Chapter 5 of Love Wins is about the cross. Bell argues, first, that we should embrace a multiplicity of metaphors to communicate the meaning of what Jesus achieved on the cross:
The point, then, isn’t to narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism. To elevate one over the others, to insist that there’s a “correct” or “right” one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors. They were reading their world, looking for ways to communicate the epic event in ways their listeners could grasp.
Bell then turns to the resurrection, arguing that the movement from death to life that we see in creation all around us is exemplified most fully in the death and resurrection of Christ, an event that has worldwide saving implications in the beginning of a new creation, or I should say, in the rebirth of this fallen creation.
I have several observations on this chapter:
(1) Bell did not do what I thought he would do here. Given what he has already said about God and Hell, I was expecting him to argue against the idea that Jesus bore the wrath of God in the place of sinners on the cross (the idea known as “penal substitution,” where Jesus paid the penalty that sinners deserved as a substitute in their place). This doctrine of the cross has come under attack in recent years, and I am glad to see that Bell did not join in the attacks here. I am not sure what he would say if he were questioned directly on this issue, but I am glad to see that this chapter was not a diatribe against penal substitution.
(2) I agree with much of what is said in this chapter. We must speak of Christ’s work on the cross with a multiplicity of metaphors because the Scripture does so. Also, we must speak of Christ’s resurrection as the beginning of a new creation with worldwide saving implications, again, because the Scripture says so. No complaint from me here. Bell and I disagree a great deal about the details of how this works out, but most of what he says in this chapter, spoken at a more general level, is right on target.
(3) I do, however, think Bell’s understanding of the cross needs to be refined. He pictures the authors of the New Testament looking at the world around them, trying to find different metaphors to communicate the richness of the truth about what Jesus has done. I am not saying that the NT authors never did this. But I do think there is a lot more to it than that.
Bell apparently assumes that what is most important when we employ a metaphor to communicate the meaning of the cross is the ability of that metaphor to connect to its audience. Thus, just as the apostles found various metaphors for their setting, we should feel free to find various metaphors in our setting. We should not elevate any particular metaphor or view of the atonement. They are all equally legitimate, and the only criterion to use when determining which one to employ is what will most appeal to your hearers. I hope I have not put words in his mouth, but that is what Bell appears to be saying.
But what did the apostles actually do when they spoke about the cross? Did they look around for random images and ideas that would somehow make intelligible explanations for the cross? No. They derived their doctrine of atonement from the metaphors, categories, and images of the Old Testament. I do not mean that they spoke and wrote in ways that were unintelligible to their Greco-Roman audiences, for there are many Old Testament categories and metaphors that overlap with that of the Greco-Roman world. But I do mean that they interpreted the cross as an event set within a storyline that comes from the Old Testament, a storyline that is laced with atonement theology. They communicated the cross to a Greco-Roman world by pulling their audience back into the story of the Old Testament. And that, I submit, is what we must do today. The most important factor to determine the way we speak about the cross is not what is intelligible to our audience. It is, rather, what accurately communicates for our audience the biblical nature of the atonement as an event set within the storyline of Scripture. To be sure, modern people are not very familiar with the storyline of Scripture. And that’s why evangelism is primarily about story-telling, educating, drawing our audience into the Bible rather than accommodating the Bible to them.
I have explained more of that storyline in this post, where I argue that the basic conflict of the Bible’s storyline is that of God vs. man. Our greatest problem is that we are not properly related to God. As treasonous rebels, we stand under the threat of his wrath. So that means that if our understanding of the cross is going to do justice to the Bible’s storyline, it must address primarily the problem of the wrath of God that hangs over us due to our sin. We need, first and foremost, to be forgiven of our sins. I elevate penal substitution, not as the only possible way of speaking about the cross, but as the fundamental way of speaking about it.
And then, once penal substitution is in place, various other images and metaphors shoot right out of it like spokes from the hub of a wagon wheel. In fact, I would argue that, as an integrating doctrine of atonement, penal substitution actually supports and strengthens all of the other legitimately biblical views.
How does the cross give us victory over Satan? Clearly, the resurrection represents triumph over the devil, but why did Jesus have to die to defeat Satan? Without penal substitution, it is difficult, if not impossible, to explain without resorting to sub-biblical ideas about God. But with penal substitution, the victory over Satan falls right into place. Christ has disarmed our enemy by taking away his greatest weapon: the power to accuse us before God (see Colossians 2:13-15, where these two ideas are linked together; see also Revelation 12:9-11). Divine victory over the devil is not a matter of raw power. Against an omnipotent God Satan’s raw power is nothing anyway. God could wink at him and obliterate him in an instant. No, divine victory over Satan is a legal matter. Christ paid the penalty for our sins, and that left the Accuser (the literal meaning of the word “Satan”) with no further legal basis to accuse.
How is the death of Christ a demonstration of the love of God for us? Without penal substitution, it does not make much sense. Can you imagine a father telling his son, “I want to show you how much I love you,” right before jumping into a lake to drown himself? What’s the point? But if Jesus, by the will of the Father, willingly gave up his life to endure God’s wrath in our place, then it is perfectly clear how such would be an act of love for us. It is no surprise to see John connecting the love of God with the act of giving up Christ as a propitiation (a sacrifice that turns God’s wrath away) for us in 1 John 4:10.
How does the death of Christ result in our reconciliation to God? Without penal substitution, it has no inner logic. We are at enmity with God, and he is at enmity with us. Jesus dies and is raised, and somehow that ends the hostility. But how? Again, it is because Christ died in our place, taking the wrath of God that we deserved for our sins.
The biblical view of the atonement is a rich one, and I commend Rob Bell for seeking to explore its riches with a multiplicity of images and metaphors. But he is wrong to say that these images and metaphors all stand on a level playing field. They do not. We must reckon with the following realities:
First, we must seek to understand the cross according to the God-given metaphors of Scripture. We may come up with our own metaphors today to help in the task of evangelism, but the only normative metaphors are those that God himself has communicated through the inspired Scripture. If we do draw from modern day ideas to communicate the cross, these ideas must be in harmony with the God-given metaphors of Scripture.
Second, we must understand the cross in terms of the Bible’s storyline, as the climactic moment in which our greatest threat–divine wrath–is overcome. This is the conflict that drives the whole story, and if the cross does not address it, then the cross is not a fitting climax to the story, and we are left with the threat of divine wrath hanging over our heads.
Third, we must understand penal substitution as the heart of the atonement and of the gospel, the central achievement that supports and sustains all other biblically legitimate ways of speaking about the cross. This is where the Bible itself leads us.