The Suffering Judge

by Greg Albrecht

… If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.—Romans 8:31-34

You probably have heard of honor killings. An “honor killing” is the term used to describe a practice in which one or more males murders a female relative who, according to their perspective, dishonored the family.

Honor killings are usually inspired by cultures whose values are based on shame and honor. Based on our scriptural foundation in Romans 8:31-34, we’re going to talk about shame and honor in The Suffering Judge.

One of the most profound questions we humans can ever ponder has to do with the question of atonement. Given our complicity in hurt and pain, what does it take for us to find healing, forgiveness and peace?

How can—how DOES—the Cross of Christ atone for the ugliness of our lives and make it right?

Human society has generally seen the problem of sin, guilt and shame being resolved by the shedding of blood— usually the blood of the perpetrator, the person who is deemed to have brought shame to the family or community.

How can we find healing, forgiveness and peace? God provides an answer that is at odds with human ideas. While God offers a Christ-centered answer, religion, over the years, even within Christendom, has corrupted the love and mercy God offers.

Under the old covenant God gave the Hebrews a day, called the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 26:26-32 describes how sins over the past year were atoned for via an elaborate ritual, involving the blood of sacrificial animals—also stipulated in Leviticus 16.

On the Day of Atonement (contemporary Jews call this day Yom Kippur) the High Priest was allowed access to the most sacred place in the Jewish tabernacle or temple.

The High Priest entered the Most Holy Place, believed to be the place where God was, by pushing aside a curtain that separated it from the rest of the tabernacle or temple. The High Priest was allowed to draw near to God on this one day of the year—the Day of Atonement.

This is but one of the many old covenant types and symbols that prefigured the Cross of Christ, the atoning work of the Lamb of God who, as the Gospel of John tells us, took away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

The Cross of Christ dealt decisively with the religious rituals of Judaism, beginning with the very moment of Jesus’ death. The curtain in the temple that prevented access to the Most Holy Place was miraculously, by an unseen hand, torn in two from the top to the bottom.

Later in the New Testament, the book of Hebrews insists that repetitive religious observances, such as the Day of Atonement—rituals that require humans to annually seek forgiveness and atonement—ended at the Cross of Christ.

We read in Hebrews 9:26 that Jesus’ shed blood became the “once for all” fulfillment of our atonement—our justification—our forgiveness—our salvation.

The word “atonement” has thus been used for the almost 2,000 years of Christianity to explain the death of Christ which opens the way for a restoration and reconciliation between humanity and God. However, the emphasis and motivation behind the atoning work of Jesus has often been seen through a legalistic lens, as the forensic remedy for law-breaking humans who have offended the honor of a law-giving God.

And thus we return to the idea of honor killings.

We in the Western world usually think of Arabic cultures, those heavily influenced by the religion of Islam, as encouraging or allowing acts of violence that are committed on female family members whose behavior is judged to have brought dishonor on the family.

But within Christendom, a similar perspective is taught, and this warped, unbiblical idea is attributed to God.

The idea goes something like this:

1) In the beginning, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a state of happiness, peace, and purity existed. Animals were all tame—and humans ran around without clothing. This was as simple and idyllic as life can get.

2) But then—Adam and Eve had a really bad day. They really messed up. They ate that apple. Religion interprets this turn of events as Adam and Eve offending God. God wasn’t happy, and according to religion, when God ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

3) God was upset. The Garden of Eden, in all of its perfection, had been messed up by Adam and Eve. So God the Father called an emergency triune family meeting. Religion sees God the Father as saying at this meeting something like this: “Adam and Eve’s choice means that now there will be wars, violence and bloodshed. Hatred, lust, sin and evil will predominate in this world. My honor has been violated. So now, there’s going to have to be blood to vindicate my honor—the whole eye for an eye thing. Jesus, you’re going to have to go down there and fix it. That’s the only way for me to be satisfied.”

4) So, according to much of Christendom, Jesus came to this earth to satisfy God. Wrath is a word used by many within Christendom which has come to define God’s emotional condition, the bloodlust of God the Father.
I realize I have simplified the teaching, but I guarantee you that this simplification is precisely what tens of millions of people who call themselves Christians believe about God.

If you’re a Christian religious professional, and you feel I have misrepresented what you, your church or denomination teaches—then do something about it! Start telling people about the God of the Bible, and forget about telling them about the god of your religion!

The fact is that many people have been deceived into thinking that Jesus came to this earth to “satisfy” the wrath of God. His honor had been offended—his holiness had been wounded—he was outraged by the behavior of Adam and Eve, and all humans that followed them—and blood had to be spilled to vindicate God.

The idea that many have, within the family of what we call Christian churches, is that God’s wrath was somewhat like that of a parent who finally loses his patience with a young child. So the idea is that the Cross of Christ was necessary to keep God the Father, the mad Dad, the vindictive, upset and wrathful divine Father, from going ballistic.

God’s wrath, says such a viewpoint, meant that justice had to be done. To save you and me Jesus had to “come down here” and first of all become one of us, and then, having done so, as not simply a human, but the God-man, he then became a blood sacrifice to satisfy God the Father.

When we hear such misrepresentations of God we may think of novels and movies about good cops and bad cops. We think of ourselves as the criminal, of the police station as the church, and God and Jesus as playing good cop and bad cop.

The bad cop is the God of the Old Testament. He is the bloodthirsty God whose honor has been offended, and now demands blood so that justice can be done.

Then there’s the good cop—the one who walks down the hall to get us a cup of coffee or a soft drink as we sweat it out in the interrogation room. Jesus, the good cop, is the one who convinces his partner, God the Father, to take a break. According to religious misconceptions, once the bad cop is out of the room, the good cop informs us not to worry—he will take the fall for us.

