Turning the question around

Marcus Borg asks a question about God and the cross as understood in satisfaction theories of atonement:

Thus the payment understanding sees the death of Jesus as ultimately God’s will. But one must ask: really? Was it God’s will that this remarkably good person, centered in God to an extraordinary degree, be killed? If so, what does that say about what God is like?

After reading this, my first thought went something like this: Is he not aware that Jesus is God?

But then my second thought went like this: You are asking the wrong question. The death of Jesus does not indict God. It indicts us.

The question raised here is “What could have been so wrong with us that only the death of Jesus could fix it?” What does it say about us that this remarkably good person — even more than that, the Son of God — had to die that we might live? Am I so far gone, that nothing else would have worked?

It was God’s will that we be freed. It was God’s will that we be let loose from death. It was God’s will that we be born from above. To do this, he lived among us and went to the cross.

That is how I understand satisfaction theories of atonement. I don’t think it is the only theory that makes sense, but I do not find it the horror that Borg and many others do. Indeed, I find it quite a powerful testament to God’s love.


The gospel starts with love

Marcus Borg wants us to stop thinking about Christianity the way he did when he was 12.

At the end of childhood, I would have said that the heart of the gospel, the Christian good news, is that Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven if we believe in him. That was the impression that I received growing up in a “mainline” Protestant denomination.

Right off the top I want to say that I came to Christ in a mainline Protestant denomination, and I can’t recall ever hearing anyone present the gospel this way other than in a sermon illustration of what the pastor in question was against or what — like Borg — he outgrew.

Reading Borg’s words, I thought of watching the video released last week to mark Billy Graham’s 95th birthday. And I realized what is left out of this loaded summary of the gospel. I recall hearing the excerpt of the Billy Graham sermon that speaks of sin and Jesus dying for sins, but it begins not where Borg starts but where John 3:16 starts.

God loves you.

I can hear Graham’s voice beating that sentence like a drum.

God loves you. He loves you. He loves you.

He loves you so much that he died to save you.

Now, I’m sure there are lots of rank-and-file Christians who would boil the gospel down to what Borg describes. I’m sure there are preachers who do just about the same thing. But it is doing violence to the gospel preached by evangelicals such Graham and John Stott and John Wesley to describe it without starting where they start.

God so loved the world …

That is the gospel.

What is liberal theology?

I don’t find a lot of my tribe out on the wilds of the Christian blogosphere.

I was a fairly nice, fairly typical Midwestern middle-class American with no particular religion. I was neither spiritual nor religious. Then I started responding to the tug of grace. I read Joseph Campbell’s books and eventually John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg. I grew more and more comfortable attending and taking part in the life of a theologically liberal United Methodist Church.

Then a preacher who took the claims of Christianity a bit more literally than the others I’d encountered came along. He was not at that church long. I don’t think the people of my church cared for how seriously he took it all. When he left I heard little sorrow. But he laid some bread crumbs for me. He and a little book by Will Willimon got me to the baptismal font. I met Jesus there on my knees and received grace and faith that broke the grip of fear and death.

Not too long after that, I left Borg and Spong behind and started reading more traditionally orthodox writers, including John Wesley. I learned to love singing “And Can It Be” and “Depth of Mercy” and “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing.”

I don’t meet a lot of people who have made this same journey.

Mostly, I encounter bloggers who either were cradle Christians or walked the opposite path that I have. They started in conservative or fundamentalist churches and moved toward Marcus Borg, even if they stopped well short of him.

All this is by way of encouraging you to take a look at an interesting post by Roger Olson about what constitutes liberal theology in Christianity and why he would stop calling himself a Christian if he ever became convinced of the truths of theological liberalism.

You may not agree with his six points that help him discern liberal theology, but it might provoke some interesting thoughts. As always, the comments thread on his blog is active and energetic.