God’s judgment: “Peace be with you!”

desente-aux-enfersFantastic passage from Raymund Schwager (Jesus in the Drama of Salvation: Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption). Schwager (Swiss Jesuite) and Girard carried on a rich and now published correspondence discussing the theological implications of Girard’s anthropology. Schwager was the first to attempt to integrate these implication with orthodox Christian claims. In this passage he contemplates the Father’s activity in Christ’s condemnation.

The way to approach the inner problematic of the resurrection, arising from the consideration of Jesus’ fate, was succinctly expressed in the first epistle of Peter: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; he suffered, but did not threaten; but he handed himself over to the righteous judge” (1Pet. 2:23). The action of the Father at Easter is to be understood as a judgment by which he takes up a position in the conflict between the claim of Jesus and the verdict of his opponents. This statement is central and at the same time liable to misinterpretation, as it could suggest a return to traditional conceptions of judgment and thereby to a distorting horizon of interpretation. In order correctly to understand the judging activity of the heavenly Father at Easter, we must first of all remind ourselves that Jesus in his proclamation of judgment took back nothing from his message of the goodness of God, but rather uncovered the possibility which threatened that people would close themselves off absolutely. Further, we must consider that Jesus, faced with a violent death, gave himself completely for the opponents of God’s kingdom, who had closed themselves off. In the resurrection brought about by the Father it is consequently not enough to see merely a verdict for his Son and against those who opposed him. Certainly, this view is correct, as Jesus’ opponents are convicted as sinners. But the verdict of the heavenly Father is above all a decision for the Son who gave himself up to death for his opponents. It is therefore, when considered more deeply, also a verdict in favor of sinners. The opponents of the kingdom of God, closing themselves off, had the way to salvation once more opened for them by the Son, who allowed himself to be drawn into their darkness and distance from God. Although they had already turned their backs, as far as they were concerned, the self-giving of the Son got around this hardening of hearts once more, insofar as he allowed himself to be made the victim of their self-condemnation.

The saving dimension of the Easter message, and the revelation of God contained in it, can be clarified from yet another angle. In the parable of the wicked winegrowers (Mark 12:1-12 and parallels) a lord is presented who at first acts with unfathomable goodness, in that, after the rejection and killing of several servants, he even risks his own son. This goodness however comes to an end, for after the murder of his beloved son it is transformed into retribution, and the violent winegrowers are in their turn killed. But the heavenly Father in his Easter “judgment” acted differently from the master of the vineyard in the parable. Even the murder of his son did not provoke in him a reaction of vengeful retribution, but he sent the risen one back with the message “Peace be with you!” (Luke 24:36; see also John 20:19, 26) to those disciples who at the critical moment had allowed themselves to be drawn into the camp of the opponents of the kingdom of God. The judge’s verdict at Easter was consequently not only a retrospective confirmation of the message of Jesus, but it also contained a completely new element, namely, forgiveness for those who had rejected the offer of pure forgiveness itself and persecuted the Son. Through the Easter message of peace there came about a redoubling of that readiness to forgive expressed in the message of the basileia, a pardon for the earlier nonacceptance of pardon. It could be summed up in that saying from the Old Testament, which, taken together with the parable of the wicked wine-growers and seen in the light of Easter, says something quite new and can serve as the hermeneutical key to the Gospels: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was accomplished by the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Mark 12:10). The miracle of Good Friday and of Easter once again embraces those people who hardened their hearts and made their decision against the Son. A rightly understood doctrine of the atoning death is therefore, even when seen from the viewpoint of Easter, not in opposition to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. On the contrary, it is precisely the peace of Easter which shows how the Father of Jesus willingly forgives, even in the face of people’s hardened hearts.

Finally, from this perspective it is also understandable why the heavenly Father “held back” in his Easter judgment and why he did not powerfully authenticate his Son before the whole world. Jesus made the claim, by his proclamation and by his lived decision not to meet the violence of his opponents on their own level, that God’s action is not identical with action on this earth which brings immediate victory. He was not able himself to prove this claim, since it led him by an inner logic to earthly defeat. But even the Father was unable to endorse him in a graphic way, since a demonstrative, public intervention in favor of the Son would have worked precisely against his message. The action of God and a historical, public victory would have appeared once again as identical values, and the way of surrender to death would have shown itself to be merely a passing episode. This style of endorsement would have contradicted what was to be endorsed. Rather, what was needed was a sign which on the one hand made explicit the unrestricted divine “yes” to Jesus and on the other hand was “reserved,” so that it was not tantamount to a public victory. Both demands were met by the appearances of the risen one before the women and his disciples. What from the historical-critical viewpoint may be felt to be unsatisfying shows itself to be most appropriate at the level of the inner coherence of content. Thus it emerges once more that the cryptic presuppositions of the historical-critical method do not match the reality which came to expression for the first time in the fate of Jesus.