Did God kill Jesus?

Did God kill Jesus? November 2, 2011

A while ago I posted here about “Did I kill Jesus?” based on a T-shirt I saw at the mall.  That led to some reflections about the atonement–a growing battleground among evangelicals.  Recently a leading evangelical pastor and author has declared publicly that “God killed Jesus”–meaning, I suppose, the Father killed Jesus.  That’s his way (I assume) of emphasizing the penal substitution theory of the atonement.

Personally, I think some “friends of penal substitution” are its worst enemies.  In the immortal words of Pogo they should confess “We have met the enemy and he are us.”  Images that portray Jesus as a victim of God the Father who takes his wrath out on his innocent Son turn people off to the penal substitution theory.  They picture the atonement as primarily motivated by wrath, not love, and they pit the Father against the Son thus messing with the Trinity.

Lately I’ve been reading (and discussing with a group of students and former students) J. Denny Weaver’s challenge to the satisfaction/penal substitution theories in The Nonviolent Atonement (second edition, 2011).  Earlier I read Hans Boursma’s defense of penal substitution in Violence, Hospitality and the Cross.  Both are excellent books.  Unfortunately, their accounts of the atonement are completely incompatible.  One has to choose between them or go for something else entirely.

Let me admit something right up front: I grew up with a version of the penal substitution theory which was so integral to the evangelical Christianity I embraced that I cannot easily see my way to letting go of it.  It was preached (sometimes well and sometimes badly) and sung (again, sometimes well and sometimes terribly!).  So many songs I grew up singing revolved around penal substitution as the essence of the atonement–such as “Jesus Paid It All” which we sang at almost every communion service.  I admit to being biased in favor of penal substitution for several reasons: It was part and parcel of the Christianity in which I was nurtured, it has always struck me as biblical (e.g., Isaiah 53 and its uses in the New Testament), and it seems to be the only theory of the atonement that takes with radical seriousness our sinfullness AS GUILT.  (Sorry for the capitals.  My blog writer doesn’t allow bolding so far as I can discover.)

But can the penal substitution theory be rescued from its defenders and critics?  Weaver’s criticism can be put neatly in a nutshell: Jesus promoted peace and non-violence and he is our best clue to the character of God (something with which I strongly agree!) and therefore God could not have committed violence against especially an innocent victim.  Weaver’s alternative is what he calls “narrative Christus Victor,” but I won’t go into that right now.  (I strongly recommend for people who cannot read all of The Nonviolent Atonement the book Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation edited by John Sanders which includes chapters and responses by Weaver and Boersma among others.)

One thing that bother me is that BOTH sides of this debate seem to be missing something integral to at least SOME versions of penal substitution (e.g., Barth’s and Moltmann’s): Men committed the violence against Jesus, not God the Father, and the actual suffering of the atonement was the rejection Jesus suffered by the Father.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was the moment of atonement.  God did not kill Jesus (at least in my version of penal substitution); people did.  The Father did not inflict punishment on the unwilling, innocent Son as his victim; the Son volunteered to suffer the Father’s wrath.  The Father’s wrath was not physical violence; it was the rupture within the Godhead suffered by both the Son and the Father (in different ways).  The atonement was that he (Jesus), who knew no sin, became sin for us…., with the result that the Father had to turn away and forsake him.  The penalty for sin is spiritual death; separation from God, not physical death.  Thus, God practiced no violence in the cross; God did not “kill Jesus” physically.  The men who crucified him did that.  God used the opportunity (perhaps provoked by Jesus himself by his triumphal entry) to carry out his great plan to suffer the penalty for sin by making HIMSELF the sacrificial lamb let to the slaughter by sinful men–the scapegoat sent out of the camp bearing the sins of the world.  But his being sent out, away from the Father, in shame, was ultimately his own plan (together with the Father and the Holy Spirit) and his choice.

Weaver’s (and others’) complaint against penal substitution is not that it involves violence; it is that it makes God violent thus justifying our violence.  Weaver knows very well the cross was violent, but he wants to make clear the violence was committed not by God but by Satan and sinful people.  I agree.  And that’s what I grew up hearing.  That’s how I’ve always understood penal substitution.  The wrath of God poured out on Jesus was not the physical pain and suffering and death; it was God’s turning his back (metaphorically speaking)–abandoning Jesus to the hands of sinful executioners AS IF HE WERE TRULY A SINNER.

In my own mind’s eye, imaginatively, I have always pictured things this way: In heaven, before the incarnation and  cross, the Son sits down with the Father and Holy Spirit to talk about what to do about humanity’s sinfulness and deserving of hell (separation from God).  They all know it and one of them says “There’s only one solution–one of us has to go down there and become the sacrifice for sins by being innocently condemned and killed by sinful people and Satan (shudder!) and being abandoned by the others of us.  One of us has to experience being shunned as wicked by the others.  Why?  To satisfy cosmic justice which is rooted in our own nature.  We warned them–that if they sinned they would die.  Unless one of us dies in their place, they all have to die spiritually by being eternally rejected by us because of their rejection of us.”  All three hands go up!  “I’ll do it.”  Because they love us.  Love wins.  But only one can do it.  For reasons mysterious to us (but explored and partially explained by Karl Rahner) ONLY the Son can really do this.  He gladly volunteers and goes away “into the far country” (Barth) to suffer human violence and spiritual death on our behalf.

Obviously, that’s highly imaginative and metaphorical, but I think it well expresses the general picture I’ve always had (as long as I can remember) of the atonement.  It is also the general picture I get from Moltmann’s The Crucified God.  The first time I read it I literally wept out of gratitude for what God the Father and God the Son suffered for me and the rest of humanity out of love.  Justice and wrath, yes, I can’t escape those when it comes to thinking about the atonement.  But love overcomes them.  I have no problem (as I know some will) with saying “God had a problem.  He loves us so much he couldn’t just let us go where we deserve to go–into eternal separation from him by our own choices and his corresponding justice.  His love won over his justice.”  (Go ahead, cast your accusations of heresy; I will stick by this as more biblical than any depiction of God as somehow balancing love and justice by foreordaining sinners to hell.)

