… on our journey to understanding Atonement. I do plan to get back to The Kingdom According to Jesus, however, I wanted to share some things that might get your theological juices flowing.
So I’ve been reading a pretty weighty theology book (weighty in content, not poundage) and in the process have run into some excellent thoughts I would like to share with you. I think it often helps to let folks know where my journey has taken me from time to time. Please keep in mind you will be reading these ideas outside of the larger context. Feel free to ask questions, comment, or start a discussion. I happen to believe we all learn best when working through the conversation together.
The book is called Stricken By God?, Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ. A compilation of articles by 20 very different authors, the book presents an alternative view to the pervasive penal substitution theory of atonement. I have only managed to wade through to the middle of the third chapter so far. I will be sharing excerpts with page numbers under the corresponding chapter/author as a reference. Any comments I may have will appear [like this]. Any and all emphases were added by the writers themselves. While what follows are not my words, what these writers are saying has resonated so strongly with me that I just have to share.
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Chapter 1/Brad Jersak
Some common charges against penal substitution through the centuries have included the following:
- It pits Father against Son – or the Father’s wrath against the Son’s forgiveness, even though behind this there is a pact rooted in love’s search for a solution that honors justice (so that God can both justify and be just – Romans 3:26).
- It makes God beholden – to his own sense of honor (Anselm), law and/or justice (the Reformers), anger and wrath. In effect, God is under the law. To be more charitable, we might say that he must act consistently with his perfectly just character, which cannot minimize the seriousness of sin by letting it go unpunished.
- It requires the debt of sin to be paid back – there is no free gift. This type of God must be reimbursed – even if by proxy and with consent – before he can forgive or show mercy. Technically, the debt of sin must be paid back in full rather than cancelled or forgiven. [This idea was the basis of my argument in The Kingdom According to Jesus, Part I.]
- It says sin must be paid back by punishment – the torment of the sinner satisfies God’s need for wrath. The justice he requires is specifically retributive. Since no one can ever satisfy such wrath or repay the eternal debt for themselves – let alone for third parties – the punishment for mankind’s collective sin-debt could only be extracted by someone of eternal nature and divine purity. Hence, the incarnation.
- It paints God as retributive – the picture of God derived from penal substitution looks vindictive and untrustworthy, repulsed by sinners and rather different than the Father’s heart as portrayed perfectly by Jesus. For some, it reflects an angry and unbending facet of God’s character that is inconsistent with the compassionate Father of the prodigal son who exacts no fee for re-entry into the family.
- It distorts divine justice – such a God shows us a form of justice that requires an eye for an eye and spawns a retributive penal system, incites domestic violence, and failed experiments in parental “tough love” (nothing like the prodigal father).
- It creates atheists – authors like Steve Chalke see in penal substitution a caricature of God who would be guilty of “cosmic child abuse.” Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo explained it to me this way: “A god who demands the child-sacrifice of his own son to satiate his own wrath? That is not Jehovah; that is Molech. God was not punishing Christ on the Cross; he was IN Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.”
– Pages 23-24
Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-17
[I will trust my readers to look these verses up for themselves rather than quoting them here.]
Christ comes not as avenging judge but as great physician and grand antivenin for what happened in Eden. I am suggesting that the atonement becomes clear when we shift from juridical models over to a healing model of the Cross (as per Jesus very specifically in John 3). Or to recall Isaiah 53:5 (KJV), “by his stripes we are healed.” But when we make this shift, everything needs double-checking: What is sin? What is wrath? What is justice?
VI. The Father’s Heart
More than that, my own experience of God’s love and grace in the context of “vile sinners” suggests some new thoughts. For example,
- 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 where sin abounds, grace abounds much more? [Romans 5:20]
- What if forgiveness is not something that is earned through sacrifices or punishment but is freely offered as antivenin to all who will look to the Crucified One after the pattern of the bronze serpent?
- What if God was not punishing Jesus on the Cross, but rather, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself? [2 Corinthians 5:19]
This final step has become my central premise. Decades of active wrestling at the Cross and circling its many “what ifs” and “what abouts” have led me to this one core belief: On the Cross, God was not punishing Jesus. Rather, the very God from whose presence in Eden we had collectively fled – as if he were some kind of vindictive monster – came to seek and save his lost and now highly volatile children. It cost him everything, but the crucified God of love forgave us and saved us from spiritual captivity, sickness and death.
