The back cover of Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace? includes the following epigram:
“There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less.”
When I first read those words eighteen years ago, I was struck by the degree to which they contradicted my own intuitive conception of God. Though I had grown up in the church, my experience was similar to that of author Brad Jersak as he recalls:
“As a young Evangelical, I inferred that if I was being ‘bad,’ God would not listen to me or speak to me. My parents did not tell me this; my Sunday school teachers did not tell me this. But somehow, in my own religious ‘performance orientation,’ I inferred it.” (294)
It would seem that I too had somehow imbibed a performance orientation. Were I to write my own epigram for that time, it would have read like this:
“There is something we can do to make God love us more. Namely, stop sinning! There is something we can do to make God love us less. Keep on sinning!”
In my mind, God’s love was tied to our performance. Suffice it to say, Yancey offered a paradigm-shift and his book started me on a journey to rediscover the Gospel not merely as “Good news” but as better news than I could ever have imagined.
Wrath, Love, and the Beautiful Gospel
Brad Jersak’s new book A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel is written with the same paradigm-busting focus on grace and redemption that made Yancey’s book a modern classic. Jersak devotes three hundred pages to unpacking the implications of that Gospel message in three sections. He begins in part 1 by drawing the contrast between two competing images of God: will and love. In part 2 he focuses on exploring and expanding the image of God as love in the light of the cross. Finally, in part 3 he turns to address how this picture transforms our understanding of a wrathful deity. At this point I’m going to do a fly-over on the argument in the book before turning to some critique and then drawing some final conclusions.
Part 1: God as will or love
The first section of the book is driven by the question “What is God really like?” (19) Many people think of God as fearful, wrathful, angry, or as Jersak puts it, “The ‘Mighty Smiter'” (aka the “Punitive Judge”). There are other false images of God as well including the doting grandfather, the deadbeat dad, and Santa Claus Blend (32 ff.). Of these four images, the Mighty Smiter is arguably the most persistent … and unsettling: “Only his mercy has restrained him from crushing sinners already, like the putrid bugs they are. But one day the time for repentance will run out and God’s wrath will be poured out in rivers of their blood as deep as the bridles of horses.” (44)
This disturbing image of wrath is closely related to the conception of God in terms of unbounded sovereign will, a theological perspective that Jersak traces from biblical precedents that portray God as commanding or commending violent horrors like slaughter, slavery and natural disasters (70-1). It was developed by fifth century theologian Augustine and medieval voluntarism, and then carried on through Calvin and Jonathan Edwards down to contemporary neo-Calvinism. Jersak captures this austere picture of God in a disturbing vignette where John Piper recalls a devotional meditation with his young daughter on the lives lost in a bridge collapse, a horrific event that Piper attributes to God’s unfathomable sovereign will (68-9).
This image of God as inscrutable will can be unsettling. But Jersak believes it is also profoundly wrong. He insists that when we consider who God is, we must begin not with inscrutable sovereign will, but rather with the God revealed in Jesus: “God is like Jesus. Exactly like Jesus.” (22) Thus, Jersak argues that we ought to treat the God revealed in Christ as a cipher — a key — through which we interpret scripture. When we do that we find a God defined not by the raw power of will but rather by the kenosis (emptying) of self-giving and self-sacrificing love.
Part 2: The Cruciform God
This notion of cruciform power radically transforms our conception of God. Jersak effectively makes the point by considering the book of Revelation, perhaps the most violent book in the Bible. Many people read Revelation in accord with the Mighty Smiter of inscrutable will. According to this reading, the incarnation and crucifixion are evacuation operations for God’s elect before divine wrath is poured out on the rest of creation. This picture is summarized in the bumper sticker that says “Jesus came the first time as a lamb, but next time he’s coming as a lion.” (103) Jersak observes, “What I’m hearing is, ‘God once tried being the cross-bearing servant, but praise the Lord, next time around he will be the sword-bearing, flesh-tearing warrior.'” (105)
With his Jesus-lens, Jersak reads Revelation very differently. He claims the “decryption key” (103) for the book comes in Revelation 5. In this vision when John turns around to see the “Lion of Judah” (5:5) he instead sees a slain lamb. The point of this image, according to Jersak, is not that the atonement offers a brief lamblike interlude prior to the pouring out of leonine eschatological violence. Rather, the message is that the lion is the lamb: that God’s power is now to be understood in terms of the atoning death of Christ. As Jersak puts it, “cruciformity and kenosis are not temporary conditions of God’s history, restricted to a first century Jewish long-weekend or even to the whole of the Incarnation of God. They describe God’s divine identity–not just what he is like, but who he is.” (120, emphasis in final sentence added)
This brings us to the heart of Jersak’s provocative argument: the incarnation and atonement reveal the divine nature to be defined by humility, service, and self-sacrifice. Christians often think that the incarnation manifested a temporary act of humility, service and self-sacrifice which was completed at the glorification when Christ regained his supreme divine majesty at the right hand of the Father. On the contrary, Jersak insists that the humility and service embodied in the incarnate Christ is itself a revelation of God’s glory. God’s glory is precisely that he is humble, he is infinitely close, he is caring, and he is cruciform: “even as God is the foundation before and beneath our every moment and every breath, we behold that God as none other than a slain Lamb!” (129)
Jersak then aims to apply this cruciform conception of God to a general theory of providence. Here he picks up the theme of creation as itself a kind of kenosis in which God pulls back, thereby allowing creation to exist and act out through secondary causal powers that allow for the operation of natural law and free human agency. This might sound deistic, except that Jersak adds that God also participates through the incarnation and atonement. God does not control creation “top down” to get his way, but rather through Christ’s kenotic power God works the redemption of creation from the inside whilst recognizing creation’s autonomous freedom to be.
