And as commonplace as such speech is for Christians today, it contradicts the ancient Church Fathers and, even, Ansem of Cantebury who emphasizesd the necessarily nonviolent mode of the atonement.
Even after you’ve avoided the common problems with substitutionary atonement, making clear it is not merely our individual sin (read: moral impurity) for which Jesus dies or insisting we must not divide the Father’s and Son’s wills against one another, that the cross in no way effects a change in God, or that God’s wrath is poured out on the cross not against his creatures but against the Sin that enslaves them, substitutionary atonement still sees the cross as an apocalyptic battle waged by God.
Even after you resolve the popular problems with substitution, a graver problem remains:
God chooses violence to be the means by which we’re delivered.
Whether or not the fact of God endorsing and using such violence is ameliorated by the fact that God suffers it in our stead is a matter of debate.
To my mind, a more urgent question becomes whether or not a community of perichoretic love, the Trinity, whose very nature is peace, could ever employ violence to good ends?
Is not such an act contrary to God’s nature? And God, by definition, cannot act contrary to God’s nature, such a god would be a god of sheer will not a God who is Goodness.
The idea that the cross reveals the nonviolence of God is commonplace in the ancient Church Fathers:
‘God does not use violent means to obtain what he desires.’
‘God does not liberate us from our captivity by a violent exercise of force.’
– Gregory of Nyssa
In his retrieval of Cur Deus Homo, David Bentley Hart argues that Anselm, in harmony with the Fathers before him, does not view God as using the violence of the cross as the means to remit sin.
Quite the opposite, the violence of the cross is our violence, our choice. The cross is a product of the system of Sin to which we’re bound.
‘the violence that befalls Christ belongs to our order of justice, an order overcome by his sacrifice, which is one of peace.’
Hart argues that the same boundless gift God gives in creation the Son gives back in his obedient life offered to God even unto the cross and that such a superabundant gift ‘draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love for which it was fashioned.’ Thus, Hart concludes, Christ subverts the very logic of substitution and sacrifice from within by subsuming it into the trinitarian motion of love.
As opposed to a violent, apocalyptic defeat of Sin through the cross, Christ’s obedience is simply, as Anselm puts it, ‘a gift that exceeds our every debt.’
Image: The Descent from the Cross by Max Beckmann