I’ve been thinking about the issue of penal substitution on account of James McGrath’s post, What Do You Say That I Did? Felix’s past posts on the Christus Victor model have also been swimming around in my mind.
Penal substitution is the view of Christ’s death that most evangelicals believe in: Christ endured God’s wrath in place of sinners, so now God lets those who believe in Christ off the hook. Included in that is an assertion that Garner Ted Armstrong used to make (though it didn’t originate with him): only God could atone for the sins of all of humanity, since God is worth more than all people put together.
But is there an alternative view? Actually, there are plenty of them. Peter Abelard, for instance, treated atonement as a subjective thing rather than God’s objective forgiveness of sin: Christ shows God’s love for us by dying, and we then embrace God because our hearts are warmed by such a self-sacrificial act. The atonement, for Abelard, occurs when we respond to God’s love.
That sounds fine, but it doesn’t really explain why Christ had to die, nor does it address the biblical passages that associate Christ’s death with God’s forgiveness of sin (Matthew 26:28; Romans 5:9, et al.). Neither, for that matter, do a lot of other views of the atonement (e.g., ransom, moral governance, etc.).
But the participatory model very well may. As James McGrath states: “For Paul, the key meaning of Jesus’ death is summed up well in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: ‘one died for all, and therefore all died’. That’s almost the exact opposite of the popular Evangelical message, ‘one died instead of all, so that they might not have to die’.” Dr. McGrath tries to make the atonement a matter of us sacrificing ourselves (or something like that), but that’s not the point I’m interested in right now. The point I want to make is this: In the New Testament, maybe atonement is not so much a matter of Christ dying in our place, but rather us dying and rising with Christ.
Like much of evangelical Christianity, the Armstrongite movement essentially held two views of the atonement simultaneously: one said that Christ died in place of sinners, and another said that believers die and rise with Christ. In the first model, sinners don’t die. In the second one, they do (in a manner of speaking).
But maybe the second one is the right one. And, as Armstrongites liked to point out, the second one involves God’s forgiveness of our sins. When our old selves die with Christ, the law no longer condemns us with the threat of death. How can it? The person who committed those sins is already dead, in a manner of speaking, since he died with Christ. Now, on account of Christ’s resurrection, he can have a new life, free from sin and the condemnation of the law.
But accepting a non-penal view of the atonement may require a lot of rethinking of cherished ideas. Here’s something I wrote under Dr. McGrath’s post:
“When Jesus said he was going to drink the cup, was he talking about the cup of God’s wrath that the Hebrew Bible harps upon? Or is there another interpretation–such as he was about to undergo a tough mission[?] When Jesus asked God why he had forsaken him, was that because he was experiencing the hell of God’s wrath at the crucifixion? Or was it just him crying out from despair? When there was darkness, was that the darkness of the Day of the Lord? Or is there another significance?”
Tough questions. But a non-penal view of the atonement has at least one strength: It doesn’t have Jesus doing something that God earlier repudiated. I went on to say:
“But there’s something positive about an alternative model of the atonement: God rejects penal substitution in Exodus 32:33. A lot of evangelicals try to do gymnastics to get around that–‘Well, of course God didn’t let Moses die for the people, since he was a sinner himself, plus his sacrifice wouldn’t have been good enough to atone for all those people, for only God can do that’–but that’s not what God says. He says, ‘Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.'”