Thinking Anglicans

Our inheritance

There is a stillness to Holy Saturday which is quite unlike any other time of the year.

The quiet between Christmas Day and new year’s is an exhaustion, not least from trying to keep events focussed on God’s place in the stories, amidst the corrosive demands both of an hysterical marketplace and childish sentimentality. This season of the year has a different quality of quietness, though it also has its subversions, more subtle and more insidious than Christmas. Two years ago, one made its way to the movies

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, was a depiction of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life. The script was based on an 18th century work, a transcription of the meditations on the passion by an Augustinian nun, Sister Anne Emmerich. It was a brutal, savage depiction of an idea that Jesus suffered because God demanded his life in compensation for the affront of human sin.

It was the latest and very gruesome incarnation of an old thread running through Christian theology, from Ambrose to Anselm and beyond, that only the violent sacrifice of a perfect and sinless Jesus could appease a God whose honour had been offended, and whose anger had been aroused by sinful human beings.

On both sides of the Atlantic, churches block-booked entire cinemas. The faithful were told that this movie showed how it really was, this is what people on the edge of Christian faith need to see, in order to turn to Jesus. The problem was that, for many, it backfired. Whatever the film evoked in our feelings for Jesus, it did not instill any sense of gratitude to God. While one could believe in a divine father who might demand such things of his son, one could not love such a God, who emerges as brutal, affronted and barbaric.

Once you begin to believe in a God who demands compensation, you inherit a spirituality which is always demanding that we give more to assuage our sense of imperfection and failure to live as we feel we are required. This may be why churches which espouse such an understanding of God and sacrifice, also have large incomes.

There is another view of what Jesus accomplished, but it is not so straightforward, does not slot neatly into a Christian basics class. In the sermon we call the Letter to the Hebrews in the Christian Canon, the writer is addressing a congregation creaking under the demands of a compensation demanding deity. The writer describes Jesus as a great High Priest, one who walked as we do, experienced life as we do, endured the same trials as we do but, in all he did, he stayed on track. He did not allow the dark powers to set the terms of engagement. Unlike the War on Terror, in which we have mimicked and multiplied the violence of those who provoked it, Jesus did not return evil for evil, he never compromised his humanity.

The writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus’ last days in terms of offering himself as a sacrifice in the temple of God, not as one taking the punishment necessary to appease an angry God, but as a whole human life fully lived and uncompromised, life as it was created to be.

It matters what we think Jesus accomplished on Good Friday, because from it we decide what God demands us to be and do. Mel Gibson and those who think like him can only deliver us into the hands of a vengeful God, whose demands lead to a relationship between father and son which scarcely bears contemplation. The writer to the Hebrews presents us with a Jesus who is able to let evil pass through him, and not knock him off his course; a Jesus who, in the midst of suffering, cries out, “with prayers and supplications … to the one who was able to save.”

There is a stillness to Holy Saturday which is quite unlike any other time of the year, it is a lull before the end of the story, Jesus’ story and our story. For Jesus it will be the empty tomb, but the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus calls us his brothers and sisters so, in the stillness, we contemplate what is possible for us to follow his way to become fully human.

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Neil B
Neil B
18 years ago

Categorised as “just thinking”. Should be “just think again”. I don’t even know where to start. Never a more distorted view of just one book of the Bible have I read. To argue against substitutionary atonement from the book of Hebrews is absolutely incredible. How much of it is left after you remove all the evidence? The Passion of the Christ may not have limited itself to the biblical accounts and it may have been unnecessarily violent, yet if you think the events of Good Friday were comfortable and not violent for Christ you cannot have understood what he was… Read more »

Brad Drell
18 years ago

I have to agree with Neil as well. The atonement does not put us in the hands of an angry God, as he paid the price, himself, because his Son was him. This is the great mystery of the faith. However, the biblical accounts justify what Mel Gibson did in his films. The accounts say he was flogged. What do you think flogging looks like? I don’t think the movie was unnecessarily violent. It does show what likely happened. Whether you think the violent sacrifice was necessary theologically, it happened nevertheless. I watched my DVD copy of the movie yesterday… Read more »

J. C. Fisher
18 years ago

“If there is no wrath of God, there is no real judgement, no real justice, no real sin, no real mercy, no real love, no real sacrifice, no real forgiveness, no real salvation, no real Jesus.”


[Never a more… :-/]

Oh well: happy Easter anyway. He is risen, Alleluia! 😀

Ian Montgomery
Ian Montgomery
18 years ago

I agree with the above comments. Utter distortion of the letter to the Hebrews. Depressing if this were the Passion and Easter message as it is so far from the message of the Church. This would lead to empty churches and churches empty of the Passion/ Easter message and thus merely pomp and ritual devoid of the divine. Jesus is the lamb of God. The once and for all sacrifice for the sin of the whole world. He is risen, He is risen. This is our message of love and hope from the loving Holy God to a world that… Read more »

Peter Lear
Peter Lear
18 years ago

Somehow the comments above are losing sight of the God of Love. The whole point of the incarnation was surely not for God to prepare his own sacrifice to himself. He tested Abraham’s faith but stopped short of the sacrifice. A full discussion of all this is set down in Gustav Aulen’s book “Christus Victor” where an alternative view of the triumph of Love is set against Substitutionary Atonement. And the other prupose of the cross is Christ the example. I guess we shall never really understand God, not what He did on the cross. But I am confident it… Read more »

Neil B
Neil B
18 years ago

No-one has said it is “just appeasement”.
No single understanding of the Cross can be adequate since the Bible uses many metaphors to explain it.
Yet to deny any one, especially one such as substitionary atonement which is so central to understanding the love of God, is to distort that love beyond recognition.
Substitutionary atonement brings us face to face with the God of Love. It does not lose sight of Him!

James Jack
18 years ago

I, too, was horrified by the basic misunderstanding of Christian doctrine and, particular the book of Hebrews in the article. The responses are encouraging, however, and show that the crucial notion of substitutionary atonement has not been lost. The primary objection that Mr Spurr seems to have is that, to him, the idea of Jesus dying to take upon himself our punishment means that God is vengeful and wrathful – and that’s not how he wants to think of Yahweh. Sadly, Mr Spurr seems to have a very distorted view of God indeed. Scripture tells us that God is a… Read more »

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