The Odious Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement

The Odious Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement November 12, 2012

PZ Myers posted an entry on his blog with the title “Odious Christianity.” He is commenting on a tract that came his way which includes the following cartoon:

After sharing it, he writes:

Whoa, hang on there. How is justice served by punishing an innocent? So, with this judge, if I get a parking ticket I could get out of it by bringing in a baby and chopping off a finger, and announcing that there, I’ve more than paid off my crime now? Or do I need to get someone who loves me very much to selflessly volunteer to mutilate themselves in order to get me off?

It seems to me that if I were to accept such an offer, it would make me even more of a disgusting monster than just someone who let a parking meter expire. I don’t think justice is served by allowing others to take responsibility for my crimes — yet somehow a fundamental precept of Christianity is the doctrine of the scapegoat.

So, sorry, I reject the core belief, so I must reject the whole of Christianity. Joshua, get down off that tree! You’re doing me no favors!

PZ’s assessment of the underlying thinking behind this model of the atonement as fundamentally unjust, indeed monstrous, is absolutely correct. And it is unfortunate that it has become so widespread in certain (particularly Evangelical) circles that it seems to some that to reject this model of the atonement is to reject Christianity. But of course, that isn’t the case, and this way of interpreting the significance of Jesus’ death – and its relation to human forgiveness – is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of Christianity.

Atonement theories are, historically speaking, a result of Christians trying to make sense of the crucifixion of  Jesus. Since there has never been a single creed stating a particular view of the cross as orthodox, on this topic more than any other, Christians should feel they have a lot of freedom to reflect and rethink. And I would hope that all would agree that any view which says that God is just, and yet simultaneously claims that God behaves unjustly, is a self-contradictory and irreverent mess which ought to be rethought.

I wonder how many readers of this blog have a particular view of the crucifixion of Jesus, how many interpret it in terms of a theory of atonement, and in the case of the latter, which of the various views of atonement you find most helpful.

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  • Kaz

    What do you think was the significance of Jesus’ death? Did his death bring about the possibility that we can be forgiven for our sins? If so, how? If not, then what was the point of the whole drama?

    • Paul D.

      Look at what Jesus actually teaches in the Gospels — the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for example. All he taught was that people needed to repent.

      To paraphrase Harnack, can you imagine Jesus chuckling to himself while telling these parables, thinking, “in a few weeks, all my teachings will be moot and people will have to believe in the substitutionary atonement of my death or go to Hell”?

      • Kaz

        So what do you think was the significance of Jesus’ death? Did his death bring about the possibility
        that we can be forgiven for our sins? If so, how? If not, then what
        was the point of the whole drama?

        • Paul D.

          Why don’t you go read what the church fathers believed about Christ’s death? Penal substitutionary atonement wasn’t cooked up until a thousand years later.

          • Kaz

            That’s not something that concerns me. The doctrine of justification by faith alone emerged even later than that, and this has no bearing on whether it accurately represents biblical teaching.

            One of the reasons it’s easy for liberal Christians like James constantly criticize the beliefs others hold is because others have definable beliefs. It’s not so easy to critique James’s beliefs, because they’re difficult to identify. His primary belief appears to be that he does NOT like the beliefs of fundamentalists.

            While discussing the rise of the Nazi Party, Professor Thomas Childers mentioned how one Nazi official (Himmler, I think) was approached by a journalist and asked (paraphrasing) “We know what you are against, but what do you stand for?”, to which the officer responded (paraphrasing), “We are for the opposite of what the current regime stands for”. That seems remarkably similar to James’s liberal Christianity. One might search the archives in vein looking for any positive statement regarding what he believes from a biblical perspective, but there’s plenty of info regarding what he’s against.

          • Claude

            The Nazi analogy is appalling.

            I invoke Godwin’s Law.

          • Thanks, Claude. Kaz, I do think that it is clear what liberal Christians stand for. The recognition that the religious language that we use is metaphor and symbol rather than a literal description of transcendent realities. An appropriate humility as a result when it comes to the tenacity with which we insist that our own images and language are best. An openness to learning from others who disagree with us. A focus on practical rather than theoretical concerns, such as standing up for the oppressed and working for justice. And I could go on.

          • Kaz

            I guess I should have specified that I was speaking uniquely biblical beliefs. Aside from taking language metaphorically, the rest are just reasonable approaches that pretty much anyone, even atheists, would agree are good to practice.

          • Exactly correct Kaz. James just shared with us a statement that defined his Christianity in terms that *any* secular humanist would accept.

          • I don’t find that most atheists embrace the use of Biblical or any other metaphors for transcendence, and so that seems to me to be a significant difference. And if there is overlap with what others believe and practice, when has that not been true? Most Christians do not reject Paul’s ethics because of overlaps with Stoicism, or John’s prologue because of overlaps with Platonism…

          • Correct, but most Christians assent to a large set of beliefs that atheists would feel comfortable definitively disavowing.

            I’ve met plenty of atheists that don’t object to certain Biblical passages being used as “metaphors” to discuss “transcendent” (e.g., moral) reality; provided one admits that they are not to be taken literally.

            What are those beliefs that you could definitively state that set you apart from:

            * atheists
            * non-Christian theists

            I’m only asking you to define through distinction because everything you have said could be accepted by some members of the above two groups.

          • Chucklingabit, I am not sure if I understand your second sentence the way that you intended. If you mean that plenty of atheists don’t object to others using metaphors for transcendence, then that is certainly true. But they would not use them in that way themselves, since their atheism is a denial of the transcendence that the religious perspective affirms.

          • Yeah, I probably had an incorrect definition (or at least equivocated) definition of “transcendent” in mind. For example, many atheists believe there is such a thing as “objective morality” and I was grouping that sort of thing into the category “transcendent.” Sorry about that.

            In any event, I still fail to see what firm statements you might make that would differentiate your beliefs from other theistic (especially Abrahamic faiths.)

            I’m sure you have such beliefs, I just don’t know what they are. I’m sure if I continue to read I’ll come across some — I only just started reading your blog. But that statement you made above was so general as to be nearly useless in communicating what your version of Christianity entails.

          • Well, you are indeed right that a first visit to a blog will leave a lot of questions unanswered.

            But I should say that I am still a bit puzzled. Apart from a particular focus on Jesus, how else would you expect Christianity to be different from other Abrahamic faiths?

            And of course, the model of the divine that I find most helpful is panentheism, and so you may find I have more in common with the mystical tradition across the Abrahamic faiths than with the tradition of classical theism within them.

          • jojojoy

            The analogy that is often used on Alpha courses here in the UK is of God the judge having to fulfil the rules and fine you, but that he himself then writes the cheque to pay the fine (I’m paraphrasing).In that version, no one is lopping off anything and it seems to aid thinking about what actually happens in terms of PST in terms of God fulfilling his law himself out of love for us, without involving random innocents, and thereby hopefully avoiding anyone calling anyone else monsterous?

          • But why use this bookkeeping metaphor, as though sin were a matter of transactions and accounts rather than relationships and morality? It seems that, in addition to the fact that the metaphor of penal substitution is fundamentally unjust, the alternatives that are proposed, as well as the original, are problematic in terms of the way they construe sin. They also run up against the problem of ignoring all the references in the Bible to God forgiving people! 🙂

          • Nick Gotts

            So does any non-anthropomorphic notion of “god”, which you appear to prefer.

          • sara

            The cross brought not just forgiveness for specific acts but freedom from sin and renting the curtain, opening the way to relationship with God God’s forgiveness in ot instances was always a one-off event incidentally the idea of punishing an unwilling baby does not correlate to Christ’s voluntary self sacrifice sloppy logic

          • I am trying to figure out whether you are agreeing with my point or disagreeing with it. You nowhere used PST’s bookkeeping metaphors, so was your point that the cross is better understood through the other images you used?

          • Anon.

            “The analogy that is often used on Alpha courses here in the UK is of God
            the judge having to fulfil the rules and fine you, but that he himself
            then writes the cheque to pay the fine (I’m paraphrasing).”

            But the judge does this because the judge does not have the power or ability to change the rules. *Parliament*, which does have the power and ability to change the rules, doesn’t do this. So this is again a view under which God is not omnipotent. Which is OK, but for some reason omnipotence is a popular attribute to attach to God…

          • arcseconds

            Well, there is debate about what ‘omnipotence’ actually includes.

            In particular, there’s Euthyphro’s dilemma: do the gods like what’s good because it’s good, or is it good because it’s loved by the gods?

            A lot of people, including many Christians of a liberal bent, favour the first horn of the dilemma, and don’t regard this as being a limitation on God’s omnipotence. God, on this view, doesn’t have the option of making kicking puppies for fun good (although of course God could still decide to create or not create puppies).

            So people who believe in penal substitution, and who believe God *has* to penally substitute if He wants to let us off (rather than has for some reason decided to do so, even though it isn’t really necessary), are just really choosing the first horn of Euthyphro’s dilemma, alongside many liberal Christians, although of course the content is different.

            To motivate why this might not be a real limitation on God’s activity, consider whether an omnipotent God could do the following:
            – Can God frubble vork thuub?
            – Can God make a five-kilogram constitutional democracy?
            – Can God make a triangle with four sides?
            – Can God insert the Cookie Monster into the sequence of natural numbers?
            – Can God make 1 + 1 = 3 ?
            – Can God make a rock so big that God can’t lift it?
            – Can God make kicking puppies for fun morally obligatory?

            The answer to at least some of these things is surely: “what? I don’t even know what that could possibly mean.”

            If pushed, maybe the answer should be: “well, no, God couldn’t make a condition under which that statement is true, because that statement *doesn’t mean anything*!”

            and maybe that holds for all of the above.

            Furthermore, making the morally good in some sense independent of God means that the traditional property of perfect goodness is a meaningful property to attribute to God. i.e. what God does is just by definition good, asserting “God is good” is an empty statement.

          • “God is good” is an empty statement, unless there is some known standard to define “good”. Otherwise, it simply means “God is” or “God is ???”. This is because, aside from the horn you addressed, either we define whatever God does as “good” (the arbitrary horn in Euthyphro’s Dilemma) or God’s nature as “necessarily good” (which is how theists split the horns). But the latter is indistinguishable from the former in practice, because whatever God does would be considered consistent with His nature.

          • arcseconds

            I think we’re kind of on the same page here, at least in the first part of your statement. I didn’t word my last paragraph entirely well: I meant what I think is the same point that you’re making. Thinking that goodness is independent of God in some sense means that “God is good” is a meaningful statement. If you think that goodness is defined by what God does, then you’re not actually telling us anything about God by saying “God is good”

            (although I suppose you might be elliptically saying “God is by definition good”, but I don’t think that’s usually what people mean when they say this – while some people opting for that horn seem to have thought this through, most give me the impression of wanting to have their cake and eat it, too).

            As far as the last part of your statement goes, I’m not sure I understand what you mean by saying that they’re indistinguishable in practice. It seems to me that they’re very distinguishable. Let’s just take something that would seem to everyone as morally unconscionable if anyone but God did it. Let’s say killing every firstborn (both human and animal) in an entire nation except for those of one ethnic group.

            If you’re a straight-up theological voluntarist, then this should be no problem for you whatsoever. Humans aren’t allowed to kill each other because God said so, but God can do whatever he wants, and all of that is by definition good, even if it’s racially-motivated mass murder. If this was done by a human, we’d go ‘boo, you evil person’, but because it’s done by God, we go ‘yay! I’m glad God did that’.

            If you think good has an independent definition, then while of course it’s possible to work out that you’re wrong about what is good, you don’t actually have to go along with what God has apparently done in this case. You want (let’s say) to see God as being good, but this action doesn’t appear to be good, so that will be a problem for you, which you will have to work at to accommodate.

            These don’t seem like positions that are indistinguishable in practice to me.

          • Theologically nuanced folks do, in fact, mean “by definition God is good”. Although I would contend they also want their cake and eat it too. After all, they are essentially trading on the word “good” to provide a positive connotation to God’s nature, when in fact it would be very easy to perceive God’s actions as “not good”. But they would say that the problem is with our perception.

            As I said before, this is distinguishable only in principle from saying that “good is what God does” (the arbitrary horn of the dilemma). In practice, however, both cases resort to “whatever God does is good”; so whatever He does, we must basically learn to like it.

            Hopefully, this clarifies what I mean about their being no distinction in practice. I did not mean that there is no difference between taking the “independent definition” of good horn vs. the “arbitrary good” horn. What I meant was that the theist who tries to “split the horns” by stating that God’s nature is by definition “good” is, yes, technically defeating the dilemma – but the victory should seem very shallow. So, I agree, i think we’re on the same page here.

          • arcseconds

            OK, but there’s still a difference, isn’t there? someone who believes that good is defined independently of God (and that we have enough of a handle on to know say that mass murder of innocents simply to demonstrate a point is wrong), and who believes God is inherently (and non-degenerately) good has to struggle with accounts of God doing apparently bad things (and with theodicy) in a way a straight-up voluntarist does not.

          • Yes. Sorry that I’m not being clear on this. If (A) is the “independent good” horn of the dilemma, (B) is the “arbitrary good” horn, and (C) is splitting the horns, I’m saying there’s no practical difference between B & C only. There is a tremendous difference between A and the other two – which isn’t to say that it’s better or correct.

          • arcseconds

            OK, I always thought the ‘God’s essential nature is good’ people were really embracing option ‘A’. The similarity that they have with option B is that they’ll take all of God’s actions to be good. However, because they have to reconcile God’s actions with a substantive view of the good, they’ll have to do work to explain how it could be good (or as a last resort admit that it’s a mystery).

            ( I actually think most Christians actually are in this camp, no matter what their official view on Euthyphro’s dilemma are. Even though some people more or less claim to be theological voluntarists, they still seem to want to explain God’s actions in terms of our notions of justice. Very few people really just shrug their shoulders and say “undeserved mass murder? morally unconscionable. Oh, God did it? Oh, sorry, in that case it’s quite fine”. People who think God could do wrong at least in principle also seem pretty thin on the ground. I get the impression that this is more of a possibility in Judaism.)

