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Richard J. Mouw

Violence and the Atonement

With this essay we begin a series devoted to the atonement. Perhaps no doctrine has been more central to evangelical theology, yet today among evangelicals, as among orthodox Christians more generally, one often hears that the classical understanding of this doctrine is deeply flawed, that we must "rethink the atonement." Is that really so? The essays in this series will consider such questions.

It has become a fairly common practice in recent years for scholars to criticize traditional Christian doctrines for the ways in which they purportedly promote and reinforce unhealthy human practices. This mode of critique is especially attractive to those thinkers who like to probe beneath the surface of what to many of us are the obvious meanings of theories and stories, for what they insist are the "subtexts" in which the operating motives and projects are made plain. Marxism has long thrived on this kind of analysis. Its adherents have insisted, for example, that while oppressed people who sing hymns about the afterlife may sincerely believe in a glorious future heavenly existence, what is "really" going on is that they have internalized a story that is designed to make them passively accept the political-economic status quo. The Freudians employ a parallel strategy for understanding religious belief, insisting that, for example, the desire for divine forgiveness is a conscious effort to resolve an unconscious Oedipal conflict. And it is not unusual these days to encounter folks who reject, say, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, not on the grounds that it is "unscientific" to believe in a miracle of that sort, but because it promotes an image of passive and servile femininity. Or the idea of divine transcendence will be attacked for the way in which it reinforces "hierarchicalism" in human relationships and in the way we treat other species.

The classical Christian formulations concerning the atoning work of Christ have come in for special attention in this regard. Specifically, the suggestion is made that the story of a divine Father punishing his Son on the Cross features imagery that promotes violent relationships among human beings. Obviously, such a critique is directed toward what many of us see as a central theme in biblical orthodoxy. It is important, then, to think carefully about this way of analyzing theological motifs.

There are at least two good reasons for doing so. First, we need to be clear about the fact that the things that the critics of Christian orthodoxy claim to find in the "subtexts" of Christian teachings are often very bad things. We ought to be genuinely disturbed if, for example, we really are encouraging the poor to remain in their squalor, or promoting the subjugation of women by reinforcing models of passive femininity. The same goes for the exploitation of nature. It is a bad thing to encourage such patterns, and we ought to be willing—even eager—to check out any possible connection between Christian belief and such programs of unrighteousness.

And, second, there can be no denying that the actual record of the Christian community is not pure with regard to such programs. Christians have in fact often been on the wrong side of important moral issues. We owe it to our critics to admit our sins and to explore seriously any ways in which we have misused Christian teachings. As Jose Miguez Bonino once observed about the need for Christians to take the accusations of Latin American revolutionaries seriously: we are not ultimately accountable to our secular critics—only the Lord is our Judge. But while our critics cannot sit in judgment over us, we do need to allow them, in the presence of that Lord, to take the witness stand and to present their evidence against us.[1]

Just War Spirituality

The need to listen carefully to our critics is nowhere more obvious to me than in our Christian dealings with the topic of violence. That subject has consistently been high on my own agenda during my career as an ethicist. My entry level concerns on this subject were shaped by my very personal struggles during the Vietnam War era. And while I have always found a thoroughgoing pacifism to have some moral attraction, my basic convictions on the subject have been consistently formed and expressed within a Just War perspective. I have never been happy, though, with the way many Just War theorists have concentrated almost exclusively on the patterns and processes of military strategy, to the neglect of the more general patterns of violence and abuse in human relations. My own sense is that it is especially important to pay close attention to is sues of moral character, a focus that clearly comes to the fore as we think about the very urgent question of what it means for us to address the crisis of our increasingly violent culture.

