Note – this is an extended version of the address given at Kippax on 30 March
The story is often told of a train linesman whose responsibility it was
to oversee a particular connection
The connection led a train either over a high and dangerous bridge or on to a side crossing
One day when the linesman was working, he saw from his vantage point the bridge break
And he knew that there was a train with thousands of people only a minute or so away.
He knew the only way to save the people on the train from plunging to their deaths
was to send the train onto the side crossing.
So he raced over and prepared to do that.
But as he did, he saw on the monitor screen that his only son
was down on the tracks in that crossing.
And had got his foot stuck in the tracks and could not get it out
There was no way of getting down to his son and helping him to get off the track.
He was faced with the horrifying alternative:
Have all the people on the train die, or have the train run over his son and kill him
And so, with a sadness beyond belief,
he pushed the button that sent the train onto the crossing
and sacrificed his son for the lives of the thousands of others
The story gives me feelings of disquiet and discomfort
at the linesman and the horrible bind he was in
Think about the same story, but instead of this tragic accident:
imagine that the linesman deliberately sent his son down there
because he knew that the tracks wouldn’t move smoothly
unless they had better lubrication
and the best form of lubrication he could think of was human blood
The first story is often told to try to illustrate the place of Jesus in the world:
a sacrifice of one death for the sake of many many others,
and a sorrowful God who chose to allow it to happen
It has been used for years to try and “explain” whole Easter event.
Personally, I think it is a dodgy theology and demonstrates the weakness of metaphor
But when the theology kicks in and we try to explain it more,
we end up often with more like the 2nd story than the first!
A God who deliberately sent someone to be killed horrendously,
because otherwise God couldn’t love us properly
Jesus gets killed so that God can satisfy himself
that he doesn’t have to be angry any moreand now he can love us.
And our response is to be thankful forever for God’s mercy for not killing us.
So where did the theory of substitutionary atonement come from?
It is an explanation that wasn’t really around till about 1100AD
(over 1000 years after Jesus) when a guy called Anselm put it out.
Anselm’s world was the mediaeval period, which was based on the feudal lord system
If we say that the way to overcome hatred is by deliberately sending someone to get killed,
then we legitimate violence as a positive action in the world
and that is something that Jesus never did in any of his teachings.
If we decide that the way to overcome the place of violence and hatred is by deliberately sending someone to get killed then we may change the balance of power,
but we are still playing the same game, by the same rules.
That isn’t what I see in Jesus.
I see someone who changed the rules altogether.
If we allow a dodgy worldview and theology
to become the dominant way we think of God
Then it means that we end up with a dodgy way
of relating to the world and to each other
The theory is based on the idea that the highest thing is justice –
and in reality, probably individual justice
And the life death and resurrection (but mainly the death) needed to work out justice
Under the theory God is seen as a judge, who is bound by the rules of justice
God who is high – above the created world – certainly cant relate to a “criminal” world
And justice cannot be “softened” – it needs to be followed.
And justice demands a punishment – for that is what justice is in this worldview.
The punishment must be perfect – and the only way of coming up with this punishment
is to have a being who is “without sin”
So this “high Lord”, bound by justice and unable to do anything about it,
arranges for a punishment to be made.
So Jesus is sent – and does no wrong things all the way through his life –
so that he can be killed and God can have a relationship with us.
The theory says that the worldview that we have is the way of describing God.
It makes God a captive to our worldview – the way we think the world operates.
God can NOT be bound by a worldview –
by a human understanding of the way things work.
“Folly to the Greeks and anathema to the Jews” Paul said.
That’s the way that God works. Outside our way of thinking.
Outside our ways of describing
Let’s not be arrogant enough to think that in one illustration, one image,
we can describe what is probably the most influential event ever in history.
The theory has a misunderstanding of God.
It says that God has bound God’s self to the role of a high up distant Judge
And that part of God would like to love us, but another part of God needs to punish
But God does not suffer from multiple personality disorder.