I’ve already explained in earlier posts my view of hell as God’s merciful refuge for those who refuse his offer of forgiveness made possible by his loving self-sacrifice in which he himself bore our deserved punishment (separation from God) to satisfy the demands of justice.

I wonder what Denny Weaver and other advocates of “nonviolent atonement” would say to this?  I can also call my view “nonviolent atonement” in exactly the same sense–God did not commit violence against his Son; humans did.  But what I insist on adding is that Jesus was God’s willing victim–not of violence but of the punishment of separation and abandonment by God.

Now, of course, I’m fully aware that this account of the atonement raises such questions as why and how his bloody execution at the hands of men was necessary.  And what does it mean that he was “smitten by God?”  What does the “blood” signify?  What roles did Jesus physical suffering execution, his “shedding of blood,” play in the atonement?  (Admittedly even in the evangelical milieu in which I was raised there was much talk and singing about “the blood of Jesus” as having “saving power.”)

My response is that the physical torture and execution of Jesus was the necessary means of his abandonment by the Father; it was, so to speak, the “outer form” of the atonement while the Father’s abandonment was the atonement’s “inner form.”  The Father had to abandon the Son at the moment he was going to the deepest depth of public shame and humiliation and torment AS A SINNER.  There was no magic in his blood, of course (contrary to some fundamentalists such as the author of the book The Chemistry of the Blood); his “blood” is a cipher for his physical death at the hands of sinners as a criminal and sinner.  But it was not God who killed Jesus physically; the Father did not torture or kill Jesus physically.  But only by means of that injustice and pain could Jesus become the scapegoat, as it were, abandoned by the Father as if he were the guilty criminal and sinner they said he was.

That’s all I have for now.  I invite discussion of this account of penal substitution.  But please don’t ask for the impossible–a perfectly rational explanation of everything about the atonement; there’s nothing rational about it in human terms.  It’s the ultimate mystery.  But this account of it, I hope, dissolves the objections of those who cannot accept divine violence–especially against an innocent victim.  And it removes entirely the objection that penal substitution justifies human violence such as child abuse, etc.

Now (one more thing) IF someone objects that it still justifies victimhood, well, I don’t see how Weaver’s account or any other account of the atonement escapes that IF voluntary suffering automatically justifies submission to violence by children, women, African-Americans, etc.  From the human perspective, Jesus’ crucifixion WAS a lynching, abuse.  All admit that.  The debate is whether it was at the hands of God or humans/Satan.  I am arguing it was at the hands of humans/Satan, not God’s.  There I’m with Weaver and others who argue for nonviolent atonement.  What they leave out, that is necessary, in my opinion, is that Jesus was also the Father’s victim–not by means of physical violence but because of the Father’s undeserved abandonment which the Son experienced voluntarily.

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  • Tim Reisdorf

    To bold something, you must surround the part of the text you want bolded with some code. On the left side of the text, you want to have a “less than sign” then a “b” then a “greater than sign”. On the right side, you want to have a “less than sign” then a “slash” (below the Question Mark) then a “b” then a “greater than sign”.

    This will also work for italics – just substitute “i” for the “b”.
    There are a number of items listed at the bottom of the “Leave a Reply” box which will also work.

    • rogereolson

      Well, I don’t get to see those items for some reason. I don’t know if all that is worth the trouble. Since this is my blog I think I’ll just ask people to excuse my using capitals instead of bold. One person e-mailed me and said it looked unprofessional. Well, excuse me!

  • Tim Reisdorf

    But this account of it, I hope, dissolves the objections of those who cannot accept divine violence–especially against an innocent victim.

    There are countless examples of divine violence in the Bible. Many are against innocents. At the same time, God cares for people. But violence is not evil – though it could be used for evil purposes. Isn’t it Jesus who defended God’s actions to at times destroy both body and soul? And that isn’t violent? That passage in Mt 10 exhorts people not to be afraid of violent people who can “kill the body”, but they should fear God who does that, and more!

    And isn’t it the Lamb, who breaks the seals that usher forth the horses that mete out all kinds of violence and death on the people of the Earth? Even if this is just imagery (which it certainly is), it closely aligns Jesus in a positive way with unparalleled destruction and violence. Yes, the same Prince of Peace.

    Those who cannot accept divine violence have presuppositions incompatible with a fair reading of God’s Word. They desire it to be what it ain’t.

  • Prof. Olson, thanks for this. It seems to me that a properly ordered and weighted doctrine of the Trinity is the only way to gain any clarity in this topic. This is to say that there is only one God, one divine Subject who exists in three ways: and so the suffering and abandonment of the Son by the Father (if one goes in for Barth’s reading of Jesus’ death in God-abandonment, as I do) is not merely the suffering of the Son (and, per Moltmann, of the Father who looks on in sympathy) but the suffering of the one God. Despite the violence with which it is carried out in the sphere of sinful creatures, the atonement is gracious precisely because God does not inflict this act upon another, nor reluctantly or nobly or sovereignly permit another to undergo it, but because God elects this suffering for Himself.

    As helpful as the imaginative heavenly conversation might be to pedagogy, that’s why I’m just not comfortable with it. It suggests a sort of social trinitarianism where the Father and Son act in distinction from one another (if in accord), as if they are two subjects. Barth associates this “inter-trinitarian pact” with Johannes Coccejus and federal theology, and calls it pure mythology — the notion that the Father and the Son are independent, “legal subjects who can have dealings and enter into obligations one with another.” (CD IV/1, 65) Better, I think, to emphasize that God (the Father) did not kill His Son, but took punishment — even death on a cross — into God’s own life.

    • rogereolson

      Of course, I did say it is completely metaphorical, but behind the metaphor you caught my preference for the social analogy. I think the social analogy begins to come out (perhaps in spite of himself) in Barth’s CDIV/1 especially in what I consider one of the best theological essays ever written–“The Way of the Son of God into a Far Country.” Of course I don’t think of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as independent; I think of them as interdependent subjects who, together, make up the one divine community that is God–sharing equally the divine essence which is love.

