Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Was Jesus "cursed" to Hell (Gal 3:13 - Part 2) - More problems with Penal Substitution

Years ago I had written about Galatians 3:13 and whether it supported the Protestant doctrine of Penal Substitution (see HERE), which I've written many posts on this blog about. The basic claim of Protestant advocates is that when St Paul says Jesus "became a curse," they say this 'clearly' teaches that Jesus suffered the eternal spiritual torments of hellfire that we deserved. One of the most popular conservative Protestant preachers of our time was RC Spoul, where he preached on this very issue at a major conference: "Jesus had some experience of the beauty of the Father until that moment that my sin was placed upon him, and the one who was pure was pure no more. And God cursed Him. It was as if there was a cry from heaven—excuse my language, but I can be no more accurate than to say—it was as if Jesus heard the words "God Damn You." Because that's what it meant to be cursed, to be damned, to be under the anathema of a Father." (Ligoner Ministries 2019). Protestants cite Gal 3:13 as if it explicitly meant God the Father cursed Jesus with eternal wrath, basically eternal damnation to hellfire. The reality is, that is reading way too much into the text and even causes many problems, some of which I have already highlighted in Part 1. In this Part 2, I will take a look at another historical view of this text that doesn't get much attention but which I feel makes far more sense.

The primary dispute on this verse is what does "cursed (by God)" mean. The Biblical term "curse" refers to speaking/wishing evil upon someone, whether deserved or not. It is not some generic term for "damn to hellfire". In fact, the term "curse" as it is used in the Bible refers almost always to physical evils that come upon someone or something. For example God curses the serpent, saying it will now slither across the ground (Gen 3:14), and God curses the ground after Adam sinned, saying the ground will now produce thorns (Gen 3:17). Noah curses Canaan saying Canaan will be a slave and mockery. In 2 Kings 2:24, Elisha calls a curse on some boys mocking him, and a bear came and tore them up. Jesus cursed the fig tree by saying it will never produce fruit again, and it withered and died (Mt 21:19). There are even times when God is said to make someone "a curse," such as in 2 Kings 22:19, Jeremiah 24:9, 25:18, all referring to the land becoming desolated as a result of the Israelites' sinful behavior. Most especially is Deuteronomy 28:15, which lists a bunch of curses God will do to the Israelites if they break the Mosaic Covenant, including sickness, drought, famine, defeated in battle, blindness, anxiety, scabs, tumors, etc. This Deut 28 curse section is the very context of Gal 3:10-13, which is what Paul is directly citing. This Biblical understanding of "curse" fits far better with the notion that Jesus was publicly humiliated with crucifixion than it does of the Protestant presumption that it must be speaking of some invisible damnation curse by the Father. And that leads us into the "new insight" of this post.

Recall that Paul is not 'randomly' saying Jesus became a curse in Gal 3:13, but that Paul is actually citing Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which says:

22 And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.
Notice the verse is largely focused on taking care not to defile the Promise Land, and thus the cursed language actually more of a parentheses. So what is it about a body on a tree that defiles the land? Many would say that what "defiles the holy land" is the presence of gravely sinful individuals, such as criminals running around unpunished, which is understandable (cf Num 35:34; Lev 18:24-25). But in this case, it is specifically focused on the burial process, which I'm not sure if other texts address. This verse is unique and somewhat mysterious. This is when I came upon some Biblical commentary that indicate some commentators interpret the "cursed" (by God) text not as God cursing the individual, but rather of the mutilated body being a blasphemy, reproach, curse, etc, against God. For example, the predominant Rabbinical reading is that since man is made in God's Image, then to mutilate or defile the body is basically an insult, blasphemy, etc, against God. This fits with why the Torah forbids certain tattoos, certain fashions, certain grooming, etc, because it is human mutilation. It not only messes with the people, but it is also a bad testimony to others when you're supposed to be a good example to them. (How tragic it is when we see our fellow citizens mutilating their bodies, often because they are deeply wounded inside.)

