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Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.

By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
August 6, 2018

The recent volume entitled The Crucifixion authored by Fleming Rutledge is the mammoth product of two decades of intense research and scholarly effort. It is elegant in style and erudite in substance and an impressive achievement with much beneficial insight and information on the very greatest topic available for human investigation and reflection. It is suggestive of possible new or overlooked trails into the meaning of the blood-shedding of Jesus Christ. It is an admirable display of enchanting "narrative" theology that grips the imagination of the reader as it outlines the dimensions and aspects of the Saviour's sacrificial life and death.

This awesome volume is far too extensive to comment upon in detail and the full breadth of its explanatory material, but there seem to be some areas of its treatment that give cause for considerable disquiet, and certain conclusions that appear to subvert essential features of the atonement. It is right to regret narrow and imbalanced appreciation of the work of Christ prevalent in some sectors of the Christian community but it is unfortunate to evacuate the Christian gospel of several of its key concepts by the unwarranted revision or exclusion of vital themes presented by Holy Scripture if it is to be read with intellectual consistency and recounted with saving clarity.

The complexity of the blood-shedding in its intent and effects needs to be explored with reverence and thoroughness, but the key ingredient in any form of theological and expository endeavor is absolute integrity in handling the text of Holy Scripture and to avoid the shying away from "hard truth" where it is all too plain or sustained and proved conclusively by means of the analogy of faith (comparing Scripture with Scripture).

The Crucifixion is soft on certain issues, almost sentimental and fanciful, and much biblical teaching, or due doctrinal emphasis, is at risk and ultimately smoothed over and compressed into a very definite Barthian, over-comforting mould. Hence the applause from contemporary theologians tilted towards universalism and also the necessary concern at the approval of unwary Evangelicals, who seemingly do not detect the erosion of essential belief.

JUDGMENT: Temporal and Eternal

Judgement is a continuous theme throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Holy Writ is addressed to a rebellious and fallen world doomed by its wickedness. It is not only sin that arouses the displeasure of God, it is the person of the sinner: 'The Old Testament, therefore, according to its pictorial manner makes clear that the attitude of the all-holy God to sinful Israel is that of wrath against, not the sin, but the sinner, 'I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people: now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them' (Ex. 32:9-10; cf. Jer.12:8).

This in contradistinction to much modern preaching when it is said that God hates the sin, but loves he sinner. The Psalmist can say: 'Thou, O God, hatest all workers of iniquity' (Ps. 5:5; cf. His. 9:15; Mal 1:3). It is true of course, that wickedness as such God may overtly condemn (cf. Ps.45:7; Amos 5:15). Yet the essential understanding of the sinfulness of the sinner is displayed by another Psalmist who has been led to exclaim, to the astonishment of many today, 'Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? . . . I hate them with perfect hatred' (Ps. 139:21-22) (George A.F. Knight, A Christian Theology of the Old Testament, SCM, London, page 122).

There are many casualties and fatalities caused deservedly by the wrath of God wrought upon the inhabitants of the earth. There is both a possible finality of judgement for the unrepentant initially in time and ultimately, with certainty, through all eternity. 'The outstanding example in the OT of the manner in which an individual can go 'too far' in resisting the will of God is shown us in the story of Pharaoh . . . where we read of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. There several words are used to describe the action of hardening . . . Yet Pharaoh's heart 'grew hard', because Yahweh actually rendered it hard: "for I have hardened his heart"' (Ex. 10:1). Knight, 131.

None of this, and much else, in Scripture nourishes the dream of universalism and unalloyed love toward all without exception. Wrath is real and the biblical warnings are horrifying. Universalism (as in Barth) sedates the sinner into false comfort, and that is unkind.

It is true that in the patience and forbearance of God much of the judgment he exercises is educative, mercifully corrective, and designed to turn sinners to himself in the process of conversion. Our beautiful Collect for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity is in harmony with this line of thought:

Lord God, you who show your almighty power most of all in showing mercy and pity: Mercifully grant us such a measure of your grace, that in obeying your holy commandments we may obtain your gracious promises, and share in your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

But it must still be maintained that awful fury awaits those who defy God and reject his Son Jesus Christ. "He will punish those who do not know God, and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed" (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10). The day of judgment will be a day of differentiation between those due for punishment and those due for access to the pure joy of the presence of the Lord.

How much clearer does Scripture have to be to banish the wishful thinking of apokatastasis? (Rutledge's deployment of the hope of near total recapitulation and the vacancy of hell - well just about. Here Barthian exposition and reason breaks down rather badly as we shall see later).

No Christian desires the reality of perdition for anyone. The folk you look in the eye, or the people you see in a crowd, are the cause of silent prayer daily. It is rather out of order for Rutledge to hint that R. L. Dabney (Christ our Penal Substitute) might harbor a "fondness for punishment" or "enjoy the subject of perdition" (p 496). This is a snipe that indicates that she writes with a degree of bias and irritability that skews her judgment particularly toward penal substitution. Christian maturity normally overcomes the grudges we feel towards certain perceived theological distortions and offensivenesses we have encountered in the past through faulty instruction.

J.I Packer offers his thoughts on universalism thus, "Its exponents do not question that all human beings deserve hell; but, they say, God's love is such that he will not finally damn any of us, and Christ's cross is the guarantee of everyone's final salvation. Nothing less than a doctrine of universal salvation, so they claim, can do justice to the reality of God's love and the magnitude of Christ's victory, and the wisdom of God in making a world into which sin could enter. Wishful thinking gives universalism a strong appeal: who would not like it to true? Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you! Universalism is a comfortable doctrine in a way that alternatives to it are not. But is universalism true? Only Scripture can tell us that; and when universalists move from general theological notions to the specific study of texts, insuperable difficulties arise to explode their hopeful and generous guesswork" (The Problem of Eternal Punishment, Othos, Buxton, Derbyshire, SK179BT, UK, page 10).

Pastorally, Dr Packer counsels, "One final admonition. Do not speculate about the retributive process. Do not try to imagine what it is like to be in hell. The horrific imaginings of the past were hardly helpful, and often in fact proved a stumbling block, as people equated the reality of hell with the lurid word-pictures drawn by Dante, or Edwards, or C.H. Spurgeon. Not that these men were wrong to draw their pictures, any more than Jesus was wrong to dwell on the fire and the worm; the mistake is to take such pictures as physical descriptions, when in fact they are imagery symbolizing realities of possible experience of which we can only say they are far, far worse than the symbols themselves . . . Our wisdom is rather to spend our lives finding ways of showing gratitude for the saving grace of Christ which ensures that we shall not in fact ever go to the hell that each of us so richly deserves, and to school our minds to dwell on heaven rather than on the other place, except when we are seeking, in Jude's phrase, to snatch others from the fire. Let us then labour to be wise (pp14 -15).

The thoughts above conveniently lead us to the topics of penal substitution and the prevalence of the thought of Gustaf Aulen in Rutledge's Understanding of the Death of Jesus Christ to be examined in Part Three.

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church.

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