Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (44) Condemned into Redemption: the Rectification of the Ungodly

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

Here, we join the concluding chapter. The title is designed to be arresting – we will explore what she means by it as we go.

She begins by reaffirming the uniqueness of the Christian faith – how extraordinarily radical and unlikely is the story it tells.

First;

“The Christian faith glorifies as Son of God a man who was degraded and dehumanized by his fellow human beings as much as it is possible to be, by the decree of church and state, and that he died in a way designed to subject him to utmost contempt and finally erase him from human memory.” (571)

Second – and the main theme of this chapter – the central message of Christianity is the justification of the ungodly;

“In this, the biblical story differs radically from any others religions, philosophical, or ethical system ever known. Every other system, including rabbinic Judaism and some varieties of gnostic teaching from within Christianity itself, assumes some sort of distinction between godly and ungodly, righteous and unrighteous, spiritual and unspiritual … This cuts against the grain of all religious or moral teaching.” (571-2)

If ‘religion’ is about spiritual development, or becoming more godly, or approaching the divine in some way – then Christianity is not religious. It is most emphatically not about moral self-improvement.

A Universal Gospel?

Rutledge comments that this discussion of the ‘problem of the “ungodly”’ has been partially discussed and touched on throughout the book (see chapter 8 on the ‘The Great Assize’), but here at the end, it will get full attention.

Rutledge suggests that the justification of the ungodly is actually the goal towards which God, who wishes to save everyone, is moving the universe.

My Comments

The opening section of this chapter is rightly facing head-on a big and relevant theological question that is related to the cross. The issue at stake here, is the extent or scope of the ‘righteousness of God’ – God acting to rectify, or put all things right.

And what is the role of human faith in this?  

If God ‘justifies the ungodly’ (Romans 4:5) who are the ungodly? How ‘far’ does the grace and generosity and love of God ‘reach’?  Who, ultimately, is the cross for?

My sense, and from the earlier chapter we discussed here, is that she is developing some variety of theology of universal reconciliation where God’s righteousness in some sense ‘overwhelms’ all human distinctions and sins. But this is not clear at this point. Earlier she did also talk of annihilation of all that opposes God in the final battle.

Rutledge again:

Rutledge mentions the parable of the workers in the vineyard as an example of divine generosity – such generosity leads to the cross.

If the gospel ‘is not about human potential’ (576), then Rutledge is suggesting (again not explicitly) that all such human distinctions are radically relativised by God’s generosity.

Take Abraham in Romans as an example. The whole point is that he is chosen by grace – he brought nothing to the table. This is true of ALL who are justified.

There is absolutely no distinction says Rutledge – there is “no-one who is not guilty of perpetrating something on someone at some point.” (577)

The gospel, she is arguing, “puts an end to all these religious categories that separate people from one another.” (577)

[The question hanging over this opening section is, again, how ‘far’ does God’s overcoming of all such distinctions ‘go’? Or to put it more bluntly, is there a final ‘separating’ and ‘distinction’ between those ‘in Christ’ and those not? Or, due to the generosity and power of God, are all such distinctions overcome?]

Rutledge has a nice aside on the inevitable failure of even the most ‘inclusive’ churches to be inclusive of everybody. It simply can’t be done. Her point is that only God can overcome all distinctions.

I quote this in full not only because it rings true, but because it is mischievously funny:

No self-identified inclusive and welcoming church can live up to this assessment of itself. Many a person has who has attended a church advertising radical hospitality has come and gone from church without being greeted by anyone … The congregation that makes a place for torchbearers with Down syndrome might fail to embrace an unwashed, unmedicated, disruptive man off the street. The parish that welcomes a transgendered person might give up on a woman with a narcissistic personality disorder. Members of a congregation who do not hold all the views currently designated as correct will find themselves marginalized, even insulted. Despite the good intentions of congregations that proclaim themselves as diverse, welcoming and inclusive, the fact remains that no one and no group can be, in this live, all-embracing. There will always be someone for whom the sign ‘The Episcopal Church welcomes you’ will be a mockery. There will always be some who, despite the United Methodist Church’s claim to have ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors’, will find a less than open-hearted welcome … Therefore, new types of exclusions replace the old, more obvious race – or class-based types. It is part of sinful nature that this is so.’ (576-77)

The underlying question as I read Rutledge here is this: if God is the one alone who can overcome all these distinctions, how does this ‘work’ at the ‘great assize’ or last judgement?  

