The Strange Math of the Cross

During my time in the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, one of the issues that generated a fair amount of interest and controversy was that of the nature of the atonement. I have devoted a number of posts to this topic over the last few years (see the”Atonement” category at the bottom of this page), and have found the atonement debates simultaneously stimulating (it’s just a flat-out interesting theological issue) and frustrating (we have not always been able to talk about this matter as civilly as we ought to).  It is an issue that continues to generate considerable conversation, whether within Mennonite circles or in the larger church body.

Despite the fact that I am currently part of a different conference within the Anabaptist family, I have been following the MB Study Conference on “The Mystery of the Cross” in Kitchener, ON with great interest over the past few days. I have appreciated the opportunity to listen to lectures and read the reflections posted online. It’s been great to hear some familiar voices and some very lively and engaging presentations.

One of these was a lecture by CMU professor Pierre Gilbert called “He Never Meant For Us to Die.” It was what you would expect from Gilbert—theologically robust, thoroughly researched, and highly engaging. Gilbert focused on Genesis 1-3 and the problem of sin as a way of getting at why Jesus had to die. In the broadest terms, the story was a familiar one: the sin of the first humans introduced a rupture of cosmic proportions into God’s good world, subsequent humans inherited this sinful disposition and the condemnation it deserves, and the cross is how God dealt with this problem.

But as I listened to Gilbert’s lecture, I couldn’t help but think that despite the impressive theological language and the passionate presentation, Gilbert left his listeners with a conundrum that has quite likely occurred to most thoughtful children at some point along the way: how is it good or just for God to condemn many for the sins of a few?

This probably sounds simplistic, I know, but Gilbert insisted on numerous occasions that the decision of Adam and Eve—what he called an infinite moment of choice—“locked” human beings into the “curse” side of life. From that point on, our choices as human beings have operated within fixed parameters influenced by our “infection” of sin. There is no going back, for the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.  We are living under the curse, objects of wrath by virtue of our lineage.

And yet, despite the fact that we are “locked” into sin by virtue of being human, our salvation requires that we choose to accept the remedy God offers. The asymmetry is plain enough: we do not choose the disease, but we must choose the cure. Further, we must choose the cure from a position of deficit, handicapped as we are by our “infected” nature. We are not in the “neutral” state that Adam and Eve presumably were. Further still, failure to choose the correct cure is said to have the permanent consequence of being eternally separated from God.

This is not really anything new, I know. This presentation of the biblical diagnosis and cure of the human condition enjoys considerable biblical support. Some version of this story is preached around the world every Sunday. However we calibrate our understanding of what happened on the cross, surely an important part of the picture involves Jesus absorbing the penalty for sin and dealing with the human legacy of Genesis 3. And yet, at times the big picture still seems as awkward as it did to me when, as a child, I grumbled about why Adam and Eve had to ruin things for the rest of us.

I appreciated Gilbert’s lecture, and found myself reflecting upon it throughout the day. I appreciated his attempt to link the cross to the creation narrative, to do justice to the pervasiveness of sin, both individually and structurally. There was much to admire about his understanding of the necessity of the “Christ event” at Calvary.

But I am growing increasingly suspicious of attempts to fit the cross of Christ within a precise rational package where the death of an “infinite” God-man perfectly cancels out the “infinite” sin debt of the first humans in some kind of divine mathematical equation. What does “infinite” sin even mean? How could a human being ever commit such a thing? The math is hard to fathom.

Do I believe that the cross deals with human sin? Yes. Do I believe it is, in some mysterious way, the manner in which God deals with death and evil? Yes. Do I believe that Christ’s self-donation is an example for us to follow? Yes, yes, yes.

But I also think the cross is scandalously irrational, bewildering, and offensive. The math doesn’t work, much as I might wish that it did. And, increasingly, I am finding that I don’t need it to.  However the math may or may not work, however sin was/is transmitted, whatever the penalty for this sin does/does not entail, whatever our “infection” does/does not make necessary,  I am convinced that the cross and empty tomb are the means through which God is reconciling all things to himself, making peace with and for our weary, sin-soaked world.

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17 Comments

  1. I wonder how our understanding of atonement might change if we were a suffering/persecuted church? Or in a context where we had less access to power/wealth…? How do we communicate atonement to people of cultures other than our own? Would experiences of suffering and persecution change my theology? Or even to see it happening to others? I think it’s helpful to hear the missionary and the professor, the trades person and the pastor.

    1. A very interesting and important question, Brian. Any ideas about how our understanding and/or presentation of the atonement might change if our material circumstances were as you describe here?

  2. Ryan…. i think that most of us would like to believe that we would absolutely, positively, without question, etc, etc have chosen differently if we had been the first man or the first woman. If only, it had been us! We would have never! ever!

    … and then, one day, we realize – to our dismay – that we have done the very thing we swore or promised or pledged we’d never do. Or not done the thing we promised that we would. And, somehow, we begin to see that Adam and Eve are every single one of us. And we are them. Each and both of them – we have all made both of their mistakes. And through this, we begin to see that the story isn’t just about two people who lived many years ago…. but about every single one of us.

    1. I have no illusions that I would have chosen differently. Adam and Eve’s story is, indeed, the story of each and every one of us.

      The question that resurfaced for me during Gilbert’s lecture was structural in nature—how does the decision of a few (in this case, two) “lock in” certain realities for the many (i.e., all of subsequent humanity). I suppose you could say that the question is more theological than existential in nature, although the two are, of course, bound up with each other.

  3. Uh-oh. I think I just jumped into the deep end without my water wings.

    My questions were sparked by some reading in Revelation. John is writing to a soon to be suffering-persecuted church. I see multiple categories of theories at work (ransom, conquest, & penal satisfaction). In Geddert’s article I linked above, he suggests ways that Jesus is our substitute through each category. A theme of hope would be strong in differing material circumstances. Not to say hope shouldn’t be strong in any presentation to our culture, but in the midst of suffering and certain death (powerlessness by the standard of our world), hope and faith might be more focused on Christ alone. I know that I have recourse with health care, civil protection, and legal counsel. While finite, we have some access to money and power.

    I don’t see one theory or category of theory dominant regarding atonement. My sense is that in differing contexts there will be different emphases. I also feel increasingly comfortable with the tension of the math not adding up as I think it should. Perhaps things aren’t all as they seem or as certain our culture thinks they should – maybe less so as we move further away from modernity.

    Others might have more thoughtful insights or challenges. Have I adequately evaded my own questions:)

    1. I agree, Brian. Perhaps if we were an oppressed, impoverished, and suffering people, our categories for understanding the atonement might change. Perhaps then the model of Christus Victor might assume a more prominent role—Christ the victor over cosmic, systemic, structural evils. Or perhaps the moral influence theory—Christ the one who suffers injustice, who defeats death by absorbing and exposing it.

      Perhaps penal satisfaction is exactly the model of the atonement we would expect relatively comfortable, middle-class, westerners raised in the context of extremely individualistic notions of guilt and justice to embrace and/or elevate to a position of superiority.

  4. Thanks for your response to the lecture, Ryan. I also listened to Mr. Gilbert’s presentation. I echo your conclusions, all your “yes’s” and also appreciate Brian C. comments above.
    Since math was never my strong suit or love, I don’t find it particularly helpful in fact to approach it in those terms, though I do appreciate Paul’s use of the “by one man” argument — one Adam, one Christ. It’s a beautiful and helpful picture.
    As I listened to the presentation, I found Mr. Gilbert’s attempt to provide something of a “precise rational package,” as you put it, though plugging some holes as it were simply punched open new ones elsewhere. I just don’t think any attempt to set it out like this is tenable, though in broad strokes (concerning our need and God’s love/salvation) it is surely biblical.
    Mr. Gilbert used the expression “the desolate plain of human imagination” but the mind proves itself as “desolate” on big problems like this. I think the engagement of the imagination, in fact, allowing and playing with all the images, while desolate in one sense, can become, with the Spirit, a nurturing garden.
    Some of the holes or questions the presentation opened for me concerned the statement that this is both poetry and history because of the use of the names (or did I misunderstand this?) Couldn’t we say Adam and Eve are archetypal names? He also explained what “knowledge” meant, in terms of experience of blessing and curse, but did not explain how that fit into God’s statement of being “like us, having knowledge of…”
    I’ve also wondered about the tease in various Scriptures such as Rev. 13:8 (though translations vary on this) re. the Lamb “slain from the foundation of the earth” (see also I Pet. 1:20, Heb. 9:26, Eph. 1:4, John 17:24) and find them intriguing; this is a cosmic mystery for sure, concerning love and evil, but perhaps extends into mysteries preceding the start of the human story, which might mean not placing it quite so contingently on human dilemmas, but rather the latter as a consequence of the former. Now it may be that I’m mis-reading “foundation,” and not knowing Greek or Hebrew, I’d be pleased if you theologians correct me.

