I am a bit of a Thomas. When Thomas was told that Jesus had risen, he refused to believe it unless he could see Jesus with his own eyes, and touch the terrible scars (John 20:24-29). I, too, refuse to accept the Jesus presented to me by the Western church, until I can be certain, through my own probing (more intellectual than physical), that he doesn’t disintegrate under my touch. Not because I don’t believe he existed, or that he is God, as he claims, but rather because I am aware that his life story and teachings have been exploited so many times over the millennia for political or personal gain (by those who do believe his claims as well as by those who do not), and such complex mythologies have developed around him, that it is only prudent to interrogate the Jesuses we encounter.
I think if we are to put a Jesus on trial, we need to understand that – as far as I am concerned, anyway – two questions become critical: ‘Why would God become man?’ and ‘What is the significance of his death? The answers that the version of Jesus we are interrogating presents to those two questions will be pivotal in shaping our understanding of him, and of the God we worship. And that understanding would have a profound influence on the way that we view ourselves and how we understand and interact with other people. As such, I believe that these two questions deserve – indeed necessitate – rigorous exploration.
In most Western churches, the narrative that frames our understanding of those questions reads something like this: After the fall in the Garden of Eden, humanity’s sin made it impossible for them to approach God, because a holy God could not look upon, let alone remain in the presence of sinful humanity. People were destined to remain eternally separated from God. God’s absolute justice necessitated that sin be punished, and that could only be accomplished through the shedding of blood, through the death of the sinner. But God’s absolute love and mercy could not allow that, and so Jesus came to die in our place. He bore the full brunt of God’s wrath, so that God’s sense of justice could be satisfied. Jesus took the punishment that should have been ours, so that God’s perfect love could be satisfied too.
And this theory, known as the penal substitution theory, has come to be the theory of atonement in the Western church. But I have been thrilled to discover that it is not the only theory. In fact, the bulk of the philosophical work that has been done on the subject in recent decades, by writers from all denominational backgrounds, although they disagree on many issues, finds common ground in its rejection of this penal substitution model. And with good reason.
Brad Jersak, in his introduction to a collection of essays that he and Michael Hardin collated, called Stricken By God? (easily the best R400 I have spent recently), in an essay entitled Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ, provides an excellent summary of the common charges against Penal Substitution atonement theology. I will paraphrase him, and add one or two of the other common arguments against it that he has omitted:
It is, relatively speaking, a recent theory. Its conception is generally attributed to Anselm of Canterbury, who penned Cur Deus Homo in 1097, in which he advocated what has become known as “Satisfaction Theory”. Anselm argues that – as in the feudal system in which he lived – sin was a slight against God’s honour that could not be ignored, in the same way as a serf who insulted the lord of the land could not go unpunished. Martin Luther, John Calvin and many of the Reformer theologians subscribed to a similar view, with the primary difference being that instead of sin being an affront to God’s honour, it was a debt that needed to be repaid. God, they argued, could not remain just if He left the debt unpaid, but could not remain loving if He carried out the mandatory death sentence. So He took the punishment for us.
Penal substitution, however, was not the dominant interpretation of the Easter events in the early church, although when we read the New Testament in the light of this theory, it seems to support it. When you read the gospels and the Pauline letters through some of the frameworks I will represent in future posts, though, you will see how retrospective (and, I believe, flawed) our readings actually are. Yet Irenaeus (130-202), one of the bishops of the early church, in attempting to address some of what he saw as the heresies creeping into church doctrine, writes that Jesus “gave Himself as a redemption for those who had been led into captivity” (led by whom? God? Surely not! The redemptive activity is not satisfying a principle of God’s here, but a need of humanity’s)…”not by violent means, but by means of persuasion, as became a God of counsel, who does not use violent means to obtain what He desires; so that neither should justice be infringed upon, not the ancient handiwork of God go to destruction” (Adversus Haereses, 5.1.1)
It makes a mockery of the unity between Father and Son. Jesus talks about being one with the Father (John 10:30), yet if satisfaction theory is to be believed, Father and Son are on opposite sides, with Jesus’ grace pitted against the Father’s wrath. Although the theory attempts to reconcile absolute justice to absolute love, it succeeds only in painting a picture of a quite schizophrenic God.
