Getting past an abominable atonement to see the conspiracy of God's covenant love.
Right after Mel Gibson's blood-drenched The Passion of the Christ hit theaters and toppled the box office, John Piper released a book called The Passion of Jesus Christ that was intended to seize this cultural moment for the sake of the gospel.
Churches, like my Reformed Baptist church in Vermont, ordered this inexpensive book by the truckload in the hopes of educating their congregants and evangelizing their communities alike. I took home a few, and gave a way a couple. At the time, I was all in.
There were 50 short chapters in the book, each giving a reason "why Jesus suffered and died." The first chapter's reason?
"To Absorb the Wrath of God."
To be sure, there has been much conversation during the Easter season regarding the question, "Did God kill Jesus?". I think there might even be a book out with that title ;). And John Piper's answer - along with most of the Reformed tradition, and certainly the neo-Reformed camp, is a resounding "Yes!"
But I beg to differ. God did not kill Jesus.
And yet, Jesus had to die. Which is to say, he wasn't coerced or forced to die - he could have chosen another course at any time, and he chose to die out of self-giving and sacrificial love - but his death was necessary to complete the plan of rescue and restoration undertaken by Israel's God on behalf of all creation. He had to die, and rise, to complete the work.
This presents a tension, but I think it's a consistently biblical one. God did not kill Jesus. But Jesus still had to die.
Here are three reasons why I think God did not kill Jesus (but Jesus still had to die):
1. God is the Judge of history and humankind - but he is not that kind of Judge.
If we hold to a Jesus-centered interpretation of Scripture, we see a definite trend in the way God presents himself as a Judge. The few OT examples of God's direct "punishments" for sin are gradually overshadowed by his warnings (through the prophets) about natural consequences for those sins - usually indirectly administered by Israel's neighboring empires and armies. God is not the one who directly punishes - or worse, tortures and kills - sinners for their sins by venting his wrath on them (eventually for all eternity in hell). And Jesus is not the one who absorbs his Father's fiery, torturous, murderous wrath on behalf of sinners. All the objecting metaphors - divine child abuse, worse than Hitler and ISIS, et al. - apply here. God is not that kind of Judge. God did not kill Jesus.
And yet, Jesus had to die because the wages of sin - particularly, Israel's sin (see #3) - is death. That's the way God's good world works; that's the price to be paid; the natural consequences and comeuppance for sowing deeds of death is reaping death - progressively in this life and as the total end of life. This death-sowing all began of course in the Garden of Life, and then plowed East of Eden to pervade all of human history. The only way sin and death could be defeated and a new epoch of life begun was for Jesus (the God-Man!) to die as a representative for sinners - again, particularly Israel - and be vindicated as innocent by the Father (the Judge!) in resurrection.
But the God who raised Jesus from the dead did not kill him.
2. God the Father is a Person in Divine Community with Jesus - and Jesus reveals God even in his self-emptying death.
The idea that God killed Jesus requires an unbelievable rift in the Trinitarian Community, right? For the Father to essentially close his eyes, pretend Jesus is you and me, and then unleash his bloody fury on his son like a human punching bag is an image completely foreign to the New Testament, Gospels or Epistles. Instead, in the self-sacrificial image of John 15, we have Jesus (who only does what he sees the Father doing) talking about the greatest love of all, laying down one's life for the sake of his friends. This, of course, was not a general inspirational statement. This was Jesus explaining the love of God (the Father! the Judge!) that was about to reveal itself in the Son's own suffering and death for the sake of his friends.
Likewise, the kenosis depicted by Paul in Philippians 2 in no way indicates a rift in the Divine Community. Instead, Jesus does not consider his divine nature a right to be seized but lovingly empties himself and is obedient even unto death, in order to reveal to us what God is really like!
Yes, this obedient kenosis unto death was necessary to bring an end to the age of sin and death; but no, God did not kill Jesus.
3. God is the God (the Judge!) of Israel, concerned with a covenant-breaking people, not "depraved" individuals - and Jesus firstly dies as a representative of that whole people.
The reason this is important is because the first-century political context is the interpretive grid through which we have to see the atonement. Everything Paul has to say about it later on fits within this paradigm - it is not a separate or new paradigm. Which is to say - Jesus was an innocent man (the God-Man!) unjustly murdered by an empire and the religious system in its service.
God did not kill Jesus. The empire did. The crowd did. They made him their scapegoat. He absorbed their wrath and violence - not God's.
Whatever judgment Jesus absorbed was simply the consequence of covenant-breaking (sin); whatever anger God has toward that sin was overcome by God's own loving desire to bear this consequence on behalf of his friends (and enemies) in the person of Jesus. In a very particular sense, Jesus was going ahead of his people to bear the consequence of their own arrogant and violent ways that would culminate in the siege of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 C.E. By dying first at the hands of the empire, Jesus bore in himself the judgment to come, and offered a way out (the resurrection way of putting down the sword and eschewing violent revolution). And in a more general sense, Jesus was taking on the just consequence of Israel's sin in their place, in order to render them forever innocent, cleared of their covenant-breaking, and worthy of inclusion in the new epoch of life that would break in through his resurrection.
And we know, of course, that his death and resurrection is cosmic in its implications - this is what Paul draws out in his letters. All who are grafted into faithful Israel by trusting and following Jesus the Messiah become partakers in the same new life, with sin and death (and the cycle of vengeance, violence, and death) behind them! All creation is reconciled - God (the Judge!) sets all things right in his good world through the life, death, and resurrection of the Son!
Which is to say, God did not kill Jesus!
But he had to die in order for all of us to be included in this new age of life, free from our own covenant-breaking and the death it entails.