While the cross unites the Christian faithful, it has also been a source of controversy. The cross is dismissed as cosmic child abuse by atheists and hotly debated in Christian circles as to its atoning significance.
Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, notes that despite its doctrinal significance, atonement theory has not undergone adequate philosophical analysis and so was inspired to write, Atonement and the Death of Christ. It looks at the biblical, historical, and philosophical development of atonement theory and concludes that, while each thesis adds important insight, the foundation of them all is penal substitution. On a recent episode of Unbelievable?, Craig was in discussion with theologian and pastor, Greg Boyd, who adopts a Christus Victor model of atonement theory.
Atonement at a Crossroads
Despite a great deal of agreement between them, Boyd’s major bone of contention with Craig’s book is the idea that God needs to be appeased in order to forgive. He didn’t like viewing forgiveness as a legal process conducted in a court of law, but preferred to see it as a personal interaction between God and man. Boyd recognizes that sin is punished but prefers to see that punishment as organic and not judicial where the punishment for sin comes from the consequences of the sin itself (intrinsic judgment) and not from a divine legal ruling (extrinsic judgment).
Boyd is very concerned about how people perceive God’s character and believes that depicting God as a wrathful deity who demands redemptive violence makes for a very poor public relations strategy. Craig, on the other hand, felt that retributive justice cannot be taken lightly because it is an eschatological concept that has eternal consequences.
Craig recognizes that each atonement theory contributes to our understanding of Jesus’ work on the cross but suggests that penal substitution is central to all the others. He likens the atonement to a gem where every facet contributes to the sparkle but concludes:
“The central facet that anchors all others is penal substitution because it makes sense of so many of the other facets.”
Speeding Out of Control
Boyd offers a helpful example of a speeding car to illustrate the distinction between judicial and organic views of the atonement:
“I agree that it’s expressed sometimes in judicial categories, but I think it’s more fundamentally expressed in organic categories…for example, if you’re speeding and you break the law, well, then you get a fine, it’s imposed on you, that’s a judicial punishment, the legal punishment. But if you’re speeding, going down a hill that has got a sharp curve at the bottom, and you don’t make that curve and end up getting in a crash and getting injured, maybe killed, that’s an organic punishment, an intrinsic punishment, because there’s no connection between the fine and speeding, but there is a definite connection between going down the hill speeding and getting in a crash. It seems to me that the reason you have the law is to warn people about the organic reality of the law.”
Boyd feels that handing us a ticket for speeding while we are already sprawled out on the ground does nothing but pour salt in the wound of a dying man. If death is already the consequence of sin then why issue a traffic ticket?
He does believe that Jesus takes on the death-consequences of our sin but cannot get on board with an angry God punishing an innocent for the sins of others. Boyd prefers a Matthew 18 type of God who offers personal arbitration rather than a trip to the courthouse. Craig, while finding personal forgiveness appealing, believes that without penal substitution, the cross is salvifically inadequate:
“Penal substitution is the doctrine that Jesus Christ bore the suffering for sin which would have been our punishment had we borne it, instead He freed us from liability to punishment…divine forgiveness of sins is much more akin to legal pardon than it is to personal forgiveness we extend to one another in personal relationships. Personal forgiveness does not absolve guilt or make one into a new creature. Legal pardon absolves the condemned criminal from guilt and constitutes him as a new man in the eyes of the law as if he had never committed the crime.”
Is God Wrathful or Just Cross?
Boyd felt that penal substitutionary atonement can be a public relations nightmare for a God “who so loved the world”, while Craig felt that a God who wasn’t angry with sin would be an enabler:
“I do think God is incensed with sin. If God were not angry with evil He would be indifferent to the plight of all the victims of sin and injustice. I think it is quite proper that a righteous God would be angry when evil is done and people are victimized…But at the root of God’s wrath I think lies this notion of retributive justice…His holiness and justice cry out for the just desert of sin, which is I think death. Death is both a consequence of sin in this organic sense but it’s also a punishment for sin in the legal sense.”
Boyd argues that while God may hate sin, He ultimately emptied Himself and felt its sting. He points out that Jesus did very un-wrathful things like turn the other cheek and love His enemies, even going to the extreme of forgiving human ignorance while hanging on a cross. Boyd has a difficult time reconciling a wrathful God who is also a friend of sinners because he believes that the cross isn’t a gavel but a grace.
