Thursday, April 7, 2016

Not Entirely: Why Most Illustrations Don't Fully Explain the Cross

When I worked at a Christian bookstore while in seminary, we sold a short film that told the story of a father who worked at a train station and on this particular day had his young son with him. The son eventually went on his own and began playing on the track. Without his knowing, a train was coming and the father had to either spare his and allow the people in the train die or sacrifice his child to save the passengers. He, like God the illustration goes, chose to sacrifice his son.

Here is the short film.*

Why is this is a horrendous illustration of the atonement? Mark Dever suggests.
It ignores [the] element of Jesus choosing to laying down his life. Its right in saying it is very costly. Its right in pointing to the cost there was to God the Father. Its right in all of those ways. But its deeply wrong in presenting that little boy just laying there on the tracks being killed without even knowing about it. Because the presentation biblically is one of Jesus laying down his life for His sheep. -Atonement in the New Testament
In an article entitled Nothing But the Blood published in Christianity Today, Dever again highlights this common illustration:
For example, there is the story of the railroad operator who learns that the bridge ahead is out, so he prepares to switch the tracks to save the lives of hundreds on a fast-approaching train. But at that moment, he sees his son playing in the gears, and he pauses to reconsider. Here, many a preacher has meditated on God's love in ways that border on the grotesque—we're told that the man decided to go ahead and sacrifice his son's life in order to save those on the train. Such an unwitting sacrifice has led to the charge that the Atonement is divine child abuse.

. . .

Substitutionary Atonement has indeed been misapplied. The railroad analogy above, for example, is inadequate because it does not include the Holy Spirit. But even more to the point, Christ willingly offered up his life; he was not blindsided by the Cross. 

I think Dever is right. The New Testament repeatedly argues that Christ was a willing sacrifice who voluntarily carried His cross (see John 10:17-18). This in no way denies that God sent His Son or that Christ was obeying the will of the Father, but it is simply wrong to portray the cross as "divine child abuse" (as modern detractors repeatedly suggest).

Instead, what the above film illustrates is the story of Abraham and Isaac. The promised son in Genesis 22 did not volunteer to be a sacrifice nor did Abraham volunteer to give his son over for sacrifice.

The point of all of this is to argue that one must be careful in trying to explain the cross through simple illustrations. Illustrations for the atonement are similar to that of the Trinity. Most illustrations used to explain the Trinity are actually heretical (usually modalistic). Likewise, most illustrations used to explain the cross are at best dangerous and misleading.

*The original film was not interrupted with text.
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