Monday, September 12, 2011

The Unscandalous Cross that Divides Us

There is a famous thought experiment in ethics known as the Trolley Problem.
A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?
Should you flip the switch to allow fewer deaths or should you avoid flipping the switch to avoid being an accomplice in an evil act? Would failing to act at all be an evil act? There are a variety of other experiments in ethics based on the trolley problem. This one is my own.

A trolley is running full speed down a track. In its path is your only son. The people in the trolley molested, beat, and ridiculed your son all his life even though he never did any harm to them. The people in the trolley hate you and want to kill you even though you've done nothing but good things for them. You've invited them to feasts--given them all the food and drink they could ever ask for. You've bought homes for them. The people in the trolley tied your son to the track and are trying to run him over. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley off the side of a cliff or you could let them run your son over. If you allow the people to live, they will continue to abuse and kill others. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?

I know what I would do. I would pull the switch and I'm sure you would too. There are plenty of popular movies where a man's child gets kidnapped and he goes and kills hundreds of bad guys to get his kid back. If we were able to do this we would. If all we had to do was flip a switch, we wouldn't think twice about it. In addition to saving your son you get to do away with all these horrible people.

But God does not choose this option. God doesn't flip the switch. In self-sacrificial love for these people, the Father gives His Son to them to be beaten and abused and killed. In self-sacrificial love for these people, the Son offers Himself to be beaten and abused and killed. The Son is beaten and abused and killed for you--to suffer for your sins. You gleefully run Him over and in return you receive the forgiveness of sins. This is not reasonable. And this is only a dim shadow of the reality of it all. The crucifixion is much more gruesome and much more unreasonable. It is also an even greater yet more unthinkable act of love.

Because God-crucified is so incomprehensible we will not look at Him. We look around Him or behind Him or in some other direction.

We speak of the crucifixion as something God did to satisfy His own justice and bring glory to Himself. While there is some truth to these statements, too often they are used to avoid the real issue. God is hanging there bleeding and dying on a cross for your sins and you're rationalizing it.

Rather than being the central message as it was for the Apostles, Christ-crucified is understood as almost unnecessary. In Calvinist circles there are the infralapsarian/supralapsarian debates where each party believes that they can get inside of God's head and figure out the logical order of His decrees. Both positions distract us from the way that God has chosen to reveal Himself on the cross. They both turn us to the hidden God and His secret will. They are both theologies of glory. Both regard election as central rather than Christ. Neither position is based on the Scriptures but have more to do with the one doing the theological exercise. God is examined as if He were an impersonal series of events that could be studied in the laboratory.

The Biblical language is very rich and speaks of the atonement in a variety of ways. The Scriptures speak of reconciliation, expiation, propitiation, redemption, victory, etc. Rather than acknowledge the richness, some theologians choose to pick out one term and exclude the others to make the atonement more sensible. Liberals don't like the propitiation language. Calvinists don't like the universal reconciliation and justification language. The Scriptural atonement language describe an atonement that is not reasonable, but should we expect it to be? The Calvinist says that Christ did not die for those who will be damned because that wouldn't be sensible. But that's like watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and deciding that everything is believable except for the fact that the rat is named Splinter. He's the leader, shouldn't he have a better name? God dying for sinners doesn't make sense to begin with. We are told in the Scriptures that God's ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). What God has not revealed is not given to us to know (Deuteronomy 29:29).

But how could people be damned if Jesus died for them? The Scriptures do not give us all the details but always attribute damnation to unbelief. They never speak of damnation as being the result of Jesus not dying for the person. 2 Peter 2:1 speaks of those who deny the Master who bought them and Romans 5 says that all who died in Adam were justified on the cross. But why would God die for people if they would eventually be damned? The question seems to imply that there is something reasonable about God dying for anyone in the first place. God bleeding and dying for us can only be understood through what is actually revealed to us. God dying is beyond and contrary to reason. We are incapable of rationalizing it. We can only stand in awe with out mouths hanging open and a sick stomach staring at God's incomprehensible love displayed for us on the cross.

Because Jesus said He was going to do this unthinkable thing and actually did it when He can trust what He says. Jesus told His disciples rather frequently that He was going to be killed and rise again. They spiritualized this language. It wouldn't sensible for a good Messiah to die on us. If Jesus is truly God, God dying is even less sensible. He must be speaking figuratively. They were utterly astonished when Jesus died and even more astonished when He rose again.

Many do the same thing with the sacraments. They say Jesus could not possibly mean what He sounded like He was saying because that would just be crazy. Of course it's crazy, but so is the whole thing.

When Jesus says, "This is my body" and "This is my blood" it's really rather silly to say that He can't mean what He sounds like He's saying because it's just too crazy. The Gospel is crazy. To deny what sounds crazy would mean to deny the incarnation itself. The sacraments should be embraced for what Jesus says they are rather than explained via Aristotle or contradicted by our observations.

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