Our two-part Easter series began last time with discussion of the crucifixion. We are concluding this time in emphasis of the resurrection. However, these two events cannot really be separated. They both have to do with the atonement, the central doctrine of our Christianity. And since it is central, we need to discuss some prevailing ideas in the world today, especially in America, regarding some wrong ideas about the atonement. Although too much emphasis on the wrong ideas is not necessarily helpful in capturing the right ideas, I think we need to take the time to do this because of how entrenched the wrong ideas have become.
I came across a blog post recently that contains some of those wrong ideas. Here are a couple of its paragraphs:
When we look to the cross we see Jesus Christ serving the just sentence of a sinner. There on the cross Christ experiences physical death, so his heart stops beating and his body begins to decay. He also faces spiritual death, spiritual destruction. He is punished by facing the fury of the wrath of God. He is punished consciously for sin done in conscious rebellion against God. He faces an eternal measure of wrath for sins against an eternal being. There on the cross, he faces the justice and the torment of hell.
Christ has never sinned, so, why would a sinless man be suffering God’s wrath? Because he walked into that courtroom, he stood between the judge and the guilty person, and said, “I will serve his sentence.” He took other people’s sin upon himself. He took upon himself sin to such an extent that he became sin. He became vile and detestable in God’s eyes–the most vile and detestable thing that could ever exist–and God poured out the full measure of his wrath upon him. He poured out his wrath upon Christ until that wrath was absorbed and exhausted, until every bit of justice was satisfied.
This blog was not written by some crazy, lone-wolf, internet fanatic. The piece was written by a well-respected, Reformed theologian. I’m not giving his name because I don’t want us to concentrate on his name as if these words were his viewpoint alone. They may be his words, but they represent exactly where much of the majority of contemporary Reformed theology—that which has risen to take hold of conservative evangelicalism over the past 40 years—stands today regarding the Atonement. But the thoughts expressed in those two brief paragraphs are a twisting of biblical proportions!
Eye-popping errors in just these paragraphs include (but are not exhausted by) those in this list:
1. Jesus told the judge he’d serve the guilty one’s sentence.
2. Jesus took on sin in his spirit and became sin.
3. Jesus became vile and detestable in God’s eyes.
All three of the above distortions center on justice. They are advanced to show the justice of God in dealing with sin. If we are to be cleared without punishment, justice demands that someone pay, and therefore, Christ’s atonement action must be to pay for those sins so that God may be just. But is this truly justice. Bring the courtroom scene suggested into contemporary America. If a person tried and convicted of murder were about to have his death sentence pronounced and another person entered the courtroom to say, “I will serve his sentence,” would the judge say, “Well, okay, that seems fair to me.” Would the judge pronounce the execution on the substitute, allowing the previously convicted murderer to go free? Would that judge be allowed to remain as a judge after rendering that kind of decision? Absolutely not! And the reason the judge would be found at fault is precisely that allowing the innocent to serve the sentence of the guilty while allowing the guilty to go free is not justice at all.
Another problem with especially numbers 2 and 3 above is that it requires a significant change to come over Jesus. Although fully human, Jesus is fully God. To argue the fully, God Son, to change from the divine attributes of truth, goodness, and beauty is to accept precisely what Hebrews 13:8 argues against: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Based on biblical strength, these stories of courtroom drama, magical transference of guilt, and changeableness of our God are impossible ideas.
4. Jesus faced an eternal measure of wrath for sins.
5. God poured out the full measure of his wrath upon Jesus’s spirit.
6. Jesus faced the justice and torment of hell.
Again we have a triplet of proclamations that seem to have taken hold without biblical support. In these three, we find the idea that, because of the sin guilt imposed by numbers 1–3 above, Jesus went on to suffer the same punishment we would have received had we remained guilty of our sin. But is this even close to comparable? Of course, crucifixion is one of the most torturous means of execution ever devised by the mind of humankind. Yet even other stories of the thousands upon thousands of such executions of history appear more horrifying than the three hours Jesus spent on the cross. I am not trying to dismiss the extreme agony and suffering of our Lord, which was great and undeserved. Yet other deaths have been equally painful and horrific. Add to the comparison the required eternity of infinite horror separating the sinner from God, and we cannot reasonably say that the three hours of Jesus’s death were exactly comparable. The only reason we try to say they are comparable is because it must be comparable to make reasonable our extra-biblical idea of Jesus suffering our punishment for us. If the punishments are not equally extreme, then the suffering of Jesus must be for another reason besides the devised idea of him suffering our punishment. And I think we will find that to be true.
7. Jesus was punished for sin against God.
Although this statement sounds like the issue of numbers 4–6 addressed above, another perspective arises. Why was it required for a substitute to be punished? The usual answer is that someone had to pay for our crimes. God could not simply allow sin to go unpunished. Since we could not stand the punishment, Jesus had to come in as substitute to take what we could not. Yet Christians believe they are forgiven by God. What does it mean to forgive? Merriam-Webster tells us that to forgive is to “give up claim to requital from or retribution upon an offender.” In other words, forgiveness is the cancellation of an unpaid debt. But the scenario presented by the blogger (and the majority of Reformed thought today) is that someone had to pay. And if someone had to pay, forgiveness is not in the picture; retribution is still demanded. If retribution is demanded, we cannot fool ourselves into thinking God forgives.
8. Jesus faced spiritual death and destruction.
Of course, the problem with this statement is that it is incoherently impossible. For our one God (though three in Persons) to suddenly dissolve the oneness makes the philosophical necessity for the Trinity a joke. God is one—must be one. Infinitude cannot be held by multiple gods. Yet if one Person of the Godhead dies—separates from the collective God—to force division, Jesus must cease to be God, an impossible result.
What this blogger has described, and what we have been picking at above, is what is known as the penal substitution theory of the atonement. Now, I brought up the words of this blogger and the prevailing idea about atonement today, not to shake my head that someone would express that idea. And my goal is not to angrily denounce him for thinking such a way. After all, pretty much since the Reformation, we (meaning most of what calls itself Christianity in this world) have embraced the view of penal substitution. Sometimes labels are given that barely cover what the idea is. But in this case, penal substitution is pretty descriptive. Very briefly, let’s make sure we understand what it means. If we use the word penal to describe something (such as atonement), we mean that thing (such as the atonement) is designed to impose punishment. So when we say the penalty (which has the same root as penal) for our sins is the wrath of God against us, driving us to eternal death, we mean that eternal death is our punishment for sins. The second word, substitution, means to take the place of. So in the atonement Jesus is said to be our substitute—to take our place. Putting it together as penal substitution, you have Jesus taking our place to be punished for our sins.
As we have seen in brief, penal substitution is not entirely based on Scripture. It starts out with biblically supported beliefs, but then extrapolates in a wrong direction to incorporate conjecture that cannot be supported. For example, there is not a single verse in the Bible that says God chose to punish Jesus for our sins instead of us, which is the whole basis of penal substitution. It is a recipe that sort of takes a few biblical ideas adds in some conjecture and out of the oven pops this conclusion.
• We have sin.
• The consequence of sin is God’s wrath (his turning away).
• Jesus did suffer and die on the cross.
• By Jesus’s atonement, we are no longer guilty.
• Since Jesus suffered, somehow our guilt had to be transferred to him, making him guilty.
• Being guilty, Jesus, in his suffering, must have been being punished instead of us.
• God fully exhausted his wrath on Jesus so that none was left to apply to us.
• Because of this sequence, we are, therefore, no longer guilty.
This idea was born in the Reformation. Why at that time? Well, think of the issues the reformers had with the Church of Rome. The Church had a doctrine of sanctification by which a believer through the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist was being absolved from guilt. The reformers were opposed to that. And in their zeal to say, NO, to a continuing process of absolution, the insistence that Jesus paid it all morphed into the insistence that he did so in penal substitution.
As we have seen, there are problems with penal substitution. The problems fall into five main categories. Here are the first four:
1. It is unjust both to punish the innocent and to allow the guilty to go free.
2. The finite suffering and physical death of Jesus is not comparable to the eternal consequence of sin.
3. Demanding exact consequential payment for sin, even by way of substitution, leaves no room for divine forgiveness.
4. Jesus could not face spiritual death and remain God.
If we view the blogger’s statements again, we find something missing. In fact, he goes on to state, “Christ served the complete sentence of just wrath that I deserved. This is the mercy of the cross, the sinless one serving the sentence of the sinner,” and further, “Now we see that mercy may also be expressed in grace, in wrath substituted, wrath transferred to someone else.” He ends his piece with this line: “The cross demands that we look to the one hanging there and put all our faith, all our hope, all our trust in him.”
Notice in particular that last line. One troubling fact with this whole blog and its penal substitution idea is that it places our hope in transference of guilt and forgiveness gained by punishing, as he said, on that “one hanging there.” That last phrase is important for us to see how this view is, in fact, biblically twisted. This whole atonement philosophy (even in its name penal substitution) relies exclusively on Christ’s crucifixion to completely remove sin, satisfy God’s wrath and justice, and gain forgiveness. How do I know this is wrong? One way is based on what Paul fairly shouts in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins!” And Paul has a point. Where, in the view expressed by the blog, was there one mention of the resurrection? How, in the view expressed, can God’s wrath be fully—fully—exhausted, making me no longer guilty, and yet find me without hope, according to Paul’s inspired opinion, if Jesus doesn’t go on to be raised? Where in the whole argument of penal substitution does Christ’s resurrection fit in as necessary? The PS majority want us to look at the “one hanging there” for hope; but Paul directs our gaze away from simply and singularly the one hanging there to hope in the risen Christ! And that brings us to penal substitution’s fifth problem:
5. PS claims that full satisfaction for sin is realized at the cross; yet, Paul insists on something beyond the cross for full satisfaction—the resurrection.
