Views of the Cross and Asian American Mission

I want to invite you to read a quick pdf file that is titled: Why Penal Substitution Doesn’t Work with Asian-Americans, by Mako Nagasawa.  This will take you maybe five minutes but is completely worth it.  If you don’t, the rest of this post may not make complete sense.

A disclaimer I should start with is that this article is critiquing the popular form of  “penal substitution” NOT “substitutionary atonement.”  He and I both affirm that Christ died as our substitute, but we remain unconvinced that Jesus was the object of God’s direct wrath.  This, my friends is cosmic child abuse and inconsistent with the character of God.  Now, I also should say that there are some thoughtful folks out there that use the language of “penal” but mean something a bit more nuanced than God’s wrath being poured out on the Son.  I am not in disagreement with those folks so much.

It is my conviction that Jesus did indeed suffer wrath, but not directly from the Father, but from the powers of evil.  The most helpful image of this is found in the “Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe.”  The White Witch (Satan) wrathfully kills Aslan (Jesus) as a substitute for Edmund the traitor (whom is representative of fallen humanity).  Notice that in this image, Jesus is enduring the wrath of Evil so that humanity doesn’t have to.

Now, in this article, we will see that shame is a focus.  I will be interested to hear your thoughts.  But now, here are some of mine.

Mako Nagasawa’s piece, “Why Penal Substitution Doesn’t Work with Asian-Americans” has several missional implications.  It demonstrates how our dominant theology of atonement has been highly influenced by white American cultural identity issues.  Whites over the past hundred years have understood themselves to be basically good, with some “side problems” that they are trying to improve.  Even though these groups (which I am a part to some extent) see life this way, my observation is that they often will appeal to the “depravity” of humanity.  Here has been the gap in a nutshell: people have to get convinced of their inherent “badness” in white culture while in actuality they feel like they are “good.”  So, fundamentalism has produced various approaches to evangelism (best example would be “way of the Master”) that produce artificial guilt (Have you ever committed adultery?… How about lust? … Well, if you have lusted you are an adulterer… Do you see how you are not actually as good as you think you are? … God’s standard of goodness is perfection and based on your answers, you are not perfect; you are a Lawbreaker.)  Perhaps the fundamentalist model is trying to appeal so much to guilt, that they have lost biblical theology in the process!

Now on the other side of things, we have Asian Americans who believe that they are inherently “bad” because any amount of “shame” is too much.  Mako appeals to a new way of telling the Jesus story, that from his perspective (and mine as well) is more biblical and more missionally relevant for his people.  Seeing a Jesus who absorbs your shame and conquers it in resurrection gives Asians a purpose to live.  Their shame is removed and their set free to live in the Spirit to bring about new creation.  The implication of this for mission is that we must stop imposing White fundamentalist values on others who don’t share the same identity, and begin listening to the voices in the margins of theological discourse (like Nagasawa).  We must recognize that imposing our “western” views on “eastern” minds will hinder the impact of transformation that could be happening in the Asian-American culture!

Any thoughts?


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  • Megan

    Thanks for posting this Kurt. When we look at it (atonement models) through cultural lenses, it doesn’t look so scary. I think that culture will be what eventually unifies us as a body (funny, huh?). When a person experiences a culture different from their own, they are forever changed, and not in a short-term way. Truth=light. Light shines in the darkness, etc., etc.

    I especially enjoyed this after our discussion of atonement models last week. There are different models because we are different people.

    • Megan! Thanks for coming by the site and for you great insights!

  • This intrigued me so I read the pdf. I’m always happy to have my views challenged because I know I read the bible through a lense. I particularly enjoy being exposed to Jewish thought because, in the West, we have a very Greek bias and our theology is very much influenced by modern and rational thinking. However, I don’t feel in the least bit challenged by this article or the reference study. I don’t believe that the world or the devil had any bearing on the cross whatsoever and the reference to Narnia is not theologically sound. I totally disagree with the idea that I should feel a sense of shame and that God needs to replace that. I see many people crippled with shame and don’t see them shaking it off when they accept Jesus. It makes much more sense to be able to identify our guilt and see the God can take that away from us.

    I also believe that I am made in the image of God which would be the basis of my goodness if it weren’t marred by sin and my tendency to serve myself. I therefore have no grounds for any feeling of superiority. In the Word of Faith and ‘Full Gospel’ teaching I have come across I hear much teaching about who I am in Christ which suggests that I can have confidence in what I now am because of what Christ has done. They also emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit as if it were the impartation of the Spirit that makes us new. I wholly reject this teaching because it suggests a separation of the spiritual and material which leads to faith in faith and general unreality. I am fully convinced that as long as I am in this body I need to continually call upon the grace of God which, because of his promises, I can depend on entirely but any confidence in myself is unwarranted. Far from instilling a cringing fear in God the Father, it gives me a healthy respect for him and also an overwhelming gratitude and love for God who, by all rights, should hate me.

    As far as I can see the thinking here is shot full of holes that would take me weeks to work through. I’ve probably not done justice to my own theology but I would need much more convincing arguments to take any of this on board.

    • Fair enough Chris… I don’t think this article is full proof but it is one that made me think. You have some valid concerns. I would disagree with you about guilt however. Guilt is a western idea… not that it is inconsistent with the NT but that it is only one aspect. Shame is a corporate issue which is much more consistent with the NT first century culture and what Paul would have dealt with. Not feeling like debating, just thought this was something that makes a good distinction. On a secondary theological issue that has missional implications. Blessings!

  • Wayne Pelly

    I have become convinced on this issue of shame and honor, and suggest a couple of resources that I have found helpful:

    A very helpful resource is the work of Roland Muller, who spent three decades as a missionary in the Middle East. His older book, “Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door” is still available on This work is expanded in the middle portion of his newer book, “The Messenger, the Message, the Community: Three Critical Issues for the Cross-Cultural Church Planter,” available from the author’s web site, (although you will need to click on the link to the publisher’s web site). He develops the theme of the effects of sin, shows how guilt has become dominant in Western culture (this is much older and more complex than “white fundamentalist values” – going back to Calvin, Luther & some of the church fathers), and explores the meaning of the gospel as it addresses each of these three “worldviews.”

    He starts with Gen. 2:25-3:13 (all occurring before God’s judgment), where you will see that not just guilt, but also shame and fear are results of sin. These effects of sin vary from culture to culture depending on a variety of factors – guilt has been predominate in Western culture, while shame and fear have been predominate in most of the rest of the world. Roughly 50% of the earth’s population, in fact (almost the entire unreached “10-40 Window), has very little sense of guilt, but a significant sense of shame or of fear. In addition, there is a growing portion of the American population that increasingly experiences shame but doesn’t sense guilt to a great extent.

    As Muller points out, references to honor and shame in the Bible outnumber references to guilt and innocence, but we Westerners, as a reflection of our own cultural blindness, don’t see them.

    Guilt, shame and fear all produce an appropriate offsetting effect: a desire for innocence, honor and power, respectively. The cross alone meets the need for innocence, honor and power fully and appropriately. In each case, Jesus’ work on the cross is understood to be substitutionary.

    He describes the hard-learned lesson of many missionaries to the Muslim world: You can either spend months and months trying to teach people from one of these cultures about guilt, so you can present the gospel as you understand and appreciate it, or you can present the gospel immediately as it addresses their shame.

    Also, a church planter in central Asia, Jayson Georges, published an insightful article in the July 2010 issue of Missiology (the Publication of the American Society of Missiology) entitled, “From Shame to Honor: A Theological Reading of Romans for Honor-Shame Contexts.” Once you know how to look for it, the theme of honor and shame is quite dominant in Romans. His bibliography is a gold mine of additional resources on this issue.

    • This was a refreshing and beautiful comment! Wayne, I am glad to hear how you have been processing this issue. Thanks for pointing us toward some great resources!

  • I wonder in which quadrant I am – I reject that humans are basically bad but I also reject penal substitution. I suppose this comes from being born in Africa.

    The problem with the pessimistic approach to humanity in which anyone who sins is a “sinner” is that it begs the question: why is anyone who does right not “righteous”? Does God only count our bad deeds? According to most evangelical schemes, which are arbitrarily perfectionist, Yes, Bad trumps Good! But many, if not most, of the Bible’s voices point in a different direction especially Jesus and the Prophets and even Paul (e.g. Rom 5:20). The shadow of a guilt-ridden Luther still hangs over western Christendom.

    The problem with penal substitution is that it’s like an umbrella on a rainy day: you’re dry and your umbrella (i.e. Jesus) protects you but it’s still raining and everyone around you is getting wet (i.e. damned). Imagine the joy of that! According to proponents of this view, Jesus died to save us from God… except he didn’t realise it and we needed later theologians to explain it. All you need is (some parts of) Paul, the Gospels become irrelevant except for the glorious crucifixion. Interestingly in 1 Cor 15 Paul links “still being in our sins” to the resurrection (not having happened) and not to the cross.

    We desperately need from our theologians not restatements of old theological dogma but fresh motivation and imagination for:
    1) An incarnational and resurrection-based atonement theology (see Stephen Finlay)
    2) A holistic, earthly salvation model (see McLaren and friends)
    3) An understanding of God’s wrath not as later punishment but as being “given over” to the effects of our sins here and now (see Paul in Rom 1:18ff)
    4) To separate justification and final judgement (see N.T. Wright)
    5) Genuine concern and action (i.e. love) for the oppressed (see Steve Chalke)

  • Kurt, I’m curious how you would approach this post after reading my book. ;-P

    We make meaning out of our stories and that’s why our understanding of the Gospel is so important. If we get it wrong, our meaning of the Gospel is wrong. Reconciling these Gospel is one of the central problems in the church, yet we can’t solve it until we’re willing to step outside of our previous assumptions.

    I still owe you a post.

    • Jonathan, that has been quite true in my journey. I fully agree with the problem of living in the wrong story, even the churched story. This is why my blog subtitle is indeed called “Leaving behind the right answers.” However, I have found that in my journey, I sometimes allow my story to take more importance that simply knowing Jesus. Now, I am not saying that I can remove myself from my story in some awkward objective exercise, but that elements of my story may be wrong and Jesus is the only one I know is right. Of course, all of the things that I know from my story based on the beautiful narrative of God give me framework for knowing the Jesus who is the point of it all.

      The issue you raise regarding the church is one that matters deeply. If the gospel is only about ‘saving souls’ then our praxis will reflect things like “way of the master” and the “4 Spiritual Laws” on street corners. If we have a robust theology of New Creation, well then, our mission is MUCH more beautiful and costly. Many church leaders who are beginning the journey towards a narrative understanding of the Bible and a New Creation/resurrection theology, are also not convinced that it is worth disrupting the assumptions of members of the church. “These are not central issues…. who cares about if the world will blow up or if God is going to restore it, whats it have to do with today?” My answer, is: It has almost everything to do with today. So, the issue of story is important as you say… but it is easy for me to get caught up with that so much, that it takes the place of actually connecting with Jesus and hearing directly from him.

      PS – I hope to get to your book here sometime in the near future. I am in slavery to seminary at the moment 😉 And yes, you owe me a post! ha ha

    • CRAP! Jonathan… I thought you were responding to my new post called Jesus + Nothing = everything!!!!!!!! My comment above has that in mind in case this made no sense at all ha hahahahahah! sorry….

      • Kurt, no worries.

        One of the arguments I make in my book is that our understanding of Jesus is predicated on our understanding of the problem. So when we inherit historical theories, they mean something. And when they’re wrong, they keep us from knowing Jesus.

        The presentation actually suggests this problem in intimacy with the father issue that these stories create. If Jesus is solving a problem in God it actually dis-empowers us from participation because the problem is in the cosmos. We end up with a passive church.

        • Jonathan, I am stoked to read that. Sounds like (as I have suspected) that we have been on very similar theological / praxis journeys!

  • Leo

    So I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and here are my most solidified thoughts as of yet.
    1. The only way to think about God and our relation to him is through metaphor. This is proper and right.
    2. The Bible has given us innumerable metaphors with which to do this task. It often mixes the metaphors in ways that are genuinely confusing to us, but hey, communication is hard.
    3. All of the ways which we understand specifically Jesus, his mission, death, resurrection, etc. are thus spoken of using varying metaphors. The Bible uses imagery of debt, family, holiness, cleanness, exile and homecoming, lost and found, healing, darkness, re-birth, vines, war, kingdoms, propitiation, judgement, and so on.
    4. Each of these metaphors is used by the Bible as an explanation for how we ought to view God and our relation to him (and more specifically for this case, the atonement), and each of them have their strengths and purposes, as well as weaknesses, which is precisely why there are more than one.
    5. It cannot be denied that debt/payment languages is used by the bible to explain what Jesus did for us. These shouldn’t be ignored.
    6. Nor can it be denied that “propitiation/ satisfaction of wrath” language is used by the bible to explain what Jesus did for us. It’s also incredibly interesting to note how they are often unclear. For example, Did Jesus pay God the debt that we owe God, or did God pay to Jesus the debt that he owes us (wrath)?
    7. I personally favor the metaphor about Lostness, a central theme of Luke (cf ch 15). In this metaphor, the Cross (and Resurrection) was God coming to find us in our exile/hiding, and actually getting lost with us in order to joyfully bring us back home. This metaphor, like all the others, has its advantages and disadvantages, like, for example, the way it inspires us to view others, and the community of faith.
    8. The major issue is one of choosing one metaphor over the others and insisting that IT is the gospel, like Penal Substitutioners, like Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur, John Piper, JI Packer, et al. People like that will insist that the truth IS penal substitutionary atonement, and questioning it is questioning the Gospel itself.
    9. The goal, then is to view and teach each metaphor (or model, as they are fleshed out and given a system) in the proper context for the right purpose. I think at this point, the penal substitution metaphor ought to be mostly abandoned because of it’s misuse, but i think it can be redeemed.
    10. I owe all of this to CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity, with his comments on debt payment, and his own metaphor about toy soldiers.

    This is not a model for understanding the atonement. It is the beginning of a model for understanding models for the atonement, and is in fact far simpler than that sounds. The implications are that even to assert the primacy of the model that you talked about is tenuous. That is, saying that one is right and the other is wrong is dangerous. On the other hand, I totally love what that model/metaphor has to say, and I’ll use it when talking about it.

    Man, I hope that made sense. It’s the first time I’ve actually had the chance to articulate it.

  • As an asian-American I think this is pretty on-target.

    I’ve learned various theories on the atonement and am convinced no one view can hold sway perfectly; they’re aspects of the phenomenon, thus at best “theories.” So it’s probably best, in my assessment, to hold on to ALL of them, because each makes a significant contribution to the understanding of Christ’s work on the cross. In a sense – they all paint a complete picture when understood together.

    But the shame thing – yes, that hits the mark. I also think the Western emphasis on penal substitutionary hits the mark as well.