Jesus’ Death, God’s Culpability

Jesus’ Death, God’s Culpability September 12, 2014
Marc Chagall’s “Yellow Crucifixion,” which hung on Jürgen Moltmann’s wall as he wrote The Crucified God.

I spent the summer revising and rewriting Did God Kill Jesus? That meant that the subject of Jesus’ death was front-of-mind much of the time. Even as I mowed the lawn or biked to work, I was thinking about this.

My editor has expressed some trepidation over the question. Of course, God didn’t kill Jesus, in the sense that God didn’t pound the nails into his wrists and hoist the cross upright. But even if God stood aside and allowed to happen, God is somehow responsible, right?

(Which reminds me of Richard Pryor’s famous bit. God’s invited to a dinner party on Earth, but before he leaves, he asks, “Hey, can I see my son?”

“Oh, um, shit, we cruficified him.”


Asking the theological questions that swirl around the death of Jesus is not unlike peeling the layers of an onion, one leading to the next. Could there have been another way to save the world? Did the redemption of humankind require violence and bloodshed? Was Jesus’ divinity a necessary component of what happened?

Like Jürgen Moltmann, I find the cry of dereliction (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) to be the most theologically and existentially potent verse in all of scripture. Therein lies the key, I think, to understanding what happened on the cross.

But the questions continue to compound in my mind, one on top of the other. I do not think that a bloody, violent death of a divine being was the only way to save the world. I believe that God has more freedom than that. But that makes the problem more complex. If this were the only way to save us — as many believe — then the questions pretty much stop. God did that because God had to.

But if God could have redeemed us in another way, why did God choose this brutality? Many have proffered answers to this, and I find each of them unsatisfactory in one way or another, as I’m sure some will find my answer less-than-perfect. Nevertheless, I’ve felt a strong call to provide my own response to what I consider one of the most vexing questions of the Christian faith.

Having turned in a revised draft and awaiting the next round of edits, I’m finding that the question continues to haunt me…

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  • Goodness, I don’t have any great answers either.

    This is the one thought I had reading the post. Does it help to ponder the question from Jesus’s perspective? From the perspective of a single human being? From an Incarnational perspective?

    Specifically, how would a single human being go about saving the world?

    That is, if the issue is how can an omnipotent God save the world then, yes, as you point out, there seems to be a lot of options on the table.

    But what if the task was how God could save the world through the actions of a single human being? Might what Jesus did be the best any single human being could have done to save the world?

    To be sure, that creates a back up question: Why the Incarnation? Why try to save the world as a human being (from the “inside”) and not (from the “outside”) as an omnipotent God? But the answers to that question–Why the Incarnation?–seem much larger and richer than the narrower soteriological question–Why the death of Jesus?

    What I’m suggesting is that I think there are rich theological reasons as to why God chose the Incarnation, reasons that go beyond soteriology, but that once God chose the Incarnation the suite of soteriological options would have, in that instance, narrowed considerably. The issue would no longer be how an omnipotent God could save the world but how Jesus–as a single human being acting in history–could save the world.

    And isn’t that sort of the choice Jesus was making during his Temptation? The various routes by which a human being might save the world? And he chose the cross.

    Just a thought.

    Can’t wait for the book!

    • In an earlier draft, I considered the moment of Jesus’ death from Jesus’ perspective and from God’s perspective. That really made the editor uncomfortable.

      As always, Richard, you’ve given me something to think about. I’ll ponder this as I eat a poop-shaped cookie.

      • Or drink lemonade out of a bedpan. 🙂

      • “Like Jürgen Moltmann, I find the cry of dereliction (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) to be the most theologically and existentially potent verse in all of scripture. Therein lies the key, I think, to understanding what happened on the cross.”

        Yes! Yes! Yes!

        Tony, I am very excited about the book and I’ve always loved that you are a fellow Moltmannian.

        I also really appreciate what you said above Richard, specifically I quite agree that “Why the Incarnation?” seems like a much larger and richer question than the narrower soteriological question. But…

        What if we stopped asking ‘Why the God-Man?’ (and his cross) altogether and rather asked why the people of God?

        Ireneaus said, “For inasmuch as Christ had a pre-existence as a savior it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the one who saves should not exist in vain.” Then of course he said God became human that we might become [partakers in] God, and so did Athanasius and many others.

        What if the incarnation – God with us – is the reason for creation? And maybe, God with us – even in our deepest suffering, letting out a the cry of dereliction on our behalf – that is part of God with us in an imperfect world full of brokenness, sin and the fear of death? A part that perhaps God has always known, and that has always been felt in some way, by the eternal Son, by the eternal lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world.

  • Daniel Mann

    Tony Jones questions the necessity of the cross and the death of Christ for the sins of the world:

    “I do not think that a bloody, violent death of a divine being was the only way to save the world. I believe that God has more freedom than that.”

