Do you deserve to be crucified for your sin?

Do you deserve to be crucified for your sin? September 17, 2014

vader cross cropped flat

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.

Sin hurts people. That’s why God hates it. Not because God is a cruel, stuck-up perfectionist with nihilistically impossible expectations for us to live up to (so that we can only get bailed out by “accepting Christ”). God simply hates what hurts the people that he loves. And he hates that people he loves deeply hurt other people he loves deeply. Some sins are absolutely devastating to the lives of their victims. And it’s completely horrifyingly offensive to imagine the prospect of these victims having to spend eternity sharing the table of God’s fellowship with their abusers. And this horrifyingly offensive prospect is precisely what God wants to somehow bring about, as unimaginable as that ought to be for us.

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.

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  • This is very well written and well argued. I’m still not sure I accept the notion of penal subsitution, but the way you describe it makes a lot more sense than the ways I’ve typically heard it described. The way you describe it, it wouldn’t be in conflict with the character of an omni-benevolent God. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Like the previous commenter Bill, I’m not yet 100% sure what to do with the “penal” aspect of PSA. But I am sure that if it is needed at all, it is not in the sense that God actively punished Jesus for our sins. I’m more comfortable with thinking about it the way you approached it in this post. (As a slight aside, I don’t the term “penal” is helpful in any case, because it tends to automatically connote an active punisher and a punishee. I prefer to think of Christ embodying the consequences of our sins rather than simply “taking the punishment”.

    • I think you’ve got a good point about the “penal” adjective being unhelpful.

      • Sorry to bring you back to a mostly-dead thread, Morgan, but you’re developing a bit of a troll problem that I thought you might want to be aware of.

        • Frank6548

          Oh the irony. Lol.

          • You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

          • Frank6548

            Oh it just gets worse and worse for you.

    • summers-lad

      I agree. Penal substitution leads to the belief that Christians are saved from the consequences of our sins, rather than being saved from our sins which is (amongst other things) what Jesus came to do.
      Further, it frames salvation in legal terms, so that ultimately it gives law the upper hand over grace. This seems to me to be at odds with the gospel.

      • That’s a very good point about PSA addressing the consequences of sin but not salvation from sin itself.

  • Steve

    Good article, but I threw out penal substitution completely 30 + years ago. I don’t believe in it in any sense.

    • Benjamin Martin

      I agree. Scapegoating innocent virgin first borns makes as much sense as “hitting my foot with a shovel for your mortgage,” as stand up comedian Doug Stanhope reckons.

      “‘Jesus died for your sins.’ How does one affect the other? I f***ing hit myself in the foot with a shovel for your mortgage. I don’t get it. And if there is a correlation, why would you do that?”

  • Frank6548

    And that’s why the claim that the sin of homosexual behavior doesn’t affect anyone who is not directly involved is a lie.

    • chhholly

      Not quite sure where you’re going with that…

      • Frank6548

        Just a response to anyone who fallaciously claims that homosexual behavior hurts no one, especially the people who are not involved.

        All sin hurts us all.

        • toadstool

          Why don’t you explain how all sin hurts us all?

      • Joe

        Not sure if you meant that sincerely, or as a rhetorical device to encourage Frank to more clearly reveal his feelings about homosexuality. I’m going to respond as if you were sincere; if it was a rhetorical device, I apologize for misunderstanding.

        Morgan made the claim above that all sin hurts others in some way. There are, then, two ways to interpret that vis-a-vis the question of whether homosexuality is sinful. The first, which seems more obvious to me, is to say that I can see no way in which homosexuality hurts anyone, therefore it is probably not sinful. The second, which Frank appears to be putting forward, is to say that I believe homosexuality is sinful, therefore it must be hurting someone even if I’ve never managed to see it. I say that the first is more obvious for multiple reasons, but primarily because it puts things in the right order: [X] hurts/does-not-hurt people, therefore it is/isn’t sinful.

        Putting it Frank’s way seems to me like saying “I’m sure it’s winter, therefore there must be snow on the ground outside.” Much more logical to say “I see snow, therefore it’s probably winter.”

        • Frank6548

          Of course it’s winter whether there is snow or not.

          • You came back two months later, only to completely miss the point.

          • Frank6548

            Oh the irony.

          • Oh, the trolling. And how long before you start accusing me of being obsessed with you again? At least get a new routine, Frank, this one’s stale.

          • Frank6548

            Joe you haven’t grown, become wiser or increased your self awareness. I’d work on that instead of worrying about me.

          • Ah, there’s the accusation I was waiting for. And there’s some actual irony for you, that you of all people should accuse others of needing to grow in wisdom or self-awareness.

          • Frank6548

            Thanks for proving my point.

          • Likewise

          • Frank6548

            And this is what makes you a tragic figure.

          • I’m a tragic figure because I’m your favorite target for trolling. Good to know, that’s a definition I hadn’t heard before. Your obsession with me is rather sad, though.

          • Frank6548

            You are the best proof I have to support what I say about you. Thank you!

          • You’re welcome. I’m bored now, so I’m gonna leave until you can manage to come up with something original for a change. This conversation was stale when we had it two years ago.