I have regularly drawn my inspiration on this topic from John Calvin. In his comments in the Institutes about the use of military violence, he links Just War considerations to underlying issues of spirituality. When civic leaders are planning military actions, Calvin says,

it is the duty of all magistrates here to guard particularly against giving vent to their passions even in the slightest degree. Rather, if they have to punish, let them not be carried away with headlong anger, or be seized with hatred, or burn with implacable severity. Let them also (as Augustine says) have pity on the common nature in the one whose special fault they are punishing. Or, if they must arm themselves against the enemy, that is, the armed robber, let them not lightly seek occasion to do so; indeed, let them not accept the occasion when offered, unless they are driven to it by extreme necessity … [And] let them not allow themselves to be swayed by any private affection, but be led by concern for the people alone. Otherwise, they very wickedly abuse their power, which has been given them not for their own advantage, but for the benefit and service of others.[2]

Calvin is clearly disturbed here by the arrogance with which leaders often deal with the questions of military violence. Anyone considering the use of force, he is saying, must engage in a careful process of self-examination. To put it in simple terms, we must look honestly at our own sinful capacity for self-deception and we must reflect deeply on the humanness of the people to ward whom our violent remedies would be directed. Calvin is very aware here of the fact that because of our depraved natures we are inclined to do exactly the opposite of what he is proposing: we tend to exalt our own motives and to devalue the humanity of our opponents. So, as a spiritual corrective, we sinners need to be diligent in paying special attention to our own faults, while constantly reminding ourselves of the humanity of those with whom we disagree. In Calvin's scheme, the Just War doctrine must also serve as, we might say, an instrument of spiritual formation.

Of special significance for this way of looking at issues of violence is the important Christian teaching that all human beings are created in God's image. This is the basis for Calvin's insistence that rulers must "have pity on the common nature in the one whose special fault they are punishing." Saint Augustine, whose authority he appeals to at this point, is equally insistent in emphasizing this important element of theological anthropology. In Augustine's letter to Marcellinus, to which Calvin is referring, Augustine warns that in punishing evildoers rulers run the risk of defeating their external enemies only to be destroyed by "the enemy within" as they pursue their violent campaigns with "depraved and distorted hearts." To avoid these consequences, Augustine urges, we must cultivate "those kindly feelings which keep us from returning evil for evil." If we can manage to do so, "even war will not be waged without kindness, and it will be easier for a society whose peace is based on piety and justice to take thought for the conquered."[3]

Again, Augustine and Calvin—two prominent defenders of the Just War perspective—are probing important underlying issues of spirituality. And needless to say, they are raising questions about the uses of violence that apply to a much broader moral and spiritual territory than the "official" conduct of armies and police forces. They are insisting that we cannot think morally about the proper use of violence without thinking about the kinds of persons we are in the process of be coming. Their pastoral concerns can be extended to the question of what kinds of societies we are living in, and what sorts of patterns of human interaction we as Christians want to model and espouse. We live in a culture in which the currents of violence run very deep. It is convenient for us to call for more regulation and control of those whom we can most easily identify as the perpetrators of lawlessness and abuse. But no effective Christian critique of our violent culture can ignore "the enemy within"; we are obliged to probe deeply into the violence that resides in our own souls, even as we reflect compassionately on the created humanity of those whose actions and attitudes we find it easy to judge.

But Augustine and Calvin are also known for their insistence that the only effective cure for the depravity that afflicts us as individual human beings is the personal appropriation, by the power of the Holy Spirit, of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Thus, they take it for granted that a proper grasp of what the atonement is about will serve to curb violence, and not to reinforce a tendency toward violent activity. This is the way of viewing the situation that I will be defending here. But we do need to take a careful look at the contentions of those who think that a teaching like that of classical atonement theory is designed to reinforce a propensity for violent attitudes and actions.

"Promoting" Violence?

No writer has been more straightforward in rejecting Christian atonement doctrine because of what it allegedly reinforces in human relations than the feminist theologian Joanne Carlson Brown. "Christianity," she insists, "is an abusive theology that glorifies suffering," and if the Christian faith can be transformed into a force for genuine human liberation, "it must itself be liberated from this theology. We must do away with the atonement, this idea of a blood sin upon the whole human race that can be washed away only by the blood of the lamb." The "blood-thirsty God" who presently "controls the whole Christian tradition" rules over a pervasively patriarchal system. "We do not need to be saved by Jesus' death from some original sin. We need to be liberated from this abusive patriarchy."[4]

What can we say in defense of atonement doctrine in response to this critique? How would we go about deciding whether the classical Christian formulations regarding the atonement actually "promote" violence and abuse? What would it take to test the accuracy of such a charge, or of a defense against the charge?

