A while ago I posted here about “Did I kill Jesus?” based on a T-shirt I saw at the mall. That led to some reflections about the atonement–a growing battleground among evangelicals. Recently a leading evangelical pastor and author has declared publicly that “God killed Jesus”–meaning, I suppose, the Father killed Jesus. That’s his way (I assume) of emphasizing the penal substitution theory of the atonement.
Personally, I think some “friends of penal substitution” are its worst enemies. In the immortal words of Pogo they should confess “We have met the enemy and he are us.” Images that portray Jesus as a victim of God the Father who takes his wrath out on his innocent Son turn people off to the penal substitution theory. They picture the atonement as primarily motivated by wrath, not love, and they pit the Father against the Son thus messing with the Trinity.
Lately I’ve been reading (and discussing with a group of students and former students) J. Denny Weaver’s challenge to the satisfaction/penal substitution theories in The Nonviolent Atonement (second edition, 2011). Earlier I read Hans Boursma’s defense of penal substitution in Violence, Hospitality and the Cross. Both are excellent books. Unfortunately, their accounts of the atonement are completely incompatible. One has to choose between them or go for something else entirely.
Let me admit something right up front: I grew up with a version of the penal substitution theory which was so integral to the evangelical Christianity I embraced that I cannot easily see my way to letting go of it. It was preached (sometimes well and sometimes badly) and sung (again, sometimes well and sometimes terribly!). So many songs I grew up singing revolved around penal substitution as the essence of the atonement–such as “Jesus Paid It All” which we sang at almost every communion service. I admit to being biased in favor of penal substitution for several reasons: It was part and parcel of the Christianity in which I was nurtured, it has always struck me as biblical (e.g., Isaiah 53 and its uses in the New Testament), and it seems to be the only theory of the atonement that takes with radical seriousness our sinfullness AS GUILT. (Sorry for the capitals. My blog writer doesn’t allow bolding so far as I can discover.)
But can the penal substitution theory be rescued from its defenders and critics? Weaver’s criticism can be put neatly in a nutshell: Jesus promoted peace and non-violence and he is our best clue to the character of God (something with which I strongly agree!) and therefore God could not have committed violence against especially an innocent victim. Weaver’s alternative is what he calls “narrative Christus Victor,” but I won’t go into that right now. (I strongly recommend for people who cannot read all of The Nonviolent Atonement the book Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation edited by John Sanders which includes chapters and responses by Weaver and Boersma among others.)
One thing that bother me is that BOTH sides of this debate seem to be missing something integral to at least SOME versions of penal substitution (e.g., Barth’s and Moltmann’s): Men committed the violence against Jesus, not God the Father, and the actual suffering of the atonement was the rejection Jesus suffered by the Father. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was the moment of atonement. God did not kill Jesus (at least in my version of penal substitution); people did. The Father did not inflict punishment on the unwilling, innocent Son as his victim; the Son volunteered to suffer the Father’s wrath. The Father’s wrath was not physical violence; it was the rupture within the Godhead suffered by both the Son and the Father (in different ways). The atonement was that he (Jesus), who knew no sin, became sin for us…., with the result that the Father had to turn away and forsake him. The penalty for sin is spiritual death; separation from God, not physical death. Thus, God practiced no violence in the cross; God did not “kill Jesus” physically. The men who crucified him did that. God used the opportunity (perhaps provoked by Jesus himself by his triumphal entry) to carry out his great plan to suffer the penalty for sin by making HIMSELF the sacrificial lamb let to the slaughter by sinful men–the scapegoat sent out of the camp bearing the sins of the world. But his being sent out, away from the Father, in shame, was ultimately his own plan (together with the Father and the Holy Spirit) and his choice.
Weaver’s (and others’) complaint against penal substitution is not that it involves violence; it is that it makes God violent thus justifying our violence. Weaver knows very well the cross was violent, but he wants to make clear the violence was committed not by God but by Satan and sinful people. I agree. And that’s what I grew up hearing. That’s how I’ve always understood penal substitution. The wrath of God poured out on Jesus was not the physical pain and suffering and death; it was God’s turning his back (metaphorically speaking)–abandoning Jesus to the hands of sinful executioners AS IF HE WERE TRULY A SINNER.
In my own mind’s eye, imaginatively, I have always pictured things this way: In heaven, before the incarnation and cross, the Son sits down with the Father and Holy Spirit to talk about what to do about humanity’s sinfulness and deserving of hell (separation from God). They all know it and one of them says “There’s only one solution–one of us has to go down there and become the sacrifice for sins by being innocently condemned and killed by sinful people and Satan (shudder!) and being abandoned by the others of us. One of us has to experience being shunned as wicked by the others. Why? To satisfy cosmic justice which is rooted in our own nature. We warned them–that if they sinned they would die. Unless one of us dies in their place, they all have to die spiritually by being eternally rejected by us because of their rejection of us.” All three hands go up! “I’ll do it.” Because they love us. Love wins. But only one can do it. For reasons mysterious to us (but explored and partially explained by Karl Rahner) ONLY the Son can really do this. He gladly volunteers and goes away “into the far country” (Barth) to suffer human violence and spiritual death on our behalf.
Obviously, that’s highly imaginative and metaphorical, but I think it well expresses the general picture I’ve always had (as long as I can remember) of the atonement. It is also the general picture I get from Moltmann’s The Crucified God. The first time I read it I literally wept out of gratitude for what God the Father and God the Son suffered for me and the rest of humanity out of love. Justice and wrath, yes, I can’t escape those when it comes to thinking about the atonement. But love overcomes them. I have no problem (as I know some will) with saying “God had a problem. He loves us so much he couldn’t just let us go where we deserve to go–into eternal separation from him by our own choices and his corresponding justice. His love won over his justice.” (Go ahead, cast your accusations of heresy; I will stick by this as more biblical than any depiction of God as somehow balancing love and justice by foreordaining sinners to hell.)
I’ve already explained in earlier posts my view of hell as God’s merciful refuge for those who refuse his offer of forgiveness made possible by his loving self-sacrifice in which he himself bore our deserved punishment (separation from God) to satisfy the demands of justice.
I wonder what Denny Weaver and other advocates of “nonviolent atonement” would say to this? I can also call my view “nonviolent atonement” in exactly the same sense–God did not commit violence against his Son; humans did. But what I insist on adding is that Jesus was God’s willing victim–not of violence but of the punishment of separation and abandonment by God.
Now, of course, I’m fully aware that this account of the atonement raises such questions as why and how his bloody execution at the hands of men was necessary. And what does it mean that he was “smitten by God?” What does the “blood” signify? What roles did Jesus physical suffering execution, his “shedding of blood,” play in the atonement? (Admittedly even in the evangelical milieu in which I was raised there was much talk and singing about “the blood of Jesus” as having “saving power.”)
My response is that the physical torture and execution of Jesus was the necessary means of his abandonment by the Father; it was, so to speak, the “outer form” of the atonement while the Father’s abandonment was the atonement’s “inner form.” The Father had to abandon the Son at the moment he was going to the deepest depth of public shame and humiliation and torment AS A SINNER. There was no magic in his blood, of course (contrary to some fundamentalists such as the author of the book The Chemistry of the Blood); his “blood” is a cipher for his physical death at the hands of sinners as a criminal and sinner. But it was not God who killed Jesus physically; the Father did not torture or kill Jesus physically. But only by means of that injustice and pain could Jesus become the scapegoat, as it were, abandoned by the Father as if he were the guilty criminal and sinner they said he was.
That’s all I have for now. I invite discussion of this account of penal substitution. But please don’t ask for the impossible–a perfectly rational explanation of everything about the atonement; there’s nothing rational about it in human terms. It’s the ultimate mystery. But this account of it, I hope, dissolves the objections of those who cannot accept divine violence–especially against an innocent victim. And it removes entirely the objection that penal substitution justifies human violence such as child abuse, etc.
Now (one more thing) IF someone objects that it still justifies victimhood, well, I don’t see how Weaver’s account or any other account of the atonement escapes that IF voluntary suffering automatically justifies submission to violence by children, women, African-Americans, etc. From the human perspective, Jesus’ crucifixion WAS a lynching, abuse. All admit that. The debate is whether it was at the hands of God or humans/Satan. I am arguing it was at the hands of humans/Satan, not God’s. There I’m with Weaver and others who argue for nonviolent atonement. What they leave out, that is necessary, in my opinion, is that Jesus was also the Father’s victim–not by means of physical violence but because of the Father’s undeserved abandonment which the Son experienced voluntarily.