          • arcseconds

            But, I have few clues about Christian theology and frequently get things wrong, so I’m prepared to be instructed on the matter :]

          • Kaz

            Apparently you don’t follow this blog very closely, because James has absolutely no problem makes those sorts of comparisons when either Republicans or Conservatives are on the receiving end. Why have you not complained about those posts?

          • Kaz

            Replace “makes” with “making”.

          • Claude

            Because I haven’t seen those posts.

            Though I follow this blog pretty closely.

          • Kaz

            Alright, I’ve thought about it and I concede that the particular comparison was in bad taste. I was attempting to make a rhetorical point, and had no intention of truly comparing James to a Nazi except in the very narrow sense that I know more about what he’s against than what he’s for. Still, after additional reflection I agree with you that it was appalling.

            I apologize, James.

          • Apology accepted. 🙂

          • One problem with criticizing someone for not being clear on what they “stand for” is that perhaps the problem lies on the other end. Seems to me James and others think he is quite clear on this, so perhaps the problem is not in he/they being unclear as much as it is a lack of understanding. Another problem is that one thing that liberal Christianity “stands for” is epistemic humilty – meaning that we should own up to what we don’t know. This kind of necessitates a level of uncertainty with many things that others would hold as dogma (even if they don’t use the term).

          • Kaz

            So it was humility that motivated James to call the subject belief that many hold “monstrous”. I’m glad you clarified that, because it wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise.

          • That was James’ moral evaluation of the theory, which has nothing to do with epistemology. In any case, even if there are some who deviate from humility in this sense, can that not simply be a reflection that we are human, and fall short? Surely you value many things that your actions may, at times, betray.

          • Ryan

            Try Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp who all affirmed a substitutionary theory. –

            “Clement of Rome (c. AD 95-105) wrote, “Jesus Christ our Lord hath given His blood for us by the will of God and His flesh for our flesh and His life for our lives.”16

            Ignatius (c. AD 100-120), writing to the church at Smyrna, taught that Christ was “truly nailed up in the flesh for our sakes.” 17 Again he stated, “He suffered all these things for our sakes.”18

            Polycarp (c. AD 110-120) explained that it was “Jesus Christ who took our sins in His own body upon the tree, who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth, but for our sakes, He endured all things, that we might live in
            Him.” – quoted from Richard L. Mayhue, Th. D. from The Master’s Seminary Journal – TMSJ 20/2 (Fall 2009) 139-148. – – –

            Furthermore, the anonymous “Epistle to Diognetus” in the 9th chapter clearly affirms penal substitutionary thought with his “great exchange” statement. It is absolutely, historically false to say that penal substitution was not taught, at least in embryonic form, in the early church. The only reason this argument exists is because of the prevalence of the “Ransom” theories, first developed by Origen (a man I would definitely not want to base my theology on). However, John of Damascus’s corrective to the Ransom theory of Origen was most certainly a step toward an objective, substitutionary theory.

          • You seem to be confusing “for our sake” with “in our place, understood specifically in terms of taking the penalty which is owed by another.” Or perhaps you are deliberately blurring them. But either way, the sorts of texts you cite do not show evidence of the substitutionary understanding that stems ultimately from Anselm, although even then it was a metaphor involving a debt of honor which still isn’t quite as problematic as the subsequent penal reworkings, which date largely from the Reformation era and thereafter.

    • pokapokapoke

      It certainly opened our minds to the possibility that we could be forgiven, and that someone wanted to forgive us. That, it seems to me, is a huge part of the equation – if a person has believed all their life that no one cares, then the feeling is going to be mutual.
      But what do I know?

  • Simon Cozens

    Penal substitutionary atonement is based on the doctrine that God prefers sacrifice to mercy. “Go and learn what this saying means,” says Jesus.

    • Kaz

      So what do you think the biblical purpose of Jesus’ sacrificial death was?

      • Simon Cozens

        Hey, it’s not my theory, I don’t have any responsibility to fix the obvious, glaring bugs in it.

        • Kaz

          Ah, well thank you for your contribution, nevertheless.

      • Barry Chitwood

        It was to show the limitless love of our creator and also to show us that our love for one another should be patterned after Jesus’ love for us.

  • It’s interesting that Jesus never lays out exactly why He *needs* to die. In fact, if His last-ditch prayer is any indication, even He wasn’t aware of the mechanism of atonement (assuming He actually thought His death served that purpose). And if Jesus didn’t know, i don’t know why anyone else would think that we could.

    • Kaz

      So I guess my next question is: Is the belief that Jesus died for no explicable reason really superior to believing that he died that we might live?

      • Saying that Jesus died for no explicable reason is quite different than saying we don’t know why He died (other than the obvious legal reasons cited). And saying we don’t know, if true, is better than speculating, then passing this speculation off as gospel.

        • Kaz

          So you don’t think that there is value in trying to determine the meaning of Jesus’ death? I wonder if he would agree.

          • That isn’t what I said, is it? I didn’t say that we shouldn’t *try* to find value, only we that shouldn’t try to pass off speculation as gospel. Please do try to find meaning in it, and please do let me know what you think. Please do not tell me that if I don’t believe a certain doctrine that I cannot be part of the “family” (unless you have VERY good grounds for doing so), which is exactly what many Christians do. As you say, I wonder if Jesus would agree with this as well.

          • Kaz

            JB, the owner of this blog has suggested that the “Evangelical” notion that Christ died for our sins is “monstrous”. I’m just trying to find figure out what reason God could have had for sending his Son to die that would meet James’s and James’s followers’ approval.

            IMO, there is noting at all “monstrous” about the notion that God loves us so much that he gave his own Son, allowing him to pay the price for our sins, or for the love Jesus showed in willingly subjecting himself to do his father’s will, out of love for his father, and out of love for us. I’m really getting sick of the holier than thou, intellectually elite, I’ve-got-nothing-better-to-do-with-my-time-than-flex-my-superior-intellectual muscles-and-criticize-others approach from liberal Christians.

          • I just posted a comment addressing this notion. You can’t lump people all together like this. I don’t necessarily find PST “monstrous”. Again, the key misunderstanding with many is in thinking of it in terms of God sacrificing *someone else* as substitution. That isn’t what PST claims. Nevertheless, I think there are serious issues with it, and I don’t think anyone really knows what *ultimate* purpose Jesus’ death served, if any. Perhaps, then, we should focus more on his life?

          • The main objections that I have to PST are that it is unbiblical and depicts God as unjust. I have no problem with going beyond the Bible when we feel the need to. But if something is both unbiblical and problematic, I don’t see why it should be held on to.

            In the NT, Jesus does not substitute for Christians. Paul says it well in 2 Corinthians. He doesn’t write, “One died for all, because all should have died, but one took their place…” He writes, “One died for all, and therefore all died…” His model is participatory, not substitionary.

            A model which does justice to that, which suggests that Jesus came to invite us to participate with him in seeking to conquer through love and self-sacrifice rather than power and an attempt to defeat our enemies, would potentially do justice to both Biblical and contemporary theological considerations.

          • Is there any way to depict as God as both all-loving/merciful and truly just? Seems to me that any atonement theory probably suffers from this dilemma. God simply forgiving people is hardly “just” (and Jesus spoke of how people may perceive God’s way as unjust). Perhaps you feel PST depicts God as more unjust as compared to other concepts of atonement, but it seems to me that ultimately this charge could be leveled at any of them.

          • mcage

            Yes, God is all merciful and just. He will rid the world of sin by forgiving it in each individual through the death of Christ, and causing each individual to be resurrected and transformed in Christ. He will bring man to be what He wants him to be and that is both merciful and just. Any problems?

          • Gaurav Joseph Zachariah
          • mcage

            It is not unbiblical. Read Hebrews. Substitutionary Sacrifice is a principle laid down in the Old Testament as a type and shadow fulfilled in the New. If you study the Tabernacle and its rites in depth you will understand.

          • It is precisely as a result of studying Hebrews, and the Levitical rituals that are the basis for that work’s metaphors for atonement, that I understand that work to understand the sacrificial blood to be purifying away the sin of human beings to allow God to dwell in the midst of a sinful people. The earthly sacrifice is said to have purified the earthly copies, while Jesus’ sacrifice is said to purify the heavenly originals, allowing him to thus serve as the forerunner who enables humanity to enter God’s heavenly presence.

            Gordon Wenham’s commentary on Leviticus is very helpful on this topic.

          • Guest

            I just posted a comment addressing this notion. You can’t lump people all together like this. I don’t necessarily find PST “monstrous”. Again, the key misunderstanding with many is in thinking of it in terms of God sacrificing *someone else* as substitution. That isn’t what PST claims. Nevertheless, I think there are serious issues with it, and I don’t anyone really knows what *ultimate* purpose Jesus’ death served, if any. Perhaps, then, we should focus on his life?

        • mcage

          If you do not inwardly understand why He died and was resurrected, you need to seriously examine your faith.

          • I would agree. I think we all need to seriously examine our faith, though. Part of that means that we examine why Jesus died, not just accept the pat answers that we are given. Whether you like it or not, there are many, divergent reasons given for Jesus’ death in the NT. And whether you like it or not, this at least hints at the possibility that what is written is a reflection of others’ attempts at *making* sense of it, not delivering some revelation gained after the fact, and conveniently left unexplained by Christ Himself.

      • Simon Cozens

        OK, I’ll take the freakin’ bait.

        You’re making a wild and unsourced assumption that the only way to understand Jesus’ atoning death is sacrificial. There are lots of things wrong with this. Let me list a few.

        First, all attempts to describe divine activity in human terms, particularly the central mystery of history, are going to end up being metaphorical, and if you stretch any metaphor too far, it breaks. “Try that in a law court!” says the tract. But there isn’t really a law court; it’s only an analogy. We can try to explain God’s action in human terms, but only if we remember that there are limits to our explanations. The analogy isn’t the answer.

        Second, the penal substitutionary metaphor isn’t even a particularly good analogy. It has lots of holes in it, not least: it portrays God as being more interested in justice than mercy, which isn’t true; even if it were true, “justice” does not mean punishing the innocent for the crime of the guilty, no matter what the innocent party thinks about this arrangement.

        Third, the Church has always, always, always chosen a range of different analogies to explain the atonement. There isn’t one “only way”, not even within the Bible; John was not Matthew was not Paul. Go read about the different explanations. Sacrifice. Penal substitution. Ransom model. christus victor. Moral freakin’ influence. Choose your own.

        Fourth, choose your own is exactly the point. Theology is profoundly contextual. Sacrificial satisfaction makes some sense as an explanatory analogy when you have a religious system based on sacrifice already. It was a good explanation for early Jewish believers. Penal substitution, the idea of a forensic criminal trial, makes some sense if you have that kind of legal system already. (The Hebrew legal system didn’t work like that, but Middle Ages Europe’s system did, which is why the analogy was thought up when it was.) Other parts of the world may be different to our own; as a missionary in a non-Western country, my job is to translate the Gospel into a set of analogies which make sense for my context. Penal substitionary atonement most certainly doesn’t. (And frankly it doesn’t make much sense in the post-Christian West either. Recovering The Scandal Of The Cross has more on this subject.)

        My analogy won’t be your analogy, and that’s OK. But confusing your analogy with THE TRUTH is not going to help anyone.

  • It’s not quite penal substitution theory, but i can imagine a scenario where Jesus sacrifices Himself for mankind, not because it is *actually* necessary, but because *we thought* it was necessary. Thus, it serves the purpose not of fulfilling some demand for blood, but shifting our own focus away from it. Just speculation on my part, though.

    • Kaz

      If “we thought” it was necessary, where do you think that idea came from?

      • Virtually every ancient civilization had this notion. As to where they received this idea, I don’t think anyone can say for sure. It’s easy to see how such a notion would provide for a good crime deterrent. It’s easy to see how the notion can be cathartic. It’s also easy to see how it can easily get carried away.

        • Anon

          It is very hard from a modern perspective to understand the ancient approval of the concept of the “scapegoat”. We think, poor goat.

          I think the only way to see it is to realize that ancient people had some really bogus ideas in their heads.

          • Of course they had “bogus ideas”, as I’m sure folks who look back at us 3000+ years from now will think about us as well. But it’s not terribly difficult to put yourself in the shoes of someone who lived back then and imagine the reasoning that would have justified the idea of sacrifice/scapegoating. Yes, we think “poor goat”, but they would have thought “better the goat than my firstborn”.

          • The fact that we think “poor goat” does not make us right, however. Old ideas are not necessarily wrong. That’s not a defense of PST; it’s just an observation.

        • cbren

          That’s because the idea of a savior redeeming us has been known and taught from Adam and Eve, through the OT and on to the NT. The entire theme of the entire OT and NT is a redeemer dying to save sinners. A second Adam.

          That is where they got the idea from.

          • This seems to be a rather Judeo-Christian centric view. Not all civilizations have this concept, yet they still had the idea of sacrifice. It seems to me that in most cases it wasn’t because they had a “redeemer” in mind; rather, they were simply trying to appease gods in any manner possible.

  • One troubling aspect of objections to the Penal Substitution theory (PST), though, is that they frequently mischaracterize the concept. Take P.Z. Meyers’ objection, for example: he claims it would be absurd to lop off a baby’s finger and present as payment for something that someone else did. We all agree, I think, that this is immoral.

    But this is not an accurate reflection of what adherents to PST think. They claim that God *sacrificed Himself*. Going back to P.Z. Meyers’ counter-analogy, then, if I lopped off my own finger to present it to the judge, we may all find it to be excessive and unnecessary (valid objections, I think, to PST), but hard to say it would be immoral.

    • Simon Cozens

      Not quite. In the analogy, it would be the judge dismembering himself. The whole point is that the guilty party pays no penalty and gets off scot-free.

      • True about the judge dismembering himself, thanks for the correction. Not necessarily on the offender walking away scot free, though. Christians would acknowledge that as long as the offender “accepts” the overture, then they do not pay the *ultimate* penalty. People pay parking tickets for others all the time in this country, post bail for others all the time, etc. So we do not necessarily feel paying the price for others’ punishments is, in principle, immoral.