    • Deborah

      Darren, would you be so kind as to clarify for me how your objection is distinct from patripassianism (if, indeed, you feel it is)? This may help me in understanding and articulating my view (similar to Olson’s). Thanks.

      • Deborah, to be more clear my last line should have read something more like: “Better, I think, to emphasize that God (the Father) did not kill His Son, but the triune God took punishment — even death on a cross — into God’s own life.”

        The point is not that the Father endured suffering, but that God is one divine subject — and this God endured suffering. Specifically, He did so in His second way of being. Patripassianism isn’t really an issue, then, because I still follow the traditional doctrine of appropriations (i.e. it is fitting that the incarnate Son, and not the Father or the Holy Spirit, is the one to undergo death). (Divine impassibility, however, is another matter.) By stressing that there is one God, one divine Subject who exists in three ways, we’re prevented from mistaking “God” for “the Father” and suggesting that He Himself did not endure anything more than the emotive loss of an other.

        • rogereolson

          To some that would sound like modalism (of which patripassionism is one type). How do you escape modalism?

          • You may recognize from my diction choices that I’m trying to stay close to Barth’s Seinsweisen (“way of being” or “mode of being”) here. This is not a modalist way of looking at God because the “modes” are not merely modes of appearance, but three ways of being. God is not a single subject who appears here as Father and there as Son, but who fundamentally exists as Father, Son, and Spirit.

            But we just as we must be careful of modalism on this side of the fence, so must we be careful of tritheism on the other. This is why I find it helpful to speak of a plurality of “persons” (only in the classical trinitarian sense) and a unity of “subject.” There is one God.

          • rogereolson

            I can accept that, but I prefer to talk of three persons as three subjects and then talk about how they are ontologically one in terms of community (i.e., no person or subject is really a person or subject alone but only in community). I confess that I prefer the social analogy of Leonard Hodgson and Moltmann (though I think Moltmann goes too far with it sometimes). I think it was also the way the Cappadocian fathers thought of the Trinity.

        • Deborah

          Thanks for getting back to me, Darren.

          While I have to agree that the Father suffered in SOME profound sense in watching the Son suffer and having that fellowship broken–a mystery we cannot fully plumb or explain–the wording still puzzles me. That’s alright, but Roger Olson’s question re: modalism does come to mind. I’m not putting you on the spot, just suggesting that the wording leaves such possibilities open. All best, D

  • Mark Leberfinger

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’ve been struggling with this very issue after I read Rob Bell’s “Love Wins,” and later read Weaver and Gustav Aulen.

  • Roger,

    I’m in agreement with much of what you’ve said. However, one question troubles me in your account. Isn’t passivity in the face of injustice and violence itself a form of violence? In our human experience, we condemn people who turn their back on or ignore injustice or violence (e.g. those who remained silent in Nazi Germany, or the lack of response during the Rwandan genocide). How does God turning God’s back on the injustice and violence of Jesus’ suffering and death make God complicit in that act? Isn’t this what God in effect does in God’s abandonment of Jesus on the cross?

    I agree that there is no perfectly rational understanding of the cross, but I’m troubled by this nagging question.

    Lucas Land

    • rogereolson

      Did you omit a “not” in the sentence that begins “How does God turning God’s back….?” I think so. Of course, the same question could be asked about God’s possible complicity in the violence of the world. Why doesn’t God step in to stop it all right now? Does the fact that he does not make him complicit in it? I don’t think so. He has good reasons. They’ve been written about by theodicists ad infinitum ad nauseum. I believe in the free will defense. It works in the case of the crucifixion of Jesus, too.

      • Sorry for the missing “not”. Definitely changes the meaning.

        I think Darren’s ideas are a better response to what I’m trying to get at. The problem is in thinking of God and Jesus as separate independent subjects. Only if they are independent is it possible for the Father to be complicit through passivity. I think theodicy is wrapped up in this exact problem of what exactly is happening on the cross. God freely chooses to suffer with, just as humans freely choose to cause suffering.

        On a completely different note, I’ve been reading through M. Douglas Meeks’ God the Economist and among other things thinking what it would add to the social justice capstone. Too many books I know, but, to tie it to this post, he really unpacks how conceptions of God have contributed to unjust structures of economic domination, including the nature of God’s freedom, Stoic values and so forth. The insistence on the supremacy of penal substitution seems to come out of this conception of who God is based more on Greek philosophical notions than the biblical narrative.

        Mostly just thinking out loud, here with some half formed thoughts as usual. Thanks again for the post.

  • Ethan

    “One of us has to experience being shunned as wicked by the others. Why? To satisfy cosmic justice which is rooted in our own nature.”

    Can you elaborate on this? If Christ was not standing in and accepting the wrath of God in our place, how does his rejection by the Father make things better for us? I can see bearing the punishment on our behalf as plausible if it were as simple as paying a balance like someone paying for the next person at a toll booth, but how does the rejection of Jesus protect us from our own rejection of God through sin? As I se it, we still sin, and as such, we should still be rejected, based on this reading.

    • rogereolson

      But I said he was standing in and accepting the wrath of God in our place. Were you reading and responding to my whole post?

  • I guess it is an acceptable fact that man killed Jesus and not God. That is the literal understanding. But Jesus came to suffer and had to through that process

    • rogereolson

      Okay, that’s a good illustration of the magical thinking I was talking about. I don’t know if you mean it as right or whether you are providing an example of nonsense about the blood of Jesus. That’s what it is. Sheer nonsense.

  • CarolJean

    As I was reading your post, I got caught up with what appears to be an equivocation of the word, God, especially in this portion, “Thus, God practiced no violence in the cross; God did not “kill Jesus” physically. The men who crucified him did that. God used the opportunity (perhaps provoked by Jesus himself by his triumphal entry) to carry out his great plan to suffer the penalty for sin by making HIMSELF the sacrificial lamb let to the slaughter by sinful men–the scapegoat sent out of the camp bearing the sins of the world. ” It seems that you are using the word, God, to be someone other than Jesus but then you switch it to make it mean Jesus when you say “by making HIMSELF the sacrificial lamb”. It is very confusing. So did the Father (God) become the sacrificial lamb?

