Q&R On Atonement Theories

A Question from a Facebook Commenter: "How do you connect a dead God to ending death without using the biblical understanding of ransom/sacrifice/substitution the scripture speaks of (Romans 5:10)?"

Response: This right here is my problem with Penal Substitution theories of atonement (PSA), in that they so overshadow the biblical narrative that all the myriad of other reasons why Jesus died on the cross get utterly erased. PSA gets substituted (pun intended) with the Gospel itself.

However the church managed to get along fine without PSA until Anselm in the 11th century; and a whole half of the church (the Orthodox Church) has never understood Jesus' death as penal substitution.

Jesus' death reveals God's character; identifies the Divine with human suffering; abolishes war and bloodshed; saves us from the power and effects of Sin; and humiliates the Principalities and Authorities.

The one thing it does not do is change God or satisfy God's imaginary manager called "Justice" who requires bloodshed in order to appease God. That makes an absolute mess of the Trinity.

I don't deny that New Testament writers utilize sacrifice and passover language to talk about the cross. But in every case, they do so not to affirm a bloodthirsty view of God, but rather to turn it on its head. No, God does not (and never did) require sacrifices. In Jesus, God becomes the sacrifice. To satisfy his own wrath? No, that denies the unity of the Trinity. In the cross, God, rather, shows us both the lengths of God's love for us; as well as the disastrous effects of violence.

Also, with Jesus' death, the dark spiritual powers and authorities believed that they have defeated God. But Death/Satan, in his folly, has swallowed up the Source of Life itself; and in doing so, has scored an own-goal of epic proportions. It's like the scene in Men in Black, where the Bug swallows Tommy Lee Jones, thinking it has succeeded; but not realizing that he has swallowed the source of his own doom.

I fully agree that Jesus did die to save us from our sins. And this, of course, is where PSA gets it all wrong, because it makes the mistake of calling the effects of our sins the same as divine actions. But this makes God the author of evil—may it never be so!

Wrath is used in the New Testament in at least 2 different ways. The first, when speaking of God's wrath, is the prelude to God's healing. In Mark, in particular, Jesus' wrath (sometimes translated as indignation or anger, but it's the Greek word for wrath, orge) always precedes an act of inclusion or healing. (Healing a leper, a man with a withered hand; or letting the children come to him). So, yes, God does have wrath on humanity. But this wrath is not like human wrath which inspires violence. God's wrath sets the stage for divine healing.

So, yes, as John 3 says, those who deny the love of God do have the wrath of God upon them. But let's not confuse that with a divine desire to cause violence, pain, or harm to that person.

The other sort of wrath is indeed the effects of our sin (as we've Facebooked earlier about in Romans 5:9). This sort of language was used throughout inter-testamental literature, but it also shows up in the NT. We should be careful to not conflate God's actions with the effects of our sin.

The cross, wonderfully, does indeed deal with both; but again, not by appeasing an otherwise violently angry God. Jesus at last shows us what Divine wrath looks like—self-sacrificing love, willing to go to scandalous lengths to bring healing to the world. And it also saves us from the effects of our sin, by dealing the defeating blow to Satan and Death, ensuring that all the world will be reconciled to God.

The cross does indeed change the world; but it does not change God's posture us. It reveals what God has always been like—self-giving, self-sacrificing, others-oriented; non-violent; non-retributive; non-revengeful.

Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC