Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hostility and Penal Substitutionary Atonement

(Part 2 of 2)

People who by inflicting punishment upon themselves feel temporary relief from guilt and who mistake that for atonement, also tend to feel others must be punished for the same reason. For them, justice means feeling better, and I feel better when my neighbor endures sufferings commensurate with the pain he has caused others, especially me.

Evangelicals perhaps would come along and say, “But you don’t have to punish your neighbor yourself! Look, God has done it for you. He has punished everyone vicariously in Christ. You can afford to be good and kind both to your neighbor and to your enemy, and in fact you must be. Otherwise, if you deny that God has already taken care of his punishment, you are denying God has already taken care of your own.”

In this system, if my enemy repents, that means he has seen the error of his ways and I get the satisfaction of knowing there is still punishment, albeit vicarious. If he doesn’t repent, he still will see the error of his ways eventually, and in addition to what Christ suffered for him, he will receive direct punishment. Either way, he’s going to be very sorry for what he did to me, and the gratification this gives me is thought, euphemistically, to be justice. (The tip-off that this is not justice is that if he suffers more pain than he had caused me, that’s fine, too. All the better!)

If God did not punish each and every sin, one person told me, there would be no moral foundation for the Universe. But of course the foundation of the Universe, for a Christian, isn’t exactly morality in the Old Testament sense; it’s Jesus Christ.

There is such a thing as punishment. Sin all by itself punishes the sinner very grievously, far more than we normally perceive; not only does every evil that befalls us come directly from the sin in us and in the world, but even greater unseen, spiritual consequences afflict and destroy us. It is not as though anybody ever just got away with anything, even when it appears that way.

There is punishment, but to hope my neighbor will be punished in any way, even vicariously in Christ, is hardly forgiveness! In fact, there is only one attitude that ever hopes another will suffer and it is hostility, the very opposite of forgiveness. That sense of gratification when I see someone who has done wrong getting what I think he deserves is a gratification specifically of my hostility. If a person were to cling to the comfort of his neighbor getting his come-uppance vicariously in Jesus, that would be nothing but hostility trying to seem pious. Well, I take back the “nothing but”, since fear may also play a role, fear of what could happen to me if there is no deterrent. Either way, the doctrine of vicarious punishment amounts to my relying upon God the Father to punish my “enemies”, directly and/or in Christ. My hostility toward my enemies is what Christ works out in His passion. Perish the thought!

If I love my enemies enough, then I will not need there to be any vicarious punishment of them. Why is this? It is because perfect love would mean I had already given everything away; and having given away all, would have nothing more to lose. That is why “perfect love casts out fear”: there is nothing left to fear losing. All I have to lose if my enemy is forgiven is the gratification of my sinful hostility. But insofar as I love, I have already given up that hostility. “Love seeks not her own.”

Christ instructed us to forgive one another specifically in order to be like our Father in heaven, Who makes His sun to shine upon the just and the unjust, Who blesses the just and the unjust alike with His rain. If we fail to forgive, then, we remain unlike God, incompatible with Him and separate from Him.

We must all find, if we haven’t already, how to overcome this hope in the existence of any kind of punishment of others. This is an urgent matter, because Christ said, if you do not forgive your brother from the heart, God will not forgive you; that is, His forgiveness toward you, although it is eternal, will be unable to take effect in your unforgiving heart. “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has done no mercy, and mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13) So we must at all costs give up the demand that there be at least vicarious punishment, and let forgiveness like a mighty river roll. It’s the only spiritually healthy and mentally healthy way.

Christ also said, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice.’”