Jersak begins chapter 8 by quoting from the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah 53:4-5: “we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.” (141) While penal substitution interprets this to mean that God in fact punished Christ, Jersak insists that this has things exactly backwards: “We did that–people, zealous religious people.” (141-2) Jesus (and the Father) consented to our sin and abuse. But God is present in creation, in his people, and in Christ, working to redeem the world.
Part 3: Unwrathing God
In the final section of the book, “‘Unwrathing’ God,” Jersak applies this picture of the non-coercive, cruciform and kenotic God to the dogged problem of divine wrath as it emerges in the pages of scripture. Jersak states his central thesis as follows:
“the Bible itself takes us on a progressive, cruciform pilgrimage from primitive literal understandings of wrath, where God appears to burn with anger and react violently, to a metaphorical reading of wrath, in which God consents–gives us over–to the self-destructive consequences of our own willful defiance.” (185)
In other words, while Jersak recognizes that we often view God as wrathful — and indeed that at times the biblical writers do as well — nonetheless when read through the lens of the God revealed in Christ, we discover that divine wrath is, in fact, our experience of our own self-destructive choices. God is not wrathful with us; rather, God is unyielding love even when we sin. And when we do sin the “wrath” we experience is the consequence of our own choices. God doesn’t punish us: he allows us to “punish” ourselves even as he longs for nothing more than to redeem us:
“When mercy is hidden and the wrath of self-destruction begins to play out, rather than assuming God’s patience has run out as if he’s decided, ‘Okay enough mercy; now I’m choosing to withdraw mercy to release wrath,’ what if it is really we who make that choice, consciously or unconsciously? What if the valve that shuts off mercy is intrinsic in the same way wrath is? In fact, what if’ it’s the very same thing?” (197)
This discussion invites the question: how does this kenotic conception of God shape our understanding of the atonement? Jersak cautions us that “some theologians are so attached to their own pet theory [of atonement] that they privilege it and even mistake it for the gospel itself.” (227) In particular, it is not uncommon to find Christians equating the gospel with the penal substitutionary account. When one does that it is all too easy to assume that those who reject penal substitution have thereby rejected the gospel.
Jersak argues that a theology of the atonement must begin not with an abstract theory, but with the four gospels and the abundance of images that Jesus provides for restoration including being lost and found (231), the Great Physician (233), the healing serpent (234), the atoning sacrifice (237), the Lamb of God (239), redemption and Jubilee (240), and the ransom (244).
From there, Jersak turns to the theology of Paul, focusing in particular on the themes of justification and redemption. Though Pauline texts have long provided an exegetical justification for penal substitution, Jersak insists that Paul has no truck with the doctrine. When we believe that God’s wrath had to be satisfied, “we impose a gross projection of our own twisted demands for retribution onto divine justice, reducing it to carnal vengeance.” (260) But this is precisely what God rejects in Christ. While Christ was our substitute, it was not to the end of appeasing God’s wrath, but rather to save us from the wrath of our own choices:
“Wrath, not as the vengeance of an angry God, but as the process of perishing under the curse and decay of sin. And what did God do? He unwrathed us! He freed us from sin’s slavery and unwrapped us from death. How? By wrathing Jesus in our place? No! By becoming one of us and, as Jesus, overcoming wrath by his great mercy!” (262-3)
The book closes with a final chapter unpacking the “beautiful gospel” and providing some practical tips for sharing it effectively with others.
