Jesus came to redeem and restore this world, and elevate humankind back to their status of being carriers of the image and the glory of God. He refers to those who don’t know the good news of what he has done as “sheep without a shepherd”, rather than as criminals. Jesus didn’t say “the accused need a lawyer” (although that is also provided as part of the atonement, but that was not his primary consideration). But he did say “the sick needs the doctor”. The work of Jesus is really about restoring what’s broken, rather than assigning judicial guilt for the faults of humanity. The atonement view which advocates this outlook – Christus Victor – was the most widely accepted one in the first 1,000 years of Christianity. It is still the view of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity (which numbers over 200 million adherents) to this day.
On the other hand, the atonement view popular in the Christian West is Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). Because it’s construed from the standpoint of crime and punishment, it misses the Gospel narrative pertaining to the restoration of creation to their original purpose pretty much entirely. Instead, it reframes the Biblical meta-narrative to conform with its view in purely punitive terms, rather in terms of action and reaction, of cause and effect. In doing so, it filters out and discards the vast majority of the Biblical narrative which tells us that God’s justice is primarily restorative rather than punitive, and that God’s justice is solidly on the side of humankind.
Here’s a high-level “compare and contrast” exercise, to help bring these points home:
– PSA teaches that our main problem was that God was angry with is. The Scriptures teach us that our main problem is that we are born into a broken world, and that we are culturally indoctrinated to follow its ways.
– PSA teaches that the punishment from God is eternal torment at his hands (most common view, although it no longer enjoys the monopoly that it once did). The Scriptures teach that the consequence of sin is death and grave (Hebrew: “sheol”, Greek: “hades”).
– PSA teaches that you are a criminal from birth. In the word of Jonathan Edwards (an avid proponent of PSA), humans are seen by God as disgusting puke-worthy loathsome insects, personally abominable to God. The Scriptures teach that you are created in the image of God from conception, and that you simply need to be immersed into and partake of Jesus to have that sin-dulled image restored to its full glory.
– PSA commonly teaches that most people are criminal reprobates. The Gospel teaches that most people are lost, and are as sheep without a shepherd.
– PSA teaches that fear of punishment is humanity’s main deterrent from total self-sabotage. The Gospel teaches that it’s the love of God that leads people to rethink their ways and to reform their lives, since real love teaches us to carefully consider the consequences of our actions on ourselves and others.
– PSA (in combination with dispensationalism) teaches that the world is getting worse and worse until it completely implodes. The Gospel teaches that the kingdom of God is at hand, and regardless of what difficulties may come our way – the kingdom will continue to overtake this world, and of its increase there will be no end.
I don’t see PSA as being a vehicle for conveying God’s love, hope, grace, or his transforming power. It is, however, a powerful carrier of guilt, shame, and abdicated personal responsibility for the kinds of things that really do count. If people espousing this view achieve a measure of success in their ministry – I would suggest to you that it is despite holding this view, rather than owing to it. It’s simply a default view that many have subscribed to without thinking. However, if you carefully consider all of its inconsistencies and internal contradictions – it will fall apart on you like a dollar store suitcase.
Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it. God “so loved the world”, not “so loathed the world”. God’s commission to Adam was to spread Edenic beauty, abundance, and orderliness all across the universe. That commission didn’t include a line item which would have world get blown to kingdom come. All creation longs for the awakening of sons and daughters of God. And the sooner we realize that we are not conditional parolees, but are God’s beloved children and empowered ambassadors of his love and power on this planet – the sooner we will get to enjoy God’s goodness “on earth as it is in heaven”.