What’s Love got to do with it?
“When you frame everything in a legal way, you turn a love story into a legal story.” (Boyd)
The problem that philosophy often brings to the discussion is that it dissects God into a series of propositions. He becomes omni-this and omni-that, He is justice, He is truth and we miss the bigger picture of a God whose heart grieves, weeps at a tomb, and wishes to gather sinners under her wings as a mother hen. Boyd claims that God is more interested in wooing a bride than punishing an adulterer. He recognizes that this union has a legal dimension since one must issue a wedding certificate but he doesn’t want us to miss the honeymoon.
Craig spends a great deal of time in his book dealing with Anglo-American legal theory to justify penal substitution. While interesting, it is irrelevant to a first century Jew who brought a goat to an altar and not a briefcase to a courtroom. I think there is a huge difference between adjudicating our sin based on legal precedents and offering a sacrifice because it is only against God that we have sinned. Jesus is ultimately described as our Passover Lamb or sacrificial goat, so despite the legal language Jesus is ultimately a sacrifice that is Biblically defined as “no greater love”. Maybe rather than focusing on the punishment we need to ask what’s love got to do with it?
Life is in the Blood
Is it the death of the animal that expiates our sins or is it the life found in the blood that rejuvenates us? I think one could argue that the significance of the sacrifice was less about the death of the animal and more about the spreading of the life-giving blood. The blood of the sacrificed animals was sprinkled on the altar, in the Holy of Holies and on the people to temporarily cleanse the meeting place of an unholy people and a holy God. It’s quite interesting that the Jewish people were forbidden to drink the blood of animals yet Jesus told us to commemorate His death by drinking His blood. Why?
The blood of Jesus allows an unholy people who cannot see God’s face without dying to permanently dwell in His presence. Maybe we should focus more on the life he has given us in his blood and not the death we have avoided. Since the sting of sin is death and we are already dead in our sins, the remedy for our situation should be His life-giving blood.
Craig describes penal substitution as “the doctrine that Jesus Christ bore the suffering for sin which would have been our punishment had we borne it”. I think we need to be very careful to conflate suffering and death, because once you use legal theory and even animal sacrifice to understand atonement you need to take suffering off the table. The priests sacrificed animals in a quick, humane fashion and modern capital punishment is carried out with minimal suffering, so if Jesus were a mere sacrifice or recipient of capital punishment then He should have been executed on a temple altar quickly and humanely.
However, we know from the Gospel records that on the way to die for our sins He suffered cruelly. If the cross was a demonstration of penal substitution then why was He humiliated, tortured and nailed to an instrument of pagan criminal justice? God may hate sin and want it killed but was it appropriate for Him to add on so much suffering? The New Testament suggests that the wages of sin is death, so why all the spitting, flogging, and mocking?
Did Jesus suffer because of God’s wrath against sin? I find Boyd’s view that Jesus took the consequences for our sin more helpful when it comes to understanding the suffering Jesus experienced. The passion is powerful not because he paid the penalty but because He “was pierced for our transgressions”.
“Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:17-18)
Original Sin – Coup or Crime?
One of the problems that surfaces when atonement theory is discussed is that it focuses on the penalty without clearly defining the crime. Jesus came to remedy a sin problem and yet we create elaborate theories about His solution without clearly defining the dilemma. Sin is a vague word which means ‘buzzkill’ in the secular world and anything from murder to pencil stealing in Christian circles.
I think all of our atonement theories fail unless we first define the sin for which Jesus died. God did not empty Himself for a meet and greet, He came for a search and rescue. But rescue from what? Did Jesus die to absolve my bad behavior? Should he be killed for my lying or cheating or is something bigger at stake here? If Jesus had to die then it must be for something of cosmic proportions. I would argue that in order to save us He had to deal with the source of all our problems, the original sin of acting like we were gods.
I think we too often think of sin as an unwieldy ledger of forbidden acts that multiply on a daily basis. God, however, didn’t create the world with an arbitrary list of do’s and don’ts. The crime may have been picking the fruit but we cannot prosecute until we prove motive and intent. Adam and Eve weren’t kicked out of the Garden because they disobeyed an arboreal code but because they were instigating a divine coup.
God made it clear that when a mortal takes the throne and makes all the rules, the world becomes a time-limited daily grind of thorns and thistles, bad relationships and painful child bearing. God introduced death because a life of eternal defiance is incompatible with an eternity in God’s presence. God removed us from the presence of the Tree of Life after we fell because an immortal horror is irredeemable.
