Did God kill Jesus? Olson and Caiaphas vs. Piper

One of my first major posts on this blog, in June 2006, tackled the controversial question Did God kill Jesus? See also the post which led up to this, “The Father killed the Son”: the offence of the Gospel?, and the follow-up Did God kill Jesus: should I post like this?

Today Roger Olson is asking exactly the same question, Did God kill Jesus? He writes that

Recently a leading evangelical pastor and author has declared publicly that “God killed Jesus”–meaning, I suppose, the Father killed Jesus.  That’s his way (I assume) of emphasizing the penal substitution theory of the atonement.

Personally, I think some “friends of penal substitution” are its worst enemies.

John PiperA little Google research reveals that the pastor and author that Olson refers to is none other than John Piper, who in a sermon this Sunday said, with reference to John 11:50,

In the mind of Caiaphas, the substitution was this: We kill Jesus so the Romans won’t kill us. We substitute Jesus for ourselves. In the mind of God, the substitution was this: I will kill my Son so I don’t have to kill you. God substitutes Jesus for his enemies.

God Killed Jesus?

I know it sounds harsh to speak of God killing Jesus. Killing so easily connotes sinning and callous cruelty. God never sins. And he is never callous. The reason I say that God killed his own Son is because Isaiah 53 uses this kind of language. Verse 4: “We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God.” God smote him. Verse 6: “The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Verse 10: “It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.” God smote him. God crushed him.

My first response to this is an exegetical one. If we look at Isaiah 53:4-5, in Piper’s preferred English Standard Version, we read three propositions about the Suffering Servant separated by other material, which we can summarise as follows: “Surely A; yet we esteemed B. But C”. In other words, A is certainly true, and B is our own human estimation of the situation, which should be rejected in favour of C. That is to say, B is a false proposition, or at least inadequate one, according to the text of Isaiah itself. And what is proposition B? That the Servant was “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted”. Thus the verse Piper quotes to prove that God smote Jesus in fact says the opposite. It is redundant to note that the Hebrew verb translated “smitten”, although sometimes used in the context of homicide, does not actually mean “killed”, but only “hit” or “beaten”.

Meanwhile, when the apostle John (11:51) writes that these words of the High Priest were a prophecy, Piper dares to declare that Caiaphas was speaking his own mind, not the mind of God, which Piper claims to know better the prophet does!

Olson, eirenic as always, declines to name Piper. But he makes a strong case for a proper understanding of penal substitutionary atonement. He agrees with the prophetic words of Caiaphas rather than with Piper’s speculation:

Men [gender inclusive, surely?] committed the violence against Jesus, not God the Father, and the actual suffering of the atonement was the rejection Jesus suffered by the Father.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was the moment of atonement.  God did not kill Jesus (at least in my version of penal substitution); people did.  The Father did not inflict punishment on the unwilling, innocent Son as his victim; the Son volunteered to suffer the Father’s wrath.  The Father’s wrath was not physical violence; it was the rupture within the Godhead suffered by both the Son and the Father (in different ways).  The atonement was that he (Jesus), who knew no sin, became sin for us…., with the result that the Father had to turn away and forsake him.  The penalty for sin is spiritual death; separation from God, not physical death.

This presentation of penal substitutionary atonement, with the Son suffering as a volunteer, avoids any suggestion of the split in the Trinity which is implied by Piper’s version. It refutes Steve Chalke’s accusation of “cosmic child abuse”. The focus is no longer on the Father’s wrath but on his love. This seems similar to J.I. Packer’s view of the atonement as “planned by the holy Three in their eternal solidarity of mutual love”. It is also compatible with the Christus Victor model of the atonement, differing from it in perspective more than in content. Most importantly, it is far more biblical than Piper’s caricature.

The only major negative point I would make about Olson’s critique of Piper’s position is that Olson follows Piper in focusing too much on personal sin and justification, on what Scot McKnight calls the “soterian gospel”. Thus Olson’s gospel seems a little unbalanced in the way that I described in my post this morning Which Gospel? Justice or Justification? Olson doesn’t seem to have commented on McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel . I would be interested to see his response.

14 thoughts on “Did God kill Jesus? Olson and Caiaphas vs. Piper

  1. The finer points of penal substitutionary atonement strike me in the same way as the “how many angels can be fit on the head of a pin” discussions of centuries gone by.

    When proclaimers of the gospel of Jesus major on minutia, the proclamation of His glory suffers.

  2. Mike, I take your point. But I don’t think it’s a trivial matter when people apparently accuse the Father of a crime. Well, one thing I can say is that Isaiah (53:4) prophesied this misunderstanding!

  3. I have some comments mainly on Isaiah 53.
    1. verse 10 says that It pleased the LORD to bruise him. This isn’t just what people thought happened – it is what happened.
    2. This affects how to understand verse 5, “he was bruised for our iniquities”. Isn’t it reasonable to interpret this in the light of verse 10: he was bruised for our iniquities, for so the LORD was pleased to do. This is not to deny human agency in the death of Christ, but to assert the element of divine agency, as in Acts 2:23.
    3. In light of these points, I think that proposition B in the A-B-C analysis of 53:4-5 is a defective human understanding indeed, but not for the reason the original blog posting offered. yet we esteemed him [as merely another common criminal] stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted [and nothing more] – our error was not that God did not have a hand in Jesus being bruised, but that we failed to see this as the vicarious suffering of the innocent Messiah.
    4. It was no accident that Christ was executed by crucifixion. “..for the death of the cross was accursed of God” (Heidelberg Catechism 39, referring to Deut. 21).

