background image


Brian Zahnd on atonement theories
Wednesday 1st August 2018 @ 12:28 am

 One of the most enjoyable things about getting oder is that I eventually find writers & thinkers who say the stuff I’ve been considering for years but didn’t have the correct words or writing formulas. Brian Zahnd in his last book ‘Sinners in the hands of a Loving God’ writes about atonement in a way that I find refreshing – simply because this is becoming mainstream Christian thinking. Gone are the days when a questioning theology of the cross is mocked as leftist liberal BS. for decades I have struggled with traditional protestant (minority) theologies of the cross, because they make no sense to me – if that is how a loving father treats his only son, I’ll take my chances elsewhere. Brian Zahnd is the latest in a long list of mainstream, evangelical (maybe even conservative) writers, helping to form theological reflection for new generations.

Here are extended quotes from one chapter … just because. Take your time. Enjoy them. And thanks to big Charlie for insisting I read his book!



At the heart of the Christian faith lies the apparent scandal of the crucified God. Over the centuries there have been attempts to soften the scandal of a crucified God by giving nice, tidy explanations of it. These “atonement theories” are attempts to reduce the scandal and mystery of the cross to rational and utilitarian formulas … Some theories are merely inadequate, while others are repellent. Especially odious are those theories that ultimately portray God as sharing the petty attributes of the primitive and pagan deities who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice. This simply will not do. God is not like Molech. Unfortunately, over the last thousand years, the Western Church has drifted into the idea that God required the violent death of his Son in order to satisfy his honor and pay off justice. (This theory was wisely rejected in the Eastern Church.) In an attempt to explain the cross according to the honor codes of feudalism, the character of God has been viciously maligned. The cross is many things, but it is not a quid pro quo to mollify an angry God. Above all things, the cross, as the definitive moment in Jesus’s life, is the supreme revelation of the very nature of God. At the cross Jesus does not save us from God; at the cross Jesus reveals God as savior! When we look at the cross we don’t see what God does; we see who God is!

We need to resist the temptation to be too quick to explain the cross in the utilitarian terms of juridical formulas and economic equations. Before we attempt any explanation we should first be struck mute at the sight of the crucifix. Who is this tortured man, nailed to a tree, suffering a violent death? Incredibly Christians say this is God! The crucified God. If we don’t find this scandalously shocking, we have grown far too familiar with the crucifixion of Jesus. The crucifixion of Good Friday isn’t an economic transaction; it is the torture and murder of an innocent man. This isn’t a business deal to balance the celestial books; it is a crime of cosmic proportions. Before the cross is anything else, it is a catastrophe. It is the violent lynching of an innocent man. It is the murder of pure life and blameless love! Does this way of looking at the cross shock you? This is precisely how the apostles spoke of the crucifixion in the book of Acts. “You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead”  …The death of Jesus upon the cross was a murder; it was a lynching; it was the state–sponsored execution of an innocent man. It wasn’t an act of justice; it was a travesty of justice. It was a murder … What God willed was that Jesus be faithful to truth and love so that through Jesus’s violent and sinful death we would be liberated from violence, sin, and death. The sacrifice of Jesus is the ultimate gift of love offered to a world distorted by hate, where death is wielded as the supreme weapon. The sacrifice of Jesus is not a utilitarian payment to an offended deity bound to an economy of appeasement. The ugliness of the cross is found in human sin. The beauty of the cross is found in divine forgiveness.

… The apostle Paul tells us that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.”* This should not be misunderstood as God reconciling himself to the world. It wasn’t God who was alienated toward the world; it was the world that was alienated toward God. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to change God’s mind about us; Jesus died on the cross to change our minds about God! It wasn’t God who required the death of Jesus; it was humanity that cried, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” When the world says, “Crucify him,” God says, “Forgive them.” Golgotha is where all the great crimes of humanity—pride, rivalry, blame, violence, domination, war, and empire—are dragged into the searing light of divine judgment. At Golgotha we see the system of human organization that we blithely call “civilization” for what it is: an axis of power enforced by violence so corrupt that it is capable of murdering God in the name of what we call truth, justice, and liberty. Golgotha is also the place where the love of God achieves its greatest expression. As Jesus is lynched in the name of religious orthodoxy and executed in the name of imperial justice, he expresses the heart of God as he pleads for the pardon of his murderers. At the cross we discover that the God revealed in Christ would rather die in the name of love than kill in the name of freedom. In Christianity the supreme value is not freedom but love.

… The cross is not a picture of payment; the cross is a picture of forgiveness. Good Friday is not about divine wrath; Good Friday is about divine love. Calvary is not where we see how violent God is; Calvary is where we see how violent our civilization is. The justice of God is not retributive; the justice of God is restorative. Justice that is purely retributive changes nothing. The cross is not where God finds a whipping boy to vent his rage upon; the cross is where God saves the world through self–sacrificing love. 

… The only thing God will call justice is setting the world right, not punishing an innocent substitute for the petty sake of appeasement. So was the death of Jesus a sacrifice? Yes, the death of Jesus was indeed a sacrifice. But it was a sacrifice to end sacrificing, not a sacrifice to appease an angry and retributive god. Jesus sacrificed himself to the love of God manifest in forgiveness, not to the wrath of God for the satisfaction of vengeance. It was not God who required the violent death of Jesus but human civilization. A system built upon violent power cannot tolerate the presence of one who owes it nothing. Jesus was nailed to the ultimate symbol of violent power. But Jesus’s act of forgiveness transformed the cross into a new symbol—the symbol of Christian faith, hope, and love … The cross is not what God does; the cross is who God is! The cross is not about the satisfaction of an omnipotent vengeance. The cross is about the revelation of divine mercy. In Christ we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. Once we understand that God is revealed in Christ (and not against Christ), we realize what we are seeing when we look at the cross. The cross is where God in Christ absorbs human sin and recycles it into forgiveness. At Golgotha humanity violently sinned its sins into Jesus. Jesus bore these sins all the way down into death and left them there. On the third day Jesus arose without a word of vengeance, speaking only “Peace be with you” on that first Easter.” When we look at the cross we see the lengths to which God will go to forgive sin. The cross is both ugly and beautiful. The cross is as ugly as human sin and as beautiful as divine love—but in the end love and beauty win. … Among the many meanings of the cross is this one: in the crucified body of Jesus we see the death of our mistaken image of God. God is not a monster. God does not have a monstrous side. God is whom we find in the Word made flesh. When Jesus dies, he does not evoke revenge; instead he confers forgiveness. Jesus does this for one profound reason: this is what God is like. A forgiveness–centered view of the cross saves us from a pathological anxiety about God, which is so detrimental to the soul.…Richard Rohr pointedly shows the absurdity and danger of imagining that God cannot forgive apart from a violent appeasement.

… ‘How and why would God need a “blood sacrifice” before God could love what God had created? Is God that needy, unfree, unloving, rule–bound, and unable to forgive? Once you say it, you see it creates a nonsensical theological notion that is very hard to defend. Many rightly or wrongly wondered, “What will God ask of me if God demands violent blood sacrifice from his only Son?”

…A good deal of atheism is protest atheism. The protest atheist is essentially contending that the angry god of ritual appeasement should not exist. And I agree. When I ask atheists to describe to me the God in which they don’t believe, I’m often able to tell them I don’t believe in that god either! The good news is that the angry and abusive god does not exist! 








To leave a comment, click here