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Did God want to see Blood? from 'The Gospel of John', by John Wijngaards

Did God want to see Blood?

from The Gospel of John, by John Wijngaards, Michael Glazier, Wilmington 1986, pp. 145 - 155.

Pointing at Jesus John the Baptist said, “There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1, 29). It expresses in one sentence the whole mystery of salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus would die as the paschal lamb, sacrificed at noon on the 1 4th Nisan, like all the other paschal victims in Jerusalem (John 19, 14). In the fact that Jesus’ legs were not broken by the Rom~ soldiers, John sees a fulfilment of the paschal rite which prescribed that the bones of the lamb be kept intact (John 19, 36; cf. Ex 12, 46). But unlike the other victims which were limited in their effectiveness, Jesus was ‘the Lamb of God’, the true lamb, the lamb that would truly be able to forgive sin in general, ‘the sin of the world’.

Now if Jesus purified us by his blood ( 1 Jn 1, 7), and if everything he did was on the command of his Father, it would follow that it was the Father who wanted Jesus to die. He wanted the hour of suffering to come upon Jesus (John 12, 27). In other words he wanted to see blood. At least that is how things are presented in a rather widespread form of what we might call medieval satisfaction theology. Through humanity’s sins God’s honour had been hurt. This could only be made up for by someone bringing ‘satisfaction’. God showed his love, we are told, by appointing his own Son to bring that satisfaction. That is why the Father wanted Jesus to die so that by his blood we could be purified from our sins.

Perhaps we are so used to this line of thought that its incongruity no longer strikes us. But I remember one of my non-Christian friends once telling me how the idea of Jesus’ suffering horrified her, and how she could not help thinking that the celebration of that suffering as something pleasing to God struck her as sadistic and weird. A notorious critic of Christianity, Friedrich Nietzsche, expressed similar feelings in 1878:

“I hear the church bells.... How is it possible?! All this for a Jew who died on a cross two thousand years ago and who maintained he was the Son of God .... What a religion! A God who begets a child from a human wife.... A so-called just God who accepts an innocent person as sacrifice instead of the sinner. A teacher who is supposed to give his blood to his followers to drink Prayers to have miracles done Sins committed against one God, expiated by another God .... The symbol of the cross in a time when the penalty and shame of crucifixion are no longer known—how abhorrent is all this! Like ghosts of an ancient past visiting us from the grave". F. NIETZCSHE, Menschliches Alizumenschliches Schmeitzner Verlag, Chemnitz 1878, no 113; Goldmanns Pocket 1960, p.119; translation my own.

Divine Cruelty

There would be little need for us to be concerned if these were only impressions of outsiders, based on misunderstanding and even prejudice. But the psychological dangers inherent in a misdirected theology of atonement and satisfaction can, unfortunately, be documented in the history of Christianity. Quite a few social studies show that Christians are less peaceful than other members of society; that they are more authoritarian, power conscious and inclined to justify violence and warfare. Moreover, it has been shown that this attitude can be related to their concept of God. Some of the ‘hardness’ of God rubs off on Christian believers. The same hardness becomes apparent when we study the history of Christianity. The torturing and burning of heretics instigated by the Inquisition, the persecution of witches, the Christian justification of the slave trade, and so on, manifest an unbelievable lack of humane feeling. If we look at some of the right-wing military dictators of today, we see that they find no problem in squaring violent oppression with their so-called Christian principles. What has gone wrong?

Through the wrong presentation of the ‘satisfaction theory,’ many Christians attribute to God an incredible measure of cruelty. not only do they fill the ‘Father’ concept with their own experience of paternal dominance; they add to it the trait of vindictiveness. God refused to forgive human sin without full reparation being paid. He would only forgive after seeing blood. God, therefore, has a hard streak in him. He insisted that his own Son, though completely innocent, suffer a most painful death for no other purpose than that his wounded pride be satisfied.

Such a concept of God cannot fail to have a profound influence on one’s faith. If God is so hard, one can never be sure he is not waiting for a chance to make us feel his lordship. The result is a spirituality of fear. When will God strike me? When will he exact his toll in suffering and pain? Perhaps I can forestall him by voluntary mortifications, otherwise who knows what he will do! It will also cause our own attitude towards others to harden. We find it right that criminals should pay the full price for their misdeeds. Law and order, and their violent imposition, become our first concern as administrators. We accept other people’s sufferings and misfortunes as unavoidable and natural—the way God wanted things to be! In many subtle ways the concept of a cruel, vindictive God will make us cruel, vindictive people.

