In my post Message to the Nones, which countered some popular but wrong-headed notions of what Christians believe about suffering, one commenter said that his major beef with Christianity is the penal substitution theory of the atonement. The good news for that commenter, and many people who have struggled with that notion (including me) is that it’s not the only theory of why Jesus died on the cross. In so-called “emergent” church circles, challenges to the penal substitution theory are rampant.
The penal substitution, or blood atonement theory says that human beings are utterly depraved and sinful, deserving of God’s punishment because of all we do and don’t do in direct opposition to God’s will, commandments, and desires for us. God, being perfectly just, cannot simply overlook our sins. Justice requires punishment. So God chose to take on the punishment himself, in Christ’s crucifixion. With God’s justice now satisfied—someone has received the punishment required by our sin—God is now free to love and forgive us unconditionally.
Theologians more learned than I have explained at length the problems with this theory. For example, how can a perfectly just God choose to punish the one human being who doesn’t deserve punishment? Isn’t punishing an undeserving victim fundamentally unjust?
We non-theologians often have a visceral response to the penal substitution theory. In my evangelical college fellowship, people would talk about how we are all sinful wretches who deserve nothing good from God. What we deserve is punishment, deprivation, death, pain. They would then switch their focus to how wonderful it was for Jesus to take on the bloody suffering and death that we deserved. Meanwhile, I was still stuck on the idea that we deserved such things to begin with. Does this mean, I wondered, that the most awful ways we have managed to treat each other—the Holocaust, the slaughter in Rwanda, 9/11—embody the sort of treatment that we deserve from God? That sunshine and babies and love are given by God only because the lonely, painful nothingness we actually deserve was displaced onto Jesus, not because God fundamentally wants to shower his beloved people with good and beautiful things, because God is the first and ultimate lover and creator and giver of all that is good and beautiful?
This did not seem right.
Truth be told, I’ve glossed over what I believe about the cross for the past few decades, except to sense that it has something to do with God suffering as we suffer. And that, it turns out, is what today’s emergent Christians are saying about the atonement and the cross. In the cross, God experienced the one thing that God had previously been unable to experience—being completely godforsaken—as an ultimate show of solidarity for people who suffer (which is, of course, all of us).
My fellow Patheos blogger Tony Jones, author of A Better Atonement, explains it this way:
We’ve all felt it, that God has abandoned us, that there is no God. The Israelites felt it, and the Psalmist sang about it. Of course, it is unthinkable that God would experience godforsakenness. How can a divine being experience his own absence? God is only able to do so because God’s very nature is trinitarian. In an act of ultimate solidarity with every human being who has ever existed, God voluntarily relinquished his godship, in part, in order to truly experience the human condition….God himself experiences—and redeems—godforsakenness.
Another Patheos blogger, Christian Piatt, names three reasons that the blood (or penal substitution) theory of atonement doesn’t make sense in the larger context of the Biblical narrative. Piatt notes that Jesus forgave sin while he was alive (so his death was clearly not necessary for forgiveness), that God called for an end to human sacrifice before Jesus, and that the Gospels make clear that violence is never redemptive.
A friend and theologian told me many years ago that the reason he is a Christian is because of the unique Christian response to human suffering, which doesn’t explain why we suffer but makes clear, in the starkest way possible, that God is truly with us in our suffering. At the time, I knew he was speaking a truth, though I hadn’t explored atonement theories enough to quite get what he was saying.
Now I’m beginning to understand, with the help of Jones and Piatt and others who have gone to divinity school and written books on the subject. As I explained in my Message to the Nones, Christianity and the Bible don’t explain why we suffer (though Christians love to come up with nonsensical, offensive reasons of our own). The Biblical narrative, rather, calls us to respond to and alleviate suffering with love. It tells us, most notably in the story of Job, that God is God and we are us. And in Christ’s crucifixion, the scriptures tell us that God, the creator and sustainer and redeemer of the world, has been there, in the place where pain, violence, loneliness, and sin leaves us feeling abandoned by God. God himself has been godforsaken. The cross is the means of reconciliation between God and humankind, not because Christ paid our debt but because Christ (Godself in human flesh) suffered as sharply, in his physical pain and spiritual abandonment, as we do. That is the message of Good Friday. And like my theologian friend, that is, for me, the most convincing reason that I claim Christianity as my own.
I have come to realize that the classic line from Romans 6:23 used to support the penal substitution theory, “The wages of sin is death,” is not about a cosmic death penalty, but about cause and effect. If we remain mired in our sinful, selfish, unloving ways, the result is death—of spirit, of love, of possibilities, of a life in which we can truly flourish and nurture a world in which others can also flourish. If we follow Jesus, learning to live with generosity, hospitality, and forgiveness, and to value what Jesus (God) values, we will live a new kind of life. And this way, the way of Jesus who suffered as we do, is the only thing that ultimately prevails against the death-dealing ways of humankind and our broken world. Love that suffers with and for God’s beloved people is the only thing that can prevail in this way.
But the power of God’s love over the power of death is the next part of the story. Today, we reflect on Christ’s agony on the cross and the inevitability that humankind’s sinful, power-seeking, boundary-drawing ways would send him there (which is how I understand the notion that Christ died “for our sins”). And we recognize with astonishment that God truly knows how we feel in our darkest hours.