“An understanding of atonement grounded in covenant may adequately answer the critiques brought by feminist and womanist theologians…All in all, the theological focus on covenant highlights the graceful, continued offer of relationship which God extends to the world…” — Merit Trelstad
Chapter 5: The Death of Jesus — Part 1 (A New Covenant)
The question that was answered in the previous chapter was “why did God send Jesus?” The short answer is: the devil was causing a problem and God sent Jesus to solve it. God sent Jesus as a life line out of the madness that plagues our history and our hearts. If you’re familiar with the teaching of the church, then you know that a central part of what Jesus did to accomplish that work was die. So, the question that we will address in this chapter is “why did Jesus die?”
While that question might make people nervous, it is mostly because of the way that Jesus’ death has been taught. Too often the story reveals an angry and abusive God who looks like so many problems we face in this world. In this chapter, you will see how Jesus’ death is, indeed, essential to God’s plan. However, the death of Jesus is not central to God’s plan as you may have heard or as it was described by men like Anselm and Calvin.
Anselm’s understanding revolved around the ideas of honor and debt. God provides protection and gives everyone a place. As residents who live in God’s world, God’s honor demands loyalty and obedience. Each sin was an act of disloyalty and dishonored God. All of humanity had fallen into God’s debt. That debt was no small matter and it must be paid. To leave the debt unpaid would also be dishonorable. However, the debt had become so large that humanity could no longer pay it. At the same time, since the debt was owed by humans only humans could make it right.
The problem here is the debt that stands between God and humanity. Before God and humanity could move forward together that debt must be removed. This is where Jesus comes into the picture. Jesus, as God’s eternal Son and a fully human being, is the only one who can pay the debt and do it fully. Through his death on the cross, the debt that stands between God and us is removed. We are saved.
Calvin’s understanding revolved around the ideas of crime and punishment. God maintains order. God is portrayed as supreme law giver and eternal judge. As citizens of God’s world we are bound by God’s law. Each sin is seen as a crime against God’s will. The many sins have offended God’s justice and made God “terribly angry.” All of humanity was now under God’s wrath and the demands of justice must be met. To leave the crimes unpunished would be unjust. However, the crime was so significant that no human would be able to bear the punishment. At the same time, since the crimes were committed by humans, only humans could be justly held accountable.
The problem here is not something that stands between us and God, but something within God. Before God and humanity can move forward together God’s wrath must be addressed. This is where Jesus comes into the picture. Jesus, as fully God and fully man, is the only one who can satisfy the demands of justice and receive the punishment that we justly deserve. God’s wrath is poured out on Jesus so that God’s mercy is then able to flow toward us. We are saved.
As the Introduction and first few chapters described, these descriptions of God and the death of Jesus have problems. First, in their attempt to help people understand it all, they have made God too much like the world they live in. So, instead of highlighting mercy, grace, patience, and love, God is shown to be a controlling Lord or Judge who becomes cruel when he doesn’t get his way. Third, even if these teachings contain some truth, they have been used by powerful and influential people to create a controlling and cruel culture. Each of these descriptions promote the idea that punishment and death are the tools that God uses to solve problems and, therefore, implies that death may be necessary to solve our problems as well.
In addition, many critics say that these understandings of Jesus’ death make suffering seem like a good thing. These critics see how a spirit of control that often becomes cruel is used to make people submit to suffering. This is particularly true for women and children. It can be especially true in relationships that are Christian. The basic idea is that because Jesus accepted suffering at the hands of his Father, then it is Christ-like for women and children to submit to punishment from their husbands and fathers. Critics see how this teaching about the cross can lead to violent abuse and oppression. So, not only is the cross used to justify cruel behavior, but it can also be used to shame people into accepting their suffering as a good thing.
