On Divine Child Abuse

On Divine Child Abuse June 22, 2012

About a decade ago it became avant garde theology to contend the classical Christian theory of atonement was nothing less than divine child abuse. That is, the image of a Father punishing a Son, or exacting retribution at the expense of his own Son, or punishing a Son for the good of others — each of these became a way of deconstructing classical atonement theory. Unfortunately, this approach works from a very simplistic image: a father, a son, and a brutal death and attributes intention to the father as one who brutalizes a son. As an image, it connotes abuse. The image, however, abuses the Bible’s image. (Art is from Rebel God.)

What fell into place after this theory was up for grabs, but one “atonement theory” that jumped in was Girard’s mimetic desire and scapegoat theory. Though that theory might help us understand something about the cross, it is not an atonement theory nor does it really get God off the hook. What Girard enabled was seeing the cross as injustice and God siding with the victim and therefore exposing injustice for what it is. That’s fair enough, just says nothing about atonement and it can’t explain where Paul and Hebrews go when they begin to do atonement theology.

Jeffrey Burton Russell, in his book Exposing Myths about Christianity, addresses divine child abuse theory and I will bring out his points and supplement them with my own — so what follows is what I think too.

First, this accusation fails to represent the best thinking about how the Father and Son are related in the Bible and Christian theology. Inevitably, it turns the Father against the Son, bifurcates God, turns the Father into a torturer and someone who can’t be nice until he exacts some blood, and ends up destroying what the perichoresis of Trinitarian thinking is about. Both Western and Eastern thinking have no place for this perception of the Trinity’s relations at the cross. In Christian theology the cross is an act of Father, Son and Spirit.

Second, this accusation fails to see that the Son gave his life, that the Father gave the Son’s life, and the point here is that the cross in the Bible and theology is the freely-chosen, gracious choice and act of the Father, Son and Spirit. In other words, there is something entirely redemptive about the act that reveals the divine child abuse theory for what it is: a mockery of the way Christian theology describes what God is doing. The cross is an act of love by the Father (and Son, and Spirit) for humans and sketching it as act of revenge on the Son fails the larger context of grace.

Third, this accusation fails to comprehend that entering into death, willingly and out of love, is the act of God entering into the fullness of the human condition, including death. Once again, this is out of love: the Son entered into the suffering and death of humans because Father, Son and Spirit love each one of us and want to go down into the depths with us in order to lift us from death into life. The God who does not suffer with us doesn’t know us and becomes the remote God of deism.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • phil_style

    Whilst contending that the typical “divine child abuse” comparison is often ignorant of many atonement constructions – there is still a place for this criticism, as it forces, I think, people to engage with their atonement theories – and IN FACT consider the fact that they have an atonement theory in the first place!

    There is also, still, I think an important point to consider: Who was responsible for the violence acted out on Christ in the passion drama? Are we willing to accept that God was any way complicit in that voilence, and if so, why/ how?

    I wouldn’t write off the application of Girard’s theories on memesis and sacrificial scapegoating as saying “nothing about atonement and it can’t explain where Paul and Hebrews go when they begin to do atonement theology”

    Andrew Sullivan, Willard Swartley and others have done a lot of work examining atonement in light of Giarard. And Girard has recently (i.e. in the past 5-10 years) turned some attention to the book of Hebrews which it seemed previously he had overlooked.

    I’ve always found that atonement theories tend to jump from the cross, to the outcome, often [always] skipping the bit in the middle where the mechanism of atonement should be located. I always asked, even as a child, but WHY this way? Why the cross? How is that specific mechanism more effective/ efficient than God simply declaring forgiveness to those who repentant and demonstrate that through action – like the Old Testament God is sometimes described as being capable of?

    In the words of Girard himself, Jesus “suffers the fate of all the other prophets going back to Abel-the-just and the foundation of the world (Matt. 23:35; Luke 11:50)”. For me personally, Giarrda has done more to help explain atonement and the “necessity” of the cross in terms that propose actual mechanisms, rather than just outcomes.

  • phil_style

    further to the above, and hopefully without dragging this off topic after only two comments (sorry Scot): I would recommend a reading of the following, which can be found online in PDF format by doing a google search.

    Robin Collins, “Girard and Atonement: An Incarnational Theory of Mimetic Participation”
    PEACEMAKING, ed. Willard Swartley

  • scotmcknight

    phil_style: Does Girard propose a theory of forgiveness? What happened at the cross for Girard?

