Before I criticize Brian McLaren’s short blog post misrepresenting the classic Christian doctrine of penal substitution, I should express gratitude that he has so succinctly misrepresented it. Here are the problems with the modern rejection of the doctrine, all in a few paragraphs. Thank you, Brian.
One major problem with the theory as popularly propounded is this: it posits that God is planning eternal conscious torment for all human beings, except those who gain an exemption through some facet of the Christian religion (including, for some, believing in this theory). God cannot forgive, the theory (in at least some of its versions) posits, without inflicting pain on someone. When you believe that the greatest existential threat to a human being is God venting God’s wrath on that human being – whether that wrath is deemed just or not – you put human beings in two categories: the saved and the damned, the beloved and the hated.
Where to begin? I like how he sneaks in the words “as popularly propounded.” Is that his way of saying, “I don’t really disagree with some version of penal substitution, but only the ‘popular’ version, which so often gets it wrong.” In which case, I could say a hearty Amen. By all means, penal substitution as popularly propounded often gets it wrong. What’s your point? Christian theology is tough stuff. People often get a lot of stuff wrong—the Trinity, for instance.
And make no mistake, misunderstanding the Trinity is at the heart of getting penal substitution wrong. If we misunderstand the Trinity, then we imagine God the Father desiring the death of an innocent victim—and any old victim will do—and, look, here’s my son Jesus… He’ll do. I’ll drag him—reluctant though he may be—to the cross. Now I feel much better.
If that’s the popular understanding, as McLaren seems to think, then, by all means, I reject that, too.
But here’s what I strongly believe: God the Father and God the Son (no simple innocent human victim, please) are of one accord. What they desire, from the beginning of Creation, is to save humanity from sin, and in accordance with scripture (the sacrificial system in the Torah not to mention the clear substitutionary language of Isaiah 53), God offers himself (because Jesus is God) as the solution.
It’s not God simply sending, much less dragging his Son (kicking and screaming?), to the cross; it’s God in Christ accepting that the consequence of his obedience to the Father is the cross (which, as the gospels show, he could have easily avoided), and then using this terrible instrument of torture and death for the benefit of humanity, which is our reconciliation to God.
God didn’t improvise the cross as a last-ditch effort to bring us in line. Rather, one consequence of God’s creating the universe to begin with was that God would suffer and die for our sin. God lovingly accepted that consequence before he set the universe in motion (if it’s possible to imagine such a thing).
Some Christians get hung up on the idea of God’s wrath. I feel like I’ve dealt with that enough on this blog and in sermons recently. God’s justifiable anger toward sin is not in opposition to his love; it’s subsumed under his love. If God didn’t love us, God wouldn’t have wrath. Because God wouldn’t care about the evil that is done in this world—by us and to us.
Even Christians who scoff at the idea that God has wrath or God wants sin to be punished don’t really believe that—at least not in all cases. We want other people’s sins to be punished (we can all think of notorious examples of really evil people, right?). We want justice done in some cases. It’s shocking to imagine that justice won’t fully and finally be done. We often don’t want justice done to us, because we know that we’d be in trouble!
Isn’t it reassuring to know that the cross takes care of that? It’s reassuring to me. God has done something in history, once and for all, to take care of my problem with sin.
I don’t deny other theories of atonement as one part of the cross’s meaning. By all means, the cross is the most amazing example of love; it inspires us; it helps us see clearly the meaning and extent of God’s love. But if what happens on the cross is merely something subjective, wholly dependent on my response to it, then I know that I’m still in trouble because of my sins.
I worry that people who reject penal substitution are really saying that, contrary to nearly every word in scripture, sin isn’t really such a big deal after all. It seemed to be a big deal early on, for example, when God told Adam and Eve that eating the apple would lead to their eventual death, but after Jesus came, God became a sleepy and indulgent grandfather type of God. (See, I can play with unfair stereotypes, too.)
Some Christians—I’m guessing McLaren, although he doesn’t come right out and say it—struggle with the idea of the cross as propitiation, which literally means doing something to appease the wrath of an angry god. I suppose that sounds harsh and primitive if we were talking about throwing virgins into a volcano for the sake of some wooden idol. But because we believe in God as Trinity, we understand propitiation as this: God offering God’s own self, out of love, in order to reconcile us to God.
McLaren calls the cross an injustice. And it is… Who denies that? But consider this: God doesn’t need to force Caiaphas and Pilate to use the cross. Human sin created the cross, and human sin put Jesus on the cross. The cross was going to happen, with or without God’s atoning work. But God, who is always at work to bring good out of evil, used the cross to reconcile us to God.
Christians who reject the cross as propitiation often say that it’s instead an act of expiation. As if that solves the problem. Expiation means that God wipes out our sins. It doesn’t answer the question “how.” Propitiation, Christianly understood, answers that question.
Scripture is filled with people who encounter God in some way, and what happens? They say something like, “I’m going to die now!” Why? Because each of them comes frighteningly close to experiencing the unmediated presence of a holy God. Without God’s doing something about our sin problem, none of us can live. Yet in Christ, we look forward some day to living in God’s unmediated presence.
Reject penal substitution if you want, but give me some other plausible explanation (in accordance with scripture) for how that can happen?