Book Review: DID GOD KILL JESUS?

I’ve got a Godfather 3 type relationship with the church. Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in. Communities and people of faith have serendipitously entered my life–or I theirs–at moments when I was just about to give up on the whole thing. Tony Jones is one of those people and his new book, did God Kill Jesus: Looking for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution, is one of those rare texts that is both informative and inspirational. It’s given me fresh eyes with which to see the crucifixion–timely given the arrival of Holy Week–and a view of God that makes sense in and for the world in which we live.

GodKillJesus_FINAL-r-h1200-q75-m1406747467Much like Jones, I grew up in a Christian environment that preached a penal substitutionary atonement theory (PSA) of the crucifixion, even though they didn’t put such a fine point on it. Our ministers and evangelists were much more more creative: God is mad as hell, and HE isn’t going to take it any more. My sins incurred a debt that I’d never be able to pay, and so we sang, “Jesus paid it all.” I lived through guilt- and angst-ridden religious teenage years, hoping that my prayers for forgiveness were heard. As I grew older, it wasn’t the theology that put me off but the people who espoused it. Many of my peers didn’t even seem as kind and forgiving as the little old ladies I grew up with in church. As I was about to bail out of church during college, I found a Christian community that entertained different theologies and ways of being in the world and didn’t get too bent out of shape if Saturday night polluted Sunday morning. They even inspired me to attend divinity school, where I encountered another range of theological interpretations and religious experiences.

Flash forward to Jones’ new book, which reads like an armchair divinity school course in soteriology (the study of salvation), Christology, and theology from an author who is witty, deeply intelligent, and kind. Jones begins with a critique of PSA–or what he calls the Payment model–before analyzing other atonement theories, which include the Victory Model, the Magnet Model, the Divinity Model, and the Mirror Model, all of which have deep roots in Christian history, which proves that PSA isn’t the only right way to view what happened on the cross. Jones also gives attention to more recent interpretations of the crucifixion from sources other than DWM (dead white men), including James Cone, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, and Andrew Sung Park. While Jones points out shortcomings in most of these theories, he is quick to highlight their contributions to theology and spiritual practice.

Of each model, Jones asks six critical questions:

  1. What does the model say about God?
  2. What does it say about Jesus?
  3. What does it say about the relationship between God and Jesus?
  4. How does it make sense of violence?
  5. What does it mean for us spiritually?
  6. Where’s the love?

We would do well to apply these questions not only to our interpretations of what happened on the cross, but to all aspects of our lives from our beliefs to our daily practices. What do our religious affiliations say about God? Do our financial practices reveal love? How does what we engage in pop culture make sense of violence? And the list goes on.

Jones begins with what now unfortunately seems like a daring theological claim: God is love. Proceeding from this, any interpretation of the birth, life, and death of Jesus must echo from that love. Both our theologies and our Christologies must inspire us and others to live lives of self sacrificial love, not fear, hatred, anger, or judgment. When Christians today are known more for hatred and judgment, Jones’ message and theological interpretations are needed more now than ever.

Full of anecdotes that will be, hilariously and painfully, familiar to most Christian readers, Did God Kill Jesus is a reminder that there is no one way of interpreting the crucifixion. If you are frustrated with fellow believers who argue differently or are uncomfortable with a particular theology that doesn’t jibe with your experience of God, join Jones on this thoughtful theological journey that ultimately arrives at a place of hope.  

Did God Kill Jesus: Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution (HarperOne) is available in hardcover and Kindle formats. 

About J. Ryan Parker