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Deconstructing John 3:16 with Nonviolent Atonement

Deconstructing John 3:16 with Nonviolent Atonement

Have you heard of Nonviolent Atonement?*

That might sound like an oxymoron to you. After all, a lot of Atonement theology is centered around what many perceive to be God’s violence.

Much of evangelical Christianity teaches us that Jesus came to save us from God’s violent wrath.

In fact, some say that the Gospel message is that Jesus came to take God’s wrath upon himself by going to the cross. 

Unfortunately, this is the default view of the Atonement in American Christianity. It is so ingrained into the Christian faith that, whether we like this theory of Atonement or not, evangelical, conservative, liberal, and progressive Christians tend to have this view of the cross as our default. 

I was reminded of this during a recent Bible study. We were discussing John 3:16. I will quote the Violent Atonement translation of the Bible, 

For God was full of wrath against humanity that he gave his only Son…

Okay. There is no “Violent Atonement” translation of the Bible, but that’s what you might expect the passage to say.

What it actually says is,

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…

There are two words here that I want to emphasize when it comes to a nonviolent understanding of the Atonement. The first is “love.” God’s motivation is not wrath. Jesus never associates God with wrath. Rather, Jesus associates God with love. In the Hebrew of the First Testament, the love of God is referred to as chesed. As Psalm 118 states, it’s a love that “endures forever.” John 3:16 picks up on this biblical principle when it claims that “God so loved the world…” It’s a love that endures for all eternity.

But what about the troubling word, “gave.” Doesn’t the statement that God “gave his only Son” refer to God sending Jesus to the cross? 

This is where we need to deconstruct the violent Atonement theology that gets connected to John 3:16. Nowhere in this passage, or in the Gospels, does it say that God *gave* the Son in order for Jesus to take God’s violent wrath upon himself on the cross. 

Rather, God gave the Son to humanity to show us how to live in the divine image that we were always created to be. 

In fact, the early Christians did not associate the Atonement with God’s wrath on the cross. God did not give the Son to die on the cross. As the ancient theologian Athanasius stated in his book On the Incarnation, the Son “assumed humanity that we might become God” (Section 54.) The technical theological term for this is theosis. It refers to us becoming like God. Not in the sense that we might have cosmic Zeus-like powers to do whatever we want. But in the sense of being able to love like God loves. 

In other words, the point of God giving the Son was to enable us to participate in the life of God’s chesed, or enduring love.

Unfortunately, there was violence on the cross. But what nonviolent Atonement claims is that the violence at the cross was not God’s violence. It was human violence. Jesus invites us to participate in the life of God’s eternal love for all of humanity, indeed, for all of the world. But God does not force us to participate in that love. We have a choice. As John 3:16 states, God gave the Son to humanity. The only question is, what will we do with God in our midst?

Obviously, this is about Jesus, but it’s more than just about Jesus. It’s about how we treat the divine image that resides in ourselves and in all people. As Jesus says, the whole point of his project is to invite us to “love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.” That’s the point of the Atonement. Not that God was wrathful, but that God loves and invites us to participate with each other in the love of God.

You can also follow my work at The Raven Foundation and at Clackamas United Church of Christ.

*For more on Nonviolent Atonement theology, see Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver or listen to this interview with Michael Hardin about nonviolent Atonement on the Nomad Podcast.

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Adam Ericksen

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