Last December, in these two blog posts, here and here, I wrote a response to Jason Micheli, a popular fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, who argued in a series of posts that Christmas doesn’t need the cross: the purpose of the Incarnation was not in order to save us, and even if humanity had never fallen into sin, God would still have sent his Son into the world.
Needless to say, I vehemently disagreed, which you can read about above.
But at least my fellow pastor is consistent. Now that we’re nearing Good Friday, he’s recycling the same arguments again, arguing that the cross isn’t necessary for atonement; that the Father would never send his Son to die on the cross; that the cross is merely the world’s equal and opposite reaction against anyone’s faithfulness to God; and that the cross is therefore completely incidental to God’s saving purposes. Presumably, our Lord could have died of old age—had the world allowed him to—and that would have been no more or less salvific.
I don’t think I’m misrepresenting his viewpoint. I tried to engage him on the topic last December, and he wasn’t interested.
I understand the motivation to want to argue that the Father doesn’t send his Son to die on the cross. By this way of thinking, if suffering is always only a consequence of human sin or the accidental outworking of cause-and-effect—rather than something that God might also will—then God is off the hook for it, and all those moral objections to God are neutralized.
In some temple of pure thought, I can see the appeal of such a god. For one thing, such a hands-off god wouldn’t get so worked up over my sins and make so many demands on my life.
As always, however, we have the Bible to contend with. There are too many scriptures I could cite in my defense from both Testaments, and you probably know most of them yourself. But even if we restrict ourselves to Jesus: When he prays, “Not my will but thine be done,” we are right to infer that God willed Jesus to suffer death on the cross.
Does the cross also reflect the free will of civil, religious, and military authorities such as Pilate, Caiaphas, and the Roman soldiers, not to mention the bystanders in the crowd who cheered them on? Of course. They didn’t need God to “give them a push” to send Jesus to the cross. It was both the consequence of human free will and the chosen means by which God atones for our sins.
Also, as I’ve said a dozen times before on this blog, the Son isn’t an unwitting victim either of his Father’s or the world’s schemes: out of love for us, Jesus chooses to go to the cross. The Son wants what the Father wants.
All that to say, where the god of the philosophers conflicts with the God of the Bible, we side with the Bible. Fortunately, the God of the Bible is not only more interesting, he’s also much worthier of worship.
For one thing, the God of the Bible loves us so much that he lets us suffer, when that suffering will be for our good. And the suffering of his Son Jesus was for the greatest good of all: our salvation.
For another, with the God of the Bible, we get to believe, alongside C.S. Lewis, “What God sends us must be sent in love and will all be for the best if we have the grace to use it so.”[†]
† “The Ultimate Law” in The C.S. Lewis Bible NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1106.