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.
A 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.