    • rogereolson

      Sometimes in theological writing “God” refers especially to the Father; other times the word (which is not a name) refers to the Trinity. Rarely is it used to refer specifically and only to the Son or the Holy Spirit. It’s just a convention of speech (and writing).

  • John

    Thanks for your effort. However, I will always remain “agnostic” on the “mechanics” of the atonement. We will never get this “correct” this side of “the pearly gates.” In addition, I refuse to be drawn into debates about this, though I will indulge occasional conversations, because certainty on this issue is impossible, and still worse efforts at certainty on this issue have led to endless battles that succeed extremely well at making “christians” look ridiculous and worse.

    I thank you for your effort, because loosening the grip of this issue on the throats of Christian witness is vitally important. In his book Without God, Without Creed: the Origins of Unbelief in America, James Turner cites the rise of humanitarianism and penal reform in Calvinist New England. Christians began to realize that many penal punishments simply did not fit the crimes – eg., the death penalty for stealing a loaf of bread.

    These Christians then reasoned, if they could be more forgiving, more humane, in the penalties they assigned for crimes, what about their understanding of God, what about their theology?? Must god be a wrathful ogre, like they had been, assigning the death penalty to over 200 “crimes” ??

    Quite a number of thoughtful New England Calvinists simply quit their Christian faith. Thus, the “origins of unbelief in America” were at the very heart of what “christians” had believed for many centuries.

    • rogereolson

      Insofar as that meant throwing out belief in the wrath of God, I’d say that was throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Buks

    I may not understand your thesis correctly… Take another example of seeming violence by God; when God ordered all the people of Jericho (including innocent babies) killed. It was not God who did it, but men. Does God not bear at least some reponsibility for ordering this event? Or should the men have refused of their own free will to obey God?

    • rogereolson

      A good little book offers a variety of Christian treatments of the Old Testament’s “texts of terror”–Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and the Canaanite Genocide (Zondervan).

  • Bob Brown

    In the sanctuary all that was required for justice and forgiveness was a quick death of an innocent lamb. There was no beating, no torture, no lasting pain of the little lamb. All that was required was ‘a death’. That is all that God told Adam would result from disobedience. The wages of sin is death. Once Jesus allowed Himself to be put into the hands of sinful men filled with Satan, the torture began by satanically filled men. Why? To get Jesus to use His divine powers to extricate Himself from the pain. This is true insight into the temptation of Christ and why He struggled so in Gethsemane. Jesus knew that He had to be separated from His Father and that meant torture and suffering and death. But it wasn’t the pain He struggled with. It was knowing at any time He, as The Son of God, The Word, could call 12 legions of angels to deliver Him. He could arouse the Divinity within Him to simply come down from the cross. As the New Adam, He had to conquer as a man trusting in His Father in total obedience. That was the real temptation of Christ and why he was tortured so. Thus the whipping and crucifixion were satanic tortures to get Christ to ‘turn the stone into bread’, since Christ had that latent power within Him.

    This is also why I agree with Edward Fudge that the Scriptures teach that the wicked will not be tortured endlessly since only a death was required. The Lake of Fire is the second death.

  • Bob Brown

    I like John Stott’s (Comm. on Romans) definition of propitiation: “God Himself gave Himself to save us from Himself.” Just as in the sanctuary it was men who killed the little lamb, so it was men who killed the Lamb of God. God knew that putting Him Son into the hands of sinful men would result in His death. THAT is how He was smitten of God. peace

  • Dr. Olson,
    Nice article. I especially appreciate your critique of penal-substitution.

    I do have a question. I have heard the reasoning of why the Father “abandoned” Jesus on the cross (sin brings separation), but could this be a mistake in our interpretation of the Lord’s crying out Ps. 22 in the midst of suffering?

    Recently, something just doesn’t sit right with me on this idea, and what is often deduced from the biblical text. Could it be that Jesus is simply expressing a sense of separation brought on by sin and death? In his humanity, isn’t it possible that Jesus for the first time merely felt separated from the Father, when in all actuality the Father endured every moment with the Son and does not abandon us in our sin and suffering? I’m trying to understand why it’s necessary to believe the Father turned away from Christ in his suffering. I don’t like the many conclusions we must draw after having accepted this idea… which seems to be linked to the Calvinistic penal-substitution atonement theory.

    Your thoughts?

    BTW: If Baylor will have me for doctoral studies next year… I’ll swing by and we can chat a bit. I really enjoy reading your perspectives. Thanks!

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know how else to understand Isaiah 53 which is used in the NT and throughout Christian history as Christological. In what way was he smitten by God? I don’t think Jesus merely felt abandoned by God. Moltmann emphasizes that the Father suffered the death of the son; his abandonment of the Son doesn’t mean he didn’t suffer, too.

      • Jarod

        Dr. Olson,
        I was in class once and mentioned the quote of Jesus, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken.” Numerous voices shouted Psalm 22 as an explanation for this saying. Was Jesus pointing to this Psalm rather than actually being forsaken or left by God? Couldn’t the whole advent of the cross equate to being smitten?

        • rogereolson

          Ask them why Jesus quoted Psalm 22? Was he just quoted Bible verses at random? Yes, the whole event of the cross is Jesus being smitten by men and by God (Isaiah 53).

  • Phil Miller

    It seems that one of the primary roles that the gospels, particularly John, portray Jesus as fulfilling, is that of the Passover lamb. In the Passover story, there is some sort of substitution going on, but the lamb isn’t killed by God. Rather the lamb is killed by the people, and that act of obedience is honored by God. Those that do it escape judgment. So as I read this story, I’m having a hard time seeing how a substitutionary model like the one that is most commonly put forth by evangelicals relates. How does the idea of the Father being the one who killed Jesus come into play?

    In the Narnia novels, Aslan talks about a “deep magic” that exists in the universe. It’s almost like there is an underpinning in the fabric of the cosmos that God is honoring through the death of Christ. Does that make sense at all? Jesus knew that the only way to bring humans freedom was to offer himself up as the sacrificial lamb. He let himself be subjected to the worse the powers (both human and spiritual) could dole out, and by doing so, He overcame it. Sure, substitution is there, but it’s not in the same way that most people portray it.