It’s for these reasons that we need a new understanding of Jesus’ death. The quote from Merit Trelstad at the beginning of this chapter sheds some light on a path forward. Her hope is that by focusing on the idea of covenant we can keep our focus on God’s grace and desire for relationship with us as opposed to focusing on death and what appears to be the abuse of God’s innocent Son. By focusing on covenant we can address the concerns of those who think God is just a tool to justify “cruel spectacles” and “conceal the grossest self-interest.” In short, through Jesus’ death God establishes a new covenant.
D.T.R. (Define The Relationship)
In Chapter 1, we looked at a verse that gets repeated throughout the first 39 books of the Bible: The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. If we are to understand Jesus and his death, we need to understand the God who is behind it all. We understand God properly when we begin with the idea that God is forgiving, generous, patient, and lovingly loyal. We understand those words best when we recognize that they are words lived out in a relationship. In other words, we know God is those things because of the way God acts in the relationships God forms in the Bible. Those relationships are called covenants.
A covenant is a formal agreement between two parties. It is not like a contract which is a legal document between to people who may or may not know each other very well. A contract can simply be a transaction without any emotion or bond. A covenant is also not a simple handshake between two neighbors. A neighbor may agree to watch the house, keep the dog in their own yard, or get the mail during vacation. The agreement will be about some activity or event that is temporary. A covenant falls somewhere in between these two arrangements. Perhaps the best illustration is marriage.
While marriages in our Western culture are legally binding, the law is not at the heart of the arrangement. At the core of marriage is a profession of love and a promise of commitment. There is an emotional and spiritual bond between two individuals who, at some point in their relationship, decide to “take the next step.” Their appreciation and desire for one another hold them together. In marriage, the two people commit to being united for more than an event or activity that might be temporary. They promise to love and to cherish, from this day forward, for better or for worse, until death parts them.
It’s this relational bond that we find in God’s covenants. In the Bible, we find God entering into covenants with people as a profession of love for them and each covenant contains a promise of commitment. What we find throughout Scripture is that God invites people into a covenant relationship with himself, makes a promise, and asks for a commitment in return. Each of God’s covenants contain a human partner who can trust the promise (or not) and who will respond with loyalty (or not). We know who God is because of how God relates to us through covenants.
At the risk of stating the obvious, I can’t be forgiving unless I am in a relationship that risks being offended. I can’t be generous unless I am in relationship with someone who has needs. I can’t be patient unless I am in relationship with someone who tests me. And, I can’t be lovingly loyal apart from promises I have made to someone else. An isolated individual is incapable of knowing whether or not she is any of those things. Again, we understand that God is those things because of the covenants that God has made. In Jesus, that same God is establishing a new covenant. In a sense, God is redefining the relationship.
Of course, in order for a covenant to be new there must be an old one. In reality, there are many covenants that come before the covenant that God extended through Jesus. Among those is a covenant that God made with his people who make up the nation of Israel. Following their freedom from slavery in Egypt, God brought his people to the mountain called Sinai. It was there that God professed his love for them and promised them their own land “flowing with milk and honey.” The people were asked to trust that promise and partner with God by obeying the commandments (“the law”) that God gave them. It’s this covenant with Israel that most people are referring to when they speak of the “old” covenant. We will call it the Sinai covenant.
The Bible is clear that the Sinai covenant was a good thing. It was intended to set God’s people apart from the surrounding nations. They would be holy as God is holy. Just as God is distinguished from the other gods by the attributes of mercy, grace, patience, and love, so God’s people would be different from the other peoples of the earth. Through their obedience to the law, their nation would live out what God intended for the whole world. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.
Two things happened: the law made God’s people judgmental toward one another and divided God’s people from all the other peoples. Because of the law there was condemnation and hostility. Again, the problem was not with the law itself, but with how the law became spoiled by people who wanted to be in control and became cruel when they didn’t get their way. In effect, what God intended for good was used for the opposite purpose. In both cases, mercy, grace, patience, and love were hard to find.
