One mark of great intelligence is that a person can solve a number of problems with a single stroke. I believe this is why Paul spoke of the ‘rich variety’ of God’s secret and hidden wisdom in having his Son become incarnate and die on Calvary (Eph 3:10; 1 Cor 1:30, 2:7). Through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the infinitely wise God solved a number of problems. Among other things, through Christ God defeated the devil and his cohorts (Heb 2:14; 1 Jn 3:8); revealed the definitive truth about himself (Rom 5:8; Jn 14:7-10); reconciled all things, including humans, to himself (2 Cor 5:18-19; Col 1:20-22); forgave us our sins (Acts 13:38; Eph 1:7); healed us from our sin-diseased nature (1Pet 2:24); poured his Spirit on us and empowered us to live in relation to himself (Rom 8:2-16); and gave us an example to follow (Eph 5:1-2; 1 Pet 2:21). God’s wisdom is displayed in a ‘rich variety’ indeed! – Gregory Boyd, The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views
The Cross Is The Pinnacle of Divine Love
We need the entire scope of Christ’s life and ministry to understand God, but the cross is the focal point of it all and the lens through which we see the rest.
The New Testament could not stress the importance of the cross any more than it already does. The cross is the wisdom and the power of God. It is the centerpiece of God’s plan for created reality. Jesus said it is the judgment of the world, the casting down of the accuser, and the drawing of all men to himself (John 12:32).
The self-giving love of God revealed in the cross is the divine light that exposes and judges the violent selfishness of man and heals us. It is the reconciliation of the universe and the making of shalom in all things (Col. 1:19), casting down the principalities and powers that enslave and oppress humanity.
Jesus also says the cross is his own glorification (John 12:23). The cross is the revelation of the self-giving, cosuffering nature of the God who is love. It is the summary and culmination of Jesus ministry and revelation of Gods name and thus his character. John says that God is love (1 John 4:8), and to know what love is, look at the cross (1 John 3:16).
The cross is the highest revelation of God. It reveals that God is love. It shows us what love is.
The cross encompasses the whole nature of God so that from now on, the One whom we see seated on the throne of heaven is a little lamb who has been slain, which refers to Christ’s self-giving act of love. As the book of Revelation drives home, the One who is returning is the lamb who was slain and kingdoms of this world becoming the kingdom of God through the lamb who was slain.
It is interesting that God chose a little lamb to represent his self-sacrifice to the world. Lambs, of all creatures, are completely non-threatening. There is powerful peacemaking symbolism in Christ as the little lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – who defeats the pompous, violent beast.
The subversive power of it is that this little non-threatening lamb, who represents the patience, kindness, and endless love of God, threatens everything: all the establishments, systems, and powers of the world. This is the power of the cross.
Looking back to pre-existence, we see the lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world. Looking forward to the eschaton and consummation of existence we see the whole universe erupting in singing to the lamb who was slain. As Philippians 2 explains, the reason every knee bows and every tongue confesses to the name of Jesus is because God emptied himself to death in self-sacrificial love.
The cross is truly the lens through which we see the whole Bible. The incarnation, teachings, and ministry of Jesus are affirmed in the self-giving love revealed in the slain lamb. The resurrection and exaltation of Christ is the Father’s nature revealed in the cross. All of Jesus’ teachings are illuminated in the cross. “I determined to preach nothing but Christ and him crucified” says Paul who also says the cross is “the wisdom and power of God.”
With all this focus on the cross and the revelation it contains, I think it’s imperative that we are able to truly understand why Jesus died.
Today, I will begin to address this question by exposing some serious errors in what has become the dominant theory of the cross in western theology. This theory goes by the name Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA).
Before we get started, if you still think that God is the type who tortures people forever, we have really great news for you! Enter your email below to learn more.
Is God Bound By “Justice”?
It is our western heritage to reduce sin, judgment, and atonement to a mere legal framework, so that the whole gospel becomes a courtroom instead of a love story, where God is bound to the strict legalities of some cosmic judicial system that is ultimately made in our own image.
We’ve created a mental framework of legalities and called it “justice”. And then we’ve decided that these legalities are the highest standard… a standard to which God himself must submit.
But legal imagery is not the real truth of things. Such imagery is employed in the Bible at times as a metaphor, using a human construct we are familiar with to help us in our understanding and to point us in the general direction of a truth.
