was on how we are to follow in the way of the cross, which is the way of enemy love. If we instead see the cross as focused on appeasing God’s anger then it ends up standing for the opposite: As if to say we should not act in retribution, but God apparently does.
Here’s a really simple rule of thumb: If our understanding of the cross completely contradicts everything Jesus taught and demonstrated in his own life, then we are probably missing the point. The things we see Jesus doing in the Gospels are there as a context for us to get what his cross was all about. Paul understood this, and said that we need to follow in that same way of the cross. This is the way of enemy love which God demonstrated in Jesus, and which we are to follow.
There is therefore no contradiction between how God treats his enemies, and how we are called by Jesus to treat ours. Show me someone who has forgiven a great wrong done to them―or even more, show me someone who has forgiven a great wrong done to someone they love dearly―and I’ll show you someone who understands the cross better than all the theologians in the world. We fail to understand the cross because we have not plumbed the depths of what great love can bear. Really getting the cross doesn’t come through study, it comes through discipleship. The more we grow to be like Jesus, to see people through his eyes, to love as he does, the more we understand his cross.