Penal Substitutionary Atonement is not a phrase that is widely known, but the storyline that goes along with that theology is, and there are substantial problems with it.
One, it purports to be a theory of Atonement, when – in fact – the multiple biblical and traditional pictures of atonement are better described as windows into atonement or as metaphors that attempt to explain a religious and spiritual reality that is beyond our grasp.
A second problem with Penal Substitutionary Atonement is that it expands on a point of comparison with Temple practice, committing the same error that people often make in reading parables: Moving without justification from a single point of comparison to an allegory that tries to make the case for multiple points of comparison. When interpreters do this, they are almost always wrong and, in this case, Penal Substitutionary Atonement produces a picture of God, the Gospel narrative, and the character of the spiritual journey that is problematic to say the least.
There is good reason to deal with the subject of Atonement in a different and much longer format, but because it looms large in some circles, I deal with it here in a fashion that is accessible to a wider audience and which served as the basis for a sermon on Hebrews 2:14-18. My hope is that it will assist preachers in their efforts to speak meaningfully to the challenges that this way of thinking about the work of God presents. For those who have spent time with these issues, readers will note that I am indebted to Irenaeus of Lyons (b. 130AD).
Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Hebrews 2:14-18)
I grew up in the Methodist Church and in a part of it that was deeply shaped by what is called the Southern Holiness Movement. I didn’t have much exposure to that movement until I was in my late teens, but I had a pretty steady diet of it for two years. I learned a lot and I grew a lot spiritually during that time, but – looking back on it – it also had some pretty quirky, endearing features that no congregation would tolerate now.
Revivals and camp meetings were at the heart of that brand of Methodism and they were long. Sermons easily lasted 90 minutes and I became convinced that most of them didn’t need a watch, they needed a calendar.
They also regularly ended with what is called an “altar call” in which people were invited to come forward as God led them, while the congregation sang endless verses of “Just as I am.” It was something like saturation bombing, only musical, and – of course – large numbers of people came forward to pray at the rail, if only to stop the music. (I have told Mother Natalie that if she has “Just as I am” played at my funeral, I will haunt her.)
At the heart of those sermons was usually a theme, which I am sure that most of you have heard somewhere along the way, called Penal Substitutionary Atonement or PSA, for short. Central to the idea of PSA is the notion that God the Father is really ticked off with us and would have liked to send us all straight to hell. But Jesus was a really attractive and completely innocent victim, so God punished him in our place.
Now, at first blush all this may seem like a great thing for pastors and seminary professors to talk about — especially if they are going to throw around phrases like “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” After all, how interesting can that be?
But the problem is that this way of looking at the saving work of God also has some pretty serious spiritual side-affects for all of us. And when it’s not just theological eggheads who are exposed to these ideas, but it’s in the songs and sermons we hear, it works its way into the way we all think about God and the Christian faith – and that can have a devastating impact on our spiritual lives. I will come back to that subject, but first I want to note three problems with PSA.
One problem is that it paints a really ugly picture of God, and God the Father, in particular.
An ugly enough picture of God, that – in fact – there are a lot of people who find it really hard to believe in God, at all. After all, what’s attractive about a God who can’t be made happy? A God who gets his jollies tormenting the one perfect guy who’s ever come along? And a God who then effectively says, “I’m still not happy with you, but I’ll let you off the hook if you believe?”
I must admit, I wouldn’t believe in that God either. And the New Testament and the church have been at pains for centuries to say that this isn’t the God we worship. In fact, it is our belief in a God of love with skin on that distinguishes our understanding of God from a lot of other beliefs people have held over the centuries.
I should also note that – because we believe that God is Triune the idea that God the Father had one agenda and that Jesus, God’s son, had another one is complete nonsense. Our faith is not a good cop, bad cop scenario. What we believe is that God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – were on a single mission to save us and that while, in one sense, that risk found its lived expression in the life and death of the son, in another way, the whole of God risked itself in reaching out to us in love.
Another problem with PSA is the picture that it gives of what God wants most. Penal Substitutionary Atonement suggests that what God wants most is revenge. Sadly, anyone who has been abused as a child won’t have any trouble believing this picture at all. It’s a God who is capricious, who is unpredictable and arbitrary, a God who is endlessly angry, and a God who is out for revenge.
But, here again, that is not what the Christian faith teaches. What God longs for is a restored and joy-filled relationship with us. You and me in a joy-filled and restored relationship with one another.
A third problem with PSA is the picture it gives of our why we need to be saved.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Penal Substitutionary Atonement implies that someone — God to be specific — needs to be compensated for our sin. So, God the Father kills Jesus in order to get the books to balance: One big payment, rather than gazillions of smaller payments.