Divine Right of a Naked Emperor
We need to remember that Adam and Eve’s first transgression was motivated by a desire to be like God. While we conventionally ascribe idol status to sex, power, and money, I would argue that those temptations actually represent acts of self-worship. Our problem is not bowing down to idols but thinking that the world should bow down to us.
We humans have a terrible tendency to supersize our powers to God like proportions. We create nuclear power, so we can read the Bible at night and then are shocked when it mushrooms out of control. We want to fill the earth and offer infertile couples reproductive help and then end up with Octomom. Inspired by Jesus to heal the sick, we create antibiotics but then watch in horror as people die from superbugs. Sadly, instead of worshipping God with our creativity we often use it to dethrone Him. I think one can make the case that sin boils down to the deluded divine right of a naked emperor.
What then would be the natural end-point of the original sin of trying to be like God? It would be the murder of the One True God. Our original sin would never be complete until we had performed a divine hit job. We would never be able to assume the throne if God insisted on remaining there. Nietzsche recognized that the death of God would be a watershed moment:
‘”Whither is God?” He cried. I shall tell you. We have killed Him – you and I. All of us His murderers…How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe the blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever will be born after us-for the sake of this deed, he will be a part of a higher history than all history hitherto.” (Nietzsche in his parable The Madman)
If we kill God then it’s all on us. If the history of mankind has shown us anything it is that we make for very poor deities.
Laying on of Hands
I had often wondered how it was possible for Jesus to die for all of the sins of mankind, but if you view Jesus’ death as the culmination of the original sin of trying to be God, then His crucifixion makes perfect sense because it takes the divine ambitions of every person and nails them to the cross. The reason that Jesus’ one-time sacrifice was enough was because He drained the power of original sin by allowing it to be completely spent. Original sin could do nothing more severe than kill God and Jesus took that divine pretension to the grave.
All of us, friends and enemies, Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, women and men, are complicit in the execution of God. Jesus was betrayed by a follower with a kiss, denied three times by a friend, mocked by the religious elite and then pierced by the authorities. The problem is that when God is killed, the earth gets a bit shaky, rocks get broken and darkness falls over our “enlightened thoughts,” and as we take the throne we quickly find that our cosmic ruling resume is a bit weak, even when laminated.
It’s interesting that in the book of Revelation, the new heaven and earth are described as having trees of life but not the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, it was nowhere to be found because the axe of Jesus’ death and resurrection had cut it down. The choice of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil ushered us into the wilderness but the choice of the tree upon which Jesus hung allowed us access back into the Garden of God’s presence. We will not be tempted to sin in heaven because that sin was dealt with when we chose the better Tree.
The immortal hubris of mortal humans had to be worked out by the mortal humility of an immortal God. Ironically, humbling oneself as a mere mortal gives us eternal life. Choosing our place alongside a suffering servant means we will never again start a coup. The good news is that every time we try to make the case that we are god we find our testimony wither under Cross examination.
Rumors of my Death
The poignancy of the passion is that we pierced the hands of the potter who crafted us, we marred the one who formed us in the womb, we made the one who breathed life into us take His last breath. Ironically, the death of the One whose throne we tried to assume became the King to which each and every knee will bow. We spent the last of our original sin energy trying to bury Him in the ground only to find a forwarding address. Our divine ambition climaxed on the cross but then fizzled in front of an empty tomb. The good news is that the rumors of God’s death had been greatly exaggerated, and to make it abundantly clear, He went on a 40-day personal appearance tour.
Justin, the host of Unbelievable? and always the practical one, brought this deep intellectual dive to the surface by asking if we are just arguing over angels dancing on the head of a pin or if this discussion has deeper significance. Both men agreed that the atonement is central to Christianity but for different reasons. Greg believes that our atonement theory determines the character of the God we believe in and doesn’t want redemptive violence to define the God of love. Craig believes that we need to understand all theories in order to give plausible and coherent reasons for the hope we have, but feels that if penal substitution isn’t included in those discussions then we gut atonement of its significance.
It was a fascinating discussion that really helped clarify what is at stake when we “survey the wondrous cross”. For the sake of Christian unity, we may need to accept the fact that the atonement is actually more like a diamond in the rough than a finely-cut gem.