I’ve been reading The Absurdity of the Atonement, the late Ken Pulliam’s entry in John Loftus’ The End of Christianity. Pulliam is attempting to dismantle the “penal substitutionary theory” of the atonement. Briefly, the theory state the God sent his son to be punished for our sins so that He might forgive us and make us right with His will.
This was one of Pulliam’s specialties, and his article is filled with the logical flaws that scholars have found in the PST. But I can’t help feeling that the logical problems are only half of the story.
The PST is most popular among the evangelicals, and Evangelical Christianity is at least partially emotional. Less so than the Pentecostals, but much more than the staid main-line protestants that the evangelicals replaced in America. There’s definitely a stream of emotionalism running through evangelical culture, from the revival to the personal relationship with Jesus.
While the PST can be expressed in a bloodless way, by talking about justification and propitiation, it’s usually heard as an emotional appeal. Jesus died for YOUR sins. Jesus was humiliated, tortured and died just for YOU. That hits the guilt buttons pretty hard.
I think most people are familiar with the feeling of not measuring up. We’re all aware that we’re not perfect, and I suspect that most of us harbor that little pocket of guilt over things we’ve said and done. The PST plays on that guilt and offers the release of redemption.
Logic won’t do much here. Maybe the best way to defang the PST on emotional grounds is to ask what was really sacrificed? What does a days worth of suffering matter to an immortal being? And can a being that transcends humanity really suffer like a human?
Most of all, I think we have to point out that Jesus went in with no uncertainty about his eventual fate. Unlike us limited mortals, Jesus could know that there was a heaven, a God, salvation and the whole nine yards. Even if he “emptied himself” and thus did not know the eventual time of the apocalypse, surely he knew that he was part of the trinity and that a place beside God’s throne was awaiting him.