Well, let me begin with some rather obvious ways of answering these questions. I have a pretty good idea, I think, about how I would decide whether, for example, Mennonite views of the atonement promote violence and abuse. As I read Mennonite theologians I regularly find them formulating their understandings of the atoning work of Christ in a way that explicitly rules out any espousal of violence and abuse. Indeed, in their view, the Cross is a paradigmatic display of nonviolence. To understand the atoning work of Christ properly is to reject any Christian involvement in practices of violence and abuse.

I also think I could come up with an intelligent response to the question whether Roman Catholic theologies of the atonement promote violence and abuse. For example, I have read newspaper articles about Catholics in the Philippines who during Holy Week have themselves nailed to crosses. These seem to me clearly to be acts of self-inflicted violence and abuse. Furthermore, they also seem to be directly linked to the ways in which these Catholics think about the atoning work of Christ. Of course, I know that such practices are not advocated by Catholic academic theologians. But I do think one could make a case that there are motifs in Catholic thought that lend themselves to such acts, even if they are distortions of those motifs. Self-crucifixion, along with, say, the valuing of stigmata, certainly makes more sense in a context shaped by Catholic theology than it would in, say, a Lutheran or a Quaker setting.

Now, I do not think that many evangelical Christians connect their understanding of the atonement with issues of violence and abuse in either of these ways. Most evangelical theologians do not typically say, in the manner of Mennonite thinkers, that because of what happened on the Cross our attitudes toward violence and abuse ought to be such and such. Nor do grassroots evangelicals think that they should punish their bodies in a way that reflects the suffering of Jesus on the Cross.

But I know that those rather quick observations do not prove much. Certainly my Mennonite friends will insist that my Reformed view of the Cross also deals with issues of violence and abuse in a paradigmatic manner. If it is true, as traditional Reformed theology has put it, that the transaction of the Cross necessarily required that Christ experience the wrath of the Father, then Reformed thought does indeed insist that violence is an essential feature of the atoning sacrifice of Christ—an insistence, they might go on to point out, that has clear implications for questions about the permissibility of violent activity. And any Catholic who knows the history of popular Reformed attitudes—and, more generally, popular evangelical attitudes—about violence will rightly suggest that it is not fair to contrast "high" evangelicalism with "low" Catholicism. Evangelical Christians have often been militantly violent, and in such a way that their violence has obviously been shaped by theological motifs.

These are appropriate responses. It is certainly true that the evangelical way of understanding the work of the Cross does have implications for our perspectives on violence, and that popular evangelicalism has often encouraged violent practices in a way that has been shaped by the evangelical way of thinking about God's dealings with humankind. I do want to suggest, however, that it does not follow from these concessions that the evangelical views about the atonement as such promote violence and abuse. Let me explain this by focusing briefly on the violent attitudes often associated with my own Calvinist tradition.

Calvinists have often not been very nice people. They have been intolerant, sometimes to the point of abusive and violent actions toward people with whom they have disagreed. The record of Calvinism in its cruel treatment of the Anabaptists is an obvious case in point in this regard. I think we must also acknowledge abusive practices in family contexts. Calvinist husbands and fathers have often been unspeakably cruel to their wives and daughters—this fact was well documented, for example, in an empirical study of the topic commissioned several years ago by the Christian Reformed Church.[5]

It is important to ask, though, whether these practices are in some sense "promoted" by Reformed understandings of the atonement. It would be interesting to find out, for example, whether, say, Old Amish fathers and husbands have also often abused their wives and daughters. If so, we might have to explore the possibility that abusive practices occur in theologically shaped cultures in spite of what those cultures might teach regarding the implications of a theory of the atonement.

