Substitionary Atonement: It’s just a theory

May 19, 2010

Cross theory

Photo by Randy OHC (license)

In my Six Deadly Sins of Evangelicalism, number six was “questioning substitutionary atonement as the right story for our culture.” This led to some raised eyebrows in the comments! Let me be more precise by adding a couple of important words: I think penal substitutionary atonement theory does not help to communicate the gospel in post-Christian contexts.

For some of you, your eyebrows have gone down a little, but not much. Let’s start with the “theory” business.

Let’s not confuse what atonement is with how it works.

Let me be as clear as I know how: A “theory of atonement” is not the same thing as atonement itself. Did you know that there are several theories? Each tries in its own way to explain that great singularity, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Wikipedia lists nine different theories! Why so many? Could it be because ultimately, we are dealing with a mystery we cannot fully comprehend?

The great thing about divine mystery is that it refuses to be diced, sliced and objectified. Ultimately, the reality we are wrestling with is not conceptual but personal — a Person who wants to draw us in. And we never “get there,” as if “there” were a thing or place, because the closer we get, the more he beckons: “Keep coming, keep coming.”

That is not to say we should just wave our hands and say, “It’s a mystery,” because that is not helpful communication, either. The theories of atonement are attempts to give us a handle on what the heck is going on here? But the word “theory” is very analytical, as if we were dealing with a scientific explanation. I prefer to think of them as different stories, each highlighting a facet of a beautiful diamond. Picture a diamond with many facets. Look closely at one facet. Now twist it slightly to look at another. And another. Got it?

Now set it down and spin it.

…So let’s not confuse what atonement is with how it works. Dismissing a particular story as “that doesn’t work for me” is not the same thing as dismissing the amazing event itself.

(As I thought about what to write, I had a hunch this might turn into a series. But we won’t know the structure of the series until it’s finished, so you’ll just have to keep coming back. This would be a good time to subscribe if you haven’t already done so, hint hint.)

The thread continues in part two, Substitutionary Atonement: Let me clarify.

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

25 responses to Substitionary Atonement: It’s just a theory

  1. Does penal substitutionary atonement theory help to communicate the gospel in any context? Pre-Christian, Mid-Christian, Post-Christian, Is-Christian, Not-Christian and Non-Christian.
    You’ve given your answer for Post-Christian that it is not helpful to communicate the gospel. What about those other timeframes or states of existence?

  2. Excellent post, Jon. I can no more understand how atonement works than my seven year-old understands how our car works. Nor do I need to. The how question is entirely irrelevant to my relationship to my loving Heavenly Father, my Sacrificing Older Brother, and my Nurturing Comforter. What really is at stake? And yet our seminaries and magazines are filled with these questions. I prefer to live in the mystery, much like living with my wife, who, after 25 years, is still a mystery.

  3. Samia Perkins May 20, 2010 at 8:38 am

    Huh. Well, I still don’t get it, but I guess that means that I’ll have to keep coming back (and visit Wikipedia).

  4. Thank you for explaining what you meant from earlier. I really had no idea what you were getting at but this makes a whole lot more sense now. I also completely agree that we shouldn’t get caught up in how atonement works. After all, it’s not as if it’s going to break down and we’re going to have to fix it some day.

  5. Two related questions:
    1) What is your critique of the penal substitutionary atonement theory?
    2) What alternative(s) would you propose?

  6. Hey Jon,
    As someone who, like you, is passionately captured by Jesus’ atonement, I have to comment.
    You say there’s lots of theories about the atonement. But then you tell us what you think is the ultimate reality of the atonement: that’s it’s personal and not conceptual.
    Sounds like you are just choosing one atonement theory (personal) over another (penal substitution). So what makes your theory ultimate, and the other theories just theories?
    I embrace both personal and penal substitution theories, because I see both taught in Scripture. The atonement is personal: Jesus suffered to bring us to God (I Pet 3:18). And it’s penal substitution: Christ became the curse of the Law for us (Gal 3:13).
    So is penal substitution the right story for our culture? I’d hesitate to say “No.” Once we own up to the reality of God — don’t we have to figure out how screwed up people like us can be embraced and loved by Him? And don’t we want to avoid thinking we can be embraced and loved by him only if we can be good enough?
    Penal substitution is God’s astonishing answer to these questions — so why not proclaim and celebrate it?
    Rejoicing in the Cross with you, my friend,

  7. Jon,
    thanks for raising this issue. I would guess that there are many evangelicals who don’t know there are any other options, let alone 9.
    For me the idea of a vengeful, angry God is outside of my understanding of the nature of God. I much prefer the Eastern Orthodox view of expiation and the Moral influence theory.
    I do want to say though, that while I agree it is a mystery, it is not an adequate answer to say that and drop the discussion. How we understand atonement says a lot about how we see and understand God and our relationship both to God and to one another… It influences the way we do government, how we deal with crime and punishment, even how we understand discipline with our children. It is a central piece to one’s theology and is important stuff to have wrestled with and come to some, at least tentative, conclusions.