This, too, is a distortion of the Gospel message. God isn’t looking for payback. God isn’t interested in making you feel guilty for the rest of your life. What God wants to do is to get us out from under the control of our own sin so that we can receive the peace and joy-filled lives that God intended for us.
So, if Penal Substitutionary Atonement wasn’t what God was after, then what was God doing?
Take a look at the text of Hebrews in your bulletins on page XX:
One, as the first sentence indicates, God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – was on a rescue mission, the leading edge of which was Jesus: “Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
God isn’t looking for revenge or satisfaction. The threat isn’t posed by God and Jesus is not God’s innocent target.
God seeks to save us from the power of death, the devil – in other words – everything that is not-God, everything that denies God’s claim to be God, and for that reason, everything that threatens God’s creation – particularly you and me, who are made in God’s image. That’s a recurrent theme in the Old Testament and especially in the New Testament. Death is the last enemy and the problem with our sin is not that it angers God. The problem with our sin is that it takes us out of God’s hands and puts us in the control of that which spreads death wherever it goes.
When we are far from God, we act out of pride, envy, anger, sloth, gluttony, avarice, and lust — and in its wake we spread death’s influence in big and in small ways. If we experience God as angry, it is not because God is a monster, it is the distance that our sin imposes between us and God.
God is out to break that cycle, so – like the greatest of all first responders — he launches this one-of-a-kind rescue mission with Jesus on the frontlines. But there is no way do that without confronting the enemy who has us under his control. So, Jesus – who is God with skin on — goes back into our burning houses and suffers the same death that threatens to consume our lives and brings us back from the dead.
That is the story that this first sentence tells, and it is the story that we tell every year, from Advent through to the Feast of the Ascension.
Advent: The ultimate first responder is on his way.
Christmas: He shows up with skin on.
Epiphany through Lent: He is with us in the burning house, pointing the way out.
Good Friday: He confronts the enemy that enslaves us and meets death, face to face.
Easter: By the power of the Resurrection he comes back from the dead, bearing both his divinity and our humanity in the harmony that was always meant to be ours.
Why did it need to be this way? Why a first responder who brings God to humankind and humankind back to God?
The second and third sentences of the passage from Hebrews tells us: “…he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.”
Of course, the moment that we read the word, “atonement,” all the old revivalist preachers of my youth cry – “There, you see, Penal Substitutionary Atonement – monster God, innocent victim!” But the word “penal” isn’t here at all. In fact, Hebrews emphasizes that this rescue mission all is in the name of mercy and faithfulness. And atonement is not about placating God, it is about getting us back into the hands of the loving God who made us.
So, atonement isn’t about taking a pound of flesh from us or about punishing an innocent Jesus in our place. It’s about eliminating that distance between us and God that was put there by death and about restoring the relationship between God and us. In a kind of spiritual jujitsu, Jesus – on behalf of the Triune God — uses the power of death against itself and paves the way in the Resurrection and Ascension for the image of God in you and me to be restored and healed.
How can Jesus do this?
The final sentence answers that question: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
The Triune God doesn’t begin this rescue mission in the name of making one part of God miserable in the name of making another part of God happy. That would be like chopping off my right hand to make my left hand feel more important. The Triune God enters our lives in the form Jesus, the God-man, so that not only can the balance between us and God can be restored, but so that we also have a companion on that journey into God, which begins with our baptism.
And – if you’ve been following me — here is where Scripture offers a completely different picture of the Christian life from that of PSA. In the Penal Substitutionary Atonement world, the only thing that matters is getting your name moved from the “damned and going to hell” column over the “saved and going to heaven” column. Jesus gets killed. God the Father gets happy. You feel bad about it all, get baptized, and then try to stay out of trouble until you die and go to heaven.
What Scripture and our part of the Christian tradition teaches is that God the First Responder entered our lives, ran the risks, experienced losses, and emerged to lead us out of death into life. When we were baptized, we were drawn into that life-giving rescue mission – and now, hour by hour, day by day, we ask God to help us to live into that death-free existence.
And the good news is, God hasn’t just seen the movie, God has lived our lives and comes alongside us in love, compassion, and understanding: Ready to pick us up when we fall, ready to forgive us when we fail, ready to help us see what is not-God, and anxious for us to join the Rescue Mission – doing our own best to bring people out of their own burning houses, where people struggle with loneliness, despair, abandonment, abuse, poverty, and all those other things both big and small, that are not a part of God’s will for us.
And that, my friends, is the Christian life.