If God has a real relationship in time with this creation, including human beings, then not only does God act to affect events in the world, but God is acted upon and affected by events in the world.
The Old Testament's so-called "anthropocentric" way of presenting God in a simple dramatic relationship with human beings and the created order at times may be the only "realistic" way to express how God is related to the created order.
God is not presented in the Old Testament as if everytime God says: "jump," the created order comes into complete line with God's will. God is presented as ruler over creation, but not a ruler whose actions have a one-to-one correspondence with events in the world. God acts upon the forces of the world and gives shape to them, but there are other agents in the animal world, particular human agents, who act from their side as well giving shape to the created order and perhaps influencing God, working to effectuate God's purposes or working in some real sense to hinder or frustrate God's purposes.
Whether one understands God to be in a real, dramatic relationship with this creation and its creatures, or whether one understands God to simply sit at the switchboard and order all that takes place is very important in theology and faith and life.
If a person thinks deep down that God has simply designed everything beforehand and willed each thing to take place that does take place, then the death of Jesus is not part of God's dramatic and passionate efforts to save a rebellious humanity and a broken creation. Because if God has simply set it all out beforehand, and the death of Jesus is simply the unfolding of the irresistible, set-in-stone will of God, and not part of the dramatic back and forth between God and the created order, then it is as if God willed to have humans rebel and Jesus' death was God's affirmative will as well.
If it is all understood this way with God planning it all out like the script of a play before hand, then God is not really in relationship with humanity and creation; we are just actors inevitably acting out a drama we have not part in shaping; and then Jesus is simply the same kind of actor in the inevitable history dictated by God.
There used to be two concepts that were used in theology to try to hold onto the truth that God is in complete control over creation, while acknowledging that there is much rebellion against God's ways in creation. These concepts were the affirmative will of God and the permissive will of God.
The affirmative will of God is that all human beings obey God's law by loving God and neighbor. The permissive will of God allows (while still not losing control or the ability to mold) humans to both obey and rebel and cause good and evil on earth. In fact, as God remains involved in creation, God works at bringing the "out of control" under control at every moment. This is a way of saying God is in relationship with that which is anti-God, and does not lose control of it ultimately. Jesus seems to have represented this type of view as he prays: "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done - on earth as it is in heaven."
This way of speaking is at least much better than the common way of simply saying that "nothing happens that God doesn't want to happen." As if God affirmatively wills all that happens or else it would not happen. This, to me, seems very wrong unless you believe in God as some operative concept and not as a real Being who can be in relationship to other personal beings and other forces in the world.
All of these thoughts become very, very important as we turn to understand what happened when Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. How was God involved in that? It is accepted as "God's will" by almost all Christians, but was Jesus' death God's affirmative will or God's permissive will? I believe that it was part of God's permissive will as the deepest desire of God was not humanity's rejection of God in human flesh, but the deepest desire of God was to save all human flesh. God's affirmative will was to save humanity from the self-destruction that comes of rejecting God's authority and truth and grace. In order to accomplish his affirmative will, God must in a sense get in the mix with other forces in creation - act and be acted upon by them - in order to shape that creation in a real way. I believe that God did exactly that in Jesus in the most dramatic way possible. He actually allowed his very Being to be affected by human response and rejection, and took that rejection into himself and in an act of creation out of nothing just as grand as the original creative act took the hatred and rebellion of humanity and transformed it into a life-giving,saving presence for humanity.
It is in this area of the permissive will of God that the real action of history takes place. The concept of "the affirmative will of God" is how we perceive that God had wanted to be in relation with the world. But, in this thinking about "the permissive will of God" we really come into touch with the real world of God and humanity and all creation, and begin to have some chance to touch on the real, dramatic relationship within which God works out the salvation of the world. But, God is in the midst creating out nothing, actually creating good out of less than nothing.
Jesus is often presented in conservative Protestant theology as simply an answer to the problem of how sinful humans can be forgiven by a God who cannot accept sin. That is, Jesus' death is presented as the solving of a problem that was God's problem,not our problem. I understand Jesus' death as God's response to the ultimate rejection of God by humanity, as a response to the deepest problem of humanity: a will that was opposed to the great Will of God to save and bless humanity - a human will that was bent on self-destruction. The problem was on the side of humanity,not on God's side. Jesus' death didn't convince God to give humanity another chance; Jesus died because God just couldn't help but reach out to save even if it cost him the one human who was closest and dearest to his heart.
So, in simple terms that a child can understand, I ask: "Did God want Jesus to die?" No, that is the last thing God wanted. But, how can something happen that God does not want to happen?
"Did God allow Jesus to die?" Yes, because God is in a real relationship with this world. Did Jesus death affect God? So deeply that it shook all things, even the heart of God. And, what poured forth from the heart of God was not vengeance against humanity for killing Jesus, but love for humanity and the resurrection of Jesus. God could have raised up Jesus to conquer and destroy humanity,but he raised up Jesus as the first-born of a new creation from within humanity to save humanity and all creation.
I guess it begins to become abstract at this point. But, then the dramatic relationship of God with this world and especially with humanity is a story about real events, and about real choices and responses that have shaped reality at its depths.
But, the history of Christianity carries within it two distinct and very different strands of belief: on one side there is the belief in an abstract concept of God from which one can deduce all sorts of theories about life and salvation; and on the other side there is a devotion and commitment to a Real Creator who is dramatically involved with the created order and with human beings and who, though God of all, can be felt to be struggling, working, fashioning a new world, not from some throne up on high, but through a real presence in a real world and real events that sometimes almost break the very heart of God.
The first strand of belief in the abstract concept of God carries with it a rigid view of Jesus' death that actually doesn't have God involved in the death itself. This is the strict substitutionary atonement theory of Jesus' death. It goes like this: God has all humanity under judgment for sin. Jesus serves as a sacrificial lamb to cleanse humans of sin and make them acceptable to God. Those who believe this receive the benefits of Jesus' sacrifice and are acceptable before God. Those who don't believe this remain under God's judgment and rejection for being sinners. In this view of things, God was unable to reach out to humanity because he couldn't accept that which is unholy. But, the sacrifice of Jesus in dying, makes humans acceptable (so long as they come under this acceptance through faith).
The second strand of commitment and devotion to the dramatically involved Being, God, believes that it is the very nature of God to accept the unacceptable and that God's love is precisely that which "justifies the ungodly." The first strand of belief contends that only that which is holy may approach God. The second strand believes that the holiest of all shows his holiness by approaching that which is unholy and transforming it through his will to save and heal and reconcile. What is so shaking about the death of Jesus is what Luther caught on to: God is in the very center of it - not as the one who sacrifices Jesus, but as the one who is in a real sense subject and harmed by the sacrifice.