A Better Atonement: Jesus Died with Trayvon

A Better Atonement: Jesus Died with Trayvon March 28, 2012

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.

This ebook is available now

“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.

[i] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 276.

[ii] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), p. 65. Originally published 1956.

[iii] Moltmann, 278.

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  • Good post Tony. The most significant verse for me in the last few years is Jesus crying out on the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Atonement is foremost an event between God and Godself otherwise it has no meaning for humanity.

  • Mary

    Hi Tony … it might seems overly sentimental, but one point I have never heard clearly expressed concerning the crucifixion narrative is the role of Father in the utter sorrow a parent feels when they lose their child (with God, this would be the seeming disconnect with all his children, too). In God’s case, the utter sorrow of seeing his children react with abject inhumanity to the loving message of his son & self, and to each other really expresses the depth of love & makes clear that:
    ” 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.”
    This shows the intimacy that God presents us.
    We all become Trayvon’s parents when we see this way.

  • Luke Allison

    It’s as if we hide in the garden, thinking God is over there somewhere, searching for us with eyes full of rage and shaming condemnation. Then we feel a tap on our shoulder. We turn, and a plain, scarred man is crouching beside us. Turns out he’s been there all along, hiding with us.

  • John Mc


    What a stunning image to make the point! Yes.

  • Phil Miller

    I read The Crucified God a few months ago, and ever since, Moltmann’s thoughts have been challenging me in a lot of ways. I really appreciate this view of the Cross because it doesn’t focus so much on the internal workings of what happened (was God appeased, was Christ’s death propitiation or expiation, blah, blah, blah), but it forces us to see what the character of God is actually like. If we really believe that Christ is there suffering with us, it simply changes the way think of everything. A lot of the other questions that are there in other models simply fall away.

  • Your best blog post ever, Tony.

    I love Moltmann especially because he wrestles deeply with lived experience – both the beauty and darkness of life. May we all have the courage to make our theology so relevant and meaningful.

  • Evelyn

    Your post is so full of contradictions that I would need a serious amount of “faith” to accept your paradigm. I’ll admit that you need great suffering to experience great love but I don’t think that many of us suffer enough on a daily basis to experience that love outside of it being relative to the suffering of someone else and that is sick. Eventually we all die and perhaps we can experience this love of the Trinity at death but WTF are we supposed to do in the meantime. Personally, I’ll take the fruits of the spirit on a day to day basis over the roller coaster of suffering and love offered by the Trinity at the most extreme points of our existence.

  • Tony: “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.”

    I don’t know, Tony.

    For if God, in Jesus, relinquishes the God aspect of his nature, at that point he ceases to *be* God and you no longer have a Trinity. The fact that God is triune, at least given our def of triune as one nature in three persons, doesn’t seem to supply a solution. If you, for a time, have one nature in two persons, it is because there is no third, or the third has ceased to *be* God.

    I’m not sure Jesus can, at any point, cease to be God, can “voluntarily relinquish” his godship. He may choose to limit an attribute, say his omnipotence, but I do not see how he can cease to *be* what he *is*. For it is only in being fully God and fully man that he can be the mediator and secure our place *in* him, and *in* the Father.

    As for “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” all good Jews would have known Ps.22 by heart, as we know Ps.23. What happens when we hear, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” but the rest of the psalm automatically unravels in our head – all of it, quickly there, whether we want it or not. Hearing Jesus’ statement, they would have immediately heard the psalm run through their head in its entirety, and realize Jesus’ declaration of faith in God’s presence and victory in even this, imho.

    I may be missing something, but I’m not at all clear how it is possible for Jesus to choose to not be God.

    • Scot Miller

      Philosophically, this makes more sense if you think dialectically (Motlmann was influenced by Hegel).

      Biblically, some people would point to Philippians 2:5-7 to support Tony’s point: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”

      • Yes – the age old question re the Phil2 passage is of what exactly did Christ empty himself. And in nailing down the doctrine of the Trinity, our church established that it could not be the divine *nature* – that Christ had to be fully God and fully man; to stop being God at any point would negate the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.

        This may, in fact, be Tony’s suggestion; I don’t know him well, but would want to know clearly if that is what he is suggesting – leaving orthodoxy for heterodoxy.

        The issue, it seems to me, around this passage (i.e. kenosis) is ‘what specifically is it that makes God fully God? What is essentially God about his nature? What can be set aside and he still be God in essence; what must be retained?’ For a number of essays on this I highly recommend “Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self-Emptying of God,” ed. Evans.

        • Scot Miller

          I can’t speak for Tony, but it sounds like you’re using the term “orthodoxy” as if it were some normative concept (eternal, objective, absolute), rather than a historical concept (temporal, intersubjective, relative). Just as the concept of rationality is historically conditioned, the concept of orthodoxy is historically conditioned: whatever counts as reason and whatever counts as orthodoxy are recognized to be so from a particular perspective in a particular place at a particular time. So while it probably makes your ears hurt, I’d want to ask “Whose orthodoxy are you talking about?” Because what counts as “orthodox” is determined by historical communities, and what counts can change and evolve over time.

          • Understood.

            An interjection, if I may. What is your understanding and view of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity?

          • Scot Miller

            Trin — That’s a good question. To be honest, at this point I’m of two minds when it comes to thinking about “God,” and I don’t feel particularly compelled to reconcile them or decide between them. My hunch is that no theological formulation is ever adequate, that everything we say that reveals something about God simultaneously conceals God. (Shout out to Heidegger’s analysis that the Greek notion of truth — alethia — literally means “not-hiding” or “un-veiling.”)

            That said, on the one hand I’m drawn to the neo-platonic God of Christian mysticism, where we distinguish between the God we understand and the Godhead which is beyond being and non-being. The trinity wouldn’t be a way to get at the nature of the being of the Godhead (the Ground of Being which is not a being), but a way to express the Christian experience of God: “God the Father” articulates our experience of God as eternal creator; “God the Son,” of the eternally redeeming aspect of God; “God the Holy Spirit,” of the eternally sustaining presence of God. I think this can be described as a “Social Trinity” (similar in some ways to Moltmann and to the Cappadocian Fathers [shout out to Gregory of Nyssa, my orthodox neo-platonic main man!]).

            On the other hand, I’m also drawn to the God of process theism, which rejects an immutable and eternal God for a God which undergoes change and shares in temporality with everything else. (Process theism tends to think it is describing the “real” nature of God, but it could be that it is articulating an alternative way to make sense of the experience of God). I think process is harder to reconcile with trinitarian thought (process has a bi-polar God with an eternal and consequent nature), but I’ve read some interesting process Christologies.

          • (Scot – not sure if this will ‘show’ in the right place; I see no way to nest/reply to your last post)

            Thanks, Scot. I appreciate your answer…things that seem to be on the minds of many these days. Some responses, if I may…

            1. I have been attempting to understand Jesus (and Christianity) in context, i.e. first century Palestinian Jewish thinking; second temple Judaism. I think this is supremely important. As you noted earlier, Christianity is a historical, contextual faith, and imho, when we move too far beyond its Jewishness, it can get bent too far out of shape – become too distant from Christ. The more I see the neo-Platonic creeping in to Christian thought, the more I tend to back away (which has had interesting implications for my views of, eg, hell, the eternality of the soul, total depravity). After decades of being mentally rooted in the ‘now’ I am working to lay aside my 21st century thinking and ‘put on’ first century Jewish thinking the best that I can. It has born what I have come to appreciate as very *good* fruit.

            2. You mentioned wondering about how well we can ever really know God, but I am struck by Paul’s view that in Christ the Father is *fully* revealed, and that the self-same Spirit and power of God that raised Christ from the dead is *in* us. Relatedly, Christ’s statement that his followers are *in* him, and he is *in* the Father, so the Father is *in* us – the GO view that ‘Jesus Creed’ people (Scot McKnight) are *united* with the godhead, actually *in* God. So rather than God being concealed, I believe that because of Christ, and only in and through Christ, he is *fully known*. Given Christ, the transcendent and the immanent trinity are indistinguishable (von Balthazar, Torrance), and that ancient (Augustinian?) view of God cannot stand, imho.

            3. Key for me in rethinking the trinity (in the context of theodicy for my master’s thesis) has been variations on the social trinity, interestingly. This, again, Greek idea of perichoresis, combined with the kenosis of Phil.2, combined with God *is* love and the characteristics of the love of God have been compelling. If Christ is *fully* God (key in the doctrine of the trinity), then kenosis is part of God’s very nature. This eternal relationship of deference, of giving, of love, of mutual interpenetration of the trinity; knowing that we are brought *into* that relationship even now; *dwelling* IN that… It has absolutely overwhelmed me. I do see the trinity as the way to know the nature of God, for it is only there that we start to see what love and relationship truly are….that they take on their presence and power, imho, as we see what Christ is actually offering us. The lavishly abundant, limitless, boundless, endless love of God that Christ brings us *into*…. words simply fail…

        • Evelyn

          I think that Trin hits on an important point here in that the only way that Jesus, as a divine being, can experience his own absence is by realizing an attribute of God that he didn’t know before. The existence of the divine being (God) is defined by the attributes that it (Jesus) has given itself. If the divine being becomes something that he didn’t think that he was or can’t accept that he is then he becomes undefined and therefor nonexistent. The godforsakeness of Jesus on the cross is then a state in which God does not know himself. Jesus on the cross asking why God has forsaken him is Jesus on the cross admitting that he does not know God.

    • Mark Z.

      Hearing Jesus’ statement, they would have immediately heard the psalm run through their head in its entirety, and realize Jesus’ declaration of faith in God’s presence and victory in even this, imho.