The theory has a misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus.
It works on the assumption that the role of Jesus was to take the existing world
and work within its rules to pay back a debt that was owed to God.
But Jesus wasn’t one to play within the rules.
Jesus was about breaking rules. Jesus was about blowing the existing world apart.
What is the symbolism we read of at the time of the crucifixion:
Earthquake, daytime sun being dark, temple veil tearing.
When Jesus states what he is on about, what does he say:
He quotes Isaiah – The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…
to bring good news to poor, sight to blind, freedom to oppressed,
liberty to captives and a Godlly turning over of the entire society.
Anything that underplays how radical Jesus is is doing him and God a major disservice
The theory has a misunderstanding of the nature of the relationship between Jesus & God
It separates them. It has God as separate and high up and needing to punish
and Jesus as close and soft and merciful and arguing on our behalf.
But Jesus says “If you have seen me you have seen the father”
Not if you have seen me you have seen the one
who will argue to the father on your behalf because the father needs to punish you
When we say later that Jesus is God, we have turned the thing around
and decide that Jesus is now high up and on a throne and mighty
Maybe instead of saying Jesus is God,
we would be better off reminding ourselvesthat God is Jesus.
If you want a picture of what GOD would do when confronted by someone who is a sinner,
we see what Jesus does: forgives and calls to a new life
Where does Jesus give an indication that he would like to love and forgive someone
but he cant because they need to be punished because that’s what justice says.
If you have seen JESUS, you have seen the Father.
And the theory has a misunderstanding of what JUSTICE is and what “Mercy” is anyway.
Justice isn’t a distant, high up thing that is the opposite of mercy.
God’s idea of justice IS mercy and compassion.
Our idea of justice is to put someone in prison.
Jesus’ idea of justice is to release captives from prison.
If you want to see what God’s justice is, it is compassion and mercy.
And that’s part of the problem with swallowing Anselm’s theory:
It gives people the excuse to go into a “I can punish harder than you can”
frame of mind when it comes to people receiving justice.
And finally the theory has a misunderstanding of what “sin” is.
In trying really hard to take sin seriously, the theory doesn’t take it seriously enough.
It thinks of ‘sin” as the doing of something wrong.
But that is not the primary way that the bible speaks of sin.
Sin is the state of alienation from God, not the doing of things that break rules.
And in working that way, it gets back to the idea that you deal with sin through legality,
because sin is primarily the breaking of a legality.
Punishment may even change behaviour, but God isn’t about changing behaviour.
God is about changing lives …
Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God – with all its radical and revolutionary overtones
and over time we ended up with the Roman Empire
which was possibly more political and more power based than just about any other empire.
Jesus refused to get sucked into power games,
and instead his whole life was turning power games on their head
And we ended up with a theology that gets sucked right back in
and interprets what Jesus death was all about as a hard faced power game.
And then we wonder why the church these days plays silly power games
with itself and between itself.
What do you think would have happened in our relationship with God
if Judas had changed his mind at the last moment?
What do you think would have happened if Jesus had contracted TB and died 32?
What do you think would have happened if Pilate had not chickened out?
I wonder if you think God could forgive us without the cross
Do you think that God needs anything before God can forgive us
When the early church was trying to use its worldview to describe what on earth happened in the life death and resurrection of Jesus, it had to grab for something.
There were three metaphors for the way of God in the OT.
The Exodus – movement from slavery to freedom. From bondage to liberation
The Temple system, and its way of experiencing a closeness to God
The Exile and return home – from a sense of isolation to reconnection/ homeland.
Each of these are ways of trying to explain the life death and resurrection of Jesus.
Substitutionary Atonement – the emphasis on the sacrifice and death –
concentrates on only one.
There is NO Biblical reason why we should do that.
Of the three, the one that Jesus most resisted and fought against was THE TEMPLE.
Oh the irony that we now associate Jesus with the institution he most struggled with.