Did God want Jesus Dead?

Now committed to a synodal programme, Irish Catholics will struggle to make missionary sense of a medieval theology that implies a divine need for a divine victim – the crucifixion of Jesus on Calvary to repay a human debt of honour to the Father God of Creation.

Satisfaction and substitution, keywords of the medieval and early modern theology of the cross, are both used in the Catholic Catechism of 19941CCC615 ‘”For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5: 19) By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”.  (Isaiah 53 10-12) Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father. – to explain why Jesus submitted to crucifixion on Calvary. Human sinfulness is so great, according to this theology, that the voluntary suffering and death of God’s only son was needed to atone, reconciling the Father to ourselves.

In this understanding Jesus ‘satisfied’ a cosmic debt, substituting himself as sufferer of the divine punishment that must otherwise fall upon ourselves. This is the essence of the redemption theology of the Catechism.

Paradoxically, however, this leaves the same Father God obviously open to a suspicion of unforgiveness, making Jesus’s own forgiveness of his accusers a startling contradiction. Any ‘new evangelisation’ in Ireland must contend with this theological Gordian knot. Has any of us have ever heard, in church, a convincing attempt to untie it?

How many are aware that this medieval emphasis on divine debt recovery was not the understanding of the early Christian church? For over a thousand years, until the time of St Anselm of Canterbury in the late 11th century, it was taught that Jesus’s self-sacrifice had ransomed humankind from the powers of darkness – from ‘Satan’.

In this understanding, God the Father – in raising Jesus from the dead – was co-liberator of humankind. To ‘redeem’ was to buy the freedom of a slave, and, in the early church’s understanding, humans had been in captivity to evil until the time of Jesus. For those earliest Christian believers, the God of Abraham had done for themselves – through Jesus – what he had earlier done for the Israelites enslaved by Pharaonic Egypt.

In Cur Deus Homo (‘Why God Became a Man’ – 1098 CE) Anselm argued that the life of the Son of God was worth far more than any debt that could have been owed to Satan. To undo this mistake he essentially attributed the captivity from which Jesus liberated humankind to God himself.

To understand this shift we need to remember that for Anselm and his contemporaries the monarchical political order of the time was God-ordained. From the fourth century adoption of Christianity by the failing Roman empire, Christian clergy had supported the authority of the political order that protected them, an authority that rested on military power. It did not make sense to Anselm that God the Father would not rescue Jesus by the same forceful means, unless the crucifixion had been necessary to restore the perfect creation described in Genesis.

Anselm’s explanation of the Crucifixion became the bedrock of the fundamentalist evangelical Christianity of our own time – a Christian extremism that can favour the Old Testament principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ and scorn any reference to the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

There Jesus insists that enemies be loved instead. Never does Christian fundamentalism attend to Jesus’s repetition of the warning of the prophet Hosea – that what pleases God is ‘mercy not sacrifice‘ (Matt 9:13).

With the church no longer beholden to any political elite in the West, St Anselm’s perspective is a missionary millstone. Who cannot see that a state power that rests upon force – rather than consent – is unjust and sinful? Who cannot see in political ambition the covetousness of the 9th and 10th commandments of Moses?

And who cannot now see that it was in his rejection of ambition – political or religious – that Jesus overcame the temptation of ‘the world’? Oblivious of this danger even Christian religious elites can be corrupted, the problem described as ’spiritual worldliness’ by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (2013).

The crucifixion is explained simply by the refusal of the Trinity to force us to follow them. How could the Father be freely loved if he was less loving than the Son?

Violence – and victimisation – arise easily from human ambition. Jesus stands unique in the ancient world, as an historical figure who refused power on those terms, at staggering personal cost. That sacrifice bears witness to a source of moral strength that lies beyond any of us. It was in this non-violent self-giving that Jesus reached the summit of human achievement – bearing witness to a heavenly father who thinks the same way. His forgiving self-sacrifice finally abolished the contradiction between mercy and sacrifice. He died as he had lived, in solidarity with the most vulnerable – those many millions who have died to save the faces of the Caesars of history.

The sacred purpose of the Trinity is to free humankind from selfish ambition (the root of all imperialism), from elitism and from violence. We need to reconsider a theological perspective that falls scandalously short – by imputing self-absorption and a need for violent sacrifice to the Father.

Notes

  1. CCC615 ‘”For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5: 19) By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”.  (Isaiah 53 10-12) Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.

See also: Why did Jesus of Nazareth accept crucifixion?

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About Sean O'Conaill

Retired teacher of high school history and author. Now editing here and on acireland.ie - and campaigning for immediate implementation of Article 37 of Vatican II's 'Lumen Gentium'. A fuller profile can be found at 'About / Author' from the navigation menu above.

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