We will return to this in the final few posts. After all, we have to finish by Easter Sunday!

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Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (43) sub-Christian teaching on the Christian Life

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

In the last section of the chapter, Rutledge turns to the ethical implications of the motif of recapitulation.

She uses the idea of ‘takeover’ for recapitulation: believers are delivered from Sin, Death, the Law and have a truly new identity in Christ (incorporation).

There is power here too – not just a theology or an idea, power to live a new life. Rectification (her translation for justification) is powerful – a power to make right what was wrong, not only in believers but in the entire created order.

Being ‘incorporated’, means that believers die and are raised to new life. This is an objective reality, not a subjective feeling or experience.

Yet, she asks searching questions here.

If this is all true, what does such an ontological transformation look like? What does the powerful and victorious Christian life look like?

Her answer is, rightly, ‘cruciform’. This is the paradox of the cross and it is the paradox of the Christian life.

‘Power’ and ‘transformation’ are worked out in suffering,

“… not the ordinary suffering that comes to everyone, but the particular affliction that must come to those who bear witness to the Lord’s death … The suffering endured by Christian witnesses does not come from a place of weakness, but from a place of strength. That is the difference between Christian witness and masochism.” (566-67)

Christian suffering is radically reimagined in that Christ has already ‘paid the price’ and died our death in our place.

“He has lived out – recapitulated – the fate of condemned humanity to the last frontier of the demon-haunted kosmos, and in doing so has brought us over from eternal bondage and condemnation into the eternal realm of the righteousness of God.” (567)

The Gospel and the Christian Life – moving beyond moral exhortation

Linking back to the previous post here and my comments on ‘depressing androcentric preaching’ – Rutledge freely admits that in mainline US Churches there is no shortage of moral exhortation to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’ – to be more loving, more inclusive, work for peace, be tolerant, care for the sick, provide for the poor … etc.

All these are good and important, however, she argues that,

“What is often missing from such exhortations is the powerful proclamation of the One who is doing the calling, who has ratified our calling in his own blood, who has entered upon the life of ‘Adam’ in order to defeat from inside human nature the work of the Enemy. This is the resounding, foundational gospel message on which the life of the church is built …” (568)

I love this …

“We do not hear enough of the working of God nowadays, though we hear a good deal about our own working – especially our religious working. The message of the gospel, however, is not that of building the kingdom as though we were subcontractors or even free agents …. It is not our spiritual journey that lies at the center of our faith … it is the journey of the incarnate One to us that enables our participation in the redemptive working of God.” (569)

That paragraph takes some chewing.

A personal comment

This is where care and theological attention is needed in preaching and teaching. It is easy to slip into Jesus as a moral example and we essentially now face the task and challenge of living Jesus-shaped lives today – in love, in service, in prayer, in self-giving and so on.

Again, this is not obviously wrong – indeed it is obviously right at one level. In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul encourages Christians to follow the self-giving example of Jesus the incarnate, crucified and resurrected Lord.

Rutledge gives the similar example of 1 John 4:17 “because as [Christ] is so are we in this world.”

But, and this is a big “but”, the Christian life is NOT a moralistic effort to be like Jesus.

Returning to the discussion on depressing preaching in the last post, such moralism ends ‘beating people up’ with the perfect example of Jesus without giving proper attention to these vital things:

  • Our absolute inability to live a righteous life. [Rutledge says ‘incapacity’]
  • The fact that we are not Jesus!
  • Little or no awareness of the ‘apocalyptic war’ – that Christians are in a battle with enemies. And that the Christian life is empowered by the Spirit of God.

