It takes 234 pages for Tony Jones to answer the central question in his new book, Did God Kill Jesus? The author is a self-described “theological provocateur,” so the question posed in his book should not surprise anyone. The answer that emerges on page 234 is crystal clear: “No, God did not kill Jesus,” says Dr. Jones. Readers will find that the path to this answer is paved with doubt and skepticism. Frankly, it is a path fraught with theological compromise.
Tony Jones has a knack for asking questions. He has an uncanny ability of questioning the theological status quo and forcing readers to decide, even re-evaluate their cherished views. Unfortunately, some of the answers that Jones provides do not match the biblical record or pass the test of orthodoxy.
The author sets out to examine the various views of the atonement which have been offered up throughout church history. The questions he fires at these theories are fair enough:
- What does the model say about God?
- What does it say about Jesus?
- What does the model say about the relationship between God and Jesus?
- How does it make sense of violence?
- What does it mean for us spiritually?
- Where’s the love?
Ultimately, none of the theories fully satisfy the author. But the one he finds the most repugnant is penal substitutionary atonement. Jones argues that this view, which he labels the payment model is currently in vogue “largely because it appeals to our sense of justice and our understanding of law and penalties.” And he is not particularly bashful about how he feels about penal substitutionary atonement. In his previous book, A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin, Jones writes, “I’m on no quest to reject the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement (PSA). (I merely intend to dethrone it).” However, what he fails to see is this: when penal substitutionary atonement is dethroned, the gospel of Jesus Christ is thrown into the ash heap and the hope of every person perishes.
In his explanation of penal substitutionary atonement, the author assures readers that “God is holy, and we are less-than-holy.” This appears to be a strange starting point since all who hold to penal substitutionary atonement embrace the biblical idea of total depravity – which is quite a leap from “less-than-holy.” However, Jones’ starting point makes perfect sense (just not biblical sense) when one discovers that he has also discarded the doctrine of original sin:
“What I’ve come to realize is that the idea of original sin is not, in fact, God Eternal Truth. It is, instead, like so many other items of faith, historically conditioned.”
To be fair Jones’ acknowledges the existence of sin. However, he rejects the “notion that human beings are depraved from birth.”
Jones caricatures the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement by placing God the Father in an untenable position by “sending his perfect Son to Earth, then letting him – or making him – die as a substitute for the billions of human beings past and future who are incapable of paying off the debt incurred by their sin. That’s the Payment model” according to Tony Jones.
The biggest disappointment in this book is the repudiation of penal substitutionary atonement, the doctrine which contains the very core of the gospel message. As noted above, the path which leads to the ultimate question in the book is riddled with “rocks” and “weeds” and “branches” that careful readers should navigate in order to understand the position the author takes. Two of these stumbling blocks are noted below.
1. Dishonoring God
A.W. Tozer was certainly on target when he wrote, “What we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Yet what we find here is view that has much in common with process theology. The author writes, “… We can surmise that in Jesus, God was learning.” He continues, “But on the cross, something else happened altogether, possibly something that even God did not expect.” The implication here appears to be a compromise of God’s comprehensive omniscience, a troubling turn of events to be sure.
Additionally, the author promotes what he refers to as the “weakness of God.” He adds,
“Here is the guiding idea: God has forsaken power in order to give creation freedom. In other words, God’s primary posture in the world is that of weakness, not strength. This is a tough pill for many Christians to swallow – we’ve been taught to claim God’s power in our lives, to pray for power, and to trust God’s power and perfect plan for our lives …”
A “tough pill” to swallow? You bet! Discerning readers would do well to keep that “pill” out of their mouths, especially when the testimony of Scripture points to a God who is all-together sovereign and omnipotent over everything and everyone in the cosmos. Swallow such a “pill” will leave readers spiritually sick.
2. Destroying the Heart of the Atonement
Jones makes it clear early in the book that he along with other liberals have “grown increasingly uncomfortable with the regnant interpretation of Jesus’ death as primarily the propitiation of a wrathful God.”
Yet, when one reduces the cross to a mere display of love and refuses to acknowledge that Jesus bore the wrath of God, the gospel is utterly stripped of its saving power. Such a move is to destroy the very heart of the atonement.
In the final analysis, the answer to the question of this book is not a simple yes or no answer. The Scripture makes it plain that both God and man killed Jesus Christ.
“… let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.” (Acts 4:10, ESV)
“… for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:27–28, ESV)
This is a book that should upset a lot of people. Frankly, I’m glad Jones wrote the book because it will rally conservatives around the truth of the gospel. This book should motivate pastors and scholars to go deeper into the reality of the gospel and prompt God-centered reverence and worship as they glory in the beauty of penal substitutionary atonement.
Evangelicals need to pay careful attention to books like this that grow more and more popular. Jones urges readers to participate in what he calls, “the smell test.” Unfortunately, something doesn’t smell right about this book.
Admittedly, Tony Jones stands in a theological stream that is more liberal-minded. One important distinction between Jones and many other liberals is that he actually affirms the bodily resurrection of Jesus. For this we can be thankful. However, since he rejects penal substitution and as a result softens (or even eliminates) the wrath that Jesus bore on the cross, the scandal of the cross is blurred and even obscured. Indeed, as Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach have rightly written, “If we blunt the sharp edges of the cross, we dull the glittering diamond of God’s love.”
Whenever wrath is removed from the cross, something crucial is missing, which is to say, the gospel is at stake. For this reason, the view promoted here does not pass the “smell test.”
Readers are encouraged to explore the God-honoring doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement in three powerful and provocative books which include: The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross – Leon Morris, Pierced For Our Transgressions – Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, and It is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement – Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence.