Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Atonement: Did God Just Really Need to Punish Someone?

It's called the "penal substitution" doctrine of the Atonement.  It means that God, being just and holy, demands that all sin be punished, and that Jesus Christ substituted Himself for us and received in our place the punishment that is due to us.  And according to certain branches of Christianity, it is the only allowable version of the Atonement you can believe and still be a true Christian.  As Southern Baptist minister Al Mohler says in his article, "Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the Gospel":

This either is the Gospel, or, it is not. The dividing line is abundantly clear; we either believe that the sum and substance of the Gospel is that a holy and righteous God—Who must demand a full penalty for our sin—both demands the penalty and provides the penalty, through His Own self-substitution in Jesus Christ—the Son—whose perfect obedience, and perfectly accomplished atonement, has purchased for us all that is necessary for our salvation—has met the full demands of the righteousness and justice of God against our sin.

We either believe that, or we do not. If we do not, then we believe that the Gospel can be nothing more than some kind of message intended to reach some emotive level in the human being, so that the human being would think better of God, and might want to associate with Him. . . .

If you will deal with it, if you will read it, if you will honestly reflect upon it—if you will work through the biblical texts—it will become a matter of [ir]refutable truth; that the central thrust of the Scriptures atonement, is that God demanded a punishment for sin, and requires it by His own holiness and justice, and that He provided it in Jesus Christ—Who died on our behalf—paying in full the penalty for our sin.

The problem, of course, is that if this is really what the Atonement is all about-- if it's about a God who just cannot be appeased unless He can punish somebody-- it doesn't speak very well for the character of God.  And if the One God chooses to punish is His innocent Son-- well, many who have left Christianity or who refuse to embrace it, reject it because God seems to them to be a monster.  A "divine child abuser," I have heard them say.  "Fixated on punishment."

Many Christians disagree with this idea for the same sorts of reasons.  New Testament Professor James McGrath's blog Exploring Our Matrix puts it like this:

First, the Bible regularly depicts God as forgiving people. If there is anything that God does consistently throughout the Bible, it is forgive. To suggest that God cannot forgive because, having said that sin would be punished, he has no choice but to punish someone, makes sense only if one has never read the penitential psalms, nor the story of Jonah. The penal substitution view of atonement takes the metaphor of sin as debt and literalizes it to the extent that one’s actions are viewed in terms of accounting rather than relationship. It is not surprising this is popular: in our time, debts are impersonal and most people have them, and it is easier to think of slates being wiped clean and books being balanced than a need for reconciliation. But the latter is the core element if one thinks of God in personal terms. . .

The moral issue with penal substitution is closely connected with the points just mentioned. Despite the popularity of this image, to depict God as a judge who lets a criminal go free because he has punished someone else in their place is to depict God as unjust.

So there is a serious disagreement between Christians like Mohler, who claim that if you don't believe the Atonement is about penal substitution, you don't believe the Gospel at all, and Christians like McGrath, who believe the penal substitutionary model is unhelpful and not actually what the Bible teaches.  

Where do I fall in all this?  Somewhere in the middle, actually.

It seems to me that at times the Bible does present the Atonement -- Christ's death on the Cross-- in the light of penal substitution.  Isaiah 53:8-10 does say, "[F]or he was cut off from the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. . . Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand."  But this is not the only picture or description of the Atonement in the Bible!  And it seems to me that viewing the Atonement in terms of penal substitution casts God as a monster only if you insist on taking it as a literal fact instead of as a picture or description to help us understand something which is actually beyond the ability of finite minds to fully understand.  

I believe that like many mysteries of the divine, the Atonement is not something we can even talk about except in terms of analogy and approximation.  Narrowly taking one of the Bible's analogies/approximations and claiming that it is the only truly Christian way to understand the Atonement, seems to me to leave out all the other analogies the Scriptures use to help us understand.  And rejecting the idea entirely, though it may help those who now find it barbaric, doesn't do much for those who really have been helped and comforted by the idea of their sin as a criminal debt that has been paid (see Colossians 2:13-14).  

But the Bible also presents the Atonement in terms of ransom.  Jesus said, "For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many."  We tend to look at ransom nowadays in terms of kidnapping or hostage-taking: a criminal has stolen your loved ones and wants payment before they can be released.  But in New Testament times, "ransom" was a word referring to the paying of the monetary value of a slave, in order to set that slave free.  Sharper Iron Forums puts it this way:

The ransom is the price that is paid to set the slave free. In the manumission ceremony, the money that the god paid to the owner to secure his freedom was the ransom. The verbal picture this word created in the minds of those in the first century was both graphic and meaningful. When Jesus announced that he was giving his life as the ransom, people understood that he was paying the price which would set them free. The analogy with slavery was graphic. They saw themselves as the slaves and Jesus as the one who paid the price. The price to set us free from sin and death was not 3 1/2 minae of silver; it was the very life of Jesus.