  • Steve Rogers

    If we’re going to default into divine mystery to avoid explaining things beyond our understanding, why must we hold onto the need for punishment to satisfy “cosmic justice” which I think is a demand of our fallen human sense of fairness more than a biblical necessity? Suppose God can remedy our sin and rebellion in a non-punitative manner. What if wielding the unfailing power of love Jesus entered into our sin, humbling himself to the point of death, with the expected outcome that he would not be abandoned to the grave but infused with resurrection power to lead captivity captive? Is it not telling that at the intersection of divine mercy and human depravity at Calvary God incarnate did not cry for the satisfaction of justice but for the forgiveness of the offenders?

    • Steve Rogers


    • rogereolson

      It is telling, yes. But I wonder why Jesus had to die for us to be reconciled to God? That question just doesn’t seem to find any answer outside of something like penal substitution. No other theory that I know of really deals adequately with our guilt.

      • Steve Rogers

        That Jesus humbled himself to the point of experiencing our death in order to liberate us from it does not require us to believe that the Father was “kicking his son’s butt” to satisfy cosmic justice, in my opinion. It does demonstrate the lengths he was willing to go to to seek and save what was lost.

        • rogereolson

          That’s a caricature of my explanation of the atonement, in my opinion.

          • Steve Rogers

            It was meant to be caricature. But not of your explanation. Rather, the one I (we) were taught in our youth. I have no motivation to try and salvage it especially in light of the alternatives I’ve discovered since I escaped that subculture.

          • rogereolson

            That’s a relief to know! Thanks for clarifying.

    • Kevin

      Dr. Olsen,

      I’m curious what you think about Steve’s suggestion here:

      “Suppose God can remedy our sin and rebellion in a non-punitative manner.”

      Is this possible? If it isn’t, how can square this with the idea that God is omniscient.

      • rogereolson

        The question is whether this is what God has done. I don’t see the relevance of omniscience to this question. Perhaps you meant omnipotence? God can do anything consistent with his own nature. Perhaps even God cannot remedy sin and rebellion without punishment because of something in his own nature (e.g., justice).

        • Kevin

          Oops. Yep. Definitely meant omnipotence there.

          I thought that might be your response. Do you have a post (or maybe some “off the cuff” responses) that can address these follow up questions:

          Why can’t God act outside of God’s own nature?

          And is this “can’t” consistent with omnipotence?

          • rogereolson

            With Barth I define God’s omnipotence as God’s ability to do anything consistent with his own nature. Otherwise, God is, beyond his self-chosen character which can change, an undifferentiated something we know not what. I have written here earlier about the basic divide between nominalism/voluntarism and realism among Christians. This is a pre-biblical, presuppositional issue that accounts for many theological disagreements. All I can say is IF someone thinks (as Luther seemed to at times) that God can act outside of any eternal, immutable nature that governs his decisions and actions, I don’t even know how to respond except to run away as fast as I can.

          • Kevin

            Thanks for responding. I’ll have to check out the authors and “isms” you’ve referenced here.

            Before I do that, I’d like to me make sure I understand you correctly. Are you saying that you (and Barth) reject the notion that God can act outside his character because it is scary to think that we cannot know what/who God is?

          • rogereolson

            “Scary” isn’t the right term for it. “Unknowable” would be better–in the sense of nothing to know (not just incomprehensible). A God without any eternal, immutable character would not just be scary; he/it would never be revealing HIMSELF/ITSELF; he/it would only be revealing what he/it has chosen to be for the moment. We could never have confidence that God really is as he/it reveals himself/itself to be. Anyone who thinks otherwise should at least pause and reflect on the fact that nominalism/voluntarism was unheard of in Christian theology before Abelard (who didn’t seem to be aware of its consequences) or Ockham. And even Ockham admitted that God cannot violate the laws of logic. So even Ockham didn’t seem to realize the full extent of the alteration in the doctrine of God he and other medieval thinkers were suggesting. The Catholic Church (rightly, I believe) officially condemned nominalism/voluntarism as heresy.

  • Light on Scripture; heavy with conjecture; resulting in error.

    (1) The Father appointed His Son as the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8; Matt. 24:34; 1 Pet. 1:20). The Son, of course, accepted this (Heb. 10:5-9). The Trinity is united in every way (John 5:30; 6:38; 8:29). All of human history was created for, directed toward and anticipated this outcome (Gen. 3:15; 22:8).

    (2) The Father sent His Son into the world (1 Jn. 4:14), made Him flesh and blood (John 1:14; Heb. 2:14), put His Spirit upon Him (Matt. 12:18), and gave Him up (sacrificially) as His only begotten (John 3:16; Rom. 8:32). There was a death sentence attached to Jesus’ incarnation. Jesus came to die because the Father sent Him to die as an atoning sacrifice (propitiation) to extinguish the wrath of God against sinners (1 Jn. 4:10).

    (3) Jesus consciously took on His role as the Passover Lamb who would take away the sins of the world (John 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:7). Not only did the Father offer up His Son, the Son laid own His own life willingly (John 10:18). As the Priest who was appointed by God after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:5-6, 10), Jesus offered Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice (Heb. 7:27).

    (4) God in His justice, as the Judge of sinners (Heb. 12:23), afflicted, smote and crushed His own Son as their Substitutionary Sacrifice (Isa. 53; Rom. 8:32). Surely men were involved, but only in doing what God predetermined and ensured by His divine sovereignty would occur (Acts 2:23; 4:28; Luke 22:22). They were God’s agents in sacrificing (killing) His own Son.

    (5) The outcome is the certain salvation sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), consisting of a multitude which no man can number (Rev. 7:9), who were given by the Father to the Son to save (John 6:37; 10:29; 17:2), and purchased by the sacrificial blood of the Lamb of God from every nation to reign upon a redeemed earth (Rev. 5:9-10).

    Given these clear tenets from Scripture, it seems that God did offer up, place the sin and guilt of sinners, and inflict wrath upon His Son. In this way, a holy God demonstrated His immeasurable love for sinful people (Rom. 5:8; 1 Jn. 3:1; 4:10).

