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The recent release of The Passion and questions we have received because of it have brought to bear, and to mind, some issues of regular interest and debate:
- Did Jesus really suffer as much as the film indicates?
- Why was it necessary for Jesus to suffer as he did?
- And from the Skeptical side, Is the few hours of pain Jesus endured really sufficient to atone for the sins of the world?
These questions, it has occurred to us, are in some sense perhaps misdirected. Our focus as persons is on pain, but is this what the Bible puts its eye on when describing what Jesus endured? In fact, it does not. The NT writers never speak of the pain of the cross. What do they speak of? Hebrews 12:2 says:
Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Indeed, the OT sacrifices for which Jesus' death were a type also had as their main focus the death of the sacrifice -- not its torture. So what's wrong with the focus on the torture and pain aspects?
In several articles we have noted that there is a vast difference in attitude between modern Western society -- a "guilt culture" -- and the ancient Biblical world, which was an honor and shame culture. This popular summary will fill in the details for those new to the matter, but for the present we will stress the most relevant point, that in this world, honor was as important as paying the bills is to us; that which was honorable was, to the ancients, of primary importance. Honor was placed above one's personal safety and was the key element in deciding courses of action.
Malina and Rohrbaugh note in their Social-Science Commentary on John [263-4] and the Synoptics [406-7] that what Jesus underwent in the Passion was a "status degradation ritual" designed to humiliate in every way: The mockery, the buffeting, the spitting; the crucifixion with its symbolic pinioning of hands and legs signigfying a loss of power, and loss of ability to control the body in various ways, including befouling one's self with excrement.
We focus on the beatings and think the purpose was mainly to inflict pain. But in fact, the pain was of secondary focus to the ancients, for whom such rituals were a "process of publicly recasting, relabeling, humiliating and thus recategorizing a person as a social deviant."
How might this affect our understanding of the atonement? In answering Skeptical objections that Jesus endured "too little pain" to atone for the sins of all men and prevent their eternal punishment, Glenn Miller has written a detailed article in defense. Miller argues, essentially, that it is because of Jesus' divine identity that his experience of death, and that the emotions would remain with Jesus throughout eternity, made for the difference: "His sacrificial death/suffering was ‘once for all’, but the memory and emotional experience of that will be forever with Him."
While not wishing to critique Miller directly, we believe that the issue can be resolved at a different level by understanding that it was not the pain, but the shame and degradation (of which, the pain, and the shedding of blood, was of course an integral part) that was the "payment" for our sins -- and that this makes much better contextual sense of the doctrine coming out of an honor and shame setting.
Consider what this answer accomplishes:
- It destroys the argument that Jesus could not have suffered "enough" in those few hours to pay for all sins. The issue turns now from one of quantity (amount of pain) to one of quality (honor versus shame). Jesus' divine identity made him a personal being due the highest honor by nature (what Malina and Rohrbaugh call "ascribed" honor, such as that one has by being born into a noble family) -- not infinite of necessity, but the highest.
The reversal of this value upon Jesus, and the experience of status degradation -- his public humiliation in the eyes of others, and thereby loss of ALL honor status -- undermines and makes irrelevant the question, "Could he have suffered enough for all sins?" As my good friend among the Skeptics, Kyle Gerkin, puts it, the experience allowed people "to recognize that Jesus was undergoing something extraordinary (a god willingly being shamed) in their stead."
- It clarifies and simplifies the argument that sin is an "infinite offense" against God requiring an infinite payment. Under the honor and shame paradigm, sin is particularly an honor offense against God, in effect an insult to His honor and place by means of disregard of His authority and rules.
The paradigm demands that such insults to honor be repaid with shame. In this instance it remains that the value of the response must be equitable -- hence Jesus, in his divine identity, remains the only adequate payment for this honor offense; his blood alone is adequate to take away sin. However, because it is a matter of quality and not quantity, and is an "either-or" rather than a mathematical-value proposition, it is no longer necessary to argue that a sin is an "infinite offense" or to even deal in terms of quantity.
Indeed, the matter of quality rests on that while all of God's honor is ascribed (due Him by nature), no ascribed honor of our own can match His (being born into a good family), and we are otherwise only capable of having what they call "acquired" honor. (For more see now my revision of our defense of the atonement and penal substitution.)
The application of honor and shame to this issue leads to another area of great sensitivity, for which we also find some new answers: Is it really fair for one who does not accept Jesus to suffer in Hell forever?