Last time, in discussing the crucifixion, we ended emphasizing the separation of the body from the blood in the original Passover sacrifice in Egypt and in the Last Supper Passover celebration during the Passion week. Why the emphasis of separation?
The body, of course, is the physical part of us. And it does relate back to our image bearing. We can’t go back into all we discussed about image bearing in our Genesis series so far, but the crux is that we were made to image God in construct—having essence and existence. God’s essence—that singularity of God—is his truth, goodness, and beauty (TGB). His existence—the multiple individuals of the Trinity’s community—are his persons, whom we usually call Father, Son, and Spirit. In imaging God, our one essence we humans share is our physicality. Our existence is our multiplicity of individuals—the community of humanity. God created for relationship, and the basis of all relationship also images God. The relationship of the persons of the community of the Trinity rests on God’s one essence—his TGB. In creating us as image bearers, in order to have relationship both with him and with each other, we need to rest our relationship also on that one basis of God’s essence—his TGB.
We know that didn’t happen. The tragedy of the Garden was that humans removed faith in God’s essence and planted it in human essence—our physicality—making our essence our god (as Paul says in Romans 1:25, we “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served something created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever.” By that idolatry, our essence—physical creation—was cursed. It received death. It became death. And we, our individual persons/spirits, tied inextricably to our essence, died with it. The world turned upside down. Instead of our spirits having dominion over creation, creation had dominion over our spirits. There was no answer except for creation to die.
God came in Christ to rescue us. He came in this cursed creation to do precisely what we could not—bring death to physical creation in his body without letting his spirit—his person—succumb to creation’s death dominion. And he did it. And that’s the emphasis of separation between body and spirit—between the death dominion of the body and the life dominion of the pure spirit of Christ.
The Passover tells that story. The sacrificed lamb was slain because the body—physical creation—is under a death sentence. The blood, representing the unblemished life, was released, separated from the body, and smeared across the doorposts and lintel of the homes—the doorways, the way of leaving from, escaping from the place where the Israelites were prisoners. The lambs were eaten by the Israelites, identifying themselves in body with this slain lamb, by the eating, saying they were taking its representative death for themselves.
Note now what happened in the story from this point on. After the meal and the plague of that night, they gathered at Rameses and took off traveling that very night (evening beginning of Nisan 15) to Succoth (Ex 12:37). There they camped late that same night. When rested (during the day on Nisan 15) they set out traveling again, this time to camp by evening (beginning of the 16th) at Etham (Ex 13:20). From Etham, they traveled during the day of the 16th and camped that evening (beginning of the 17th) at Pi-hahiroth (Ex 14:1). Pi-hahiroth was a place next to the Red Sea, situated between a mountain called Baal-zephon (a god of Egypt), the sea and the Egyptian world, as if boxed in with no place to go—no way out.
But that night God blew a pathway through the Red Sea, and the children of Israel (actually symbolizing the first-born son of God, escaping the 10th plague) escaped from Egypt’s prison—the land (physical creation) of death—to come through the waters of the baptism of death and out the other side in victory, to a new land, to life, to relationship with God—significantly, three days and three nights distance from the killing of the Passover lamb.
Of course, this escape concludes the Passover week which parallels (or actually symbolizes) what Christ did through the Passion week. The Passover slaying was during the day of Nisan 14. Jesus was placed in the tomb (humanity’s physical essence of the dominion of death). But through the next days and nights, Jesus went through his baptism of death to come out victorious over death on the other side to a resurrected body, to newness of life, to full human (body and spirit) relationship with God—Christ Arose!
So we look at the Jesus’s Passover meal with his disciples, and we see Jesus telling them of the bread, “This is my body given for you.” And they were to eat it, just as the Israelites ate the body of the lamb in that first Passover. It is identification. It is taking Christ’s work of putting creation—our essence—to death to end its dominion. And they drank (as we drink) his blood (symbolized by the wine), marking in our bodies the doorway of exit. And by drinking his blood and eating his flesh we gain life (in the blood) and expectation of new bodies (in our one day resurrection). Read carefully John 6:54: “Anyone who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life [spirit], and I will raise him up on the last day [body].”
Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:26: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” Quickly reading that may put us in mind that the only significance is of his broken body. But Paul says it in the way he does to have that hope bursting forth as we eat and drink—until He comes! His coming signals our resurrection—our new bodies purified by his blood.
So it is not the superficial penal substitution conjecture that Jesus is simply taking punishment that God feels he has to strike out against somebody, and then by the cruelty of the cross, God feels satisfied that he punished someone. Rather it is the necessary defeat of death that is the object of the cross and the resurrection. If Christ is not raised—if his body, part of our essence under the hold of the dominion of death remains dead—we have no hope; we are still in our sins.
1 Corinthians 15:20–23 “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at His coming, those who belong to Christ.”