          • Frank6548

            I know, you were done before you even started. Only you apparently didn’t know that.

    • SueC

      My gosh, that is such an evangelical cliche! And just stating something as a fact doesn’t actually make it one. Neither does quoting someone else who shares your view.

      • Frank6548

        Nothing can change the fact that homosexual behavior is sinful. Nothing.

        • WilmRoget

          And yet that is not a fact, it is simply your sin against God and hundreds of millions of people.

          • Frank6548

            See above. Repeat.

          • WilmRoget

            Your falsehood is still a lie of the devil no matter many times you repeat.

            Frank, you are never going to succeed in making your homo-erotic desires go away by reviling homosexuals. It doesn’t work for anyone. In fact, that more you revile homosexuals, the more pressure you’ll feel regarding your homo-erotic desire.

          • Frank6548

            There is nothing that will change the sinfulness of homosexual behavior. Nothing. You can protest until your dead it won’t make bit of difference.

          • WilmRoget

            “There is nothing that will change the sinfulness of homosexual behavior.
            Nothing. You can protest until your dead it won’t make bit of

            Yes, Frank. Homosexual sexual behavior is not intrinsically sin, and nothing you can do, no protest, no screaming, no threats, nothing you can do will ever change that. You cannot make homosexuality, or homosexual sex, intrinsically sinful no matter how hard you try.

            And you cannot make your homo-erotic desires go away. They are part of you. The more you hate those the desires, the more you hate yourself, and the more you hate others, and the farther you push yourself away from God.

          • Frank6548

            Nothing that you can do to change the sinfulness of homosexual behavior. Nothing. Ever. But have fun wasting your time trying.

          • WilmRoget

            Again, since homosexual sex is not intrinsically sinful, I have no need to change anything.

            No matter how much you scream, homosexual sex is not sin.

          • Frank6548

            See above. Repeat.

        • SueC

          My gosh, who bit you and made you a homophobe? And why are you so emotionally attached to that attitude, and to constantly repeating that opinion (not fact)?

    • WilmRoget

      The lie here is your posts on this subject, as usual.

      • Frank6548

        See above.

        • WilmRoget

          Your lies remain lies no matter how often you tell them

          • Frank6548

            See above and take your own advice.

  • Really enjoyed this perspective, astute observation about the abused vs. abuser at the table of communion…it does feel a bit like you’re dipping into an “eternally abused” sort of label that I am not sure we retain…somehow the passages about wiping every tear from our eyes (context not-withstanding) and the lion and the lamb lieing down together imply some sort of healing. I think we tend to get caught in Western motifs of justice that are payment focused rather than restorative…sure there is damage done here that here no amount of payment could fix, but that does not exactly correspond to “there”, would not limbs and innocence, life and potential all be restored? Maybe I’m not connecting the dots correctly but simply transferring the blame to God does not seem to restore anything, and because of that I am not willing to hoist that as the “why” of the cross…like Rob I have not worked it out, but I am kind of in process of saying what I think it is not…your mileage may vary.

  • A couple of thoughts. Isaiah 53:5 seems to articulate a view, when the church has interpreted this Christocentrically, that punishment I deserved was poured out on Jesus. I don’t think it needs to be *either* our sins crucified Jesus or Jesus’ crucifixion somehow expunged our guilt for sins; both are true. I fully agree that abuses of penal substitution are abhorrent, but that is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Finally, I have a hard time with the notion that God is only against sin because it hurts others. The 51st Psalm, the classic Psalm of repentance, is unequivocal when it says “against you, and you only have I sinned.” I do believe this is a both/and as well, though. Many of the confessions we use in the UMC hymnal and Book of Worship state both our failures to love God and love our neighbors well. On the whole I think the debate about penal substitution is overblown; some conservatives have made it a line in the sand, along with explicit believe in a literal, eternal hell to define who’s in and who’s out, and some progressives try to prove their bona fides by constantly attacking such an archaic view. Both are making too much out of it. I think it is stretching the history of the doctrine to say that this is a view of “the privileged,” because it’s hard to argue how Anselm is any more or less privileged than Abelard, or the proponents of Christus victor, and their proponents, down through the ages.

  • Gregory Nelson

    My father, on agreeing that Jesus is the example of how we should live, said to me, “But son, Jesus was crucified.” That was correct, of course. The crucifixion is both the worst thing that ever happened on earth and the best thing that ever happened.

    But it was most of all Jesus’ choice. More importantly, it was not the end of the story. By that choice he transformed death itself. And that, most of all, is what we must remember about the crucifixion; not that it was the end of a life, but that it was the end of death. That to me is the biggest problem I have with the depiction of the event as the symbol of a vengeful god. God in Christ chose this death to destroy death by dieing for us. And we are to live and die for each other as He lived and died for us. It wasn’t a vengeful god. It was the God that is God.

