Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jesus died of being human: McCabe and Forde on atonement

In his chapter on Good Friday in God Matters, Herbert McCabe OP gives his explanation for the death of Jesus.

First, he says, it's important to remember that, as demonstrated by his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus did not want to die. Neither did the Father want him to die. If God is Father in any way like humans, then God wanted Jesus to live a fully human life. In fact, this was Jesus' mission:
Not Adam, but Jesus was the first human being, the first member of the human race in whom humanity came to fulfillment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love - for this is what human beings are for.
Unfortunately, "we have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not involve suffering."

Human beings have not come to terms with the change that came to us when we developed language. (Note: Some of what McCabe says here may be thrown into doubt by later scientific discoveries and a less anthropocentric theology. Or maybe not. I honestly don't know.) We went from being an animal within nature to one who can, in some ways, stand over against nature. We became the first animals capable of love. In fact, our social organization demanded love, since it was no longer based on the dictates of genes and was capable of great destructive power. This conflict between love and both our genetic inheritance and our destructive capabilities leads to the contradictions of human life.
For this reason we are afraid and settle for being less than human. We recognize that our very nature calls us to something new and frightening; it calls us to communication, which means self-giving, self-abandonment, being at the disposal of others. We recognize, however dimly, that we are the kind of being that finds its fulfillment, its happiness and flourishing only in giving itself up, in getting beyond itself. We need to lose our selves in love; this is what we fear.
We do not want to take this risk - and the failure to do so is what we call sin. Love has a "destructive creative power" which we fear; so "when we meet love we kill it." We do not always kill love, of course. Our relationships need love, however imperfect, in order to flourish. But when it came to us fully revealed as it did in Jesus, we killed it.

Jesus' "whole life and death was a response in love and obedience to the gift of being human. ... As he grew up his increasing self-awareness must have been his increasing awareness of being loved - it is this, surely, that shaped his notion of the Father. You might say that the whole of his teaching was summed up in this: that the Father loved him and that his followers, those who believed in him, were invited into their love."

The love expressed in Jesus not only threatens us, it threatened the powers of the world in which he lived. All human societies are built on structures of dominance and violence. Jesus was a threat to the stability of the powers' order and so he had to be eliminated.
Jesus died of being human. His very humanity meant that he put up no barriers, no defences against those he loved who hated him. He refused to evade the consequences of being human in our inhuman world. So the cross shows up our world for what it really is, what we have made it. It is a world in which it is dangerous, even fatal, to be human; a world structured by violence and fear. The cross shows that whatever else may be wrong with this or that society, whatever may be remedied by this or that political or economic change, there is a basic wrong, persistent through history and through all progress; the rejection of the love that casts out fear, the fear of the love that casts out fear, the fear that without the backing of terror, at least in the last resort, human society and thus human life cannot exist.

Gerhard Forde says something very similar in "Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ" in A More Radical Gospel. After pointing out the weaknesses of the objective (Anselm), subjective (Abelard), and Christus Victor (Aulen) theories, he suggests that we should begin with the actual events of Christ's life; we should look at it "from below" before trying to understand it "from above". He says that God could and did forgive sins before the death of Christ. God does not need payment in order to forgive; forgiveness is about mercy, after all. Forde explains the problem to be solved by the atonement:
It is surely a mistake to say, to begin with, that Jesus was killed because God's honor or justice or wrath was the obstacle to reconciliation which had first to be "satisfied" before mercy could be shown. Surely the truth is that Jesus was killed because he forgave sins and claimed either explicitly or implicitly to do it in the name of God, his Father. When we skip over the actual event to deal first with the problem of the divine justice or wrath, we miss the point that we are the obstacles to reconciliation, not God. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!" (Matt 23:37). We are caught in the act. We have first to come to grips with the fact that we did it. The victory motif also errs in this regard when it allows us more or less to drop out of the "drama" in favor the demonic forces. Surely the view must be deepened to say (at the very least) that the demonic powers operate through us, their quite willing lackeys. As it was put in a Pogo comic strip, "We have met the enemy and they is us!" We did it.
At this point Forde gives exactly the same reason as McCabe for why we killed Jesus: We were threatened by him.

God's problem is how to get through to us. This leads to two considerations. First, we remain under God's wrath because God is not satisfied. God is not satisfied because we will not allow God to be who God wants to be: the one who unconditionally forgives our sins.

Second, God can do nothing about this situation in the abstract. As we have seen, the abstract idea of forgiveness threatens us and the world we have built. We want a conditional God who offers forgiveness only after certain requirements are met. So the only way God can get through to us is to come and actually do what God wants to do.
Why does God abandon Jesus to be murdered by us? The answer, it would seem, must lie in that very unconditional love and mercy he intends to carry out in act. God, I would think we can assume, knows full well that he is a problem for us. He knows that unconditional love and mercy is "the end" of us, our conditional world. He knows that to have mercy on whom he will have mercy can only appear as frightening, as wrath, to such a world. He knows we would have to die to all we are before we could accept it. But he also knows that that is our only hope, our only salvation. So he refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism. He can indeed be that, and is that apart from the work of Christ. But he refuses ultimately to be that. Thus, precisely so as not to be the wrathful God we seem bent on having, he dies for us, "gets out of the way" for us. Unconditional love has no levers in a conditional world. He is obedient unto death, the last barrier, the last condition we cannot avoid, "that the scriptures might be fulfilled" - that God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. As "God of wrath" he submits to death for us; he knows he must die for us. That is the only way he can be for us absolutely, unconditionally. But then, of course, there must be resurrection to defeat that death, lest our conditionalism have the last word.

The Trinity, says McCabe, makes sense of this for us because only in the Son does God find an equal to love. It is by our identification with Christ in baptism that we are taken up into the love of the Trinity and given a share in divinity by the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Love is what caused the incarnation. That same love took the form of the cross in our world, a world that cannot accept the risk of love. But even on the cross God approaches us in love and "begins in us the difficult and painful process of transforming us into saints."

It is precisely as a human - a true, perfect human - that Jesus saves us. He obeys the Father until the end. "It is this loving obedience displayed finally on the cross that merits for Jesus his resurrection and the salvation of his followers. We are not saved by the intervention of a god but by the great sanctity of one of ourselves, a sanctity great enough for his prayer for us to be heard."

The cross is the prayer of Jesus; this prayer was answered in the resurrection.


The resurrection, says Forde, is "the vindication of Jesus' life and proclamation of forgiveness, God's insistence that unconditional forgiveness be actually given "in Jesus' name." To accept such forgiveness is to die to the old and be made new in him. His death is, therefore, our death."

We are caught in the act of murdering love. That love then catches us up into the life of the Trinity:
When faith is created, when we actually believe God's unconditional forgiveness; then God can say, "Now I am satisfied!" God's wrath ends actually when we believe him, not abstractly because of a payment to God "once upon a time." Christ's work, therefore, "satisfies" the wrath of God because it alone creates believers, new beings who are no longer "under" wrath. Christ actualizes the will of God to have mercy unconditionally in the concrete and thereby "placates" God. When, that is, we are caught in the act so that we are caught by the act, God reaches his goal.


  1. As much as I admire Anselm's intellectual achievement, I think McCabe and Forde are on the better track by starting "from below" like this rather than "from above" and what "must happen" for God to be able to reconcile humanity to Godself.


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.