Did Jesus need to be tortured to death?

I work on answering this question over the next ten days. This means every moment in which I do not have to be doing other things, I will be studying atonement theology. We have to imagine we are answering this question posed in the forum of a cafe church. We are to engage with the post-modern angst which generates such a question as this one. Quite frankly, I can understand why it arises. I have to give an answer in seven minutes, explaining what happened at the cross, perhaps unpacking the cultural conditions that give rise to the question in the first place, probably discussing to some extent what 'torture' is and why it is that Christians do not think that Jesus was tortured in the sense of being a passive victim, covering perhaps also that if this thinking is there, how do we articulate who the perpetrator might be.

I am very much at the beginning of this exercise, excuse me if my initial thoughts are already full of flaws. I wrote a kind of defence of Penal Substitutionary atonement a few years ago as an academic exercise, wanting to get inside the thinking of those who were stimulating my interest in biblical studies: the John Pipers, Don Carsons and conservative evangelicals of this world. It was very rooted in the 'plain reading' of the biblical picture. I have since begun to appreciate that 'plain readings' are anything but plain and reading are conditioned by the presuppositions of the enquirers, the questions which they arrive with and find answers for conditioning the answers that arise, and that interpretations are culturally conditioned. In some ways I am left worse off because gone are the easy days of my evangelical first naivety, for want of a better way of putting it, when I simply said - 'the Bible tells me so.' I have come of age, so to speak, in perhaps a way that makes life a little more complicated now.

At eleven years of age, I first understood what Jesus had gone through for me (oops - that's an overly individualised sentiment according to Garry Williams, (I was eleven!) and I must admit finding it incredibly shocking. I also felt a bit over-protected by a family who had spared me the in depth discussions about the pain Jesus must have gone through. It is not strange that I should revisit all of this. I have come to understand that the same mysteries that grab us somewhere deep continue to resurface.

I feel slightly overwhelmed by the task ahead but also strangely drawn to it. This horror about what happened at the cross is bound to come up in Parish life over and over again and when I re-enter that world outside theological college in that new role, I will possibly, more likely probably, be expected to formulate some kind of an answer.

It might even seem shocking to some of you that this is something to be debated, surely future vicars have this one nailed, pardon the pun, do they not? Well, it just goes to show you how much a product we are these days of the interpretative fixations, hypothesisings and ponderings that are a sign of our postmodernism, more surprising still, is perhaps the idea that curiosity about what happened at the cross is not actually a product of the 'now-culture' at all but has provoked debate for the last two millennia.

Wish me luck - not that we believe in that pagan idea, of course!


Doug Chaplin said...

In the forum of a café church, eh. So will you be watching Mel Gibson's Passion as well as reading textbooks?

I mean that quite seriously – as a particular visual take on one way of reading the "Stations of the Cross" tradition, it does seem to put brutality front and centre stage.

One question that arises from that is whether a dwelling on the torture and suffering of Christ is also about evoking a subjective response, and not simply making an objective atonement.

I shall look forward to seeing you work through this series.

Tim Harris said...

It is a question that does indeed arise, and not just out of theological curiosity. There were many in Christ's times who experienced such excruciating deaths (literally) - does the physical nature of Christ's death add anything to the spiritual horror we can barely apprehend?

My suggestion is to explore Philippians 2. Joseph Hellerman has proposed that the path of Jesus' death is a type of 'cursus pudorum', and I came up with a similar conclusion in my research on humility as a complete reversal (and subversion) of status. The direction of Phil. 2:5-10 is that Christ not only experienced death, but 'even death on a cross'.

The 'mind' of Christ revealed in the path through incarnation, servanthood/slavery and crucifixion embodies profound gospel truths. Christ underwent the horror of torture, the instrument of terror and complete humiliation as a public statement from the most powerful that they hold ultimate authority and power - all of which was broken in the vindication of Christ through his resurrection. A profoundly greater power and authority is revealed, but only through the experience of confrontation with the 'empire of terror' and all that it represents in the manifestation of evil through human agency.

Not only does this draw us into profound theological territory, it also is all too readily relevant to our own world...

By the way, I think Graham Cole's book exploring atonement as the manifestation of shalom is one of the more creative offerings in recent times.

Grace and peace.

Tim Harris said...

And as a post script - I will be attempting to open up discussion of 'where is God in the rubble?' in a Cafe Church forum session next month - like you, 7 minutes or so, in a very post-modern and experientially orientated context. It is a good 'reality-check' for us as theologians to try and convey gospel truths meaningfully in such contexts, because the questions are actually very real.

Rachel said...

Thank you for such a thought-provoking contribution. I have been working on an essay about Sabbath and preparing for this presentation on the Atonement and Cole's book might be informative on both those fronts.


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