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.”

  • Kristofer Speer

    He is overly simplistic. I disagree with his sentiments at a fundamental level.
    1) President snow is not all knowing and did not define the universe and all the laws inherent to it. God did thus the argument is intrinsically flawed. If the Creator if the universe has an opinion that OPINION is inherent FACT because it supersedes even the universal laws we live by.
    2) If you take Christ as a standard model He showed the willingness to give himself up for others. We do learn that Tommy shouldn’t hit Billy back but we learn it from Christ’s example and not the actions of humans.
    3) The human race as a whole bore the penalty, but we did not all as individuals consciously kill the son of God. This idea is flawed. I do not celebrate my saviors death. Rather I celebrate that God was willing to give up a part of himself to save me. The author forgets that Christ is the incarnation of God himself on earth. If you forget that important part of the story of course it will start to make God look like a villain. You have polarized to parts of the same individual. If I take my life to save other I am a giving soul, not a murderer. This idea disappears when you view the two as separate entities. Katness is not also Snow.
    4) It was the definition of a new covenant, a contract. Christ could have floated down from the cross. He could have showed his power to Pilate, so on. The fact that the option was open actually calls into question the idea of sacrifice VS murder. He chose to tell the truth but not prove it with works. He knew everything that would happen before it did. He was establishing a new contract and using his blood to do it willingly.
    5) Doctrine should be defined by the author of the faith. This would be God and Christ. I find that reading the gospels, not just perusing them like a lot of people do, the doctrine is sound. We assume often that we’re just ‘saved!’ Which is questionable at times. A saved person would have more of a Christ like character. Would I die for others? Would I break the cycle?
    6) Escaping a cycle is often a matter of a shock to an individuals system. If Christ showed up and just said “Get along.” Knowing that we have free will how many of us would have just listened? He didn’t, He showed up and God did something drastic. I believe that the severity of Christ’s death was not only to take on the sin of the world, but in doing so give us a spiritual wake up slap in the face. To create blogs and conversations such as these. To make it so we aren’t just luke warm and ok with that.

    • http://www.davidlose.net David Lose

      It’s definitely simplistic, Kristofer, but that’s kinda the idea. This isn’t an analogy, but a metaphor or, in this case, a mash-up in order to draw attention to a particular idea through an exaggerated comparison. In this case, the point is that, no matter how you slice it, the PSA advocates retributive justice. So, yeah, God isn’t President Snow, and vice versa, but their behavior is disturbingly similar.
      The interesting thing to me is how many PSA defenders make more or less the same 2 arguments: 1) “If you’re house were broken into, or your sibling were murdered, you’d want justice.” So what? We can’t imagine God doing better than us? 2) In order to be just, God has to exact payment for sin. So we’re supposed to believe that God is omnipotent in all ways except with regard to the ability to forgive? I just don’t buy it.
      But, you’re absolutely right, my mash-up is simplistic. I appreciate you responding nevertheless.

      • Chris

        “But when you get right down to it, the functional difference – that is, what actually happens in the two stories – is uncomfortably small.”

        This may be true, but I think focusing on the functional similarities may be the worst thing to do. I think it places far too much emphasis on what is in actuality the most shallow of similarities, while ignoring the more profound ramifications. I don’t think you will find a defender of PSA anywhere who would say that their view of the atonement boils down to having to kill Jesus through violent means to appease God, or that you can take away everything else, but leave me my violence and retribution.
        If I’m correct, then what I hear you saying is that means and ends are basically the same thing, or that they basically have the same value in the final equation.
        There is very little difference in the means to save a group of people, say the Iraqi’s from Saddam, and the means to save the Jews from Hitler. Would you really say they are the same thing? So many complex (and extrinsic) factors enter in that to focus on the functional similarities is an over-simplification at best and a mis-representation at worst.

  • Charles

    Atonement theories skew the message of Jesus, in my opinion. Straining to understand the Source of Life is futile. Live, learn from Jesus, and don’t sweat the small stuff.

