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.