Last weekend, while in youth church, my pre-teen son stumped his instructors with a simple question about the crucifixion of Jesus: how does executing someone else for your sin justify you? His instructors tried to explain it by referring to animal sacrifices and their significance, to which he again replied: how does killing an animal remove the punishment due you? And also – as a young person, what did I ever do to deserve death in the first place? They said to him something about even a small sin being enough to deserve death. To which he objected that punishing a petty misstep and a major crime with the same extreme punishment of death seems to be the very opposite of justice. Eventually the instructors said that it’s something that he should ask his parents at home.
It’s quite remarkable that they way the atonement of Christ is commonly explained collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions, even under the most simple of questionings. Since many people in the Western Christian tradition believe that penal substitutionary atonement (or PSA for short) is the only way to understand what happened on the cross of Calvary, they have simply learned to suppress their own deep questions about it.
Often times, questioning the common *interpretation* of Christ’s atonement is frequently equated to questioning the *value* of the atonement itself. Such set of tactics which discourage people from exploring the deeper foundations of their faith are a hallmark of religious fundamentalism, with its dichotomous all-or-nothing thinking. That’s why I applaud my son’s instructors that they didn’t shut him down, leaving open the possibility for him to continue looking for answers outside of the paradigm which couldn’t give him the answers which he was looking for (did I mention that I quite like that church?).
The Gospel has been too long in the hands of lawyers and legally minded people (Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, and on the North American continent – Edwards, Finney, etc.) To be sure, much of what they have accomplished is both substantial and important, and as for whatever blind spots they had – those were not at all uncommon for their time. But those blind spots were quite significant, nevertheless. In their minds, these folks saw the main problem of humanity as being legal rather than ontological. The best way that they thought to fix the ills of the world has been to appease the angry judge rather than serve as empowered agents of transformation to bring about a renewed, healed, and flourishing world.
In making this all a legal issue solely dependent on God, PSA proponents severely minimized the importance of the age-long conflict between God and the cosmic forces of evil. By taking a forensic stance they automatically made God ultimately responsible for the things which are wrong with this world, and trades away the transformative power of God in and through his church. The power of Gospel was exchanged for a legal mandate.
To be sure – I strongly affirm that there’s a clear legal dimension to the cross of Calvary. There were definite legal considerations which have to be accounted for when examining nearly every storyline of the Bible: the story of Job, the chronicles of the nation of Israel, and of course the narrative of the cross. But on that cross Jesus already decisively solved the legal dimension of the problem, in what effectively was the most important class action lawsuit in human history. He was representing the entire humanity on the cross. He took on the lawsuit, went to court with it, and won the case once and for all.
Now all that’s left to do *legally* is to let everyone know that they can opt in on the settlement. But what’s yet to happen *practically* is the restoration of the entire world to its designed beauty and harmony. I would submit to you that the legal side of atonement stacks up the playing field in favor of humankind, and sets up the stage for the most pressing existential problems of humanity to be resolved. So there’s much more to it than the legal / forensic dimension. And making it all about judicial guilt and punishment, rather than actions and consequences, twists the entire Biblical metanarrative to a grotesque shadow of its genuine self. And unfortunately, the penal substitutionary atonement view is known to do exactly that.
It’s easy to illustrate the fallacy of construing God’s atonement in purely legal terms with this simple thought experiment:
– Grab a plate and throw it on the ground
– Okay, done
– Did it break?
– Now say “I am sorry”
– I am sorry
– Okay, I forgive you. Now, did the plate go back to the way it was before?
– Now do you understand?!
It should be easy to see how this model by itself doesn’t solve any problems in the real world. (I will get back to this illustration in a later installment in this series, where I will propose a way to look at atonement that does result in the broken world being put back together.) What PSA does is theologize a forensic exchange market with judicial guilt (demand) and forensic justification (supply), and then seeks to manipulate the market sentiment with its highly speculative theological pronouncements.
That’s exactly what resulted in medieval Catholic church selling indulgences. The forensic justification market created a high demand for such product. After the Catholic monopoly in the Christian West was finally over, Protestantism didn’t just leave things at “sola fide”. Each Protestant denomination effectively sought to create its own forensic exchanges operating by their own rules. Of course, none of those rules are empirically verifiable or experimentally falsifiable. All that mindset does is create a dualistic disconnect between the real world and the world as imagined by religion, in the best traditions of neo-Platonism.
Here are some criticisms of this view according to one of John Calvin’s Anabaptist contemporaties:
– Perfect satisfaction for sin, even by way of substitution, leaves no room for divine forgiveness or pardon.
– It is unjust both to punish the innocent and to allow the guilty to go free.
– The finite suffering and temporary death of one is disproportionate to the infinite suffering and permanent death of many.
– The grace of perfect satisfaction would appear to confer on its beneficiaries a freedom to sin without consequence.
As you can see, these criticisms are as old as the PSA view itself. As my son astutely observed, in many ways this view is the antithesis of justice.
In my next post, I will look at historical roots of PSA. You will find out that this view was not the primary way to look at atonement in the Christian West for the first 1,000 years of Christianity. Also, this view never gained any traction within Eastern Orthodox Christianity (which is my native faith tradition). After that, I will examine the view which in more in sync with early historical Christianity, as documented in the Gospels and in the book of Acts. Spoiler alert: if you think that we will end up with another forensic doctrine which will merely let people of the legal hook (another “Yay, God loves you, everything is awesome, even though this world is fundamentally broken”), you will be disappointed. I will argue that the legal dimension was never God’s chief concern in the first place. Rather, it has always been about bringing this world to an Edenic condition, where every believer in Christ has an important role to play. And the keys to getting there are hidden in a very different way of understanding the atoning work of Christ on the cross.