    • rogereolson

      And where exactly is your disagreement with what I wrote? It seems we are saying the same thing. Unless, of course, you think God actually physically tortured and killed Jesus himself. I think you missed my whole point.

    • Ken

      Thank you Richard (November 3rd, 2011). Have been reading through this blog looking for someone to spell out with Biblical clarity the doctrine of penal substitution, which you have done so well, backed up by clear Scriptures. The way I see this whole debate (not just in this blog, but generally) is that we are appealing too much to reason and too little to Biblical revelation. The end result is human philosophy. “The world by wisdom Knew not God!”

  • Deborah

    Dr. Olson,

    I largely agree w/ your post. I would love it if you could provide a link to the intriguing (and eyebrow-raising) thought: “I’ve already explained in earlier posts my view of hell as God’s merciful refuge for those who refuse his offer of forgiveness.” Also, as one commenter brought up, your post here almost asks for further discussion of the role of God in Old Testament narratives. Possibly this would include a theology of the inspiration of scripture, but not necessarily. Have you written on that yet? (I just subscribed to this blog a week ago and am beginning your Story of Christian Theology book, having read scattered pieces of theology and yearning for missing pieces of the narrative). Thank you!

    • rogereolson

      I would, but I don’t know how to manipulate my own blog! Somewhere that post is in some archive. To sum up quickly–I agree with C. S. Lewis’ idea of hell in The Great Divorce–that hell’s door is locked on the inside.

      • Deborah

        Thanks. Luckily your blog proved easy to search despite how productive you are: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2011/09/is-hell-part-of-the-gospel-read-all-of-this-or-dont-read-any-of-it/

        Here you call it a “painful refuge” which reads truer to me.

        I wish I could be at all confident of Lewis’ take. However, I have dared to think (rather radical in my circles) that it would make sense in light of the common doctrine of Christ’s plundering hell for the ancients, etc. and in light of His nature and His dying for all, that there might be a transitional moment in which those who were unready to choose Him on earth and who may have had Him grossly misrepresented might be able to see and choose Him in the crossing over. I once came upon someone whose friend’s dad had died w/o salvation and resuscitated to the doctors’ surprise long enough to tell his daughter that he had met and accepted Jesus just as God had promised her. That made me feel a bit bolder about owning this thought, although I rarely mention it. And I wouldn’t want us to bank our evangelistic fervor or lack thereof on this hope; the need to witness in the gospel is clear, and it may be that very few would be ready to see and accept who Jesus is w/o a season of preparation. (My 2)

        • rogereolson

          Good points. Insofar as one believes in Christ’s descent into hades to preach the gospel of his atoning death to those who had died before, one cannot state unequivocally and absolutely that there has never been a postmortem opportunity for salvation. And if there was then, why would that have ceased and when? These are questions I think many evangelicals who express shock and horror at the very idea of a postmortem opportunity for salvation have never wrestled with.

          • gene smillie

            Whoa! Am I really reading this correctly, that you “believe in Christ’s descent into hades to preach the gospel of his atoning death to those who had died before” ? On the basis of what, do you believe that, if so? A {translated}phrase in one of the later creeds? Or a particular understanding of 1 Peter 18-20, “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah” ?

            Of Peter’s statement, we may note

            1) the verb Peter uses is keruso, not euangelomai, so many translate this “proclaim” or possibly “preach.” It is not “preach the good news [= the gospel].”

            2) Proclaim to whom? – “…to the spirits in prison,” a term that refers elsewhere in the NT either to the disobedient spirits beings, sometimes called “angels,” mentioned in Genesis 6 and in apocalyptic Jewish literature of the day, who are kept imprisoned until the day of judgment, or to unclean spirits still roaming the earth in the time of Jesus, who feared that he would send them pre-maturely “into the abyss” (e.g., Jude 6; 2 Peter 2:4, 9; Luke 8:31). The second part of the phrase in 1 Peter 3:20 verifies that this is likely the referent of ‘spirits in prison’ by qualifying them with the clause “who in former times did not obey . . . in the days of Noah.”

            3) Proclaim what? What would Jesus have proclaimed to such creatures? “The gospel of his atoning death”? That would be good news for human beings who believed, but not so for sworn enemies of God. For them, what Jesus had to proclaim was his victory over death and the devil: “. . . through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). Note that those who are freed in this verse are not disembodied human beings who have already died, but “those who feared death”–for whom, in other words, death was still a future prospect.

            And the context of 1 Peter 3:22 concludes the earlier thought, “with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him,” a further indication that what he was referring to in 3:18-20 a couple lines earlier was triumphant proclamation to these subjugated spirit beings, by the victor who has triumphed over them by his death.

            So it appears that it would be a mistake to draw the conclusion from these texts that human beings who had died earlier heard Jesus offering them the opportunity after death to hear the gospel, receive, and benefit from it.

            4) A second nearby text is often conflated with the rather common misapprehension of 3:18-20, exacerbating the misunderstanding. 1 Peter 4:6, only a few lines later, says “the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”
            If one has already decided that 3:18-20 refer to dead human beings who [gladly?] hear and receive the gospel from Jesus after they have died, then it is quite easy to just slide into this verse understanding “the gospel was proclaimed to the dead” here as referring to those same individuals. But does it?
            This time, unlike 3:19, the verb is indeed euangelomai, “had the good news preached to them.” So who are “the dead” this time, to whom Peter says the gospel has been preached “so that though judged by men in the flesh, they might live unto God in the spirit”?

            Many exegetes understand Peter to be comforting surviving believers who worry about those among them who heard and believed the gospel during their lifetime, but have now died, perhaps slain recently in the persecutions beginning to break out, to which Peter refers often. Thus he would be offering the consolation that though these recently deceased brethren have been “judged by men in the flesh, they are actually alive.” For the first generation of believers to lose members to death, this was puzzling, as we see from Paul’s letters to the Thessalonian churches, troubled by the same question (If Jesus is conquering Lord and Messiah, why are some among us dead already, before he returns in victory?).

