NT Wright and a Genuine Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory

NT Wright and a Genuine Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory August 4, 2014

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NT Wright courtesy of the University of St. Andrews

What is God like? What are humans like?

When it comes to the Atonement, those two questions guide all of our other questions. They are the two implicit questions behind N.T. Wright’s comments about the Atonement in the video below. For example, Wright says:

“Tragically, some Christians have said that on the cross God embraced the use of violence to solve the problems, therefore this legitimates us in embracing violence…and I want to say, ‘Excuse me. You’re just not reading the text. That the point of that narrative is to say that all the evil and wickedness and violence of the world converged onto this one point, which was Jesus. And the point of that was … that that was the ultimate defeat of violence. It did its worst to him and he in consequence was able to exhaust its force.’”

Notice that Wright separates the violence on the cross from God. Wright is one of my favorite theologians, in part because he makes this move throughout his work. In his book with Marcus J. Borg, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, Wright states this about Jesus’ death, “He would go ahead of the nation to take upon himself the judgment of which he had warned, the wrath of Rome against rebel subjects. That, I believe, lies at the heart of the New Testament’s insistence that Jesus died the death that awaited others, in order that they might not die it” (98).

There are times when Wright talks about the “wrath of God,” but whatever the wrath of God means, it does not mean that God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus while he hung on the cross. It does not mean that “on the cross God embraced the use of violence to solve the problems.” The cross was not about Jesus taking upon himself the “wrath of God”; rather, the cross was about Jesus taking upon himself the “wrath of Rome.” But, it would be foolish to simply blame Rome, or the religious authorities of the time. Indeed, they were part of the historical crucifixion, but you could replace the Roman Empire with any historical empire that attempted to keep the peace through violence, be that the ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, or Greek Empires, or the modern French, British, or American empires.

Mimetic theory claims that we tend to find reconciliation by channeling our own wrath against a scapegoat. Indeed, this is the way that Empires find inner reconciliation when they experience a threat: they unite against a scapegoat. The same could be said about any group of human beings, whether high school cliques, office workers, church members, or politicians.

But as Wright continues his discussion of Atonement in the video, he says, “I want all of the theories of Atonement because I think that they all ultimately do fit together, but if you just take one of them, say Penal Substitution, and take it out of its biblical context, the danger then is that you do just have a picture of God as a sort of bullying headmaster who because the rest of the class have been bad he picks on his own son and he beats him up and says, ‘Well that’ll do.’ And I dread to think that there are some Christians who really think that that’s what the story is like.”

At this point I want to click the pause button and ask, “Do you really mean you want ALL Atonement theories? Because isn’t that exactly what Penal Substitutionary Atonement claims? That Jesus took upon himself the wrath of God so that the rest of us who have been bad won’t have to take God’s wrath upon ourselves?”

Unfortunately, Wright doesn’t answer that question, but in passing he says we need a “genuine theology of Penal Substitution.” At this point, I have to disagree with Wright because a genuine Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory cannot be a theology. Rather, it must be an anthropology. In other words, Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory describes what humans do, not what God does.

I’ll clarify by breaking down the phrase. The word penal refers to punishment. The theological view of Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory claims that Jesus took upon himself the punishment from God that we deserved. Punishment is an adequate word for what Jesus experienced on the cross, but the question is, “Where did the punishment come from?” We can follow Wright’s logic here, as long as we say that the punishment Jesus experienced didn’t come from God; it came from humans. So, there is truth in the word penal, but it’s an anthropological truth – the punishment came from humans, not from God.

Substitution refers to someone taking on punishment in another person’s place. Wright refers to the substitutionary role of Jesus in the quote from The Meaning of Jesus above when he writes, “Jesus died the death that awaited others, in order that they might not die it.” Again, there is truth in the assertion that Jesus was a substitute for others, but it’s an anthropological truth. Mark Heim states in his book Saved From Sacrifice that on the cross, “God has taken the place of the scapegoat, has lived the violence from the side of the persecuted, has endured sacrifice in order to end sacrifice” (244). Jesus substituted himself in the place of all the scapegoats that humans create. He took on human wrath in order to end our ways of sacrificial violence.

Atonement refers to wiping away our sins, but it’s just as acceptable to think of it simply as “at-one-ment.” Atonement wipes away our sins so that we can be at-one with God and with our fellow human beings. From an anthropological view, the cross demonstrated the human pattern of experiencing a sense of at-one-ness by uniting in sacrificial violence against a scapegoated victim. The anthropological truth is that whenever humans unite against a common enemy we have a sense of oneness and our sins against each other are wiped away as we thrust them upon our scapegoat.

But that is not the theological truth of how God makes Atonement with us. The theological truth is that God wipes away our sins and makes us one with God and with our fellow human beings through forgiveness. We see this on the cross when Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In fact, during his life, death, and resurrection Jesus made Atonement with God and humanity, not through acts of divine vengeance, but through acts of divine forgiveness.

What is God like? God is like Jesus: nonviolent love and forgiveness in action. Yet, used as a theological doctrine, Penal Substitutionary Atonement has sacralized God’s violence and our own. A genuine theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement cannot be a theology because it doesn’t tell the truth about God’s atoning forgiveness and love. If we continue to use the phrase Penal Substitutionary Atonement, we must use it as an anthropology, not a theology, for it tells the truth that humans frequently find atonement through sacrificially punishing a substitutionary victim who becomes our scapegoat.

Jesus came to end our sacrificial ways of making atonement by replacing it with God’s way of making atonement – the way of nonviolent forgiveness and love.

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