        • Simon Cozens

          The problem is that PST is so often presented as something that God needs to do to maintain His sense of justice. “He can’t just let people off!” Only a corrupt judge would do that, says the tract.

          But if justice is the central plank of this stupid theory, it’s rather hard to see how that justice is served by releasing the guilty and punishing the innocent. Just? Moral?

          Of course, if you confront PST advocates with this massive failing, they then tend to revert to the position that “well, God’s justice is so far above our justice, it’s by definition correct.” Why bother trying to explain it in terms of our justice, then?

          I am so glad that God is, and portrays himself as, merciful. Mercy is the foregoing of justice.

          • Simon Cozens

            Which reminds me of two more holes in the story:

            Anyone who says “God can’t just….” is denying omnipotence. Way to go, pal. And also ignoring what Jesus himself went around doing. “Your sins are forgiven.” “Your sins are forgiven.” “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.”

          • I think you sum up the problems quite well. In the end, I think the main problem is that we attach so many conflicting attributes to God.

          • Anon.

            Good point. God as usually depicted is not a coherent concept, but rather a *contradictory* concept, full of conflicting attributes.

            I’m not sure why men want to believe such odd and contradictory things; it seems like wishful thinking to me.

          • Wishful thinking and contradictory beliefs works both ways. There are believers who are guilty of this, as well as unbelievers. It can be difficult to think through personal beliefs objectively, and most people don’t appreciate others questioning their views. Unfortunately, that’s often the only way people learn about inconsistencies in their own thinking.

          • mcage

            But if He just forgave us all, that would do nothing to change us or transform us, right? We would be just spoiled brats who never got any better. It is not God’s intent just to forgive us, but to redeem and change us!!!!!!!

        • justSayin’

          In the UK recently, a national politician got a speeding ticket. To avoid inconveniencing his career, his wife agreed to take the penalty in his place. In the end they both got 8 month jail sentences for “perverting the course of justice”. No-One spoke up to say she did the holy, just, righteous thing.

          • The difference there seems to be that the politician was trying to avoid blame, and the wife was not *just* paying the penalty.

    • mcage

      I have never put a name like Penal Substitution Theory to my faith. Jesus died for me, and I died in Him. He rose for me and I rose with Him. He ascended back to Heaven and I am ascending with Him. That is all I need to know and believe. Romans Chapter 6.

      • If that is “all you need to know”, why do you think Jesus never bothered to mention most of this?

  • Rebecca Trotter

    If I may be a shameless self-promoter for a moment, I wrote a blog post on this issue a while back that I’m rather fond of. I’m not sure I can summarize it well here, but the crucifixion was a human motivated event from start to finish. God almost certainly knew it would happen – humans being humans and all – but nothing about the crucifixion met any requirement for sacrifice ever laid out by God. I have a saying that everything that has a reason. Sometimes things happen for a reason. Sometimes a reason is given to things that happen. I would argue that the crucifixion is an example of the latter. At any rate, here’s the link to my faaaaabulous blog post on the matter:

  • Souheil Bayoud

    Read the true story the coin of the temple then you will see the REAL blood of Jesus.

  • Courtesy of the latest Biblical Studies Carnival (which I just mentioned on the blog), I learned of this blog post discussing my view on the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement (an earlier blog post) and Al Mohler’s views:

  • Nick Gotts

    So, not one Christian here has given any remotely plausible, or even coherent, account of why Jesus’s crucifixion was necessary or beneficial. That ought to tell you something.
    Oh and by the way, JB Chappell, who’s this “P.Z. Meyers”?

    • mcage

      Wrong. Read my posts.

      • Anon.

        Sorry, what you wrote does not qualify as coherent. You seem well-meaning, but you end up arguing against “head knowledge”, so you are actually rejecting coherence. Which is OK, but…

    • The reason for no one offering some theory, is – at least in part – because we are only discussing one theory. And what, pray tell, is it supposed to tell us if there are diverse opinions on the subject? As for P.Z. Myers (sorry, I misspelled his name), all you gotta do is the google the man.

    • cdbren

      Ask God to forgive you and give you understanding. Then read through the entire OT. It explains everything about why Jesus’ death was necessary and beneficial. It sets it all up.

  • mich

    Atonement theories-the bible is clear on this;Why Jesus died for your sins.

    This isn’t a head scratcher folks!

    • What is a head-scratcher is that you can accept that relatively modern reasoning based on proof texts while ignoring the repeated references throughout the Bible to God forgiving people, in various Psalms, and forgiveness being taught about and even pronounced by Jesus in the New Testament prior to the crucifixion. You seem not to grasp that the particular configuration of texts and of reasoning based on them you offer is actually at odds with much that the Bible says. And that, to me, is a head-scratcher.

      • mcage

        Jesus was able to forgive all He met because forgiveness is bound up in Him. “Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world.” You are thinking in chronological terms. In God’s Mind, Jesus has always been the crucified Lamb and the resurrected Saviour of the world.

        • First, let me point out that you have posted so many separate comments that it seems as though you are spamming. That is never a good way to make your point, if you have one.

          Second, your statement about Jesus being timelessly crucified simply assumes what needs to be demonstrated. It is an attempt by some Christians to connect those references to earlier forgiveness to the cross of Jesus, and does not demonstrate that the crucifixion of Jesus was in fact necessary for that forgiveness to be extended and valid. But it would, at the very least, mean that knowing about the crucifixion of Jesus is not essential for forgiveness.

  • mcage

    Jesus Christ represents the New Adam. The first Adam fell for the entire human race. The New Adam was sinless for the entire human race. In Jesus, God is setting matters straight by allowing a perfect Man to take upon the sins of the entire human race. The wages of sin is death. Jesus dies, and all die in Him. He is raised and all are made alive. That is why I am a universalist, because Jesus’s death and resurrection would mean nothing if He just did it for a few. In Jesus, all will ultimately change Adams and become part of the New Creation.

  • mcage

    Don’t try to theologize Jesus’death. What happens when you believe in His death and resurrection inside you is what is important for you. When you truly identify with His death and resurrection you become a new creation. It is not about head knowledge, but heart — spiritual — understanding. God provided this way to hide the truth from those who would just try to capitalize off religion and distort things for the masses in order to control them. No one can really tamper with the way He is building His Church.

  • mcage

    Jesus did not die and rise again just as punishment and restoration of the human race. His resurrection is our life, puts His Spirit within us and transforms us into His image. If you view it that way, the entire plan is wonderful! God is re-creating man in His image. If you view Jesus as just some ticket to “heaven after you die,” then you will not understand any of the truth of God.

  • mcage

    Why are most of the posts on this article and the article itself non-biblical? God clearly spells out in His Word the fall of man and the need of a Saviour. He clearly sets forth the types and shadows of redemption in the Old Testament Tabernacle and its priesthood and rites. And He explains it in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews. The entire Bible, understood from a spiritual view (I Cor, 2) explains the redemptive plan of God. Do any of you read the Bible? Have you prayed to your Father for understanding? It is His desire that you understand. Pray.

    • Theodore A. Jones

      “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13

  • Here’s a blog post from another Patheos blog which relates to this topic:

  • arcseconds

    Maybe the penal substitutionary theory is popular amongst those who are both theologically and politically conservative because they have a penal view of justice?

    The penal view of justice explains a lot, actually. Free market capitalism is good and welfare is bad in part because the poor deserve to have a tough life; death is what murderers deserve, hence the death penalty. And the resistance to any change in these sorts of areas, because reducing suffering and improving quality of life aren’t really what’s important.

    The penal substitutionary view also seems to entail that penal justice is prior even to God in some sense, as Anon suggests. I’ve a little more to say about that, but it’s probably best phrased as a reply to Anon…

    Anyway, if penal justice is binding even on God, then of course it’s binding on us, even if bleeding-heart liberals would prefer to give the poor cookies and warm houses and meaningful work meaningfully remunerated.

    • It seems to me that pretty much any form of justice involves a penal aspect to it, so I’m not sure that explains much. Even if you don’t accept that death is what murderers “deserve”, most accept that they should be “penalized” in some way. The only form of “justice” that would not accept this would be a rehabilitative model, where criminals would be seen as sick patients in need of treatment.

      • arcseconds

        Fair point – views of justice that have no penal element whatsoever are rare (although they do exist). So allow me to rephrase.

        What I mean is not that they’re unique amongst people in having a view of justice that involves penal elements, but rather what makes them different is how thorough-going the penal elements are, specifically:

        (a) their view on *social* justice seems highly penal. While most people see criminal justice in penal terms, significant numbers of people don’t think social justice is about penalizing people for incorrect action, or at least, there are other significant factors to it.

        (While of course left-wingers are famous for thinking social justice is primarily about promoting people’s welfare, many right-wing positions also hold a similar position, at least officially, or alternatively officially don’t care.)

        (b) while you’re right that most people would see dealing with murders in penal terms, members of the Christian Right seem to see it in stark, eye-for-an-eye terms, especially when it comes to murder. If you think prison is the way to go, you certainly think that the punishment doesn’t have to equate to the crime, and probably already think there’s some moral flexibility in appropriate punishments for murderers, and you’re also probably at least somewhat open to the idea that the convict’s family also could be considered in how the convict is treated, i.e. there’s more to this than just punishment, and even the punishment part of it has some options around it.

        (c) how non-optional the penal elements are.

        The rhetoric around capital punishment often sound as though
        it’s not only appropriate to kill murderers, but also that it’s morally
        wrong *not* to, i.e. a murder *requires* a life in exchange, and it’s
        here that I see strong similarities with substitutionary atonement.

        On the social justice front, they certainly see rewarding those who don’t ‘deserve’ comfort in life as being a fundamentally bad thing. And I often get the impression that this is more important to them than stopping people dying of preventable illnesses or stopping people living on the street because the powers that be can’t run an industrialized economy without a few crashes along the way.

        The non-optionality seems to have a certain congruence with the view that even God has to do accountancy tricks in order to get around these kinds of things.

        • I would disagree here in that I do not think a thorough-going conservative’s view of social justice is “highly penal”. This is how a thorough-going liberal may perceive it, but I doubt very much that a conservative would describe it as such. Rather, I think it is more the case that liberals/left-wingers (for the lack of a better term) focus more on the end-result and conservatives/right-wingers focus more on the process. A liberal becomes obsessed with the fact that their simply isn’t an equitable distribution of wealth, and would (ostensibly) claim that this is fundamentally unfair. A conservative would claim that this is only unfair if the rules weren’t the same. If the rules are the same for everyone, yet some end up more with others, then the divergent outcomes are not the result of injustice, but something else. There really isn’t anything “penal” about this, it is just a fundamentally different view, or at least different emphasis, of justice.

          With more criminal/civil matters, as opposed to social justice, I also see more of an “eye for an eye” mentality among PST adherents, yes. But this becomes a chicken-or-egg scenario, though.

          • arcseconds

            I wouldn’t say conservatives in general have an especially punitive view of social justice.

            Nor would I associate substitutionary atonement with conservatives particularly.

            My comments are purely about a particularly strident version of the religious right.

            I obviously haven’t been clear enough about this, and my initial post seems particularly poor in this regard because looking back I can see that it rather strongly suggests I’m talking about all religious conservatives.

          • Fair enough. I certainly don’t question that there is a particularly strident group of conservatives that have a rather punitive view of justice. That much, I think is obvious. To be honest, however, I’m just not familiar enough with those folks to say for sure that they identify more with PST, as opposed to, say, Ransom Theory. But I can see why one might hypothesize the connection.

          • arcseconds

            Right. I should be clear that this is just a hypothesis I’m kinda throwing out there :]

          • arcseconds

            As far as chicken-or-egg scenario goes, I’m not suggesting any particular causality here. In fact, I’d resist any suggestion that one causes the other simpliciter. Hence, I’d reject your characterisation as ‘chicken-or-egg’, because that implies a one-way causal link.

            What I’m trying to suggest rather is that the worldview has one main way of viewing justice, and that gets deployed in every justice situation. It becomes self-reinforcing because you use the same thinking when thinking about the cross as you do when thinking about society.

            The cliché I’d go for therefore is ‘when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.

          • But why would they view justice as such? It seems to me that they may view that way because they accept PST. Thus, the Biblical model becomes the filter through which they view everything else. Perhaps you are simply leaving that as an open question, and that is fine, but that is what I mean by chicken-or-egg: I’m not sure whether they’d accept PST because of a pre-existing punitive view of justice, or whether that view would have been shaped by acceptance of PST.

          • arcseconds

            Despite me saying that I’m wanting to resist a simple one way casual model, you’re still insisting on shoehorning me in that direction!

            I doubt it can be either of the alternatives you mention in most cases, because people usually pick up both their morality and theology largely by osmosis, and not in a linear fashion. It’s difficult to believe that anyone who grows up in a family and culture where both these ideas are prevalent somehow manages to learn all about the death penalty whilst not having the slightest clue about substitutionary atonement until they learn about it later, or vice versa.

          • Not trying to shoehorn you, only throwing out questions is all. I’d agree that chicken-or-egg is overly simplistic.

          • arcseconds

            Most left-wingers (say people who usually vote for left-wing parties) don’t actually have a fundamental problem with an unequal distribution of wealth. Most also believe that the free market has an important part to play in society.

            Even socialists (real socialists, not people who vote Democrat) often think there’s a place for differential remuneration to encourage people to work harder.

            Of course there are some who want absolute equality, but they aren’t common. I realise you’re engaging in a sketch here, but this is a common and I think dangerous misconception about ‘what liberals want’, one that’s particularly convenient for right-wing demogogues.

            It’s about as bad as suggesting conservatives are motivated by the need to punish people :]

          • Agreed. An “alarming disparity” in wealth/resources as opposed to “unequal distribution” would have perhaps been a better turn of phrase?

          • arcseconds

            Yeah :]

  • arcseconds

    I can’t remember exactly how seriously I took substitutionary attonement back in the day, but I did take it to be mainstream Christian theology.

    This was entirely C.S. Lewis’s fault.

    • From what I’ve read, I would have thought C.S. Lewis seemed more inclined to a Ransom Theory or Christus Viotor model of atonement.