The Atonement is also presented in the Scriptures in terms of victory.  Colossians 2:15 says, "And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it [the cross]."   As theologian/apologist Greg Boyd teaches in his blog "The Christus Victor View of the Atonement":

The central thing Jesus did, according to Peter [in Acts 2:32-36], was fulfill Psalms 110:1. Jesus had been raised to a position of divine power (the Lord’s “right hand”) over his defeated and humiliated enemies (who are now his “footstool”). In an apocalyptic Jewish context, this is simply what it meant to say that Jesus brought the kingdom of God. To say the kingdom of God has come was to say the kingdom of Satan has been defeated.

The Atonement is also presented in the Scriptures in terms of sacrifice, which, though related to penal substitution, also encompasses all the meanings of the various sacrifices of the Old Testament.  Jesus is our sacrifice for sin according to Hebrews 10:2, but He is also our Passover Lamb according to 1 Corinthians 5:7 (a sacrifice that was more about deliverance than it was about sin).   His sacrifice is also about reconciliation and peace with God, as Colossians 1:20 says: "And having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things to himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth or things in heaven."

So all these different pictures, models and analogies define the Atonement for us in the New Testament.  It seems to me that all of them together are needed to approximate as closely as possible what the Atonement actually means.  The Bible's analogies are set forth in terms of what would be most helpful and understandable to the peoples and cultures in which they were originally presented.  If we take any one of them, such as penal substitution, and insist that this is the one and only way to view the Atonement-- when no one in our times and cultures, including ourselves, really understands deep down what a substitutionary sacrifice would have meant emotionally and intellectually to a reader back then-- is to hamstring the message of the Gospel as it might more deeply reach our minds and hearts today.  And to remove any one of them could mean to lose a piece of the whole picture.

I can understand why it doesn't make sense to to many people to look at the Atonement and say, "God just had to punish someone, and the perfect One to punish was His willing Son."  So I'm going to present a more modern picture of how the Atonement looks to me, based on the passages about it all taken together.  Keeping in mind that mine, too, is an attempt to describe the undescribable, this is how I see it:

The universe, as the Christian sees it, has a deeper reality underlying (and overarching) the physical world. The physical world came into being at the will of God. God is the Source of all Being-- but not in the deistic sense that God just started things off but remained detached or absent from them. God continually sustains the universe by His constant will.  [Note: this is a generic pronoun I'm using for convenience and is not meant to make a statement about the gender of God.]

All other consciousnesses spring from the consciousness of God. This doesn't mean God constantly directly interferes in the workings of the universe, however; God desires that humans, who are made in His image (having self-awareness and the ability to make choices) should be free agents.

The other thing about the underlying reality of God is what can best be described as pure, absolute goodness and love-- that is the nature of God. We can refer to it as spiritual Life. The free-will agents that God made, however (and I think God made other free-will agents than humans: beings without physical form, just as God is without physical form), having their own wills, separate from God-- they chose to separate themselves from God. But to separate yourself from absolute good and absolute love, is to become other than good, and other than loving. It is to introduce evil and hate. This evil and hate-- we can call it spiritual Death-- has stained the physical universe. It is a blight, an uncleanness, which exists in the universe but cannot ultimately survive within the absolute goodness and love which is God. And it is destructive. It tears apart the relationships which God intended His self-aware beings to live in, with God and with each other. This blight is known as "sin." It's like an infection which cannot be tolerated; it must eventually all be removed, because left alone, it will eventually destroy the creation.  God has to do something about Death.  He can't just leave it alone; it's going to have to go.

Now, here's the problem. Humans are not only infected with Death (remember, we are not talking about physical death, but something else entirely), but they are also making choices, every day, to continue in Death. So-- how to remove the infection without destroying the humans it has infected? God, being absolute Love, does not want to destroy the beings He made for the purposes of loving and being loved.

First of all, God has to get the humans to understand that the infection exists, and that it has to be removed. So He picks one human tribe thousands of years ago, for a start, and begins to restore His broken relationship with humanity through them. He sets up the Law, with its system of blood sacrifice of animals. He makes sure the people understand that the blood represents life, because only life can cleanse/remove the death that is sin.

Once the idea, Blood Equals Life (Leviticus 17:11), is firmly in the people's minds, then God can do what He intended to do all along. His absolute Life will cleanse the Death that is evil and hate. But He can only do this if He becomes able experience Death Himself. The Death is affecting the physical world, so God has to become physical. He incarnates Himself: He becomes human.

