I have written before the “penal” part of the PSA (penal substitutionary atonement) model. In summary, I believe the “penal” part to be a misnomer. Its forensic focus merely obfuscates the ontological realities of the world that needs a lot of TLC from the one universal body of believers. The only sensible thing that can be expressed in a penal language is that sins bear their own penalty. One special case that I should mention is theocratic Israel under Mosaic law. Since those guys were quite obtuse in getting the message from God, God have them a legal system which was meant to model some aspects of sin and sins’ consequences through their judicial system. But the express purpose of that legal system was meant to draw Israel’s attention to the reality of the world’s brokenness, as opposed to being the truth it and of itself. That’s why “the law came through Moses, but grace and *truth* came through Jesus Christ.”
The “substitutionary” part of PSA is also quite misleading. If the atonement is purely judicial, and Jesus was merely punished by God in our stead, that raises as many issues as it purports to solve. It’s a double travesty of justice to punish the innocent and let the guilty go free. Instead, the Gospel teaches something which may sound similar to substitution on the surface, but it’s very different in a number of significant ways. I am talking about vital identification.
In a nutshell, Jesus bore the sin, the sickness, the entropy, decay, and the death of the world in his own body on the cross. Remember – Jesus was the Logos of God, and by him everything was created and in him everything moved and had its being. So, he didn’t just bear those things for humanity alone – he did it for the whole world. After the crucifixion, he went to the grave (which was to be our post-Adamic destiny as well). Afterwards, he rose from the dead with none of those things (sin, sickness, death, etc) being part of him any longer. In doing so, Jesus disposed of sin, sickness, entropy, decay, and death. When that happened – legally minded Jews “deemed him stricken and afflicted by God” punitively, but that was an error of perception. Jesus wasn’t stricken by God. He was betrayed by religious Jews and stricken by the occupying Romans. And he submitted to that treatment in order that “by his wounds we [may be] healed”, as humanity.
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:
By late 4th century AD, the raw transformative power of the Gospel was already in deep decline. The way of Christ was being supplanted by the Constantinian institutional Christianity. Since the tangible power of God was not widely demonstrable, something else was bound the take its place. That “something else” was forensic, legally focused Christianity. In redefining the overarching meta-narrative of the New Covenant as being exclusively a legal matter, the practical power of the Gospel was theologically legitimized. Institutional Christianity became a purveyor of solutions which were purely speculative, experientially unverifiable, and requiring one to die before the veracity of their theories could be personally ascertained. In other world – that so-called gospel was not much use for the for the living. It was only useful for the dead.
Historically, here’s how things got to where they did. In 410 AD Rome was sacked by Visigoths. At that time, Rome was viewed as the mother city of Christianity, and it came as a huge shock to the Western world that their relatively newly adopted religion – Christianity – was powerless to stop that sacking by pagan barbarians. In response, in mid-420s AD Augustine penned his opus magnum “The City of God”. In that volume he made important doctrinal corrections, but committed probably just as many worldview errors as he sought to correct. In trying to salvage Christianity from its alleged failed responsibility to protect Rome, he simply relegated everything that can be expected of God to the realm he called “the city of God” which can be accessed only after death.
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?).
Generally speaking, there are about 8 or so atonement theories out there, with variants. To me, it’s easier to divide them into two groups.
One group of atonement theories postulate that the problems primarily stem from personal dimension of people (who are fundamentally perverse), and of God (who is fundamentally angry about people.) What Jesus did was more or less redirect the focal point of God’s anger to himself, thus getting us off the hook. The main idea is that of legal transaction.
The other group of atonement theories postulates that the problems to be solved are of systemic nature. They lie with both with human psyche individually (egotism) and socially (systemic oppression and scapegoating). There is also a cosmic dimension to the problem statement (decay and death). What Jesus did is he absorbed the individual, the social, and the cosmic sin (and therefore death), triumphed over them, and created a mechanism of being able to tap into the power to overcome all those.
I would submit to you that the second group of atonement theories has much more coherence and explanatory power. Also, the 2nd group is the one that leads you to living like a responsible, fully empowered representative of God in every area of life. It’s the only one that can underwrite consistently replicable results, and not just occasional haphazard “victories”.