Question on Atonement

Question on Atonement June 7, 2016

A reader writes:

Hello!  I have a question (or topic suggestion) about the Catholic understanding of atonement that I would love to hear you and any one of your weekly Connecting the Dots co-hosts discuss.

My family is in the process of joining the Catholic church (as I’ve discussed in previous correspondences with you).  Our Catholic journey began more than a year ago, but prior to that we received or purchased a number of Protestant Bible stories books for our daughter (who is four).  We have since switched over to Catholic children’s books, but there is one of the others that my daughter still loves because the artwork is fantastic.  It’s called the Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones (who is a Presbyterian and member of Tim Keller’s church).

The Jesus Storybook Bible is most great, but we found some text surrounding the crucifixion to be troublesome and we’re not sure it meshes with Catholic teaching.  This, to me, smacks of penal substitutionary atonement, which, as I understand it, isn’t what the Church teaches about what’s happening on the cross.  Here are a few excerpts (note that we currently skip these when we read the book):

“He knew it was time to die.  They had planned it long ago, he and his Father.  Jesus was going to take the punishment for all the wrong things that anstead of his people.  It was the only way God could destroy sin, and not destroy his children whose hearts were filled with sin.”

My daughter has asked us (surprisingly at age four) what’s happening on the cross.  It’s clear to me that Jesus is on that cross because of my sin, but it’s not clear to me that God pours out his rage on Jesus.  As Catholics, should we explain it as above or is there a more Catholic explanation?

I’m not sure I’m much use here.  From what little I understand, the Church is patient of various theories of the atonement and doesn’t so much reject penal substitutionary atonement as reject the insistence of zealots who say that it is the One and Only Way to Think of the Atonement.  The paradox of magisterial authority is that it is typically exercised to keep narrow-minded people from suffocating wide-ranging thought in the prison of a single idea.  I would contact Jimmy Akin at Catholic Answers for a more detail look at this question.  I’m not sure what the Magisterium has to say about the theory of penal substitutionary atonement.  I’m highly skeptical that “God poured out his rage on Jesus” is compatible with the faith, but some of the lines seem more compatible with “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us.”

As to a the book itself, I would caution against expecting *too* much of a children’s book. 🙂

For myself, I find John Paul II’s understanding–that the sacrifice satisfied God’s love, not his rage–much easier to grasp.


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