A More Christlike God is a rich and provocative book, and like many a rich and provocative book, the result is the stimulation of a multiplicity of critical reactions in the reader. At this point I’m going to summarize some points of critique before concluding with my hearty commendation. (So if the critique gets long, remember that the commendation is coming!)
Polemics and Politics
Brad Jersak is a passionate writer. In particular, he is passionate about the gospel as he understands it. He carries that passion to the doctrines with which he disagrees, most perspicuously penal substitution. Like Jersak, I do not accept penal substitution as a theory of atonement. Nor do I believe that it should be viewed as the root metaphor of atonement over-against other metaphors. But even while we share much, I do find that Jersak is occasionally harsh toward penal substitution: in short, I find that the polemical banishment overtakes the political bridge-building. To put it another way, in several places, I think Jersak could have gone further to seek common agreement with his Christian compatriots rather than throwing down the proverbial gauntlet and drawing the dividing line in the sand.
The polemical tone is set in the introduction when Brian Zahnd states, “I too have pitched the theologies of an angry retributive deity back into the dark sea of paganism.” (xv) To be sure, I understand why Zahnd (and Jersak) find the concept of God as requiring an atonement to placate his wrath as a pagan notion. After all, it is a common feature of religion to view the deity as wrathful and demanding a sacrifice.
Jersak assumes that this concept of satisfaction is pagan un-Christian while the advocate of penal substitution will instead view it as pagan pre-Christian. This is a big difference, to be sure. But the ecumenist in me is inclined to point out the commonality shared between the two views.
Jersak invokes the same stark opposition early in the book. For example, he points out that the stark contrast between pastor/theologians like John Piper/Mark Driscoll on the one hand, and Brian McLaren/Gregory Boyd on the other could lead one to believe that “we have two (or more) diverse religions competing for the same ‘Christian’ label! The Apostle Paul spoke about different gospels and other christs in his day (Gal. 1:6-8).” (4) Let’s be sure not to miss how stark this is. In Galatians 1:8 Paul refers to those who should be accursed for preaching other gospels. Jersak seems to be suggesting that the stream of theology represented by new Calvinists like Piper and Driscoll should be anathematized as preaching a false gospel. At the very least, he allows the suggestion to hang in the air.
Later on the same page Jersak hammers the point home by writing: “While God doesn’t change, my image of God may progress (or regress) so much over time that I am virtually worshiping another god under the same name.” (4) Them’s fightin’ words. Is the difference really so stark that we might be talking about two gods and two religions?
I find such language unnecessarily polarizing. Contrary to these stark options, I want to point out how Jersak could have gone a substantial distance to build common ground with his Christian brothers and sisters who defend a theology of the divine will and penal substitution.
Let’s return to the stinging pagan charge. There does seem to be a big disagreement on the nature of divine wrath: penal substitution sources it in God’s active will while Jersak locates it in God’s permissive concession to wicked human wills. Yes, this is a notable difference, but I suspect that it is not as great as Jersak seems to think. Here’s why: most theologians in the “will tradition” that Jersak repudiates accepted the conception of God as Pure Act and thus impassible (i.e. unable to be acted upon by anything non-divine or to experience changes of emotional state).
From this it follows that language of God growing wrathful toward sin or God needing to have his wrath satisfied must always be read as analogical since God is Pure Act and thus is neither acted upon nor ever literally experiences “wrath” in reaction to sinful creatures.
Here’s where we encounter some irony: Jersak begins his book with a strong emphasis on apophaticism and the divine transcendence. Given that fact, I’m sure he understands this point well. But here’s the crucial consequence: when the theologian of divine will or penal substitution speaks of God’s wrath, once we move beyond the anthropopathic language, what they are in fact affirming of the divine nature with respect to human sin may be rather more like Jersak’s conception of God than Jersak himself acknowledges. Both Jersak and the advocate of penal substitution would agree, in fact, that God does not literally grow wrathful at human beings in response to their sinful actions, and they both would also agree that human beings nonetheless experience the consequences of sin as a form of divine wrath. To say the least, there is significant room here to explore ecumenical agreement. But this agreement is undercut by the premature and incendiary charge of paganism and warning about other religions.
