Did God Kill Jesus?

Searching for Love in History's Most Famous Execution

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Tony Jones
  • New York, NY: 
    HarperOne
    , July
     2016.
     304 pages.
     $15.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780062297976.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Popular emergent church leader Tony Jones begins Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution’s lively exercise in popular theology with a story of a summer camp preacher trying to scare eleven and twelve-year olds into a Christian conversion. He points out with horror the spiritual abusiveness of such manipulation and uses this story to set his agenda for the book: how can we redeem, as it were, the hurtful story of salvation that summer camp preacher used on the kids?

Jones argues that the way to redeem the Christian notion of salvation is to insist on always putting love at the center. Notions of salvation that are not ultimately about God’s love do not pass the “smell test,” and need to be discarded, or at least reshaped. Although Jones is critical of received salvation theology, he still accepts the basic framing of the issues which have characterized evangelical Christianity for the last one hundred years. He starts with a discussion of sacrifice as the central biblical motif and sees Paul’s theology as the core of the biblical teaching.

Jones considers the various “atonement models.” He begins with Anselm’s satisfaction model and then takes up the “Christus Victor,” and Abelard’s “moral influence” models. Like many other writers, Jones seeks to draw on what he sees to be strengths in each model rather than focusing on one as superior to the others.

Jones adds two additional model: Eastern Orthodoxy, which sees the dynamics of salvation primarily in humans being made divine rather than in some sort of “work of Christ”; and the “mirror model” of René Girard with its emphasis on how the biblical witness exposes sacrificial violence as deeply problematic. Jones then adds to his discussion briefer treatments of several more models, drawing on an eclectic collection of thinkers. By this point, Jones has made is clear that we do have a “complicated puzzle” (203) in relation to atonement theology.

The final two sections of the book are Jones’s attempt to bring order to this puzzle and to articulate his synthesis. The heart of his position is the close identification between God and Jesus: how God is present in Jesus’s crucifixion. Ultimately for Jones, a core truth to Christianity is that in Jesus, God enters the world as never before. Salvation becomes possible because of God’s new way of relating to the world, not through penal substitution but through intimate identification.

We appropriate the healing presence of God through a mystical appropriation of God’s love which brings us peace with God and helps us cultivate peace with other human beings. Jones concludes that God indeed did not kill Jesus; rather God dies with Jesus, and thereby reveals the depths of God’s love for the world and for each of us.

Ultimately, Jones’s good intentions are probably not fulfilled. He does cover the terrain of traditional atonement theology and reworks it in ways that highlight God’s love over God’s mechanistic “justice.” There is very little fear in such theology and for that reason, along with the generally clear writing and broad scope of perspectives considered, this book will be a good choice for an undergraduate theology course, especially those taught in evangelical schools.

At the same time, by continuing to work within the parameters of standard atonement theology, Jones leaves us with a God who still seems to need Jesus’s death in order to effect salvation. Jones begins by asking about Jesus’s death, not about salvation. This starting point limits his ability to place God’s love at the center of salvation and faith. He centers his discussion of the Old Testament on the practice of sacrifice, rather than on the love of God. And Jones centers his discussion of the New Testament on Jesus’s death, not on Jesus as the embodiment of God’s kingdom in his life and teaching.

Jones’s argument does not ask, “How did Jesus approach salvation?” nor does it make note of how Jesus is in continuity with how the prophets present salvation in the Torah. Rather than reading Paul in light of the Old Testament and the story of Jesus, Jones reads Paul in light of later theology and its preoccupation with Jesus’s death as the necessary condition for salvation. Surprisingly, Jones has little to say about Jesus’s resurrection. His Paul is not so much a theologian of cross and resurrection as simply a theologian of the cross.

Finally, Revelation plays no role for Jones. That is a shame, because the picture there helps drive home the message of the pattern of Jesus—faithful life, crucifixion, resurrection, exaltation as ruler of the kings of the earth—which catches up the message of the entire Bible and places the story of Jesus’s death in its proper context.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ted Grimsrud is Senior Professor of Peace Theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisburg, Virginia.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tony Jones, M.DIV., PH.D., is theologian-in-residence at Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis. He teaches theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and Fuller Theological Seminary and writes the popular blog Theoblogy. Jones is the author of a dozen books, including The Sacred Way and The New Christians, and the editor of the Theology for the People series. He is a sought-after speaker and consultant in the areas of theology, the emerging church, and Christian spirituality. He lives in Minnesota with his three children and his spouse.

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