Book Review: Executing God

executinggodTitle: Executing God

Author: Sharon Baker

Bibliographic info: 217 pp.

Publisher: Westminster John Knox, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to WJK for the review copy!

This book attempts to answer the question: “Did Jesus have God murdered?” The author considers this an important question because she “[does not] agree that the horrific death of an innocent man somehow “bought” God off so God would forgive sin. The whole deal smacks of blasphemy.”

The book consists of nine chapters. Chapter One is the introduction which discusses the purpose of the book, the role that religion plays in violence, violence in the history of Christianity, and other issues. Chapter Two discusses the use of biblical and cultural metaphors in forming understandings of God and atonement. Chapter Three tackles the four atonement theories, laying out the pros and cons for each of them: Christus Victor (Christ as the Victor), Satisfaction, Moral Example (or Moral Influence), and Penal Substitution. From my own experience, some proponents of the penal view tend to equate it with the Gospel itself, so I’m sure what the author has to say about it will raise some eyebrows.

Chapter Four argues that these theories have left us with a “dysfunctional image of God that promotes violence and abuse.” Chapter Five then looks at the idea of justice in culture and how this differs from divine justice. Chapter Six then looks at whether God requires a payment in advance (through the death of an innocent man) in order to be able to truly forgive sin. Chapter Seven discusses how the life, death, and resurrection were indeed a sacrifice, as well as the role that the blood of Christ plays in our salvation. Chapter Eight carries on from this by looking at what was really achieved in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And in Chapter Nine the author constructs her own understanding of salvation in Christ that cuts against the notion of the violence of Christ’s death being part of God’s plan.

Before I go any further I should note that the author is defining violence as “that which does harm through the misuse of power, hostile forms of aggression, brutality, and the use of force whether or not the victim offers resistance.”

In the author’s discussion of the four models of atonement, I was a bit perplexed by the following:

Although each of these [atonement] theories differs significantly from the others, they all have one thing in common. They hinge upon violence, and divine violence to boot. Jesus is murdered. Moreover, the murder of this innocent man is orchestrated by none other than God.

And again:

One of the most important weaknesses and one that the moral theory has in common with the other models we discuss in this book is that Jesus still must die a tortured death in order to demonstrate God’s love and provide an example of our behavior. … So although it’s not retributive or penal, this theory still makes God complicit with violence. God still needs the death of an innocent man in order to give us an example to follow and a motivation to love.

I can see how the Satisfaction Theory and the Penal Substitution Theory “hinge upon violence”, but not so much with the Christus Victor and Moral Example theories (at least as far as I understand these theories). For example, I learned that in the Moral Example model, it was simply Jesus’ life of perfect obedience that led to his crucifixion, i.e., the political and religious powers of the world cannot stomach a righteous person and will necessarily try to kill such a person. But this does not mean that Christ was killed due to the necessity of a violent death and that such a violent death was orchestrated by God. Rather, the example provided by Jesus in his life–climaxing in the cross–changes our way of thinking (achieved by the Spirit), moving us to live differently.

I found the discussion about the blood of Christ to be constructive, at least more so than a common way of thinking about it which basically transmutes the blood of Christ into some magical substance in and of itself (just look at the myths about the power of the Holy Grail and the Spear of Destiny). The author sees blood as a “symbol for life.” So, for instance, this is how the author views Heb. 9:22,

…we might amplify and paraphrase Hebrews 9:22 and say, without the giving of your life as a living sacrifice, as symbolized in the Old Testament by the shedding of life blood, you will not understand being washed clean…

So what is the author’s view on the atonement that she puts forward? The following quotes should helpfully summarize:

So instead of saying that God inflicted the pain of the cross on Jesus as a penalty for our sin, we can say that the horrific nature of the cross exposed and condemned the gravity of our sin.

[Jesus] allowed himself to be killed by the world’s wrath – by the children of wrath. In doing so, he exposed the heinous nature of our sinfulness and forced us to come face to face with the gravity of our own sin.

Jesus loved the people and taught them how to love God and each other…. But the rulers and leaders of Earth feared his influence and didn’t like [his teachings]… [Jesus] let them execute him like a common criminal. He took upon himself their sinful actions toward him and suffered because of their sin. He let them crush him and destroy him. … It happened that through the death of Jesus, other people saw the injustice of what happened and decided to live differently, to make up their minds to change their evil and violence ways and to live the way Jesus taught them.

From where I’m sitting, the author’s view sounds quite similar to characteristics I have learned from the Moral Influence model (and even the Christus Victor model) of atonement.

While I didn’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions (such as the emphasis laid on the role that violent atonement theories have played in the history of violence in Christianity), I think that this book nevertheless provides a helpful look at the age-old question of how exactly it is that the death of Christ is efficacious on our behalf. If you’re unaware of the different ways in which Christians have understood Christ’s death, then pick up this book and give it a whirl. It is a very accessible read for the person in the pew, so you by no means have to be an academic to understand the content.

3 responses

  1. Thanks for this review! I’ve been very interested in the art of scapegoating lately, especially after starting Karl Menninger’s Whatever Became of Sin?. Scapegoating, of course, is the blaming of people for sins they did not commit. These sins can be my own, sins of others who are alive, or sins of those who are now dead. One can contrast the art of scapegoating with Emil Brunner central focus on responsibility in Man in Revolt:

        The Christian faith is so utterly simple; it is nothing less than the renewed understanding of the meaning of responsibility. But in order that this ‘simple’ thing should take place, the most tremendous events had to happen. God had to become man, in order to restore to man his original existence and knowledge, his responsibility. (52)

    IIRC, Jesus is sometimes seen as a scapegoat, as a person who is blamed for sins he did not commit. What if part of what Jesus did was pave the road for “taking responsibility for brokenness you didn’t cause”? I seriously hesitate to say that this is merely an ‘example’ which, for example, could be 100% fictional. That seems to play fast and loose with cause & effect, and argue that somehow all that needed to be done was unlock latent goodness in human hearts. I am much more convinced that original sin, in the inherited-somehow form, such that the very basis of one’s active willing is distorted, is true. I would say that Jesus can be seen as nucleating a reversal of this distortion, via taking responsibility.

    Does Baker engage with any of the above ideas? I might just have to get her book. 🙂

    • Baker doesn’t really discuss the idea of a scapegoat. From what I remember all there is, is a couple of references to the Old Testament where a scapegoat is released into the wilderness on the day of atonement.

      You probably already know this, but in case you don’t, René Girard wrote some interesting stuff on religion, violence, and the scapegoat mechanism.

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