Such teaching is therefore theologically naïve and pastorally unhelpful. It is sub-Christian in that it fails to speak of the depths of the human problem and the heights of Christ’s recapitulation of human nature as the second Adam.

The last word to Rutledge on this, as ever she is wonderfully articulate and passionate;

“The apostolic message speaks of our having “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16), being “like him” (1 John 3:2), and “being changed into his likeness” (II Cor. 3:18), but this is true only insofar as he has entered the life of his utterly, irredeemably, lost creation and rewritten its wretched story in his own flesh and blood. Never is it more necessary to say sola gratia (by grace alone) than here.” (570)

In the next post, we move into the Conclusion of Rutledge’s magnum opus.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (42) Unevangelical Preaching vs Evangelical Preaching

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

I freely admit that a post or two cannot do justice to a long chapter, much of which traces the thought of Paul in Romans.

This post is breaking in to Rutledge’s discussion of how recapitulation is preached.

To summarise, recapitulation can be seen as “Christ reliving the story of Adam.” (558). As a real human being (incarnation)

“The Son of God secures our redemption, not over against us as a divine being, but restoring our human nature to the righteousness of God from within the depths of our unrighteousness.” (588)

None of this is dependent on us, but on Jesus’ own righteousness.

Rutledge quotes T. F Torrance’s work The Mediation of Christ here (he is the quote within this quote)

‘… we are not saved by any will or any decision of our own. Our rebellious, egocentric, and disloyal human wills have been established “on an entirely different basis by being replaced at the crucial point by Jesus Christ himself.”’ (558-59)

So, if you are a preacher and teacher, how do you preach the good news of the cross? And specifically the theme that ‘all that is Christ’s becomes ours’?

Unevangelical versus evangelical Preaching

Torrance talks about ‘unevangelical preaching’ “which emphasizes human acting and deciding, and true, ‘evangelical preaching’.” (559). Rutledge quotes Torrance at length and with approval. It is worth doing the same and asking some questions as we do so …

What is your response to what Torrance says here? Exciting? Liberating? Troubling?

How does this compare to preaching you hear regularly?

Does it ‘over-do’ divine action and minimise the role of human faith and repentance in salvation?

Torrance:

“From beginning to end what Jesus Christ has done for you he has done not only as God, but as man. He has acted in your place in the whole range of your human life and activity, including your personal decisions, and your response to God’s love, and even your acts of faith. He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledges you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him, and whose personal decision is already implicated in Christ’s self-offering to the Father, in all of which he has been fully and completely accepted by the Father, so that in Jesus Christ you are already accepted in him.

[I]t is not upon my faith, my believing, or my personal commitment that I rely, but solely upon what he has done for me, in my place and on my behalf, and what he is and always will be as he stands in for me before the face of the Father.” (559, Rutledge’s added emphasis to highlight Torrance’s use of recapitulation, incorporation, substitution and participation).

In the first paragraph, the theological point being hammered home is that ‘my faith’ is NOT what ‘saves me’ – it is only and completely the work of the incarnate Christ on the cross.

A personal comment on depressing preaching

The gospel calls for a personal response of faith and repentance; this must not be lost. But I like where Torrance is going even if I am not sure I’d go all the way with him.

I have been around a while and there have been too many sermons I’ve heard in my life (and probably preached as well) by the end of which I have ended up feeling frankly depressed!

The thrust has been ‘it all depends on us’: ‘if only we can grasp this’; this experience or that advance ‘is within our reach’; I have discovered this and ‘you can too’ and so on.

Even though God’s grace is talked about, the actual sub-text is that for it to be effective, it is really all up to us / me.

It all adds up to rather exhausting moral exhortation – hence my depression.

The focus is switched from what Christ has done (theo-centric focus), to what I must do if I am to ‘get it’ (andro-centric focus). It almost becomes a form of Gnosticism that we talked about at the start of this series – a secret route to enlightenment for the few and a second-class Christianity for those further back down the path somewhere.