Some of Jesus’ harshest criticism was directed at those who loved the law the most. They were called the scribes and Pharisees and, as a group, they had a high respect for teaching and keeping the law of Moses. This would have been a good thing if they hadn’t been so controlling and cruel. In the book of the Bible called Matthew there is a long list of warnings to those who value the law and tradition at the expense of people.
In Jesus’ eyes, these supposed teachers actually kept people away from God. Any converts they made were “twice the child of hell” that they were. They put on a good show for others to see, but neglected “justice and mercy and faith.” They made sure that every dish was spotless, but their hearts were stained by “greed and self-indulgence.” It was these same people who threw the woman at Jesus’ feet ready to stone her as you saw in the previous chapter. They demanded harsh penalties and “devoured widow’s houses.”
You can imagine how this controlling and cruel religion would make people act in the same way. Fearful of being watched by religious leaders, neighbors would be suspicious of one another, peeking behind closed blinds searching for other people’s faults and failures. Burdened by the demands of religious authorities, parents would be demanding of their children to ensure that the family name not be spoiled. One way to win approval from the powerful and influential would be by being as rigid and righteous as they were and turning in anyone in who fell short. The law, which was meant to be good, was turned into a tool of judgment and condemnation. It also became a source of hostility.
In Jesus’ world there were two groups of people: Jews and Gentiles. Basically, it was God’s people on one side and all the other peoples on the other side. It was God’s intention to reach out to all of the peoples through the people that belonged to God through the Sinai covenant. Through God’s people, God would gather all the peoples into one family. Again, it didn’t work out that way. In the book of the Bible called Ephesians, the author describes the law and the death of Jesus with these two groups in mind:
In his flesh, Jesus has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. — 2:14–15
The temple was the place where God’s people went to worship. Inside the temple were walls that divided people from one another. Men were divided from women. Jews were divided from Gentiles. In the mind of the people this division would preserve holiness. In reality, it did the opposite. An inscription was found that read, “No man of another nation is to enter within the fence and enclosure around the temple, and whoever is caught will have himself to blame that his death ensues.” (https://www.biblicaltraining.org/library/middle-wall-partition) It was this arrangement that became a source of hostility between the two groups.
This division and hostility that happened in the temple spilled out into the world as well. The fruit of that hostility was the same dehumanizing labels that we saw in the last chapter. Those labels opened the door to a place where otherwise good people could do extraordinarily bad things to one another. They were anything but forgiving, generous, patient, and loving toward one another. It’s important not to overstate the level of hostility, but it would be similar to what we see between North Korea and South Korea or Israel and Palestine. Not everyone is anxious to do harm to those on the other side of the wall, but there is enough suspicion that it’s impossible to know who can be trusted.
It’s a short step from there to tearing people down and lashing out against them. It’s not impossible to imagine how death creeps in as a tool of oppression and protection. It’s not hard to see how a fear of death would contribute to a cycle of control and cruelty that would suck people in and spit them out without much concern for life, a cycle of sin that spun people in the opposite direction of God’s intention. There is no doubt that all of this made God terribly angry.
God’s people and God’s law were meant to serve as a “graceful and continued offer of relationship to the whole world.” However, some powerful and influential people took God’s good law and turned it into a tool for control, often becoming cruel along the way. That left far too many people excluded from God’s promises, including all the other peoples of the earth. Many of those nations could be just as controlling and cruel. God had made covenant promises, but there weren’t any covenant partners to be found.
Everyone had fallen short.
At this point, it would seem that God had a choice to make. God could either end the relationship with humanity or find a way to continue it. What the church has traditionally taught is that Jesus paid the debt that we owed or absorbed the punishment that we deserve because we didn’t follow the law. In these ways, Jesus’ death preserved the relationship. What I want to suggest is something different. Instead of ending the relationship or preserving the relationship, God redefined the relationship. God got rid of the law and established a new covenant in Jesus. It was an act of grace.
You can read more about grace in Part 2.