Gladiator is one of my all-time favorite movies. One of the more memorable scenes, for me, is Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, pre the infamous Letterman interview), screaming, “Am I not merciful?,” while threatening his sister and her son with their lives. The dramatic irony is that Comedus is not merciful at all. He is a crazed megalomanic who cannot be trusted–only feared.
Sometimes, when evangelicals speak of the atonement in a particular way, Emperor Comedus pops in my head.
When evangelicals speak of Jesus’ death on the cross as a substitution for our sin and an appeasement of God’s wrath so that God can be reconciled to us, we need to be careful not to make God out to be far angrier and more vindictive than the New Testament’s portrait of God. In my understanding of the atonement, the death of Christ on the cross does not so much appease God’s wrath as remove a barrier between us and God (and in particular, in such a way as to enable us to be reconciled to God. That barrier is our sin–not God’s anger. In Jesus Christ, we see that God has already created the space for his reconciliation with us. Now, how will we be reconciled to God? By the removal of our sin as we embrace the cross and as we are united with God through Christ.
“Substitution” language is central to the New Testament theology of atonement. I affirm this completely. But a very different portrait of God emerges depending on which way you go with this interpretive decision–which should take into account the flow of the gospels and New Testament. When understood as “expiation,” the “problem” that the atonement solves is not so much in God (God’s anger or wrath needing to be satisfied or satiated); rather, the problem it solves is in us (sinners who need to have out sin removed so that we can be reconciled to God)?
“Am I not merciful?”
Yes, God is merciful. But he does not manifest his mercy with a knife at our throats, but with a knife at his own. Thus we see God’s mercy most clearly in Jesus: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn 3:17).