Sunday Meditations: Penal Substitutionary Atonement

I wouldn’t say I’ve been meditating on this, per se, but I’ve been recently in conversation on this topic with my friend, Matthew.  What follows comes mostly from email, but I’ve adapted it somewhat to fit as a blog post and included a little additional stuff.  Still, this isn’t a comprehensive overview of the issue.  I don’t really dig into the textual references or deal with objections or anything like that.

For those of you who aren’t up on your fancy theological terms, the penal subtitutionary theory of the Atonement (PSA) as it’s held to by Christians, today, looks something like this:

  1. Every individual has sinned.  It should be noted that there is also a theology of original sin that has all human beings inheriting the penalties of the sin of Adam.  Either way, you as an individual have sinned.
  2. When an individual sins, they incur the death penalty from God whose justice demands both their physical death and eternal torment in Hell.
  3. Jesus Christ died on the cross and descended into Hell to some extent, thus taking the penalty for sin that you deserve onto himself.
  4. Because Jesus paid the penalty for your sins, himself, anyone who believes in this receives the benefits of it, which are the rewards Jesus received for His obedience – eternal life in the presence of the Father.

This form of PSA is relatively modern, although some of the ideas back of this were present in the early church fathers.  Anselm in the 11th century made a version of it that described mankind’s lack of giving the obedience that God is due as a “debt” that needed to be paid.  The Reformers made the point that this debt was more specific – it was disobedience to the Law.  John Calvin sharpened this point very thoroughly, and this is probably where we get some of the ambiguity between words like “debt” and “trespass” when we talk about sin.  We possibly owe the development of theology in America for the radical individual orientation of these ideas.

Anyway, PSA is one of those things that I don’t think is right, but I don’t think is totally wrong, either.  The death of Jesus is substitutionary for sins, but I don’t think it’s according to the calculus that PSA lays out.  On the other hand, I also don’t think it’s a good idea to jettison all those concepts back of PSA and replace them with modern sensibilities, which is my perennial problem with the way some might do progressive theology – there’s a danger of not correcting old ideas with better exegesis or reasoning, but rather simply discarding those ideas in favor of a view of God or man that fits our preferences and concerns.

At the heart of PSA is the notion that God hates sin so much that, when someone sins, someone has to die to make restitution for it.  The redemptive problem, then, with the Old Testament sacrificial system is that they aren’t able to kill enough to meet the demands of God’s justice.  All those animals just sort of mollified Him for a while until the death of Jesus could finally pay the whole tab and exhaust the penalties that God had to incur.

There’s a certain simple, mathematical elegance to this story, and that’s what I think accounts for its persuasive power.  It offers an explanation that is syllogistically tight and explains a lot of data.  Unfortunately, there’s rather a lot of biblical data that doesn’t fit the model.

For example, there are instances in the Old Testament where atonement is given for the sacrifice of things that are not alive (Lev. 5:11-13, Exodus 30:14-15, Numbers 31:30, Numbers 16:46-50, Isaiah 6:6-7) as well as instances where forgiveness of sins was given without any sacrifice of any kind, such as with Nineveh when Jonah preached to them.  In the case of Nineveh, their repentance of their ways (accompanied by a national period of fasting) was enough for God to forgive them.  So, given that we have instances that God doesn’t need something or someone to die in order to forgive sins, that seems to undermine a key term in the PSA equation.

It appears that God’s forgiveness ultimately comes down to His decision to forgive, which is exactly what happens in the parable of the indebted servants in Matthew 18:21-35.  The forgiving king isn’t paid off by someone else – that’s arguably not forgiveness of the debt at all; he just decides to forgive the debt.

When I was a little more Westminstery than I am, today, a teenager in my church was very grieved over the idea that God would send someone to Hell for any offense.  What I explained to him was that God did not make a choice to do this, but rather God was forced to act out of His nature, which was both holy and just.  You wouldn’t morally critique a hungry lion for killing a person because the lion isn’t making a choice; they are doing what lions do out of their nature.  So it is with God and sin.

There are a number of issues, today, that I see with this explanation, although there are some truths there, as well.  But one of the problems is that we see instances of a God who chooses to forgive, and He can do so without someone paying for it with death.