It actually requires the debt of sin to be paid back in full. Technically there has been no grace or forgiveness shown. The sentence has simply been transferred to a guiltless third party (in itself, the ‘justice’ of this is questionable). It is punishment by proxy. God has been neither merciful nor forgiving in this model.
It defines God’s sense of justice as retributive, an issue which I dealt with in a previous post.
It is incompatible with Jesus’ life. Jesus spends his life opposing violence, whether physical or systemic. He refuses to fight those who arrest him, although his followers are willing; he socialises with social outcasts – lepers, prostitutes, women (this is one of the common complaints from the Pharisees about him); he refuses to stone the woman caught in adultery. If Jesus is God, then his actions should provide tremendous insight into the nature and character of God. An interpretation of what happened at the cross that is inconsistent with the values of non-violence and forgiveness that he consistently modelled throughout his life cannot be considered credible. If we want to understand why God would become human, and to develop a theory of atonement, it needs to take his whole life into account. His death cannot be examined in isolation.
The notion that sin can be transferable is problematic. Penal Substitution presupposes that sin can be reallocated. It makes no sense that the person who commits the crime can simply pass on the responsibility to a guiltless third party and thus be absolved. There is no real justice there. Furthermore, this model does nothing to actually reform us. It merely lets somebody else pay the price for our crimes. If God’s aim is to eliminate sin, then mere punishment is insufficient. The sinner is unchanged at the end of the process, only perhaps a little more embarrassed about it, a little humbler. But fundamentally the same person. God would need to heal us, to reform us, for sin truly to be eradicated. It would be inadequate for him only to bear its consequences on our behalf.
It does not make sense that God would deliberately orchestrate a sin to eradicate sin. Jersak put it this way: “[Jesus prayed]”Father, forgive them…” Was it God’s will that we sacrifice Jesus for him? Were we being forgiven by sacrificing Jesus so that we could be forgiven for killing him?” This is a crucial question: could a holy God preordain a sin, even if it were to end sin? I can well imagine that God could generate goodness out of a sinful situation, but if He was deliberately placing Jesus on the cross (as opposed to the cross being the inevitable, although not orchestrated outcome of the collision between divine love and with sinful humanity), then He would be – in effect – sinning to end sin.
Although the Penal Substitution model has some thoughtful champions, for me, there is just too much that does not make sense. But that does not mean that Christianity does not make sense. It only means that many of its interpretations of Jesus’ life and teachings don’t. For centuries we have subscribed to the Penal Substitution theory because we were not aware that we had any alternatives. But we do. Now I am very new to this debate, so if you have wrestled with this for longer than I have, please feel free to correct me where I misrepresent it. If you are not, and – like me – you have been uncomfortable with aspects of Evangelical Christian life but did not know how to address that discomfort, please journey with me as I try to reframe my theological framework.
Jersak proposes this: “What if the Fall of Genesis is not about the violation of a law, necessitating punishment. Perhaps it is about the venom of deception concerning God’s nature and this led (and leads) humankind to partake of the poison fruit (anything from hedonism to moralism), requiring healing?
What if, rather than separating us from the love of God, the Fall triggered God’s great quest to descend into the chasm to seek and find the lost where they had stumbled?… What if God was not punishing Jesus on the Cross, but rather, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself?” (pg 31)
I think it is time to revisit some of those key questions: Assuming that Jesus is God, as he claimed, then what did he see as his purpose? What is the significance of his death? What is sin and how does it affect our relationship with God? Could it be that the cross is not God’s brutal solution to the problem of sin, but His refusal to be drawn into the terrible cycle of human violence, his call to end centuries of war in His name,of bloody sacrifices, by responding to the violence we (not God) directed at him in the manner he had taught that we should: by turning the other cheek?
Some interesting reads:
There are literally thousands of websites discussing the issue. I have been blinded for so long to it because I simply was not looking.
