So if you didn’t realize it, Easter is only a few short days away. And yes, we are in the midst of Holy Week…go figure :).

Now with Easter comes some very regular and predictable things. We know that little girls all over the country will compel their parents to purchase new, spring-ish dresses for them to wear for one solitary Sunday (believe me, I know this all too well…). We know that many American children will go into certifiable sugar comas following the obligatory egg hunts on Saturday. We also know that their parents will achieve similar levels of pre-diabetic shock from eating the candy that their children “simply don’t need”… And, from most pulpits in America, you’re bound to hear something about the cross, Christ’s blood, and the drama of Atonement (and maybe even something about the resurrection, if you’re lucky).

If your church’s theology is typical of Western, Protestant thinking, the subject of this discussion will probably revolve around one particular pole: that of the cross as a picture of divine punishment. While it seems perhaps a bit harsh to the non-initiated, the often-rehearsed logic of God’s punishment of Christ on the cross seems reasonable enough. After all, humanity has sinned, and of course God MUST punish sin in order to be considered just (right?). Therefore, the familiar story goes that the promise of Easter–of the death of Christ on the cross and victorious resurrection–is that Christ has come to satisfy the wrath of God against human sin, enduring the divine punishment for human rebellion so that we, the guilty, might escape the terrible punishment that we so heartily deserve.

Again, this sounds perfectly reasonable. Many of us have heard the logic a million times and, of course, this is what everyone who believes believes, right?

If you answered “no”, you can stop reading. This post is really not for you. Go find something pointless (but seriously hilarious) to watch on YouTube.

If, however, my brief description of a typical Easter Sunday sounds familiar, please hang in there. I promise this will not hurt, and may actually spur you to think about something in a way you never have before (or compel you to de-friend me immediately).

The Simple Question

So let’s start with a simple question, and before I ask it, just indulge me for a few moments. You know all those presuppositions you probably have about divine punishment and “justice” (especially in relation to the cross)? Suspend them for just a few minutes. In fact, do more than that: deliberately set them aside.

Done? Okay, now think about this question:

If God’s response to human sin was nothing at all, what would be the result?

Have an answer? If you do, forget it and look at the question again. Don’t gloss over it, or jump immediately to your gut-reaction (after all, the gut reaction will probably betray the presuppositions you were supposed to set aside, remember?). Chew on the question a bit. Explore the nuances of the ideas that come to mind. Write down thoughts if it’s helpful. When you’ve digested your answer entirely, keep reading.

Based on the suspension of belief that I asked before reading the question, you may have found it difficult to answer. And there’s a good reason for this.

In popular atonement theology, God is often seen in a dual role. On the one hand, it is God who grants eternal life and heaven to those united with Christ, and on the other it is equally God who actively excludes those who are not. In this way, then, the cross serves as both the great agent of salvation from God’s punishment, a rescue from a God who was otherwise bound by divine “justice” (or simply desired) to damn us eternally for our sin, as well as a means by which those not under God’s wrath are ushered into eternal bliss. And of course, it must be acknowledged that in doing either or both of these, God is perfectly justified, for that which God does IS just, and the just-ness of whatever God does is in no way dependent upon human opinions about the same.

But back to the question. Remember, I asked you to suspend the notion that the cross has anything whatsoever to do with divine “punishment” or justice. So again, if God’s response to human sin was not punishment or wrath, but was simply nothing at all, what would be the result?

(If you didn’t fully think through the question, go back right now and do it. Done? Excellent…keep reading!)

Something About Sin

Before we look at the answer, let’s talk about sin very briefly. When we think of “sin,” we often think of doing something that is morally “wrong” or, if we are feeling particularly theological, we might say that it is a “violation of divine law.” While there are places for both these ideas, the answer is actually much more fundamental.

Properly understood, human sin is not simply “doing something that makes God mad” or a “violating the law,” but is more accurately characterized as a breach of divine/human relationship–after all, our primary relationship to God is not legal or moral, but personal (remember, we’re created in God’s image…) Sin, then, is like a wedge that creates separation between the divine life of God and humanity. As in the metaphor of Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden “where God dwells,” so human sin severs the dynamism of human relationship with God. In our “sinfulness,” we are left to ourselves, thrust into a reality that is deathly hostile, continuously dissolving, and existentially painful apart from the life and goodness of God.

