This past week, Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown held a debate on the penal substitution atonement theory. While I tend to be on Brian’s side of the debate, I’m not willing to throw penal substitution completely out of the window. The concept of penal substitution has a whole lot of slippage within it. There’s a stark difference between saying that the cross was in one aspect a punishment that Jesus suffered for the sake of humanity’s salvation and saying that Jesus suffered the punishment that each human being personally deserves for their sins. The former is a legitimate, Biblically supported articulation of one component of the mystery of the cross; the latter has no Biblical foundation despite the fact that evangelicals say things like it all the time.
There is nowhere in the Bible that states that Jesus’ cross is the punishment I deserve for my sins. It’s a completely different statement to say that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. It’s also a completely different statement to say that my sins crucified and continue to crucify Jesus. The problem with the first statement is that it creates a dangerously nihilistic, unjust view of sin that many Bible-thumping abusers have exploited with tragic consequences. To claim that every lie, every angry outburst, every gluttonous indulgence, etc, deserves the death penalty is precisely the logic that abusers us to justify beating their wives and children.
This toxic, un-Biblical tenet of evangelicalism rises up as the answer to the question: “Why do really good people who aren’t Christian go to hell?” The answer often given is that people who seem really good by our standards are actually hideously wicked in God’s eyes because God judges on an infinite scale of perfectionism. The go-to Biblical proof-text for this is Romans 3:11-18 where a series of verses from the psalms are strung together which say things like “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.” The problem with this proof-text is that evangelicals today are using it to make a completely different point than the point that Paul was making. Paul is contending in Romans 3 that the Jewish law does not make people righteous. Thus he quotes damning psalms that were written about the ancient Israelites who had the law to prove the point that “both Jews and Gentiles are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9). Paul is not saying that because of humanity’s hopeless wickedness, we need Jesus’ death on the cross to bail us out of God’s impossibly high standards of righteousness, which is the standard pop-evangelical stump speech.
It’s completely different to say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and to claim that every individual human being has engaged in enough wickedness to deserve being tortured to death. Similarly, it’s completely different to call Jesus’ death on the cross a “sin offering” as the Bible does and to say that Jesus “took the punishment I deserved.” But many evangelicals (like Michael Brown in the part of the debate that I watched) seem to have no qualms about making very flip, careless conflations between theological claims that are not at all equivalent.
Any Christian discourse about sin is supposed to make Christians humble and sympathetic to the frailty of their fellow sinners. The problem is that few of us genuinely put ourselves on the side of humanity when we pontificate about humanity’s wickedness. We usually put ourselves on the side of God and “sympathize” with God’s wrath by whipping ourselves into a tizzy over how despicable our fellow human beings are. When people say, “Christ took the punishment I deserved,” it is usually an exhibition of theological piety rather than a remorseful personal conviction about specific personal sin. The next time you hear someone say that, ask them to elaborate on which bad thing they did deserves the death penalty. Evangelicals love to talk about sin in the abstract as an ideological exercise, but the only sin-talk that counts for anything is when it’s done in the personal discipleship of confessing and repenting specific personal sins.
In any case, I want to propose a very different understanding of the “punishment” aspect of Jesus’ cross. The most popular evangelical formulations of penal substitution treat sin as though it were a victim-less crime completely between each individual human being and God. It makes sense for this to be the account of sin that would be developed among privileged, sheltered people who have never experienced sustained oppression from the sins of the other people. If sin is just an abstract set of “demerits” assessed by a God with meticulously fastidious expectations for rule-following, then it makes sense for people to find the penal aspect of the cross completely ridiculous.
But sin is never victim-less. Even acts of idolatry which don’t directly victimize other people contribute to sinful social disorders that ultimately result in injustice. Just think about the idolatry of alcohol for example. Or the idolatry of power. Or public acclaim. All idolatry creates a context in which hideously harmful behavior towards other people becomes not only imaginable but desperately necessary in service to the idol. So when I make the choice to indulge any idol that makes it easier for me to abuse people around me, I am already sinning. Only an idol-free, true God-worshiper can be safe for other people.
