I have made a few minor changes to this post because as a friend of mine pointed out, I committed an error of omission, by saying “I don’t know” and not explaining further. Apparently my original post gave the impression that I did not believe anything profound happened on the cross which in no way represents my personal beliefs. I hope these modifications will bring clarity to this post.
In my post “The Rainbow of our Faith” I shared that I work with a very diverse group of Christians. This evening I was reading an interview with Dallas Willard posted at http://conversationsjournal.com. I realized that one of the most divisive issues among Christians relates to our respective atonement theories. I personally have an issue with penal substitutionary atonement (the belief that Jesus died to appease an angry God). This week I was asked “Why did Christ have to die?” I was totally honest and replied “I really don’t know.” I now realize that that was a poor choice of words (thus the need to modify this post). What I should have said is “I think it is a mystery. I know something incredible happened but I honestly can not describe it in human terms. I do believe that it is by Christ death and resurrection that I am able to experience God through the Holy Spirit in my life but I can not define exactly how that mystery takes place.” I felt like as a pastor I should have a better answer but my ego was restored when I read Dallas Willard’s comments below. Willard’s words below capture what I meant to say or convey. This is a small excerpt from that interview. (GWM is the interviewer and DW represents Dallas Willard’s response.)
GWM: So what happened at the cross?
DW: Well, I think anyone who thinks they understand that is probably not justified in that belief. One of the things that happened was God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, so; one of the things was reconciliation. Obviously, something happened between the Son and the Father also. Now, that’s where, Gary, our problem really arises—with people theorizing about that, and attempting to impose that on the clear statements of the scripture. That’s where our theories come in—for better and worse.
DW: So, what happened? At a minimum, what happened was something that permitted God, in His wisdom, to act differently towards men than He would have if the death on the cross had not occurred. Now, what was that? I don’t think anyone knows what that was.
GWM: Thank you for your honest and for allowing some aspects of theology to remain a mystery.
DW: Yes, to impose more understanding, I believe, is to intrude into the mysteries of the Trinity in a way that I simply think we are “off base” when we try but I think we should say, it is a fact that there was something that happened between the Son and the Father on the cross that makes possible the plan of salvation. That plan is God’s plan; not our plan. That’s God’s plan, but people often present it as my plan for how to get saved. The Son poured out His life on the cross. The life is in the blood, so, when we talk about the blood of Jesus, we are talking about His life or as Isaiah 53 says, “He poured out His soul unto death” and that life is what saves.
I encourage you to read the full interview. It provides a good summary of the different theories and the weaknesses of each.
If Dallas Willard is willing to admit that even he does not know with certainty exactly what transpired on the cross; I don’t feel quite so inadequate in my own theology.