Imagine a courtroom where the worst kind of criminal has just been convicted of a heinous crime. Everyone wants to see this guy sentenced to the full extent of the law. Everyone, that is, except his widowed mother. Before the judge is able to make public how justice is about to be served, the tearful woman stands up in the back of the room and waves at the judge. The judge acknowledges the woman and invites her to approach the desk (indulge me a little).
“Judge,” she says, wiping her face. “I know what you are about to say. What my boy did was wrong. And I know the law demands that he should be punished. But I love him very dearly. And so, I’m begging you to punish me instead. I’ve never committed a crime in my entire life. I’ve paid my taxes. I volunteered at the PTA. I’ve been a model citizen. Please, judge. Let my boy go. I know he is sorry. And I love him so much.” She grabs the judge’s hand. “Please. Execute me instead so that justice is served and my boy can go free.”
Now, what’s the judge going to do?
Many of us have heard that Jesus died for us. And that somehow his crucifixion wiped away all our sins. Various faith traditions offer different ways of appropriating that grace. Confessional theology teaches that we must confess our faith. Sacramental theology teaches we must participate in the sacraments of the church. Covenantal theology teaches that God predestined us to a covenant of grace. And there are others, but those are the biggies.
What they all have in common is this idea that the sacrifice of Jesus is the source of that grace, so that the crucifixion “washed away our sins,” “paid our debts,” “made us whole,” and similar phrases found in Christian hymns.
But as I illustrated with my parable, there is a problem. How is this justice?
A popular answer comes from an 11th century theologian named Anselm who managed to tick off enough people (especially the King of England) that he spent a good chunk of his life exiled. He had a lot of time on his hands and not much to do, so he sat and thought a lot.
He was a part of a group of theologians known as the Scholastics, which meant that they desired to arrive at the great doctrines of the church, and even God Himself, through reason rather than the Bible or the writings of the early Fathers.
One day while Anselm sat thinking he came up with one of his seminal ideas. God is infinite. Or as he put it, “That-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought.” Now you might be thinking, “duh.” But what intrigued Anselm was how finite beings could come up with this idea.
Applying his epiphany to the cross, he surmised that humanity faced an almost insurmountable problem. Since God is infinite, he is of infinite value. And since humanity is finite, we have finite value. According to medieval law, a crime committed against a king was far worse than a crime committed against a serf, even though it’s the same crime.
For example, if you stole a nickel from a fellow serf, you might just get your hands cut off. But if you stole a nickel from your King, it was off with your head. The role of class and honor in a society obviously shaped medieval law. To dishonor a king was worse than dishonoring a commoner.
Anselm understood sin as a crime committed against a being of infinite value. This means that even if a person was executed for his/her sins, it was insufficient to satisfy the scales of cosmic justice. Anselm deduced that Jesus was executed because as God, he had infinite value, and as a human, he could die on behalf of humanity; thus, “satisfying” God’s demand for justice.
But remember my opening illustration? How is this justice? And besides, it makes God seem like Marlon Brando in the Godfather rather than the one who commanded us to forgive our enemies.
Protestants in the Reformation, who typically enjoyed protesting all things Catholic, slightly changed Anselm’s view into something called “penal substitution.” It’s very close to Anselm’s satisfaction theory, but simplified: Jesus took OUR place on the cross because the law demands that SOMEONE gets a spanking. God could have done something else, but He chose this plan. Since justice is defined by God, He can do whatever he wants and it’s just.
Critics of “penal substitution” charged that the Reformers (mainly the Calvinists) made Jesus out to be just that.
An Arminian scholar trained in law named Grotius wondered the same thing. So he argued that we must keep in mind the purpose of laws, which is not to appease the wrath of the king but to maintain order. A good king loves his subjects and wants them to thrive. In order for this to happen he must maintain order, which is why we have laws.
When a person commits a crime, a king has some leeway about what to do about it. If it’s a first offense, he can let the man go with a warning. If he is a repeat offender, he may punish him in varying degrees.
Punishment satisfies the scales of justice AND acts as a deterrent. It sends the message to other would-be criminals that this is what will happen to you if you mess with the king, allowing him to maintain peace throughout the land
Applied to the cross, Grotius argued that Jesus became our substitute, and as such was punished to the full extent of the law. As a result, it sent the message to the rest of the kingdom that this is what happens to sinners. With the deterrent in place, God can then dispense grace to whom he pleases and still keep the peace.
Now imagine a small country with a ruler who loves his people and who wants to provide an orderly society for them to thrive. His son says to him, “Father, let’s send a message to all the kingdom that you are a loving and just king. I will put a sign around my neck that says, “criminal,” even though the townspeople will know otherwise. Then, execute me in the town square on behalf of all criminals so that everyone will see that you take the law seriously in your kingdom. Then you can be lenient to your subjects and grant them the grace you so desire.
Do you see the problem?
For many, these theories became so important that in the early 20th century a book entitled The Fundamentals was published declaring that, among other things, believing in “substitutionary atonement” was a fundamental necessity of the Christian faith.
Many, many Christian pastors and theologians today would argue the same thing, even though one may make the case that this idea didn’t exist in its current form for the first 1,000 years of Christianity.
But as we ponder the cross this lent, let us be a little daring and ask, “Is the language of law really the best way to approach this subject?”
Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors at kellypigott.com. Follow him on twitter @kellypigott