I was fascinated to read this post, and I feel compelled to leave a comment. I am not greatly learned, nor do I have the gift of writing prose as beautiful and coherent as you. I have not got weighty theological training behind me. I have actually very little to put forward except that I have a faith which has caused me to adore the person of Jesus, as God has revealed him to me though the Holy Spirit and the Bible. This is the Jesus who has utterly transformed my life into one where I desire more than anything, to please Him by obeying His command to love God beyond everything and love (truly love) my neighbour as myself. I suspect that you probably consider as backwards and unenlightened, those of us Christians who hold to the view of Jesus that has prevailed throughout the centuries in evangelical churches, from the very earliest accounts
But, nonetheless, I request that you bear with me as I put forward some thoughts and questions. I beg you to let that undoubtedly brilliant intellect of your genuinely consider my comment without bending to predetermined bias…
If we are going to abandon the central doctrine of the Christian faith: that of being saved from our sin by the death of Christ on the cross (the Lamb who was slain before the creation of the world), we must ask ourselves, what in fact then is a Christian? What in fact is our faith all about? I can see that you have done much thinking about these questions and you are “thrilled” to find that there are many others, doubtless also as gifted in intellect as you, who have done likewise. It is in fact good to think deeply about these fundamental issues…we must never be afraid of probing questions. Indeed, I am a Christian not because it makes for an easier life, or it makes me feel good or it encourages me to be more “moral”, but simply because I believe with all I am, that the doctrines are true and as such I can do nothing but believe and follow, whether or not I want to. For who wishes to live their lives following a lie?
The doctrine of atonement is the central tenet of our faith. How is sin otherwise dealt with? John’s gospel talks about John the Baptist’s comment on looking at Jesus: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” In Acts 26:17-18 we are told that Jesus says to Paul at the time of his conversion “I am sending you to them [the Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they might receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me”
And of course you will be familiar with the great words of Paul in Romans 3:22-26 “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace though the redemption that came by Jesus Christ. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus”
If we decide that the critical Christian doctrine of atonement is false, we will be quite deluding ourselves by choosing to attribute the idea of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, to Anselm in the 11th century. No, we must go right back to the very beginning of our bibles and pay studious attention, because we find that the idea recurs throughout scripture. Over and over again. All of scripture indeed, is centered around God’s love for humanity, seen in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus for our sins.
You mention that the doctrine doesn’t make sense to you in a number of ways…May I dare put forward that as mere humans, can we possibly have the audacity to expect to be able to understand the great workings of the mind of an infinite Creator God? Should we be dismayed if we cannot. The bible tells us that His ways are higher than ours.
Jesus asks us to have faith like a little child. The evidence of our faith is to be clearly seen in the outworkings of our lives, which are to be selfless and overwhelmingly loving. You say that “violence” is not compatible with love. I’m not sure that violence is the right word, but if we spank our children (for even your adorable “good” son that you discuss in one of your blogs, is undoubtedly a bona fide sinner, despite his tender age and the fact that he also has a core of goodness which comes from being made in God’s image) we spank in love, for their good. The spanking, I would argue, is certainly compatible with love.
I could continue for hours. But I can see that you are weary of the arguements from your evangelical backround and have become cynical and as such, you are unsure and indeed floundering, although you talk about being thrilled with your journey of enlightenment. You will continue to flounder unless you are able to accept, in humility and childlike trust, what Jesus did for you on the cross. You will continue to flounder if you reject the bible as God’s word, which you appear to. You will continue to flounder until God gently puts his hand upon your shoulder and leads you back to where you actually truly belong: in the shadow of his wings, living your life in love, being Christ to others and letting them know the Good News: that they are truly redeemed and transformed when they put their trust in him. I can see that you are agonizing over trying to get to the truth…which implies that you are really seeking to follow the truth. Which is exactly where we must all be. So, that is very positive.
Finally though, I must differ in the very strongest terms with your comment that having sin forgiven doesn’t fundamentally change us. In this aspect you are simply wrong. Let me repeat: simply wrong. Being forgiven disarms our pride, fills us with true longing to be able to do likewise for others as he has done for us, and overwhelms us with love for Him.
Thankyou for your posts. May God lead you home so that you are able to be his true servant and honour him and the Gospel with your intellectual skill and ability. Paul’s letter to Timothy warns us for good reason about not straying from the truth with false doctrine and getting led away from the lives of service and commitment and love which Jesus wants of us, and guides us in, through his Spirit living in us.
Yours in deeply genuine concern and love and prayer
I wish to sincerely, lovingly, thank you for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully and elaborately to my post. I genuinely appreciate that. It is easy simply to read, disagree, and move on, but to engage meaningfully is a true act of love, and I receive that gift gratefully.
