I am sometimes asked why the penal substitution theory of the atonement is so popular. Advocates of this position are justly proud of the fact that it is the default position in Protestantism (although as of late that is being challenged). The answer is simple really. Penal substitution is popular because it is a theory of how the gods are placated that is and has been part of social-theological DNA from the dawn of time.
Rene Girard and advocates of the mimetic theory have proposed that in the beginning there was the scapegoat. Humans form their identity on that which they exclude. This goes against the grain of the standard Platonic reading of the Genesis story which starts with some perfect Eden into which the human is inserted, and then ‘falls’ from perfection. Almost all of the early church fathers read the Genesis story through this lens. And it worked for them although they did not then find the solution in a penal theory of atonement. They preferred a vision of atonement whereby Jesus, as the Second Adam, conquered sin, death and the devil. However, modern anthropology is beginning to see the heuristic value of this mimetic reading of our ancestral past which does not begin in Eden but in Death. This reading of our ancestral past takes its cue both from the evidence of the historical and archeological record and in Christian theology reckons with the key text that interprets all of this data: the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth.
Since the influence of John Calvin on the West, penal substitution has become the default position. In one sense it is the new kid on the block when it comes to understanding the death of Jesus and the work of God in reconciling humanity. In this view, God is angry at sinners who have broken covenant with God by disobeying the Law of God. God needs to have his anger propitiated and so sends Jesus to be the perfect sacrifice for our sin. Jesus pays the price on our behalf.
In the past thirty years this view has been challenged head on from a number of different directions. Feminist theologians have called this view ‘divine child abuse.’ They have been criticized on this score, particularly by those who, influenced by Karl Barth, want to understand this propitiation as an inner Trinitarian work: God takes upon God’s self our punishment. However, penal substitutionists cannot evade the fact the Father does not suffer punishment for our sin, only Jesus does. The Father is actively pouring out wrath on the Son; the Son passively accepts this wrath and dies.
This view is not really new with Calvin though, he just gives an ancient view a ‘Christian’ slant. This view of the gods being wrathful and in need of propitiation is as old as the hills. It stems from our earliest human ancestors going back before Homo sapiens. When anthropologists unpack the concept of sacrifice what they discover is the basic building block of all religion and culture: the concept of an economy of exchange. We give in order to receive. Girard and mimetic theorists posit this structuring principle as the foundation of religion oriented by the scapegoat, who is our gift to the gods to displace their wrath.
Some feel they can dismiss this anthropological theory by appealing to the Bible or the Early Church Fathers. The fact is that this theory can be found in the Bible. But it is this very way of thinking that the Bible is arguing against. A major burden of my work has been to demonstrate that such is the case and that we need a new view of the Bible as a book which contains two trajectories: that of myth, which justifies scapegoating practice and that of Gospel which exposes it and overcomes it, and offers an alternative way of being human and forming human community in forgiveness and love.
Those who say that we need to retain penal substitution alongside Christus Victor and other theories of the atonement because all of these can be found in the Bible fail to rightly divide the word of truth. They fail to see that both trajectories are contained in the Bible and that these opposing viewpoints are set against one another. They would prefer to have their cake and eat it too, mixing sacrificial and non or anti-sacrificial interpretations together as though both were saying the same thing rather than recognizing that they are antithetical opposites.
The world has rightly rejected the Janus-faced god, the deity whose arbitrariness, capriciousness and anger has been the justification for all manner of social exclusion including but not limited to discrimination and warfare. Modern atheism rightly rejects this god. The new groups of those disaffected with Christianity, the ‘Nones’ and the ‘Dones’ are tired of this god. They have an intuition that God is better than that. They sense that somehow the church is missing the point of the Gospel. And all of these groups are right! As long as Christianity remains mired in a sacrificial interpretation of the Bible, as long as the life and teachings of Jesus are marginalized or dispensationalized or ignored, the Gospel of Peace is not being proclaimed.
We live in an apocalyptic time, a time where the human species is on the verge of a great conversion. Christianity has helped bring us to this moment and it is Christianity that also faces this apocalyptic moment. Will we convert to the message of grace and peace? Or will Christianity just continue to be nothing other than archaic religion, cannibalizing others in order to build a Christian Empire.
Time will tell. And so we watch and wait and continue to do theology in hopes that our work will expose the satanic lie of scapegoating and bring about the conversion of Christians….to Jesus.