    (flame away)

  • http://www.rethinkingyouthministry.com Brian Kirk

    As one wise colleague once said to me, “Why should we worship a God who behaves worse than we do?” Thanks for the thoughtful essay.

    • http://www.davidlose.net David Lose


      Oddly enough, we often do the one thing God (according to PSA defenders) apparently can’t – forgive without retribution. Not perfectly, of course, but our best relationships are defined by forgiveness far more than justice.

      Thanks for your comment.

  • Randy Bronson

    I can agree with this point, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” The only “wrong” was done by us. Jesus did nothing wrong in dying for us. Just as a soldier does nothing wrong in falling on a grenade to save his friends.

    • http://www.davidlose.net David Lose

      So Jesus bears God’s wrath like a soldier falls on a grenade. So God is like a grenade? Or just the one who threw it?

      • Catherine

        Isn’t God in Jesus Christ the one who falls on the grenade. And in the penal substitionary theory is not sin the grenade on which Christ falls?

        • Buck Eschaton

          I like that…The grenade is the wrath that has been generated by the breaking of human relations through violence/idolatry/sin/debt/adultery/etc. So Jesus, to save us and save the outcasts who this wrath usually falls upon in the end, jumps on the grenade…and finally shows us without a doubt it is us/humanity that is violent and not God.

  • Buck Eschaton

    I think we really have the wrong idea about what atonement is…it’s not really about God, and God’s feelings and idiosyncratic revenge-oriented needs. The Atonement ritual in early Israel was about Creation and Jubilee. It was about healing relationships and holding the people together. Atonement is about Creation/Re-creation, about healing sicknesses and short-circuiting brewing violence.
    A good example of an Atonement sacrifice in the New Testament, the kind of sacrifices Jesus wants us to engage in can be illustrated by the Good Samaritan story. The Good Samaritan in this story is a priest in the Kingdom of God, he is performing a sacrifice on the body of the victim. He is bearing/forgiving the sins. There’s the oil and everything, and then he’s moved with pity, the word there alludes to the entrails of a sacrificial victim. The entrails being “the Lord’s portion”.
    So that is what sacrifice looks like in the Kingdom, but we can’t understand sacrifice that way, that’s why Jesus had to go to the cross and absorb our violence, so He could show us it and then begin our Creation.
    Jesus breathed into the Disciples the same way Yahweh breathed into Adam. Jesus is creating Priests.

    • http://www.davidlose.net David Lose

      Very nice. Thanks for the post.

  • Mike Mendez

    The argument is flawed at its foundation. Murdering Jesus did not atone for our sins, He willingly took our place. The individuals who murdered Him have their own sin to deal with and God forgives them too (Luke 23:34.)

    • http://www.davidlose.net David Lose

      But even by saying “he willingly took our place” you assume that we “had” to be punished; that God, in fact, “had” to punish us. But why? Why can’t God forgive without punishment? Typically, “justice” is the answer, except – again – it’s retributive justice. While that may make sense to us, isn’t God able to imagine and do more than we can? Look at the Amish community in Nickel Mines, PA or the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. If human communities can rise about the need to exact “an eye for an eye” justice, can’t God?
      For what it’s worth, I’ve got a piece coming out on the Huffington Post on Friday that goes into more detail on the theological arguments behind my stance.

    • Evelyn

      There are several passages in the gospel that indicate that Jesus was not particularly “willing”. In particular I’m thinking of:
      A) Mark 14:36 “And He was saying, ‘Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.’”
      B) Luke 23:34 “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” C) Mark 15:34 “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?”

      A is a prayer to God by Jesus in Gethsemane asking that he not be crucified. B is Jesus asking God for forgiveness for his crucifiers – I don’t think he’d have to ask for forgiveness if he thought that what they were doing was right. C is Jesus feeling of godforsakeness which indicates that he didn’t think that what was happening on the cross had some sort of divine purpose.

