Richard Dawkins asked that question – why, he said, does God need to act as a cosmic sadist and make Jesus suffer the agonies of crucifixion before he can forgive our sins? As is often the case, Dawkins has misunderstood both Christian teaching and some of the realities of the world as well.
There is no such thing as ‘just forgiving’. To phrase it like seminar discussion topics when I was doing my law degree, the essence of the forgiveness situation is that Smith has done harm of some kind to Jones – and Jones of course is entitled to compensation for the harm. Either a debt must be repaid, or a stolen item returned, or some recompense made for hurt or insult; and the person who in fairness and justice should pay is Smith who did the harm. For Smith to be forgiven by Jones, it means that Smith will not have to pay because Jones, as an act of undeserved kindness to Smith, will bear the cost himself and suffer the loss himself. Forgiveness is by definition costly to the forgiver, not an easy and painless ‘just forgiving’, and must never be taken for granted. For God to forgive our sins means that He bears the cost of the harm we have done, so that we don’t pay as we deserve.
And this need for a real cost to be borne is why Jesus has to suffer. Now in human life it sometimes happens that Smith cannot afford to pay for the harm he has done, and his debt is cleared by a third party; Uncle Tom Cobley, perhaps. This is an act of great kindness by Uncle Tom, but it is not forgiveness by Jones because in that situation Jones hasn’t footed the bill himself, he has received payment for his loss. Dawkins appears to be construing Jesus’ suffering in a similar light, as if Jesus were taking the role of Uncle Tom Cobley and a vengeful and unforgiving God were cheerfully taking it out on this separate and innocent third party – and if Christianity were teaching that, Dawkins would be quite right in saying that it’s a very unsatisfactory situation and doesn’t portray God in a very good light!
However, that is not what Christianity actually teaches. Christianity actually teaches that it was God himself who entered into human history taking the form of a man, Jesus. At a suitable carefully prepared time and in a prepared context when it could have maximum impact and understanding, Jesus sacrificed his life. There are texts in the Bible which suggest that the earthly crucifixion, drastic event though it was, was only part of the God’s total act of forgiveness. What was seen on earth happened in a way that not only reveals God’s forgiveness in general but makes a personal challenge to every person who hears of it to understand their need of forgiveness and actively seek reconciliation with God; the crucifixion makes it personal and real, not cold and abstract, it seeks a response of personal faith that fully realises the cost and does not take it for granted.
Because of this understanding of forgiveness the ‘doctrine of the Trinity’ is not just abstract theological wordplay; part of its meaning is recognising that Jesus bearing our sins as a separate third party just doesn’t work.
I understand that for Dawkins and his allies these ideas will raise a whole raft of other questions – some of which I admit I may not be fully able to answer. But the understanding that God manifested himself in Jesus to effect our forgiveness shows clearly a loving God who in forgiving does not inflict payment on an innocent third party. Instead we can I think rightly challenge Dawkins as having an inadequate view of the costliness of forgiveness in general.
In a recent controversy Baptist Minister Steve Chalke made, I think, a similar mistake to Dawkins when he suggested that the idea of Jesus dying in ‘penal substitution’ for men would be ‘cosmic child abuse’ by God the Father. But in the concept of the Trinity, Jesus is not separate from God in the same way as a human child is a separate person from his human father. The ‘Son’ may become incarnate and be crucified, but basically the whole of God is involved in the costly act of forgiveness; to suggest that the aspect of God through whom the forgiveness was accomplished in our world and revealed to us was ‘abused’ by, as it were, ‘the rest of God’ is a gross misunderstanding[i].
Part of Steve’s misunderstanding arises because, in much of the last century, many evangelicals have ‘majored’ on the ‘penal substitution’ theory of the atonement which can all too easily carry the kind of implications he worries about. My take is that ‘penal substitution’ is only one of many images the Bible uses to explain the atonement; it is valid as far as it goes, indeed it enriches our understanding of atonement, but it is neither the only nor the primary image. Taken alone it can seem arbitrary and legalistic and, like another biblical image, of ‘ransom’, can create misunderstanding if pushed too far. For me, ‘forgiveness of debt/remission of compensation for harm’, and the love of God in costly forgiveness seems to be the major and defining image.
[i] Yes, I am aware that that explanation is technically faulty in all kinds of ways to professional theologians; but I think that it adequately – and importantly briefly – conveys the basic idea for those of us who are not living in academic ivory towers!