I grew up on the Three Stooges.
Saturday mornings on the farm my grandfather would take a rare break from work and often sit down to watch them with me, in what has become a fond memory of my grandfather. I’m sure by the time I hit puberty I had seen probably every stooges episode ever made.
And when I had kids, I passed on my love of the stooges. Except, English wasn’t our primary language in the home at the time, and I wasn’t sure how to translate “stooge” into Spanish. So, to this day we still call them the Tres Idiotas.
In one of my favorite episodes ever, Curly flies into a hilarious rage every time he sees a mouse. As he’s raging, he shouts, “Moe! Larry! The cheese!” in an effort to get the only thing that will calm him down: cheese. If you need a refresher on that episode, here you go:
Now, what does any of this have to do with the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement? A lot, actually. In fact, if this atonement theory is true, God is actually a lot like Curly.
The Penal Substitution model of the atonement begins with God’s holiness. This holiness, we’re told, causes him to be so angry at the sight of sin, that by default, he must consign anyone who has ever sinned to an eternity of damnation and torture. However, God doesn’t want to do this and thus needs something to make his anger go away so that he can forgive– but the only thing that can appease his anger is the blood sacrifice of an innocent human.
In Penal Substitution, God reacts to sin the way Curly reacts to the sight of a mouse. And, like Curly, he needs something to calm his violent anger– but instead of a mouth full of cheese to calm him, he needs human blood. Innocent blood.
The chief irony of penal substitution is that it begins with God’s holiness, but unintentionally strips him of his holiness.
Let me explain:
The word “holy” in and of itself doesn’t tell one much. The term holy technically means totally “set apart or different.” Thus, when we say that God is holy, it means that God is uniquely different than anything else in existence. “Holy” is simply a reference to other attributes, or an essence, that is different than anything else.
For example, if I told you my daughter was unique, that wouldn’t tell you much– you’d need to ask: “What makes her unique?” In the same way, when we say God is holy, we are making the claim that God is fundamentally different, and referencing other character attributes (or lack of attributes) that warrant use of the adjective “holy.”
In fact, we even sing about it in church. We sing, “Our God is greater, our God is stronger, our God is…”
When we sing those things, we are affirming that our God is not like any other god. Our God is holy and totally different.
However, while Penal Substitution likes to lay claim to God’s holiness as a foundation, it paints an image of God that completely lacks holiness.
Throughout history there are countless understandings of the gods being angry and needing a human sacrifice in order to calm them down. There were those who sacrificed babies to Moloch, the Aztecs believing that the sun god needed human blood for appeasement, ancient hawaiians who sacrificed humans to the god of war, the Incas, the Mayans… there are all kinds of gods throughout history who needed human blood sacrificed to appease them.
If holy had an antonym it would be “same” or “similar.” And, if God needed the blood sacrifice of an innocent human, he sure is similar to primitive versions of god.
Thus, let us be clear about what we are doing when we describe the cross of Calvary in this way: when we say that God’s anger at sin necessitated the blood sacrifice of an innocent human in order to calm his wrath, we are not describing a god who is fundamentally different and holy– we are simply describing another version of an angry god who needs a virgin thrown into the volcano.
In fact, it would make him no different than Curly needing his cheese.
That’s not holy. That’s not different. It’s certainly not the God I see perfectly and completely revealed to us through Jesus.
That’s actually the opposite of holy, because it’s entirely the same as all the other gods who hunger for innocent blood.
God is not the sun god, an angry volcano god, or a god who needs innocent blood to calm him down.
Our God is holy.
Perhaps we should rethink how we explain the cross so as to not strip God of his holiness. If Jesus somehow died for us, and it pleased God to offer himself up, is there a better way of explaining it? That question and more, in the next installments.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.