Personally, I think the Old Testament sacrifices for atonement are best explained by giving up something of value.  Taking something that is valuable to you and offering it to God shows how much you want that relationship restored.  This is a rabbinical understanding of sacrifice and also makes sense of a lot of the data, not the least of which is Paul’s command to present our bodies as living sacrifices – an image that is difficult to understand if “sacrifice” means “something you kill because God’s justice demands it for satisfaction of His wrath.”  If the center of gravity changes to “something valuable you offer to God to demonstrate your commitment to restoring a right relationship,” that makes more sense of Paul’s imagery.

In addition, we have to keep in mind that God’s wrath against sin in the Old Testament was at a national level by and large.  He gave commandments to the people and punished them as a people.  Individuals brought sacrifices, so there is this idea of individuals atoning for their sins or families atoning for their sins, but this was all under the larger umbrella of the people.  God did not prosecute His wrath individually; when the nation broke the covenant, they invoked the penalties of the covenant, and that is the form God’s wrath against sin took.

It’s important, I think, for both conservatives and progressives to view categories like “God’s wrath” the way the Bible presents them.  When we think of wrath, we think of someone driven by absolute rage.  We think of someone taking retribution because of their great anger.  This is, indeed, a very fearsome way to think about God because, if PSA is correct, this is how God is about anything that anyone could possibly do, no matter how big or how small.  In this picture, any sin throws God into an all-consuming rage that won’t abate until someone dies.

But in the Bible, “God’s wrath” describes the concrete, historical, political outcomes of a people and, in virtually all cases, it results in the liberation of another group of people who are suffering under the sinful behavior of the first group.  Both the Old and New Testaments present God’s wrath as a correction (granted, a destructive one) to the state of affairs that national sins have produced in the world, and we lose all of that if we boil away all the historical particulars of Scripture and end up with a picture of a God who is filled with eternal-torment-style rage if someone cusses at their parents.

Even with the individual penalties in the Law, only some of those are the death penalty.  The Old Testament perspective does not seem to be that every sin merits the death penalty, which is another key presupposition in PSA.  You commit a sin and God has to kill you.  If this is so, then why does the Torah explicitly illustrate that some sins are worthy of death while others are not?  All sins require restitution, which is designed not just to restore a right relationship with God but also with the neighbor who was hurt by your actions.  But they don’t all require your life as restitution.

At the same time, we do have God’s displeasure with sin and a system by which individuals can make things right by offering up something they’ve got to demonstrate their contrition.  This is an issue I have with some folks who criticize PSA; they find the idea of the seriousness of sin or God’s wrath against sin to be distasteful concepts, period.  But they are biblical ones, and I think our theology has to make room for them.  I would encourage people who may be struggling with the idea of how a loving or Christlike God could also demonstrate wrath to forget the way you and I might use the words and look at how, historically, the biblical writings present these concepts to us.  I think you might find that Jesus also displays this concept of “wrath,” but he is obviously a long way from a rage-fueled demander of vengeance.

The problems I have with PSA are not the concepts of sin and wrath per se, but rather the ideas that:

  1. Any individual sin invokes the death penalty from a just God.
  2. God’s anger toward individual sins is placated as long as something or someone gets killed for it.

The biblical data does not seem to bear that out.  Furthermore (although this isn’t the last word on whether something is true or not), it does paint God in a very unflattering color.  Under this way of looking at things, concepts like “grace” and “mercy” look less like unmerited forgiveness out of love and more like, “God will kill something or someone else instead of you.”

Well, if God doesn’t -need- someone to die to forgive sins, then what does Jesus’ death accomplish?  In my opinion, the answer lay in leaving the mathematical abstractions behind and looking at the concrete history.

In Jesus’ day, Israel was under the curse of the Law.  Because of a very long spiral of national disobedience (toward both God and her own people) through which God patiently sent warning after warning, she ended up defeated by a pagan empire (i.e. the wrath of God) ruling her in her own land.  This conquering nation even installed their own High Priest in the Temple.  Israelites sharecropped land that used to belong to them and lived lives of poverty and servitude under this foreign empire.  They were all but destroyed as a nation.

