Q. I am rather amazed that it did not occur to some of the patristic fathers that if Jesus’ death on the cross was not absolutely necessary for our redemption then unfortunately it is an example of child abuse. What loving Father would subject his own Son to such a hideous punishment if it were not the necessary and sufficient means of reconciling us to God? But if it in fact it was necessary because of the unchanging righteousness and just nature of God’s character then we can still sing ‘What wonderous love is this O my soul’ in good faith. Comments?
A. Don’t be too hard on those who thought that God’s choice of the cross as the means of our salvation was contingent. Thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius argue very persuasively that God has good reasons for choosing substitutionary atonement even though it was not necessary. For example, nothing shows so powerfully God’s hatred of sin and the depth of His love for sinners as the cross. Here’s where moral influence theories of the atonement have a real contribution to make. There can be no doubt, I think, about the impact of the graphic display of God’s wrath and mercy in Christ’s passion. Repeatedly represented figuratively in literature and graphically in art, the death of Christ has, even more than his teaching, more than his character, made Jesus of Nazareth an arresting and captivating person for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people and has inspired countless people to bear with courage and faith terrible pain and even death. Indeed, Ben, I think it not at all implausible that only in a world which includes such an atoning death would the optimal number of people come freely to love and know God and so to find eternal life. Thus, as Gregory of Nyssa saw, the atoning death of Christ manifests not only God’s holiness and love, but also God’s wisdom.
Q. One of the subjects too little broached is whether physical death is a natural part of being a finite human creature, like the animals. Are we to suppose Adam was not subject to disease or physical harm before the Fall? I don’t think so. I raise this issue because of Anselm’s reflection that Christ offered up, in essence, his everlasting life, to God in exchange for humans being forgiven and redeemed, as a sort of compensation or satisfaction. But this assumes a certain reading of Genesis which may be wrong. Many commentators have rightly noted there was in addition to the tree of knowledge of good and evil also a tree of life in the garden. Why would that need to be present if pre-fallen Adam and Eve already had everlasting life of some sort? It’s a very good question, and of course it raises the issue of what Paul means by saying ‘the wages of sin are death’. But again, what sort of death are we talking about? A good case can be made that the warning to Adam and Eve was about spiritual death happening as a result of eating of the forbidden fruit. Certainly, that disobedience led to estrangement from God and a kind of narcissistic self-awareness. Physical death followed not immediately, indeed not until a considerable lifetime later, including after producing children by the ‘mother of the living’. And why exactly would the original couple need to be banished from the garden after sinning? How about— because God didn’t want fallen persons to eat of the tree of life and be fallen persons with everlasting life (rather like Jonathan Swift’s humorous tale of the man who was granted everlasting life but not everlasting youth and so he got older and older but could not physically die). So, the punishment for sin is spiritual death and attenuated physical life as a result.
I bring all this up because it seems to me that for Jesus to be truly human, he had to partake of the five natural limitations of human existence— limitations of time, space, knowledge, power, and mortality. And the NT suggests he did so in regard to his human nature. Incarnation means divine self-limitation in order to be truly human without giving up his divinity. So when Jesus dies on the cross, he’s not giving up his everlasting life he has in a body, but rather he’s giving up his physical life, having lived in the likeness of sinful flesh. Thoughts? Corrections?
A. This is an issue on which my study of the historical Adam has led to a change of mind on my part. Previously, my work on the resurrection had led me to infer that physical mortality and death were the consequence of sin. But now I’m convinced that Adam was created mortal and so would naturally die. In I Cor 15.44-49 Paul associates human mortality with the creation of Adam, not with his Fall. Adam is created with a sōma psychikon; he does not obtain one by sinning. Gordon Fee comments on I Cor 15.45, “The first Adam, who became a living psychē was thereby given a psychikos body at creation, a body subject to decay and death. . . . The last Adam, on the other hand, whose ‘spiritual (glorified) body’ was given at his resurrection, . . . is himself the source of the pneumatikos life as well as the pneumatikos body.”3 On this view Adam was created with a mortal body. Paul thus implies that physical mortality is the natural human condition. That’s why, as you say, the Tree of Life served a purpose in the Garden and why Adam and Eve did not drop over dead the day they sinned. The death threatened in Gen 2.17 is spiritual death, a rupture of their relationship with God. The only sense in which physical death might be seen as a consequence of sin is indirect: it is a consequence of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden, cutting off any hope of immortality, symbolized by the Tree of Life. This is the same paradoxical conclusion found in Jewish pseudepigraphal and apocryphal writings touching on Adam.