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.

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  • Cpmarshall

    Richard Beck did a fantastic review of S. Mark Heim and Rene Girard sometime back entitled, “The Voice of the Scapegoat” series. It is an in-depth treatment of PSA, and an alternative view based on Girard's anthropological findings. Worth a read:

  • Nick

    In my study on this topic of imputed righteousness, the Greek term “logizomai” is the English term for “reckon/impute/credit/etc,” (all terms are basically equivalently used) and when I look up that term in a popular lexicon here is what it is defined as:

    QUOTE: “This word deals with reality. If I “logizomai” or reckon that my bank book has $25 in it, it has $25 in it. Otherwise I am deceiving myself. This word refers to facts not suppositions.”

    The lexicon states this term first and foremost refers to the actual status of something. So if Abraham’s faith is “logizomai as righteousness,” it must be an actually righteous act of faith, otherwise (as the Lexicon says) “I am deceiving myself.” This seems to rule out any notion of an alien righteousness, and instead points to a local/inherent righteousness.

    The Lexicon gives other examples where “logizomai” appears, here are some examples:
    Rom 3:28 Therefore we conclude [logizomai] that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

    Rom 4:4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted [logizomai] as a gift but as his due.

    Rom 6:11 Likewise reckon [logizomai] ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    Rom 8:18 For I reckon [logizomai] that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

    Notice in these examples that “logizomai” means to consider the actual truth of an object. In 3:28 Paul ‘reckons’ faith saves while the Law does not, this is a fact, the Law never saves. In 4:4 the worker’s wages are ‘reckoned’ as a debt because the boss is in debt to the worker, not giving a gift to him. In 6:11 the Christian is ‘reckoned’ dead to sin because he is in fact dead to sin. In 8:18 Paul ‘reckons’ the present sufferings as having no comparison to Heavenly glory, and that is true because nothing compares to Heavenly glory.

    To use logizomai in the “alien status” way would mean in: (1) 3:28 faith doesn’t really save apart from works, but we are going to go ahead and say it does; (2) 4:4 the boss gives payment to the worker as a gift rather than obligation/debt; (3) 6:11 that we are not really dead to sin but are going to say we are; (4) 8:18 the present sufferings are comparable to Heaven’s glory.
    This cannot be right.

    So when the text plainly says “faith is logizomai as righteousness,” I must read that as ‘faith is reckoned as a truly righteous act’, and that is precisely how Paul explains that phrase in 4:18-22. That despite the doubts that could be raised in Abraham’s heart, his faith grew strong and convinced and “that is why his faith was credited as righteousness” (v4:22). This is also confirmed by noting the only other time “credited as righteousness” appears in Scripture, Psalm 106:30-31, where Phinehas’ righteous action was reckoned as such. This is confirmed even more when one compares another similar passage, Hebrews 11:4, where by faith Abel was commended as righteous.

  • It may be that I should read Beck's post, as you suggest, Steve. But the citing of the wisdom, brashness and eloquence of MacDonald is a sure reminder that I need more of this, my all-time favorite Christian, in my reading diet! Thanks!

  • Mairnealach

    I fail to find anything cruel in God volunteering to take upon himself all the wretchedness of sin for our sakes–assuming the horror that we ourselves were due to assume. It is rather comforting to me. Now, we know the inspired writers talked of atonement, and a substitute, because all of Christ made perfect sense in light of the sacrificed lamb whose blood God demanded. So there is nothing horrible, wrong, or bad about speaking of these things. Of course we know that these animal's blood was merely a shadow, and Christ's blood is the perfection. There are many facets of this wondrous grace. I love Macdonald but methinks he protests too much.

  • Well said, Steve, and I have no problem relishing in MacDonald's description of God.

  • Thanks for this thoughtful response, Nick. I apologize for being so late getting back to you (I was away on vacation).

    I really appreciate your fascinating comment. I note from your examples of imputation that in each case, Abraham's, Phinehas', and Abel's (and all those in Hebrews 11, in fact), it is their “faith” that was reckoned sufficient to achieve righteousness that pleased God. These people were faithful and righteous not merely by ethnicity or ritual fulfillment, but by “faith” (whatever that means). Thanks for contributing it here!

  • Hi again, Mairnealach. Long time, no comment!

    No, there is nothing cruel in the idea of God's “volunteering to take upon himself all the wretchedness of sin for our sakes–assuming the horror that we ourselves were due to assume.” You are right there. As a solution, that's a non-cruel thing to be done for sure.

    Rather, the implied problem underlying the solution is the issue that MacDonald finds cruel: the notion that God would first set up a system which compels all of his sentient creation to assume the irredeemable horror of hell, and, seemingly as a last ditch effort, reaching out to save a random sample of them. Do you see what I mean?

  • Cliff Nartin

    Well said, Steve.

  • Cliff Martin

    Well said, Steve.
    (I meant to place this brief comment here, but it showed up at the end of the thread. Edit as you see fit.)

  • Thanks for the recommendation! Looks to be interesting…

  • Mairnéalach

    I like MacDonald. Read him for profit many years ago. As Lewis's mentor he merits much honor.

    If God wanted his son to assume the irredeemable horror of hell, and wants all humans to be found in his son, and wants all sentient creation to be held together by his son, I still see no problem–underlying, nor on the surface.

    All Christians go to hell in Jesus, because as our prototype we should desire no better than what he desired. And he desired to go to hell for all men. Non-christians go to hell because, as Lewis said, Jesus paid them the “intolerable compliment” of loving them in the most tragic, inexorable sense. Their pique at his love results in their staying in hell in a huff, rather than follow him upward to the place he has prepared for them. They choose Adam as their prototype instead.

  • Mairnéalach

    Regarding penal atonement, “blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no sin” and “by his stripes we are healed”. OT teaches it plainly. However, I agree that God's punishment is in some sense a tool. His wrath certainly existentially satisfies no one, redeemed or reprobate alike. This sense of him is something of the Father that we cannot understand; it is like the burden of manhood which no child really “gets” about his own father. It is a thing which is “passing away” in a sense. Hell is not the end of eschatology.

    On the other hand, OT and NT are full of references to the righteous benefiting somehow from the judgment of the wicked. Wicked men's estates are held for the righteous to inherit. This must mean something like the wicked have such an uncircumcised presumption of heaven, and the righteous are such the opposite, that God takes away the wickeds' inheritance and gives it to the righteous. In that sense, the saved really can see the wrath of God as benefiting them somehow. Heady and spiritual stuff and plenty of fodder to interpret carnally–with all the attendant worldly consequences. “Taking the kingdom of heaven by force” and all that. Just makes such people's condemnation worse.

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  • WoundedEgo

    It seems both 1 John and James were written to debunk the “legal fiction” idea.

    • You speak somewhat cryptically here: please expound!

  • WoundedEgo

    Personally I subscribe to the Governmental Theory: