Jack Miles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has written two best-selling books about God. The first book was a biography about the God of the Old Testament. The second book has the rather melodramatic title Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.
In his latest book, Miles wrestles with the central question of the gospel: Why did Jesus die on the cross? It is clear from the New Testament that Jesus claimed to be God the Son. He was not merely human, but also divine. It is equally clear that the crucifixion was the major event of his life. But this is shocking. Why should God be the one to die? Miles puts the question like this: “If God had to suffer and die, then God had to inflict suffering and death upon himself. But why would God do this?” (p. 5).
Jack Miles has a simple answer: God needed to atone for his own sins. The crisis in the book’s title is the crisis God faced when he realized that the world was in a terrible mess, and that it was partly his fault. God saw the world suffering from the curse he pronounced in the Garden of Eden, and he felt guilty about it. Miles writes: “The disobedience of the first humans was a sin; yet it was not the enormity of that sin but, rather, the ruthlessness of God’s curse that brought death into the world. Thus… it is God, in the end, who must atone for his vengeful and destructive reaction to their sin by restoring their immortality” (p. 211).
God also recognized that he had failed to keep the terms of his covenant with Israel. In the centuries leading up to the birth of Christ, the Israelites endured great suffering that God did nothing to stop. So Miles imagines God overwhelmed by guilt, struggling to find a way to make things up to his people. He ends up agreeing with Albert Camus that the real reason for the sufferings of the cross was “that [God] himself knew he was not altogether innocent” (p. 5).
This way of looking at the cross makes the crucifixion an act of divine repentance. By dying on the cross, God was confessing his sin of making us go through so much suffering. He was not making atonement for our sin, but for his own. On the cross God was taking personal responsibility for his mistakes. “The world is a great crime,” Miles writes, “and someone must be made to pay for it… . [T]he New Testament is the story of how someone, the right someone, does pay for it. The ultimately responsible party accepts his responsibility. And once he has paid the price, who else need be blamed, who else need be punished?” (p. 12).
It’s not surprising that Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God is such a popular book. By blaming God for our problems, it strikes a responsive chord. Ever since the Garden of Eden, human beings have been trying to shift the blame. Adam said to God, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (Gen. 3:12). Adam tried to fix the blame on Eve for good measure, but his real target was God. After all, God was the one who created the woman, so it must have been his fault.
With the same kind of audacity, Jack Miles attempts to blame God for everything that has happened since. The popularity of his book is partly due to the popularity of its thesis. Who’s to blame? God is. It’s all his fault, from beginning to end. The ultimate proof is found in the cross, where God died for God’s own sin. The cross reveals the truth about God, namely, that he is both divine and guilty.
This is all nonsense, of course. Worse than that, it is blasphemy. The Bible says not one word about God being guilty of anything. On the contrary, it everywhere insists that he cannot be the author of sin. Whatever has gone wrong with the world is properly traced back to humanity’s sin. God is not to blame; we are.
Once we properly fix the blame, then we can understand what really happened on the cross. When Christ was crucified, God was not taking responsibility for his own sin; he was taking the blame for our sin. The New Testament says this over and over again: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). “He himself bore our sins on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). Somehow Jack Miles managed to miss these verses, as well as many others that say the same thing.
If we want to understand the New Testament, we need to be clear about what happened on the cross. What happened on the cross is very simple: Christ died for sinners. The Bible says, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). Jesus Christ was the righteous one. He was not guilty of any sin. He did not deserve to die. Yet die he did, and he did it on our behalf, for our sins.
Our sin—that is what caused the real crisis. It was not a crisis in God, but in our relationship with God. It was our crisis, not his. But God solved it by sending his Son to die in our place.
[All quotations (except those from the Bible) come from Jack Miles, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001]
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