Every Wednesday during Lent, I’m going to explore an alternatives to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, the dominant theory of the atonement in my part of the (theological and geographical) world. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here. I’ve got an ebook on the subject as well.
“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness…He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and godforsaken can experience communion with him.”[i]
So writes Jürgen Moltmann at the climax of his groundbreaking book, The Crucified God. Growing up as a German humanist, Moltmann experienced the terror of war and imprisonment, and the love of God, during World War II. His subsequent career in theology has been indelibly shaped by that experience.
Common to human experience, Moltmann proposes, is the experience of godforsakenness. We’ve all felt it, that God has abandoned us, that there is no God. The Israelites felt it, and the Psalmist sang about it.
Of course, it is unthinkable that God would experience godforsakenness. How can a divine being experience his own absence? God is only able to do so because God’s very nature is trinitarian. In an act of ultimate solidarity with every human being who has ever existed, God voluntarily relinquished his godship, in part, in order to truly experience the human condition. And, as the early church hymn recorded in Philippians 2 states so eloquently, God was humbled even to the point of death on a cross.
Upon that cross, God himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth echoes the Psalmist’s cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God himself experiences—and redeems—godforsakenness.
To explain his understanding of the atonement, Moltmann shares the story of Elie Wiesel. Standing in a crowd being forced to watch the hanging of an angel-faced child at Auschwitz, Wiesel heard someone ask, “For God’s sake, where is God?” “And from within me, I heard a voice answer,” Wiesel writes, “‘Where is He? This is where—hanging here from this gallows.’”[ii]
Reflecting on Wiesel’s statement, Moltmann writes,
If that is to be taken seriously, it must also be said that, like the cross of Christ, even Auschwitz is in God himself. Even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit…As Paul says in I Cor. 15, only with the resurrection of the dead, the murdered and the gassed, only with the healing of those in despair who bear lifelong wounds, only with the abolition of all rule and authority, only with the annihilation of death will the Son hand over the kingdom to the Father. Then God will turn his sorrow into eternal joy…God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God—that is the basis for a real hope which both embraces and overcomes the world, and the ground for a love which is stronger than death and can sustain death.[iii]
In this conception of the atonement, the reality of sin is not denied. Indeed, the consequences of sin are great. God has allowed humanity an almost limitless amount of freedom. Moltmann borrows from the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah to posit that God has withdrawn himself enough to make room for a creation that is other than God. But with that freedom come the chaos that eventuates with the experience of godforsakenness.
Further, sin has a social nature. We attempt to counteract our experience of godforsakenness by filling our lives with striving, often at the expense of others. This inexorably leads to wars, violence, oppression, and inequality. Jesus’ life, and particularly his death, show God’s ultimate solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed—with those who most acutely experience godforsakenness.
In other words, Jesus was with Trayvon, lying on the sidewalk, with a bullet in his chest. If Trayvon was able to cry out to God–and even if he was not–Jesus was there, with him, dying.
The call for us who live is to identify with Christ’s suffering and death, much as he has identified with us. In his death, we are united with his suffering. And in identifying with his resurrection, we are raised to new life.
In the crucifixion, God opens the Trinity to us. The eternal love of the Trinity is made available to us in the ultimately humbling act of death on a cross, and our experience of godforsakenness is overcome, for we are now welcomed into the relation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.