It is NOT the truth itself. To overemphasize legal metaphors is to miss the reality of the free, relational being that God is and to ignore his desire is to change us and free us through the power of his love.
The real nature of sin, judgment, and atonement is always ontological, which means it has to do with reality – with things that actually have being. Legalities are arbitrary rules and enforced punishments imposed upon reality that help keep some kind of order by balance and equation but have nothing to do with relationship.
Legalities are the lowest, most superficial form of justice. Legalities are human constructs created to keep order in society. They are entirely external, imposed methods and techniques which do not touch on the real nature of things themselves but merely deal with a problem on a surface level. Legalities are arbitrary, external, and unrelational. Legalities are the rigid system of an eye for an eye – the baseline for a retributive understanding of justice.
The legal system is a human construct. It is not divine.
The nature of sin, judgment, and atonement is not legal, but ontological. Yes, God used a legal system in the law of Moses as a stepping stone towards the true relational way God desires to interact with humanity revealed in Christ. But even then, the law of Moses helped to point towards an ontological reality.
Father Stephen Freeman of the Eastern Orthodox Church says:
There is a deep distinction which I make at almost every opportunity between things that can be described as ontological, and things that are merely forensic. Ontological means having to do with being. It refers to things that really, truly have existence. A bird is an ontological creature. The office of the President is a legal fiction, a forensic construction.
In modern legal imagery, if a rule is said to be ‘broken,’ nothing is actually ‘broken.’ The rule is the same before and after the break. What has changed is that the person ‘breaking’ the rule is now in danger of being prosecuted, fined, imprisoned or executed. In the Old Testament, to sin against the Law of God was viewed as quite different. Something happened. An individual became ‘unclean’, was ‘stained’, had become an ‘abomination’, etc. In some cases an entire community was somehow stained. Atonement in such a world involved removing an ontological problem, not satisfying a legal concept. Forgiveness was thus the same thing as healing and cleansing.
Later on, Freeman continues:
Theories of atonement that use modern legal imagery remove any ontological content from our situation. We are guilty because God says we are guilty and we deserve punishment much like we deserve punishment within our human legal system. But the Law of God is not a legal instrument; it is more of a diagnostic tool. The Commandments describe the character and details of those things that plunge us into ontological chaos. – Fr. Stephen Freeman, from “Legal Problems“
God is a relational being, and so are we. God is not bound to some arbitrary, impersonal legal system that he must follow. To assume as much is to impose our lowest ideal of justice upon God – that is, retributive, eye-for-an-eye punishment – and make it into an absolute and necessary attribute of God that even God himself must follow. We humans may use such shallow legal constructs, but it is only because we are unable to actually touch the true heart of human experience and ascend to a higher level of restorative justice.
Folks who see a legal system as the ultimate reality of justice, or cannot imagine a higher ideal of justice, ascribe it as a necessary attribute of who God is. Punishments like Hell are a necessary extension of “God’s justice”. However, most of these people would also say that God does not delight in this, because he would rather show mercy. This would mean that God actually dislikes an attribute of himself but must follow the legal system anyway, because he is somehow bound by his nature to do so.
Since justice is legal, eye-for-eye retribution, and since God is just, he must punish human beings and punish them violently. But since God does not delight in this part of himself, and would rather have mercy on us, he found a legal loophole in the cosmic justice system, where he was able to pour out his retribution on his son Jesus instead of us.
(Interesting thing about this is, after pouring out all his wrath on Jesus, this atonement is rendered null by our simple act of not believing it. If we don’t believe it, God still has to pour out his wrath on us.)
In another viewpoint, some Calvinists believe that this legal idea of justice is an attribute that God DOES delight in. He DOES desire to mete out eye-for-eye, retributive justice. But there is also a side of God that delights in mercy, so to find a way to express his delight in both of these attributes of himself, God pours his retribution out on the non-elect (those predestined for Hell) while he has mercy on the elect (those predestined for salvation) by pouring out his retribution on Christ at the cross as a substitute for the elect.
You can already see that this is getting really ugly. When we tie up the cross in legal technicalities, we strip it of its power and beauty. It makes God the monster of crucifixion violence rather than the forgiving victim of the cross, who defeated the monstrosity of our corruption with a world-changing revelation of love.
Our God is a God of process, relationship and love. He is not bound to the juridical demands of some arbitrary cosmic rulebook. Legalities are not a part of the nature of God. The cross is not a legal loophole that God found in the eternal legal system, by which he could make use of a technicality and skirt around killing us by killing his Son instead.