This is illustrated brilliantly in the First Book of Adam and Eve from the so-called “Lost Books of Eden.” This narrative follows the experiences of Adam and Eve during their first days out of Eden. The new life in which they find themselves is terrifically hostile: from the approach of the darkness of night, to the brightness of the dawn, Adam and Eve find life apart from God a cold and empty existence. Although God is gracious and continuously revives them from several brushes with mortality (both environmental and demonic), it is clear that the prospect of their future severed from communion with God in Eden will be a constant struggle, and will inevitably end in sorrow and death.

So then, if the experience of living apart from the divine life of God (e.g., sinfulness) is characterized by death, darkness, and the most poignant alone-ness conceivable, how do we answer the original question? If our “natural” state of sinfulness is itself a perpetual and incessant rush toward dissolution and self-destruction, what need is there for divine wrath or punishment? All the things that we characterize as “hell” are perfectly realized in our own self-induced separation from God–how could God improve upon or add to this through “punishment”?

Getting to the Truth

So we begin to see the real truth about Easter. The problem that the cross resolves is NOT that God is angry with humanity and cannot be dissuaded from lashing out against human sinfulness with violence and blood apart from the brutal butcher of Christ. Rather, we see that the REAL problem of the cross is human sinfulness. We are sinful creatures, lost in the darkness of our hatred and enmity toward God. We are bound in chains of self-will and violence, and are hurtling–quite of our own doing–rapidly toward certain self-destruction. If God does nothing at all, hell remains our true domain, the fitting home built of our own sinful, blood-drenched hands. We need not imagine an angered deity casting us against our will into the eternal fires of torture, for the darkness, dissolution and torment of hell are the very things that our sinfulness constructs for us in its headlong rush to destruction. Whether or not God is angry with us and needs (or desires) to punish us for our sins, our end will be no different: the sinfulness to which we are bound will ultimately drag us to the same hell that the imagined punishment of God would have.

And now we get to the ugliest part of this redefinition. If Easter is not about divine violence and punishment being unleashed upon Christ, but is rather fundamentally about the problem of human sinfulness, the cross takes on a whole new meaning. In popular theology, we tend to think of the cross in a very God-oriented way–the human participants in the murder of Christ are only unwitting pawns at best, living, breathing means to the bloody ends that God achieves in the butcher of Christ. However, if the crux of the cross is NOT the appeasement of God’s wrath but is rather the primal confrontation of God’s purposes in creation with the self-destructive power of human sinfulness and death, then we are no mere bystanders.

In this way, it is no longer God who is ultimately responsible for Christ’s death, but us. In our blinding hatred of God, we respond to the incarnation of divine love with unimaginable violence and an insatiable blood-lust. Wanting nothing of God, we neurotically seek the brutal death of Christ, mocking, laughing and demonically rejoicing as his body is pierced. This brutality becomes our ultimate response to the revelation of divine love and mercy. As we spit in the face of the Great Rescuer and drive the stakes with an unparalleled gusto, the only thought of our depraved, self-destructing hearts is to drag very God to the same hell to which we are ever-rapidly hurtling. As Christ breathes his last, we exult in our apparent triumph, for our judgment of God has seemingly won the day. Sinful humanity has overcome very God, the death of Christ serving as a resounding affirmation of the successful ascension of human self-will over the power of God. We have triumphantly crucified the imago dei (and all the claims of the Godhead with him), recreating ourselves in our own image apart from the God we have so definitively rejected and violently overcome.

A Deep Breath

So depending on your perspective, things might feel a little heavy at this point. It is certainly sobering to think of the depths of human depravity, how the hatred and enmity which enslaves our hearts compelled us to murder God’s very salvation. But keep thinking about this over the next few days–let the gravity of it sink in. After all, it only when we come to terms with the depth of our true predicament that we can even begin to fathom what the cross really means. Stay tuned.


Read Part II