      Perhaps you think Jesus was a willing martyr because of the way he suffered in contrast to the way that people normally suffer. Sinful people normally suffer with a lot of vindictive anger but Jesus’ suffering was an example of how to suffer without sin. They way he suffered might seem a bit whimpy to us but it doesn’t mean that he was a willing sufferer – that would make him a masochist.

      As David points out, if you say that Jesus “willingly took our place” you are assuming that it is in the nature of God to require physical human sacrifice to atone for our sins. This is usually tied to some sort of “wrath” that God has that requires a penalty to be paid. I think this is a negative and anthropomorphized view of God’s wrath. I tend to view God’s wrath more like the anger of a parent who wants the best for their child but the child is misbehaving and not doing what is right for itself. The parent must use punitive means to discipline the child but the point is discipline not divine retribution nor payback for lost honor. The discipline is the kind of discipline that allows the child to grow into a well-formed adult that can be productive and take care of itself. It isn’t the kind of vindictive “discipline” or payback that we might carry out against a supposed enemy that is aimed at hurting, maiming, and obliterating the enemy.

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  • http://www.faithink.com Rich Melheim

    If, indeed, Jesus is God, the idea of the wrathful God beating his Son bloody to atone for the sin of the world is not quite right.

    God takes the beating for us. God takes the nails for us. God goes to hell for us.

    God is wounded for our transgressions. God is bruised for our iniquities. By God’s stripes we are healed.

    That is not some sadistic Father beating a child in our place. It is God’s love naked on the cross. God’s undying love dying.

    God’s pure power stepping down. And God’s death defying death… defying death to give us hope.

    • http://www.davidlose.net David Lose

      Saying that “God takes the beating for us” makes it all sound a little better, I grant. Until, that is, you wonder, “But why does anyone need to take a beating in the first place?” And who’s giving the beating? Presumably, God. So, to put the question more pointedly, why does God need to beat anyone? The typical answer is “justice” – God set the rules and must obey them. But why do we think those are “the rules”? And do we honestly imagine that God can’t figure out any better way to achieve justice than to beat someone – us, Jesus, God’s-own-self? Do you see what I mean? Why can we only imagine justice being executed in terms of punishment and violence?

      • Frank

        Because we are not God. Yes it would be much more palatable if we got to choose how the universe was created and how justice works but we do not.

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  • Betty

    So happy to read this (as well as “Making Sense of the Cross”). This is what I was trying to say in our constructive theology class, but couldn’t get across at all. Thank you for all your work, David.

    • Betty

      P.S. about “Sense of the Cross” — I’ve always thought Abelard’s view was mis-labeled “example” — It should be something like “revelation” — of the character of God.

  • John Wolf

    Hm. I thought we knew this. Haven’t we known for centuries that none of our atonement theories are perfect analogies? This reminds me of our discussion of the Trinity. There are several models that help us understand what happens, but none are the last word. None can be complete. But many, the good ones, can help us understand something about the teaching in question. You will notice that when Hebrews and some of the Johannine texts mention sacrifice (or atoning sacrifice), that the focus is on Jesus, not on the Father. It’s all about how Jesus was willing and his action was complete. Add in some assurances about the flesh-and-blood content of our redemption. If, beyond that, you can get nothing out of sacrificial atonement, then put it aside and go to another explanation.

    Maybe the lesson is in brokenness. Even our theologies are incomplete, imperfect, and in need of redemption. Redemption, that is, not purging.

    • Betty

      When I was growing up, the teaching I heard was that if one didn’t “believe in” substitutionary atonement, one was not a Christian (and heading for hell) — which tended to concentrate the mind!

  • Jonathan

    “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.”

    You might as well say, “Except for the fact that everything is the opposite, the difference between them is uncomfortably small!”

    Man’s guilt, God’s justice, and God’s substitutionary love are the most important aspects of PSA. Stripping them out to compare it to something is like saying, “Except for the intergalactic rebellion, the Force, and lightsabers, Star Wars is functionally the same as A Tale of Two Cities.”

  • http://abercrombieandfitchoutlet.overblog.com/ Shawanda Bradstreet

    I think it’s “Cabaret.”

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