  8. Thoguht-provoking–thanks! Knowing a little bit about John Piper’s book on why Jesus had to die, I’d say we evangelicals often can overemphasis one aspect of the atonement over others. Sometimes we do that with worst possible audience–oops. That shows we still have room for growth. I think some people probably DO need to hear the penal aspect of atonement, though that’s not the majority. I know that’s not what I needed to hear before I knew Christ because I already saw God as a cosmic bully due to my background in an alcoholic family.
    As for showing God’s justice to non-believers, I think Hebrews 11:6 proclaims this better to people today: “He rewards those who seek him.” God is not random, arbitrary or oppressive, but He responds faithfully to those who want to know Him and accept His gift of forgiveness. (Most of us will admit our need for forgiveness in some capacity, and those who don’t will likely see no need for God in the first place.) At least that’s what I needed to hear before I was saved. I saw the power of Christ in the lives my Christian friends lived and in the intuitive truth I read in the New Testament. When God revealed Himself to me, I rejoiced that God loved me enough to let me know that He existed, that I mattered enough for Him to want me to know Him. That’s what drew me in; there are differences for different people even though the gospel is always the same.

  9. Chuck,
    I won’t expound in this comment on what I mean by “penal substitution” or “post-Christian.” But the short answer to your question, “Does penal substitutionary atonement theory help to communicate the gospel in any context?” is… Yes, of course!

  10. Ray,
    I like the way you tie it to marriage. Isn’t it funny? We will be coming up on 25 next year, and I find the longer I know her, the more there is to know.
    “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)
    …Oh, I should add that besides being deep and all, your comment also made me laugh.

  11. Samia, I’m just getting started here. But darn it, I really tried to be clear in this post! What confuses you? Let’s talk.

  12. Justapen,
    Ah! Thank you for letting me know that I succeeded in getting it across. And on such a weighty topic, you win the prize for the comment that makes me laugh until I’m crying!

  13. Matthew,
    1) We’ll get there, and
    2) We’ll get there. Sheesh! 😉

  14. Samia Perkins May 20, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    I guess it’s just that I needed to brush up on my theology. I hadn’t ever thought that there was any argument about Atonement, and had only heard the penal substitution facet presented.
    So I was surprised when you said that you questioned it as the right story for a post Christian culture. I do understand, though, that when you are talking to people who don’t believe in sin, saying that Jesus died so that God wouldn’t have to punish us for our sins doesn’t resonate.
    But then what is the other way to present it? That is what I don’t understand. Are you saying you don’t believe in penal atonement, or just that it doesn’t resonate?
    And Steve, I’m really glad you commented, what you said makes a lot of sense to me. Both that He loves us, and that God can’t close His eyes to sin.
    Anyway, looking forward to more on this subject!

  15. i’d like a primer on all this in your own words. i tried to take in the wiki pages and just got overwhelmed by jargon. i take it that there are different explanations as to specifically why Christ’s death paid for our sins? i’m not really clear on how that could be though…is this like thinking about thinking or clapping with one hand?

  16. Steve! Good to have you on my blog.
    There are, as you know, many different theories of the atonement. Each pulls together different strands of scripture to come up with “an explanation.” Like anything else in scripture, different things resonate with different people. (Just look at the Arminians and the Calvinists — and that’s just within the Protestant branch!)
    “You say there’s lots of theories about the atonement. But then you tell us what you think is the ultimate reality of the atonement: that’s it’s personal and not conceptual.” I don’t think you get me. I am not advocating a “personal theory” (I didn’t know there was such a thing). I am saying these theories are all concepts. But we are dealing with a person. In other words, all the theories are valuable, because no single concept captures the amazing reality. And some work better for some people, while others work better for other people. (For example, take the Eastern views versus the Western views.) The challenge for any missionary is finding the symbols that work best for a particular culture. …But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll blog more later. 🙂
    Thank you for sharing those beautiful scriptures. Mmm.