We have to get rid of the penal substitutionary theory of the cross if we ever hope to recover the heart of God. Jesus referred to sin as a deadly disease that needed to be healed, not a crime that needed to be sentenced. The cross is the boundless and free love of God that heals our natures and triumphs over our sin and death.
The Evolution of Atonement Theory
While many Christians believe that Penal Substitution Atonement theory is the gospel once and for all delivered unto the saints, the truth is that it is a relatively new doctrine in the scope of the history of the church. In the 11th century, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) in his work “Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man)”, developed the theory that the primary purpose of Christ’s incarnation was to uphold God’s honor and satisfy his justice in dying on the cross.
Centuries later, this theory was picked up by the lawyer John Calvin in the 16th century, who developed the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, that on the cross God was satisfying the legal demand of his justice, appeasing his wrath against sinful humanity by slaying his Son.
This became the predominant theory of the atonement thereafter in the western world – theory of the retributive violence of God the Father against God the Son in order for God to appease a legal system of retributive justice. Somehow, this was still supposed to convey the love of God, since after all he took his own wrath out on himself instead of us. Strange indeed.
Meanwhile, before this development in the West, before the Reformers in the 16th century, before Anselm in the 11th century, the East (Eastern Orthodox Church) held a different viewpoint – one it maintains to this day – that the purpose of the cross was not a wrath appeasement, but rather, God in Christ defeating sin and death, ransoming us from the power of the devil, and bringing us the knowledge of God’s nature of love. Unlike the legal view, the Eastern church’s view harmonizes beautifully with the ministry of Jesus, who came to destroy the works of the devil, including oppression, sickness, and death, and declare the good nature of his Abba.
As Brad Jersak, author of A More Christlike God, explains:
The dominant Eastern Orthodox view holds to a more restorative view of justice and therapeutic vision of the Cross. In that scenario, the Father is seen in Christ (Zech. 12:10) revealing his love and mercy through the Son (1 John 3:16). Rather than satisfying his wrath through punishment, we see God-in-Christ pouring out forgiveness on the world (the whole world) for our salvation.
After all, Paul the apostle states in 2 Cor. 5:18,
Now all things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
So Brad Jersak continues:
What’s notable is that rather than forsaking Christ, turning from him or otherwise punishing him, God is located in Christ, actively reconciling the world to himself through Christ. Moreover, far from requiring satisfaction of wrath through violence, the text reveals God letting go of sin, not counting sins against us—freely offering forgiveness vis-à-vis extracting payment.
In this more biblical and orthodox theory of the cross, God is not pitted AGAINST Christ at the cross in some retributive legal scheme, but is located IN Christ, reconciling the world to himself by not counting the worlds sin against them.
In Christ, God is revealing his unending and unconditional mercy and forgiveness towards the world, with no strings attached whatsoever. Instead of it being the loving Son shielding us from the angry Father, in the cross we are seeing the Father’s nature pouring out through the love of the Son, even as Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
Once you start paying attention to Jesus’ actual life and teachings, the Penal Substitutionary theory of atonement starts to make less and less sense.
Throughout his life, Jesus is revealing his Abba, who counts every hair on our head and searches out the lost sheep, runs to meet the prodigal as he is returning home, heals the sick, raises the oppressed out of bondage, and freely tells sinners their sins are forgiven without requiring sacrifice first. (And before anyone objects, yes, it is true that Jesus also warns of the natural self-destructive consequences of sin in his teachings on Gehenna, but not as legal retribution from the hand of his Abba).
Then suddenly at the cross Jesus, is saving us from the wrath of an angry deity that demands torture and blood before he can legally forgive? There is no continuity here. In such a view, there is no connection from Jesus’ teachings, ministry or revelation of Abba to the cross which is supposed to be the crux of it all.
Sadly, this theory of the cross has hidden the God revealed in Jesus, instead of revealing and glorifying him.
When you look upon Christ on the cross, there is nothing different or scary going on behind the scenes. There’s no “other” invisible God being wrath-appeased here. This is God. The invisible God is visible in his image here. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. The invisible God is fully represented here in Christ on the cross. This is God. Jesus did this because it’s what he saw the Father doing, and Jesus was the perfect imitation of his Father.