            There are other ways to interpret both of these two (neighboring) Petrine texts, but I hope you will give this some consideration; especially if you are going to predicate further theological speculation on the basis of “since Jesus has done such and such before, we must remain open to the likelihood that he can do so again.”

            Thanks for making us all think. And I agree with your tacit underlying assumption about God: that he is quite capable of doing wonderful things far beyond what we presently understand.

          • rogereolson

            You went to a lot of trouble to correct me about an idea I’m not at all committed to. My point was that IF someone believes, as many conservative evangelicals do (and as I was raised to believe in a fundamentalist church) that Jesus preached to Old Testament people in hades about his atoning death, giving them opportunity to accept the gospel and be saved, then they are wrong to reject all postmortem opportunities for salvation. I was simply pointing out an inconsistency I see in some people’s rejection of Bell’s suggestion that there might be postmortem opportunities. I’m not committed to their belief in Jesus’ evangelism of those in hades, but I don’t think we have enough to say with certainty whether he did or didn’t. I’ve always been intrigued by one gospels’ mention that Old Testament saints were seen walking around Jerusalem during the days after Jesus’ crucifixion!

          • Deborah

            Thank you. For the record I’m not committed to the thought that Jesus plundered hell in that sense (sorry for opening a can of worms–ha!), for there is much ambiguity. But it is interesting to consider, as is the rather early practice of baptisms for the dead (as I understand them, but perhaps these were more for those who were in the faith but not finished w/ the catachumen?). It gives me more grace for considering Roman Catholic reasonings, etc. even if I’m not going to embrace them. And I agree that not all questions are readily dismissed.

  • Jenn

    By entering the world as a human being, God accepted all the risk that entailed, including the inevitability of death as the consequence of the turning away from God of human beings. (sinfulness).
    The manner of Jesus’ death was a consequence of the depth of human sin. We have wandered so far from God’s natural law of love, that a person who embodies that love is feared to the point of hatred. Feared because the beauty of his perfect life of love shows our imperfections so clearly.
    Just as the blood of the lamb without blemish, splashed on their doorposts saved the Israelites from the wrath of God at the original Passover, so Jesus’ blood reminds us of that act of salvation. Symbolically, that blood covers us, identifying us as God’s people by grace.
    Of course Father didn’t require the death of Son. That seems to me to be a pointless discussion. God entered our reality, and used our own symbols, our own experiences of life to show us the depth and power of Divine love. It has overcome death. The Resurrection is the key to understanding.

    • rogereolson

      But surely his death was more than a demonstration of God’s love. It was the event of love that made reconciliation of God to the world possible.

  • Craig Wright

    The cover of Newsweek magazine, during the uproar created by Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, asked the question, “Who killed Jesus?” At least to answer the anti-semitic accusation, I pointed to Acts 4: 27-28, where a number of people are mentioned, and then the final statement is that God predestined this.

    Jn. 3:16 says God loved the world, so he gave his son. Rom. 8:32 says God did not spare his son, but delivered him up for us all. Jn 10:17-18 has Jesus saying that no one has taken his life away from him but that he, himself, has authority to lay down his life, and to take it up again. It looks like a mutual father-son action, using human instruments.

    • rogereolson

      My question, though, was about who actually committed the physical violence that tortured and killed Jesus. It seems to me that would not be God the Father.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Using that logic, it would seem that the water is to blame for The Flood and its destruction, not the Sender of the water.
        The logic carried to extremity would put the wood and nails at fault and have people merely the ones who put the nails in motion through the hands and feet into the wood.

        It seems like a distinction without a difference. What am I missing? Why the importance of so narrow a concern? Is someone concerned that if God is responsible for Jesus’ death physically (though responsible, seemingly, in every other way) that this denigrates God’s character?

        • rogereolson

          I think you’re missing my point. I’m just trying to respond to Weaver and others who think penal substitution necessarily involves God in violence. I just don’t see it there (viz., in the cross event). It was men who did the violence, not God. Did God render it certain? I would say only very indirectly–by allowing Jesus to be who he was (among other things a prophet against the system like John the Baptist)–knowing he would be crucified for it. That does not involve God in violence anymore than any other time God allows sinful people to commit violent acts against innocent persons.

  • “The Father’s wrath was not physical violence; it was the rupture within the Godhead suffered by both the Son and the Father…”

    That sums it up! Moltmann’s “Crucified God” was huge for me in giving a perspective on the crucifixion that lined up most with my understanding and experience of God. This echoes that very well. Thanks for your post! I think it can be so damaging to see the cross as some sort of divine child abuse. I’m glad a different understanding is offered forward here. Thanks again!

    • Tim Reisdorf

      I think it can be so damaging to see the cross as some sort of divine child abuse.

      Who sees it this way? And why? The Bible makes no such claim that God did anything improper in this.

      One could easily say, “I think it can be so damaging to see the incarnation as the result of divine sexual misconduct.” This would be equally bad as an interpretation and ought to be as roundly condemned as the “child abuse” interpretation.

      • rogereolson

        Of course. But you should know that many contemporary theologians are condemning traditional atonement views, especially penal substitution, as “divine child abuse.” For one example look at Delores Williams.

        • Tim Reisdorf

          Thank you, Roger, for making me aware of the contemporary issues. I’m not nearly as well read as I should be to be offering so many comments.

          But just the reading of “divine child abuse” – that kind of thinking is so off base. Jesus is not a child. Jesus is not a “son” to the Father in the same sense that a man might be a father to his son. I can’t see for the life of me how the analogy holds. (Maybe I should read D. Williams for more insight.)

  • Joel Scandrett

    Roger, I’m deeply sympathetic and profoundly in agreement with much of this. But I confess I struggle with the notion that the Father turns his back on the Son, signifying a “rupture” in the Godhead. What of the homoousial and perichoretic union of the Trinity? To me, it’s hard to conceive of what such a breach might entail, given that the Persons of the Godhead are united in not only Their will but also in Their being. As much as I have been helped by Moltmann (who awakened me from my own dogmatic slumbers), I think his move veers towards an historicizing tritheism.