  4. Doug, thank you for your comment. I fully agree that “It was no accident that Christ was executed by crucifixion”. All this happened because God permitted it. But that doesn’t make him the agent of it.

    Of course I did not attempt a complete exegesis of Isaiah 53. Yes, we read in verse 10 that “it was the will of the LORD to crush [or bruise] him” (ESV). But what does this verb, Hebrew dk’, mean? Certainly not “kill”. In fact it never seems to be used in the Hebrew Bible of literal crushing or bruising, although perhaps that was the original meaning, but is always metaphorical, meaning something like “oppress” or “humble”. In verse 10 it is in a probably synonymous parallel with “he has put him to grief”. Yes, we can agree that the Father put the Son into mental anguish by forsaking him on the cross. That is by no means the same as saying that God killed his Son.

  5. Olson’s argument, and overall picture, strikes me as overly simplistic. Back when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was being criticized with the old argument that it’s anti-Semitic to say the Jews were responsible for killing Christ, I argued that we shouldn’t reduce who is responsible but expand it. I’d say the same to Olson. My post on this from 2004 is here.

  6. Jeremy, thank you for the comment and for your interesting old post. Your point about the many uses of the expression “delivered him up” indeed shows multiple responsibility for the death of Jesus. But I do see something of a logical leap from “deliver up” to “kill”. One of your examples is that Jesus delivered himself up (Galatians 2:20), but I don’t think anyone would take that to imply he committed suicide. Similarly to say that God the Father delivered up his Son (Romans 8:32) does not imply murder, or even justifiable homicide. Yes, we can agree that it was “It was part of God’s plan”, and also “something Jesus himself willingly submitted to”. But I am not sure that we can ascribe blame to God.

  7. “but I don’t think anyone would take that to imply he committed suicide”

    Well, there is this.

    I see your argument as basically resisting the language of God killing Jesus while endorsing the statement that God morally stands behind that killing. I’m not sure this makes the kind of difference that your post makes it out to be. If Piper’s language is so bad, then wouldn’t it be equally bad to say that God morally stands behind Jesus’ death?

    I certainly wouldn’t say God is to blame for Jesus’ death. It wasn’t wrong for God to do what he did in ensuring Jesus’ death, even if it was wrong for the perpetrators to do so. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t behind Jesus’ death in an important sense.

  8. Again, Jeremy, thank you for the interesting link. I suppose Jesus would have had to use miraculous powers to kill himself in circumstances in which normal people cannot kill themselves. And since, at least on my theology, his miraculous powers came from the indwelling Holy Spirit, we now have the third member of the Trinity implicated in this “crime”. Of course in law (at least as I have learned it from crime fiction and TV!) that does not excuse those who nailed him to the cross, and those who ordered it, as that act was intended to kill him.

    So we have a conspiracy of assisted suicide. This is something which is rightly illegal under normal circumstances. However, I would agree that it is morally acceptable, and probably would not be prosecuted, where the intention and effect is to save a larger number of lives, and where the victim is genuinely consenting. There is a scenario something like this in the film “Mission to Mars” (I’m not recommending it, but I happened to see it recently), where the crew of a rescue mission has to sacrifice one of their members so that the mission can reach the red planet to save others.

    But I do see a complicated layering of responsibility for the death of Jesus as for many other homicides. There are those who could have taken actions which in hindsight would have prevented it. There are those who took actions which in hindsight led towards it. There are those who saw it coming and could have prevented it. There are those who saw it coming and took some action which, whether intended or not, helped it to happen. There are those who simply passed the buck. There are those who caused it because they honestly, but perhaps mistakenly, thought it would be for the better. There are those who caused it because they were obeying lawful orders. Are all to be considered guilty?

    Some churches, I believe, consider Judas to be a saint, because his actions led to many being saved. I wouldn’t say that of him, because that was not his intention. But perhaps we can argue that Caiaphas should be considered a saint, because he correctly discerned that the death of Jesus would be for the greater good, and played his part in causing the death with that intention.

  9. Caiaphas spoke with all the eloquence and forethought of Balaam’s ass.

    The metaphors of “kill,” “homicide,” “suicide,” “assisted suicide,” and so on do not work with the divine because of the resurrection. That is, human laws regarding murder do not hold resurrection in view. However, when God acts in all these circumstances, He obviously does. Thus death does not mean the same thing in a divine context as it does in a human one.

    New atheists cry “genocide” against God quite frequently these days because it is an effective means of scandalizing those who forget to make this obvious distinction between God and humanity.

  10. Mike, my tongue was in my cheek when I suggested calling Caiaphas a saint. But I don’t think you are quite fair to him. His words as reported in John 11:50 are those of a clever but cynical politician. John’s interpretation of them as prophecy is clearly written in hindsight. What makes the action of Caiaphas immoral, and that of God, in the biblical picture, moral, is that the Father acted only with the consent of the Son. But in Piper’s caricature of the situation, at least as Olson understands it, Caiaphas is no more guilty than God is, of sacrificing an unwilling victim for the greater good.

  11. Peter, I agree with your characterization of Caiaphas. My comment spoke only to the prophetic aspect of his statement. That is to say, however prophetic his statement might have been to those of us who deem Jesus’ death a willing sacrifice on behalf of others, Caiaphas was not intentionally speaking for God.

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