What IS happening behind the scenes, however, is that the accuser is being stripped of power and cast down. The rulers of this world and its systems of oppression are being overturned. Sin and death are being done away with. Fear is being cast out. Christ is being glorified as the King of love, who’s kingdom is founded on peace in his own blood rather than on retribution in the blood of his enemies.
God is extending peace to the whole world, not counting anyone’s sin against them, and reconciling humanity – and all of creation – unto himself.
A Better Model of Substitution
What about substitutionary atonement then? That Christ died as our substitute is part of the gospel. That Christ died as a penal substitute, appeasing and satisfying divine wrath in a legal scheme, is not the gospel nor is it compatible with the Father who Christ reveals.
Christ did die as a substitutionary atonement, but not a penal substitute. The difference is nuanced yet prfound. One must realize that substitutionary atonement does not require penal substitutionary atonement. Because of the western Christian mind that is so engrained within the framework of Penal Substitutionary Atonement – where justice is merely a legal matter – many think that by rejecting Penal Substitutionary Atonement, we are rejecting any form of substitutionary atonement, and thus, rejecting the gospel itself.
But this is simply not the case. You can believe in substitutionary atonement without believing it was penal. The Eastern Orthodox Church has done it for 2,000 years.
The legality of penal substitutionary atonement replaces the very real, ontological problems we face with legal fiction. Nevermind the tangible brokenness and sickness Jesus came to heal us from. We’ve created new, more pressing problems to deal with – a world in which we’ve offended God and invited his wrath. Within this mindset, we find a church that is continues to reap the same death and corruption Jesus already freed us from.
God said to Adam, “If you eat of that tree, you will surely die.” He did not say, “If you eat of that tree, I will surely kill you because my justice demands it.” The distinction is key.
“The wages of sin is death” is therefore an ontological reality and not an externally imposed penalty. Christ died for us not because God had to kill us, but because sin’s natural end is corruption and death. Jesus absorbed all the affects of sin and death, including its psychological calamity of feeling God-forsaken (even though God would never forsake us, nor did he forsake his Son as I will show later).
The truth is not that Jesus was punished by God, but that God in Christ, bearing the ontological corruption of sin and death, triumphed over it on our behalf.
The Christus Victor Theory Of Atonement
The cross had multiple purposes, and the main thrust of the cross’ accomplishments are covered by the “Christus Victor” theory of atonement. From this perspective, we see Christ as the divine Logos who, in his death and resurrection, tread down the power of sin, death and the devil and rose victorious over all.
But Christ could have done this by dying any kind of death, so why a torturous, bloody crucifixion? There are a number of theories as to why Jesus chose, or at least allowed, this public torturous execution:
- To be a sign for all humanity
- To be our scapegoat and by it to end all scapegoating
- To expose the Powers of this world
- To expose human violence and sin and the victimization it causes
- To identify with the victim and with all human suffering
- To reveal the love and forgiveness of God in the midst of our demonic hatred
- To be an offering of reconciliation and peacemaking
- To reveal the height of empathy and show us the way of self-sacrificial co-suffering love
- And, within the larger gospel narrative, to re-found the world on forgiveness and love as the world’s new King
By all of this, Christ was a sacrifice of “atonement”, or more specifically “expiation”, which means reparation. In other words, his death ushered in the restoration of all things. In him was the death of the old world, taking into himself the collective shame, sin, violence, and suffering of this world, and birthing a new world in his resurrection.
Through all of this, Christ offers us his body and blood, to eat and drink, to be one with him in his death and so to cleanse our conscience, heal our hearts, and lead us into the new creation, where all things are made new, where forgiveness reigns, and where we live at peace with God and one another in a kingdom of love.
In the Christus Victor model, Christ rises victorious over the cosmic powers of sin and death on our behalf, as the firstborn among the dead, inaugurating the coming resurrection of the body and assuring the rebirth and renewal of the entire cosmos. Jesus bore in his body the ontological corruption of sin and death and the sense of alienation we experience, but in his resurrection he trampled it all underfoot and rose victorious. In this, he is our substitute as the second Adam.
Within the Christus Victor model, the resurrection actually plays a part in the atonement, whereas in the penal model, the resurrection is a nice ending but not really necessary. In the penal model, Christ doesn’t need to rise. God has slain his Son, his wrath is appeased, and that’s that.
Now that Jesus has appeased his Father, Jesus’ soul can go to heaven, right? Wrong. The resurrection was part of the defeat of the power of sin, death, and the devil.