    1. I, too, wondered about Gilbert’s investing a great deal of significance in the existence of two historical figures named Adam and Eve, and of their decision locking their progeny into a certain mode of existence. I think making everything contingent upon one pair’s one-time decision opens the door to many theological difficulties. Among other things, this seems to make the entire course of the cosmos hang on a single decision. What a momentous moment! What a weight to bear!

      Re: the Lamb, slain from the foundation of the earth, I’ve long puzzled over that one. I think Miroslav Volf has said something to the effect that passages like these suggest that God had to somehow forgive the world before creating it. I believe there is a stream of rabbinic thought that takes this approach as well. It makes the head spin, to be sure, and leads to all kinds of questions about providence, divine foreknowledge, theodicy, etc. But whatever its difficulties, a conception of the Christ-event as somehow “in the cards” from before creation avoids the problem of laying the entire moral trajectory of the universe at the feet of two individuals.

  5. Hi Ryan
    I didn’t get out to the Study Conference and only listened to Pierre’s podcast after reading your blog. My take has a slightly different nuance than yours- though I heartily agree with your conclusion. In his introduction, I heard a very strong disclaimer regarding any possibility that a formula is even possible- and yet he undertakes the theological project of giving explanations. I do think agree that at times he falls into the theological trap he earlier identifies when he draws out stronger conclusions than his argument warrants [ie God could not create a humans by fiat and the cross is the only solution- to me those statements in themselves breach the gap between us and God]. I attribute that, however to the enthusiasm of the assignment and allow his introduction to trump what I see as overstatements. Bottom line- I liked his explanation though I may well be accused of giving deference to a friend 🙂
    Hi Dora
    As a person who trusts math more than imagination I did resonate with Pierre’s dim view of the imagination project, however I do think that neither math nor imagination are adequate for job and I need to give the same deference to the artists whose tool is imagination as I do to those who work in syllogisms. Your reminder that imagination is not less valid in seeking to “justify the ways of God to man”- is well taken.

    1. James, I appreciated the disclaimer too. It just seemed like much of what followed fit rather awkwardly with his initial statement(s).

      I very much appreciated the lecture, over all. Heaven knows, I’ve (very rarely :)) allowed my enthusiasm for rational theological explanation to outrun what Scripture seems to allow.

  6. The forensics of sin are troubling to me also. Not only the math but even the context. Adam and Eve seem more gullable than evil. It’s hard to think of sin and death being made manifest through actions such as theirs. As Dora alludes, atonement seems to be more of a Pauline theological construct or perhaps even a later Christian theological construct deduced from St. Paul’s work.

    Jesus seems to encourage the relational. Justification and atonement theology seem distant to Him. The law distills down to these two sacrosanct principals; Love God with all your heart, mind and soul and love one another as He has loved us.

    I have always struggled with the reformed arguments regarding atonement, though I recognize their roots are found in Aquinas and more particularly Augustine. I can conceive of a good but imperfect creature who apart from relationship with God will be led to sin. I find it hard to believe in and take part in relationship with a God who has created a”totally depraved” creature, prone to sin. Worse still the atonement as described by the reformed is limited to the very few, the elect. Most of humanity has been created and predestined to suffer hell and eternal concious torment or perhaps at some later date, after lengthy and grotesque suffering, permanent annihilation.

