Traci Smith, a Presbyterian (U.S.A.) pastor, who several weeks ago complained that the Reverend Tim Keller should not receive a theological award because of his beliefs about ordaining women and members of the LGBTQ community, is now making some rather confusing remarks about the atonement provided by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Smith’s posting, “Protect Children from the Violence of the Cross and What to Do Instead During Holy Week,” broadens her perspective about Keller’s theology and all evangelical/orthodox reformed theology. No, she doesn’t mention Keller here but the reader begins to see two faiths emerging in her writings—one is progressive, the other orthodox—and Smith seems to be pushing away from the faith that is orthodox.
In an essay meant to help parents and leaders dealing with children during Easter and Lent, Smith, insists that the cross and suffering of Christ and what that means, put in what she calls a simplistic manner, can frighten and offend children. She writes:
“When we reduce the crucifixion story to a simple soundbite digestible for young children, we are actually presenting complex atonement theories that will shape their theologies their whole lives long. “Jesus paid the price for our sin.” (ransom) “Jesus saved us because we couldn’t save ourselves.” (penal substitution). “Jesus conquered death to set us free” (christus victor). … When we look closely at each of these theories, however, we realize that it’s not quite so simple. Did God really send God’s only son to be tortured and killed because God demands payment for sin? That does not sound loving. Did God simply not have the ability to rescue Jesus and spare him from all of that pain? If so, God must be very weak.”
And toward the end of her posting, Smith suggests that her readers “re-evaluate” their theology of the atonement. She asks “Did God kill Jesus?” and answers, “I don’t think so.”
Well no, some of the Jewish leaders, the Roman leaders in Jerusalem and all of us because of our sin killed Jesus. But, yes, his death was necessary. Smith’s question and answer is simplistic in the extreme.
In his little compact book, Christian Doctrine, J.S. Whale, after explaining the extreme suggestion by some that if the idea of atonement entails Jesus’ death as a necessity than God is a tyrant, writes:
“In all the classic soteriologies [atonement theories] of the Church, he who is sacrificed is not a human being chosen out from humanity to serve as a scapegoat. That would be the Nestorian heresy. On the contrary it is the offended One himself, the Holy God who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, who as the second ‘hypostasis’ or ‘person’ of the Trinity assumes a human nature in order to be able to suffer for offending sinners, and in their stead. According To Christian theology, the Being who goes deliberately and freely to his death is not a human personality but the second ‘person’ of the Trinity, God incarnate in the clothing of human nature. … the dogmatic formula of the Church is: two ‘natures’ in one ‘person’. The link between these two natures is ‘hypostatic’ and the ‘person’ constituting the link is divine.”
That is a lot of theology, both difficult and beautiful—complex and biblical—as Christian theology should be.
But let us return to the children. No, children should not be given graphic stories and harsh pictures of the crucifixion. It isn’t necessary. But plain pictures, simple stories and the understanding that Jesus died on the cross for our sins—and rose from the tomb to fill our lives with joy and hope. We shouldn't be afraid of the words; Jesus died for sinners. Jesus saves. That is blessed hope for children.
I have told this story before—I will tell it again. When my children were little I had a Good News Club in my home. We told Bible stories the old fashioned way with felt and flannel cutouts. Many of the children in my neighborhood knew nothing about Jesus. At Easter I told them the story of Jesus and his death on the cross. One little boy who had never heard this story before was so very sad when I told about Jesus' death. But then I told about Jesus coming alive, and he got so excited, so happy. Children need this story and they need to know in simple terms that Jesus loved them so much that he died for them.
The good news is deep—deep enough that scholar and student can bathe in its deep luxurious riches. No simplifying the work of the Trinity, the death of the Son, the gracious sacrifice given and the glorious resurrection. Adults need to dig deep.
But the good news is simple too. Laid out for the child and the special learner who struggles to understand. It is there as gift. Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus lives. He loves and forgives sins. He suffered because he loves. Children all over the world are suffering and dying because they love Jesus. Why should we withhold his truth?