So, if you take away Penal Substitution – the idea that Jesus takes our place as a substitute on the Cross bearing the penalty for our sin then what do you put in its place?
Several atonement models have been suggested. These include that
– Jesus’ sacrificial death is an example for us to follow
– Jesus’ death is a demonstration of God’s love in the face of human anger and violence
– Jesus’ death is the means by which in weakness, he in fact defeats evil by drawing it into himself.
Now, it’s important to state again that usually when we talk about Penal Substitution that this is not intended to be an alternative model to these but a description of the atonement which includes all of these.
“Jesus’ death on the Cross demonstrates God’s love as he takes our place and bears the punishment we deserve in order to defeat Evil.”
Note that the idea of Jesus as “example” is not central to the atonement. It’s not that Jesus shows us how to become good. However, the New Testament does also include the idea of his suffering being an example for how we can face suffering too.
Another Atonement model has been doing the rounds and I understand that it is gaining popularity among opponents of Penal Substitution. It’s called Scapegoating Theory and is associated with a French Theologian called Rene Girard.
The idea is that human society will seek out someone to blame for things that go wrong. This person becomes the scapegoat and is excluded from the group. The Judaeo-Christian response is to present God as stepping in and first of all offering an animal as a substitute for the scape-goated human. However, ultimately God in the person of Jesus himself steps in and is substituted for the animal.
This is important because the argument against Penal Substitution is that this is about “Redemptive Violence” and violence by the strong is frowned upon in modern society. Also, Penal Substitution tells us that God is angry (wrath) at human evil and violence. Again, whilst it is okay for the oppressed and vulnerable to be angry at power structures, our society frowns upon those who have power expressing anger. So, wrath is something we want to exclude from God.
Therefore, the Cross is meant to subvert our understanding of how things work. Instead of us needing to appease God’s anger by offering our scape-goat to him. God is the one who steps in and acts. He offers himself as the scapegoat. Instead of the problem being God’s wrath, the problem is our own anger, jealousy and desire for vengeance.
James Alison explains
“So you do have a genuine substitution that is quite proper within the atonement theory. All sacrificial systems are substitutionary; but what we have with Jesus is an exact inversion of the sacrificial system: him going backwards and occupying the space so as to make it clear that this is simply murder. And it needn’t be. That is what we begin to get in St John’s Gospel: a realisation that what Jesus was doing was actually revealing the mendacious principle of the world. The way human structure is kept going is by us killing each other, convincing ourselves of our right to do it, and therefore building ourselves us up over and against our victims. What Jesus understands himself as doing in St John’s Gospel is revealing the way that mechanism works. And by revealing it, depriving it of all power by seeing it as a lie: “your father was a liar and a murderer from the beginning”. That is how the “prince” – or principle – of this world works.”
In other words, the purpose of the Atonement is to expose the foolishness of our own religious assumptions and to show us a better way. This is attractive to us because it fits with another contemporary assumption that what people mainly need is education. In other words, it is another form of the “Example” model.
There are some other things that may make this model attractive and indeed we might want to find some positive points in it. Let me suggest the following.
- It seeks to recover the Judaeo sacrificial system from being treated as another pagan and primitive example of people trying to appease a vindictive god. Alison’s article argues for a strong continuity between the Old Testament sacrifices and Christ’s atonement.
- From a first read, it seems to put locate the problem of evil firmly where it should be -with us.
- It gets us thinking about one aspect of the sacrificial system that maybe doesn’t always get that much attention – the role of the scape-goat.
- Furthermore, that sense of how the Cross exposes the problem of sin, the wickedness of our hearts and the hypocrisy of our religion is important.
However, the model falls short and it does so for the same reasons that every model which does not include penal-substitution.
First of all, it is put forward by people who want to avoid what they call “Redemptive Violence.” Yet, as I keep having to repeat, you can’t take violence away from the Atonement unless you completely get rid of The Cross. This is just as violent an account as any of the others. Whichever way we read it, the Father, Son and Spirit agree that the Son should experience extreme violence.
This takes us to our second point. A Christian Theology of the Atonement must take into account the whole of Scripture. We can’t simply choose to cherry-pick the bits we like and ignore the bits that disagree with us. So, problem two. It is the Bible that introduces the idea of God’s wrath or anger. Nor is this some primitive Old Testament thing corrected by the New Testament.
“But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness”
“All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.”
So we can’t just ignore God’s anger and try and erase it from the Bible and that’s what in effect those Atonement models that exclude Penal Substitution do. Again, I think that a major reason for this is that we struggle with the whole idea of anger. I think this is because
– We fear our own anger because we know that it often comes in an out of control and destructive rage
– We fear the anger of others again because it comes in that same out of control destructive rage but also because it is used by the powerful to harm the weak.
Yet, we know at the same time that anger is not a bad thing in itself. I mentioned earlier the acceptance of anger as a powerful thing when it is on the side of justice for the weak and vulnerable against powerful elites.
Now, the point is this. If anger at injustice is good, then that means that sometimes those who will be angry will be powerful. Indeed, there has to be some sense of power here, otherwise all we are left with is futile raging against the machine. When someone with power, better still, when someone with authority is angry at injustice, cruelty etc – then change is coming.
If we accept this then we may well be ready to accept the possibility that if there is a good God who makes a beautiful world for humans to live in and those humans choose to reject his love and justice instead living selfishly for themselves. Then that God has the right to be angry at our injustice and cruelty. Secondly, if that God is the Triune God, the Father has the right to be angry at our rejection of his beloved Son and the Son has the right to be angry when we choose to dishonour and slander his father.
And yet, the great and glorious mystery is that this God chooses not to place the full weight of his righteous anger and justice on us but to take it on himself.
Thirdly, the problem with the Scapegoat model is the same as the Example model. In the end, it leaves me unchanged. It may confront my sin and hypocrisy, it may expose it for what it is but then it isn’t doing anything that the Law already did. The Bible tells me that I need a new heart, a new identity. That’s why the Gospel is so clear that Jesus took my sin, shame and guilt onto himself and in exchange gives me his righteousness.
We cannot talk about Atonement without recognising two things. First of all, that Atonement involves sacrificial death and so is by nature violent. Secondly that the problem that atonement resolves is our sin. Human sin and rebellion means that God’s wrath is righteous.
The good news of the Gospel is that God in Jesus does not treat us as our sins deserve. Instead we receive from him, love, mercy and grace in abundance.
 Romans 1:18
 Ephesians 2:2