Who Wanted the Passion?

The crucial point is whether the Father wanted Jesus to suffer and die. Put in this straightforward and simple fashion, the answer is clearly: No! John consistently presents Jesus’ death as an unlawful murder, therefore a crime. During his trial Pilate repeatedly asserts that Jesus does not deserve to be put to death (John 18, 39; 19, 4). Jesus himself states clearly that killing him is a sin, with the Jewish leaders and Pilate sharing the guilt (John 19,11). Well, God cannot instigate a crime or want a sin. Jesus’ crucifixion was not something the Father had determined with his absolute will. How then did it happen?

Jesus came as the light. But people loved the darkness more than the light and refused to accept him (John 3, 19; see also 1,11). This ill-will of those who should have welcomed him with open arms had been foreseen by the prophets (John 12, 39-41), but was not what God had hoped would happen. He wanted people to be converted and come to the light (John 12, 34-50). But when unbelief hardened into active-opposition, when they planned to put Jesus out of the way (John 7, 25; 11, 53), Jesus decided to continue his mission even if it meant death. He spelled out the reason very clearly. He was not like a hireling who is unconcerned about the well-being of the sheep and who runs away in the face of danger. No, he was the good shepherd who was willing to die for them (John 10, 1 l-15).

This, we should note, was Jesus’ free decision. No one could take his life if Jesus had not freely decided to follow the ministry of the good shepherd (John 10,18). The soldiers who want to arrest Jesus are thrown powerless to the ground until he allows them to touch himself (John 12,6). If he had wanted to organise an army to protect himself he could have done so (John 18,36). But he wanted to be faithful to his mission. And that is what the Father wanted, that Jesus be faithful to his mission. “The Father loves me because I am willing to give up my life” (John 10 17). The Father, therefore did not want Jesus’ death in itself, but as a necessary component of Jesus’ fidelity.

To some people this may seem a subtle distinction, but it is a crucial one, a distinction that makes a lot of difference. Imagine a father and his son are both officers in a fire brigade. During a fierce fire in a block of apartments it becomes clear that a mother and child have been left behind in the topmost flat. The son climbs a ladder and wonders whether he should enter a window to go and look for them. Flames are leaping out from the roof, the building may collapse at any moment. Through his walkie-talkie he consults his father. “Dad, do you want me to go in and try and find them? Remember when you allowed me to join the brigade, you made me promise not to endanger my life. What shall I do?” I imagine that the father would say: “Do go in and try to save mother and child. Of course, I don’t want you to endanger your life, but to do our job requires risks at all times. Go, may God be with you.” And if his son were to die in the blaze, will we blame the death on the father? Actually the last thing he wanted was his son to die.But he also wanted his son to be faithful to his duty, to be true to himself. Only thus could he be reconciled to his son’s death.

I have given this long example to show how the Father came to acquiesce in Jesus’ passion. It was not something he wanted, certainly not out of cruelty or vindictiveness.

.St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274 AD) explained Jesus’ death in the same way. If the Father had handed Jesus over to die against his will it would have been “evil and cruel.” No, “God the Father only handed Christ over to his passion.... in so far as he inspired him with the wish to suffer for us, that is: by infusing love into him” (Summa Theologica III, 9.47, a.3). “It was not wicked or cruel for God the Father to want that Christ should die.... For he did not force him against his will. Rather, he was pleased by the fact that Jesus freely accepted death out of love. It is this love which the Father worked in him” (Contra Gentiles IV, 55, ad 16). Once Jesus had made his decision, the Father made use of it as the highest expression of his Son’s salvific action. The Father saw to it that the grain that died would produce abundant fruit (John 12, 24). The Father would make the hour of suffering an hour of glory (John 12, 23; 27-28; 17, 1). What was in itself a tragedy became the highest expression of Jesus’ love. “No person has greater love than the one who is prepared to give his life for his friends” (John 15, 13). In this way Jesus’ passion and death would express more than any other part of his life the love of God which he had come to reveal.