Let me make it clear that I am not denying that Calvinist patterns of violence and abuse are related to theological motifs. On the contrary, it seems obvious that theological influences are at work in Calvinist nastiness. But I am not inclined to look for those influences in the area of atonement theology in particular. My own sense is that the attitudes toward violence and abuse in popular Calvinism have less to do with a view of what happened on the Cross as such than with a more general picture of a God who has often been experienced as a very "distant" divine authority figure who is fundamentally and unalterably angry, from all eternity, with an identifiable subgroup of the human race.

For example, when I have used the above-quoted passage from Calvin in teaching about Just War theory, I have often detected a puzzlement in students of traditional Reformed persuasion. How does this emphasis square with other important Calvinist beliefs? Doesn't Calvin also teach that the human race is divided into two classes of people, elect and reprobate? And aren't unsaved persons the objects of God's wrath? Why, then, are we so concerned to "have pity on the common nature" that we share with them when God looks at them with full knowledge of the very different—and uncommon—destinies of the two groups?

There are at least two strategies for responding to these questions within a Reformed perspective. One is to point to the simple fact is that we are not God. We do not operate with a clear sense of who the elect and reprobate actually are—which means that we need to proceed with an awareness of our finitude. Vengeance is the Lord's business. Our task is to treat even apparent reprobates as potential members of the elect people of God.

An even more basic response, however, is that God has made it clear that he continues to regard created humanness as valuable, even in persons who are not heading for a heavenly destiny. God's ethical directives to us do not make a clear distinction between how we are to treat the saved and the lost. This is what Calvin is getting at in his insistence that even in dealing with enemies we must "have pity on the common nature" that we share with them.

It is because of this conviction about the moral value of what God has created that Calvin and other defenders of the Just War perspective have insisted that violence is permissible only within certain clearly defined moral limits. As John Howard Yoder and others have argued, Just War teaching originated, not in an argument with pacifists, but out of a desire to place moral restrictions on the use of violence as over against the unbridled militarism of pagan cultures—and I am convinced that the Reformed version of the teaching fits this pattern.[6]

It is an interesting and important exercise to think about how these moral restrictions apply to the phenomenon of domestic violence. Calvin's advice to magistrates—quoted above—can also be addressed, say, to parents, spouses and siblings. In our family relationships too we ought not to "be carried away with headlong anger, or be seized with hatred, or burn with implacable severity"; here too—in our relationships with our own kinfolk—we should cultivate "pity on the common [human] nature in the one" whom we may be tempted to attack, either physically or verbally.

It is also interesting to think about how the notion of moral restrictions on violence applies to the atonement it self. To the degree that the transaction that took place on the Cross does contain some element of violence, we should expect that it too would fit within the moral limits associated with these guide lines for the proper use of violence. And the case for the atonement can be spelled out in terms of those guidelines. Thus, in sending Jesus to the Cross, God is engaging in a "last resort" remedy for the ravages of human depravity; the punishment is proportionate to the end being sought, and so on. Furthermore, God is not being carried away by the kinds of illicit passions against which Calvin warns. There seems to be nothing here, then, that would "promote" the kind of gratuitous abusive behavior that is associated with, for example, domestic violence.

The important emphasis in classical theology on the "once-for-all" character of the atoning work of Christ must also be considered in our attempts to explore the possible links between atonement theory and our own patterns of violence. My own sense is that as a general rule Reformed Christians in particular have not been very attracted to imitatio Christi-type spiritual or ethical motifs. This certainly seems to be true with respect to any notion of specifically imitating the work of the Cross.