      • arcseconds

        Well, I don’t know what his personal view is, but what is explained in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is pretty much a substitutionary atonement view.

        • I would disagree. In the book, the Witch explains that due to Edmund’s betrayal, he “belongs” to her. Aslan pays the blood price, and is eventually resurrected due to “Deeper Magic”. It seems to me to be the former is very reminiscent of Ransom Theory, and the latter Christus Victor. For what it’s worth, the all-knowing Wikipedia seems to agree (last paragraph of “penal substitution” entry).

          In his own writings, C.S. Lewis claims to identify more with the participatory view that Athanasius held, and perhaps Mr. McGrath as well (although I’m not familiar with the details of either of their approaches).

  • It is also interesting to me that we all seem to treat these options as mutually exclusive, when they really aren’t. And the fact of the matter is that there is scriptural warrant for each view.

  • sara

    How can you call substitutionary atonement a modern construct when it was devised, and well outlined, thousands of years ago in the temple? If you don’t like modern understanding of atonement, there is the ancient idea

    • What leads you to understand ancient Israelite temple rituals in terms of substitution?

  • Ian

    A good example of the “willingly self-sacrificing” is (in the UK) when you get someone else to take your speeding ticket from a traffic camera, and keep your license clean. It is pretty common, I gather. Someone innocent of the crime agrees to take your punishment. It is hardly a great moral occasion. In fact, if you get caught, you’re punishment is likely upgraded to a spell in prison. So much for the wonderful principle of penal substitution.

    • I could be wrong, but at least one key difference here appears to be that the phenomenon you describe appears to be surreptitious in nature. Furthermore, that the UK government does not approve of an action does not make it “immoral”. “Illegal” does not necessarily equate to “immoral” (except on the grounds that we are morally obligated to follow the law).

      • Ian

        “does not necessarily equate” is a bit weasel wordy, don’t you think? Is taking someone’s speeding points a moral deed, or not? If not, is it purely the subterfuge that makes it so?

        • It’s not “weasely”, just accurate. Sometimes what is illegal can be equated with immorality. Often, this is not at all clear. Do you deny this point? Or does legislation define your morality?

          As for the issue in question, I would contend that there are few moral questions that can simply be decided with a “yes” or a “no”, without qualification. If taking someone’s speeding record can somehow serve a higher purpose, or greater good, then why should it not be considered morally acceptable?

          • Ian

            Sorry, brevity isn’t always useful. Of course ‘illegal does not necessarily equate to immoral’ but it seemed a pointless generalization when that was never the issue at hand, so I wanted to ask if you brought up that truism because you thought that in this case it did not. Or whether you were just reading my initial comment as some sort of strawman argument that the law was the definition of morality.

          • It does seem to be an issue to me since analogies meant to portray PST as abhorrent almost always fall along the lines of “well in OUR legal system…” as if that proves the point in question.

          • Ian

            I think the problem is that PST seems so obviously immoral to me, that if I’m trying to discuss with someone who thinks it is the pinnacle of grace, then it is difficult to find common ground. Arguments from analogy are a form of bridge-building. To avoid just throwing our hands up and imagining we’re different kinds of being, we try to figure out a situation in which we do agree, and then figure out, as we both move to our sides of the bridge, where the logic changes for one of us.

            So we might agree that it is immoral for me to get my mate to take my speeding points, but you might suggest that if the law was fine with this, if it was no different to your friend giving you the *money* for the speeding ticket (clearly totally legal), then the act becomes not just moral, but loving. If I knew my mate was short of cash and had been hit by a speed camera, I would probably offer him the money, because I love him… for example.

            So we might first try to agree on a case of penal substitution that we agree is immoral (and you’ve still not said whether this is such a case). Then what changes from there to a PST christology are significant in inverting its moral state?

            The other side-effect of this, is that a certain proportion of folks have never thought about the PST they’ve been taught, and so these kinds of arguments can be important in getting people to actually think about what they’ve been taught. Note, I am not saying that those who believe in PST are unthinking, just that it is usually taught as a doctrine, not as the conclusion to a line of reasoning.

          • Honestly, I just don’t know. How do we determine whether or not it would have been moral for God to decide to take on a punishment that He decided we all deserved, based on a standard He knew we could/would never successfully uphold? If God is the source of morality, then who are we to say that it is wrong? If God isn’t the source of morality, then what its? If it’s relative, then there’s no point in discussing it. So, merely declaring that it seems wrong is fairly hollow, unless a strong justification follows.

            I can appreciate attempts at analogy, but eventually any real-life examples break down – because the situation is simply unparalleled. It may simply *seem* wrong, but on what basis? What objective moral standard is being violated, and how do you (or whoever) have access to it? Critics commonly point to it being “unjust”, and yet many/most of these critics also have no problem with mercy (demonstrated by your willingness to give your friend some money). Yet mercy is just as “unjust”.

          • Ian

            “because the situation is simply unparalleled” That is just assuming your conclusion, of course. The situation is plenty paralleled, as far as I can see, its just that the moral conclusion of those parallels is one you don’t like :).

            But most of your comment comes over as arguing for one horn of Euthyphro: God is good, by definition, there is no basis on which we can judge the morality (or otherwise) of God. That’s fine, of course, but it does mean talk of God being good and loving and kind, and so on, is just tautological and meaningless. Not many believers I know are really willing to face up to the implications of going along that horn.

            “If it’s relative, then there’s no point in discussing it.” – It is a common failure of imagination to not understand how morality could possibly exist without God, but it is hardly a active problem in philosophy. You may want to look up ideas such as moral universalism, moral realism, ethical naturalism, and so on, on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Given the fact that the absolute moral standards that religious folks ascribe to God are highly culturally contingent, it is pretty clear that the common theological claim to moral objectivism is horribly naive.

          • You think that PST is a common phenomenon? You have other
            examples of judges/arbiters holding people to impossibly high standards, but then – in a fit of mercy – taking on the punishment for themselves that they had meant for those who could not live under their impossibly high standards? Fair enough if you do, but I guess I don’t know why we wouldn’t start there. In these other, parallel scenarios, do we also consider the judge/arbiter to be
            immoral/unjust for taking on the punishment instead of delivering it?

            I’m not sure what conclusion you think I am assuming.

            I’d agree that defining God as “good”, or his “nature” as “goodness”, or whatever, ends up devolving into tautology. That is the one horn, but I did address the other horn as well. If there is some objective moral standard that exists outside of God, then how is it that PST contradicts it, and how do we know that? So, the same problem (certain) theists have, others also have in attempting to define “good”. Why is “well-being” good, for instance? Because we define it that way. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with attempts to ground morality outside God; I am, and unsatisfied with them as well. As long as people have a common mind on matters such as “well-being”, it is all well and good. But, as you point out, people do not have a common mind on a great many things.

            The problem is with trying to claim morality is objective –
            or more so, that somehow one has access to this objective standard and can reliably interpret/apply it. Because even if morality is objective ontologically speaking, obviously it is subjectively interpreted and applied. So, simply stating that something “seems obviously wrong” is not a claim that
            inspires confidence that an objective moral concept has been grasped, nor is an exercise in analogy-generation.

            You are correct that analogies can be bridge-builders, and that is great so far as it goes, but when dismissing something as immoral,
            I think a more concrete justification needs to follow. And, like I pointed out before, “it’s unjust” simply doesn’t work, unless one equates justice with morality, and is also willing to eschew other forms of injustice, such as mercy.

          • Ian

            I’m not quite sure how we got here, but if you’re arguing there is no such thing as objective morality, except by redefining morality tautologically, then that conclusion is fine by me.

            But that’s irrelevant to my original question.

            We really don’t need to establish a metaethics to have this conversation, insisting we do is just muddying the water. We agree on some moral issues, so clearly we have some commonality of moral sense. We disagree on others, perhaps, and the question is what, and why? If folks had to agree on a philosophical position on metaethics before being allowed to discuss morality, there would be no moral conversation.

            For example:

            “judges/arbiters holding people to impossibly high standards, but then – in a fit of mercy – taking on the punishment for themselves that they had meant for those who could not live under their impossibly high standards”

            So, to me, a person who acted this way would be a vile tyrant. Any law-giver who institutes a law that is impossible to live under and which requires them to choose not apply the punishment, at their discretion, is a a despot, I’d say. If we were talking about the ruler of some country who did this, would you agree?

            If so, again, the question is, what changes between this hypothetical, and your view of God that suddenly makes behaving this way, good and moral?

            Is it just that God is defined as good, so you drop out of your normal moral assessment when it comes to God and won’t process the question? Or is there some actual feature of the situation that is significant. I.e. can you come up with some hypothetical situation that is non-theological, where you also think acting like that is moral?

          • Not quite arguing that “there’s no such thing” as objective morality, but if there is, it is only perceived, interpreted, and applied subjectively. Acknowledging this is important when decrying things as immoral, because so often all that really means is “I don’t like this.”

            I’m sure we do agree on some moral issues, and I’d agree that we’d want to know why we agree and disagree. I guess that’s why I’d emphasize the value of articulating what moral framework one is using, and why. I don’t think that stifles conversation, as much as it clarifies it. For instance, there’s not much use in trying to demonstrate a fetus is “alive” when arguing with someone who thinks the right to privacy trumps right to life.
            Re: the “vile tyrant”

            No, I would not agree with you. I would certainly not appreciate being held to an impossibly high standard, if I did not know why this was so. I cannot rule out the possibility that there may be acceptable reasons for why the standard exists, however, there do not seem to be good reasons for silence on the issue. (of course, this is assuming silence, which most Christians would deny). But, regardless of what I would consider unjustified silence, if this “vile tyrant” were to take whatever punishment was supposed to be doled out to everyone upon himself, then I guess I’d be appreciative and puzzled. puzzled because I have no idea why such a thing is necessary, but appreciative nevertheless of the gesture and effect. Why shouldn’t I be? Should I instead insist that I receive my punishment? Is it wrong to accept charity?

          • Ian

            “Is it wrong to accept charity?” Hardly charity if the tyrant set the punishment in the first place. Particularly if the punishment was something that would affect you more than they. Like a fabulously wealthy person capriciously paying a poor person’s fine, or an immortal being ‘dying’ (for a day or two) in place of someone’s eternal death.

            An ‘impossibly high standard’ just means there is no standard at all. It is like saying to a class ‘I’ve set the the pass mark so high, it is impossible to attain’ It is functionally equivalent to having no pass mark. An ‘impossibly high standard’ is just a euphemism for ‘I can punish anyone I chose’. I don’t see how that isn’t a vile sentiment in any worldview. But I guess Stockholm syndrome is a powerful force.

            “I cannot rule out the possibility that there may be acceptable reasons for why the standard exists” Tyrants often use this kind of excuse. We’re doing this to you for your own good; it has to be this way, for reasons you wouldn’t understand; if you knew all the facts you’d see I’m acting out of love; this hurts me more than you… Stop by a spousal abuse recovery group and you’ll hear the same things. Of course, they may be true, the guy may genuinely have very moral reasons for hitting his wife. But most folks can see through the ‘I’ve got reasons, but you wouldn’t understand them’ shtick.

            Re: metaethics

            Okay, so if I say I hold roughly a moral realist position (subject to qualifications about the nature of language), i.e. I believe that morality is objective (though the term is normally misused), and ethical behavior is always utilitarian (though the term is normally misused) – does that help you address the question of what features of PST you think make it moral when compared to my original justice analogy? Or do we need agree on our theory of language first too? ‘Cus it sure looks like you’re trying to avoid the question 🙂

          • Ian

            “because so often all that really means is “I don’t like this.””

            So? My method works even if that is the sum of the other person’s moral foundation.

            We figure a case where we agree (and where we’re comfortable that the consensus morality would also agree), and then move towards the disagreement, and see where the road forks. We can then, having found the key element in the disagreement, try to figure out on what basis that element causes the difference.

            I think you’re muddying the waters with the whole metaethics stuff.

          • As for metaethics, knowing the positions you hold does not help me understand my own better. I’ve already explained my thoughts on the matter, for some reason you think this is “dodging”. I take the “I don’t know” position on PST. I don’t think it is rock-solid, but neither do I think it is necessarily “abhorrent” (although with certain assumptions it obviously can be).

            That you take a utilitarian perspective is interesting, however. Presumably, if you are a utilitarian, the consequences of PST are the main thing to consider. So, what is the consequence that you object to? Seems to me that PST – if true – increases happiness and reduces suffering, although perhaps not in an empirically measurable way. But I assume you don’t hold that for something to be “moral” we have to actually be able to measure it’s impact…?

          • Ian

            JB – For some reason I’m not seeing a bunch of my comments that I’ve replied to you – don’t know why, maybe you got them anyway. I’m very keen to continue the discussion, but if my side isn’t appearing it might be tough!

          • Ian

            Utilitarianism isn’t an epistemology – it doesn’t tell you whether something is true or not, but whether it is moral. Would it there be more benefit, given you intend not to punish an individual, to demand that an innocent pay with their life for the crimes of the person being forgiven, or simply to forgive the crime without demanding blood? It seems clear the utilitarian answer to that. You can, of course, posit a whole bunch of additional mystical unknowns to change the calculation, but on its surface, PST seems to fail the utilitarian test pretty obviously.

          • cdbren

            Ian, there are no crimes being committed at all. You may be confusing sin or a sinful state with a “crime” as you know it as a human. Sin is spiritual in nature and you have to understand that to even begin to discuss it. It isn’t like stealing an apple from a store.

            You stated about demanding blood. Do you even understand what blood signifies biblically? Why Cain’s sacrifice was not accepted? Your ideas about crimes, punishment, blood sacrifice, temple sacrifice, morality, etc. are all out of alignment with what the Bible teaches. So therefore your conclusions are all off the mark. They don’t make logical sense in light of what God teaches according to the Biblical passages.

          • Ian

            cdbren, forgive me if I don’t engage with you, but we’re having a discussion about penal substitutionary atonement. As James pointed out above, that is a *penal* model of christology. If you don’t think that is a good model, then that’s fine, but the truth of the model isn’t what we’re discussing. So I’d respectfully suggest you drop out of this conversation if it isn’t something you are into.

          • I don’t think PST fails nearly as much as you do. What benefits *us* more – flat forgiveness, or someone taking the penalty for us? Seems to me like they are even. So, what you have to consider is whether God should be included in the moral calculus as well. Obviously, mere forgiveness may have benefited his health more. Although, as you’ve pointed out – how much harm did it really do to an immortal being, to be “dead” a few days? So, at most what you’ve demonstrated is that if we include God in a utilitarian equation (a dubious exercise, but to be fair Jesus was supposed to be fully human as well), “mere” forgiveness comes out slightly ahead of PST. The question, then, is this: does that make PST “immoral”, “abhorrent”, or simply “not as good” as an ideal solution? If we look at it on a continuum, PST certainly seems to come out better than sending everyone to Hell. So, from a utilitarian point of view, it seems problematic to assert that simply because something is less than ideal, it is “immoral”.

          • Ian

            “I don’t think PST fails nearly as much as you do.” – are you saying I fail more than PST? 😉 – sorry read it that way on first glance and it amused me….

            So I think your other point is right here. PST on its own, seems to me to be a net moral loss over alternatives (in the absence of additional information). But as we’ve seen in the legal analogies, there are cases of effectively PST (like paying a friend’s fine) where the additional information can easily sway the moral calculus. So I agree, to that extent, my view of PST in that narrow sense (or ‘specific’ if ‘narrow’ sounds judgemental) is of a minor moral failing.

            So it is a good observation that what we’re actually talking about w.r.t. God is PST in the context of other orthodox claims about God. And with those additions, PST becomes a darker horse. Does that match how you are reading my comments?

            The other thing I’ve been mulling over with this, is the notion of what we think the constraints of the situation are. So one of the reasons I think utility based morality is important is that it recognizes that moral decisions only ever exist relative to alternatives. And it seems to me that different assumptions about what the alternatives are, and what the choices actually entail, gives very different moral judgements. This is very half-baked at the moment, I might post on it on my blog soon.

          • I promise that’s not what I meant by “failing”! I think it is important to point out that PST is a net moral loss, at face value, over the *ideal utilitarian/consequentialist* alternative, and that’s it. Any other comparison would probably involve appeals to “mystical unknowns”. So, to me, it is a pretty limited conclusion.

            Nevertheless, I think you are correct in that if we take PST + “orthodox” (a very nebulous term) claims about God (probably unrelated to PST), then – yes – it becomes “a darker horse”. So when I say that PST is not necessarily immoral or abhorrent, it is precisely because I have no qualms with dismissing many/most of these orthodox claims.

            As for your “half-baked” thoughts, I’m not a pure utilitarian (I would hold that there are virtues that supersede consideration of consequences), but it does sound like you’re on to something worth developing.

          • Regarding charity, I will go ahead and presume that you do not think accepting charity is wrong. However, in the case of PST, you seem to think the “vile tyrant”s sacrifice wouldn’t count as “charity”. You justified this by stating that this is because the tyrant had initially set the punishment. Not sure how this follows. Can it not be the case that the charity in question is to right a wrong? Even if it isn’t, what you’re objecting to is the standard, not the atonement. And like I tried to point out, unless you know the reason(s) for why the standard exists, it’s tough to find grounds to object.

            So, I think we agree that charity/mercy is not bad or immoral. We also agree that impossibly high standards are immoral if they are arbitrary, capricious, etc. I am curious if you agree that it is at least *possible* that there are good reasons for such a standard to exist (even if we don’t know what they are).

            And I think it is obviously false that “impossible” = “none” with regard to standards. Say, for instance, a Martian invites you to live with them on Mars (see, I don’t think analogies are useless). Unfortunately, a pre-requisite for them is that you have to be able to breathe (and live afterwards) carbon dioxide. Now, there’s a perfectly good reason for such a standard to exist. So, that’s not the problem. Nor would it be a problem if the Martian then (somehow) made it possible for you to breathe their atmosphere. What you may wonder is why the Martian wouldn’t just make that possible before extending his offer. And that is a legitimate question. However, I wonder if you’d agree that we wouldn’t *necessarily* have to consider the Martian immoral for acting the way he/she/it did.

            As for Stockholm Syndrome/battered spouses, of course such people do exist. But you undercut your own analogies when you admit that there may be legitimate reasons for a husband to hit his wife (or vice versa). You may think that these are few and far between (and I’d agree). So, we could even say that it seems more probable than not that a person who holds impossible standards is capricious/tyrannical. But that is different than merely asserting that PST is abhorrent. Not having all the information seems (to me) reason to withhold judgement – or at least properly qualify it.

          • Ian

            It isn’t charity if you cause the problem, no. If I steal all your possessions, then give you them back, giving you them back is not charity.

            Your Martian didn’t create the atmosphere of Mars. Nor did the Martian create humanity with the prime intent to live on Mars. If the Martian did – if the Martian made human beings with oxygen respiration, with the plan to have them live on Mars requiring methane respiration, and then got to choose who he’d ‘charitably’ give breathing apparatus to and who he’d let suffocate, then said Martian would be an immoral monster. Clearly.

            Unless you want to suggest that sin and punishment and the standard is beyond God’s control, then I don’t see how God gets to just swan into the picture as the solution, and not be there at the forming of the problem.

            ” Not having all the information seems (to me) reason to withhold judgement – or at least properly qualify it.” But those who act this way always claim to have a reason. Vile tyrants always claim to be acting in the best interests of their people. If we withheld judgement, we’d be complicit. Men have been ‘witholding judgement’ on spousal abuse for centuries — its their business, he’s a good bloke, he wouldn’t do that without a reason, etc — causing untold damage to women’s lives. I simply don’t buy the idea that we should look on clear immorality and say “it may be moral if there’s some hidden reason, so I’ll reserve judgement”.

          • cbren

            You seem to be under the impression that God somehow created or caused sin. Yet that is not the case at all. I know that is how you read it or come to understand it, but that is not the case.

            And yes, a human beings decision to do this or that is beyond God’s control because he gave us free will. We were not created to be puppets on a string.

            That is the flaw in the whole conversation of this post. There are some misconceptions about what the Bible says and teaches.

          • cbren, human behavior is NOT beyond God’s control. Reading the scripture, it is quite clear that God influences, or even controls, people’s actions at times. That He chooses to give us (somewhat) free will does not mean He is incapable of controlling us.

            Nevertheless, I think you are correct in pointing a critical flaw, which would be that I’m assuming God holds us to “an impossibly high standard”. Most Christians would deny this, stating that at least initially, it was *possible* for people to remain innocent. However, I think my case can be made even making the more difficult assumption, so I went with it.

          • Ian

            God gave us free will, under the orthodox Christian doctrine, fully knowing in advance that so doing would condemn most people who ever lived to hell because they would be unable to live up to the impossibly high standard he set. So you’re right, you can say that God didn’t cause us to sin, but it doesn’t help the story much.

          • cdbren

            You are forgetting one crucial fact. God did not and does not condemn anyone to hell. Again, it is their free choice in whether to accept God’s gift of eternal life or not. Through Adam’s one sin everyone is already condemned. It is just a matter of, do you want to do something about it or not?

            No sin can enter into eternal life or heaven. Or it would be just like what it is here. Stealing, murder, slander, etc.

            Free will requires the “impossible standard” as you call it. You can’t have one without the other. If God chose to control us without free will there would be no need for the OT and NT, the sacrifices or the death of God himself on the cross as a human.

          • cbren, if Adam stood condemned after the Fall, then the question is: who condemned him? Obviously, he didn’t condemn himself. The Biblical account is pretty clear in depicting God as pronouncing a series of curses. I don’t think the “God doesn’t condemn” line really works.

          • Ian

            “God did not and does not condemn anyone to hell.” Its an irrelevant distinction in practice, unless you posit metadivine constraints.

            The last paragraph is just circular reasoning. Fine, but doesn’t go anywhere.

            But again, I appreciate your input, but I’m trying to tackle an issue with JB, and I don’t have a lot of inclination to double back to explain our presuppositions.

            Feel free to chalk it up to someone talking while Rome burns. I don’t want to do anything about it, no. If there is a hell, then I’m quite content that I’m going there. If there is a Nirvana, I’m content I won’t attain it. If there is a Valhalla, I’m content to be barred from its courts. This is all just intellectual masturbation for me.

          • So, it isn’t charity if the person giving is simply rectifying a problem they caused? I think this is problematic, but rather than quibble on this, let’s just go with your “steal all your possessions” analogy. Is it morally wrong for the person who steals to give these possessions back, and is it wrong for the victim to think that it is right and proper for them to be given back? Of course not.

            You point out differences between my Martian analogy and PST, all of which are fair. Again, however, you aren’t disputing the critical point, which is that it is possible for there to be good reasons as to why the situation was the way it was.

            Instead, conceding that, you basically assert that we are obligated to ignore that point, and treat God as a tyrant or spouse-abuser, because… well, there are similarities in the situations. What are these similarities? Well, the fact that people claim that there could be good reasons, but we don’t know them.

            So, the questions are: does this similarity obligate us to ignore the fact that there could, in fact, be good reasons; or, should we withhold judgement, or even give the benefit of the doubt?

            It seems to me that the reason we have to intervene with tyrants and spouse abusers, is that in some way a situation is untenable. If there is active abuse going on, we need to intervene. So, we separate the couple, or we depose the tyrant. But, this needs to be pointed out: they all get their day in court. Even those suspected of domestic violence are innocent until proven guilty.

            What situation exists with PST that is so untenable, that we think we must sever ties with God first, before we actually try to evaluate the situation?

          • Ian

            “Is it morally wrong for the person who steals to give these possessions back” No, but it is not an act of grace or charity. And combined with the idea that the person is not giving the possessions back to everyone they stole from, their culpability isn’t lessened I’d say.

            “What situation exists with PST that is so untenable, that we think we must sever ties with God first, before we actually try to evaluate the situation?”

            I don’t think anyone was advocating ‘severing ties with God’ over it. PST is a theology: a story about God, and all that is being said is it is a vile and primitive one, in the absence of some fancy rationalization (which many theologians over the centuries have offered, it has to be said, but rarely agree with each other).

            It is the very fact that such a unknown reason is needed that is the point here. Like the violent husband, there might be a good reason for the seeming abuse, but if the original act weren’t abhorent on face value, there’d be no need to even ask for one.

            You initially appeared to be saying you though PST was not immoral on face value, but now you appear to be saying that we have to suspend calling it immoral, just in case there is some good rationalization that has escaped us so far.

          • OK, so it isn’t morally wrong for people to right wrongs, even ones that they may have caused. We’ve established that much. (In fact, I’d guess that we’d both agree that it is morally right). However, you add: “combined with the idea that the person is not giving the possessions back to everyone they stole from, their culpability isn’t lessened I’d say.”

            I think here the analogy is probably not entirely helpful. In the analogy, we are assuming that all fault lies with God, and none with our victims, but of course that isn’t what Christianity would claim. In any case, your objection is essentially one leveled against exclusivism, which really isn’t related to PST.

            I think you’ve made it clear that what you’re objecting to really isn’t PST in principle. It is, in fact, a particular “story about God” that you find repugnant – one that includes PST, but other things, such as demanding blood sacrifices and sending people to Hell. These things, while often believed, don’t necessarily need to be true in order for PST to be true.

            It is only when we assume these dark things to be true that the analogy you draw of a tyrant or abusive spouse seems similar, and “unknown” reasons seem dangerous. PST simply states that Christ’s atonement for our sins involved Him taking on what should have been our punishment. Having served our sentence, so to speak, we are free to live. There isn’t anything necessarily morally evil about that. You are free to object to other things that you want to add on, but then you should at least acknowledge that you aren’t necessarily objecting to PST in principle, only a specific “story”.

          • Guest

            OK, so it isn’t morally wrong for people to right wrongs, even ones that they may have caused. We’ve established that much. (In fact, I’d guess that we’d both agree that it is morally right). However, you add: “combined with the idea that the person is not giving the possessions back to everyone they stole from, their culpability isn’t lessened I’d say.”

            I think here the analogy is probably not entirely helpful. In the analogy, we are assuming that all fault lies with God, and none with our victims, but of course that isn’t what Christianity would claim. In any case, your objection is essentially one leveled against exclusivism, which really isn’t related to PST.

            I think you’ve made it clear that what you’re objecting to really isn’t PST in principle. It is, in fact, a particular “story about God” that you find repugnant – one that includes PST, but other things, such as demanding blood sacrifices and sending people to Hell. These things, while often believed, don’t necessarily need to be true in order for PST to be true.

            It is only when we assume these dark things to be true that the analogy you draw of a tyrant or abusive spouse seems similar, and “unknown” reasons seem dangerous. PST simply states that Christ’s atonement for our sins involved Him taking on what should have been our punishment. Having served our sentence, so to speak, we are free to live. There isn’t anything necessarily morally evil about that. You are free to object to other things that you want to add on, but then you should at least acknowledge that you aren’t necessarily objecting to PST in principle, only a specific “story”.

  • cdbren

    I think a lot of you are missing the point that spiritual sin is not the same as a speeding ticket. Missing the point that sin can’t enter into heaven. Missing the point that the issue is a spiritual one, not the same as a crime of say stealing something that then goes through our court systems. The problem is people are trying to attribute human ideas to God’s spiritual ideas and way of thinking. (But I might add that repenting and accepting God as your savior allows the Holy Spirit to help some with that understanding.)

    This may be off a bit too but no one questions the guy in the movie that decides to pilot the space ship into the astroid that is threatening earth, only to sacrifice himself for millions of complete strangers in order to save them all. Yet here you are trying to figure out the same scenario with Jesus Christ……saying you don’t get it.

    • Welcome back, Cdbren. I think it may be helpful if I post a reminder about your previous actions on this blog, for the benefit of those who may want to interact with you.

