To this question as old as Christianity, André Gounelle offers his analysis, defining the will of God around its drivers, namely love, struggle and life.
God did not will the death of Jesus
Translation Canon Tony Dickinson
In 1918 Kaiser Wilhelm II, held accountable for the killings and catastrophes which Europe had just endured, said : « I did not will that. »
An indirect will?
However, Wilhelm II had unleashed (or contributed to unleashing, for he was not the only one responsible) the war. He had done it because it seemed to him to be the way of attaining what he desired: the power, prosperity and independence of Germany. War was not his goal; he knew that it was painful and dangerous; he had nonetheless acquiesced. We might say that he had indirectly willed to obtain what he really wanted, the glory of his dynasty and the greatness of his country.
Several Christian texts attribute to God an attitude very like that of the Kaiser. They explain that the death of Jesus costs God, is hard for God, wounds God and causes God suffering, but that nevertheless God wills it because without it God would not successfully bring about the divine purpose of saving humanity. God wills it, not for itself, but for what it allows God to achieve; it is an essential stage on the way. The price which God agrees to pay in order to snatch us from perdition shows us the depth and the immensity of God’s love.
A murderous love?
By way of example, here are two of these texts, one Protestant and quite old, the other Catholic and more recent.
In the 16th-century Confession of Faith of the Reformed Churches of France, known as the « Confession of La Rochelle », we read: « In sending his Son God willed to show his priceless love and goodness towards us by handing him over to death and raising him in order to fulfil all righteousness and to win for us eternal life. » What God wills, according to this confession, is « to show his love », « to win for us eternal life »: it is for that reason that God hands over his son to death.
The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church writes that God « allowed' » (it doesn’t say « willed ») the cross « in order to fulfil his purpose of salvation ». It adds: « In handing over his Son for our sins, God shows that his purpose for us is a purpose of gracious love. » God does not limit himself to letting it happen, he acts « in handing over his Son » because that is the means of achieving his goal.
What logic has compelled God to take this route? Could not God have proceeded differently? The Reformed catechism of Heidelberg (1563) replies: « because of the justice and the truth of God, it was not possible to pay for our sins otherwise than through the death of the Son of God. »
Why was it not possible? Two ways of explaining this have been tried.
According to the first, « justice » demands that sins are punished. In taking the punishment on himself Jesus absolves us; which corresponds to the traditional idea that wrong-doing is above all a disruption and that chastisement has as its principal aim the returning of things to their place. Forgiveness without reparation or an amnesty with no compensation is therefore unimaginable. Some one, whether guilty or not, has to pay for the sins and in this way put an end to the disturbance which they have introduced. However ancient it may be, this explanation seems absurd: when an innocent person pays in place of the guilty, a disrupted order is not restored; neither justice nor truth is respected.
For the second, when God became incarnate in Jesus God wanted to experience the extremes of the human condition, taking on the very worst it had: the horrible punishment of someone condemned (unjustly) to death. The cross would take him to the limit, as far as the depths of suffering and humiliation, the « stripping » or abasement of Christ Jesus (Philippians 2) and this identification with the most wretched. In other words, God willed the cross in order to become fully human. If it is more honourable than the preceding explanation, this one seems to me to take too much note of mythological and metaphysical speculation.
A defeat for God?
For my part, I reply « no” to the question which this article tackles. I do not believe that God willed, even indirectly, the death of Jesus. To my mind, it did not enter at all into his plans, his projects or his calculations. Like the owner of the vineyard in the parable who , after several messengers, sends his son to talk to the rebel growers and convince them (Luke 20:9-16), God, after the prophets, arouses and inspires Jesus (Hebrews 1:1-2), hoping that human beings will listen to his preaching, will follow it and be converted, in other words change their behaviour. God’s expectation is disappointed. Far from being written into God’s plans, the cross represents a reverse for God. On the evening of Good Friday God is a loser and not someone who has arrived at the goal they were pursuing.
From this perspective, the cross corresponds neither to the obligation to restore a disrupted order nor to the will to push incarnation to the limit. It is a contingent event, tied to a set of historical circumstances and decided by the Jewish and Roman authorities. Things could have happened differently. If Jesus had not been crucified, he would not have been any the less the Christ and God would not have manifested in him any the less his love for human beings.
But, someone will object, can God be thwarted? Do events occur which God has not ordained nor authorised? The Bible seems to me to suggest that. Contrary to what some debatable translations imply it does not affirm the omnipotence of God. On the contrary, it tells us that often human beings (even those whom God had chosen and with whom God had made a covenant) disobeyed God and acted against God’s wishes. The parables are significant in this respect: they compare God to a landowner from whom his tenants steal or to a father whom his children disobey. We wouldn’t have to pray « your will be done » if it were not ceaselessly contradicted.
God wills life
The multiple defeats which human beings inflict on God culminate in the condemnation and execution of Jesus.
However, God is never totally beaten. If God is not all-powerful, God is nonetheless powerful, and on no account does God either give up or throw in the sponge. God loses battles, not the war. Setbacks never bring things to a full stop. God does not accept them, God reacts and overcomes them. After the disobedience of Adam and Eve, after Cain’s murder of Abel, after the golden calf, after betrayals by Israel and the Churches, God does not give up; God starts again and gets back on course.
With vigour and inventiveness God responds to the cross b raising Jesus. God has not abandoned humanity after what it has done to his supreme envoy. God knows how to overcome a situation as dead-locked as that of Golgotha. Good Friday and Easter play a fundamental role for Christian faith in that they affirm that the love of God is never snuffed out and that God’s power, even if not absolute, always has the last word. God desires life, generates it, makes it triumphant; these events offer us the assurance of that. To speak of an expiatory sacrifice or of God crucified weakens or blurs this message.
No reason either justifies or excuses sending someone to their death. God does not make use of death, even as a means. God did not will the cross of Golgotha, God does not will what tortures and destroys us. By contrast God did will and effect the resurrection, Christ’s and our own.
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