The Calvinist pattern here stands in stark contrast to both the Mennonite and Catholic examples that I mentioned earlier. Calvinists are not inclined to see the helplessness element of Christ's atoning work as a thing to be imitated. The once-for-all theme in the Reformed understanding of the atonement—which I am suggesting has a kind of ethical-inimitability corollary—suggests that even if there was an element of the kind of violence on the Cross that, if it were to show up in human relationships, would be deemed highly abusive, there is no reason to think that Calvinists would be quick to pick up on that imitative possibility. When Calvinists have been abusive, I suggest, they have taken whatever theological cues that have motivated them from some other area of Reformed thought, and not from their understanding of the atonement proper.

Christ's Suffering

But we must explore some of these themes in more depth. What about the apparently violent-abusive themes that seem to be associated with a picture of the atonement in which notions like divine wrath and satisfaction figure prominently? Doesn't such a view feature punishment as an essential element in the atoning work of Christ?

Take, for example, the way the case is made in the sixteenth-century Heidelberg Catechism. The requirements of divine justice are such, the Catechism states, "that sin, which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment both of body and soul." But—the argument proceeds—because we humans "daily increase our guilt" we cannot satisfy these requirements by our own efforts, to say nothing of bearing the burden of divine wrath on behalf of others. This could only be accomplished by the Lord Jesus, the incarnate God who "by the power of his Godhead" was able to "bear, in his manhood, the burden of God's wrath, and so obtain for and restore to us righteousness and life."[7]

There it is: a punishment inflicted on body and soul is an important element in God's solution to the problem of sin—an account that certainly seems to contain an element of divine violence. While I do accept this formulation set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism, others may try to avoid the difficulties by opting for some other strand within the larger Christian development of atonement theory. One cannot avoid, though, the sort of criticism lodged by Joanne Carlson Brown simply by em bracing one of the "softer" theories of the atonement. She insists that all versions of atonement theory—not only the "satisfaction" account that I endorse, but also those spelled out, for example, in terms of "Christus Victor" or "moral influence"—glorify suffering and victimization.

Atonement theory as such, on Brown's reading, makes the suffering of Christ a necessary means to our salvation from sin, and thereby commends imitative suffering on the part of Christ's followers. No matter how we explain the redemptive significance of Christ's suffering, says Brown, we are still left with "the same answers to the question: how shall I interpret and respond to the suffering that occurs in my life? The only answer is: patiently endure; suffering will lead to a greater life."[8]

A helpful move in responding to Brown is made by Margo Houts, who counters Brown's claims by pointing to the important distinction between redemptive and masochistic suffering. She uses this distinction to argue that Brown's rejection of "suffering in it self" leaves her with a position that, as Houts puts it, "undercuts what the Bible teaches is the key to the undoing of patriarchy, namely Jesus' victory over the powers through his death and resurrection."[9]

Still, Brown is right to insist that we think about the fact that all atonement theory requires a suffering Savior. Satisfaction theology, however, might seem to be a special case because of its insistence that the suffering of Christ on the Cross was in some sense directly inflicted by the Father. But—and here we must keep Brown's point in mind—once we allow that Christ's suffering was necessary for our redemption, then the question arises for the other views as to why God would even indirectly will the Son's suffering.

The "Christus Victor" theory, for example, sees the demonic principalities and powers as inflicting violence upon Jesus—a transaction that God allowed in order to demonstrate the in ability of those powers to destroy Jesus, since he emerged victoriously from the tomb even after the powers had unleashed their full fury upon him. The "moral influence" theory, on the other hand, emphasizes the ways in which Jesus suffered violence at human hands—with the redemptive significance of that suffering being manifested in the way that Jesus selflessly forgave his enemies. Thus, while the satisfaction theory may be unique in seeing Jesus as in some sense directly experiencing the wrath of the Father, all of the views see Jesus as taking suffering upon himself in order to fulfill a divinely ordained redemptive mission.

But now we need to pay a little closer attention to the terminology that we use in describing atonement views. I have observed that the satisfaction theory appears to require a kind of violence that the Father inflicts upon the Son. Strictly speaking, however, the theologians who propound the satisfaction view of the atonement do not typically use the word "violence." The standard terminology used to describe what Christ suffered on the Cross is punishment and wrath. How are we to understand this notion that Christ experienced the wrath of God, suffering punishment on our behalf? This is a large topic, and I can only touch briefly here on a few matters that strike me as productive issues to pursue.