Whereas the preaching of the Christian life, it seems to me, is more like be who you already are in Christ’.

The focus is off ourselves and on Jesus’ completed cross-work:  this is the good news and it is theo-centric through and through.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (41) Recapitulation

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we get to the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

If you are wondering what this actually means, I think that this is wonderfully captured by this paragraph from Rutledge (maybe especially since I am over 50!).

How do her words this resonate with you?

This theme is deeply connected with Christian hope – the present victory of God in Christ has universal implications for the future.

Is this wishful thinking in a world overshadowed by death? Is it what Marx called the ‘opium of the people’ – future myths of a perfected world keeping people being contented with injustice in this one?

Quite simply, it all depends on the cross and resurrection …

Is there anyone alive over fifty who would not want to live his or her life over again in order to correct the mistakes, avoid the wrong turns, undo the damage, maximize the opportunities, recover the wasted time, repair the broken relationships, restore the lost future? More important still, would we not wish to see great wrongs wiped out, – all the mass murders, child abuse, destruction of cultures and populations, despoilation of nature, and all the other miseries and atrocities of history rectified and the memory of them obliterated? In Christ, Paul is telling us, not only will all this happen in the eschatological age, but also the power of what Christ has accomplished for us and the whole creation is active in our lives even now as we put our trust in his remade humanity. (537)

In other words, recapitulation means a ‘summing up’ or ‘regathering’. In Jesus, everything is restored, and all that is in Christ becomes those that belong to Christ.

A key text here is Romans 5:12-21

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law.14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.

15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!

18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

IrenaeusThe most famous, and early, figure connected with recapitulation is Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-200).

All of the human race is implicated in Adam’s sin and disobedience and ‘in Adam all die’. But Irenaeus saw that, because of Jesus’ victory over the powers he

“overcomes through Adam what had stricken us through Adam.” (Irenaeus, quoted by Rutledge, 539).

“He [Christ] therefore completely renewed all things, both taking up the battle against our enemy, and crushing him who at the beginning had led us captive in Adam.” (Irenaeus, 5.21.1, 541)

Notice how his understanding of recapitulation is not simply Christ living the ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ human life. It is also a victorious life, defeating Sin and Death.

This theme is all inclusive, it includes the apocalyptic war and Christus Victor. His victory becomes our victory. His life becomes our life.

Participation in Christ is therefore inseparable from recapitulation – as believers are joined ‘in Christ’ they share in his recapitulating of all things.

How does that hope transform your present?

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (39) The Sweetest Exchange

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we continue within chapter (11) on The Substitution.

Who would you say is the ‘blame’ for the cross? Who is ultimately responsible?

Towards the end of the chapter Rutledge asks key questions about the cross:

“Who is acting in the world to reconcile humanity to God and human beings to one another, and who is the active agent in the crucifixion of Jesus? These two question are related. Here in the context of the substitution motif, the matter of agency is critical. Who is in charge at Golgotha? Perhaps even more to the point, who is in charge in the Garden of Gethsemane?” (524)

There are several possible ways to answer such questions?

The Romans?

The Jews?

All human beings?

“Died he for me, who caused his pain? For me, who him to death pursued?” (Charles Wesley)

The Demonic Powers? Rutledge says some Feminist and also Anabaptist theologians have removed agency from God altogether and see it lying with the Powers.

The Law?

Rutledge, however, argues this,

In the final analysis, however, the Gospels and the witness of Paul overwhelmingly testify to the primary action of God in the crucifixion of Christ. (525)

This is not to say the other actors do not have agency – but it is a secondary agency. God is the first cause

  • His love
  • His wrath (action against Sin, Death and the Powers)

Rutledge is insistent that, however many other influences,

God did this for us without our assistance or cooperation.” (528, emphasis original)

Coming back to Romans 5:6-8 Rutledge stresses our utter helplessness:

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

[And I would want to add, the motive for the cross is the love of God, vs 8]

Our involvement in Substitution

But if substitution is due to God’s prior agency, Rutledge makes a wonderfully important point – is involves us ‘personally, emotionally, at the gut level.’ (529)

“Since he clearly did not deserve what happened to him, why is it not right to conclude that we should have been there instead of him? Is that not the most basic sort of human reaction? … The plain sense of the New Testament taken as a whole gives the strong impression that Jesus gave himself up to shame, spitting, scourging, and a degrading public death before the eyes of the whole world, not only for our sake, but also in our place.” (529, emphasis original)

What is your response to these words?

