It’s time to Heal the Gospel of God the Moral Monster

It’s time to Heal the Gospel of God the Moral Monster September 10, 2012


The new book *Healing the Gospel* (Cascade Books, 2012) challenges the way many of us have learned to understand the cross, and at the same time the hurtful image of God behind it, arguing instead for a view based on God’s enemy love and restorative justice. In this post, author Derek Flood answers some questions about the controversial new book:

1. Healing the Gospel is focused on understanding the meaning of the cross. Why should the average Christian reader be interested in a book on the atonement?

Most of us were taught that Jesus needed to die to appease a wrathful God’s demand for punishment. This brings up a number of difficult questions: Does that mean Jesus died to save us from God? How could someone ever truly love or entrust themselves to a God like that? How can that ever be called “Good News”? It’s questions like these that have made so many people want to have nothing to do with Christianity.

These are deeply relevant questions for us to face that have a profound impact on our relationship with God and others. Countless people filling our pews have adopted a hurtful view of God and themselves which has led them to internalize feelings of shame and self-loathing. Others have lost their faith entirely, unable to worship a God who seems to them to be a moral monster. Faith motivated by fear, threat, and feelings of worthlessness. How could things have gone so wrong? When did the good news become bad news?

Healing the Gospel is about breaking away from that hurtful image of God and instead learning to understand the cross in the context of grace, restoration, and enemy love.

2. Many people would say that the idea that Jesus died to appease God’s demand for punishment is simply what the Bible teaches. How would you respond to that?

First, I would want to stress that this has not always been how Christians understood the atonement. For the first thousand years, the work of Christ was understood primarily in terms of God’s act of healing people, and liberating them from the bonds of sin and death. This understanding is known as Christus Victor. But gradually there was a shift towards a legal focus, and with it a focus on violent punishment. With this shift the message was flipped on it’s head: instead of the crucifixion being seen as an act of grave injustice (as it is portrayed in all four Gospels), it was now claimed that God had demanded the death of Jesus to quench his anger. Not coincidentally, this coincided with increased violence perpetrated by the church, and it went downhill from there.

As a society we’ve increasingly come to recognize the damage punishment can do—not just in the realm of religious violence like the Crusades, but spanning a wide scope of issues ranging from how we raise our kids to international conflict. Across the board we have come to see that restorative justice works and punitive justice doesn’t. It’s about making things right, rather than perpetuating hurt.

At the same time, it has been deeply ingrained into our thinking that God demands retributive justice. For many Christian this is inseparable from how they understand salvation. Consequently, in an effort to be true to the teachings of the Bible, many Christians struggle to believe it, even though it seems immoral and hurtful to them. They hate it, but think this is what God wants them to believe.

Healing the Gospel takes a deep look at the Bible and makes the case that this view is neither representative of Jesus and his teachings, nor is it reflective of the New Testament. Rather, it is the result of people projecting their worldly understanding of punitive justice onto the biblical text. Jesus was focused on confronting those cultural and religious assumptions. What we see in the New Testament is the gospel understood as God’s act of restorative justice. This is the master narrative of the New Testament, and entails a critique of the way of retribution and violence rather than a validation of it.

3. But doesn’t that entail being soft on crime, and not taking sin seriously? How can God be just if there are no consequences?

There most certainly are consequences. The choice is not between action and inaction, it is between allowing hurt to be perpetuated or acting to repair the harm. The Greek word for “saved” used throughout the Gospels is *sozo*, and it means both “saved” and “healed.” This is deeply significant because it reflects the fact that salvation is not conceptualized by Jesus in a legal framework, but in terms of healing and restoration. We see in Jesus that God’s response to sin is not to punish it, but to heal it. In other words, the guiding metaphor here is not sin as *crime* in need of punishment, but sin as sickness in need of healing. It’s a model of restoration not retribution.

This entails a much deeper understanding of sin because it recognizes its deep roots, and offers a real solution that involves changing a person’s heart, whereas a legal focus stays on a superficial level of outward behavior, and only perpetuates hurt through punishment.

In short, love heals. The real problem I think is that people don’t trust in love and so they revert to punishment and fear. But that is not the gospel. Real justice is not about punishment, it is about making things right. Likewise, biblical mercy is not about looking the other way, it is precisely about seeing. Compassion means that we do see the real problems and hurt around us, and therefore act in compassion to help. Justice is not in conflict with compassion, on the contrary real justice only comes *through* acts of compassion.

4. What about the the many passages that seem to support Christ being punished instead of us? For example Jesus is described as our sacrifice, and the book of Hebrews says that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Heb 9:22)

This is an important question, and Healing the Gospel spends a considerable amount of time carefully looking at key passages like this one in order to articulate an understanding of the cross that is at the same time both life-giving and grace-centered as well as thoroughly biblical.

In this particular example, it’s important to note that you have only quoted half of the verse. Context matters. The full verse reads: “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” So the stated purpose of the sacrificial blood is not to appease, but to *cleanse*, to purify, to make holy. We see this theme of sacrifice understood as cleansing repeated throughout Hebrews. It tells us the sacrifices were a symbol of the reality in Christ, and the focus is on how Christ acts to make us pure, cleansed and holy.

We see this in Paul too: A central focus of Paul’s throughout his epistles was on how we are to follow in the way of the cross, which is the way of enemy love. If we instead see the cross as focused on appeasing God’s anger then it ends up standing for the opposite: As if to say we should not act in retribution, but God apparently does.

