Does—or should—atonement theology have practical implications for the church’s mission in the world today? Is penal substitution the only, or even the best, biblical understanding of the cross?
Scot has invited me (Darrin W. Snyder Belousek) to introduce my book, Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church(Eerdmans 2012). This book challenges the church to rethink the cross—to reexamine the standard evangelical theology of penal substitution atonement and to reorient our thinking about justice and peace from the perspective of the cross.
My first intuition that something was not quite right with the penal substitution theory—the idea that God has dealt with our sins by having reckoned our sins against Jesus and punished him with death in our place on the cross—came about twelve years ago, while questioning the death penalty.
I had become convinced, based on Jesus’ teaching (“Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”), that Christians should not support capital punishment. But I was wanting to press the question deeper, to the core of Christian faith—the cross. Jesus’ death, after all, was a death penalty. If there was a definitive Christian answer on the question, it must be found there.
The only atonement theology I knew was penal substitution. I could thus reason: If God had already punished Jesus for our sins, then we who were spared by the cross from the death penalty we deserved had no right to insist that others deserved death for their sins.
That made sense, but it didn’t seem right. I soon figured out why.
The penal substitution theory is based on retributive justice: sin must be “repaid” with death, and God “repaid” our sins by punishing Jesus. But so also is capital punishment: the murderer must be “repaid” his crime with the penalty of death. To affirm penal substitution, therefore, is to affirm the same logic that justifies the death penalty.
I faced two problems. First, the penal substitution theory couldn’t address the question: you can’t overcome the logic of retribution (capital punishment) with the logic of retribution (penal substitution).
Second, the penal substitution theory didn’t square with Jesus’ teaching of God’s kingdom, which is not ruled by retribution: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you…” (Matthew 5). If the cross is the cross of Christ, I thought, our interpretation of the cross ought to be consistent with the teaching of Jesus.
The more I thought it through, the more the conundrum grew.
According to Paul’s gospel, Christ’s cross is both the revelation of God’s justice (Romans 3:21-26) and the demonstration of God’s love (Romans 5:6-11). According to penal substitution, God’s justice is satisfied in retribution, Jesus punished for our sins. Yet according to Jesus’ teaching, God’s love transcends retribution: He blesses righteous and wicked alike with sun and rain (Matthew 5). How could the cross be both God’s justice by retribution and God’s love beyond retribution? Is this God’s love—that God punished Jesus instead of us? That didn’t seem right, either. I needed to begin again.
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