      Perhaps the kindest thing I can say about this is that it’s a very Johannine view of Jesus. John presents the Jesus who’s always ten steps ahead of everyone, and regards his death as something between a scripted ritual and a prank. This Jesus would never scream in terror as he died, and indeed he doesn’t; “My God, my God…” is from Mark. John’s Jesus says “I thirst”–but just to fulfill the prophecy, not because he’s, you know, thirsty–and “It is finished”, and then quietly dies. He somehow gets crucified with dignity.

      I find that implausible. The reality of crucifixion has more in common with this:

      Specialist Jones responded, he said, with a couple of knee strikes to the leg of the shackled man. “He screamed out, ‘Allah! Allah! Allah!’ and my first reaction was that he was crying out to his god,” Specialist Jones said to investigators. “Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny.” … It became a kind of running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a common peroneal strike just to hear him scream out ‘Allah,’ ” he said.

      And was God “absent”, in some technical sense, from the cell where that man died? Christian theology usually holds that God is everywhere. But he cried out to God for justice, for mercy, for anything other than more torture, and what he got in response was more torture. This is godforsakenness.

      So I disagree with Tony’s choice of words here. The answer to the question “How can God experience the absence of God?” is not “the Trinity”. The answer is “the same way anyone else experiences the absence of God.”

      • Are you saying there was something wrong with John’s view of Christ (and “my God, my God” is not just from Mark; Matthew records it as well)? You find the civility of the Johannine account incompatible with the reality of the horrors of crucifixion. Ok. But what is the basis of an impossibility of Jesus/his hearers connecting the rest of Ps. 22 to his declaration of the “my God”? The “YET I will trust you” quickly follows, trusting and not being put to shame. I see it as a declaration of truth in the face of evil – of light even in the dark. The passage also contains prophecy fulfilled in Christ; could be another reason for the cry other than he was actually forsaken. Given the nature of God and the trinity, it is not possible that he was forsaken, imho.

        I don’t think anyone’s denying the reality of the horrors of crucifixion. Jesus knew he was going to die, so I don’t think he was calling out for justice (there’d not have been a crucifixion) “for mercy, for anything other than more torture.” I find that implausible. What is plausible is his drawing attention to the truth of the moment, of God’s victory in even this.

        The issue is relationship, is Emmanuel, God WITH us; the God who promised to never leave us nor forsake us, and Jesus who declared he was with us always. So, I do not believe any of God’s are ever forsaken by him. Further, it is impossible to divide the deity from the humanity of Jesus or to divide Jesus from the Father. Tony’s view can’t stand given the doctrine of the Trinity; (which led to my enquiry re orthodoxy and heterodoxy).

  • Dan Hauge

    Plenty of good stuff here, I think this works great as one important “facet” of many to try and grasp what happened on the cross.

    One question: in your account of sin you seem to have a pretty robust notion of human freedom: “God has allowed humanity an almost limitless amount of freedom.” I am picking this nit because in past posts you have come out pretty strongly against human beings having much freedom at all, at least when discussing Rob Bell and others who put emphasis on human responsibility. Since I found those original comments provocative, and I remembered them, I guess I’m bringing the issue back now–how do you look at human freedom in connection to sin, and does this jibe with other things you have said on the subject?

  • Tanya

    I can appreciate that the original post was Moltmann “dumbed down” — for the sake of those who are not professional theologians. But I’d say–not nearly enough. I’d love to have the paragraph below written in such a way that it could be preached — and not sound like a complex equation. This is part of the reason fundamentalism wins all the time — its just easier to comprehend. You hear it once, you spit it back out again.

    “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. . . ” What does that even mean? Guy number two hides under the sofa, (or dies on a cross) so guys #1 (the Father) and #3 (the Spirit) don’t know where he went — they’re “Godforsaken.” Does anybody get why someone who is not a Christian is either politely scratching their head, or inching toward the door?

    @Scott suggests this might be easier to understand with some Hegel under our belts — but that would help about .001 percent of Christiandom. Still, 93 % of us have a hard time with the Atonement.

    Moltmann says, “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.” Problem solved? Well, if you understand it — what does “experience communion” mean?

    • Check my post today for an example of preaching this, Tanya.

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  • Kevin Allen

    The Western view of Christianity – and its need for ‘divine simplicity’ (God not being separated into parts, etc.) makes the idea of Jesus (God) “being with” Trayvon as he lay dying a bit of a quandry. In what sense is God, Who is transcendent, “there”, “with”? But the Eastern Christian understands God’s relationship with the creation differently: Immanence (of God) without pantheistic identification; transcendence without deistic isolation. He is truly with and even “in” Trayvon because He is “everywhere present and fills all things”.

  • Steve

    If true, then Skittles has become the new communion wafer in the Emergent world.

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