When the human body is treated like garbage then it is an insult to God's prized creation made in His image, and it is a very pagan thing to mutilate the body. We see how disgusted we get when we think about the Aztecs who used to mutilate their enemies while still alive, and how dark of a cloud comes upon our nation when we think about abortion happening everywhere. When we see in National Geographic type magazines the Islamic form of punishment, namely decapitation, cutting off heads, cutting off hands, cutting off feet, etc, we become repulsed. Similarly, when we see a corpse hanging from a tree or pole, we become grossed out. We are not grossed out or repulsed from mere capital punishment, but rather only those which are popularly called "cruel and unusual" punishment. So similarly, imagine what God sees when the human body is mutilated. In this situation, while it was necessary to have crucifixion for grave offenses, the Mosaic Law put limits on this.

Saint Jerome mentions that some translations had even captured this "curse in the sight of God" rendering, in his Commentary on Galatians (HERE):
Where Aquila and Theodotion produce a similar translation: “For he who has been hung is a curse in the eyes of God,” the Hebrew has “For he who is hanged is cursed by God”. The half-Christian, half-Jewish Ebion took it as,“He was hung for being an outrage to God.” I recall reading in the Greek Debate between Jason and Papiscus the words “The one who is hanged is a curse in the eyes of God.” A Jew who gave me some instruction in Scripture told me that the phrase could even be construed as, “Because God was hanged in a disgraceful manner.”
So this is a known understanding, especially since the original passage can be understood in more than one sense. St Jerome says a Jewish teacher at that time said the Hebrew could be construed as basically saying a crucified person bears God's Image, so if they hang from a tree it is as if to say God Himself was hanging disgraced from a tree. In that sense, we can see an obvious Gospel message hidden here, and surely this is something Paul could have known about since it is a common Jewish interpretation. In fact, it seems that John Calvin himself basically affirms this theme, and he writes very well on this point (as he often does in his Commentaries), explaining Dt 21:23 (HERE):
The object of this precept [to take down the body and bury it] was to banish inhumanity and barbarism from the chosen people, and also to impress upon them horror even of a just execution. And surely the body of a man suspended on a cross is a sad and hideous spectacle; for the rights of sepulcher [ie burial] are ordained for man, both as a pledge and symbol of the resurrection, and also to spare the eyes of the living, lest they should be defiled by the sight of so horrible a thing. Moses does not here speak generally, but only of those malefactors who are unworthy of the honor of burial; yet the public good is regarded in the burial even of such as these, lest men should grow accustomed to cruelty, and thus become more ready to commit murder. Moreover, that they may take more careful heed in this matter, he declares that the land would be defiled, if the corpse should be left hanging on the cross, since such inhumanity pollutes and disgraces the land. And this was more intolerable in Judea, which God had given as an inheritance to his elect people, that he might be there worshiped reverentially, and purely, every profanation being excluded. The man so hanged is called  “the curse of God,” because this kind of punishment is detestable in itself. God, indeed, does not forbid criminals to be crucified, or hanged on a gallows, but rather gives His sanction to this mode of punishment; He only, by His own example, exhorts the Israelites to abhor all atrocity. Although, therefore, He does not disapprove of the punishment, He still says that lie abominates those that are hanged on a tree, that the scandal may be immediately removed; nor does He call them accursed, as if their salvation was to be despaired of, but because the hanging was a mark of His curse. This passage Paul applies to Christ, to teach us that He was made κατάρα (a curse) for us, that He might deliver us from the curse of the Law. 
There is a lot of good stuff here, and Calvin draws out the Death-Resurrection theme hidden within Deut 21:23, since the burial is done with not just respect to the body, but to teach the hope of resurrection. The curse here is not damnation, for the criminals here aren't being damned to hellfire, but rather the mutilation of the human body is detestable in God's sight. Mutilation, inhumanity, barbarism is a blasphemy-curse before God. Calvin even includes the detail that "nor does He call them accursed as if their salvation was to be despaired of," to clarify that just because someone is crucified doesn't mean they are damned, even if they are suffering gruesome punishment. To me the "Good Thief" is an an example of this, who though crucified this was not some definitive mark of his damnation, for he was certainly saved. The Good Thief was not cursed in some spiritual eternal wrath sense, despite being justly crucified - so how much less reason is there to presume Jesus was spiritually cursed especially upon being unjustly crucified (see Luke 23:40-41)?

