Do I have your attention? Yep, you read the title right. No, my mind is not in the gutter (OK maybe sometimes). But this is just a play on words for the atonement theory branded as “Penal Substitution” or PSA. “Why would you reference a penis?” you may ask. I’ll get to all that.
I think what we believe about atonement is very important and has everything to do with how we view God which in turn affects how we view justice and treat people and the earth.
What is an atonement (theory)?
Personally I don’t care for long drawn out explanations on a blog and I think most reading this already know what an atonement theory is, but for those that don’t, I’ll give an explanation and try to keep it short.
In Christian theology an atonement theory is the act of Jesus making right what went wrong in the relationship between the Divine and Humanity. The reconciliation of Humans to God. The word we use today, “atonement”, can be traced back to the 16th century using a combo of a few Latin words (like many words we use now) that literally meant unity. At-one-ment. In the Hebrew Bible, what is known as the day of atonement is the day all sins were forgiven with no exceptions.
There are many theories of atonement. One theory states it was the total defeat of Satan and death and sin. Another claims it was just to bring moral change to humanity. Another theory claims it was to end and expose the scapegoating mechanism human society is built on by God becoming the victim (scapegoat) and defeating violence by forgiveness and vindicating this by resurrection. I personally think all of these have truth to them and of course even the ones I described are way more nuanced and detailed than I explained them.
The model I absolutely refuse to accept as having any truth is the Penal Substutionary atonement theory. Because if penal substitution were true, it would make God a complete d***. See the purpose of the title of the article now?
What is it?
It goes like this: Because of the sin of Adam and Eve we are all totally depraved sinners, because God is holy and righteous he cannot even look upon sin so atonement has to be made to have a relationship with such a holy God or his wrath would destroy mankind. Because of this the sacrificial system was put into place but because we are so depraved and corrupt by sin even our sacrifices would not placate the Father for any length of time. Only a perfect blemish free sacrifice would do. So Jesus came to placate the Fathers wrath and on the cross Jesus took the punishment we deserve on himself. He was our “Propitation”.
The late Calvinist theologian RC Sproul said “he (Jesus) was forsaken by the Father and experienced the full measure of hell on the cross”
The Southern Baptist Convention stated: “Penal Substitutionary atonement is the burning core of the gospel message and the only hope of the fallen race.”
Really? This is the gospel? God created humans, knowing they would sin but still holds it against them and because God is holy can’t be near sin and because he is just, has to punish humans because of that sin. Skip the sacrificial system to Jesus who became God’s whipping boy so God didn’t have to pour his wrath on humanity. Wow… Seems legit… It’s said that this belief of the gospel has created more atheist than any other time in history. I don’t have numbers or anything on that but if that is the gospel I’m an atheist to that God myself.
This model of atonement creates many problems with the character of God, Jesus fully revealed and really is the least biblical.
This model negates all the biblical teaching that God is fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.
“In the beginning was the Word, the Word was God and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” – John 1:1&14
“The son is the visible image of the invisible God” – Colossians 1:15
“The Son is the light of God’s glory and imprint of God’s nature” – Hebrews 1:3
“I and the Father are one” – John 10:30
And what is Jesus like?
We can look at his life as recorded in the Gospels and see he was a healer (Matthew 8:16, 12:15, 14:14, 14:46 22:14 just to name a few)
Non-violent (no, the temple scene doesnt say he harmed anyone) (Matthew 26:52)
A Forgiver of even those who murdered him. (Luke 7:48, 23:34)
A Comforter (2 Corinthians 1:5, 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, Matthew 5:4,
Compassionate and completely other serving and self emptying of himself for others. (Philippians 2:6-8)
– This model also pits Father against Son. Those who espouse this theory say it doesn’t because they planned this, designed it and orchestrated it together but that is a false dichotomy. Any way you look at it God tortured and turned his back on his son in this model. If God is Trinity (relational and one), and that’s the view I have, then God could have never forsaken his Son. See more about that here.
– It has a view of God’s holiness that Jesus corrected and redefines in scripture. To be holy (haggios in geek) means to be set apart. Or to be used for the purpose you were made. It is the same meaning as sanctified. Jesus actually defines this for us when he rephrased “Be holy as I am holy” found in Leviticus (Torah), which is found in the explanation of holiness codes or law. What Jesus did (in Luke 6) was say “be compassionate (merciful) as your father is compassionate(merciful).” By doing this, everyone around him would have known what he was doing ( showing that being holy wasn’t what they thought but was about compassion and being merciful). This not only redefines holiness but also puts it under the immutable expression of His love. So being holy is to be like Jesus. Compassionate and full of mercy. Does beating the crap out of your son because you can’t let something go seem compassionate?
– It also has a very religious and legalistic view of God’s Justice. God isn’t and has never been “just” in the legalistic, punitive, and frankly vile way that penal substution has portrayed God to be. In fact NOWHERE in scripture does it plainly say God is “just” as a noun or as a character attribute. It does say however God is LOVE. A noun (1 John 4:8). It’s who the Divine is. Every attribute or characteristic of God falls under this “God is Love”. There is no justice without love for the one being served the justice. There is no scripture, zero, zilch, nada that says because of his demand for justice, God was punishing Jesus for our sins on the cross. For more on the biblical Justice of God click here
– It makes it seem like God can’t forgive without punishing someone first. But the cross didn’t activate God’s forgiveness, it displayed it. The Divine has always been forgiving and always will . Always. For an in depth discussion on forgiveness click here
Jesus as a Propitation
The word “propitation” occurs in Romans 3:25, Hebrews 9:5 and 1 John 2:2, 4:10 . The words in greek are “hilasmos” and “hilaskomai” (hilisterion) which means to show mercy or covering. Propitation is the word many, not all, translations use for this word which implies turning away or appeasing wrath. The word hilastérion or quite simply mercy seat, is used in the Hebrew Bible (old testament) when describing the the covering of the ark of the Covenant, which was sprinkled with the sacrificial atoning blood on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the day where all sin would be cleansed and purged away. This is what the writers were referring to. The writers were using the same language from the scriptures to describe the At-one-ment of Christ. Propitation and expiation which both imply some type of appeasement of God through violence is not proper usage of the original word and context, especially with the revelation of God we see in Jesus. If anyone was “appeased” or expiated it was man, through seeing that violence is NOT the way of God. So in a sense man, not God, was appeased by the blood as it reveals the self sacrificial, non violent, true nature of God.
It is finished
So there you have it. A non exhaustive list of reasons why the penal substitution model of atonement is anti-christ in nature and not representative of the Gospel message or Jesus, the most express revelation of God. On the cross God did not punish Jesus in our place. Jesus didn’t get the punishment we deserve. He got the punishment humans decided to give him. But the Divine is faithful and instead of reacting with violence, God was in Christ (they are one), reconciling the world to God’s self. The blood of Jesus shows us a better way, a more Christlike way. A way of non violence and peace. The way of grace and the Kingdom of God.