I’ve long been a fan of Athanasius’ catch-phrase ‘God became human so that we might become God.’ I’ve relished the precision with it captures the plot of the scripture story; however, reading Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion, I’m now convicted the summation is too cute by half because, of course, God didn’t simply become human in any generic or benign sense.
God became the human who became less than human, subhuman even, before he was raised so that we might join God.
Athanasius’ quote, if unexamined, bypasses the peculiarly godawful mode of death by which we are incorporated mysteriously into God’s own life. To say, as Athanasius does, that Jesus’ death was just a part of the incarnation, that his death was merely a consequence of his taking on life, does not take seriously the nature of that death.
As Rutledge points out, the common way of interrogating the atonement ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ is the wrong question.
The better question to ask, Rutledge counters, is:
‘Why was Jesus crucified?’
The merit of any atonement theology must be measured against the degree to which it grapples with the fact that God chose not any death, not just a painful death or an insurrectionist’s death, but an accursed death.
Often critics of substitutionary atonement will cite the four evangelists’ own reticence in describing crucifixion as evidence that the cross is not as significant as claimed. Fleming Rutledge cites the evangelists’ same spare narration of the crucifixion to argue the very opposite point: little is said in the gospels about the cross because little needed to be said in the ancient world. It was self-evident to the gospels’ first hearers that the cross was foremost a repugnant scandal, outrageous and obscene, and the very opposite of what we take it to be: irreligious.
Consider the way Paul consistently modulates his rhetoric to emphasize the shameful manner of Jesus’ death: ‘…even death on a cross’ or ‘…and him crucified.’ The reason Christ’s disciples flee in the end isn’t because they believe his messianic mission ended in failure; they flee because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness.
The disciples abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him.
They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him.
God, so far as the disciples could surmise, had actively scorned Christ, leaving Jesus to a death God’s own law proscribes as the ultimate degradation and abandonment:
“When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
Paul takes up this law stipulation in Galatians 3.10-14, a passage which, tellingly, the lectionary can find no room for in its 3 year calendar. Only this particular method of death does the torah identify as being godforsaken. On this insight, Rutledge quotes Jurgen Moltmann:
“…someone executed in this way was rejected by his people, cursed among the people of God by the God of the law, and excluded from covenant life.”
Again, it’s not sufficient to ask why Jesus died.
To take seriously Christ’s death is to ask why did God choose a manner of death religiously repugnant to God’s own law, a manner that signaled the ultimate shame before God and marked one out under God as accursed.
Rather than asking ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ Christians must ponder:
‘Why, having taken on humanity, would God choose a mode of death that denied him any vestige of humanity?’
And just as important a question to ponder, what does such a death say about the gravity of our condition?