Let My People Think

Posts tagged ‘substitutionary atonement’

A better way to view the atonement of Christ: Christus Victor

Crown of Thorns

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.

Here’s a key part that makes it all work for us. When you believe in those things about Jesus and trust that you will also benefit from them – you are instantly immersed (Greek “baptizo”, or “baptized”) into Christ. You are not immersed into water, but into the living Christ – that’s a key point that’s very often missed. Water baptism is merely an object lesson pointing to that deeper reality. Once you are in Christ via such baptism / immersion into him – you are *identified* with him. His past becomes your past, and his future becomes your future. You are part of him, part of his metaphysical body. Therefore, since Christ and you are one – you can say “I was crucified with Christ, I was buried with Christ, I rose from the dead with Christ, I am seated at the right hand of the Father with Christ”. That’s the entire thrust of the letters of Paul to Ephesians and to Colossians. You are one with Christ via that metaphysical (but very real) baptism.

So, saying that Jesus was crucified for you is only telling part of the story. In reality, Jesus got crucified *as you* in faith that you would become one with him, and that your past will get intertwined with his past on the cross. When you come to believe in him – Christ is yours and you are Christ’s, you have come to share with him your past, your present, and your future, and nothing can separate you from your beloved Christ any longer.

So, coming back to the PSA – it’s not about Christ taking your place in an act of substitution. It’s you identifying with Calvary and everything it did for you through *identification*. It’s not a mental stance, it’s a concrete reality which you can be aware of, be sensitized to, and draw upon. When you learn to lean into that union with Christ by your spirit’s faculties, and learn to draw life from Christ in a tangible way – those acts of drawing life from the living Christ with whom you are eternally united is called “communion” with Christ, or “partaking” of Christ. Bread and wine are merely symbols illustrating that deeper reality. Once you learn not just to get there, but to stay there – that’s called “abiding in Christ”. That’s what I am in the process of learning as I write this. If there’s anything in the universe that’s worthwhile to master, it is abiding in Christ. All other achievements and skills fall by the wayside in comparison. It’s Mount Everest of our life as followers of Jesus. Its from that place that everlasting life really flows, and all of the Holy Spirit gifts originate. Once we learn to get there and stay there – I believe that sky is the limit for us (or “heaven’s the limit”, how’s that?)

And finally, one more piece of understanding needs to be added to Christus Victor (which is the view of atonement that I am defending here). It can’t remain just another heady theory. In order to make it work for you – this proper understanding of the atonement has to be married to a good understanding of the power and authority of God given through Christ to you as a believer. And it has to be married to a proper ecclesiology, positing one invisible universal church as the present-time diverse embodiment of the living acting Christ. Church not a place where one goes to get fire insurance in exchange for tithes (that is nothing more than another MLM scheme specializing in selling indulgences). Rather, church is a gathering of people captivated by God’s beauty and power. It’s a gathering where one should awaken to their standing as a son / daughter of the Most High God, and where they should get trained and get launched out to serve as plenipotentiary ambassadors of God in this world. And that’s the one missing piece to the atonement puzzle which makes this whole thing work in real life.


Penal Substitutionary Atonement – a myopic narrative.

Crown of Thorns

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”.

The atonement of Christ. Historical roots of penal substitutionary atonement view.

Crown of Thorns

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.


The atonement of Christ. Unmasking the legal-mindedness of penal substitutionary atonement view

Crown of Thorns

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?).


Not a changed life, but an exchanged life: a parable

Christ in me

In a certain society, Johnny robbed and brutally killed an old lady (a la “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky). A most heinous, brutal crime. According to the law of the land, he should be hanged for this. But his 13-year-old nephew Billy (a fully responsible young boy in that society), as sweet and innocent a boy as they come in that age, asks the judge to allow him to take Johnny’s place. An unusual request, to be sure, but the one that was eventually granted and carried out.

It so happens that on the third day after the execution, Billy suddenly comes back to life. Not only that, but his new life essence makes him immortal. Not only that, his body becomes immune to any disease or damage. Sort of like a superhero, with one exception – he doesn’t hold his powers only to himself. Billy has now the power to impart his amazing new life essence to anyone, for the asking.

As Billy explained, the offer, at its core, is this. When you want to have the life essence of Billy, your life essence is taken out from you, and you experience an instantaneous clinical death. However, the life essence of Billy is immediately placed within you, and you are back to life before you know what happened. Now the center of your being shifts from your physical body to the newly acquired life essence, and your new identity becomes that of Billy.


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