Mel Gibson’s movie has everyone buzzing about theology, and liberal extremist theologians John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg have found an audience to whom they can sound off:
The theology that informs “The Passion of Christ” is that God sacrificed Jesus to pay the penalty for humanity’s sins. All of humanity, therefore, is responsible for Jesus’ death.
By emphasizing the brutality of Jesus’ death, Gibson shows how much that sacrifice cost God. Shaken pastors leaving previews of the movie have said that it shows how much Jesus — and God — love humanity.
“My ultimate hope is that this story’s message of tremendous courage and sacrifice might inspire tolerance, love and forgiveness,” Gibson wrote in the film’s production notes.
To some Christians, that theology seems twisted.
“If you face the theology squarely, you’re dealing with a God who would not forgive people but would take it out on his own son,” said John Dominic Crossan, a DePaul University professor emeritus who has written several books on the origins of Christianity. “While you might love Jesus, it would not make you love God. You’re dealing with someone who is close to a monster.”
Crossan offers a simpler explanation: Jesus’ message threatened Roman and Jewish authorities. That message was the arrival of the “kingdom of God.”
When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, Crossan said, he was talking about the arrival of justice: bread for the hungry, freedom for the oppressed and, by implication, the overthrow of Rome.
“What he’s saying is that the world belongs to God. God is just and the world is not. What he’s saying to Rome is, ‘You don’t have the power and glory; you just have 25 legions.’ ”
But as Christianity grew and became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire and the West, some biblical scholars argue, its leaders could not accept Jesus’ persistent critique of the rich and powerful. So they adopted the view that “he died for our sins” to explain the Crucifixion.
“The political meaning of the Bible as a whole and the New Testament got de-emphasized when kings started to be crowned in the name of Christ,” Borg said. “The Bible is a very subversive, anti-imperial book, but all of that got muted.”
Apparently, in their claim that the atonement was a later invention, Borg and Crossan have forgotten about several important early theologians: the prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist, and the Apostle Paul. Isaiah saw this coming. Isaiah 53:11-12, which long predates the New Testament says this, “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many,As He will bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors.” [emphais mine]
John the Baptist also saw more than a political realm to Jesus’ kingdom. John 1:29 records John the Baptist’s assessment of Jesus; “The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” John the Baptist was a contemporary of Jesus.
The Apostle Paul, writing in the century after Jesus’ death and resurrection, said in Romans 3:24-25, “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;”
Paul correctly identifies what Crossan and Borg can’t understand. God punished Christ for our sins because he is both holy and just. God cannot be holy if sin is in his presence. Sin invokes the wrath of God. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross satisfied that wrath. This was not an issue of cosmic “child abuse,” as theologians such as Crossan and Borg claim. Jesus, the Word, was God. The God who forgave us took upon himself our punishment.