–Daniel S. Ferguson
Last month, Christian musician Michael Gungor infamously tweeted this about Christ’s death on the cross:
Unsurprisingly, Christian pastors and theologians went on the offensive. After all, what Gungor said was startling, and to them heretical. I certainly understand why they were angered, even mortified, by his tweet. At first, I was too. Here is a Christian artist–a well-respected one at that–saying that the atonement of Christ was “horrific.”
But that’s not really what he said. Twitter isn’t helping as a medium here, and Gungor certainly could have done a better job communicating his point, but what he’s saying isn’t totally out of line. I can give him some credit here.
Gungor did NOT say that the atonement was horrific. He wasn’t actually talking about that in that sentence. He said that a GOD who needed to be appeased by blood was an horrific notion. And he’s right about that.
I know of no one who thinks that God actually needs to be satisfied by blood in order to forgive sin. We see Jesus forgiving sins all over the place throughout his ministry without a single drop of blood being shed. He clearly has the authority to do that. Therefore, we must assume that God the Father has the same authority.
And there I think Gungor is on safe ground. He’s not saying atonement isn’t necessary. He’s saying that God doesn’t need blood. God simply needs to choose to forgive, and forgiveness is done.
Why the cross, then?
Two reasons. First, Jesus introduces a new covenant between God and humans. He is insistent that this new covenant does not undo the previous one that God made with Israel. Therefore, the old covenant must be completely satisfied, which requires a permanent and living blood sacrifice. Christ’s death and resurrection satisfy that requirement completely. In this manner, Jesus fulfills every promise made to Israel, even while he replaces Israel’s religious code with faith in himself.
The story of the paralyzed man in Luke 9:1-8 is particularly demonstrative here. Some friends bring a paralyzed man on a mat to Jesus, and the very first thing Jesus says is, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven” (v. 2).
Again notice, no blood was shed here. Jesus forgives the sins without any atoning sacrifice.
Some of the religious leaders of the day start accusing Jesus of blasphemy because only God can forgive sins. Jesus responds by saying, “I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (v. 6), so he turns to the paralytic and heals him so that the guy can walk again. This demonstrates both Christ’s power and Christ’s grace, but both of those are done after the forgiveness of the sins in order to show that the forgiveness was real.
I used to wonder as a kid if all the people before Jesus died on the cross went to hell. After all, they couldn’t possibly live up to the Jewish religious code (hence Jesus’ necessity), and they couldn’t believe in Jesus because he hadn’t been born yet. This used to really trouble me.
But now I see the truth. God certainly could forgive sin without Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The Bible makes it clear that Abraham was saved by his faith, even though it wasn’t–couldn’t have been–in Jesus. Abraham was faithful, and God decided to credit that to him as righteousness. Sins forgiven.
In the same way, Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t satisfy some vampiric desire on God’s part that requires blood payment for sin. God had already decided to forgive sin and clearly could do so without an atoning sacrifice.
I don’t know if this is what Michael Gungor meant or not. I hope so. I don’t want God to be a vampire either. At the very least, Gungor could have communicated this better, perhaps in a blog post (wink wink) instead of a tweet.
What is clear to me is that Gungor was talking about the character of God, not the atonement. That’s what the critics missed when they opposed it, and I think they would agree that God isn’t a vampire either….at least I hope so.