Please do not mistake my passion for condescension. I certainly do not regard anyone as backwards nor in any way inferior to myself. Indeed, as you say, before an infinite God, which of us can claim to have answers? Certainly not I.
I wish to make a distinction, though, between questioning God and questioning theology, or the way we think about God. The God who is and the one we construct are invariably different, and my desire is to align the way we think about God – the way I think about God – more closely with the God who is.
In so doing, I am presented with a number of problems. The first is that the way the modern church thinks about God – the way we think about atonement, particularly – is, I believe, incompatible with the gospels and Paul’s letters, and a construct of the Reformer thinkers, who were mostly lawyers (Luther, Calvin, for example) and saw the gospel as a courtroom drama. I do not think the Scriptures frame atonement this way.
I do not dispute the problem of sin, nor the need for atonement. But I think the Reformers misunderstood what happened at the cross, how Jesus dealt with sin. Sin, I think, is a disease. And, to quote Brad Jersak, you cannot punish a disease out of somebody. You need to heal them. Indeed, Jesus’ entire ministry is a healing one, and he portrays himself frequently as a kind of physician. That is the context for my comment about the penal substitution theory leaving the sinner fundamentally unchanged: if sin is a disease, punishing it does nothing to cure the disease’s roots, but deals only with symptoms. The sinner is not rstored to wholeness at a heart level. And I believe that God heals fully; He doesn;t leave it at treating symptoms.
On the cross, in my readings of the gospels, I can see no hint of the idea that God is puring out his wrath on His son. Rather, I see Jesus saying “Father, forgive them”. If we need to interpret the cross as an outpouring of God’s wrath, rather than as a manifestation of human violence and God’s rejection of it, then it doesn’t make any sort of sense that we would need to be forgiven for something that God sees as necessary, and indeed orchestrates himself, to accomplish His ends. God is, in this reading of the passion narrative, using evil (else why the need to forgive us for it?) for good ends. I have a problem with attributing that to an all-good God. Also, to use your spanking analogy, would it be just if I spanked an innocent child instead of my son, for wrongs that my son had committed? Certainly not! For something to be just, the guilty party must pay the penalty. Guilt is not transferable. And if I require that the penalty be paid in full, how can I call that mercy or grace?
No, I think this way of understanding the passion narrative is deeply unScriptural. I do not reject the Bible outright. I simply believe that Jesus, not the Bible, is God’s revelation of who God is. The fulness of God dwells in Jesus, not in a book. So we need to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus’ theology (which centres on forgiveness and love), not Jesus through the lens of the Bible’s theology, which is often divided (in the Old Testament, the priestly voices demand sacrifice, while the prophetic ones (Isaiah, Jeremiah, David) frequently distance God from the demand for sacrifice, for example. In the new Testament, the theologies of Paul and the gospel writers differ from the theologies espoused by the church in Jerualem). And throughout the Jesus story, the consistent and unavoidable theme is forgiveness and love. There is no condemnation, ever, only healing. And if that is the theme that dominates his life work and his teachings, why should the cross be any different?
The cross is absolutely central to understanding God, and how he deals with sin. But I don’t believe he does so in anger. I do not believe that the gospels portary a God who needs propitiation. Paul certainly rejects that notion (the passage you quote from Romans is part of a much larger argument, where Paul sets up the argument made by the false teachers and then critiques it, and the part you quote is from his summation of the false teachers’ argument). Jesus himself rejects that notion. So I do not believe I am questioning God at all, I am questioning us. John writes that God is love, and that perfect love (which is surely what God is?) drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. Those are the eyes through which we need to try to understand the Passion story.
Please don’t read my passion as condemnation of you. Not at all. For the first time in a long time, I am looking at the cross through the eyes of love, not of wrath, and for the first time in a long time I see why the gospels are good news. Not because God won’t hurt me anymore, but because He never wanted to in the first place. He loved me and wanted to heal me, not punish me. He dealt with sin at its roots. He made us whole, and I want everyone to know that. I don’t want them to have to be afraid of God anymore. I know that is what you want too. That is why you gave so much time to responding to me, and why I am deeply honoured by your gift.