For those who hold to traditional Christian theology, explaining what happened to Jesus on the cross doesn’t take long: Humans are sinful…sin makes God angry…God requires a sacrifice to quell God’s anger…God sent his son Jesus to be that sacrifice. So, on the cross, God killed (or perhaps just permitted) the execution of Jesus in order to satisfy God’s anger against sinful humanity. Got it? Good. That settles it.
Actually, that doesn’t settle it if you’re Tony Jones, a theologian and author of “Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution.” He argues that notions of a God who demanded and perhaps participated in the gruesome execution of an innocent Jesus is largely an invention of the medieval church that became enshrined in orthodox Christianity, and is not what the Bible actually teaches. Here we discuss what he thinks Christians have gotten wrong and how he understands the cross event differently.
RNS: You critique the notion that humans are “sinners in the hands of an angry God” because it is “not what the Bible teaches.” What do you think we’ve gotten wrong?
TJ: The beautiful thing about the cross is that it has always been the answer. It’s the question that has changed. So I’m not necessarily saying that Jonathan Edwards was wrong when he preached that to his congregation. To his people, in that time and place, the problem of guilt from Adam and Eve’s sin weighed heavily. But centuries before that, the problem wasn’t sin as much as it was Satan and demons—nevertheless, the cross was still the solution.
If we’ve gotten something wrong about the cross in the modern church, it’s that we’ve thought there’s only one way to explain how Jesus’ death saves us. There have been many versions of the doctrine we call the “atonement”: Payment, Victory, Magnet, Divinity, and Mirror.
RNS: You argue against the notion that God demanded the death of his son to quell his wrath, but don’t you admit that there are at least some Bible passages that seem to teach this?
TJ: The Bible is not univocal when it comes to the cross. Every view of the crucifixion has verses and passages that support it. That’s probably why the early church never convened a council to decide once-and-for-all how to understand the cross, as it did for the natures of Christ, the Trinity, and the books of the Bible. There actually are not any passages that explicitly say that God’s wrath could only be satisfied by his perfect son’s death, but you can string together a few verses from various places to make that argument.
RNS: How does the traditional understanding make us fearful of God?