Experiencing Wrath

When contemporary critics accuse satisfaction theory as featuring "divine child abuse," they assume a picture of God the Father somehow directly inflicting pain on the Son. The actual descriptions given of the nature of Christ's suffering in satisfaction theology, however, do not focus primarily on the physical pain he experienced on the Cross as being the primary feature of the redemptive transaction. Jan Rohls emphasizes this fact in his recent study of Reformed Confessions. In the Geneva Catechism, Rohls observes, Christ's "substitution for us lies not just in the fact that he died for us," but in the fact that "he was condemned to death." The important thing is that "Christ takes on himself the curse that lies upon human beings," that he experienced "an accursed death." Thus the Geneva Catechism's declaration that "he hanged on a tree to take our curse upon Himself and acquit us of it (Gal. 3:13)." In his condemnation by "an earthly judge" we are "acquitted before the throne of the celestial Judge."[10]

Here the suffering of Christ consists in the way in which his being condemned to death by Pilate also counts as a condemnation by God the Father. The key factor here is the quality of his physical suffering, his experience as an innocent one—as the Innocent One—of the cursedness of all the guilty ones in whose place he is being condemned.

This notion of cursedness is treated more expansively in the Heidelberg Catechism. In its exposition of the Apostles' Creed the Catechism asks what it means to say that Christ suffered. The answer given begins in this way: "That all the time he lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, he bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race."[11] And at another point, the Heidelberger explains the ways in which Christ suffered the agonies of hell on our behalf by referring to the "inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors which he suffered in his soul on the cross and before."[12]

What is interesting here for our purposes is how these formulations insist that the way that Christ "especially" bore the divine wrath at the end of his life is nonetheless continuous with his experience of that wrath, both "in body and soul" throughout "all the time he lived on earth," both "on the cross and before." This echoes an important theme in the depiction of Christ's sacrificial ministry in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the primary biblical source for satisfaction theory: "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death … he learned obedience through what he suffered" (Heb.5:7-8). All of this seems clearly to imply that Jesus was already experiencing the wrath of the Father in his infancy, in his teenage years, and during his earthly ministry. And yet it is not very easy to think of those stages in his life as times when he was being directly punished by the Father.

These formulations, then, locate the redemptive significance of Christ's suffering, not so much in pain that can be thought of as being actively inflicted upon him by the Father, but rather in his profound experience as the innocent one of the cursedness of being abandoned by God on behalf of those who do deserve that abandonment. Thus the greatest redemptively significant agony that he experienced on the Cross, on this view, is not when he gasped in pain when they pounded the nails into his flesh, or when he pleaded that his thirst be quenched, or when he heard the mockery of on lookers, but when he cried out in utter forlornness, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15: 34).

There is one very good reason to emphasize this forsakenness as being at the heart of Christ's experience of God's wrath on our behalf. In his redemptive suffering, Christ was experiencing the agonies of hell that we deserve as sinners. If we were to understand hell to be God's actively inflicting violence on sinful persons, then it would indeed be important for Christ to take on that kind of violence as our substitute. But if we see hell—as I think to be theologically appropriate—as a state of radical separation from God, then it was not necessary that Christ be actively punished by the Father; rather it was fitting that he experience something far worse. It is a terrible thing to be punished violently by someone who is capable of loving us but who instead turns upon us in anger. But it is even worse to have so provoked that person's wrath that he or she simply gives up on us and turns away. This is the hellish abandonment that Christ experienced when he hung as our substitute on Calvary.

This way of viewing the significance of what has traditionally been seen as the penal substitutionary work of Christ has an important implication for our present discussions of violence. If the forsakenness, the experience of cursedness, is what is in the most basic sense the redemptive significance of Christ's substitutionary work, then there is some thing important about Christ's suffering that cannot be imitated, namely, the experience of being abandoned by God.

