I stood in the middle of the African hospital compound and howled. I’d just received a message that my fiance could not visit that weekend. A tsunami of distress floored me. We’d endured so much during the last few months. We’d had the frustration of being posted to different hospitals. We’d suffered the lack of communication – no phone, no email, post weekly at most. We’d endured the dread of fatal accidents as we travelled to see one another on buses nicknamed ‘flying coffins’ for their safety record. Suddenly the accumulated emotion became overwhelming.
Later, in my boss’s office, after appearing to listen sympathetically to my anguish, the man I suspected was the author of our separation agreed to Peter having regular work visits to our hospital to do much-needed surgery. I shouldn’t have trusted him. Over the next few months he extinguished those rays of hope one by one. He cancelled all those visits with no explanation.
You never fully forget the feeling of being betrayed. That gut-wrenching sense of the ground giving way beneath you. The sudden awful realisation that someone you trusted doesn’t care if you stumble and fall.
And though you may forgive, your brain doesn’t let you forget to be wary. It stores the pattern of behaviour and fills you with adrenaline if you ever see anything the least like that again.
I suspect that something of that gut-twist is set off in many of us when we hear a commonly used explanation of the Cross called penal substitution. It tells us that though God loves us there is a part of him that can’t tolerate us. We’re said to be unable to do anything that pleases him. We’re told his holiness required a blood sacrifice so that he could get over his wrath at us. And though this is all dressed up in nice theological language, and it’s been told us by pastors we trust, I suspect that it leaves many of us with a twist in our gut that we can’t quite ignore. We may have heard the story so many times that we have forgotten how horrific it is, but on some deep emotional level it whispers to us that God’s smiling face is not to be trusted. It fires off the pattern we recognise of someone who could at any time betray us.
All the logical argument in the world can’t get rid of this instinctive reaction. Neuroscience has shown that it happens in the brain more quickly than logical thought.
- We may be told that God was one with Jesus dying on the cross, so it wasn’t actually a father making a child sacrifice.
- We may be told that now that Jesus’s work on the cross is done, God happily treats us as if we have never done anything wrong.
- We may be told that God had needed sacrifices of animals for years and it was a blessing that Jesus was the last sacrifice that would ever be needed.
But all those logical explanations can’t prevent our instinctive sense that something unsafe is happening.
I suspect that for many of us this explanation of the Cross is a big reason why we find it so hard to trust God. It might be at a semi-conscious level, especially if we have listened to this story many times. But I think we need to consider it as a possibility.
The awful thing is that there is no need to use this explanation. People only started using a version of it in the eleventh century. Athanasius, who wrote in the second century, painted a very different picture of God, which is the basis of what Eastern Orthodox Christians believe today.
C Baxter Kruger writes about Athanasius’s different picture of God in this wonderful book. He speaks of God being the Trinity : the Father, Son and Spirit, who originally intended us to be included in the circle of their rich, joyful, shared life. This God, far from wanting separation from us, longs to welcome us and works tirelessly to bring that about. But Adam and Eve’s choice to distrust God led to a network of broken relationships. (Sin is here described not as law-breaking but like a disease (Athanasius calls this ‘corruption’) that infects the whole of humanity, and leads away from God, the source of life, into death.) God, because of his forgiveness, initiated a rescue plan: he became the man Jesus, who in himself experienced the effects of humanity’s corruption, and it killed him. But when he was resurrected and ascended to his Father the power of death was overcome. Jesus had created a new way for us humans to follow him into the loving relationship of the Trinity. In that fellowship we realise our forgiveness and grow towards transformed life rather than death. In all of this, God was never in two minds about us; he was always working for our restoration to fellowship with him. We might not have trusted him when we were estranged from him, but that was due to us, not because he was two-faced.
If Athanasius sounds too theological, think about Jesus. Think of Jesus who was never concerned with maintaining his own holiness or reputation but reached out to touch those others treated with disgust. Think of Jesus who told stories of his Father who was merciful and kind to good and bad alike. This is someone who is utterly trustworthy, who would never cause us a gut-wrench of betrayal. Our Western, legal explanation of the Cross as a blood sacrifice to satisfy a God who can’t turn off his wrath doesn’t fit with Jesus. It isn’t ultimate truth – it’s just a model. And its usefulness has expired when it prevents us from trusting God.
I’m not going to use the explanation of Jesus’s death as a payment to an angry God any more. I’m going to say that God is a creator who delights in those he has made. And though he grieves over our broken relationship with him, he never stops longing to welcome us back into his embrace. He is a God who keeps trying to reach out to us whatever this forgiveness costs him. That allows us to respond with joy and trust, not gut-twisting and apprehension.
We need theology that supports the development of a trusting relationship with God. In the context of a 21st century understanding of the psychological effects of trauma, the penal substitution theory of atonement no longer does that. In my opinion it is no longer fit for purpose.
What do you think?