Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Pen Sub Again

Someone I never heard of, Greg Boyd, pastor of an evangelical mega church, posted these questions, which I stumbled upon just now, about Penal Substitutionary Atonement. They summarize my thinking rather well, except for the last paragraph, possibly. I'd have to sit down with him to see what he means by it before I was sure I agreed with that.

* Does God really need to appease his wrath with a blood sacrifice in order to forgive us? If so, does this mean that the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the ultimate description of God’s character? And if this is true, what are we to make of Jesus’ teaching that this law is surpassed by the law of love? Not only this, but what are we to make of all the instances in the Bible where God forgives people without demanding a sacrifice (e.g. the prodigal son)?

* If God’s holiness requires that sacrifice be made before he can fellowship with sinners, how did Jesus manage to hang out with sinners without a sacrifice, since he is as fully divine and as holy as God the Father?

* If Jesus’ death allows God the Father to accept us, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Jesus reconciles God to us than it is to say Jesus reconciles us to God? Yet the New Testament claims the latter and never the former (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:18-20). In fact, if God loves sinners and yet can’t accept sinners without a sacrifice, wouldn’t it be even more accurate to say that God reconciles God to himself than to say he reconciles us to God? But this is clearly an odd and unbiblical way of speaking.

* How are we to understand one member of the Trinity (the Father) being wrathful toward another member (the Son) of the Trinity, when they are, along with the Holy Spirit, one and the same God? Can God be truly angry with – and punish – God?

* If God needs someone to “pay the price” for sin, does God ever really forgive anyone? Think about it. If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone or other pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? It seems not, especially since the very concept of forgiveness is about releasing a debt -- not collecting it from someone else.

* Are sin and guilt the sorts of things that can be literally transferred from one party to another? Related to this, how are we to conceive of the Father being angry towards Jesus and justly punishing him when he of course knew Jesus never did nothing wrong?

* If the just punishment for sin is eternal hell, how does Jesus’ several hours of suffering and his short time in the grave pay for it?

* If the main thing Jesus came to do was appease the Father’s wrath by being slain by him for our sin, couldn’t this have been accomplished (say) when Jesus was a one-year-old- as easily as when he was thirty-three years old? Was Jesus’ life, teachings, healings and deliverance ministry merely a prelude to the one really important thing he did – namely, die? It doesn’t seem to me that the Gospels divide up and prioritize the aspects of Jesus’ life in this way. (I maintain that everything Jesus did was about one thing – overcoming evil with love. And therefore everything about Jesus was centered on atonement --- making us one with God.)

* Not to be offensive, but if its true that God’s wrath must be appeased by a sacrificing his own Son – or if not that, sacrificing all other humans in eternal hell – then don’t we have to conclude that those pagans who have throughout history sacrificed their children to appease the gods’ wrath had the right intuition, even if they expressed it in the wrong way?

* What is the intrinsic connection between what Jesus did on the cross and how we actually live? The Penal Substitution view makes it seem like the real issue in need of resolution is a legal matter in the heavenly realms between God’s holy wrath and sin. Christ’s death changes how God sees us, but this theory says nothing about how Christ’s death changes us. This is particularly concerning to me because every study done on the subject has demonstrated that for the majority of Americans who believe in Jesus, their belief makes little or no impact on their life. I wonder if the dominance of this legal-transaction view of the atonement might be partly responsible for this tragic state of affairs.

To me, these are all serious problems with the Penal Substitutionary view. I do not deny that Jesus died as our substitute or even that it was God’s will to “crush and bruise” Jesus (Isa 53:10). But we don’t need to imagine the Father vented his wrath against sin on Jesus to make sense of these facts. One can (and I think should) rather see this as the Father offering up his Son to the principalities and powers to be bruised and crushed in our place, for this unsurpassable expression of self-sacrificial love is what was needed to destroy the devil and his works and to thus set humans free, reconciling them to the Father. (For more on this, see my essays in P. Eddy and J. Bielby, eds. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2006].

To me, one of the major faults of pen-sub is that it assumes God's wrath is something that needs to be reconciled with God's love. In fact, Christ was excercising God's wrath on the Cross, wrath against sin, death, and the devil.