My immediate answer was (in part):
My response would be to bring Christ's death into relation with his act of obedience. Jesus had to obey to the furthest depths of his being. Where Adam sought to exalt himself, Christ had to abase himself to the ultimate extent. A willingness not merely to die, but to suffer torture and public humiliation — and even a season of alienation from God — to obey such a destiny is surely the ultimate act of obedience.That was my immediate answer, but I confess to some ongoing ambivalence about it.
The challenge with any atonement theory, it seems to me, is to hold two principles in uneasy tension. On the one hand, we must accord real, salvific significance to Christ's death (this is what Jamie challenged me to do), and not reduce it to a mere accident of history. On the other hand, we don't want to depict God as some sort of vengeful monster who demands nothing less than brutal violence, bloodshed, and death as a satisfaction for sin.
In order to exonerate God of this charge of savage cruelty (sadism), we might blame the brutality of Christ's death on the human actors who executed him: the Roman procurator, the Jewish high priest, or whomever we deem culpable. The problem is, this seems to reduce Jesus' death to a historical accident.
Jesus did not regard martyrdom that way. He regarded it as his destiny, his calling:
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you."Some scholars are sceptical about the three predictions of crucifixion attributed to Jesus (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). The more detailed the predictions become — note the specifics of the third prediction — the more likely it is that they were composed after the event.
And he said to them, "Go and tell that fox, 'Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.'" (Luke 13:31-33)1
Other scholars argue that Jesus easily could have foreseen a death of the sort described in Luke 13. The powers-that-be were hostile to Jesus' ministry, and prophets had been martyred in the past in a vain attempt to silence them. Thus it is not difficult to imagine that Jesus predicted his martyrdom in general terms, which were perhaps fleshed out in greater detail post eventu.
Jesus was fully aware that death awaited him in Jerusalem, but he made no attempt to evade it. He saw martyrdom as a divinely appointed destiny: a divine "must" (Gk. dei)2 compelled him onward toward it:
And he [prayed], "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:36)Based on the above text, we could summarize the course of events as follows: (1) God willed Jesus' death; (2) therefore Jesus voluntarily submitted to betrayal and execution. I propose, instead, a slightly more complex chain of cause-and-effect:
- God willed Jesus' obedience (in contradistinction to Adam's disobedience);
- Precisely because of his uncompromising obedience to God's will, Jesus made powerful enemies, who resolved that he must be silenced;
- Therefore it was inevitable that continued obedience would culminate in Jesus' martydom.
The decision of the powers-that-be to murder Jesus was not a direct reflection of God's will; it merely expressed the hatred human beings harbour toward God, who was embodied perfectly in Christ. The crucifixion is a kind of train wreck, where the human "way" intersects and collides with the divine "way", giving rise to murderous passions on the part of the human actors.
When Paul depicts Jesus as an antitype of Adam in Romans 5, the typology turns on the contrast between Adam's disobedience and Jesus' obedience. It is the obedience that is salvific. And yet, because the crucifixion was an inevitable consequence of Christ's perfect obedience, Paul can assert:
… he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Php. 2:8)My intent, obviously, is to step back from the ham-fisted formula, God tortured Jesus in order to effect our salvation.
Insofar as we speak of God's destructive wrath poured out against sin, I have no objection to the penal substitution atonement theory. 2Co. 5:21 is pertinent here:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.If Christ in some sense became sin, God's wrath is poured out on sin. But as soon as we begin to envision God's destructive wrath poured out upon Jesus, I suspect our analysis has gone off track. (Though admittedly, it is a fine distinction I'm making here!)
In any event, I propose that Adam soteriology is free of this potential defect. The right way to look at it is, God directly willed Christ's obedience, and it is this obedience which is salvific. The crucifixion was merely a by-product of the obedience, though it was inevitable because of the violent hatred fallen human beings harbour toward God.
The only way for Jesus to evade martyrdom was to cease to obey God. That option, obviously, wasn't open to him.
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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
2Mark 8:31 and Luke 13:33, both cited above; Luke 17:25, 22:37, 24:7.