I’ve written about the atonement several times on this blog over the last year, mostly refuting the main points of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). Whenever I do this, I can feel the suspicious looks some of you give me.
Some of you may be wondering just how far I’ll go before you’ll have to write me off as another heretic blogger!
Speaking of heretics, Athanasius (AD 298-373), was a participant in the First Council of Nicaea, who came up with the Nicene Creed, arguably the most orthodox statement of faith ever agreed to by the whole church. Yet, he spent a lot of his time in exile accused heretic and was excommunicated FIVE times to boot!
If one thing church history has proven, over and over again, it’s that we’re not good at embracing new ideas (putting it mildly). But it’s been said that today’s heresy often becomes tomorrow’s orthodoxy, so hang on for awhile and we’ll see where this all goes.
Ironically, the “new ideas” I’m offering on the atonement are actually very ancient ones, going back to the earliest church fathers. (Probably another reason why knowing your history is important.)
So I’ll just chalk any suspicion up to unfamiliarity. We generally distrust what we’re not familiar with, especially when it pokes at our sacred cows (we all have them). And PSA is a big one; it’s deeply entrenched in the Western Christian mindset, even though it’s a relatively recent innovation as church history goes.
While I don’t disagree with everything PSA teaches, I see it as an absolutely horrendous doctrinal theory in one glaring respect: how it paints God the Father. It makes Him a vindictive, conditionally loving child abuser, creating a conflicted theology that has Jesus saving us from God.
I could also make the case that PSA is not even a biblically sound doctrine, contradicting a lot of Jesus’ teachings, along with principles of justice taught in Scripture. My previous posts have given plenty of evidence to make that case.
I realize these are strong words, but this theory (historically, PSA is only one theory among many) is so deeply believed by most of us, strong words are needed to break us free from its spell. At least, break us free long enough to consider other biblical possibilities.
My motivation for spending so much time on trying to convince you to get a better view of the atonement is two-fold: First, I believe the main tenets of PSA are totally incompatible with the revelation of sonship and walking in the Father’s love. Second, because PSA is so firmly embedded in your mind as the only biblical possibility, it’s going to take a long time to de-program you. 🙂
Seriously, it does matter what we believe here because of the picture it paints of God as a Father and the nature of your relationship with Him.
So, in the interest of your continued rehabilitation, I will proffer a question for your consideration (and, by all means, to comment on). This question goes along with some points I’ve made in these posts in particular: Cross paradigm, Did God kill Jesus – Part one, and Saving Easter – Part one.
My question is this…
Is the Cross best understood as a courtroom trial or a family reunion?
Of course, we know the view that was taught to us. And you probably know my answer, too. To help you make the transition (de-program you), I will point out, as I have in the past, that the courtroom scenario is mostly a modern invention. The early church fathers didn’t see it that way at all; the Eastern Orthodox church still doesn’t. For our continuing education and edification, let’s see what they have to say on the subject.
While I don’t agree with a lot of other Eastern Orthodox doctrine, I do think they have a better view of the meaning of the cross of Christ. Here’s a quote from OrthoWiki (Eastern Orthodox version of Wikipedia). Bold type is added for emphasis.
“Orthodox Christianity strongly believes that God became man, so that man may become like God. This concept of theosis, rejects that salvation is a positive result to a legalistic dilemma, but is instead a healing process. Orthodoxy views our inclination to sin as a symptom of a malady that needs treatment, not just a transgression that requires retribution. One of the distinctive characteristics of Orthodox Christian thinking is that it sees the Gospel message not as law, but as relationship. It speaks of the mystery of the Holy Trinity in terms of the relationship of love that exists among them. ” (OrthoWiki)
In other words, the Cross reveals God’s love for us that the Father has always had for His Son. This explanation is very compatible with how I’ve personally encountered God and continue to relate to Him. He’s not some courtroom judge, He’s a loving Father. Imagine that!
It’s not about retribution but relationship.
God didn’t need to kill Jesus to forgive us; Jesus died to heal us.
Furthermore, we cannot understand God’s salvation apart from the incarnation of Christ. Jesus did not become a man to be a human sacrifice to appease an angry God but to fuse the human to the Divine. On this point, here’s another quote on the Orthodox position (bold type added):
“Jesus Christ, by uniting man and God in his own person, reopened for man the path to union with God. In his own person Christ showed what the true ‘likeness of God’ is, and through his redeeming and victorious sacrifice he set that likeness once again within man’s reach. Christ, the Second Adam, came to earth and reversed the effects of the first Adam’s disobedience.” (OrthoWiki)
Where I might differ from the Orthodox explanation (or might be saying the same thing a different way) is that we’re already in union with God through Jesus’ sacrifice; we just need to exercise faith and have our minds renewed in order to benefit from it. Nonetheless, their premise is a good one. It also gives a better view of why you should be saved: not to escape hell but to be restored to your original purpose, and be brought into the divine Fellowship with God in Christ. It makes being “in Christ” actual rather than just some sterile legalese that does nothing to transform or embrace us.
The courtroom view of salvation is a legalistic view, and legalism is at the root of performance-based Christianity. I think it’s time for an upgrade (or a return to an the ancient view), don’t you? It’s time we were consistent with our message when we claim that God is love.
I would be happy to hear your faithful thoughts.
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