Ultimately, the cross is not a theory, it creates relationship. And if faith is real and experienced at all, sure these sorts of words describe what it means to be a Christian:

Gratitude

Worship

Joy

Freedom

Love

Liberation

New Life

These are the consequences of the ‘sweetest exchange’ (Epistle to Diognetus, quoted by Rutledge, 530).

 

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (37) The Substitution

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In this post we begin another major chapter (11) – this one entitled The Substitution

Again, as with the previous chapter, this one starts with a table of contents that could be for a book.

Section 1: a theological history of the motif of substitution

Section 2: Objections to the penal substitution model

Section 3: Karl Barth on Substitution

Sections 4 and 5: on the matter of agency – we may reword this as ‘Who is ‘responsible’ for the crucifixion?’

Section 6: Conclusions

We are going to zone in mostly on section 2 – objections to penal substitution. This is where much historic and contemporary debate is focused and it raises significant theological and ethical questions for us today.

In this post we begin with Rutledge’s definition and summary of penal substitution and description of how controversial this idea has become in the church and outside it.

She dislikes the term ‘substitutionary atonement’ as too academic, theoretical and unattractive, preferring ‘the motif of substitution’ or ‘the theme of exchange’.

Purpose of the Chapter

In the face of major critique, Rutledge sets out to

“This chapter, in conversation with both the attackers and the retreaters, is a defense of the central importance of the motif of substitution … as it appears in numerous scriptural contexts and in the tradition. (465)

This defense is not of all expressions of penal substitution, but it is a robust case for the idea that Jesus dies, not only on our behalf, but in our place.

There is something deep in the human psyche that responds to the idea of substitution – someone who dies in my place so that I may live – and the loss of it from the preaching and teaching of the church would be grievous. (466)

A historical sketch

I’m not going to tarry with Rutledge’s extended discussion of the history of the doctrine, beginning in the NT and moving through the early Church Fathers up to Anselm and eventually to the Reformers. What follows is hardly even a bare outline.

Save to say that she rejects the oft-repeated charge that substitution only appeared with Anselm, nor that Christus Victor in some way makes the idea of substitution unnecessary –the two motifs are complementary.

Luther – held together Christus Victor and substitution (and other themes) in a dynamic and remarkable way.

Calvin – Rutledge appeals for an informed and not caricatured reading of Calvin. In sum, it if fair to say that she wishes his later interpreters were as nuanced, informed and careful a theologian as he was.

A key passage is where Rutledge draws attention to Calvin’s use of Augustine. The issue is did the death of the Son somehow ‘change the Father’s attitude’ towards sinners? Was the cross that which ‘appeased’ his wrath and turned it to love and acceptance?

As said in an earlier post, this would be a real problem. Both Augustine and Calvin say ‘NO’ to this. Both affirm Romans 5:8

‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’

We were enemies yes, but beloved enemies. God always loves – he does not begin to love once his wrath is ‘appeased’. The cross is God’s means of redeeming and reconciling humanity by dealing decisively with what alienates and separates us from him.

Rutledge quotes Calvin’s summary of Galatians 3:13-14

“The cross was accursed, not only in human opinion but in God’s law (Deuteronomy 21:23). Hence, when Christ is hanged upon the cross, he makes himself subject to the curse, It had to happen in this way in order that the whole curse – which on account of our sins … lay upon us – might be lifted from us, while it was transferred to him” (Calvin Institutes 2.16.6, quotes 487).

