People who know me will probably be shocked by the fact that I believe in Penal Substitutionary Atonement. After all, over the years I have gone to great lengths to prove that it is an incorrect theory. My primary motivation for doing so was because it has been a doctrine of propaganda within evangelicalism for years. However, as a good philosopher, that reason alone cannot be why someone rejects any theory. After all, the abuse of good ideas happens all the time.
With that said, my version of Penal Substitutionary Atonement is probably much different than you have heard before. I began working out this new version in my book UNenlightenment. Since its publication, I have finished my reconstruction of the issue. I wish there was a different term I could use outside of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but as you will see, it is probably the best term.
So, in this article, I want to take you on a journey through my logic. I think this is a version that people can get behind without feeling like they have to compromise what Scripture has to say about the issue.
Have We Misunderstood Sin?
There is an obscure passage in the synoptic Gospels that I have read hundreds of times before and never picked up on a subtle nuance in the passage that changes everything in how we view the idea of sin and thus Penal Substitutionary Atonement.
I have always believed, albeit with no proof, that the idea of “sin” has been misunderstood. For nearly as long as Christianity has been around the idea of sin has been defined in ethical terms. But where do we get this idea from? Nowhere have I been able to locate anything in scripture that defines sin as ethical imperfection.
The first clue is in 1 Corinthians 5:21.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
A brief note on the term righteousness. The term can have moral implications, but it can also mean “justifiable”. We know that based on John 6:38 that Jesus came to do the will of the father.
“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
My question was, how can these two concepts be reconciled?
What if sin has to do with obedience to the will of God and not with ethical commands? We know that God’s will does not have to do with ethical perfection because that would make Christianity incredibly superficial and without anything unique over and above any other religion. What’s more, this would mean that there was a difference between whether Jesus was ethically perfect or without sin. This is an interesting idea to consider.
From here I encountered the most obscure passage that solidified this idea for me. Although all of the synoptic Gospels mention this story, I am going to quote Matthew’s version. Matthew 9:10-13 reads:
“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”
Two important things to note here. First, Jesus separates tax collectors and sinners. Why does he do this, are not all people sinners? Even more, were not tax collectors, even more, a sinner than your average person? I believe that Jesus separates these because “sinners” are not “unethical” people. Instead, they are non-believers. They could be unbelieving Jews and/or Gentiles. Furthermore, by “unbelievers” I believe he means those not following the will of God.
Second, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 in which the prophet is speaking to Israel about their worthless offerings for sin. This is when Hosea says that “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.” Jesus actually quotes this twice. He will quote this same passage from Hosea in chapter 12. This indicates to me that the idea that sin is part of the sacrificial system is meaningless because it is not about being ethically pure. It is about doing the will of God – in Hosea’s case that was showing mercy.
Most Atonement Views Ask The Wrong Questions
No doubt, if we simply read the New Testament we will see the work of Christ culminating in salvation from sin. Especially, if we read the Gospels through the eyes of the Apostle Paul. This is, in fact, how we have looked to Jesus’ atoning work throughout history. But simply looking at the event itself and the subsequent writings is not enough for us to draw a conclusion on atonement. Instead, the only way we can understand the atonement of Jesus is to understand what happened in the Garden. The reason is simple; whatever happened in the Garden of Eden is the reason why Jesus incarnated in the first place. What we often do is try to understand the Fall in light of atonement; instead of understanding atonement in light of the Fall.
The atonement of Jesus begs a question: is atonement about humanity or God? It’s about humanity. This means we can eliminate any theory of atonement that makes it about God. When we say that we have to satisfy some requirement; then it is more about God than it is about humanity. The atonement of Christ has to be related to humanity because it is the thing that is lost in the Garden. God is not separated from man; man is separated from God. God is not in need; humanity is. Ultimately, the relationship between humanity and God is severed in the Garden, not because of something God did, but because of something humanity did. This means that the entirety of the OT is a story about the reconciliation of that relationship. If that is the case; then most atonement theories have the story backward. Furthermore, reading the Old Testament in light of restoration to the will of God makes much more sense than reading it in light of obedience to ethical commands.
Some Concluding Thoughts
If what I am arguing for is true, then it is not only a significant change to atonement theology and sin doctrine, but It changes how we view the sacrificial system and the life of Christ. The goal of Jesus was to demonstrate how to do the will of God. He set the example for humanity and desires for us to follow his path.
Jesus saved us from our sin, but it was not in an attempt that we might become ethically perfect. Instead, he saved us from ourselves. He saved us from the innate desire we have to follow our own will instead of the creators.
I leave you with this: 1 John 1:17
The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
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