  • phil_style

    @ Scot, I’m not explicitly sure with respect to forgiveness. I know that James Alison has done some work on forgiveness within a Girardian context. But you might (and probably are) right that this element of christology/ soteriology is overlooked by Girard, at least in the explicit sense.

    I suspect we run into the risk of winding up in a semantic game though. What IS forgiveness?
    Within the context of the “justice = punishment” formula, then yes, forgiveness means the removal of that punishment. So in this sense, some kind of expiation or propitiation is necessary or desireable. Of course, those that require such removal (exp. or prop.) then have to provide a way of demonstrating how that removal is still just – especially if they define justice as requiring punishment in the first place. The traditional formula is to enter the juxtaposition, or theological tension of mercy, and argue that mercy trumps justice.

    For those who define justice differently (i.e. not a system of metering out pain for pain) then the concept of forgiveness takes on a different tone. Does the supply of the imitaio dei constitute a forgiving act? Could not a punishing God simply turn his face away?

  • phil_style

    As a further thought on forgiveness;

    It seems that to a degree, memesis (i.e imitating others) is inevitable – it’s hard wired into our brains. We cannot avoid imitating others….

    I wonder if the imitatio dei, i.e. the perfect model to imitate, does in some way support the irresitable nature of forgiveness/ grace… I’d be interested to know if any students of Calvanism have looked at atonement and irresistable grace through this lense….

  • scotmcknight

    phil_style, precisely. I have said above what I like about Girard’s theories, and I do like what I read in him, but if what he says is atonement then it no longer means what atonement has meant.

  • scotmcknight

    Phil_Style, let’s get this back to divine child abuse accusations.

  • Just received Russell’s book and am very impressed with the range of issues that he addresses. Glad for your earlier recommendation. Thanks.

  • Josh T.

    Scot, let’s not also forget what you like to point out in Gospel discussions: Jesus is suffering the punishment of Roman execution as Israel’s representative, and I imagine that fact needs to play out in the discussion some how.

    That makes me think… something I’m not sure I’ve heard Wright talk about is the intersection of Jesus’ roles as both God and Israel. He seems to deal with them as separate topics, with Jesus embodying God visiting his people Israel and being rejected, and then Jesus voluntarily suffering Israel’s fate at the hands of the pagans. Maybe Wright does it when he talks about seeing God in the human face of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns, but I think he jumps to that connection without really drawing the separate threads together.

    With that in mind, while I agree that the atonement is a Father-Son-Spirit action, what we see in the Gospels is God, born as an Israelite and enacting God’s visitation to his people who reject him, he lays his life down for them. The God vocation and Israel vocation still overlap at the cross; Jesus did not cease acting out God’s role while he’s dying the death of a Jewish rebel, so I don’t see how the divine child abuse idea holds water, with God laying down his own life.

  • Tracy

    The “divine child abuse” notion might have been founded on a less than complete notion of the cross, but it seems to me that it meant to critique the outcome of that incomplete notion. When theologians (particularly feminist theologians) began to pay attention to the way Christians popularly spoke of the crucifixion “because God cannot look on sin,” so “God needed the blood of an innocent victim,” they rightly described where that idea led. Divine Child Abuse.

  • phil_style

    @ Scot let’s get this back to divine child abuse accusations.

    Indeed! sorry for the sidetrack.

    I think the issue of the need for expiation, propitiation of Punishment is at the core of the issue with respect to the divine child abuse charge. The description itself (i.e. divine child abuse) is somewhat idiotic, Jesus was, after all not a child. Yes, he was someone’s child but he was an adult, an adult who appears to have the cognitive and self-awareness of a mature human being. Jesus made a choice to endure the cross. The willing self-sacrifice is a strong and consistent motif in Christian thought.

    There is a broader issue, beyond the slightly silly child-abuse claim, and harder to bat away or wrestle with. That is: Must wrongs be punished? And, must they be punished with violence? If God wrote the moral law for creation, then it is God who determined that wrongs deserve pain in retribution. For me this is the issue that the divine child abuse claim tries to get too, but is too simplistic to entertain.

    When God declares that Vengeance is His only, does he really mean to act vengefully? Or does Her simply mean that it is His prerogative?

    Doesn’t Miroslav Volf have some interesting thoughts on the “necessity of violence” with respect to vengeance?

  • And someone should mention, Scot, that your A Community Called Atonement is a great antidote to shallow thinking about the death of Messiah from any angle. And for the more academically minded, your Jesus and His Death is a great addition to the discussion.