 Calvin as developed by 19th century Reformed evangelicalism

So it is not Calvin or Luther or Anselm that Rutledge has a problem with. It is how Calvin in particular was developed in later Reformed theology. She takes the example of Charles Hodge (1797-1878) of Princeton Theological Seminary and his formulation of penal substitution.

Rutledge summarises it like this (quoted below).

And as you read this some questions:

How familiar is this to you? Is this perhaps the [only?] or main way the cross was explained to you?

What is the relationship of this theological scheme with ‘the gospel’? In many evangelical circles, are the two virtually synonmyous do you think?

What is your gut response to this summary?

What picture does it give of God and of Jesus?

How does it relate to the New Testament?  What is in it and what is not?

  • “As a result of the original sin of Adam, the entire human race has been mired in sin and incurred the wrath of God.

  • God cannot overlook sin as though it had not occurred. Sin must be punished.

  • Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, entered into the place of sinners and took the punishment on himself.

  • On the cross, particularly as shown in the cry of dereliction, Jesus submitted to the curse upon sin and underwent God’s judgment.

  • Be deflecting the wrath of God onto himself, Jesus took it away from humanity.”

For Rutledge, the issue is how this represents a tightly defined, rationalistic and individualised scheme unlike in Calvin or in the New Testament.

It also took on an overly dominant role in the interpretation of the cross within the Reformed world and is still extremely powerful.

In the next post we consider the main objections to penal substitution.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (36) Who Deserves What? Hell and final judgement

We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

This is the final post within Chapter 10 ‘The Descent into Hell’

A reminder where the last post finished – we are moving to Rutledge’s fourth goal of this chapter, how the descent to the dead links to the scope of what the cross achieves.

In other words, the disturbing and challenging idea that the cross is for all, including the perpetrators of evil.

This is a difficult discussion but important. It raises pastoral and theological questions like:

What ultimately happens to those who are unrepentant and face divine judgement?

How does God’s just judgement bring solace and hope to victims?

What does hell say about the character and love of God? Are the two compatible?

Does the victory of God at the cross have implications for those are have already died unreconciled to God? If we are ALL alike “undeserving”, then does this mean all will be ultimately reconciled to God by God’s own saving actions?

Who Deserves What?

Rutledge tells the story of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the US Govt secret network of detention centres where suspects were detained without charge and tortured. Dick Cheney is quoted as saying of the plan

‘We think it guarantees that we’ll have [available and ready] the kind of treatment that we believe they deserve.’ (451, my emphasis)

A more chilling statement is hard to imagine. It also draws back a veil on the myth of American [and the West’s] moral superiority to the rest of the world, but I’d better not get side-tracked!

This is where Christians need to be, and should be, realistic rather than naively trusting of their government or nation. A terrific and important comment by Rutledge,

There is nothing more characteristic humanity than the universal tendency of one portion of that humanity to justify itself as deserving and some other portion as undeserving. Nothing is more foundation in Christian faith than the recognition that we can never be justified in that way. (451, my emphasis)

There is no division into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ people in Christianity – all alike are undeserving.

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8)

A robust theology of human sinfulness, and a passing acquaintance with history, knows that all of us are potential perpetrators of horrors. We have little reason to be naïve or to trust ourselves.

Returning to post 9/11 American behaviour, Rutledge talks of one CIA operative who tortured, with official sanction, victims. Prolonged sessions ate into his soul, he had nightmares, he lost something of his humanity.

[Harry Potter again: J K Rowling depicted this brilliantly with how Voldemort lost a piece of his soul every time he killed someone, eventually becoming virtually a non-being, snake-like not human].

Rutledge tells several stories of how brutality elicits more brutality; hatred multiplies hatred; dehumanising the Other leads to genocide and war crimes. Few were worse than the Allied forces dropping nuclear bombs on Japanese civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So how can the gospel be good news “be good news not only for victims but also for perpetrators?” (453).

