Since God is love and love always seeks the best interests of its object, then God would never consider, commit, command or condone violence as part of God’s modus operandi. Once I came to a place where I embraced open and relational theology and that God’s love is non-coercive, one of the main issues that I’ve struggled with is the purpose and meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The majority consensus of conservative and fundamentalist Christians is summed up in the words of this song, “He paid a debt he did not owe; I owed a debt I could not pay. I needed someone to wash my sins away.” This theory is known as penal substitutionary atonement. Sharon Baker Putt summarizes this model as follows:
“Although there are many variations of the Penal Substitution theory, it begins with the idea that all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). The penalty for sin is death. Because of sin, we deserve eternal punishment (for many theologians, this punishment takes place in hell). But out of extravagant love for us, God desires to save us from that punishment, sending Jesus to suffer our penalty for sin on the cross. Jesus acts as our substitute, taking on our sin and suffering our punishment. Those who have faith in Jesus and his substitutionary death are saved” (A Nonviolent Theology of Love, 137).
Baker Putt notes that the problems with this model are many: (1) God requires the violent death of an innocent person before he can forgive sin; (2) And that person is God the Son who must save us from the wrath of God the Father; (3) God needs to be offered a sacrifice in order to forgive and, therefore, God does not forgive unconditionally, and; (4) God is complicit in violent evil, since God’s justice requires the tortuous death of his Son.
God, according to the biblical texts, calls upon humans to forgive freely. We don’t need, and are not allowed, to demand that our enemy pay a penalty before we forgive. Jesus, in his life, according to the Gospels, did not demand the guilty to pay a penalty before he could forgive. As he was being crucified didn’t he pray, “Father forgive them. They do not know what they are doing”? Just like we are supposed to, Jesus forgave unconditionally and freely.
If the penal substitutionary model does not make sense if God is love, then the million dollar question remains, “Why did Jesus die?” Thanks again to Sharon Baker Putt who directs her readers attention to a medieval monk and theologian Peter Abelard (1079–1142). She writes…
“For Abelard, we did not need to assuage an angry, affronted God. Jesus did not need to die to change God’s mind about punishing us. Instead, Jesus lived, died, and rose again to change our minds about rejecting God. … Consequently, in Abelard’s theory Jesus lived, died, and rose again in order to reveal God’s love to us. … Abelard directly refutes any thought that leads us to believe God holds someone else accountable to suffer for our sin. In no way, he insists, would God allow Jesus to suffer in our place. In Abelard’s view, that is not justice. … Now, according to Abelard, when we look upon the cross of Christ, we see God’s incredible love for us and we desire union with that love” (A Nonviolent Theology of Love, 139-140).
But, you might ask, did God still use a violent act in order to demonstrate his love for us? Isn’t God still complicit in violence? The answer to those questions is “No.” The reason is that Jesus’ crucifixion is not the result of God’s plan, but the result of human action alone. Jesus was crucified because people rejected his life and teaching, saw him as a threat to their power and prosperity and thus had him killed. God did not coerce them to respond in this way.
However, “[t]he violence of the passion did not please or satisfy a wrathful God; it was a crime. The true sacrifice of Jesus lies not in the literal shedding of blood but in the inward condition of his heart of love revealed by the outward giving of his life, symbolized by his blood” (152). This model of atonement demonstrates that God’s justice is not retributive but restorative. For me, this is the only atonement model that is consistent with a God who is love!