      As I said back then, I say again: appeal to the Holy Spirit to justify dishonesty or irrationality seems to me to be extremely dubious. But whatever your view on that may be, addressing the penal substitution theory of the atonement is not objectionable based on your principle, which you articulated in this way: “The problem is people are trying to attribute human ideas to God’s spiritual ideas and way of thinking.” Penal substitution is precisely the use of legal analogies to explain the atonement. And so perhaps you agree that that attempt should be rejected? If so, then I wonder why you come across as though you disagree.

      • Verity3

        Oh my gosh, thank you for explaining it this way. “Penal substitution is precisely the use of legal analogies to explain the atonement.” I never understood before what the objection to Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory is. I understood people were upset by it; I understood some were experiencing it as a stumbling block; but I just couldn’t figure out what the issue was. So it’s a matter of objecting to the use of legal analogies to explain it, not objecting to the concept of sacrificial atonement per se?

        • The idea of sacrifice is not necessarily understood by legal analogies, and so one can certainly embrace sacrifice but not the legal metaphors.

  • cdbren

    JB, I think you are trying to over rationalize the whole issue so you can somehow justify weaseling out of having to accept God as your savior and lord and repenting of your sins.

    • Sigh …

      I don’t necessarily agree with all that J.B. has to say – but this is one the most tiresome, insulting, and ignorant comments I see repeatedly from a certain Christian type:

      “Your argument is wrong because you are sinful.” Or the related version, “your argument is wrong because Satan is controlling your thinking.”

    • cdbren, not sure what makes you say that. One can reject PST and still acknowledge Christ as Savior through any other atonement theory. No atonement theory requires repentance of sins, that is a different topic altogether, and such an idea is compatible with any atonement theory (that I know of).

      • And it seems problematic to suggest that a theory of the atonement that was not around for the first millennium of Christian history and then some would be essential to Christian faith amd identity.

  • cdbren

    Just to clarify, I do not agree with the above tract either. But it is one way they can explain it in easy terms. Just not the best way.

  • Renegade Gospel

    can find the complete answers to atonement in a kindle book called
    Renegade Gospel The Jesus Manifold by Jamey Massengale.

    God is the creator completely soveriegn

    My separation from God is due to my knowledge of good and evil
    because i use it to judge god i.e. why do the innocent suffer etc. is
    an accusation in interrogative format.

    If God is omniscient I cant do other than what God KNEW i would do
    before He created me and He created me as He did; therefore God is
    responsible for my sin

    If God is responsible for my sin then God should die for my sin

    In Jesus God did die for my sin or Jesus as god died for all sin (
    which is by the way the ultimate statement of soveriegnty, where God
    says in essence “I do it all” cause effect and resolution.)

    However Jesus the man did not sin nor was He under original sin so He
    didn’t deserve to die, but being God as man, now by the rule of
    equity, all men are equal to God, syllogism: Jesus is a man and all
    men are human therefore Jesus is human and Jesus is God therefore all
    men are in Jesus equal to God in their HUMAN/GOD rights.

    Therefore since only God as the “potter” had the rights of life,
    liberty, and property; and since Jesus transfers to all humans like
    Himself those rights, we don’t need a law saying by fiat “thou
    shalt not kill”, because all men now have the right to life; I know
    I violate that right if I kill a man. Thereby the law is fulfilled in
    right-eousness, or “the having of the rights of God”.

    it in a nutshell and it explains a lot of ambiguous statements Paul
    makes. I haven’t quoted much scripture for brevity’s sake but I
    find the Jesus manifold completely supported from genesis to
    revelation. It affirms the homoousion, it satisfies the complete
    taxonomy of sin(ontologic, deontic, and relational), and it satisfies
    all of Abelard’s criteria: 1. it’s logical 2. It’s not
    arbitrary if God is omniscient, therefore actions are predestined,
    and love demand’s it to satisfy the human cry of injustice. 3 It’s
    intelligible being stated capable of syllogistic treatment in plain
    unambiguous language. The implications to a multiverse for an
    omniscient God require He know everything in all possible universes,
    this single incarnation would then only be required in this one to
    satisfy it’s precise constraints, as it exists within the
    multiplicity of universes in God’s consciousness.

    apologize if the first part is ambiguous as to the idea of
    multiverse. Only in science fiction and thought experiment is a
    multiverse with divergent timelines considered. This universe has
    the timline it does because of physical constraints that cannot be
    changed if human life is to exist as it does(see Anthropic
    principle). There are approximately 20 such constraints that are so
    precise the universe would cease to exist as it does if they varied
    even one plank measure. Those multiverses actually possible would be
    defined by changes in those constants. Therefore there can be no
    other universe which would value the atonement as this one
    does(anthropically); however these constants do not forbid
    interactions at the quantum level, and may derive their stability
    from these interactions. In that case the incarnation in this
    universe has it’s meaning only in this universe but would have
    implications to all other possible universes.

    • Re: 2
      The reason why man and God are separated is unclear. From scripture, all we know is that God wanted it that way. Sure, we can blame sin; but there is nothing indicating that sin *causes* the separation, only that God decided after sin that He would cause the separation. Regardless, a question is not necessarily an accusation.

      Re: 3
      God’s foreknowledge does not cause us to sin. That we cannot do otherwise would be for some other reason. God’s knowledge would simply be a reflection of what’s true, which is that we sin. Now, obviously God knew it would happen and still instantiated it. In that sense, God is *ultimately* responsible (if He’s sovereign), even if He does not directly cause sin.

      Re: 4
      This does not follow from 1-3.

      Re: 6

      1. Jesus is a man
      2. All men are human
      3. [From 1 &2] Therefore, Jesus is human.
      4. And Jesus is God
      5*. Therefore all men are in Jesus equal to God in their HUMAN/GOD rights

      *This obviously does not follow from anything stated in 1-4 in your syllogism. The only rational conclusion would have been “Jesus is both God and man”. Clearly, there is a host of extra assumptions being brought in.

      Re: 7
      Even if we accept that only God has “rights”, and that God has transferred these rights to us now, it certainly does not follow that these rights are “life, liberty, and property”. It certainly isn’t written anywhere what these rights are, nor is it apparent from observation or reasoning. Thus, even if we don’t need law in principle, we do in practice.

  • Sarah

    Wonderful post! Although I grew up with the assumption that penal substitution was the only theory of the atonement, I have since been introduced to many other theories. I particularly find recapitulation helpful – the idea that in Adam all have sinned, and have turned against God, incapable of
    returning. Christ unites humanity with God at the incarnation when God
    becomes human. He sums up all created things in himself, entering into
    every stage of life from birth to adulthood and finally to death, and
    unites it all to God. In his death he enters Hades and thereby destroys
    it. In his resurrection
    he destroys death and thus, through his incarnation, death and
    resurrection he restores humanity.

    I wrote a blog series explaining the main theories and I think they are all helpful for understanding what Christ did for us.

  • timithos

    The truth is there was no punishment or wrath connected with the cross. The penal substitute view of the cross is akin to a cargo cult members view. Jesus Christ was not punished by the Father. It is actually very simple, the atonement only covered sins of ignorance, inability and error, and for those no punishment is called for. God the Son was under legal scrutiny because of accusations of an impure motive having been made by Satan for the purposes of justifying his rebellion. Adam was not to eat of the tree, but was to remain neutral and uninvolved in the legal case, much like Switzerland was neutral in ww2. This is why Adam was created without the knowledge and understanding of good or evil. It would be better to open up Adam’s eyes after the legal case was settled. But Satan got Adam and his wife involved and gaining the capacity to operate by either a good motive or evil motive, they were open to cross examination. Death was not a punishment, it was given as a motive verifier. Adam had developed a conflict of interest in regard to the tree of life, as he wanted to escape the cross examination of his profession. For if he could eat of the tree of life and escape death, then his testimony could not be cross examined. Does a man love that which is good above his own life? One must face the loss of his own life for proof. The punishments for elective crimes or willful acts of evil are enumerated under the mosaic criminal code. And the punishments are not eternity in the lake prison, take an eye and the punishment is to lose an eye, foot for foot, and life for life. That’s it actually, it is very simple. So Christ and the rest of the members of the Godhead were under accusation of an impure motive for which legal evidence and proof was needed to legally resolve the matter, and this to shut the mouths of the naysayers. So, Christ who was under legal examination could not deliver man until His own name, motives and state were legally cleared of all charges. Thus being declared not guilty, or justified by means of the spirit, He modeled the state unto which man is to be delivered. He was appointed guardian and the very vehicle through which man’s deliverance would occur. He also condemned Satan by the ordeal on the cross having loved that which is good above his own life, disproving Satan’s accusations and therefore proving that Satan had no justification in rebelling. This is why you will find no where in the bible at all where it states that the Father had wrath on the Son, but you will find that God has wrath on willful evil doers all over the bible. So, as for the criminal mosaic code, no one needs deliverance from loving that which is evil, or from having an evil intent, just as God is not needed for a man to not rape,murder or rob banks or bow to idols. Elective sins are just that, elective and can be stopped by the offender at any time. Rape, murder, and so forth are not caused by a corrupt nature or the sinful fleshy desires. Those elective crimes have nothing to do with being enslaved to the sin nature or ignorance or inability.
    So the Son of God was left into the hands of sinful men and was put to the test, and it was by necessity that Christ must suffer an injustice for He could not be justly put to death. Man in his original fallen state, in ignorance and inability and enslaved to the fleshy nature(which God had nothing to do with in creating), is what is covered or is what man needs to be delivered from by God. if you look up the kakos and the poneros state in the bible, the kakos state is unintentional and unaccountable, but the poneros is intentional and elective evil. So, when God says “remove the evil from your deeds”, He says that because that is what man is responsible for doing. The sin nature does not make you bow to an idol, and the preference for evil can only be changed by the free will decision of man. So Christ did not die for the love of evil, for man does not need God to deliver him from his own preference. Man has the knowledge of good and evil and is free to choose either one and change his mind. So, when it is obvious that we can decide not to rob banks(and not even be a christian), the ball is in our court in terms of deciding what our preference is. So, whether a man robs a bank is serves time or not is, is really irrelevant to salvation. A man can rob a bank and serve time and believe on Christ. The whole idea that suffering the penalty for willful wrong doing makes one savable is ridiculous. Punishing the innocent is an injustice, pure and simple, so is putting on a pretense and bearing false witness. Also altering court room documents and scratching out your name on an indictment and writing Christ’s name in is bearing false witness and altering court room documents. Those are all felonies. The penal substitute is the satanic false doctrine or satanic view of the cross, in which God is depicted as acting and being unjust and unlawful. The purpose satan invented the penal substitute into the church was to slyly get the church to argue his case. The state of the “god” of the penal substitute is actaully equal to satan’s own state…and Christians praise such a “god”. It is the sin qua none of all false doctrines where God is depicted as being guilty of satan’s accusations against Him. Anyone that holds the penal substitute doctrine is actually sitting at the defense table of satan and accusing God, whether they know it or not. So, the sum total of the unjust God of the penal substitute is actually satan himself, because satan accuses God of being guilty of what he himself is guilty of.
    How satan is arguing his case through false christian doctrines is that God is depicted as punishing the innocent(satan), to cover up the crimes of the guilty(the Godhead). And the church doesn’t even know this. They hold satan’s very stance but are unaware of it. They never left satans kingdom or control. So, though satan lost his case with the ordeal of the cross revealing Christ to be without an evil motive, he is used to represent unbelieving humanity and to cross examine the saints(Job is a typical example of the court room shenanigans of satan). So, Satan had a bet with God that he could introduce false doctrines which depict God as though he were guilty of satan’s accusations the saints would praise him anyway. I will tell you it is impossible to attain a lawful state while your views of God are that He is unlawful. And this is whether you know it or not. My book will be released on this subject and the high and mighty ones with many letters behind their names will all be humbled. I AM THE SOLE AUTHORITY ON THESE DOCTRINES AT THE PRESENT TIME, BECAUSE THEY ARE MINE AND MINE ALONE. All others have failed, I am a member of a church or two and we are two witnesses. So, before two or three witness let a legal inquiry be convened, on the criminal prosecution of the present day church.

  • Don

    Wonderful. Thank you for this.

  • David

    Jesus is not like the baby’s finger chopped off, or a loving, sacrificial friend, both humans in the same boat of all humans having sin. It’s significant in atonement that He is God, the One offended sacrificing Himself in love. No one else can say that.

    • I am sure that everyone who reads this post is aware of what the penal substitution view of the atonement claims. But you have not addressed the question raised in this post – why should anyone understand the NT statements about atonement in this relatively recent manner, and does one not depict God as unjust in doing so?

      • Theodore A. Jones

        “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
        That apostle’s statement flushes substitutionary atonement and every variant of it down the tubes. Matter of fact the Bible is an argument against the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

  • Harry MacLean

    Re Kaz: What do you think was the significance of Jesus’ death? Did his death bring about the possibility that we can be forgiven for our sins? If so, how? If not, then what was the point of the whole drama?

    There was no point, at least not at the time. Jesus was just in the wrong place (Jerusalem) at the wrong time (the Passover). He got caught in a roundup…

  • Barry Chitwood

    I recall hearing those four spiritual laws in my late teens. Chief among them was “God is just and must punish sin.” Who’s law is that? God is sovereign and God can do whatever God wants to do. I find the notion absurd that God deliberately sent Jesus to die. When you focus on the blood, you miss the love.

  • Guitarwhiz666

    Moral Code

    People have the right to pursue happiness. Anyone or
    anything that may have an effect on this right should be considered basis for morality.Our right to pursue happiness is a well grounded idea in philosophy and ethics.The right to pursue happiness is another idea that can be debated. But I
    believe it is safe to assume the idea is an appropriate premise/pillar for my

    Purpose of Punishments

    The purpose of punishment is to modify behavior and/or
    detain an individual from infringing on others’ rights to pursue happiness. Free
    will is an illusion, so the purpose I am providing in regards to punishment
    will remain. People will be people. They are not truly responsible for their
    crimes. A punishment needs to be viewed not as retribution for misdeeds but
    detainment or modification of a natural being. Despite how people may feel
    about punishing another human, the purpose I am providing is most appropriate. My analysis is based in science and reason. For linguistic purposes, I will continue to use the word punish.

    Why Punishing an
    Innocent is Immoral

    It is immoral because the system/thing/person is infringing
    on their right to pursue happiness.