Before moving on, let’s return for a moment to Jersak’s striking claim that penal substitution constitutes “a gross projection of our own twisted demands for retribution onto divine justice, reducing it to carnal vengeance.” I agree that this could be a problem, but once again there is much room for a more charitable reading. How about this: penal substitution reflects the need for reparations as part of a holistic process of reconciliation over-against our penchant for the cheap grace of merely saying “sorry”. Here’s where the good news comes perforce: God himself has undertaken the payment of reparations.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking now: God pays himself reparations? How does that make sense? Jersak’s persuaded that it doesn’t. And this leads him to make the shocking charge that penal substitution could constitute heresy. Jersak writes that this understanding of the gospel “pits the punitive Father against the victim Son; or the merciful Christ against the wrathful God”. (278-9) And this, he concludes, is a serious error: “Any theology that pits the Father against the Son is, according to the fathers and mothers of orthodox Christianity, formally a heresy.” (279)
Is this fair? Does penal substitution really pit the Father against the Son in a way that courts heresy? Let’s consider the words of John Calvin (a theologian who oft appears as a shadowy villain in the pages of Jersak’s book). In the Institutes Calvin wrote
“For it was not after we were reconciled to him through the blood of his Son that he began to love us. Rather, he has loved us before the world was created, that we also might be his sons along with his only-begotten Son….”
Note that Calvin does not oppose the Father and Son in reconciliation. Instead, he affirms the full conformity of their wills. Calvin would never intentionally pit the Father against the Son. And we should be very careful about raising heresy charges against the implications of a doctrine (as we interpret it) rather than against the doctrine itself.
That said, I can envision the critic retorting that Calvin’s model functionally entails an opposition. But that is to overlook the fact that theologians like Calvin appeal to mystery when the going gets tough. If anybody should be sympathetic to the mystery card, it is Jersak, since he frequently plays it himself. For example, after calling God the “Ground of being,” Jersak declines to explain what this means exactly, instead saying “This is a mystery. Trying to explain it is largely ludicrous.” (149) Later in the section titled “God the all-powerful, all-powerless” (171 ff.) Jersak makes paradoxical claims regarding divine transcedence and immanence:
“When I say God is both present and absent, or all-powerful and all-powerless at the same time, I mean that we experience God in both ways, sometimes alternatively but often simultaneously, in a very real way.” (176)
Jersak then goes on to list several additional “companion contraries”. There is no doubt that he is well familiar with the appeal to mystery.
Given that Jersak is so comfortable appealing to mystery and paradox, it appears rather uncharitable that he ignores the possibility that the advocate of penal substitution might likewise appeal to mystery in their Trinitarian account of reconciliation.
Behind all this is the fact that advocates of penal substitution (e.g. the Gospel Coalition) have not always been the most pleasant or ecumenically minded of Christians. And thus, for every hard-nosed advocate of penal substitution who dismissed you as a heretic, or suggested you might not be a Christian, or who denounced your doctrinal convictions as pagan, it may be tempting to respond in kind. But the result of doing this is to perpetuate the factionalism and deepen the divisions that already beset contemporary Christianity.
To put it bluntly, I wish A More Christlike God had countenanced a more radical hospitality toward those with whom Jersak disagrees.
The Question of Theodicy
The term “theodicy” refers to the attempt to explain why a God who is both (perfectly) good and providentially in control allows evil. Jersak’s attitude toward theodicy is complex and ultimately problematic.
On the one hand, there is an understanding that Jersak’s proposal constitutes a theodicy. In the endorsement section of the book, Derek Flood describes A More Christlike God as “a theodicy of the cross.” (iv) And Jersak himself describes his argument as a “cruciform theodicy” (128).
On the other hand, Jersak disparages the task of theodicy. For example, he titles Chapter 9 “God is Good and Sh** Happens: An Anti-Theodicy of the Cross.” (emphasis added; see also 164 for the language of anti-theodicy). Moreover, consider this passage:
“Real life defies our rational attempts to reconcile a God of love with the problem of evil. Myriads of these theodicies try in vain to explain why God allows suffering. Martin Luther called these logical attempts to break the tension between a God of love and the fact of evil ‘theologies of glory’.* Luther determined that those who try to reason their way out of the problem of evil invariably end up calling evil good.” (162)
Then to drive the point home, Jersak tells the story of a man whose child tragically drowned in a swimming pool during a Bible study. After recounting this horrific case, Jersak follows it up with a series of horribly trite “explanations”: “‘Well, God is in control.’ ‘Maybe God is teaching us a lesson.’ ‘God needed another angel.'” (163) Apparently these unimaginably insensitive and trite quips are intended to represent the task of theodicy. As if to hammer the point home, a few pages later Jersak produces a list of horrible and crude theodicies such as the claim (infamously defended by Pat Robertson) that the 2010 Haitian earthquake was God’s just judgment on “voodoo”. (166)
So here’s what we’re left with: EITHER horrifying, pastorally retarded, evil, and trite theodicies that say “God needed another angel” when a child dies or which blame earthquakes on the victims, OR Jersak’s theodicy/anti-theodicy of the cross. As he says: “only a cruciform theodicy can avoid calling evil good or condemning the victims of natural tragedies or human evils.” (128)
This is what we call a false dilemma along with a strawman fallacy (a fallacy which Jersak himself warns against on page 14). We can all agree that those horrible theodicies are exactly that: horrible. We might also think that there is much to commend Jersak’s cruciform theodicy. (I certainly do.) But there are many additional theodicies that one might countenance in addition to that which Jersak provides here, and they could supplement and enrich his analysis. It ain’t a zero sum game … unless you insist that it must be.