To be sure, we Christians may be called to suffer in Christ's name. I think John Howard Yoder was right when he insisted, in The Politics of Jesus, that the only sense in which the New Testament calls us to imitate Jesus is in his suffering. But I also think he overstated himself in making his case: "Only at one point," Yoder wrote, "only on one subject—but then consistently and universally—is Jesus our example: in his cross."[13] The important point that Yoder was making is that there is no open-ended "Do what Jesus would do" mandate in the Scriptures: it is not appropriate for us to ask, "What would Jesus do?" when we are confronted, for example, with 5,000 hungry people at a religious gathering where no one bothered to prepare a lunch for the crowd, or when we are standing on a beach and we see some friends in a boat out in the lake, and we wonder how we can go out to meet them when we can't swim that far and we have no boat of our own.

But because there is, even in the clear call to imitate the sufferings of Christ, an element in those sufferings that we cannot imitate, I am troubled a bit by Yoder's insistence that the New Testament calls us to imitate the work of the Cross "consistently and universally."[14] Oscar Cullmann began his wonderful essay on the Greek version of the biblical conception of the afterlife by drawing a stark contrast between the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus.[15] After a calm philosophical discussion with his friends, Socrates takes the hemlock in a seemingly cheerful anticipation of the separation of his soul from his body. Jesus, on the other hand, sweats drops of blood in Gethsemane as he pleads with the Father to allow the cup of suffering to pass from him. And then on the cross he cries out in agony over his abandonment by God. Cullmann rightly explains this contrast by spelling out the important differences between the Platonistic and the Christian understandings of sin and death.

Many of my Christian friends, though, have faced their deaths more in the spirit of Socrates than of Jesus. And this is appropriate. We do not have to—we ought not to—imitate Jesus' approach to dying. His suffering is in significant ways inimitable, because he bore the wrath of our cursed existence precisely in order that we do not have to suffer under that wrath. And this is important to emphasize with reference to the kinds of examples raised by those who worry that the Bible's depiction of the atoning work of Christ might encourage, say, women to think they must patiently endure spouse abuse. In such cases, the most basic consideration for a woman in that kind of situation is to know that Christ has suffered the abandonment and abuse on her behalf, and that she does not need to endure those experiences in order to please God.

Divine Agency

In his fascinating study of how the sacrificial rituals of ancient religions are motivated by the desire to solve the problem of violence, Rene Girard makes it clear that he doesn't think any intelligent human being today can believe in the literal efficacy of religious sacrifice. But Girard does insist that these "primitive" religionists were onto something that we have not been able to retain in our more sophisticated perspectives on reality. In the ritual sacrifice, Girard argues, people "fed" their "bad violence" to the gods, thereby allowing it to be transformed by the gods into "stability and fecundity." While we cannot enter into this worldview to day, says Girard, if we choose to ignore its "mythic" power we will simply "persist in disregarding the power of violence in human societies."[16]

Those of us who believe in the efficacy of Christ's substitutionary sacrifice are certainly not compelled to endorse all that is associated with the "primitive" practices that Girard describes. But we can see those rituals as pointing in some profound way to the one true Sacrifice that occurred at Calvary. The problem of human violence can only be solved by having our violence "taken up" into the life of the triune God, to be transformed there into something good that is then given back to us as a gift.

One way to spell this out is in terms of the concept of power. In the biblical scheme, power is not intrinsically bad. Its badness takes the form of violence and manipulative coercion—patterns which came into being as a result of our fallenness. These patterns were very visible in the scenario at Calvary, when the Son of God bled and died to save us from the ruin that we brought upon ourselves. But, having suffered the wounds that are inflicted by this kind of power, the resurrected Christ makes available to us a new kind of power, the power of reconciling love: "you will receive power," he says to his disciples just before he ascends to heaven, "when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8).