In an interesting parallel, one of the rulers over Israel before Rome was Antiochus Epiphanes – a tyrant who regularly perpetrated institutional blasphemies and persecutions against the Jews.  The book 4 Maccabees reflects on this time via a story of seven righteous sons who are being tortured to death by Antiochus, and one of the themes you see are some of the brothers asking God to accept their martyrdom as an atonement sacrifice for Israel so that He will put his wrath (i.e. life under this tyrant) aside and deliver Israel.

I think this gives us insight into the death of Jesus.  These brothers are not saying that their deaths pay for some death penalty everyone has accrued.  They’re being killed as a indirect result of the curse God has brought upon disobedient Israel, but they themselves are righteous.  They don’t deserve to be killed by the curse because they have been faithful this whole time, and they want their deaths to move God’s heart.  They want God to see their faithful, obedient lives that they have lived even unto death by this tyrant, and they hope God will decide that things have gone on long enough.  Because of the willing offerings of these righteous servants, they want God to accept them as sacrifices, forgive Israel of her sins, and save her from her situation.

So, these sons are not “paying” for Israel’s sins in the sense that Israel’s sins incurred the death penalty and these sons are offering to die in everyone else’s place to satisfy God’s wrath.  Instead, they are hoping that their faithful deaths will make a plea to God to forgive.  They are offering up the most valuable things they have – their own faithful lives – to move God to restore His relationship with Israel.  To make atonement for Israel’s transgressions.  To make things right again.

In this way, their deaths are a substitutionary sacrifice in the sense that they want their sufferings and death to avert the penalties Israel is experiencing, but they are not a substitutionary sacrifice in the sense that they think their deaths will satisfy God’s just requirement to kill someone if they sin, and once the sacrifice is made, He’s obligated to let the people they died for go free.

I think this very Jewish theology is behind the death of Jesus.

If Jesus’ death is a substitutionary payment for the sin of all mankind, then it doesn’t matter when he shows up in history.  He could have come immediately after Adam’s sin and accomplished exactly the same thing.  But Jesus comes when he comes because of what Israel is experiencing, and with his faithful death, his sacrifice is an appeal to God to forgive the sins of His people and save them from the penalties their sins have brought about.

God is absolutely convinced by this.  He accepts the sacrifice of Jesus, raising him from the dead, thus demonstrating (among other things) that He will forgive Israel’s sins and save her.  Although, it should be noted, this appears to have been God’s intent the whole time, because Jesus was proclaiming the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of Israel before he was crucified.

So, Jesus’ death is substitutionary for sins in the sense of him offering himself as an atonement sacrifice.  He’s trying to make things right between God and Israel and motivate God to save her.  But I don’t think his death satisfies a need or demand in in God to kill someone because of their sins.

Now, so far, all of that is very Israel-centric.  I don’t know about you, but I’m a Gentile.  What’s more, the New Testament seems to indicate that Jesus’ death was necessary to save the Gentiles from God’s wrath as well, so how does that work?

Well, one of the things the death and resurrection of Jesus means is that Torah-compliance no longer determines who the faithful people of God are; faith in what God has done in Jesus is.  Gentiles can have this faith as well and, by doing so, become part of the people of God.  Part of this, too, means repenting of our past ways of life and embracing a new life of faithfulness defined by following the path of Jesus.  In this way, God not only saves Gentiles from their sins, but He saves Israel, too.  By forming a new people out of the two where righteousness is defined by faith and not Torah, believing Israel is freed from her condemnation under the Law and Gentiles are redeemed from their fruitless ways of living to which they were enslaved into a priestly service to God.

Additionally, God’s faithful remnant who might otherwise have been snuffed out as time went on suddenly received a massive influx in membership.

God’s judgement expanded to the nations as well, and those who had faith in Jesus were saved.  And we see that there will be a final judgment on the distant horizon, too.

In this way, Jesus’ death brought about a very different situation for both Jews and Gentiles and changed the trajectory of history such that Israel’s God became Lord over all the nations.  Jesus’ death was not only necessary for all this, but it had to happen -at the time that it happened-.

What we see, I would argue, is a much richer drama around Jesus’ death that is far more relational and covenant-oriented than PSA has to offer.