    So, toward an atonement theology that prizes your concerns but also prizes the Unity of the Trinity, here are some considerations:

    1. Is not the wrath of the Father ALSO the wrath of the Son and the Spirit against human injustice and wickedness? Do they not all share in the economy of Triune justice AND Triune grace, “appropriations” notwithstanding? And does not the Son therefore submit to suffer his OWN wrath against the wickedness of humanity for the sake of humanity? (cf. Hebrews 1:3 — The Son “is the exact representation of [God’s] nature.”) In positing the Son “suffering the Father’s wrath,” I think you still end up pitting Father against Son in a problematic way. However, if the Son voluntary submits to suffer the wrath of the whole Godhead (in which he shares) for the sake of fallen humanity and to fulfill the justice of God, then your concern to maintain the voluntary character of his suffering is maintained without introducing a (unnecessary and problematic, IMO) breach in the Godhead. To my mind, this notion is captured by Barth’s phraseology of the “Judge Judged in Our Place.” In Christ, the Triune God takes his own judgment upon himself, out of love for humanity.

    2. As for the Suffering Servant motif in Isaiah — and other relevant Messianic OT passages — should they not be read through the lens of Golgotha, rather than the other way around? Assuming so, should we not first read the cry of dereliction in company with Jesus’ final words, “Into Your hands I commend my spirit?” To my mind, the fact that Jesus maintains his trust in the Father’s love to the very end not only signifies his utter obedience but also the continued presence of the Father (and Spirit) with him to the end. For this reason, I find the medieval image of the Gnadenstuhl — in which the Father is depicted bearing up the Son upon the Cross as the Spirit hovers over Jesus’ head — to profoundly capture the truth of the implication of the whole Godhead in the Passion of our Lord. Just as the Son suffers and “dies,” so the Father and Spirit suffer the suffering and death of the Son.

    (For a Gnadenstuhl image, see here: http://www.ettaler.de/images/2211-01.jpg)

    3. As for the cry of dereliction itself, must we then interpret it to mean that the Son has truly been “forsaken” by the Father (I confess I can’t conceive of what that would mean), or might it rather be (a) that by quoting Ps. 22, Jesus indicates that his Passion is a fulfillment of prophecy, like many other aspects of his ministry; and (b) that as both Son of God and Son of Man, he assumes and experiences the “godforsakenness” of fallen humanity? Re. the latter, I agree that the Son experiences the fullness of fallen humanity’s alienation from God, but does that necessarily mean that the Son is truly “alienated” (separated from? abandoned by?) from the Father?

    By the same token, while we affirm that the Son “dies,” does the eternal Logos die? CAN the eternal Logos die? Or, like unto his assumption of “godforsakenness,” does he not rather experience our death — take our death upon himself — in order that he might heal and overcome it? This is how I understand the Son’s Passion of the alienation and death of fallen humanity.

    4. Finally, it seems to me that the notion of a genuine alienation between the Son and the Father (and Spirit) raises at least one profound soteriological problem: at the very “moment of atonement,” the Father and Spirit are nowhere to be found. At the very moment at which reconciliation between a righteous God and unrighteous humanity is being effected, the Father and Spirit leave the room, so to speak. To my mind, in direct opposition to such a notion, there is no other moment in the economy of the Incarnation in which it is more important that the entire Godhead be fully *present* than at THIS moment. To my mind, the Father turning his back on the Son is nothing short of the Father abandoning the Son in his greatest hour of need — not to mention the need of our fallen race.

    Well, I’m starting to preach, so I’d better stop. But I hope you get the gist of it. No need to reply at length. I just wanted to air some of these concerns for your consideration.

    Pax Christi,

    • rogereolson

      Joel, Thanks for this and I find many points with which I can agree. Others would take a long time to discuss. I’ll just say that I see no problem with saying the whole Trinity suffered the cross of Christ, but, as Moltmann emphasizes, not in the same way.

  • michael


    “…That’s his way (I assume) of emphasizing the penal substitution theory of the atonement.”

    For clarity, is this your “assumption”, too, or, are you just assuming the penal substitution theory?

    What do you stand on and believe with regard to this verse:

    Mat 1:21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

    What does Jesus do to save “His” people from their sins, then?

    • rogereolson

      How is what I wrote (about the atonement) not an answer to that question?

      • michael

        I don’t know you or what your presuppositions are so I am asking for clarification. You don’t know me but I can say I am neither Calvinist or Arminian. I came to Christ in 1975 simply by reading that verse (Matthew 1:21) and have been actively involved in ministry ever since.

        I would want to draw out more of your thinking, your knowledge and understanding on penal substitution theory so I referenced that verse to better understand penal substitution theory from your point of view asking “What does Jesus do to save “His” people from their sins, then?

        • rogereolson

          I don’t know what you’re getting at. My post answered that question. What’s your problem with understanding what I wrote? He dies for them; he suffers punishment in their (our) place; he gives his life for the sheep. So why don’t you say what’s on your mind?

  • Some provocative concepts here, both in your post, Roger, and in the interactions about it. There is one very in-depth resource I didn’t see referenced (though I didn’t read all the responses). I wouldn’t actually expect it to be, if people are even aware of it, because of the author. It is a blog by Dr. Ken Pulliam, who died suddenly about a year ago. Ken (who I knew some personally) had a PhD in theology (OT I believe) from Bob Jones U. and had taught 9 years at Int’l Baptist College in Tempe, AZ, before a crisis of faith that led him to resign and to pursue a secular career. He shares some of this on the blog, which is still up, as he left it (technically a few posts went up automatically after his death for a few weeks, as he had pre-set them to do). It is http://www.formerfundy.blogspot.com.

    The reason it is relevant to share on a thread like this is that he had been writing extensively and digging up many historical arguments about the atonement, particularly “PST,” as he called it, by a variety of authors, from respected Churchmen to skeptics, etc. He was working on a book on PST when he died… I’ve not heard how far along it was, or if anyone is seeking to finish and publish it. There are many, many posts, often lengthy, on the subject at his blog site. One can see listings of them, by topic or theologian, etc., and his bibliography on the topical indexes on the right. I think anyone would find this an incredible resource, even if they don’t agree with Ken’s views at many points.