In the West, we say God is strictly just so He must punish sin in order to forgive us. In the Eastern Orthodox church, they say that God is equitable and His justice is restorative.
As Aristotle said a little over 2,300 years ago, “Equity is just, but not what is legally just. It is a rectification of legal justice. ” I would say it this way: God’s justice is not that of a legalistic lawyer but of a loving Father.
Why do I bring this up? Is it that important? I do so to point out that we have an untenable contradiction with our view of God that we don’t seem to want to consider, and it has devastating implications about our view of Him.
I bring this up because, in my view, our Western idea of the atonement is one of the most broken things about evangelical Christianity. It’s something we’ve inherited from a Medieval paradigm, not the Bible. It’s a totally pagan idea that’s not much different than appeasing an angry god by throwing innocent children into the fire so he won’t burn our village.
I said this here before: our Western idea of God’s justice started in the eleventh century with Anselm with his satisfaction theory of atonement, but Calvin added that God’s justice demands punishment almost 500 years later. The following is from Theopedia: “Satisfaction theory of atonement”:
The Protestant reformers shifted the focus of this satisfaction theory to concentrate not merely on divine offense but on divine justice. God’s righteousness demands punishment for human sin. God in his grace both exacts punishment and supplies the one to bear it.
There are some serious problems with Calvin’s innovative “shift” in our ideas about God’s justice. I will address them in the form of questions:
Does the Bible actually teach that punishment is required in order for God to forgive sin?
If a sin must be punished or a debt repaid, can that be even be called forgiveness?
Can the idea that “God in his grace both exacts punishment and supplies the one to bear it” actually be called grace?
Is punishing an innocent person so the guilty can go free ever considered justice? Is there any court of law in the universe that would call this justice?
If we were honest, we would have to say “no” to all of these questions. This is not grace or justice, it’s a gross travesty of grace and justice! And this is precisely the argument that skeptics of Christianity have made against this notion. I would have to agree with them.
Thankfully, it’s not biblical either. In fact, it can be argued that the idea that the innocent must be punished so the guilty can go free is diametrically opposed to the principles taught in the Bible.
Also, to punish the righteous is not good, nor to strike princes for their uprightness. (Prov.17:26 NKJV)
He who says to the wicked, “You are righteous,” him the people will curse; nations will abhor him. (Prov.24:24)
So does God contradict Himself? Would it be just for Him to strike THE “innocent Prince” so He can call the wicked good? Hardly.
The idea that God’s justice demands that all sin be punished also stands in direct contradiction to the biblical evidence. We know that Jesus was the exact representation of God (John 14:7; Heb.1:3). He spent a lot of His time on earth explaining what His heavenly Father was like. So, did Jesus ever teach that God must punish sins in order to forgive? No, quite the contrary…
The prodigal son (Luke 15:11-24). The sinning son is forgiven and restored by his father with no punishment or payment in view.
The woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Jesus acquits the woman when the Law demanded her to be stoned to death.
The creditor and two debtors (Luke 7:40-42). No mention of the debt being collected from another source.
Jesus heals the paralytic (Matt.9:1-2). Jesus forgives the paralytic’s sin with no mention of punishment or repayment.
Parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt.18:23-35). Here it was unforgiveness that was punished. So, if God cannot forgive unless He punishes someone, is He any better than this unforgiving servant?
There are more, but you get the idea….
My question boils down to this: was there ever a parable or description of our heavenly Father by Jesus that depicted Him not being able to forgive unless someone is punished?
Can we just say, no.
Indeed, if Jesus taught us that we must forgive without payment, bless those who curse us, love those who hate us, can our heavenly Father be any different? (Matt.5:44-45)
Maybe you don’t like my probing questions. Maybe we would prefer to go on parroting these horrendous ideas about God that make Him out to be a vindictive, unforgiving, child-abusing monster. I certainly don’t. I really don’t think you do either. So lets’ stop hiding our head in the evangelical sand about these awful medieval doctrines of men and deal with them head on, because the world Jesus came to save is asking them.
Again, thankfully, this is not the God of the Bible, so we have nothing to fear.