    I have always thought that the worst of Christian actions was dependant upon this cruel caricature of humanity and the kind of God neccessary to create such a people. It doesn’t sound to me like the God I love who so loved the world He gave His only Son…who counts and numbers the hairs on my head…who fed the hungry and healed the sick….whose mercy and forgiveness is unparalleled. Who picks me up and strengthens me, time and time again.

    While it may at times run antiethical to my church and is surely an anathema to reformed theology I lean towards an understanding of the cross whereby Jesus absorbs, overcomes and defeats death. The great moral example of “carrying one’s cross”. Penal substitution theories confuse me. They always lead me back to a God who creates sinful creatures so that he may suffer at His own hand as a consequence of their sin.

    Somewhere in the Bible I can recall reading something like,” they search scripture looking for salvation but they don’t come to me”. That resonates. That’s how it is for me. I will stand or fall based on my relationship with the Lord and my relationships within life. Theology matters but it is not my priority.

    1. I agree with much of what you say here, Paul, although I would hesitate to label this a “reformed” argument regarding atonement. The origins of the penal satisfaction view are often traced to Anselm of Canterbury, and it has many representatives from that point onward both inside and outside of the Reformed tradition.

      But aside from that, I think you nail the problem with some formulations of penal substitution here:

      Penal substitution theories confuse me. They always lead me back to a God who creates sinful creatures so that he may suffer at His own hand as a consequence of their sin.

      One more thing. Perhaps you won’t be surprised that I have reservations about this statement:

      Theology matters but it is not my priority.

      There is no such thing as a relationship with God without some theology, whether implicit or explicit. We are all theologians.

      1. Thanks for the response, Ryan. Wasn’t familiar with Anselm…did a quick google…seems like somebody you might like to engage with. Committed to faith, morals and rationality. Anyone committed to an ontological determination of God has both my respect and sympathy. 🙂

        While I agree that the general idea of penal substitution predates the reformation, the rigourous application of it as a theological essential upon which other doctrines are measured, seems specific to the reformed movement in general and Cauvin (Calvin) in particular.

        While Augustine implies a variation, mostly in response to Pelagius, the “moral influence” theory of atonement was clearly the prevailing thought of the early church and Augustine himself. Aside from Anselm, no less than the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairveaux have advanced theories on atonement that are similar to aspects of Calvinism. Though a somewhat contradictory tension exists within the RC, at no time has the theory of “moral influence” been either abandoned or for that matter trumped.

        The case is more clear in the EO. As I understand the eastern churches position, it has always been one of moral influence. I’m told that “penal substitution” theories have no traction whatsoever.

        As for theology in general, if it brings me into a closer relationship with God and people, I’m all for it. If not, I leave it to the “brood of vipers” crowd to work out their exegesis. 🙂

      2. I wouldn’t say that moral influence is necessarily abandoned in Reformed circles, just downplayed. It’s often seen to be a nice bonus to the “saving” part of the atonement (penal satisfaction). It’s a part of the atonement package, but not the part that does the business :). At least this is how it seems to this observer.

  7. I just listened to the presentation and also picked up on the “asymmetry” you note. And I’m not sure if we can ever present sin and salvation in a completely consistent way without going the route of predestination (which then invites another whole set of inconsistencies).

    It wasn’t clear to me how Adam and Eve’s unrepeatable infinite choice (eating the fruit that led to their gaining the knowledge of good and evil) all of the sudden becomes our choice again once Christ is in the picture. I thought their choice was a one-time thing? But somehow now our choice of Christ is the same choice? Things got a little fuzzy for me here.

    Anyway, I found myself struggling to connect all the dots – I guess I resonate a little more with the “mystery” in the conference’s title than Gilbert expressed. Definitely got me thinking though!

    1. It has often puzzled me how two very strong beliefs seem to so often coexist in the same worldview:

      1) With Adam and Eve, the entire human race fell into sin, and our very nature—including our reasoning and moral capacities—is thoroughly corrupt and depraved.

      2) God only saves those who (with these thoroughly corrupt and depraved minds) hear and consciously choose to respond to the gospel (i.e., that Jesus died to save them from their sins… which they were, through no choice of their own, born into).

      These are the dots that I struggle to connect…

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