  • Justin

    I have often used this critique, and I am certain an armchair theologian, so bear with me.

    The way that I, and many I know, grew up understanding atonement, is that Jesus only died because he HAD to for forgiveness of sins. Why troubles me about this is that Jesus proclaimed people’s sins forgiven before he died. I’m not sure I can be on board with an atonement theory where Jesus blood was required for forgiveness. It seems to me that Jesus sacrifice on the cross, and God’s allowing him to do so, announces forgiveness more than it creates the space for forgiveness to exist. Just the same, I don’t see that animal sacrifice was actually God’s means of forgiving sin, rather, a physical manifestation for the people to understand forgiveness.

    I think when we make atonement about god being unable to forgive sin without blood, we limit God in very real ways. God becomes the law, rather than God being God himself. So God is beholden to some code, (that he created, or did it exist before?) whereby he then knows he will have to kill his son, in order to be with the people he created and loves. That’s where this critique comes in. God didn’t have to kill Jesus to forgive us. Jesus had to die at our hands so that we would understand that we’ve been reconciled, and we see in truest form how much God loves us.

    I hope that makes some sense. No degrees here. Just a reader and thinker.

  • Tim

    Regarding “scapegoating”, isn’t Leviticus 16:20-22 relevant here? The ancient Israelites had a ritual practice involving laying all the sins of the Israelite people upon a live goat and driving it out into the wilderness, taking the sins of the people with it. It is from practices like this that the term “scapegoat” literally arose. Does Russell’s book address this with respect to Atonement Theory?

  • phil_style

    @Jusitn, I think your formulation gets us to a more positive place.

    The whole notion that there is some kind of [arbitrary?] moral law written into not only the fabric of the universe, but placing its demands on the behaviours of God Himself to demand blood (i.e. pain and death) in exchange for a grievance is the issue that needs to be addressed.

    Could God have forgiven humanity without Jesus being killed?

  • phil_style

    @Tim, yes.

    In Leviticus, the “removal” of sins is able to be carried out effectively. God does not need Jesus to forgive. In the texts He “forgives” the sins of Israel via the scapegoating meachnism. In fact it’s rather simple. They just declare that a goat is now representative of their sins.. and off it goes, shunned from society left to live and/ or die in the desert at the hands of the wild.

    Hebrews, on the surface, seems to indicate that Jesus forms some kind of GLOBAL ad for-all-time scapegoat. That all humanity receives the forgiveness via that one-time, altogether perfect and most excellent sacrifice. In Hebrews, it seems the gravity of the sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient to make up for all the millions of other sacrifices that might otherwise have had to have been made without it.

    This is why, for a long time, Rene Girard described Hebrews as the fountain head of the sacrificail(mis)reading of Christianity. Hebrews seems to support and “fulfill” a sacrificial understanding of the relationship between God and Humanity.

    The question is? Who is doing the scapegoating? Is God making Jesus the scapegoat (thus endorsing the sacrificial system), or is it humanity making scapegoats, and, in the Passion event, this finds it’s ultimate culmination when humanity makes God himself the scapegoat …..

  • joey

    1) It is not merely physical death that we deserve. It is Hell that we deserve. Jesus was not subjected to Hell.
    2) No amount of punishment accomplishes atonement if atonement is the uniting of hearts.
    3) I would have thought that it is the proponents of pen sub who characterize the Cross as the Father punishing the Son and not the critics who construe it as such. That IS how it is presented and certainly how the rank and file of us understand the theory.
    4) If it is his death AS SUBSTITUTION for us, why do we still die? And why was he crucified with two others, one of whom was a believer?
    5) Sin – the condition of our hearts – cannot be transferred.
    6) Why must there be a one-for-one mechanism? Nothing else in life is reduced to a simple formula/mechanism. Our lives are a narrative and so is atonement.

  • Bo Eberle

    Hey Joey, I’m not e best guy but I certainly don’t deserve to go to prison let alone hell, and neither does anyone I know, really. Speak yourself? Who told you you were evil?

  • phil_style

    @Bo Eberle;

    The typical formulation for why EVERYBODY deserves to go to hell is this:

    The gravity of a sin is, essentially, a function of 1) the severity (harm or grievance caused) of the action and 2) the nobility/ purity of the one sinned against.

    So, when 2 = infinity (i.e. God) this means that the Sin overall, no matter how small 1) is, must be infinitely grave.

