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  • Writer's pictureNnaemeka Ali, O.M.I

Was Christ Obliged to die on the Cross?

Here is a follow-up to my observation on Satisfaction and Substitutionary Atonement Theories. So many people have underlined the difficulties in questioning those crucial theories, which obliges me to state my position and reservations. So, I want to do that through this long comment.

Permit me to state that I have no specialization in theology, but I like asking awkward questions. I like questioning even questions and answers. And when a theological position becomes too good to justify its “raison d’être,” I doubt it.

Haven said that, let me state that the first problem with the Satisfaction and Substitutionary atonement theories, from my perspective, comes from the way their proponents applied the Bible in the build-up of their ideas. Let me explain myself.

Faced with the reality of their time, they picked a situation in their society, went back to the scripture to get some back-ups, and interposed it to the case in question. And bam! a theory is born that explains away many things. It’s a beautiful way and legitimate, one would say, yet any critic levelled against the system that served as a background to their theories could become a critic of the approach they propose.

Like in the case of Anselm, the satisfaction theory became handy when placed in line with the feudal legal system. But conversely, the satisfaction atonement theory shattered when the feudal legal system became obsolete. No wonder both Aquinas and Don Scotus found it problematic a few years after it was proposed.

Furthermore, the major problem with such systems is that they often ignore the historical-critical analysis of the Bible. Thus, suppose one reads the Easter narrative purely as a historical event and not a hermeneutic—an interpretation, a reconstruction or re-actualization—one fails to grasp that those narratives are in themselves interpretations of the Christ event. In other words, they took the experience of the first Christian communities as a Christ-event [here I mean seeing the incarnation as a historical event and not a theology].

But what I think those who support these theories today ignore is that, to comprehend the Bible, it’s vital to place Jesus in his historical context [the Roman Empire, Judaism]. Then, consider the Easter narrative—the second destruction of the temple, the exile of Christ’s followers, the religious misunderstanding between them and their Jewish brethren, the presence of non-Jews among his followers. In other words, It is essential to read the Easter Narrative in line with the historical context of Jesus.

Once we consider all these, we might better understand why Jesus’ message was presented in those terms. In other words, once we realize that the New Testament is already hermeneutics, we ought to ask what’s the message they’re reinterpreting; what message are they reconstructing for their communities? It’s that central message that should guide us. The structure in which they are presented could be discarded but not the main message. This is what I think we ought to do with both the satisfaction and the substitutionary atonement theories.

We must ask ourselves, what’s the central message that those who proposed those the theories wanted to safeguard?

Then, what’s the structure on which they inserted the message?

Once we disassociate them, then we can now do our hermeneutics.

James Cone, for example, shows us how we can reread the story of the crucifixion from the position of the oppressed in his book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” Likewise, in “Sisters in the Wilderness,” Dolores S. Williams takes the same question a little bit further by stressing how we ought to be more conscious of all the intersectionality that plays along in our Christ’s Crucifixion narratives. What we might ask as Africans today would be:

What are the African lynching trees?

Who are the African Roman Emperors?

What are the possible causes of death that Christ would have willingly embraced, not because he must, [and this last statement is essential], but as a choice he would freely make?”

We cannot comprehend the goodness of God from the point of view of substitution or satisfaction. It is a choice, not dictated by a father who must have his pound of flesh. It is also not the choice of a God who needs his ego to be appeased. It is instead the choice of the God-Man who loved the world so much that:

Being in the very nature of God, [he] did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—EVEN death on a cross!

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