In the past week, Michael Gungor has come out criticizing the idea that Jesus’ death was a substitutionary death (a death in our place). The argument he makes is an argument that echoes the concerns of the modern heart, a concern for the violence of ancient religion and their entire notion of a blood sacrifice that had to be made to appease the gods. Bloodshed is a problem often associated with religions throughout all history. Bloodshed is an an utter and tragic horror. It is in many ways the epitome of all that ugliness that fills our world. Gungor therefore argues – what kind of God would require bloodshed to bring about healing and redemption?
Today we live in an aching and divided world. We are longing for real healing, real answers. Contrary to the predictions of the past less and less people seem to embrace the position that states there is no God at all. The vast majority of us believe in a “higher power”, a “force”, a “presences” – a version of God through which we long to come to view of reality that will help us find the path to real healing to all that is fallen and aching in this world. In view of this we understandably recoil as we consider the bloody religions of the past and present. We don’t want violence. We want peace. We want love. We want reconciliation.
But here is where the problem comes in. In our desire to seek out answers to the greatest pains and difficulties of life we fall into the trap. We think we are getting to the dream by looking away from the horrors and focusing on the dream that we long for. We long for a God who loves and embraces all, who ends all violence and suffering, who heals our hearts. We want a God who brings about our reconciliation between ourselves and himself. We therefore think it is utterly unthinkable that any God that can bring about these things would have any entanglement in the bloody suffering of this world. A God who requires Jesus to die in our place is a violent God, a God who is against all that we long for. He must be a warm God, a loving, kind and gentle one. Not a bloody one.
The only thing that wakes us from this dream is reality itself. Yes the world is aching for peace and reconciliation. But the world is a bloody place. The world is a painful place. The world is a dark place. If you want to believe in a God that gives you real hope in this world you must believe in a God who deals with the real world. A warm and fuzzy god who offends no-one and loves everyone is nice. But this is a god who cannot deal with real reality. We must face the fact that any belief in a real God who gives real hope and healing in this world will be a belief in a God who deals with full scope of fallenness that fills our world – physical, spiritual, relational, emotional, etc.
There is another bit of reality that wakes us from our dream. Jesus. A real man in real history who claimed to be God, entering into the world to know our world, to know our pain, to know our fallenness, to pay for the guilt we bear for living in a world created by him, failing to recognize the fact that we own to him the very breath in our lungs and the blood rushing through our veins. Jesus claimed to be the one who has come into the world to take on the fallenness of the world down to its very core, to take on the challenge, not just of evil our there, but the evil that is alive in our selfish hearts. Jesus is God dealing with the deepest aspects of the fallenness and brokenness of this world. Jesus is God facing the pain of the real world. Jesus is God dealing with the essence of that pain – the brokenness of a human heart separated from its Maker. A guilty heart. A heart that owns an immense debt. He came to pay the debt by giving himself in our place.
This is why the message of the cross on which Jesus actually died is utterly unique out of all the stories that offer hope. Yes it is disgusting and revulsive. But only because it deals with real reality. Only because the world is that broken. Gregory of Nazianzus, writing hundreds of years ago concerning the identity and work of Jesus states, “That which he has not assumed he has not healed.” Any god who is merely warm and fuzzy is simply a dream. Look at the real world. Look at your own heart. If there is a true story of real healing and hope to this broken world you must expect it to be a very difficult story. That is what we find in the story of Jesus.
Michael Gungor, along with John Lennon, has allowed himself to be whisked away from reality to an imaginary story where all is better. Unfortunately it isn’t a real story. It isn’t one deals with the real world and offers real hope. Have you considered what ground you have for real hope and healing? Have you considered the hard and difficult true story of Jesus?