Atonement & Human Suffering – Notes on Bruce McCormack’s LATC15 Presentation

Bruce McCormack is the Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton. During the 3rd plenary session of LATC15 he presented a paper on Atonement and Human Suffering. Here are my rather shabby notes (it was harder for me to see the structure behind this lecture than the other two lectures).


Atonement and Human Suffering

Bruce McCormack

Objection: If God himself is capable of willing the death of his human son – then this allows violence into the life of God.

  • This is the most important critique of atonement.
  • Question: So how can we establish that God willed the death of his son without allowing violence into God’s inner life?

Human suffering is at best an analogy to the death of Jesus Christ.

  • The difference b/w Christ’s suffering & our suffering is not quantitative, its qualitative.

Three Main Sections

  • Gospel Narratives & Death of Christ
  • Critical Engagement w/ Hans Urs Von Balthasar
  • Problem of Suffering

The Death of Christ in the Gospel Narratives

  • Christ in his death is “the Sinner.”
  • Mark’s Rendering is the briefest, most raw, most tragically beautiful
  • In Mark the darkness ends @ the death of Christ – it’s a symbol of the outpouring of the wrath of God
  • What’s going on in the cry of dereliction?
    • List of several views
    • The abandonment itself is “all too real” – more than that cannot be said exegetically
      • Death and God- abandonment is not saving just b/c a human experienced it
        • Every human could and should experience it. If it is merely a human experience, it should not have value for all.
      • The “victory” happens in and through this abandonment

The Death of Christ: An homage to Von Balthasar & a Bit of a Critique

  • Basic to VB’s Christology is that Christ’s person just is his mission. “He is the task.”
    • It follows that God’s being really undergoes development… It is also clear that being and becoming in the incarnate one express a single being which is the streaming forth of eternal life.
  • What fails to convince is his talk of being and becoming.
    • God does not cease to be God – does not become anything other than what he eternally is.
  • (What motivates me & everything I do – is the coherence of the church’s confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. – Bruce McCormack)
  • VB – personhood & task go hand in hand.
    • Person is being employed to speak of the man Jesus – who as human is divine
  • VB – cannot free himself from a two subjects Christology – this undermines his treatment of the atonement.
  • VB in Lusterium Paschale – His most important work on Atonement
    • The early VB knew that real substitution would be impossible unless one of the trinity has suffered – both in his human nature and divine person.
    • What takes place in the Cross of Christ = turning point of old age and new
    • Describes passion in kenotic terms
    • Reaches climax in the Garden of Gethsemane
    • VB interprets the cup as the chalice of the eschatological wrath.
    • His obedience is not cheerfully offered – but something to which he is reduced.
    • In the event of the cross God condemns sin in the flesh
      • It is not just any suffering but the suffering of the eschatological wrath of God.
    • Primacy must go to the words of the cry of abandonment
    • VB believes that the Holy Spirit is “freed” when Jesus breathes his last.
      • Whatever happens next – Jesus is alone – alone in death and alone in his experience of hell.
    • Really Important – Theology of Holy Saturday
      • Hell for VB is not a place but a condition of the soul.
      • Hell is a timeless experience – not hope for change
      • The dead don’t do anything – complete and total passivity
      • Thus Jesus did not engage in any activity on the 2nd day
      • The Spiritual condition to which Christ enters is not simply going to sheol but gehenna.
    • What is hell? The deprivation of the seeing of God. It is the visio mortis – the contemplation of the pure substantiality of hell which is sin in itself.

Problem of Human Suffering

  • Much suffering isn’t due to sin. Suffering in and of itself is natural. So what can we say about the relationship b/w suffering and atonement?
  • Death of Christ does not remove suffering – only new creation does.
  • Christ’s resurrection is a proleptic in time of the end of suffering.


  • Has God made an inner peace with the violence of this world? Not at all
    • The physical suffering is not redemptive
  • Divine judgment is an act of mercy – it’s the destruction of the old world for the establishment of the new

Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

One thought on “Atonement & Human Suffering – Notes on Bruce McCormack’s LATC15 Presentation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: