Some clarifications on 'The Biblical Revelation of the Cross, Part 1'

1. It is important to note that, while the New Testament does say that the death of Jesus was unjust, nevertheless God did act to deliberately bring it about, which is to say that men's motives for bringing about the death of Jesus were not the same as God's:

“Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23)

"Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief" (Isa 53:10)

And yes, it is clear that the suffering and death of Jesus was something God wanted to happen, and made sure that it did happen. It is also true that God is not (necessarily) unjust in allowing or ordaining something evil to happen in order to bring about a greater good. However, what's at issue here is not whether God ordained something to happen for a greater good, but what his intentions were. Advocates of PSA assume that the purpose for which God ordained Jesus' death was to show His justice in punishing sin, but the above texts and similar ones do not establish that. They only establish that God ordained Jesus' death for a purpose, they do not specify what that purpose was.

We must make a clear distinction between the claim that God was just in ordaining that Jesus suffer, and the claim that the purpose of that ordination was to reveal the justice of God in punishing sin.

2. Another issue concerns the presence of cases of corporate responsibility in the Bible. For example:

"...For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, and showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Exodus 20:5-6; cf. 34:7, Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 5:9-10; interestingly, in Deuteronomy 7:9-10 the faithfulness to a thousand generations is repeated, but the pursuit of further generations of those who reject God is dropped)

First of all we should notice the asymmetry in the two cases: even if God does pursue future generations of those that hate him, it is only to the third and fourth generation at most, whereas his mercy and faithfulness extend to a thousand generations. Even if there is a concept of corporate responsibility in the Bible, it is strictly limited in extent.

Second, we should make a distinction between punishment for the sins of another, and suffering for the sins of another. Because no man is an island, obviously many sins will have consequences for others who are not individually culpable for those sins. I may go to jail or death-row for blowing up a building which caused the death of several people, but those deaths are not punishments for my sin, they are the consequence of my sin. Succeeding generations may certainly suffer for the sins of the prior generation. Indeed, it is part of the punishment of that generation that their children will suffer for it.

(For that matter, we might add that the faithfulness of God's people can have positive repercussions for those who do not deserve them; take, for example, the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Matthew 13:24-30: the person who planted the good wheat, when he finds weeds in his field planted by an enemy, does not immediately root them out, for fear of damaging the good wheat, but lets both grow together until the harvest. This does not mean that the weeds are being 'blessed' for their sins.)

Take the exile, for example. It was simply inevitable that, in punishing Israel for its apostasy by exiling it, God would be involving future generations in that punishment, even if those future generations did not themselves apostatize. The consequences of exile would extend far beyond the first generation.

But successive generations cannot use the fact that they are suffering for the sins of their fathers as an excuse to cover up their own sins. That is the point of Ezekiel 18. There is a clear difference to be drawn between the exilic condition and individual punishment for sins. For succeeding generations, the exile becomes the backdrop against which they must reckon with the consequences of their own actions. It also becomes the backdrop against which God can use pious Israelites for his own good purposes, for example the exilic prophets to lay out the vision of God's final redemption, or people like Daniel and his friends to be a witness for God in the courts of Babylon. For them being exiled was not a punishment (even though they were suffering for the sins of their forefathers), but an opportunity for them to be a witness. God works in all things for the good for those who love him.

But what about a case like 2 Samuel 21:1-9, in which God sends a famine upon Israel because of the injustice Saul committed against the Gibeonites, and to make atonement for which seven of Saul's sons had to die? Isn't this a case of the sons being punished for the sins of the father, and indeed of their being punished as a blood atonement, so that the Gibeonites would be appeased and would again bless Israel? Weren't these sons (and a few grandsons) of Saul innocent of this crime?

Actually, the way the Lord lays out the reason for the famine gives us some reason to think that they were not entirely innocent. The Lord tells David that the famine is "for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites." (2 Samuel 21:1b, KJV)

Bob Deffinbaugh, after noting the Pentateuchal command that "Fathers must not be put to death for what their children do, nor children for what their fathers do; each must be put to death for their own sin," (Deuteronomy 24:16), suggests that "God's words to David seem to emphasize the fact that Saul did not act alone in seeking to annihilate the Gibeonites. He would have needed help, and who would be more likely to help than his own family? Whether any Gibeonite blood was shed by their hands or not, they must have known, and thus they became accomplices in this heinous plan." As accomplices, Saul's sons and grandsons were not innocent of this crime, and thus could justly bear responsibility for it when Saul died.