    Perhaps Jones has an incorrect understanding of “freedom.” Biblically speaking, while God can do anything He wants, He does not want to do anything. Some things would contradict His promises; other would contradict His character.

    For one thing, God will not sin. This might seem like a limitation to His freedom. However, freedom loses all of its meaning if God is totally free to do anything. The game of chess loses all its meaning if we can move the pieces however and whenever we want. In light of this, freedom only has meaning in the context of limitation.

    Jesus understood this. He didn’t want to go to the cross and therefore prayed:

    · Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)

    Could not the omnipotent God have done it another way, as Jones suggests? Evidently, it was necessary that Christ die for our sins. But why? God’s holy character required this:

    · God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25-26)

    God must act justly! Do we understand this? Not really! There is no way that we can fully understand the character of God. Rather, those of us who know Him accept it!

    • Michael Mornard

      It was not necessary for Jesus to die for our sins. The Crucifixion was entirely a human event. Humanity did not need to crucify Christ, they chose to. God did not FORCE Pilate to turn Jesus over to the crowd; God did not FORCE the Sanhedrin to arrest him; God did not FORCE Judas to betray him.

      Jesus defied the power structures of the time and tried to show them a new way to live in accord with the Father’s will, and they killed him for it. And he knew they would, telling his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem because that is where prophets go to die.

      The early Church celebrated Christ as the Second Adam, and the Resurrection as the proof of God’s forgiveness, not the crucifixion. As soon as humanity stops trying to blame God for what they did, maybe we’ll learn something.

      • Daniel Mann

        Michael, Are these just your own assertions, or would you care to defend these from Scripture?

        Acts 2:22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

  • davehuth

    What a great, great post. You know I’m looking forward to your book. But it will have to be pretty amazing to beat the insight of being haunted while mowing the lawn. I wish everyone were so haunted.

  • Benjamin Martin

    Self-righteous suicide” is a better term than murder.

    Father father father father
    Father into your hand I commend my spirit
    Father into your hand…
    Why have you forsaken me in your eyes
    Forsaken me in your thoughts
    Forsaken me in your heart
    Forsaken me ohh
    Trust in my self righteous suicide

  • Tommy Crenshaw

    All gods throughout history shared ultimate vulnerability and suffered death through bloodshed or self-sacrifice. Even god himself must undertake the Hero’s Journey, and die unto “his” nature and be resurrected. All our stories of gods and divinity are beautiful, beautiful maps and myths we can use in exploring our being. If you’re asking figuratively did God kill Jesus? Well, no. God didn’t kill Jesus; he died unto himself as we all must die to our notion of who we think we are (and be reborn) in order to truly live.

    Gods can do anything- they answer to no one. It’s just that we tend to interpret myths literally and then form laws and discriminate, conquer and judge others based on our belief in god and that we are right, and the other is wrong. We totally lose sight that the kingdom is here, now, and we do not see it. We do this over and over and over again.

  • Nicholas Kr.

    This sounds like a particular case of the theodicy problem – the “Why Good God Lets Bad Stuff Happen” wranglings.

  • I, too, am looking forward to your book, Tony.

    As you know, I am fascinated with the Abrahamic covenant cutting ceremony in Genesis 15 and how this may relate to all this. God took the position of the vassal king, passing between the carcass halves establishing a promise that may have been understood to mean, “May this happen to me if I do not bless you as I have promised (so that you may be a blessing to all nations).” God was going to commit suicide if the promise was not fulfilled.

    And after thousands of years of trying to encourage us to be a blessing to all nations, to love our neighbors as ourselves, it didn’t happen so God did what was promised in that ceremony.

    I am looking forward to reading your treatment of this not to find answers or establish eternal truth, but to add another puff of smoke to my growing cloud of unknowing. Yes. Please. Add some more to the mysteries of the unknowable intimate God within me. Within us.

  • And then there is the mystery of Psalm 22. Why would David compose such odd lyrics? Certainly not out of personal experience. What would he know about bones feeling disjointed, about being so dehydrated that his heart struggles to pump feeling like it’s made out of wax. His hands and feet had never been pierced! He never hung from a tree long enough to be able to count all his bones!

    The cry of dereliction starts this Psalm. Jesus starts singing it on the cross, but why in Aramaic not Hebrew as it would have been in Temple? People! Remember these odd lyrics you have seen singing for a thousand years? Here! Watch! It’s happening now!

    So if David did not compose that song from personal experience, who did? Was David speaking for God? If so, God knew a whole lot of details about how Jesus was going to die, right up to casting lots for his clothing …

    … right up though the last words of Christ. “It is finished” — the next generation will be told about the Lord. They will come and tell a people yet to be born about His righteousness — what He has done.

    Ah! The mystery continues.