    Why Punishing an Innocent
    is Illogical

    The purpose in punishing an individual is not fulfilled
    because the individual has not committed any infraction.

    Why Penal
    Substitution is Immoral and Illogical

    Penal substitution is immoral and illogical because the
    system/thing/person is still punishing an ‘innocent’. Please see the previous explanations as to why punishing an innocent is immoral and illogical.

    Exception to Penal

    The individual who benefits from the willing substitute may
    feel guilt or in debt to that individual and desire to please him or her and
    stop the punishments from occurring through modified behavior. In a way, the
    punishment to the truly convicted is in witnessing or knowing an individual is
    substitute for his or her misdeeds. Modification of character may take place,
    but this will mostly lead to poor results.

    Why Penal
    Substitution Will Mostly Lead to Poor Results

    Due to our evolution, we are selfish and opportunistic organisms.
    Many humans will continue to abuse the penal substitution system and infringe
    on others’ rights to pursue happiness including the substitutes, so the
    governmental system/person/thing is in need of moral and logical inspection as

    Application of My Argument
    to Governmental Systems

    Any governmental system in support of penal substitution is
    immoral and illogical. Please see my previous explanation as to why penal
    substitution is immoral and illogical.

    Application of My Argument
    to the Plan of Salvation

    God’s plan of salvation through the atonement of Jesus
    Christ is immoral and illogical because it is based on the ‘penal substitution’
    of Jesus Christ for our sins/crimes which would have lead to our eventual punishment of death/damnation.


    Belief in Jesus’ atonement is also illogical. There is no evidence to prove it
    happened. The scriptures are not a reliable source for various reasons. Jesus
    Christ’s story is not unique in asserting redemption of sin through penal
    substitution. Horus, Krishna, and other gods share specific details regarding Jesus’ life. Many pagan gods were born to a virgin, baptized, died for our sins, and rose 3 days later. Jesus appears to be a copy of pagan gods. However, most scholars would agree Jesus existed. What’s more important than the morality or the logic of the atonement, is if it occurred. If it occurred, then my argument is of very little value. We live in a cosmos dependent on the philosophy of Gods.

  • DAnonymous

    There are some very fundamental problems with Jame’s logic. First off the payment must be equal to the penalty. Cutting off the the finger of a baby is not equal to the penalty, so it is no wonder it carries illogical implications. However if someone who had not parked illegally chose to pay the ticket, all would be well and good. The reason someone else can pay the ticket is because they owe the court nothing. We can not pay the ticket, because we owe all that we have, which is our life.

    The problem with James is that he does not take sin seriously enough. God has zero tolerance for sin, as he is an absolute perfect being. The penalty for any sin is death. Romans 6:23. The Bible clearly does not qualify sin as only being the bad ones. It is impossible to get around that fact, which is why Christs death was necessary.

    • I am fully aware of the assumption that proponents of penal substitution insert into the equation, which then make it impossible for them to actually accept the depictions throughout the Bible of God simply forgiving people who repent. The question is why anyone at all – much less anyone who takes the Bible seriously – should embrace those problematic assumptions.

      • Theodore A. Jones

        Repent? Ummmmmmmm, of what sin?

  • Stavros Ioannides


    Through my Christian walk, I encountered hundreds of genuine spirit filled believers who display some degree of difficulty in providing a convincing explanation of this theory though they tend to adhere to it. They relay the same classical interpretation but appear content only by touching its surface. Consequently, one of the most widely used phrases “Jesus took our sins” with a profound effect on Salvation for mankind, though fervently preached, often is not well savored.
    I always had difficulties with this theory but counted on His grace to reveal to me the deeper mysteries while couching the typical backup story of the Judge who sentenced the lawbreaker to prison, only to step down and pay the penalty himself, in an attempt to explain both the notion and the applicability of how God is both just and loving. My journey for genuine truth kicked off the day I heartedly
    decided to strip off my maturity mantle, step way back and seek pure milk. At the end of the journey I came to realize that the theory or at least the perception of it had its own flaws.
    Christians agree that punishment of sin has already taken place through the consequence of humanity’s Fall that led to death. Once the fruit of knowledge of good and evil was consumed, man died that exact day (Gen 2v27), so did everything under his rule. The world died to God and lived in sin as sin entered through one man and all died. The death sentence, sometimes referred to as separation of man from God, was the inevitable outcome of man’s corruption and captivity in sin. In the spiritual realm, the penal demands of the law were met that same day man was cast out of the Garden of Eden.
    The concept of divine justice is best understood in God’s plan for man’s salvation, not of man’s judgment. This distinctive reality is fundamental for believers to acknowledge. The plan was conceived right there, in the Garden of Eden, the day sin entered man. God’s justice required that man not only be cast out of the Garden of Eden, for this is only the first part of the story, but more importantly to make it possible for him to return. The rest of the whole bible is dedicated on this hope. It’s only rational to imagine that man needed to be saved; be set free from what had enslaved and corrupted him at first place. God let man know this. He prophesied that Eve’s seed will crash the head of the prince of sin and then, in powerful symbolism, He illustrated the cleansing from sin through the covering of sinful flesh by a garment made of skin.
    Soon, prophesy was fulfilled. Jesus walked out of the “Garden of Eden”, clothed in our mortal humanity in the likeness of sinful flesh (Ro 8v3, Heb 2v14)
    and shared in our punishment as He entered our world ruled by evil, became vulnerable under the persistent abuse of the enemy and in the exposure of its insidious snares and endured the consequences of the Fall, even death. That was the only way to confront the enemy and strip off its power (Col 2v15), cleanse and set man free from the corruptive nature of sin and its mastermind– the father of lies- and bring peace through reconciling him back to God (Is 53v5).
    This being clarified, the problem with the mainstream theory is that God’s plan of Salvation is understood in terms of judgement being served through debt paid to God instead of through liberty from sin and death earned at a price. The primary focus of penal substitution theory tends to sidestep the essence of Jesus’ mission of atonement; to lay down His life so as to set the captives free and restore God’s kingship on earth, “His Kingdom come, His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This mission could only be accomplished once He became exposed under the buckshot of the exact same weapon the enemy used against Adam and Eve, only this time to obliterate its power.
    While He suffered in everything (Luke 24v26, Heb 5v8), was tempted in everything (Heb 2v18, 4v15) and at every opportune time (Luke 4v13). His unending ordeal, the cup He was to drink (Luke 22v43) served the divine purpose to ultimately trample over the enemy’s weapon – sin which begets death to men (I Co 15v55-56). He even took the enmity of man on his own flesh to the point of being disfigured and marred beyond human likeness (Is 53v54). While reviled did not revile in return, while suffered did not threaten, neither was deceit found in His mouth (I Pt 2v23). He overcame every trial and persecution and while resisting every temptation no matter the circumstance, became perfected (Heb 2v10, I Pt 2v22-24) as He was found, all the way to the end, without blemish or spot (I Pt 1v19, Heb 9v14).
    Being the Son of Man, He conquered sin which the apostle Peter describes “sting of death” when prompted to cry out “where death is your sting”. Death’s sting has
    indeed lost its dominion over men (Gal 5v24) so was death as Jesus disarmed the author of its power (I Co 15v54-57, Col 2v15), set man free (Heb 2v14) and bestowed God’s righteousness on him (Ro 3v22).
    It’s obvious that Jesus, by taking our humanity, inevitably bore the consequences of our sins and suffered the penal demands of the law as all men do. Once perfected through trials, persecutions and subsequent temptations while found to be without sin, he conquered both sin and death. His victory was bestowed in all men who received Him as their Savior.
    While to undermine the significance of God’s Justice and Holiness is wrong, the misconception that Jesus stepped in to sit on trial by God the Judge, being incriminated for man’s sin and to propose that this is why He offered His life in man’s place is equally erroneous. It implies that man was to be set free from God’s judgment and not from sin that brought about the judgment. Although is true that Jesus ultimately liberates man from God’s judgment, this being nonetheless the evident byproduct of sin’s power being trampled and death being conquered (Is 25v8, I Co 15v57).
    God’s forgiveness, made known through Jesus to all men and women, constitutes an integral part of divine justice. This aspect of critical importance is also frequently overlooked by most penal substitution theory advocates. The proposition that “divine forgiveness must satisfy divine justice” is molded by man’s bent view of justice. It should rather read: “divine justice must satisfy divine
    forgiveness”. The prophet Isaiah comprehended this when affirmed that:
    “Because the Lord is a God of justice, He shall wait that He may be gracious to you and therefore He will be exalted that He may have mercy on you” (Is 30v18).
    God’s forgiving nature is an integral part of His unchanging nature. It’s mistaken to suggest that God is not able or willing to simply forgive sin without first requiring a satisfaction from it. The satisfying payment is God’s manifest forgiveness in the person and in the Life of His Son, offered unconditionally to all men but received conditional to man’s desire to accept it. God is satisfied in this because He is good and desires all men be saved (I Tim 2v4).
    God is both willing and able to forgive. It is man who is not willing or able to receive forgiveness. The problem is not that God’s forgiveness is contained for certainly isn’t but it is in man’s inability to repent so as to receive His forgiveness and walk free from the tentacles of sin. For this reason man is wretched as the apostle Paul neatly puts it forward:
    “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is
    present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (Ro 7v18-19).
    The Good News is that the manifest power of God’s love can change all that. Love made known to all men in the person of Jesus (Titus 3v4-5) who pleaded not for His life but for the life of such wretched men and asked His Father to forgive them while he had all power to step down from the Cross and save Himself. He chose instead to exchange man’s animosity with peace, man’s hatred with loving-kindness (Ro 2v4).
    Only such precedence of Love, being manifested in both the life and the sacrificial death of Jesus in such a profoundly overwhelming demonstration (1 John 4v9-10)and being extended to all men could touch the wretched sinner, pierce through the hardness of his heart, pave the way for genuine repentance and set him free (Ro 7v25).
    This is Justice in its totality; man is unjust, therefore dead but Jesus is just by way of overcoming sin unto death, therefore worthy in terms of sin being defeated and capable in terms of drawing the wretched man back to God.
    1. Jesus sets the believers free from the penal demands of the law not because
    man is indebted to God but because the sinner is in bondage to sin, the sting
    of death.
    2.It is not forgiveness per se but the manifestation of forgiveness that necessitates payment and this is not because of God’s unwillingness or inability to extend it but of man’s to receive it. In other words, it is liberty, not forgiveness that demands payment or else forgiveness renders merited, even if payment is made by another.
    3.Forgiveness is indeed unmerited but made manifested to all men, at a price. The price is His precious flesh and blood, paid neither to God nor to the enemy but to the sinner. It is a gift to men and those who receive it are born into a new life.
    ”He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood haseternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6v54).

  • Chuck Blanchard

    I find all the various approaches to atonement quite unsatisfying. Penal substitution seems particularly odious. A few years back when I was blogging, I came up with an approach that seems to work for me. At the time, my priest (now the Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island) assured me that it was not heresy. In brief, I argued that the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was not because God required this death as an atonement for our sins, but because we required it.

    At the time of Christ’s crucifixion, humankind could only imagine atonement through violent sacrifice. After all, the violent sacrifice of an animal was the means of atonement in both the Jewish and Pagan worlds in the First Century. The only way to break us out of this cycle of scapegoating and sacrifice was for God to make the ultimate sacrifice of his Son. And God knew that the only way to seize our attention and have us commit to the new way of living by love described by both Jesus and Paul was by the Cross–the violent sacrifice of the innocent and divine Son of God.

    In other words, the loving God could by his grace alone have reconciled us with no atonement and no sacrifice, but we could only have hope of accepting this grace if God took the additional and astounding step of putting his Son on the Cross. God did not demand such a sacrifice. We did. And I can think of no more loving act.

    For the more philosophic inclined, this is an atonement approach that relies heavily on the work of Rene Girard.

    Here is my original post (that was followed by other posts as well:

  • John MacDonald

    I wonder if Jesus’ resurrection in the Tomb replaces the Holy of Holies for the first Christians? Traditionally, only the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies, and so no one saw what went on there but him. In Mark, the death of Jesus triggers the tearing of the veil (Mark 15:38), and hence seems to initiate the replacement of the exclusionary Holy of Holies of the corrupt, Roman loving Temple Cult, with the site of the resurrection, which for the Christians is even more sacred than the Holy of Holies, because while only the high priest saw what went on in the Holy of Holies, no one goes in the empty tomb and witnesses what happened in the resurrection. In this Markan narrative we see the naked young man (Mark 14:51) representing humans stuck in the perpetual state of the the guilty Naked Adam before God and endless animal sacrifices, transformed with faith in Christ’s resurrection into a holy state previously reserved for the high priest in the holy of holies. Josephus records that Pompey profaned the Temple by insisting on entering the Holy of Holies in 63 BCE, so this may have been the impetus for Mark/The first Christians wanting to replace it.

    • John MacDonald

      This interpretation assumes the naked, young man (Mark 14:51, representing humans and their endless animal sacrifices – in a perpetual state of being the guilty Naked Adam before an interrogating God), is the same person as the angelic young man in a state of holiness, proclaiming Christ’s resurrection in the Empty Tomb in Mark.

      • John MacDonald

        This doesn’t reflect Jesus’ death as being an atonement for sin, where mankind is thought of as being a perpetually guilty naked Adam in the damning gaze of a Interrogating God, but rather a reinterpretation of the nature of God from ‘Accuser’ to ‘Loving Father,’ who deems as holy and resurrects even a blasphemous, convicted criminal like Jesus.

        • John MacDonald

          One last thought. Jesus was certainly guilty of the crimes he was accused of. He was guilty in Rome’s eyes for a number of reasons (e.g., the assault on the money changers in the temple, etc.), and in the eyes of the Jewish high council (e.g., blasphemy). The charges were legitimate, so he deserved to die according to the standards of his day. But the charges were also stupid. Are we not to fight against social injustice as Jesus did with the money changers? The paradox was that Jesus deserved to die, but at the same time was a great person who helped a lot of people. The Christian message was one of a move from God as an accuser that the naked Adam knew, to God as a loving father who saw Jesus as a good holy man in spite of what the world had judged him to be. This has nothing to do with the penal substitution of atonement, but rather the Christians rethinking God and His relationship to humanity.

