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.)
If the critics were to say each time that they are criticizing not penal substitution theory itself but the caricatures of PSA, then one might be more sympathetic for there clearly are abuses of the theory and imagery. But the critics do not frequently say that; in fact, my read is that the Father requiring death for sin (the consequences of sin), and putting the Son in the place of others, is an image of the Father using violence against the Son. So I’m not convinced the “caricature of a caricature” theory solves the problem. If there are consequences for sin (death, suffering, etc), then there is some kind of “punishment” theory at work in sin-language and atonement-language.
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.
Revision of an older post.