Consider, for example, the sprawling theodicy that Eleonore Stump develops in her magisterial book Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (which I review here). Stump has produced a profound and insightful treatment of evil, but it is not simply a cruciform theodicy. Nor does it “call evil good” or “condemn the victims” of evil. Needless to say, there are many excellent, thoughtful, pastorally sensitive theodicies on offer.
As for Jersak’s own theodicy, though it is promising, it is not without problems. For example, Jersak writes:
“God willingly chose powerless love in the cosmic Cross of Creation. That is, when God through the Logos (John 1) created the universe, he relinquished control to natural law. From the beginning of time, God has voluntarily refrained (‘chained’ himself) from violating the order of necessity.” (172)
This phrasing reflects Jersak’s overriding concern to protect God from appearing coercive, but it suggests that Jersak has adopted a deistic position that denies God’s special action in history. This would in turn place Jersak in the same camp as theologians like Maurice Wiles and Gordon Kaufmann. But this can’t be right, because Jersak still affirms God’s sovereign right to intervene in history. For example, he notes the case of a young woman who was healed of hepatitis: “The doctors cancelled her interferon treatments and signed off her file with the words, ‘Healed by the power of faith.'” (291) One can assume as well that Jersak still affirms countless other divine miracles, not to mention the resurrection of Jesus. This leaves one wondering what Jersak is affirming when he says that God has “chained himself” from “violating the order of necessity.”
My complaints can be reduced to two points: first, Jersak does not extend to his ideological enemies the same charity he would like extended to his own position; second, Jersak’s own proposals are underdeveloped at key points and in need of further explication.
Those are not insignificant foibles, but in the opinion of this reader they are far outweighed by the merits of this book. Jersak writes in an accessible, user friendly style, he keeps the footnotes to a minimum, and he provides definitions throughout the book for key terms and concepts. Most importantly, he has a grasp of the big picture that sets this book apart. I’ve been a seminary professor for more than a decade, but this book is uniquely effective at laying out a sweeping theological perspective. If Jersak is occasionally unfair to his critics, perhaps that can be forgiven in light of the clarity granted by the overall picture.
At the end of the day, and despite my reservations, I believe that Jersak is fundamentally correct. As an apologist, I encounter many objections to Christianity, and it is interesting how many of them are directed at the conception of deity that Jersak repudiates. The new atheists have led the charge in expressing outrage at biblical passages that seem to commend heinous actions like genocide and ethnic cleansing, all driven by God’s apparently insatiable and capricious wrath against his wormy subjects. Similar objections are commonly raised to the penal substitutionary understanding of atonement. For example, Michael Shermer writes: “God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself. Barking mad!” (“Born Again Atheist,” 12 in A Manual for Creating Atheists.)
I suspect many atheists would cite their reasons for rejecting Christianity as pertaining to this image of violence and wrath. To note one anecdote, a couple months ago I went out to a pub with a group of atheists after a speaking engagement. Within one hour, two of those atheists shared with me that the doctrines of eternal conscious torment and penal substitution were catalysts to their deconversion. In the short time that I had with them, I stressed to them that many Christians also have a problem with those doctrines and that you need not accept either doctrine to be a Christian. Had I known about Brad Jersak’s book at the time, I would have recommended it. Perhaps that is the best commendation I can give this book. Whatever its weaknesses may be, it is one of the first books I’d give to an atheist.
If you enjoyed this review, please consider upvoting it at Amazon.com. (If you didn’t enjoy it, alas, you must consider downvoting it. Either way, give yourself a pat on the back for finishing it.)
Thanks to Brad Jersak for providing me with a review copy of the book.