Substitutionary atonement: “a grotesquely deformed absurdity”

Although the term “penal substitution” is not uniformly familiar, the concept itself is something that the majority of American Christians accept as the official summary of how Christian salvation works. In essence, there is tension between God’s justice and His love: our sin offends God in such a way that His wrath can only be appeased through punishment, from which the fortunate among us are exempt by virtue of Jesus’ sacrifice applied to us (= salvation). Yet historically, there are several other ways of thinking about salvation.

Ken Schenck recently pointed out that the Lutheran understanding of justification as “legal fiction” in which God decides to ignore that we ever sinned by the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness to the elect is somewhat in contrast to the OT understanding of what God’s righteousness:

Descent to Hell, detail (Duccio, 1308)But the Jewish background to the idea of the righteousness of God points in another direction. For example, Psalm 98:2 says that “The LORD has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.” See how much this verse has in common with Romans 1:17? It mentions God’s righteousness and speaks of it being revealed. It also has a sense of this revelation going out to all the nations, just as Paul understood the gospel to be for the Gentiles as well as Jews. The verse does not speak of us becoming righteous, but of God’s righteousness as he brings about the salvation of Israel.

When we read that God “reveals” His righteousness in Romans 1.17 and His wrath in the next verse, we tend to come away with a picture of God as fed up with sin and on a rampage, His patience and mercy expired and His vengeance overdue. God’s righteousness is both the poison and the antidote: those who fall short of it justly get consumed, but those on whom it is bestowed through identification with Jesus are saved. Yet as we saw in Psalm 98, righteousness and salvation tend to run parallel rather than perpendicularly in Paul’s Scripture, the OT:

This psalm is not the only place where God’s “righteousness” and his “salvation” are mentioned parallel to one another. The second half of Isaiah (chaps. 40-66) was of great significance to the earliest Christians, and Paul himself occasionally alludes to these chapters (e.g., Rom. 15:21). These sorts of parallels between God’s righteousness and the salvation he is bringing permeate them. The Greek version of Isaiah 51:5 Paul used says, “My righteousness draws near quickly, my salvation will come out like a light. The Gentiles will hope on my right arm.”

The bad news is that all have sinned: God’s action to save, the deliverance of God, is the good news.

So when Paul says that “the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel” in Romans 1:17, he is talking about God’s relationship with his people and in particular God’s propensity to save his people, God’s “saving righteousness.” Righteousness is a relational term in Jewish thought. It is not about some abstract quality God has but about a specific way that God relates to his people and the world.

Richard Beck has up a fantastic post composed primarily of quotes from George MacDonald’s “unspoken sermon” entitled Justice, in which Beck’s summary of MacDonald’s view bears a strong resemblance to the above observations:

Too often in discussions about hell and God’s justice it is argued that God’s justice (manifested in sending you to hell) is in tension with God’s mercy and forgiveness. That is, God will either punish you or forgive you. It’s a binary, an either/or. Heaven or hell. Justice or mercy. Punishment or forgiveness.MacDonald rejects all these as false dichotomies. Justice is mercy. Punishment is forgiveness.

This conception of justice has dramatic implications for our view of the atonement. Can eternal punishment satisfy God’s justice? How is God’s anger “righteous” if, as the OT authors believed, it is His righteousness that impels Him to save? Beck says that for MacDonald, “Punishment alone doesn’t bring either ‘justice’ or ‘salvation.’ Punishment is only ever a tool toward these ends.”

This sermon hosts one of MacDonald’s — or anyone‘s — most eloquent missives against penal substitution theory:

The device [of substitutionary atonement] is an absurdity—a grotesquely deformed absurdity. To represent the living God as a party to such a style of action, is to veil with a mask of cruelty and hypocrisy the face whose glory can be seen only in the face of Jesus; to put a tirade of vulgar Roman legality into the mouth of the Lord God merciful and gracious, who will by no means clear the guilty. Rather than believe such ugly folly of him whose very name is enough to make those that know him heave the breath of the hart panting for the waterbrooks; rather than think of him what in a man would make me avoid him at the risk of my life, I would say, ‘There is no God; let us neither eat nor drink, that we may die! For lo, this is not our God! This is not he for whom we have waited!’

(His next words give me goosebumps:)

But I have seen his face and heard his voice in the face and the voice of Jesus Christ; and I say this is our God, the very one whose being the Creator makes it an infinite gladness to be the created. I will not have the God of the scribes and the pharisees whether Jewish or Christian, protestant, Roman, or Greek, but thy father, O Christ! He is my God. If you say, ‘That is our God, not yours!’ I answer, ‘Your portrait of your God is an evil caricature of the face of Christ.’

If you’re like me, you’ll struggle to shake off the nagging feeling that MacDonald’s glowing portrait of God and His love might be too good to be true. MacDonald is aware of these misgivings, and explains them:

Truth is indeed too good for men to believe; they must dilute it before they can take it; they must dilute it before they dare give it. They must make it less true before they can believe it enough to get any good of it…Unable to believe in the forgivingness of their father in heaven, they invented a way to be forgiven that should not demand of him so much; which might make it right for him to forgive; which should save them from having to believe downright in the tenderness of his fatherheart, for that they found impossible. They thought him bound to punish for the sake of punishing, as an offset to their sin; they could not believe in clear forgiveness; that did not seem divine; it needed itself to be justified; so they invented for its justification a horrible injustice, involving all that was bad in sacrifice, even human sacrifice. They invented a satisfaction for sin which was an insult to God. He sought no satisfaction, but an obedient return to the Father. What satisfaction was needed he made himself in what he did to cause them to turn from evil and go back to him. The thing was too simple for complicated unbelief and the arguing spirit.

You owe it to yourself to read Richard Beck’s entire post.

Tagged with:
Recent Posts: