A Better Atonement: Nothing Is Solved by Murder

This week, as we prepare for Good Friday and Easter, we’ll have a post every morning about the atonement. Some by guests, and I will round out the week with a couple reflections. And don’t forget to check out the Storify and Tumbler, both tracking atonement this week. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here.

Today, David Lose connects the traditional story explaining Jesus’ death with one of the cultural touchstones of this year.

Recently, two of my favorite subjects seem about to collide in an usual but interesting way: 1) The Hunger Games, the book I felt so lucky to stumble upon when it was first released and now is the mega-mega-blockbuster of print and screen. And 2) the atonement, which I’ve been working on in earnest since I first did a 6-week adult forum on the cross twenty years ago using film clips (Star Wars, Schindler’s List, Gallipoli, etc.).

The collision, in some ways, seems almost destined because of the remarkably similar plot lines. Not sure you’re following, even if you read (or seen) The Hunger Games (or maybe especially if you’ve read The Hunger Games)? Then try telling me which of the two stories this plot line summarizes:

Out of chaos is formed a covenantal society between a greater power and a lesser one. When the lesser one refuses to render due honor and obedience to the greater – in actions labeled rebellion – they bring upon themselves the wrath of the greater power, a wrath that can only be satisfied by bloodshed. The climax of the story comes when one representing those to be punished volunteers to take on the wrath of the greater power.

Okay, so which story is it? Is it the story of the oppressive Capitol’s punishment of the districts for rebelling by creating the Hunger Games – a yearly event combining the worst elements of the Roman arena and Survior – and Katniss Everdeen’s brave and voluntary substitution of herself for her sister? Or is it the story of God’s righteous wrath at human sin, wrath that would result in the damnation of all living humans were it not for the brave and voluntary sacrifice of Jesus as he substitutes himself for humanity and takes the penalty for our sin?

Granted, the stories diverge somewhat after this part in the plot, but the essentials are all there. The trouble is, of course, that while we admire each of the “heroes” of these stories, we despise the “greater power” of The Hunger Games while we are called to love the “greater power” of the biblical story. And that’s just the problem – it’s actually quite difficult to tell the functional difference between evil President Snow of The Hunger Games and the God pictured by the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. Sure, you can assert that the Capitol’s claims are fundamentally unjust while those of God are of course just, or you can argue that God provides God’s own substitutionary tribute to take the beating humanity deserves out of love. But when you get right down to it, the functional difference – that is, what actually happens in the two stories – is uncomfortably small.

This highlights a major difficulty with the penal-substitutionary theory of atonement (PSA) that imagines Jesus’ death primarily as a substitute for the punishment human rebellion incites and deserves – it runs fundamentally contrary to two lessons we teach our children in all kinds of ways, including through books like The Hunger Games: 1) violence does not make things better, and 2) two wrongs don’t make a right.

As to the first, we take pains to teach our children that just because Billy hit Tommy doesn’t mean Tommy should hit Billy back. We may understand, even sympathize, with the desire for retributive justice, but we know it only fuels, rather than ends, the cycle of violence. That isn’t to say that there aren’t times when violence is necessary to curb injustice or restrain evil. But a negative justification for the occasional necessity of violence is a far cry from instituting retributive violence as the pattern God sets and follows.

As to the second, from Peter Abelard (1079-1142) forward, thoughtful Christians have wondered how on earth humanity murdering the Son of God somehow makes up for humanity’s sin of eating the forbidden fruit. I mean, if you think breaking one of God’s commands is bad, why in the world do you think murdering God’s Son will put things to rights? It’s absurd. Yet it’s also exactly what we’re invited to believe if we accept the PSA.

So if you go to see the Hunger Games this Lent and Easter season, ask yourself whether the actions of President Snow do justice to the God you know in Jesus. And as you are at Good Friday and Easter services, ask yourself whether we really need a construction of Jesus’ death and resurrection that looks more like a dystopian young adult novel than any of the Gospel stories. Perhaps, by mashing up these two great stories, we’ll see and hear each a little more clearly.


David Lose is a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, and the director of Luther’s Center for Biblical Preaching. He’s the author of the “Making Sense” series, the latest of which is Making Sense of the Cross. Check out his blog, “…In the Meantime.”


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