Now, because He is God, He can become not only a human-- He can become the Representative Human for all of humanity. In the spiritual world, as the Representative Human, He can identify Himself completely with all humans, so that all sin which has infected humanity can be imputed to Him. Once this is done, because He is also the Source of absolute Life, the physical blood He sheds can represent His Life. His Life can cleanse the Death, once for all time.

But there is one other problem. The free-will agents He has made are still free-will agents. He wants them that way-- because He wants them to love Him, and love that is forced isn't love.  It's worthless to Him. As free-will agents, they have to choose to partake of the cleansing He has accomplished-- or not. Also, because of the choices of the free-will agents, the cleansing of Death has not removed Death from the Creation. Eventually, God is going to have to destroy the Death entirely, and that will destroy any free-will beings who continue to embrace Death. But now there's another choice.

Just as God chose to spiritually identify Himself with all humanity, so each human can choose to identify him/herself with God. If the human identifies with God, then the act in which God's Life was poured out against Death is imputed to the human, just as the human's sin was imputed to God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The choice the human makes is called "belief" or "faith" in God. But this is much more than just mental assent to the idea that God exists-- it means that the human places her/his trust in God, giving up her/his life of sin, and identifying her/himself with the pure Life and Love which is God. Through identification with God's Death, the human "dies" to sin (see Romans 6:4).  A spiritual transformation takes place within the human, in which the Death which was in the human's spirit is changed into the Life of God. To the human, this is experienced as an act of surrender. The human "loses his life for Christ's sake, and finds it" in Him again. The life which the human then walks in, is the life of God within the human spirit (See Galatians 2:20.)  Though the human's body is still living in the tainted universe, and the human still experiences sin as a struggle between the changed spirit and the unchanged body, one day we humans will live free from Death and sin, completely at one with God (1 John 3:2-3).

This is the "identification" model of the Atonement, and I have no doubt it has probably been described more eloquently by someone else, somewhere.   But I think it incorporates all the biblical ideas of penal substitution, ransom, victory, sacrifice and reconciliation, into a coherent picture that makes sense to me.

I hope it will be helpful to some of you, too.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this clarification and teaching. Simplistic thinking about the freely-chosen sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins reminds me of the Catholic view of the crucifixion, the event that equated with punishment in the minds of Catholics, only worse, because it was also taught that we (speaking as a former Catholic) must participate in it via penance/purgatory. Dreadful. As always, God's ways are so much more loving than motives we can surmise and ascribe to Him.

And, of course, Jesus didn't stay in the (shameful) grave as would all other guilty parties.

The only value of truncating the total value of everything Jesus accomplished for us at the cross is to monger some sort of power or control.

At least people who reject the simplistic views have identified questionable fruit. Let's hope they also now consider the truth, the real "story" and investigate further.

A. Amos Love said...

Hi Kristen

Sorry for posting here - I couldn’t find your email/

I left two comments addressed to you At Denny Burks

One after your comment to me. #1

And the other at the end of the thread - #2

1 - October 8, 2012 at 12:03 pm
2 - October 8, 2012 at 12:27 pm

With Respect and Admiration

A. Amos Love

perfectnumber628 said...

This is very thorough and well-written, and brings up a lot of things I hadn't thought about before- like the fact that there are several analogies in the New Testament to explain Christ's sacrifice.

Growing up, it seems I always heard the gospel explained in a sort of "God had to punish someone" way. Now that I think about it, it seems a little strange- my relationship with God has always been more complex than that, so why did I think the only "right" way to explain Christianity was a gospel presentation that talked about some technicality in God's slightly arbitrary and unchangeable law?

Basically, what I'm saying is the way I was taught to explain "the gospel" didn't really resonate with me, it was just something that Christians were supposed to memorize. (It wasn't what saved me, so why did we think it would convince other people?) Over the past few years, I've been learning to explain my faith and the gospel in a way that really means a lot to me, in a way I can really get behind.

But I still have a fear that if I explain it in a way that makes sense and resonates with people, it's "not really the gospel" or I'm "watering it down to make it more attractive"...

perfectnumber628 said...

Like I said, I really liked this post! I've written a "response" with some more of my own thoughts about "sharing the gospel". Here it is: The Gospel: More Than the Bridge Diagram

Kristen said...

Phyllis and Perfectnumber-- thanks for the comments! I think it makes a lot of sense to wonder why, when we ourselves came to Jesus out of attraction to His person and teachings and an encounter with His Spirit, we think others are going to come because we give them the "right" teaching about the Atonement. As you said, Phyllis, it seems to indicate a desire for control-- perhaps to control the outcome rather than letting the Spirit do His thing.

Kristen said...

Or, perhaps, what we desire to control is the Atonement itself-- taming it so that it stays within our own understanding and is no longer a Mystery.