Only a God who was tortured to death has the authority to say anything at all about reconciliation to the victims of sin. Only a God who can say, “They did it to me too,” and has the nail holes to prove it. It is not wrong for victims of sin to refuse to make up with their abusers and need for them to get punished. There are some sins that no amount of punishment could possibly pay back because infinite harm has been inflicted. And yet God doesn’t stop wanting to spend a fully reconciled and healed eternity with people he loves deeply who have done incredibly despicable things to other people. So he says, “Can I make it all my fault and punish myself for it through an excruciating death?”
I don’t know exactly how heaven works, where lines are drawn, etc. There are too many non-Christians who seem to get the humility and repentance thing a lot better than many professing Christians whose self-justified posturing signifies that they really haven’t appropriated the trust that Jesus actually died for their sins. I do think there are lines that will be drawn, and some people will not be able to tune in/gain admittance into God’s eternal communion however that ends up working. Not because God is impossibly sanctimonious, but because God has promised to protect his children from their oppressors. God will not let eternal communion with him be anything other than perfectly safe and joyful shalom, whatever that means for those who cannot conform to that arrangement.
It just seems very presumptuous for me as someone who has never been severely traumatized by another person’s sin to declare that a loving God couldn’t possibly lock anyone out of heaven. But it’s more complicated than just saying a magic prayer and attending church and small group every week after that. What about abusers who have absolutely done every possible thing they knew how to do to get “saved” as Christians but are completely unrepentant about having done profoundly harmful things they don’t consider to be sinful? What about victims who had their lives destroyed by somebody else’s sin against them and cannot accept an eternity with a God who also wants to spend it with their abusers? What about the invisible oppressive social forces that all of us contribute to and participate in which result in devastating harm to other people that we never have to witness? Shouldn’t we have to face the music in some way for the harm that we’ve been happily oblivious to causing other people?
These kinds of questions lead me to believe that the only way people could ever become a reconciled eternal community is through some kind of trust and acceptance of a God we all share who punished himself for the very real, tangible evils we have suffered. God doesn’t force us to make up with each other by overpowering us as a giant omnipotent bully; he wins our forgiveness of each other by taking the blame for our crimes on his own shoulders. Whatever else is true about heaven, only broken people get in. Those who have completely fortressed themselves against the possibility of conceding any wrongdoing, however many dozens of Bible verses they quote in the process, have created the fortresses of their personal hells.
So the cross didn’t happen because God angrily wanted to crucify all of us and begrudgingly accepted his son as our substitute. The cross happened because God sees infinite worth in people who have done really really bad things to other people, and he wanted to do justice to the harm that they caused while creating a means for their redemption and reconciliation. It wouldn’t be just to the victims of their sins for God to say everything is fine now without the cross.
Furthermore, God doesn’t want to let us divide the world between “good” and “bad” people since the truth is that those of us who haven’t done really really bad things to other people would have been perfectly capable of the same evil if the circumstances of our lives were different. God’s grace is the only reason that the impact of my life has been any better for other people than if I had done truly despicable things. It’s only a credit to God’s goodness that he has protected me from the evil that I am perfectly capable of.
The way that sin actually works doesn’t respect our individualist boundaries of blame and responsibility anyhow. We are collectively responsible as humanity for the harm that our community has made possible, even if individuals were the direct agents behind it. The cross happened because we will never be able to assign blame for sin with perfect accuracy and justice, so God says give all that blame to me and accept my forgiveness, recognizing your culpability and my grace.
If you ask me for my opinion on penal substitution, it entirely depends on what you mean by it. No, I do not believe that you or I deserve to be tortured to death for our sin. Yes, I do believe and am grateful that God came up with a way to take the blame for all the awful things we human beings have done to each other so that we can spend eternity together in authentic reconciliation and peace.