People say, “Jesus took what you deserve.”
But really? At what age does a person deserve to be flogged and nailed to a cross?
7 years old? 10? No? How about the dreadful “age of accountability”? 12? So a 12 year old kid deserves to be flogged and nailed to a cross?
No? How about 90? Has the kindly old lady next door finally worked in enough sin to deserve to be flogged and nailed to a cross? At what age does the torture Christ experienced become “deserved” punishment?
So many of us believe this because it’s all we’ve ever been told, but when we begin to view it with our eyes open, it simply doesn’t hold up. This is a good time to turn back to the early church fathers for a dose of actual “Good News”.
In the following quote from patristic father Gregory of Nazianzus, known as the “Trinitarian Theologian”, who lived from 330-390, Gregory explicitly rejects the idea that Jesus was paying off God. And as noted by Gregory, the minutia of this detail is “neglected by most people” in the early church, but he addresses it here.
Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To whom was that blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and famous blood of our God and high priest and sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the evil one, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause?
If to the evil one, how outrageous! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether.
But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by him that we were being oppressed; and next, on what principle did the blood of his only begotten Son delight the Father, who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts him, but neither asked for him nor demanded him; but on account of the incarnation, and because humanity must be sanctified by the humanity of God, that he might deliver us himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to himself by the mediation of his Son, who also arranged this to the honor of the Father, whom it is manifest that he obeys in all things? (Gregory of Nazianzus, section 22 of his Second Paschal Oration)
In other words, Gregory is saying that he completely rejects the consideration that Jesus was paying off God with his blood and saving us from God.
Conclusion: A God Who Forgives
In the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, God cannot simply forgive sin. Sin must be punished and punished violently. But why? Why can’t God forgive? Where in the scripture do we see it said that God is incapable of forgiveness?
In fact, we see the opposite. Jesus actually talked about God’s requirement for forgiveness in Matthew 6:14, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
WHAT!?!? That’s it? But Jesus hadn’t even died!? How could the Father forgive us if Jesus hadn’t yet appeased his wrath?
When it’s said that Jesus “paid”, this is an example of metaphorical language falling short in dealing with the atonement. And “payment” is indeed metaphorical language. Jesus didn’t literally pay anyone. The word “payment” is used as a way of saying that Jesus paid the figurative “price” of sin which is death. This is not a literal legal “price”, but an ontological “price”.
“The sting of death is sin.” 1 Corinthians 15:56
Here Paul uses the imagery of being stung. Like being stung by a scorpion, sin stings you and poisons you and you die. This means that the reality of death is intrinsically wrapped up in sin. Death is sin’s natural outworking rather than a legally imposed penalty.
In conclusion and review, look to these points on what penal substitutionary atonement theory does, from Brad Jersak in his interview called “The Cross: Wrath or Love?”:
- It pits the Father against the Son. Rather than the Father being in Christ reconciling the world to himself, it is the Father through wicked people and demonic forces oppressing and tormenting Christ to death in order to somehow appease his own wrath. This divides the Trinity. Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”, and this did not change at the cross. Did God forsake Jesus at the cross? We will get to that later.
- It makes God beholden to a law higher than himself. That God is not free to forgive, that he is not free to simply release us in his mercy. He has to obey this higher law than himself.
- Rather than just forgiving debts, it requires them to be paid.
- It says that sin must be paid back but not only that, it must be paid back by violent punishment. Why is that the solution? And is that the solution that Christ ever preached?
- It paints God and the image of God as retributive, vindictive, and ultimately repulsive to sinners and repulsed by sinners. I don’t see that kind of God represented in the Christ of the gospels very well.
- It distorts divine justice. It reduces justice down to vindictive punishment. Justice in the prophetic tradition was making things right. Justice in the prophets was meant to roll like a mighty river, to be the true fast, to be towards making things right.
- Finally, penal substitutionary atonement theory creates atheists. They don’t reject the God revealed in Christ, they reject a God who is mean and vindictive and who they see as a “cosmic child-abuser”.
Join Us Next Week For Part 2
I grew up in the theological paradigm of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I thought it was the gospel. It was my framework for understanding the cross. So once I began discovering a more historically orthodox view of the cross, my whole framework of what I thought the gospel was began crumbling, and it caused a chain reaction of questions.
Next week, we will explore some of these questions in depth. Stay tuned for Part 2 in our series on why Jesus died.
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