against substitutional atonement

For many years, probably as long as I can remember, I’ve been skeptical of the traditional “gospel” message of substitutional atonement. I’ve always had this uneasiness about it, that for many years I couldn’t put my finger on. Roughly speaking, substitutional atonement is the idea that Jesus died as a substitutional sacrifice for our sins. It’s a little more specific than that, actually. It’s actually based on the medieval feudal system, where when Lords (yes, the reason we still call God “Lord” is a hangover from these days) were offended by an underling, they would require some kind of equal and opposite reaction to effectively make up for, or cover over, their offended honour. This was extrapolated onto God (God requires death as a substitute for his offended honour), the Bible was read through this system, no-one was game to update it, and voila! you have yourself some authentic 21st century theology.

Vaguely, I wondered why God couldn’t just forgive without requiring death. Plus what kind of God is prepared to kill his own son before other people, let alone at all? It just sounds monstrous. It’s a bloodthirsty God, not the loving God I was taught about.

I can remember the first time I was interviewed for candidature for ordination with the Baptist Union, and going through the third degree in the theology interview. It was around this time that I had decided that it was no use my pretending anymore that I did agree with substitutional atonement (fairly brave timing, if I do say so myself, particularly with no viable alternative), and so the conversation went roughly like this (names withheld to protect the innocent, although I remember it clear as day):

Interviewer: So why did Jesus have to die for our sins?
Simon: I don’t know.
Interviewer: You don’t know? Do you have any idea?
Simon: Not really…no.

Later, I realised that I did have more of an idea but the problem was that I didn’t like where it was heading, and so I wanted to articulate that. I was given an opportunity to do so in the larger, group interview situation. I explained that as a philosopher, I usually thought two assumptions ahead, and that I had done so on this occasion.

Me: I know that Jesus had to die to pay for our sins. He had to do that because sin requires death, and God being a just God had to mete out the just punishment for sin. What I don’t know is why God requires death for sin. So, when I said I didn’t know why Jesus had to die, what I meant was that I don’t know why God requires death.
High ranking BUV person: Me neither, Simon. Me neither.

Maybe it’s an exaggeration, but I reckon his admission probably saved my faith. You could say my faith was reasonably strong at that stage (given where I was when this took place) and could have withstood the crack that had appeared in its foundation, but I was done with pretending. The crack was widening by the day, and would have proved fatal, and his admission gave me a reason to start building a new foundation instead of patching the old. It was probably the first inkling I had that heads wiser than mine were as skeptical as I was, and that I had good reason for my skepticism.

There was a conversation on the VBMN (Victorian Baptist Ministers’ Network) a while back about this very issue, and one of the respondents raised the issue that substitutional atonement means that God asks more of us than of Godself. That is, God asks us to forgive without condition, yet God is clearly unwilling to do the same, instead making forgiveness conditional upon some propitiation and sacrifice. Certainly it could be said that God is ‘entitled’ to do so, but it seems to not only imply a double standard in God, but go against the very concept of grace that Jesus demonstrates.

Last night I was reading an article in From Violence to Wholeness that fairly well articulated my intuitive abhorrence of substitutional atonement. It’s a passage about Jesus and nonviolence (obviously):

The third foundation of Jesus’ nonviolence is located in his understanding of God and in his approach to worship. The kind of radical love Jesus knows in God creates an awareness that human life is not about appeasing a vengeful God, but about responding in love. This is a spirituality purified of violence at its very roots. God, for Jesus and for those who follow the Christian way, is assertively and polemically against death in all its forms and is for life in all its fullness. The enemies of Jesus, such as the Herodians and Pharisees, may have had room in their theology for a God who would require someone to suffer and die – but this is not the God of Jesus. (From The Faithful Nonviolence of Jesus, by Nancy Schreck, words in bold are my emphasis)

So, she is saying that it would be against God’s nature, the very core of who God is, to require someone to die (which is the thesis of substitutional atonement). She goes on to talk about an alternative reason for Jesus’ death, one that flies in the face of talk of Jesus “coming to Earth for the purpose of dying for our sins”, indeed, one that leaves room for God to oppose it utterly:

Jesus’ life journey would end in Jerusalem, and the question arises: If Jesus knew of the escalation of violence against him, why did he go there? It was not to fulfill some mandate of death, but to be faithful to the divine mandate he struggled to fulfill all his life, that of overcoming those who promoted death, who cultivated its structures, whose allegiance to it is seen in their willingness to kill when it is to their advantage to do so.

The point here is that Jesus consistently and repeatedly shunned death, by refusing any act which reduced or demeaned or violated another human being, and more than that, chose to act in life-giving ways toward everyone he encountered, making him the embodiment of pure love. He did so even in the face of those who violated him, demeaned and reduced him, acts that we commit every day against other people, who Jesus aligns with himself, calling them “the least of these”.

This seems not only plausible to me in an intellectual sense, but has the ring of truth about it in a soul sense. It sits well. It is more consistent with the God I am coming to know than the explanation I had previously been given. So reading it was yet another ‘aha’ moment for me on the journey away from substitutional atonement to a more authentic, genuine form of ‘gospel’, or good news.

This is a journey that goes on for me. I have a much better idea now than I did of where it’s going, but it’s a switch that has been nothing but affirming and lifegiving, and that, really, is the proof of the pudding.

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