And how can this question be held alongside a sense of justice so that perpetrators and victims are NOT to be conflated as if both are victims?

My Comments: This is a favourite ploy of perpetrators of evil – “we are all victims” they say.

In Ireland we have had plenty of such conflations or ‘whataboutery’. When confronted with an indefensible act of violence that caused great suffering, the actor in that violence justifies the evil by replying ‘But what about action x of the ‘other side’?’. No repentance, no taking of responsibility and no apology means no ownership of evil and no reconciliation with the Other.

The Descent of the Righteous for the Unrighteous

This is difficult exegetical and theological terrain. Rutledge focuses on 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:3-6

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago …. (1 Peter 3:18-20)

For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:3-6)

To simplify, her argument is that ‘the righteous for the unrighteous’ suggests some form of exchange. These are hard texts to understand but ‘this much seems clear’ …

Christ is the righteous one who “brings us to God” by dying “for sins once for all” on behalf of and in place of the unrighteous. (455, emphasis original)

The power of God is over the dominions of Sin and death – Christ descends for those who were disobedient.

In 1 Peter 4, she sees the disobedient dead being given resurrection by the life-giving Word. They are imprisoned and helpless, but the coming of Christ ‘makes them live “in the spirit like God”’ (456)

Thus, God brings light and life where there was darkness and death.

These are not the faithful, these are unregenerate who failed to repent “in the days of Noah” (457 emphasis original)

God can therefore create resurrection life from death even for the perpetrators of evil after their deaths.

My comments: many will have difficulty with how Rutledge seems to be arguing for a form of universalism here. It seems as if ‘hell’ will be emptied due the saving power of God? She does not discuss this, but gives the impression that this will happen regardless of the attitudes or actions of the perpetrators?

However, having said this, she later comments that “we cannot say” whether the Hitlers and the Pol Pots will be either redeemed or annihilated. The coherence of this discussion in uncharacteristically difficult to follow.

So what about hell?

This is the final question of this chapter. In brief, Rutledge has argued all along that we must take judgement and hell seriously.

Without a concept of hell, Christian faith is sentimental and evasive, unable to stand up to reality in this world. Without an unflinching grasp of the radical nature of evil, Christian faith would be little more than wishful thinking. (458)

Linked to the point above about the ‘harrowing of hell’ (emptying of hell by the saving action of God) I read Rutledge here as saying hell is a temporary dominion of death for its occupants.

She is ambivalent about calling hell a ‘place’ – she argues that

It is necessary to posit the existence of a metaphorical hell in order to acknowledge the reality and power of radical evil” (458)

So hell is not a ‘place’, it is a ‘concept’ or a ‘metaphor’. If so, it is difficult to see how this does not rather empty the force of her passionate rhetoric about justice, consequences for actions, and leaving judgement to God in this life? Is hell a ‘real’ experience for real people or not?

She asks

“What then is the final destiny of this realm?” (459)

Rutledge sees annihilation of evil as the final consequence of God’s complete victory over evil. Evil cannot continue to co-exist alongside the kingdom of God

It must be finally and completely obliterated and pass out of memory. (459)

This is close to what John Stott provisionally and hesitatingly suggested many years ago. In that day there will be only one Ruler, one King, One God – all that opposes him will be no more. Those opposed to God – the Powers, the Devil, and all in hell will cease to be in the final climatic victory of God.

In a footnote, like Stott, she discusses the imagery of Revelation concluding that 19:3 about the “smoke [from Babylon] goes up for ever and ever” could picture its annihilation not continuing existence. She acknowledges that Rev. 20:20 about the torment of the beast and false prophet going on “for ever and ever” is difficult, but could be rhetorical, making the point that evil will meet an appropriate fate “commensurate with all the horrors of human history.” (460, n. 188)

The ultimate victory of God, she concludes, will look like this,

“Death will have no more dominion” (cf Rom. 6:9). If evil is the absence of good, then the victory of our Lord and of his Christ will be the absence of evil, “for ever and ever.” (460)