One of the issues facing our understanding of the crucifixion event centers on who to blame for the wickedness on display. One popular view is presented by people called “Calvinists” who tend to emphasize the sovereignty or power of God, and the depravity or wickedness of humanity. Calvinists are followers of a famous 16th century reformer in Geneva named John Calvin, who wrote one of the most eloquent summaries of Reformation theology entitled, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. In it, Calvin comes to the conclusion that God the Father is behind the crucifixion of His Son. It is the logical conclusion stemming from the fact that if God is sovereign, then nothing can happen without Him behind it somehow, otherwise He wouldn’t be sovereign. And God’s justice demands that Jesus face the full wrath of the Father in order to atone for the utter depravity of humanity. In fact, utter depravity is something Calvinists love to apply to everything about themselves, except, of course, to their theology.
Another popular view is maintained by Arminians, named after Jacobus Arminius, who was a Calvinist. I know, this gets really confusing. But stay with me. Arminius was concerned with the possibility that Calvinism might devolve into a type of unattractive fatalism. If God causes everything to happen, then there’s nothing I can do about anything, so why bother? C’est la vie. Or more accurately (if Google translate is to be trusted), Tel est Dieu.
To keep this from happening, Arminius attempted to retain the sovereignty of God while at the same time elevating free will in humanity. And the crux of the problem, he correctly surmised, was in how Calvinists understood “predestination.” But perhaps, Arminius mused, predestination doesn’t necessarily mean that God causes everything to happen, but that God knows ahead of time what’s going to happen. In other words, predestination is really foreknowledge. And so, when you fall down the stairs, it isn’t because God pushed you, it’s because he knows you’re a klutz. This gave Arminius the freedom to proclaim that you and I actually have some power to make choices in life, because God gives us just enough grace to decide between good and evil. When applied to the cross, Arminians tend not to see God causing the suffering, but humanity. For Arminians tend to blame all that’s wrong with the world on the bad choices that people make, especially the choice that many make to become Calvinists.
Now, there is a third major culprit in this arena. And for the first thousand years of Christianity, this character was the most popular villain among those who pondered the “passion,” or suffering, surrounding the cross. It’s an idea at the heart of C.S. Lewis’s book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and as I explain it you will quickly recognize how Aslan took on the role of Jesus, Edmund took on the role of humanity, and the White Witch took on the role of this third culprit, Satan.
So picture a chessboard with God the Father (he’s the favorite) on one side, and Satan, the prince of darkness (the underdog) on the other. The board doesn’t look good for Satan. He is down to a few pieces, but that’s it. And God hasn’t lost a piece, yet. God’s a really good chess player. But then, a plot twist occurs. God’s pawns (humanity) all of a sudden switch sides, because in this narrative, sin is viewed as an act of treason. Once humanity erred, we essentially became pawns of Satan. And he can do with us whatever he wants. However, God loves us deeply, even though we’re just pawns. And he doesn’t want to see us spend an eternity with the pointy-tailed one. And so, he offers Satan a deal. God will give him the most powerful piece on the board, Jesus. Or in chess-speak, the queen. Though Jesus isn’t the queen because he’s a boy. Well, actually he’s God, who is playing the game and not really on the board. But, um,…OK, the analogy is breaking down.
Now, I don’t want to make light of a very serious question. Because the truth is, behind my overly simplistic and somewhat snarky attempt at explaining these three grand ideas is a sober desire for you to understand the problem of evil and suffering as it was displayed at the cross. For one may argue that there is no greater picture of evil than the senseless torture and execution of the innocent.
But who is to blame?
Did violence happen at the cross because God made the people torture and crucify His Son (Calvin), or because the people made evil choices (Arminius), or that Satan manipulates people to commit treason (Aslan).
An even stickier question is how did the crucifixion of Jesus act as a remedy for the rampant evil on display at the cross? The word for this is “atonement,” and whether you know it or not, there is somewhat of a war going on right now among a certain segment of Protestants over this issue. But we will have to wait until next week to delve into that one.
Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors at kellypigott.com. Follow him on twitter @kellypigott