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Atonement and the Evils We Face

I’ve been a part of a couple of interesting conversations over the last few days. One was with a bunch of guys on a work retreat and had to do with the nature of God’s knowledge and how it relates to the problem of evil. The second had to do with how to make sense of a tragic situation and how mental illness does/does not factor into the destructive decisions and actions of those close to us. One conversation was pretty detached and abstract, the other intensely personal, but both reminded me of the centrality of theodicy in how we look at the world and of the importance of getting clear exactly how we think that Jesus addresses the deepest questions we have.

One lens through which I have recently thinking about these questions has to do with the admittedly arcane topic of the nature of the atonement. This is an issue that is currently attracting a bit of attention in our tiny little Mennonite Brethren corner of Christendom (this isn’t exactly a new topic within evangelical Christianity; we’re just a little late to the party). One of our MB academics, Mark Baker, has co-written a book challenging the supremacy of of penal substitution (God punished Jesus so that he wouldn’t have to punish us) as the central understanding the work of the cross, and his book has drawn the ire of some, both inside and outside the MB fold.

(I attended a conference on this a few months ago and came away somewhat disheartened. It was frustrating for me to see an unwillingness to consider what are, in my opinion, more balanced and holistic conceptions of what the cross actually accomplishes.)

So how does the nature of the atonement relate to the question of theodicy? Quite simply, the Christian believes that the cross of Christ represents God’s response to the problem of evil—not as an abstract question of philosophy but as an existential and ethical crisis that we all face in some form or another. We all suffer, to varying degrees, and we all wonder how to live with the evil in our path and what hope there is for a future free of its influence.

From my perspective, any theory of the atonement that even merits consideration must do justice to at least two basic facts:

  1. We are participants in and contributors toward the evil in the world.
  2. We are the victims of the evil in the world and suffer because of both the actions of others and the very parameters of our existence.

Whatever we say about the atonement has to take both of these into consideration. Either one, in isolation, tells too little of the story.

To return to my earlier conversation about how to think about mental illness, we somehow have to factor in both the fact that someone is affected by evil due to factors not of their choosing and that they have made/continue to make decisions which actively contribute to the suffering of others. It will always be a question of degree, of course. Some are mostly victims and barely culpable contributors, while for others the situation will be reversed. And the same probably holds true for you and I—some of us have a much harder road to walk than others, some face greater evils than others, that profoundly influence who we are and who we become. Some of us face less obvious evil yet continually choose to live in such a way as to bring pain to those around us.

For the Christian, the cross addresses both extremes and everything in between. But in my view, proponents of penal substitution as central metaphor for understanding the atonement fail to fully factor in the basic fact that we are more than just guilty sinners. We are victims, as well. We are born into structures and patterns of injustice, oppression, and deceit. We are deeply affected by many factors and forces not of our own choosing (hence, the appropriateness of the Christus Victor metaphor). Similarly, those who see no place for any kind of vicarious substitution in Christ’s death fail to appreciate that we are more than just victims, that we do contribute to the evil in the world, that we are sinners who do deserve judgment, however this is understood.

The atonement wars are, on one level, rather wearying and, perhaps, a massive exercise in frustration. But I think that how we understand the significance of the cross has a profound effect on both our theology and our anthropology. Is the God of Christianity a wrathful deity demanding that his his honour be vindicated through the punishment of sin? A divine psychotherapist who just wants us to feel loved without the unpleasantness of accountability? Are human beings wretched worms dangling over the precipice of hell, preserved only by the arbitrary will of God? Helpless victims who would always do good but for the unsatisfactory nature of their circumstances?

The truth, as is usually the case, lies between the extremes. And our understanding of the atonement ought to reflect this. Because if the cross of Jesus Christ really does represent God’s final answer to the evils we face then we should be able to conceptualize and present this in a way that does justice to the rationality and the beauty of the hope that is ours.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. One thing that I think is unfair is thinking Penal Substitution and Christus Victor are the only options. I’m in a debate on Penal Substitution where I show it to be without Scriptural foundation:

    http://catholicdefense.googlepages.com/psdebate

    April 22, 2009
  2. Ken #

    In addition the two basic facts you enumerated here, I think theories of the atonement must answer the question: Why was the messiah crucified? I don’t think we would be discussing atonement if that had not happened and I don’t think the answer is reducible to morality. Without an adequate answer to that question, there seems to be little reason to believe that Jesus was or is the messiah.