Within the context of Galatians 3:13-14, if Paul is talking about Jesus destroying old enemies like death and old covenant, in order that we can "live" by faith (cf Romans 4:25), then it would make sense to see "cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree" as a shorthand way of Paul preaching a Gospel message of something akin to, "death is a mutilation of God's plan for humanity and Jesus came to end it". I think that seeing the text in this 'deeper' way gives us more to appreciate and a more robust argument by Paul, rather than the standard treatment which doesn't really draw much out of the verse than a generic and vague "Jesus died for us". On the surface, Paul seems to be jumping around from the "curse of the law" to now this tree curse somehow satisfies things, and this somehow causes blessings to flow. Since Paul doesn't give much detail, we kind of have to fill in the gaps, since his letter wasn't meant to go into every detail. The redemption language would definitely suggest the 'cosmic injustice' of violating the law could only be offset by another 'cosmic injustice' of crucifying God's innocent Son. But why leave out the "burial" aspect, which certainly implies Resurrection? I say we should savor the whole of Deut 21:23 and not merely gloss over it, since Paul certainly wasn't about lifting random half verses out of the OT.

In conclusion, I think the "crucified man is cursed" phrase of Deuteronomy 21:23 is best understood in the sense "mutilation is detestable in God's sight," for this fits the context and makes the most sense of the passage. Merely being put to death does not defile the land, but rather this specific form of punishment does. And this theme, with a "subtle emphasis" on the burial and resurrection, better fits the New Testament themes as well, since the New Testament has a special emphasis on Jesus being taken down and buried, with Resurrection playing just as much a key role in our salvation.

"We are receiving the due reward of our deeds;
but this man has done nothing wrong." Lk 23:41


Talmid said...

Very informative text! I aways wondered what exactly was special in having a dead body hung on a tree. Like, it is very painful yes, but is this fact enough?

That view you showed do maje sense. Calvin take on it is duprisingly but a good one as well.

Sean and Cheryl said...

Nick, most or all of the curses that you list *are* grievous, irreversible, and eternal.

"For example God curses the serpent, saying it will now slither across the ground" - Satan is eternally cursed.

God curses the ground after Adam sinned, saying the ground will now produce thorns - The earth is eternally cured until it is destroyed and replaced with an uncursed earth at the end of days.

Noah curses Canaan saying Canaan will be a slave and mockery. - Probably the weakest one here, the only one that is self evidently temporary. But grievous and lasted for centuries, and deserving of death.

Elisha calls a curse on some boys mocking him, and a bear came and tore them up. - Death resulting from sin by enemies of God invokes permanent punishment, does it not?

Jesus cursed the fig tree by saying it will never produce fruit again, and it withered and died - Explicitly permanent, from the mouth of Christ.

2 Kings 22:19, Jeremiah 24:9, 25:18 (and most of the rest of Jeremiah), Deuteronomy 28:15 - all point to the sinful portion of Israel, the rotten figs in which nothing good could be found and needed to be utterly destroyed such that only a remnant would be preserved. Implication - these guys all died in their sins and went off to eternal punishment.

These are in contrast to the general hanging on a tree. Your argument is stronger here, but the flaw is that the purpose of *these* curses are to point to Christ, not to a class of "temporary, don't-worry-about-these-particular-curses-laid-down-by-the-Almighty".

So you have a default curse implication, which is hellfire, and a Christological implication which is nothing more than to point to Christ.
The default interpretation of what happened to Christ is therefore something equivalent to hellfire.

Sean and Cheryl said...

*cursed, not cured. Adam curing the earth is....profoundly unbiblical.

Nick said...

The good thief was hung on a tree, so that means he was eternally cursed, so damned to hell yet he was also saved. I can completely believe there are Protestants who accept this.