    We do not want to suffer according to what we deserve. That’s what mercy means; you don’t pay what you owe. Jesus certainly didn’t get what he deserved. He went up on the tree to show us what mercy means in action. Jesus didn’t deserve any of it and took it for us because that is what he wants us to do with each other. He was saying, “See what I am doing to remove the fear of self-sacrifice! This is my message to you; Take crosses off the shoulders of others, and yes, walk into the gallows in place of those who deserve it. When you carry the cross you don’t deserve you turn it from the torturer’s weapon into our communion in timelessness.

    Ghandi called it “the transformational power of unearned suffering.” And King, and Mandela, and many, many more are growing towards this Way of the Cross.

    How blessed we are to live in the age when humans are learning the true meaning of the cross; not that is was the end of things, but that it was the transformation of things. It transformed the torturer into the instrument of salvation. What was down became up. What kind of revenge is that? No kind. It is the end of revenge and the end and transformation of the only really vengeful god, us.

  • “It’s only a credit to God’s goodness that he has protected me from the evil that I am perfectly capable of.”

    >> Sounds similar to saying you are elect. God chose to be especially gracious to you, but not to many others. Life is very unfair. Factoring God into the equation only makes things more complicated.

    • James M

      If the OP had written “”It’s a credit to God’s goodness that he has protected only me from the evil that I am perfectly capable of”,” that might be a fair interpretation. Giving the credit to God for proctecting one from being as grotty as one might hypothetically be is a long way from claiming to be elect; one is not praising one’s exalted moral excellence, but admitting one’s nothingness without God.

  • Luke Breuer

    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).

    Have you ever looked at how many those OT passages were actually aimed at Gentiles? It is a fun study to do. 🙂

    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.

    Well said. There is, indeed, another way to look at Romans 3:23. It could mean that one has stopped listening to God—to e.g. his speech as described in Ps 19:1–4. See the use of ‘hear’ in Hebrews. Should it really surprise us that we need the [ever-continuing!] words of God to be pulled to his [infinite] glory, and that should we shut our ears to those words and harden our hearts, we will permanently fall short? Well I know one reason it is surprising: it would wrest control of the body of Christ from humans and puts it back with Jesus.

    Any Christian discourse about sin is supposed to make Christians humble and sympathetic to the frailty of their fellow sinners.

    Yeah, I don’t think many of those who generally make it to the airwaves understand this. Folks like Tiffany Clark with her Messy Theology blog definitely do. Hebrews makes this clear that Jesus did, having been precisely as weak as we are, but without sin. In general though, I see Gal 6:1–2 violated all the time, Mt 23:1–4 ‘obeyed’ all the time, and Rom 2:4 forgotten all the time. There is a lot of belief out there that “other people are just like me, only with different experiences”. So much for 1 Cor 12!

    Only a God who was tortured to death has the authority to say anything at all about reconciliation to the victims of sin.

    I want to propose something more drastic than this. I want to propose that healing the effects of sin hurts. Furthermore, I want to propose that Jesus only healed one of those relationships corrupted by the Fall: the God–human relationship. The rest? They’re for us to participate in healing: Col 1:24, Rom 8:16–17, 2 Cor 4:7–12, and 1 Pe 3:17. I want to propose that Jesus continues to actively suffer, per Mt 25:35–40, in the process of doing Eph 7:1–10. And we? We get to take part. If we really want Jesus, that is. If we don’t, there’s Mt 7:15–23.

    • Mmm… That sounds legit to me.

      • Luke Breuer

        You might like Roger Olson’s What’s New in Theology? (Some Musings about Novelty–Or Not) and So What’s Left for Theology to Do? Some Musings about Theology’s Future. I greatly disagree with Olson on how little new there is, and I think I have a few clues on why things seem as he describes them.

        In a word: the fragmentation that modernity brought (well-attested to by sociologists like Peter Berger and Jacques Ellul, both Christians) accompanied fragmentation of Christians and of people’s minds. How the fragmentation started, I don’t [yet] know. But fragmentation is another term for disunity, and I think this is the reason we seem locked under a kind of philosophical dome, or ‘canopy’ as Josef Pieper says in Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Until this unity is even somewhat restored, I think we will stay imprisoned. Yes, imprisoned. I’m sure God pokes through at various points in time, but I cannot believe he is in any way happy with the fragmentation of Christianity, given Mt 5:43–48, Jn 13:34–35, Jn 17:20–23.

        Only when people like you do what you’ve just done—really try and draw everything into a comprehensive whole, find the contradictions, and then attack them, instead of shying away and happily declaring “Paradox!”, will we truly break free. I claim that another term for embracing paradox (this is very different from ‘mystery’!) is lawlessness, of the 1 Jn 3:4-type. Lawlessness is used, consciously or not, to abuse and attack those who would threaten extent social systems. One way to summarize Jacques Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity is this:

             (1) either Christianity is subverting culture
             (2) or culture is subverting Christianity

        Peter Berger has a book which captures this quite well: The Precarious Vision: A Sociologist Looks at Social Fictions and Christian Faith. So… yeah: keep doing what you’re doing! Maybe if enough of us do this, and communicate with each other, we might just get somewhere!

  • SueC

    Thoughtful discussion, thank you! 🙂 I think Martin Luther King saw it similarly, judging by his sermons / essays in “Strength to Love.”