The gift of mercy

Taking pleasure in suffering is just the opposite of what is according to God’s nature. He is a God of love. In fact, of his own free initiative he decided to save us. God loved us, human people, so much that he sent his Son - not to condemn us, but to liberate us from our sins and to give us life (John 3,16-17). The Father loved the Son before the world began with an everlasting love (John 17,24). The Son loves the Pather more than anything or anybody else (John 14,31). Father and Son invite us to share in their love (John 14,21.23). God’s salvific action proceeds from love and leads to love. The clearest statement against the cruel-god concept we find in 1 John.

“We know and believe that God loves us. God is love and whoever is immersed in love is immersed in God; and God is immersed in that person” (1 Jn 4,16).

The realization of this truth should fill us with an enormous sense of relief. For however much we may have to suffer from natural causes or unjust treatment by other people, of one thing we are sure: God, the ultimate ruler of our destiny, loves us. He means well with us. He is a loving Father to whom we can always turn with full confidence. It is obvious that such a Christian realization liberates us from insecurity and fear. “There is no room for fear in love. Perfect love gets rid of fear. For fear is related to punishment and a person who is afraid does not love fully” (1 Jn 4,18).

One still comes across so many Christians who have not understood, or rather experienced, this fundamental reality of our faith. They practise their religion mainly through a sense of duty. They transgress the commandments one moment and are then tormented by feelings of remorse until they have ‘made up’. They cannot believe that confession truly wipes out their sins. They will obey scruples which they know to be silly and irrational. All this, because deep inside them they harbour an unholy fear of God. Deep down in their consciousness they still nurture the unliberated conviction that he is a despotic ruler, a hard taskmaster who will one day strike back at those who fall out of line.

What a liberation when it dawns on us that this fear is unfounded! That God is love! That he loves me. That he is fond of me as a Father is fond of his child. That he allows me to be what I am. That he is happy when I am happy. That there is nothing in the world that can take away my security in him. What a difference it will make to my prayer! And to the way I can face my own position in the world! The person who has not experienced this liberating sense of “God really loves me”, does not know what it means to be a Christian.

God’s mellowing influence

This same realization will also make us extremely sensitive to everything that goes counter to love. For we ‘feel’ God, we ‘know’ his presence in our life by the love we experience. “Let us love one another. For such love comes from God. The person who loves another person is a child of God and knows God. Whoever does not love others does not know God, for God is love” (1 Jn 4,7-8). These are terribly important words. They link our Christian experience of God directly to the way in which we are sensitive to love in human society.

I cannot help in this context to think back with horror at the incredible hardness and cruelty displayed by Christians at times. I recall how heretics were tortured by the Inquisition The instruments were applied to the accused one by one, in a process of slowly increasing pain.... Tortures lasting three or four hours were not unusual. A cloth was pushed into the victim’s mouth to prevent the torturers from being distracted or irritated by his wild screams. A heretic was tortured in this way until his or her body had become a flayed, bruised, broken and bleeding mass of flesh. From time to time he would be asked if at last he was ready to confess.... When the person had been convicted, he or she was condemned to death. This often consisted in being burnt alive. Bound to the stake which was raised high on a pile of wood, the person either choked if the wind blew in the face, or experienced a slower death by scorching.

I recall these facts because they remind us that Christians have been hard and intolerant on many occasions. The torture and burning alive of heretics were condoned by a Pope (Innocent IV in his bull Ad Exstirpanda of 1252) and executed by bishops, priests and Christian lay people. The cruelty and insensitivity involved were only possible because the true nature of God as Love had been forgotten. They were worshipping a primitive, cruel God instead. It is this cruel vindictive God that allowed Christians to massacre Muslims during the Crusades and capture black Africans as slaves. It is a terrible distortion of what God really is like, what God expects.

Violence is a symptom of evil. It belongs to the realm of darkness (chapter three). Genuine love for other people is a sign of Jesus’ kingdom (chapter eighteen). The reason why we should be sensitive to love is our knowledge that God is love. When we try to be good to other people, when we accept them the way they are and confirm them in their own worth, we know God is in us. To be immersed in love means to be immersed in God.

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