          • John MacDonald

            The key seems to be the disciples of Jesus are perceived as sinners according to the traditional understanding of “God as accuser,” because they followed the soon to be condemned Jesus, and so they fled when Jesus was arrested because they feared for their own lives. Thus, the naked young man was as guilty as naked Adam was before the interrogating eye of God. But the surprise in the story is that the young man is realized to be holy in the end, not just the follower of a condemned criminal. God was not an accuser, but a loving father who sees his children not principally as sinners but as earthly angels.

    • Gary

      I personally think Mark 14:51 was the author of Mark trying to connect Jeremiah 13:11 For as the girdle cleaveth to the loins of a man, so have I caused to cleave unto me the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah, saith Jehovah; that they may be unto me for a people, and for a name, and for a praise, and for a glory: but they would not hear.

      • John MacDonald

        Hi Gary. I just posted this on another thread, but I’ll repeat it here in case you don’t see the other post:

        I think the Gospel of Mark represents a radical re-imagining of the nature of God from the God of the Old Testament and the guilty, naked Adam who (God) was interrogating and accusing (and saw man as a sinner), to one who is primarily a loving father who was not concerned with an endless series of animal sacrifices, but rather judged us according to whether we loved Him and one another. In Mark we read:

        Mark 12:28-34 The Great Commandment:

        28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.

        • Gary

          I see the author of Mark, considering it was written on the eve of the destruction of Jerusalem (again), presenting Jesus as an apocryphalic prophet alone the lines of Jeremiah. Not so much trying to change God and man’s relationship into a love feast, via an Adam connection. But presenting the arrest of Jesus as a rejection of God’s rep on earth by Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem (with the potential consequences similar as in Jeremiah’s time). Man separated from his underwear, “but they would not hear”. Besides, Jeremiah and Jesus were fellow buds, originally from the Northern Kingdom.
          Personally, I don’t see a naked man symbol relating to Adam and God’s love for mankind, at Jesus’ arrest, and on the eve of 70AD. But whatever? Adds to the spice of the story. But Paul may have seen it that way. I don’t think the author of Mark did, though.

          • Gary

            “apocalyptic“ – can’t spell this early in the morning.

          • John MacDonald


          • John MacDonald

            Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, but by Paul’s time, and especially by Mark’s time, the question must have arisen as to why the end of the age had not come as Jesus predicted. The faithful may have thought society needed to adopt a pious social ethics before God would think them worthy and bring about the end of the age. This would reconcile the seemingly contradictory themes that Mark/Paul had Jesus preach the immediate coming of the end of the age, but with his focus also being on bringing about social ethics/reform.

          • Gary

            “by Mark’s time, the question must have arisen as to why the end of the age had not come as Jesus predicted. The faithful may have thought society needed to adopt a pious social ethics”…

            But on the eve of the destruction of Jerusalem, at the time of the writing of Mark, Mark’s Olivet Discourse in Mark 13, indicates suffering and destruction, not the need for pious social ethics; but the need to run for the hills, and get out of town.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m not sure what your point is? Mark advocating as Jesus’ fundamental dictum the love of God and neighbor certainly doesn’t contradict the fact that there are times when following through on theological mandates is put on the backburner (such as in dire situations).

            N.B. Thanks for debating with me Gary. I have no educational background in New Testament studies, but it’s interesting and I enjoy trying my hand at interpretation. One day we’ll have to debate Derrida or Hegel. That’s a little more in my wheelhouse. lol

          • Gary

            Don’t know anything about Derrida or Hegel. Not an expert on NT either. Just opinions. However, given the diversity in interpretations, the experts only have opinions, as well.
            As far as Mark goes, I feel it is a matter of priorities, considering the date of authorship. The primary purpose of Mark’s authorship was apocalyptic, as was Jeremiah. People turning away from God, and the consequences. The “fundamental dictum, the love of God and neighbor”, was secondary, at best. My opinion.

          • John MacDonald

            The way I see it, the issue of “the love of God and neighbor as the greatest commandment” is the key point in Mark. Mark was trying to make sense of Jesus’ apocalyptic message given the fact that Jesus’ prediction didn’t come true. Mark quotes Jesus as saying:

            “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God arrive with power.” (Mark 9:1)

            My interpretation is that the original Christians couldn’t accept that Jesus was wrong about this fundamental issue, so they (Paul, Mark, etc) figured the coming kingdom of God was awaiting a worthy people – one that exemplified the core values of love of God and neighbor,

            As I said, Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, but by Paul’s time, and especially by Mark’s time, the question must have arisen as to why the end of the age had not come as Jesus predicted. The faithful may have thought society needed to adopt a pious social ethics before God would think them worthy and bring about the end of the age. Jesus may have thought this too and just figured this would happen more quickly than it did. As I said, this would reconcile the seemingly contradictory themes that (1) Mark/Paul had Jesus preach the immediate coming of the end of the age, but (2) with the focus also being on bringing about a pious social ethics/reform of God and brotherly love.

          • Gary

            I would agree if you were talking about 2 Thessalonians. But Mark, written around 66-70AD, means,
            “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God arrive with power…”

            There was indeed some standing around who survived from 33 to 66 AD. A 20 year old follower would only be about 50 years old when their world (Jerusalem and the Temple) was going to be destroyed. And, according to Josephus, mothers boiled their child in a pot, for dinner. “Woe to those that are pregnant…”

            Mark wants to go out and hug all those neighborly Romans under Vespasian and Titus, to make a much better world?

          • Gary

            The point, Mark 13, 17 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! 18 Pray that it may not be in winter. 19 For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. 20 And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days.

            The obvious question, if God was reciprocal in love of man and neighbor, why not just prevent the suffering, instead of waiting to “cut short those days”. The obvious answer, the time of authorship was already seeing Jerusalem under siege, probably people in the city starving, and no amount of “love thy neighbor” was going to save them.

          • John MacDonald

            Sure the 70’s were crappy times, but that didn’t negate Jesus’ fundamental commandment of Love. As Paul said in Galatians 5:14, the Christian message was:

            …13For you, brothers, were called to freedom; but do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Rather, serve one another in love. 14The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

            Analogously, Mark said this in Mark 12:28-31

            My guess is that the commandment of love as the impetus for social change either emerged out of a Christian need to explain why Jesus’ prediction of the end of the age didn’t come, or Jesus taught this message of love and believed a pious people would emerge more quickly than actually happened.

            Why would love of God and neighbor be such a focal point for the Christian message if everything was just about to end anyway?

          • Gary

            “Why would love of God and neighbor be such a focal point for the Christian message if everything was just about to end anyway?”…

            The so-called “Peaceable Kingdom” is suppose to come when we’re dead! Why else would the Christian martyrs want to jump into the lion’s den – knowing they’re not Daniel-like.

          • Gary

            Since I said I’d give John the last word, this comment is directed to me. “
            “Why would love of God and neighbor be such a focal point for the Christian message if everything was just about to end anyway?”…
            From the author of Mark’s standpoint, love of God, love of neighbor, is nothing different than Deuteronomy, Reformation of Josiah, and Jeremiah from centuries before. Jewish and Christian religions the same. And both standing on the edge of disaster. So the Gospel of Mark wasn’t earthshaking and new from that standpoint (making a better world). Resurrection and Jesus being either Son of God or adopted as Son was unique, and unprovable. The destruction of Jerusalem was fact, so without that, Jesus would have disappeared into history as the leader of an obscure, Jewish offshoot.

          • John MacDonald

            Trying to sneak in the last word? lol

            Paul gives us some good hints about what the Christian view of “Love” was in the early Christian churches. For instance, Paul says:

            (1) “Love must be sincere. Detest what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Outdo yourselves in honoring one another. (Romans 12:10).”

            (2) “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).”

          • Gary


          • John MacDonald

            One last thought (since you’re giving me the last thought, lol)

            Gary said:

            From the author of Mark’s standpoint, love of God, love of neighbor, is nothing different than Deuteronomy, Reformation of Josiah, and Jeremiah from centuries before. Jewish and Christian religions the same.

            I really enjoyed talking about these ideas of love in Mark, Paul, and the Hebrew scriptures with you. I think your paralogism here is that you are assuming that because an author like Mark is alluding to a prior “Type,” that the author is simply regurgitating what is implied in the “Type.” But often in biblical hermeneutics, as I think is the understanding of the case of Love in Paul and Mark, there seems to be an evolution of the concept beyond what we see in certain places in the Hebrew scriptures. It’s like when Matthew shapes his narrative to portray Jesus as the New Moses. It is not that Jesus is just recapitulating what is found in the story of Moses, but rather Jesus is understood by Matthew as the New and Greater Moses.

            So, Mark may have a concept of love related to Deuteronomy, Reformation of Josiah, and Jeremiah from centuries before. However, perhaps the early Christians also innovated beyond this.

            To take a related example, the Christian notion of agape is reminiscent of the Jewish idea of hesed, but agape can’t really be delineated and characterized simply by looking to prior Hebrew scripture “Types.” As one scholar characterizes the Christian notion of agape (love):

            First, agape is said to be a love that God has for humankind in general: “For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). Thus, the term differs from hesed in that it does not refer to a love already promised to a specific group of people.

            Second, this term is used not just of God’s love for us but also for the human response to this love and can be used for love shared and expressed between human beings (John 21:15, where Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love [agapas] me, more than [you love] these [others]?”). Sometimes agape seems virtually interchangeable with philos. In Matthew 5:43, agape is used to refer to love of neighbor; in Matthew 5:44, quoted above, it is even used to refer to love of enemy. The latter passage makes it very clear that agape is not just a covenant love owed to a particular person or group with whom one is in a committed relationship. No, agape often refers to a more unconditional, even self-sacrificial love. It goes well beyond “love your neighbor as yourself.”

            Which brings us to the most misused passages of all: 1 Corinthians 13, one of the all-time wedding favorites: “Love (Agape) is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude …” Despite its popularity at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13 has nothing to do with marital love. It is rather Paul’s instruction to all Christians on “the more excellent way” in which they should exercise their spiritual gifts. It is part of a discussion that begins in 1 Corinthians 12:1 (“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed”) and continues through 1 Corinthians 14:40. Agape here is the love all Christians should exhibit as they prayerfully and carefully use the gifts God has given them. I recall Professor Victor P. Furnish of Southern Methodist University once saying that agape, whether divine or human, is not like a heat-seeking missile, prompted by something inherently warm or attractive in the “target” audience. It is that sort of other-regarding and self-sacrificial love that John 3:16 (another wedding favorite) says characterizes God, and that should characterize all human beings in their response to God and to others: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

            First Corinthians 13 is about precisely this sort of love, not marital love, and, as has often been noted, this sort of love has nothing to do with attractiveness or attraction. It is often bestowed on the unloved and the unlovely. It is an expression of grace, which means undeserved and unmerited benefit or favor bestowed on someone. In a world of reciprocity, and “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours,” such love seems to break the cycle of payback, and reaches a person as a true gift, one that comes without strings attached. This is the greater agape the Bible refers to, and it is surely no exaggeration to say that it is a love humans are not capable of apart from divine example, assistance and enablement.

            So, I think this gives us a better Idea about the issue of love in the New Testament.

          • John MacDonald

            I think we should keep in mind, too, that the gospel of Mark could have different levels of meaning. On a more obvious level, we have your interpretation. But on a deeper spiritual level, my interpretation may also hold some weight. Recall Mark writing:

            9 And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” 10 As soon as He was alone, [b]His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. 11 And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12 so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.”(Mark 4:9-13)

          • Gary

            I’m not saying your interpretation doesn’t hold weight. Just a different interpretation. Maybe you are right. Maybe there are different layers. I don’t know.
            But, maybe, my guess is that the destruction of Jerusalem may have validated the teaching of Jesus. An unknown apocalyptic preacher in Paul’s time, preaching love. But with the destruction of Jerusalem, all of a sudden people took note, and said, “maybe there is something in his preaching. Time to jump on the bandwagon, and wait for the ultimate new kingdom. If Jerusalem hadn’t been destroyed, I think all the Jews and Gentiles would have forgotten about Jesus, and his “love thy neighbor” stuff. Realistically, there was no social change for the better, for what, maybe a couple thousand years. I’d say the prediction of the destruction, was better than the prediction of love.

          • John MacDonald

            I think the deeper, spiritual meaning of Mark is directly related to the destruction of Jerusalem. Mark’s Jesus says the greatest commandment is love of God and neighbor. And these were terrible, horrific times. What better way is there to help people endure terrible times than to preach a strong, loving faith in God, and loving fellowship with your neighbors?

          • Gary

            John, I’ll let you have the last word (since our discussions seem to last too long), after this one comment. I remember the Twilight Zone episode, where an alien (big dude), landed, and wanted to help us out, and gave mankind a book entitled “To Serve Man”. When we finally translated the contents of the book, it turned out to be a cookbook. Or, “The meek shall inherit the earth”, meaning they will get 6 feet of dirt over them when they get buried.

          • John MacDonald

            Okay Gary. Thanks again for chatting with me. I think the goal of a religious studies newbie like me is to always be in learning mode, so I am grateful for this opportunity to learn. Since you are letting me have the last word, I will reiterate my concluding point:

            I think the deeper, spiritual meaning of Mark is directly related to the destruction of Jerusalem. Mark’s Jesus says the greatest commandment is love of God and neighbor. And those were terrible, horrific times. What better way is there to help people endure terrible times than to preach that they have a strong, loving faith in God, and loving fellowship with their neighbors?

            I think any attempt to make an interpretation of Mark (or Paul) needs to take seriously the fundamental commandment of powerful love of God and neighbor.

          • John MacDonald

            Mark 12:28-34 says love of God and neighbor was the MOST IMPORTANT of all the commandments, which shifts the focus of religious life away from the Hebrew scripture emphasis on the endless cycle of sin/animal sacrifice, so Mark certainly seems to think this “Greatest Commandment” is central to his narrative.