Several authors, some used by Glenn Miller in his series here, have set the pace for a new look at this question by dismantling the old-fashioned conception of Hell as a place of flesh being seared on sizzling grids, of torture devices and of extreme physical pain. In contrast Miller argues -- even apparently without recognition of the Biblical world as an honor and shame society -- that the components of eternal punishment in the Bible are shame and disgrace.
Let's now look at some of his primary points and relate them to our own arguments:
- The 'logic' of hell in the bible is surprisingly simple: You receive back the treatment/effects you gave other agents (including God and yourself) with some kind of multiplier effect. [The bible is full of images of this reciprocity concept: reaping what you sow, being paid back, suffering loss as you had despoiled others, unkindness for unkindness shown, apathy for apathy rendered, 'eye for an eye', proportional judgement, etc]
This is suited as well to what we have said of honor debts and shame as a response. You dishonor God; you receive dishonor in return. Appropriately your required response is to acknowledge your own need -- in effect, giving up your "honor" -- by admitting that you need God's help to pay the debt.
C. S. Lewis wrote a book titled The Great Divorce in which Hell is depicted as a microscopic world that is smaller than a piece of dirt in heaven (though inhabitants do not realize this except by a special "bus trip" to heaven). Within that microscopic world, people constantly get tired of the company of others and move themselves farther and farther out into the "boondocks" away from others. Napoleon is presented as having done this, and two modern travellers who go to his house arrive to find him pacing back and forth muttering over his failures, for which he blames everyone else.
Lewis, we think, was on to something here, even though he did not mention an honor-shame dialectic. The person who is ashamed cannot come into the presence of God, but would indeed be driven away from it by the very nature of the dialectic, seeking to get as far away from the presence of the greatest glory and honor as possible. Literally speaking, "Hell" would be a life on the lam -- always trying to get yourself further and further from God's holiness, but because God is omnipresent, and because in Him all things move and have their being, never being able to succeed.
An analogy I once used for Kyle Gerkin may help: God is like a magnet, and the "polarity" of sinners is all wrong.
- Miller cites sources indicating that the torment of hell is relational in nature and involves banishment from heaven. A source says, though again apparently without knowledge of the Biblical world as agonistic: Mental and physical anguish result from the sorrow and shame of the judgment of being forever relationally excluded from God, heaven, and so forth.
In this sense, someone with greater sins has more to "be ashamed of" than someone with lesser sins. Thus the lesser sinner may perhaps be able to withstand God's omnipresence to a greater degree than a greater sinner; to put it another way, the person who has greater sins finds themselves to run harder, more often, and farther than the person with lesser sins.
- Biblical passages support our thesis: Daniel 12:2 speaks not of everlasting pain, but of disgrace and everlasting contempt. The "weeping and gnashing of teeth" associated with punishment verses "describes a reaction of persons who have been publicly shamed or dishonored" (Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary, 76, emphasis added).
Miller says of the passage in Luke, of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man: [The rich man's] "quality of life" is equated to the quality of life that the beggar Lazarus had during his lifetime (e.g. lack of getting all of his basic needs met in community). Note that a beggar was a person of the lowest social status, and therefore one of the most "shamed" individuals.
We may relate this point to that of the doctrine of theosis. Those who belong to God will grow in His grace; but those who reject him will never grow. Like Lewis' Napoleon, this will no doubt be a frustrating and shameful experience; especially if you can look through the window, so to speak, and see others growing. But it will not involve physical pain.
- A reader asked this question: I gathered from your response to [another Skeptic] that the Jeffery Dahmer, who apparently repented before that unfortunate encounter with a mop handle, would be in the “nosebleed section” in heaven. Why would that be if Christ suffered the shame for everyone who is saved?
I think the answer here relates to the concept of rewards in heaven as opposed to salvation. The rewards will be rewards of honor; obviously someone like Dahmer isn't going to have a lot of rewards, and nor would an Adolf Hitler who repented on his deathbed. So yes, to say they will be in the "nosebleed section" of heaven would be accurate.
So in conclusion on this tangent: The data would indicate that the primary focus of eternal punishment is the denial of the honor accorded to those who reject God's offer of salvation, and who bear themselves the shame and disgrace Jesus took in their stead. Therefore there is no inequality in the "suffering" -- these persons have denied God His ascribed honor; they are denied in turn the honor that is given to human beings, who are created with the intent that they live forever in God's service, reigning with Christ and serving him.
They choose rather the shame and disgrace of serving their own interests; they are also shamed in accordance with their deeds (i.e., Hitler obviously has more to be "ashamed of" than, say, a robber baron). By denying their ascribed place in the collective identity of humanity, they are placed outside the boundaries, excatly as they desire to be and to the extent that their deeds demanded.