    I think the problem the substitutionary theory poses to us in modernity is that we consider it to be immoral and sadistic. We have a tendency to see God as immoral and sadistic in modernity. I think the history of the ancient near east shows that the image of God in the Bible was that of an ideal king or emperor. That is no longer our image of what is ideal or just. We have rejected God in that sense.

    April 22, 2009
    • I think the question of why Jesus was crucified is certainly another important one to throw into the mix. I recently came across an article by Larry Hurtado in Slate that asked the question: “How crucifiable is your Jesus?” People trying to get everyone to just love each other and be more tolerant and compassionate (or green!) don’t generally get crucified. It’s important that our understanding of Jesus actually makes sense of the historical data. I think that the question of what led to the cross is certainly wrapped up in the question of what it accomplished and how.

      I agree that many consider substitutionary atonement to be immoral but that doesn’t, in and of itself, mean that it couldn’t be true. I think there are some ways of understanding the concept of substitution that are much better than others, but somehow the idea that Jesus’ death and resurrection cover the sin for which we are culpable has to find expression.

      April 22, 2009
  3. We can avoid the confounding nature of this frustrating debate by recognizing the cross as a symbolic event performed for our (human)benefit. Instead of constructing the cross and the tomb to be the central actual activity of God in the act of redemption we can easily come to this position if we acknowledge that redemption could have been accomplished in any particular way God would have chosen. The fact that the particulars of the cross are in no way insignificant in this view but it forces us to back away from essentializations like the ones you have described here that polarize theology in unhelpful ways. Our approach to the cross and the tomb can then rest on how they speak to us as multi-vocal symbols an aspect that we naturally inclined to do anyways in order to help these events transcend the particulars of the historical and cultural frame in which they were performed.
    I appreciate your perspective here that we are both victims and perpetrators of evil and sometimes at the same time.

    April 22, 2009
    • Thanks Dale. I think that you’re right—the cross is a powerful symbolic and “multi-vocal” event—but I’m also willing to allow that there may have been something “essential” about it in the story of redemption. There certainly is a good deal of scriptural language linking blood sacrifice to the forgiveness of sins/Jesus as passover lamb, etc. It’s certainly not hard to come to the conclusion that somebody had to die for sin. Could God have set things up or done things differently? Probably. I certainly have little time for presentations of penal substitution that present God as being somehow bound to some kind of higher principle (honour, justice, holiness, etc) but I also want to take seriously the fact that the cross emerges out of Israel’s story, and in Israel’s story the forgiveness of sin is linked to the shedding of blood (even if I find this uncomfortable/confusing).

      April 22, 2009
  4. Ken #

    I agree with your analysis in the blog entry and your comments here.

    Hurtado’s analysis is like that of Paul Fredriksen. Her book, Jesus of Nazareth – King of the Jews, is an attempt to answer the historical question: why did Pilate crucify Jesus. Indirectly then, her analysis constructs a historical Jesus.

    The theory of atonement cannot stop here because the Christian claim is that Jesus is the messiah, which is at least as much of a theological claim as it is a historical claim. God is implicated in the execution of Jesus. (I think you agree here.)

    I have often tried to reconcile my morality, my modern morality, with that of the Bible. It is so hard to see the modern morality as anything other than ultimate. It is hard to criticize the reality that we live by in modernity. It is hard, after the enlightenment, to see the ancient near east as anything other than primitive and barbaric. To us, sacrifice is irrational, immoral and barbaric. And yet, if we are to maintain continuity with the faith and hope of our religious ancestors, we cannot write them off that way. To avoid writing them off, I think we must subject our morality and reality to suspicion. It is hard.

    I think my tendency to see the Bible as myth, and not subject it to rational or moral scrutiny, allows it to be strange. That is easier than subjecting my own rationality and morality to scrutiny.

    April 22, 2009
    • I don’t find it as hard to be suspicious of “modern morality.” Modern morality sometimes has difficulty acknowledging its debts—it’s not as though our ethics just emerged out of the Enlightenment or represent a suddenly “rational” turn in history (I spent a fair bit of time on this question in chapter two of my thesis). I think that there is a profound and necessary link between our ethical understanding and the story it emerges out of.