Lori said...

Wow. Really something to think about! From this point of view, and I have to say, it's new to me, God isn't "waiting to drop the other shoe" as we've discussed so many times. It makes the idea of Love as the foundation much easier to consider- sort of. It's rather shameful of me to not have considered another view on penal substitution. It seems a foundational principle- one that could be revolutionary in application (giving up my reformed beliefs). The question for me is whether I accept your premise:
"All other consciousnesses spring from the consciousness of God. This doesn't mean God constantly directly interferes in the workings of the universe, however; God desires that humans, who are made in His image (having self-awareness and the ability to make choices) should be free agents." (Emphasis mine).

Kristen, do you think God "interferes" in our daily lives? It makes Him sound so distant and uncaring about the details of our lives. If love is the primary motivation of God, why would he NOT be constantly interfering in our lives? What value or hope then is there in prayer? Yes, we've talked around this and it a hard question for me.

Kristen said...


I understand your question and it is something I've wrestled with as well-- but I don't really think it's an either/or proposition: that either God constantly interferes, or that God never interferes. Another thing is that the word I used, "directly," is getting lost here. I think God often, and maybe even constantly, indirectly influences, draws people to Himself, and softly guides us. I think God does answer prayer, and sometimes answers by directly interfering, but often answers by indirectly influencing.

The Arminian idea of "resistible grace" says that we cannot come to God without God drawing us by grace-- but that God never draws us so hard that we have no free will. I believe God is capable of, and uses, a great deal of finesse in His workings with the world, so that He is steering it towards the ends He desires, but not directly causing everything that happens, or making us do His will.

That's how I see it, anyway.

Kristen said...

P.S. About this:

"It's rather shameful of me to not have considered another view on penal substitution."

I don't see why it would be "shameful." It's always good to open our eyes to new perspectives, but I don't think we should be ashamed of where we've come from.

Renegade Gospel said...

You can find the complete answers to atonement in a kindle book called Renegade Gospel The Jesus Manifold by Jamey Massengale.
1. God is the creator completely soveriegn
2 My separation from God is due to my knowledge of good and evil because i use it to judge god i.e. why do the innocent suffer etc. is an accusation in interrogative format.
3 If God is omniscient I cant do other than what God KNEW i would do before He created me and He created me as He did; therefore God is responsible for my sin
4 If God is responsible for my sin then God should die for my sin
5 In Jesus God did die for my sin or Jesus as god died for all sin ( which is by the way the ultimate statement of soveriegnty, where God says in essence “I do it all” cause effect and resolution.)
6 However Jesus the man did not sin nor was He under original sin so He didn’t deserve to die, but being God as man, now by the rule of equity, all men are equal to God, syllogism: Jesus is a man and all men are human therefore Jesus is human and Jesus is God therefore all men are in Jesus equal to God in their HUMAN/GOD rights.
7 Therefore since only God as the “potter” had the rights of life, liberty, and property; and since Jesus transfers to all humans like Himself those rights, we don’t need a law saying by fiat “thou shalt not kill”, because all men now have the right to life; I know I violate that right if I kill a man. Thereby the law is fulfilled in right-eousness, or “the having of the rights of God”.
That’s it in a nutshell and it explains a lot of ambiguous statements Paul makes. I haven’t quoted much scripture for brevity’s sake but I find the Jesus manifold completely supported from genesis to revelation. It affirms the homoousion, it satisfies the complete taxonomy of sin(ontologic, deontic, and relational), and it satisfies all of Abelard’s criteria: 1. it’s logical 2. It’s not arbitrary if God is omniscient, therefore actions are predestined, and love demand’s it to satisfy the human cry of injustice. 3 It’s intelligible being stated capable of syllogistic treatment in plain unambiguous language. The implications to a multiverse for an omniscient God require He know everything in all possible universes, this single incarnation would then only be required in this one to satisfy it’s precise constraints, as it exists within the multiplicity of universes in God’s consciousness.
I apologize if the first part is ambiguous as to the idea of multiverse. Only in science fiction and thought experiment is a multiverse with divergent timelines considered. This universe has the timline it does because of physical constraints that cannot be changed if human life is to exist as it does(see Anthropic principle). There are approximately 20 such constraints that are so precise the universe would cease to exist as it does if they varied even one plank measure. Those multiverses actually possible would be defined by changes in those constants. Therefore there can be no other universe which would value the atonement as this one does(anthropically); however these constants do not forbid interactions at the quantum level, and may derive their stability from these interactions. In that case the incarnation in this universe has it’s meaning only in this universe but would have implications to all other possible universes.

Kristen said...

Interesting. There's things I don't agree with, but interesting.