Christ-less religion thus subtly divides the Godhead by proposing that Jesus, the good cop, will go to bat for us and appease the wrath of his partner, the bad cop, the Father.

This is a complete distortion of the triune nature of God, for a start. But beyond that, it is pure religion—religious legalism that has infected Christendom with its ideas of human ideas of law and order.

Human ideas of law and order warp and twist the Cross of Christ into a forensic event. The Cross is necessary, says religion, because God was unhappy. God the Father was offended, his honor had been violated. Jesus had to die to keep the Father happy.

Turning the Cross of Christ into a divine court of vengeance is a fatally flawed notion that corrupts the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our passage today does inspire thoughts of a divine courtroom, but this is not any courtroom we have ever seen depicted in movies or novels. In Romans 8:31-34 we see God himself, the Judge of us all, who pronounces us free of guilt and shame. God himself is for us. God himself intervenes on our behalf.

Here is the Judge who did not spare his own Son. Here is the divine Judge who suffers on our behalf. God himself takes our penalty on himself. There is no condemnation left after our Judge suffers on our behalf.

The whole idea that religion falsely gives of a God who is upset with us leads to us thinking that we should be upset with such a God.

A few years ago, in 2007, the movie Atonement depicted the kind of guilt and shame that so many humans wrestle with—and for which, apart from God, they never find an answer.

The setting for the movie is a country estate in rural England, between the first and second world wars of the 20th century. We meet a young lady who falsely accuses a young man who is in love with her sister of rape, and the movie then details the moral dilemma that follows—the problem of sin and guilt—the human desire to compensate for the pain and heartache we inevitably leave in our wake.

The young man serves three years in prison, set free only when he agrees to join the army and serve in World War II. The young woman is plagued with the guilt of her fabrication. During the war she willingly volunteers for the most difficult emotional and physical work she can find— serving as a nurse for soldiers who have arrived home in England, with critical, life-threatening injuries. Somehow, it seems, she thinks that self-imposed, penitential punishment will atone for her sin.

But she never gets a chance to atone for her sin, because her sister dies during the war when an underground tube station, a subway if you like, is bombed. The young man who suffered because of her trumped up allegation dies on the beaches of Dunkirk.

The movie ends many years later, with the young woman now an old woman, still haunted by her guilt, still attempting to atone for her own sin.

It’s the same dilemma we all face. What do we do, as a result of our own actions, to atone for our sin?

Romans 8:31-34 tells us the good news that God has done for us what we can never do for ourselves. Our passage today tells us the good news that God is not mad at us. He is not the “mad Dad.” He never has, nor will he ever, lose his patience with us. He is not out to seek vengeance because we have wounded his honor. Instead, God is relentlessly seeking our love and affection.

What really happened at the Cross of Christ is an embrace, offered at great cost, by the triune God of the Bible. The one God, in the person of Jesus, embraced us, loving us in the greatest example of love that anyone could ever offer.

The Cross of Christ is about the Judge who, instead of insisting that someone else suffer because his honor had been offended, suffers himself. The perfect and holy Judge offers himself as the sacrifice. He pays the debt that by law should be paid by the perpetrator.

God is personal. He isn’t a theory. His totality is not perfectly summarized by a religious picture of the grim and stark surroundings of a heavenly courtroom. God is love. God is for us, as our passage says, if God is for us, who can be against us?

While there are legal illustrations that can help us to understand the Cross of Christ, the primary meaning behind the Cross of Christ is an embrace, not a satisfaction of a God of vengeful wrath.

The God of authentic, grace-based, Christ-centered Christianity is a God who is a fellow sufferer. The one God of the Bible is not some distant, detached potentate who demands that his honor be restored and his wrath satisfied. Jesus did not come to be one of us so that honor could be vindicated. He came not come to satisfy a divine thirst for justice. He came because he loved us.

The God of the Bible is The Suffering Judge, a God who reaches out to embrace us while we are in our sins, a God who seeks our love, not his own satisfaction. Jesus did not come here to appease his Father’s need to see bloodshed. Jesus did not go to his Cross to pacify and soothe our heavenly Father.

Our God is a God of loving embrace, not a stern, harsh executioner whose wrath can only be satisfied through the death of his son.

The very idea of a god who must be appeased owes its existence and continuing popularity to primitive paganism more than it does to the New Testament. The gods who were said to eventually bring rain after a still-beating heart was ripped out of a virgin are far closer, in motivation, to a God who must be appeased and satisfied, than the God of love of your Bible.

The Cross of Christ is an act of love on the part of The Suffering Judge. The Cross of Christ is all about God’s amazing grace. The atonement of the Cross of Christ is all about God taking on himself the penalty and consequences of the darkness he has allowed us to choose, a dark and foreboding place of our own making.

There is no doubt that we have all left havoc in our wake. Guilt and shame exists in all of our lives. We do need to be reconciled with God, but not because our sins have driven him to the point of complete exasperation.

God didn’t lose his temper because we failed to make the grade. The Cross of Christ was the plan from the foundation of the world, according to Revelation 13:8. God was not caught off guard by Adam and Eve—or, for that matter, by you and me.

The Cross of Christ is all about God’s personal and intimate embrace of you and me, in spite of our past, in spite of what we have done. The Cross of Christ is about God’s love, not our performance. The Cross of Christ is about the incredible expense that God went to in order to love us, not about the lengths to which he went to restore his honor and receive divine satisfaction through the spilling of blood.

Our guilt and shame is atoned for by an act of love like no other. We are reconciled to God by his love. God doesn’t need to be satisfied, like some bloodthirsty monster, because his laws have been violated. Love is the means, motive and method of The Suffering Judge—the Judge who took our place.