“For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people's sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19, NLT)
It is fashionable in some circles these days to lampoon the historic Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement as divine child abuse. It is hard to know which is more tragic—the lack of understanding of basic Trinitarian theology that leads to such a caricature or the arrogance with which people promote this idea as if they had made a new discovery that rendered traditional Christianity dangerous.
At a Good Friday service this year, I viewed for the first time the 30-minute Czech film, “Most” (the Czech word for “Bridge”). In it a father who operates a drawbridge has to decide whether to lower the open bridge into position that will allow an oncoming train to pass safely across it but then kill his son (who has fallen onto the train tracks trying to reach an emergency brake for the train and is unable to move) or to keep the bridge up, rescue his son, and kill all the passengers in the train as it plunges into the water.
It is impossible for any story of merely human characters to convey adequately all of the dimensions of Christ’s sacrifice, but this one comes remarkably close and is emotionally almost overwhelming. The point of comparison that comes the closest to the story of atonement in the New Testament is the father having no choice but to watch someone die—either his son or a multitude of passengers on the train. Moreover, the film goes out of its way to portray the passengers as oblivious to any danger and, in many cases, behaving in ways that make the viewers wonder if they are even worth being rescued. But one woman is on her way to start a new life after a wrecked past, and we watch her now able to follow through with those plans.
What no human analogy can account for, of course, is the Trinitarian relationships behind the atonement. While Father and Son, along with the Spirit, are separate persons—centers of personal consciousness—they are also one God—one being. So, as our text in 2 Corinthians explains, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” Father and Son are not independent, ontologically separate beings. So when Christ died, God (the Son) died also.
The emotional pathos would probably not be as great if one made a film where one man on his own chose to allow himself to be run over, perhaps creating some kind of human link between two pieces of track not otherwise in sync with each other, and that analogy, too, would be deficient because there wouldn’t be counterparts to both Father and Son. But it would help deal with the charge of divine child abuse—a metaphor that normally conjures up the unwillingness of the son to do something voluntarily and an entirely separate parent inflicting something on a child that doesn’t hurt the parent at all, even emotionally, presumably due to some kind of pathology.
If you get a chance to watch the film, and aren’t suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress, it’s powerfully worth the half-hour. Even if the analogy isn’t perfect, you’ll come away with a profound sense of our Father’s heartache, not some kind of sadistic glee, at the death of Christ, and his immense love for we who deserve nothing like it. You’ll also realize how silly and misguided the “divine child abuse” charge is.