Christ and Pop Culture writer, Ben Bartlett and guest-writer, Kiel Hauck, two friends who spend their Friday nights playing video and board games in between heated theological, social, and political discussions, come together to hammer out their thoughts about a book that seems to have most other evangelicals shutting down lines of communication, intentionally or not.
Each week, they’ll read one chapter, and trade a few emails discussing the chapter. This week, they discuss Chapter 4: Dying to Live.
Ben Bartlett: “I look at Rob’s idea that God wants us to affirm the cyclical, life-death-rebirth nature of his universe, and I see nothing that helps my problem.”
In this most recent chapter, “Dying to Live,” Rob makes a really important distinction. He begins by taking Biblical language about Christ’s death, and then asking,
“What happened on the cross? Is the cross about the end of the sacrificial system, or a broken relationship that’s been reconciled… or the redeeming of something that was lost?”
He then tells us that yes, all of the above are true. But then he suggests that Christians weren’t actually saying those things are actual things. Instead, they are metaphors Christians were using. He suggests, “they essentially said: What happened on the cross is like a defendant going free, a relationship being reconciled…a final sacrifice being offered.” (emphasis mine)
Though he doesn’t use theological terms to describe it, this essentially becomes the crux of his argument against substitutionary atonement. Rather than Christ’s death filling the role of accepting punishment for another, that was merely a metaphor for something else… the idea that believing in God is an affirmation of the universal structure of death and rebirth in God’s world. He says that, “when we open ourselves to Jesus’s living, giving act on the cross, we enter in to a way of life. He is the source, the strength, the example, and the assurance that this pattern of death and rebirth is the way into the only kind of life that actually sustains and inspires.”
Later he says the cross is, “a reminder, a sign, a glimpse, an icon that allows us to tap into our deepest longings to be part of a new creation.”
So, Rob is offering an alternative to the classic Christian description of Christ’s death as having a legal function, and says that instead it has a primarily metaphorical function, teaching us something about the structure of God’s world.
I’ll avoid parsing his hermeneutics for now, and focus on why this is hard for me to swallow. See, when I read Scripture, I am constantly brought face to face with God’s holiness. This is a God for whom a single sin is grounds for banishment from the Garden, or for whom the disobedience of a single man can lead to the defeat of an entire army. This is a God who cannot overlook the wrong actions of a king “after his own heart.” This is a God whose standards are clear, who is above reproach, whose character never changes.
So when dealing with this God, the idea of being made right in his eyes is a big deal. That’s why Christ is so important for me personally. When God looks at my poor decisions, my secret selfishness, the anger and jealousy in my heart, and the many moments of cruelty throughout my life, I don’t see how I am any different from the sin of the heroes (or even villains!) in Scripture. I don’t see how he could possibly treat me any different than he treated them as a requirement of his holiness.
But with Christ’s act on the cross, I can be made right in his eyes. I can be freed from the death grip of sin, a death grip of my own making. I can be whole and cleansed and have meaning.
I look at Rob’s idea that God wants us to affirm the cyclical, life-death-rebirth nature of his universe, and I see nothing that helps my problem. I see nothing that allows me to interact with God’s holiness. I see no hope. I know you see it different, so I’m happy for you to explain to me why it gives you hope. But for me, I need to know that I am doing what God asks so I can have a seat at his table. And to my surprise, when I took that seat and got to know God a little better, I found out the fullest extent of the most loving and comforting and beautiful and patient and compassionate being that ever was or ever could be. And though I am discontent with many things and sinful and weak all the time, I am at peace in my relationship with God.
Kiel Hauck: “My hope is in Christ, who brings those things such as myself back to life. No matter how cold this winter is, there is a spring coming.”
You won’t be surprised to find that I loved this chapter deeply. I’ve actually enjoyed each chapter of the book increasingly as we’ve worked through it. To start, I didn’t see anywhere in the chapter where Bell dismissed substitutionary atonement. In fact, he seemed to be affirming it, as he was also affirming the many different ways in which the first century writers went about explaining the magnificent hope that is found in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The definition of a metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.” I tell you this not because I think you don’t know, but because in this situation you seem to be taking the term in a negative light, when it’s only presented in a positive one.
I do agree with him on his point that “there’s nothing wrong with talking and singing about how the ‘Blood will never lose its power’ and ‘Nothing but the blood will save us.’ Those are powerful metaphors. But we don’t live any longer in a culture in which people offer animal sacrifices to the gods.” Not many of us have sacrificed an animal in hopes of atoning for our sins before a god, hoping to find favor. Most, if not all, of the first century readers of scripture had, though. This particular metaphor was likely met with quite an emotional response – it’s powerful to many of us today, I can’t imagine what it must have conveyed two thousand years ago. The reality is, that this isn’t the only thing that happened on the cross and the writers of the New Testament scriptures used many different metaphors to explain the many different ways in which this act of sacrifice had turned the world upside down. So if we’re living in a time where a metaphor about animal sacrifices doesn’t match up with the current audience, wouldn’t it be safe to say that there’s other ways in which to explain what this work accomplished?