    If you also buy into the idea that crimes/ sins deserve punishment in accordance with the gravity of the crime/ sin the logical conclusion is that all sins against God deserve infinite punishment.

    If, as is claimed, all humans have sinned in some way (no matter how small), then all humans deserve infinite punishment.

    That’s generally how the position is justified.

    I think it assumes to much.. but that’s just me.

  • Cal

    Part of the Cross was atonement, which is not merely in regards to forgiveness of sins as more to Union with Christ. Why the cross? Because it fulfills the prophecy of anyone being hung on a tree is cursed. In a sense, Jesus cursed the curse, brought sin under the judgment wrath and destroyed its power. In that Jesus died, was buried and resurrected , so too we follow Him and our Union with Him assures our vindication. The legal framework of Not Guilty, or even better, Just.

    I think the divine child abuse is also a possibility of how some formulate a Father against His Son and the Son “doing the right thing”. If the Father and Son are One, the separation of “Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani?” is something afflicting the whole of our Triune Lord.

  • My only disappointment with this is that it reads as though the accusers of divine child abuse were reacting to the classical atonement account you describe rather than the perversion of it that’s widespread in evangelicalism in what I would term “popular penal substitution theology.” The divine child abuser may be a caricature but he’s caricature that was created by the fundamentalists not by their detractors.

  • CharlieO

    Would you think that, perhaps, the recent push-back against a penal substitution/retributive view of atonement is not so much against the classical view as you have articulated it, but against how the theory is commonly expressed via imagery from the pulpit? Sermon-givers have been known to short-change sound theology for the sake of emotional impact, especially when dealing with salvation. I think (and I’m a pastor) that this is at the root of a number of the Church’s ills.

  • CharlieO

    hmmm. Morgan beat me to it by seconds…

  • Phil Miller

    About a decade ago it became avant garde theology to contend the classical Christian theory of atonement was nothing less than divine child abuse.

    Has anyone actually made the claim that the classical theory of atonement was divine child abuse, or are people simply saying that the way many evangelicals present the theory, it comes off as divine child abuse? The infamous passage that started the controversy is the following from Steve Chalke’s book, The Lost Message of Jesus:

    The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement that “God is Love”. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil.

    It seems to me that Chalke’s point there isn’t that the cross actually was divine child abuse, but that it wasn’t. And that being the case, we should reject caricatures that portray it as such. And, to be honest, I’ve heard many presentation of penal substitution that do just that.

    I was in the audience of on the Passion Conferences (’06, I believe), and John Piper said from the stage that Jesus was holding back the Father from killing us. Instead of directing that wrath towards us, He directed it towards Jesus. I fail to see how that isn’t a horribly inaccurate description. It seems to me to be much what Chalke was talking about.

  • joey

    #18 Bo – Yes, I take your point. And I agree: Hell, as it is popularly construed, that is, as eternal, conscious torment, is way overkill. I take an annihilation view of Hell as a loving act by God for those of his children who do not want a relationship with him. Hell is also “punishment” and what we “deserve” if we do not want a relationship with the Father. He will not force himself on us, but we cannot exist without him.
    Having said that, please do elaborate. I genuinely want to know what you have in mind.

  • Luke Allison


    My theory is that psa naturally flows out of a misunderstanding of atonement. The average Christian walking around on the street who has done reasonable amounts of Bible study with popular-level resources most likely thinks that atonement means “covering” or “to cover.” This leads to the theory that we must be “covered” in the blood of Jesus in order to save ourselves from the wrath of God. This in turn leads us to the idea that God slaughtered Jesus in order to make this happen. He took our punishment from God. Divine child abuse.

    And yet isn’t there a pretty clear distinction between “covering” and “purgation” or “cleansing” in the different atonement ideas in the Hebrew Scripture? A theory of atonement that has “cleansing” at its core won’t be able to get very far with the whole “father slaughtering his son” concept. Replace it with “covering”, and you have a much easier time getting there.

    I don’t have any knowledge of Hebrew besides knowing the alphabet..perhaps I’m wrong?

  • DRT

    It seems I have an overly simplistic view of this.

    First, what is sin and what is forgiveness? Sin is not doing what we should with the datum being god’s behavior, and forgiveness is that god will not hold that against us.

    Second, so what happened at the atonement? God did not change, we changed. We now have unambiguous testimony to Jesus as god’s representative and tells us that he and god will accept us. We are at one.

    So I really don’t think there was some magical thing that happened, other than the resurrection itelf and victory of god, so to speak. These are pointers for us.

    Is what I am saying some sort of heresy? God will accept us. That is the message. All we have to do is follow him.

  • Tom F.

    I think that the divine child abuse idea is a caricature of a caricature. It fails for all the reasons that Scott lists above, but the other side of the story is that some (shallow) presentations of the gospel DO in fact set the Father against the Son, DO in fact seem to suggest that Jesus and God are two distinct persons, and DO emphasize that God “can’t be nice” until he has gotten some blood.

    While the idea is a poor criticism of what Jesus really did, it may be important to realize that this criticism may stick against truncated and simplistic atonement theologies. I’m thinking here at the level of sermon and evangelistic presentations. I think I’ve probably heard something akin to divine child abuse at that level.

  • Dana Ames

    Phil Style,
    Your comment @19 is a nice sketch of the Anselm.

    The Eastern Church never went there.

    In our Holy Week services, the texts constantly repeat the idea that what happened at the cross was the Display of God’s forgiveness, and the overwhelming love that enabled him to move in condescension into total identity with humanity, first in incarnation, and then even into death. The starting point is entirely different. (Yes, there will be judgment; nobody “gets off Scot-free”. But that looks different, too.) Why couldn’t God just forgive? Well, yeah! The Cross is the DISPLAY of God’s forgiveness and love, in and through the faithfulness of the God-man. Jesus-on-the-Cross IS the revelation of who God is. ***That’s*** the Father, and the Spirit acting too, as Scot has pointed out. And there is nothing that is twisting God’s arm making him do *anything*.

    You – and some others here – might be interested in this paper:


    A note: In “Orthodox-speak”, the term “divine economy” or “oeconomy/economia” means “what God is up to in terms of his purpose to bring everything back to the way he wanted from the beginning”.


  • Sally

    Re: the child abuse issue.

    First, to Phil, #24: Yes, Jack Spong has written that the creed is a mess, that none of it is worth maintaining, that God the Father is abusive, proven by the crucifixion…. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Shelby_Spong)

    The theology is clear and understandable to those whose image of a father has not been severely warped, who has not seen/lived through the severely fouled up family where there is a lot of abuse/co-dependence. It’s possible that those who have lived through that can see what’s being said but don’t dare trust God.

    When you’re talking to/working with/whatever someone who has a hard time with all that, take a breath and ask where that vision comes from. What if the idea that a father’s “love” for his son includes brutality like the crucifixion brings a response of “been there/done that, thanks but NO THANKS”?

    What do you say to someone whose earthly father has betrayed and beaten them enough that they don’t need a divine one who says, “This is my beloved son (who’s going to be crucified)”?

    What do you say to someone who was abused by a priest and wants nothing to do w/ God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or the church?

  • Darrin W Snyder Belousek

    Justin (@13): Don’t downplay yourself–you’ve stated a key point precisely and, I would say, correctly. The issue being addressed in this post applies to a certain version of atonement theology (viz., the standard presentation of penal substitution), and the internal logic of that atonement theory is premised on the very presupposition you identify–that God requires bloodshed as the prerequisite of forgiveness. As you properly point out, the biblical canon itself repeatedly refutes this premise. You’ll find an extended examination of this point in my book–Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans 2012).

  • Don Bryant

    The vituperative accusations thrown the way of those who have held to penal substitutionary atonement has been extreme over these last years. Witness Brian Zahnd’s sarcasm, disdain and disgust for PSA in his debate with Michael Brown asserting that this God is a moral monster. Brown was correct in rebuking Zahnd’s tone as his first statement in the debate. You can look at the full debate on YouTube. It is as if the divine child abuse proponents do not even recognize the work that their own proposal cannot get done, which is usually the proposal of Girard. I agree with JI Packer, that PSA is not a metaphor. It is the thing itself. However, I still take great comfort in the mere words, Jesus Saves, around which the Church gathers. How Jesus saves is the discussion that I do not mind having with well meaning sisters and brothers, whether they be in the sacramental/liturgical tradition, the anabaptist, the Reformed, the Lutheran, or the free form Baptist or Pentecostal. If there be a vigorous and orthodox Trinitarianism at the center, then I can let my hair down and have this discussion.

  • Jared H

    I am finding the work of Adam Johnson helpful on this – Atonement: a guide for the perplexed. He is very powerful in his arguments relating the cross to the life of the Trinity.