– Pages 31-32
d. Sacrifice versus Scapegoat: René Girard also sees Christ’s death as sacrificial in the sense of giving one’s life for the sake of another. Much of Girard’s writing is given to showing how the Cross refutes the “scapegoat” mechanism in human culture. But he goes on to define genuine sacrifice “on the basis of faith in a God of love who does not make a secret pact with his Son that calls for his murder in order to satisfy God’s wrath.” “The suffering and death of the Son, the Word, are inevitable because of the inability of the world to receive God or his Son, not because God’s justice demands violence.” Walter Wink, critiquing Girard in Engaging the Powers, agrees on this point:
The God whom Jesus revealed as no longer our rival, no longer threatening and vengeful, but unconditionally loving and forgiving, who needed no satisfaction by blood – this God of infinite mercy was metamorphosed by the church into the image of a wrathful God of unequalled violence, since God not only allegedly demands the blood of the victim who is closest and most precious to him, but also holds the whole of humanity accountable for a death that God both anticipated and required. Against such an image of God, the revolt of atheism is an act of pure religion.
The sacrifice is then one of God towards mankind as love confronts hatred with forgiveness. Jesus offers his Father the lifelong sacrifice of obedience and faith as he fulfills his calling even to the point of death at our hands. That mission would inevitably require the shedding of blood, because we are that violent, not because God is.
Far from being penal or a manifestation of God’s wrath or the Father turning his face from his Son, the Cross is a manifestation of God-in-Christ’s love and forgiveness – his nonviolent response to our wrath-filled rejection of him. But it is more than this. We move now to our second term: identification.
– Pages 41-42
Initially, identification with Christ requires that I identify with those who crucified him; my sin identifies me with the perpetrators. We see our culpability, and mourning, we renounce our allegiance to the powers and align ourselves with the Crucified One (Romans 6, Galatians 2). We must ultimately identify either with those who crucified or the one who was crucified – penal substitution (at its worst) allows us to escape this great either/or. The message of the Cross is not, “I died so that you don’t need to,” but “Die with me so that you might rise with me.” Disciples of Christ live, die, rise and are glorified with him.
– Page 45
b. Deification/Divinization – The Orthodox Tradition
Another omission in most western surveys of atonement theory is the Orthodox theology of union with God through Christ via the Spirit resulting in our deification (or divinization, which Irenaeus defines carefully as the attainment of our immortality and incorruptibility). This union was initiated in the incarnation, climaxed in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and is continually fulfilled by the Holy Spirit. It was at the core of Irenaeus’ soteriology [theology dealing with salvation especially as effected by Jesus Christ]:
We could not otherwise attain to incorruption and immortality except we had been united with incorruption and immortality” (Against Heresies IV 33:4)
For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.”
If the Word has been made man, it is so that men may be made gods (Against Heresies V, pref.)
Strong statements, but this type of divinizing union was widely held among the church fathers:
Clement of Alexandria: The Logos of God had become man so that you might learn from a man how a man may become God.
Origen: From (Christ) there began the union of the divine with the human nature, in order that the human, by communion with the divine, might rise to be divine.
Athanasius: (The Word) was made man so that we might be made God.
Man being united to Him, may be able to partake… gifts which come from God.
These church fathers draw us into the reality of Peter’s doctrine of our “participation in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4): that salvation extends beyond forgiveness of sin and redemption from bondage to include union with God through our identification with Christ. I.e. they defined salvation as deification through union. To the church fathers, and to this day in the Eastern Church, this is the essence and fruit of “at-one-ment.”
– Pages 48-49
III. The Victory of Christ
Finally, most Christians have always agreed that a major aspect of the cross is the victory of Christ. What appeared to the world as a colossal failure turns out to be a great conquest as Christ conquers Satan, sin and death. Some key Scriptures that demonstrate this intent:
- The Son of God appeared for this purpose: to destroy the works of the devil (I John 3:8).
- Now is the time for judgment on this world: now the prince of this world will be driven out. (John 12:31)
- The prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me, but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me (John 14:30-31).
- The prince of this world now stands condemned (John 16:11).
- And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Colossians 3:15).
- Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).
– Page 52
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All of those excerpts came just from chapter 1, and that’s probably enough to chew on for now. If you would like to further explore Brad’s take on nonviolent atonement, you can listen to a series of excellent interviews here: Beyond the Box. You’ll have to scroll down a little bit on the page to get to part 1, which I highly recommend you listen to first. Of course, you could always buy the book and read it for yourself, too. 🙂
God bless you on your journey to understanding the Atonement.