I want to make sure that I clarify here that I DO believe that Christ’s death and resurrection paid the debt for our sins. This is a very powerful truth to me, and it seems to be for Rob Bell as well. As someone who spent years of my life cutting myself and beating myself due to the immense anger I felt towards my own worthlessness, the idea of Christ taking that pain and taking punishment on my behalf is something that lives inside me every day and has kept me from physically harming myself for almost four years.
That being said, I also want to say how moved I was by his words about a complete resurrection of all of creation. I have often talked with friends about the beauty and amazement I find every spring when life comes back from the dead. It’s something I can’t help but think of and adore, especially this time of year. In fact, I’ve often drawn that parallel myself between nature’s resurrection and that of Christ. Bell describes this at the end of the chapter:
“He calls us to let go, turn away, renounce, confess, repent, and leave behind the old ways. He talks of the life that will come from his own death, and he promises that life will flow to us in thousands of small ways as we die to our egos, our pride, our need to be right, our self-sufficiency, our rebellion, and our stubborn insistence that we deserve to get our way. We cling with white knuckles to our sins and our hostility, we’re like a tree that won’t let its leaves go. There can’t be a spring if we’re stuck in the fall.”
I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you why this paragraph brought tears to my eyes given my current season of life. How often I’ve spent during the past several months begging for answers to my own situation – I’ve literally felt like that tree that won’t let its leaves go, because to let them go is to admit death in this season. But my hope is in Christ, who brings those things such as myself back to life. No matter how cold this winter is, there is a spring coming. You asked me to explain why this gives me hope and this is the best picture I can paint. Without the knowledge of Christ and his conquering of death and his promise of a new creation, I’m not sure how I could endure seasons such as this. I’m waiting for that first bud to appear, that first sprout to break through the surface. And I believe it will because I believe in God’s promise that he’s making all things new.
Ben Bartlett: “the gospel is not about proclamation of the truth that God has structured the universe in a birth-death-rebirth sort of structure. It is about Christ’s death acting as the final and ultimate sacrifice for our sin.”
It isn’t so much that I have a problem with the word “metaphor.” The problem is that Rob Bell suggests sacrifice was mostly a really handy metaphor for the apostles as they tried to explain Christ’s death… a death which, by Bell’s account, was all about exemplifying and modeling God’s birth-death-rebirth model for how he runs the universe.
But to say that sacrifice was a handy metaphor is a massive exercise in missing the point. Think about how God uses sacrifice. When Adam and Eve recognize that they are naked in the garden, God kills an animal to cover their shame. When Cain and Abel bring offerings to God, God accepts the blood of an animal and rejects the fruit of the ground. When Noah goes on the ark, God demands that he take extra pairs of certain animals so they can be sacrificed when the floods subside. When God tests Abraham, he does so by demanding that he place his one and only son on the alter as the sacrifice. When the Israelites come out of Egypt, God gives them laws on how to conduct sacrifices so they can know what pleases him. Later, God makes clear through the prophets that yes, sacrifices are important, but it is the heart behind them that is most pleasing to God.
On and on and on and on, the sacrificial theme is deeply embedded in the nature of the Israelites because that is how God demanded it should be. He wasn’t doing it for fun or convenience. He was doing it so that he might make clear the nature of his holiness, his justice, and his demand that responsibility for sin could only be absolved by the substitutionary atonement of innocent blood. This is why C.S. Lewis could say with a straight face that Aslan’s death on the stone table is not an allegory for Christ… Lewis was simply painting a picture of how God would act in a different world, because that is simply how God works.
So I think I’m pretty safe in saying that Rob describing sacrificial language as a situation where early Christians, “looked around them, identifying examples, pictures, experiences, and metaphors that their listeners and readers would have already been familiar with,” is undershooting the significance of that Biblical picture by a long shot. This is especially true when he goes on to say, “The point, then, isn’t to narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism. To elevate one over the others, to insist that there’s a ‘correct,’ or a ‘right,’ one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors.”
Rob is arguing we make a mistake by accepting the early Christian metaphor of sacrifice over other metaphors. I say Rob makes a mistake by missing God’s use of the sacrifice for sins as a model for how to relate to Him throughout all of human history.
Now, I DO think there is a lot of beauty and a lot of good in the picture of birth-death-rebirth. You and I have had many opportunities to talk about renewal in our own lives, and I fully affirm the beauty and hope that are inherent to the New Testament vision of Christ’s return and renewal of the earth. I do long for those things. And when Rob Bell talks about them, I have no problem with that hope as such.
However, the gospel is not about proclamation of the truth that God has structured the universe in a birth-death-rebirth sort of structure. It is about Christ’s death acting as the final and ultimate sacrifice for our sin… and that is no metaphor.