      Does the OT contain troubling elements? Sure. Is sacrifice one of these troubling elements? Maybe. It certainly seems “irrational, immoral, and barbaric’ from our vantage point but there was an awful lot of irrational, immoral, and barbaric stuff going on at the time. But it must also be squarely acknowledged (and this is what many moderns fail to do) that the same OT contains numerous commands to look after the vulnerable, to care for the poor, to not show favouritism, to love your neighbour as yourself, etc. Somehow, the “barbaric” God of the Judeo-Christian tradition inspired and continues to inspire quite a lot of exemplary moral behaviour.

      I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to evaluate everything in the Bible based exclusively on our historical and ethical vantage point. If we take seriously the idea that God works in history, that the story moves forward, that progress (and regress) are possible, then we can see our morality as the product of earlier parts of the story even if they do not exactly replicate them. This obviously doesn’t magically make all the problems go away for me, but it does give me a bit of distance from the text and it removes any felt need to look at every part of Scripture as God’s moral template for all time.

      April 23, 2009
  5. Ken #

    As much as we agree on these things I think I notice subtle differences, perhaps related to background experiences. Your last expression makes me think of an example: “it does give me a bit of distance from the text and it removes any felt need to look at every part of Scripture as God’s moral template for all time.”

    I grew up with great distance from the text. I remember being taught to “take the Bible with a grain of salt.” And my tendency, the way I learned, is to see the Bible (Old and New Testaments) as myth rather than as moral template. I agree that the enlightenment has a history that includes the Christianity that it outwardly rejects and inwardly affirms. In my case, the rejection is what I learned to emphasize, to guard, to trust. Over time, I learned to suspect all moral claims – to see that in all moral claims there is a grasping for power or control, whether or not there is anything we associate with goodness in them. That seems to be one of the lessons of a liberal education.

    April 23, 2009
    • Yes, we do come from somewhat different backgrounds which likely asked different questions, had different emphases, etc. But for me, it’s very valuable to allow other perspectives to inform and challenge my own. I’ve very much appreciated hearing your experiences and how you’ve grown up with a different perspective on the Bible. I think that whatever backgrounds you or I or anyone else comes from, there are generic, inherently human questions that we all ask and seek to find answers for. I’ve enjoyed the window into another way of approaching the questions you’ve provided.

      April 23, 2009
  6. Ken #

    Yes, other perspectives do inform and challenge our own. I think it is inevitable that exposure to plural realities leads to an encounter with relativism and the inability to sustain meaning. Do you think that is true? I know that there are writers who think we can voluntarily, communally sustain meaning. Robert Bellah is one, for example. Other writers, Peter Berger for example, think that we cannot really voluntarily sustain communal meanings for long or without the sense that we are playing “make believe” and yet Berger does not give up the pursuit of meaning – he still expects it to find it out there in freedom somewhere, expects the freedom that comes with pluralism to someday lead to transcendent truth. I suppose I am like Berger in that way.

    Even though we have come from different backgrounds I think we each ask the same questions that Bellah and Berger ask. We bring resources with us from our backgrounds with which we attempt to answer the questions. And the resources are not enough.

    April 23, 2009
    • I think it is inevitable that exposure to plural realities leads to an encounter with relativism and the inability to sustain meaning. Do you think that is true?

      Yes and no. I think it is true that relativism is an inescapable component of when and where we live, but I’m not sure that this necessarily entails an inability to sustain meaning. I think that ideally our epistemological context ought to make us more humble and gracious, but like Berger I don’t think that it means we ought to give up on the idea of objective meaning out there which we align ourselves with as opposed to create/maintain communally. We may not have the resources to know as much as we might like, but I think we have enough to live responsibly and ethically before God.

      April 23, 2009
  7. Theodore A. Jones #

    “It is NOT those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who OBEY the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    Anu idea what the law is Paul is talking about?

    November 14, 2009
    • Well, because Paul is a Jew it seems clear that he is referring to the OT law (the Pentateuch/Torah).

      November 15, 2009
  8. Theodore A. Jones #

    Nada. The law was changed by God AFTER Jesus was crucified. Heb. 7:12b and Rom. 5:20. One word has been added to the law and it is only by the faith of obeying this law that anyone will be declared righteous.

    November 15, 2009
    • To save us some time here, what exactly is your point and how does it relate to the post?

      November 15, 2009
  9. Theodore A. Jones #

    No man has ever been or will be a direct beneficary of any man’s death if it is caused by bloodshed.

    November 15, 2009

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