A similar thing can be said of the slaughter of Achan and his family when he absconded with some of the spoil of Jericho that was set aside for the Lord (see Joshua 7). As McIlwain himself notes,

Achan died with his whole household. We don’t know how many were in this family, but we might reasonably surmise that what Achan did – rebelling with lust for silver and gold – received the approval of his children. Quite likely the family knew what was in the tent, but said nothing and may even have been secretly pleased about it. Just because they were not the ones to take the initial decision, in defiance of God’s command, does not mean that they had disapproved of Achan’s actions. Nothing is said, but God does not punish the innocent. If such punishment is brought upon the sons and daughters, then the children have been corrupted and complicit in some way in the crimes of the parents, perhaps by following their wrong example.

That all of Israel was 'troubled' for Achan's sin should be explained according to the principle that even individual sins can have negative repercussions for a larger group. We see this principle illustrated again and again in Scripture, but we should still draw a difference between being punished for one's sins and suffering as a result of another's sins. The biblical principle that only the guilty are punished for their sins stands.

We must also keep in mind that the Gibeonites had entered into a covenant with Israel for their protection (Joshua 9:3-27). This covenant was made rashly by the Israelites, who did not realize that the Gibeonites had tricked them into thinking that they had come from a distant land. But God takes covenants and oaths very seriously, even those that are made foolishly (That is perhaps why Jesus cautioned people to avoid making oaths at all, and instead to simply agree or disagree to do something, Matthew 5:34-37). The reason why God was so displeased was that a covenant the Israelites made had been broken. The famine was his signal that David needed to make something right. But the famine should not be seen as punishing Israel, but rather as a side-effect or consequence of the sin of Saul and his sons. Again, no man is an island.

Given that the apparent examples of corporate responsibility are either limited in extent or involve complex historical trajectories in which it is far from obvious that those who are being punished are actually innocent, these should not outweigh the clear biblical evidence in the form of specific commandments that the innocent should not be punished for the guilty. If the two sets of texts appear to conflict, we should conclude, not that the principle of the proper meting out of punishment has to be qualified, but that in the cases where this principle seems to be ignored, we simply do not have all the information we need to verify that that principle was indeed upheld. We should simply trust that God always acts justly, and we saw reason for believing this despite the appearances in the story from 2 Samuel.

So when it comes to Jesus, we should not think that his suffering for sins means that the guilt for those sins was laid upon him. It could not, seeing that he was innocent of all sin and never consented to any sin either. God made Jesus to suffer for our sins, not as a punishment, but so that he could truly claim to be the One sinned against, so that his obedience could be made perfect and so that he could truly empathize with those who suffer and thus effectively intercede for them. There is no hint of Jesus being burdened with the guilt of our sins, only that he was burdened with the sins themselves, that he suffered their consequences.

3. Another possible worry is that this objection (that the innocent should not be punished for the guilty) simply trades in the problem of the punishment of the innocent for the suffering of the innocent. If God would be unjust to punish an innocent person, wouldn't he also be unjust by making him suffer, even if that suffering is not punishment?

But it is obvious that these two cases are not at all analogous. God allows the innocent to suffer for many good reasons: so that they can show their faith and obedience to Him (see Job or the suffering believers that Peter writes to), so that the wicked can fill up their cup of judgment by showing how fully they hate God and his anointed ones (or by bringing their wickedness to light in the first place), or so that God's power can be revealed in their suffering (for example, Paul's thorn in the flesh). The problem of God punishing an innocent person is a problem of justice: He would be unjust and going against his nature to do so. But the problem of God allowing the innocent to suffer is a problem of His goodness, IF we assume that God's goodness means that the innocent would never suffer from anything, and we never get this guarantee from Scripture (indeed, all who live Godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution). The two problems are not at all analogous.


Ken Pulliam said…

Concerning Achan, I think it is a case of eisegesis to say that his family somehow were complicit in his act and thus rightly deserved to die. The text says that his animals and all of his possessions were also destroyed. It seems to me that one could hold that either his sin had "contaminated" everything that belonged to him (including his wife and children) and thus had to be destroyed or one could hold that the Israelites were simply operating under a "collective culpability" mindset, which we know was prevalent in ancient times. This collective culpability mindset would also explain why the command was given to destroy all the Canaanites, why all within Sodom was destroyed, and so on.

As regarding a very clear case of an innocent being punished for someone else's sin, look at the baby that was born to David and Bathsheba. God caused the baby to die as a means to punish David. That seems to be problematic on a couple of levels: 1) God is treating the baby as a thing not a person (the means to punish David) and 2) God is bringing death to an innocent baby that shared no culpability in the "sin" of its parents.

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