  17. Roy,
    No fair, you’re giving a little peek of some things I intend to touch on. 🙂
    And you’re right, saying “it’s a mystery” can be a cop-out if we simply stop. For me, mystery is an invitation to not stop, to keep pressing in. But I hadn’t thought about how one’s views of atonement can influence relationships.

  18. Randy,
    Thank you for your very personal examples of why penal substitution may not be helpful for some, and what message drew you in to God’s embrace.
    But I agree, the penal aspect may be exactly the right story for some people.

  19. Samia,
    Thanks for elaborating! Yes, you touch a little bit on where I will be going.
    For my part, I don’t deny penal substitution. It just doesn’t have the same ring that it used to for me. (Interesting that you said “resonate” and I said “ring.” There’s a lot in that analogy.)
    Stay tuned!

  20. nstryker,
    You don’t have to absorb all the jargon — suffice it to say that there are many, many points of view as to how Christ’s death and resurrection make us right with God. One of those happens to be predominant among evangelicals, especially folks in the reformed tradition. Stick with me, and let’s see if we can sort this out. But as a teaser, note that I said “Christ’s death and resurrection.

  21. A.) Is there then a time, a situation, where using the penal description of atonement is the best way to lead someone to saving faith?
    B.) Is there saving faith at the conscious level that is void of penal atonement?

  22. Jon,
    first of all I want to say that I am a recovering fundamentalist, so I am still wrestling with some of this stuff and have been for years. I would say that because of my background, where I see the world today, Jesus’ teachings and how I have come to somewhat see the story of God, it is hard to see people preach the gospel as a message of mere Substitutionary Atonement. It not only shrinks the gospel, but it puts it in a box that we think that our modernized minds can understand.
    However, I do believe that Jesus was called the Lamb of God in the NT for a reason. It was because the Jewish people understood the idea of a substitution via a lamb. You see it as an offering at the temple as well as in the Exodus account with the blood on the door. This is how Jesus death is explained somewhat. With that said, it is not the gospel in a nutshell, nor can we understand it. If the idea of a lamb being substituted to atone for sin was understood by the jewish people, how is it understood applicable, if at all? If it isn’t, why did Jesus have to die? Do we not talk about the history of that language at all?

  23. Chuck, I will continue this topic as I promised. I really will! I can give you quick answers, but I’d be more interested in yours. Particularly B.
    Let’s see if I can beat you by posting first. 🙂

  24. David,
    You’re right, we need to bring people into those stories so they can appreciate how it’s played out, and why the Old Testament matters. But this is not the entry point of faith for people in post-Christian cultures, and it may never become central to them. The situation is similar to Acts 15, except the question now is: Are we willing to allow people to become disciples of Jesus without becoming “Christian” like us?

  25. Well, I had no intention of posting an answer or racing you to do it. But maybe my thought on question B.) will follow from a facebook post I just made?
    First, question B.):
    B.) Is there saving faith at the conscious level that is void of penal atonement?
    Second, quick answer:
    No. My very definitions of my beliefs are tied up in the actions and intentions of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. And while a bunch of nice words (PSA), they provide the foundation to understanding who I am, who is God, where do I stand with God, what has been done about it, where do I then stand with God, what am I going to do about it now, and with whom will I do it for all time.
    Thirdly and lastly, my facebook post and guidance through this topic from J. I. Packer:
    Chuck Kuehn wrote in facebook: I especially liked the part after reference note Number 26 (about 45% through), where J I Packer summarizes much of his thoughts on Penal Substitution, as a way for us to know our guiltiness before God while also knowing our freedom from judgement for those guilts (sins), evoking “faith, hope, praise and responsive love to Jesus Christ”, our risen Lord, the securer of our (my) immunity from judgement.
    And no I did not read the whole treaty, but was blessed with some wise skimming. I guess later a full read is warranted, but maybe 😉 … just maybe 😉 … that is what we have learned pastors for? Well, I won’t count on that, but it does feel good to say it that way.
    Lovingly Christ’s,
    By the way, I found this via Wikipedia which has other wonderful links to visit, including a revisiting of this topic by Packer.
    FYI, one can look for note Number 26 in here:–the-logic-of-penal.htm
    Theology Network – What did the Cross Achieve?: The Logic of Penal Subsitution
    The task which I have set myself in this lecture is to focus and explicate a belief which, by and large, is a distinguishing mark of the worldwide evangelical fraternity: namely, the belief that Christ…