It is important to emphasize the fact that the work of the Cross—which makes this transformation of bad power into good power possible—is itself an integrated act of the triune God. John Stott rightly warns us against adopting any picture of the atonement in which the Son is a victim who stands over against a Father who is in turn "a pitiless ogre whose wrath has to be assuaged." Says Stott: "Both God and Christ were subjects not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners. Whatever happened on the cross in terms of 'God-forsakenness' was voluntarily accepted by both in the same holy love which made atonement necessary." While the words "satisfaction" and "substitution" must never "in any circumstances be given up," Stott argues, we must also be very clear that "[t]he biblical gospel of atonement is of God satisfying himself by substituting himself for us."[17]

The power that makes it possible for us to find a new kind of reconciled unity is made available to us out of the unity of the Godhead. This, of course, leaves us with much to ponder. The very same God who pours out the divine wrath is the One who experiences the wrathful forsakenness of divine abandonment. God, in the unity of the divine being, is both the violated One and the One who counts that violatedness as satisfying the demands of eternal justice. Charles Wesley's wonderful lines point to the mystery of this divine single-mindedness:

Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

In the death on the Cross, God also took our violent impulses upon himself, mysteriously absorbing them into his very being in order to transform them into the power of reconciling love; and then he offers that love back to us as a gift of sovereign grace. One of the wise, but difficult, lessons taught to me by my predecessor at Fuller Seminary, the late David Allan Hubbard, is this: leaders do not inflict pain, they bear pain. This is a lesson, as I see things, that is illustrated most profoundly in the atoning work of the Son of God. In the incarnation we see a supreme example of what James MacGregor Burns defines as "transformational leadership," where a leader so engages his or her followers that both leaders and followers are changed by the experience.[18]

When God drew near to us in Jesus Christ, God did indeed engage us in a way that God himself was deeply affected by taking on our frailties and temptations. This includes God's making himself intimately familiar with a most pervasive symptom of our sinful condition, our propensity to get ensnared in webs of violence. Here too our only hope is that "he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5).

Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author most recently of The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can learn from Their Fundamentalist Heritage (Zondervan). This essay was given as a paper at a conference on "Christianity and Violence" sponsored by the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College, March 15, 2000.


1. Jose Miguez Bonino, Christians and Marxists: The Mutual Challenge to Revolution (Eerdmans, 1976), p. 58.

2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, Library of Christian Classics, vols. 20-21 (Westminster Press, 1960), IV, XX, 12.

3. Saint Augustine, Letters, vol. 3, trans. Sister Wilfred Parsons (Fathers of the Church, 1953), Letter 138.

4. Joanne Carlson Brown, "Divine Child Abuse," Daughters of Sarah, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Summer 1992), p. 28.

5. Report of the Committee to Study Physical, Emotional and Sexual Abuse, The Agenda for Synod 1992 of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC Publications, 1992), pp. 313-58.

6. John H. Yoder, "A Consistent Alternative Within the Just War Family," Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 2, No. 2 (April 1985), p. 112.

7. The Heidelberg Catechism, Questions and Answers 12-18, in ed. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes, Vol. 3 (Baker, 1996), pp. 311-13.

8. Brown, "Divine Child Abuse," p. 27.

9. Margo Houts, "Atonement and Abuse: An Alternative View," Daughters of Sarah, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Summer 1992), pp. 30-1.

10. Jan Rohls, Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen, trans. John Hoffmeyer, Columbia Series in Reformed Theology (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), pp. 95-6.

11. Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 37, p. 319.

12. Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 44, p. 321.

13. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1972), p. 97.

14. I discuss Yoder's views on these matters in considerable detail in my Politics and the Biblical Drama (Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 98-116.

15. Oscar Cullmann, "Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead: The Witness of the New Testament," reprinted in Immortality, ed. Terence Penelhum (Wadsworth, 1973), pp. 60-3.

16. Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 258-69.

17. John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (InterVarsity Press, 1986), pp. 150-51, 159-60.

18. James MacGregor Burns, Leadership (Harper & Row, 1978), p. 20.

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