Here’s a really simple rule of thumb: If our understanding of the cross completely contradicts everything Jesus taught and demonstrated in his own life, then we are probably missing the point. The things we see Jesus doing in the Gospels are there as a context for us to get what his cross was all about. Paul understood this, and said that we need to follow in that same way of the cross. This is the way of enemy love which God demonstrated in Jesus, and which we are to follow.

There is therefore no contradiction between how God treats his enemies, and how we are called by Jesus to treat ours. Show me someone who has forgiven a great wrong done to them—or even more, show me someone who has forgiven a great wrong done to someone they love dearly—and I’ll show you someone who understands the cross better than all the theologians in the world. We fail to understand the cross because we have not plumbed the depths of what great love can bear. Really getting the cross doesn’t come through study, it comes through discipleship. The more we grow to be like Jesus, to see people through his eyes, to love as he does, the more we understand his cross.

***Check out Derek Flood’s blog and new book: Healing the Gospel!

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  • “But gradually there was a shift towards a legal focus, and with it a focus on violent punishment.” How ironic at the same time we peddle grace . . . Throughout the centuries this drift toward law, justice, quid pro quo, you (or at least someone) gets what you deserve and deserve what you get, and finally a ghastly god of violence, drenches our psyche and spirit and forms notions of God and Jesus that are completely unfaithful to the character of Jesus in the gospels. Glad this book will go right after this nonsense.

  • I’m definitely going to check out this book!

    This whole topic has been on my mind a lot lately, particularly as I’ve read Gustaf Aulen’s book “Christus Victor” as well as Ernst Käsemann’s essay collection, “On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene” (which I *highly* recommend, by the way). It has bothered me for some time how the legal/forensic stuff gets detached from the idea of the powers, and how arbitrary all of it makes God look in the process. But I read Paul, for example, and see that the two aspects aren’t really supposed to be separated out from each other (are they even “aspects”?) – they are, in fact, *both* an explanation for how God made us alive with Christ. Protestant theology has long accepted that the two are “consistent,” but what if they in fact *need* each other even to make sense at all? God makes us alive with Christ “by pardoning all our transgressions” (Col 2:13-15); so far it’s pretty clear. How does he do this? Verses 14 & 15 give two explanations that are joined with verse 13. He pardons our transgressions, (1) “having erased our record of debt, consisting in ordinances, that stood against us – this he took away by nailing it to the cross” (2) “by disarming the rulers and authorities, he publicly disgraced them, leading them in triumph in [Christ].” The one flows seamlessly into the other.

    As I’ve reflected on this, it seems to me that the best way to describe the relationship between the legal aspect and the powers is to say that human guilt consists, more or less, in our willfully embodying the reign of Death over the creation. That means our guilt can’t be so easily detached from the powers – they hold us under their lordship, and yet, in a sense, we hold ourselves under them and feed them with our own contribution by refusing the lordship of God (preferring our own instead). Their sway over us and over the world is therefore the very embodiment of our guilt, the very “essence” of it. What that means, then, is that Jesus “accepted” the guilt of the world’s sin, not by “pretending” he did all of those things, as many (typically western) schemes have seemed to suggest, but simply by allowing that guilt to conquer him in death. He “paid the price” in the sense of allowing the consequence of the world’s sin – the power of Death – to destroy him without protest; so he is the “sacrifice” in the sense that, by his willingness to give himself up to death, the powers are brought to an end in himself at the cost of his life. Another way of saying he is a sacrifice for us or that he paid the price for us is simply to say that “that’s what it took” to free us.

    And if that’s true, then the sacrifice is one *God* offers to us, more than the reverse. He sent his son into a world dominated by death in order to accept its death in himself and rescue the world from it. That was the “cost.” He did not spare his beloved son, but gave him up for us all (Rom. 8). And when we embrace him as the risen Lord, our fleshly “self” that is characterized by the reign of death is placed in solidarity with him on the cross – all our rebellion, guilt, shame, and the rest is put to death with him, and we are freed for newness of life by living under his Lordship by the Holy Spirit, and therefore no longer under the reign of Death (even if our fleshly nature remains this way during our present life). We are forgiven, not because some abstract “Justice” has been “satisfied,” but because our rebellion and enmity itself has been extinguished in the death of Jesus at the hands of the powers. Our guilt is wiped away *precisely because* he faced and defeated the powers of darkness by his death.

    I feel like all such explanations are feeble, but nevertheless, just this awareness has made a profound difference, especially in the way I share the Lord’s supper. I can open my eyes both to myself and to my church family as those for whom Christ was willing to pay the price of his life, to liberate us both from death and from the futility of our subservience to it (that is to say, from our guilt). The body broken and blood poured out is God’s offering to us, not ours to him; they are the truest token of God’s love, not our ticket to his appeasement.

  • What an inspiration…A book “about breaking away from that hurtful image of God and instead learning
    to understand the cross in the context of grace, restoration, and enemy
    The demon of hurtful views of God and humanity can submit as I’ve also read in the book, “21st Century Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” “The women who stood near Jesus’ cross
    were able to answer Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?'[1] They knew what had inspired their devotion, motivated
    their faith, and opened the eyes of their understanding. They identified with
    the Principle that healed the sick, cast out evil, and caused the disciples to
    say to their Teacher: ‘Even the demons submit to us in your name.'[2]”
    Thank you for this review.

    [1] John 18:38

    [2] Luke 10:17