One of Jesus’s regular criticisms of the religious leaders of his day was that they had failed to discern the true character of God, and that this deep misconception was expressed through their behavior and the rules to which they held others. Jesus taught that to fulfill the law and the prophets, they must discern the character of God that is behind the scriptures and then to interpret all scriptures, laws, and customs through this lens. Accurately discerning the loving and merciful character of God would then manifest itself through our own loving and merciful behavior toward others, buttressed by a liberative and restorative reading of scripture.
It is essential, then, that we evaluate our own theological positions in comparison to the character of God as revealed through Jesus Christ. If any of our theological positions are found to be based on an inaccurate or distorted perception of God’s character, it is likely that they, too, are manifesting themselves through attitudes and behavior toward God, ourselves, and others that do not align with God’s will.
The Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement
What sort of theological position might I be talking about? I suggest that the most widely-held positions concerning what constitutes the Gospel itself are overdue for reevaluation. If you were to ask pretty much any churchgoing Christian what the Gospel is, you’re likely to hear that Christ paid the punishment for our sins by dying on the cross so that God can forgive us and we can go to Heaven. This is known as the penal substitutionary theory of atonement (PSA), and despite what you may have been led to believe, it is highly debatable whether this theory is an accurate explanation of the saving power of Jesus’s crucifixion. Unfortunately, because most Christians (at least in America) equate this theory with the Gospel and have accepted it as dogma, questioning it sounds a little like heresy.
One of my former professors repeated in every lecture that liturgical traditions didn’t “fall from the sky in a tin box,” but rather are largely the product of evolution by cultural influences. The same is true for many of the theological beliefs which we now take for granted, including our theories of atonement. That doesn’t necessarily make them incorrect, but it is helpful to understand that certain beliefs may not actually be central to the gospel message so that we may read scripture with fresh(er) eyes that are more open to alternate interpretations.
Rather than falling from the sky in a tin box, the theory of PSA was developed during the Reformation by Martin Luther and John Calvin as a modification of Anselm of Canterbury’s satisfaction theory of atonement. Writing from the social context of medieval feudalism, Anselm proposed that sin basically amounted to dishonoring God as a serf might dishonor his feudal lord. The only way for honor to be restored is to make satisfaction, but no normal human being is capable of making satisfaction for sin to restore God’s honor. The only one capable of making this satisfaction is God, but man is the only one who ought to make it–therefore, a God-man is required to make satisfaction in order for God’s honor to be restored.
According to Anselm, satisfaction must be made in order to avoid punishment. Luther and Calvin modified this theory by combining satisfaction and punishment: punishment itself is the satisfaction that God requires. Therefore, only our eternal punishment could satisfy God’s desire for justice, and so the violent sacrifice of God incarnate was necessary in order to free us from our debt.
But does this understanding reflect the true justice that God desires? Doesn’t this theory of atonement describe a vengeful and bloodthirsty God? We might point to God’s requirement of sacrifices described in the texts of the Old Testament, but we must ask whether our interpretation of these texts is truly in line with the character of God based on the God-as-love hermeneutic that Jesus demonstrated.
Sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible
Quoting Hosea 6:6, Jesus regularly criticized the Pharisees and teachers of the law for failing to understand what was meant by God’s statement, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” It may be helpful to know that the Hebrew word for “mercy” is hesed, translated as “steadfast love” in the NRSV. The Greek word used for “mercy” in the gospel texts is eleos, translated as “kindness or good will towards the miserable and the afflicted, joined with a desire to help them.” In other words, God does not want sacrifices, which may have the appearance of righteousness but in reality are only necessary because of our own sinfulness. If sacrifices were capable of effecting true justice, acceptable substitutes for righteousness, why would God be opposed to them? The true justice God desires comes through love and mercy toward God and others.
How should we understand the Jewish commands for animal sacrifice, then? The late anthropologist René Girard argued that Jesus aligned himself with the prophets of the Hebrew Bible when they recorded God as denying that he takes any delight in sacrifices (e.g. Ps 40:6; 51:16; Is 1:11; Amos 5:21; Jer 6:20), and even denies that he ever commanded it (Jer 7:22). The purpose of animal sacrifice, Girard believed, was to set the Hebrews apart from other nations by their refusal to participate in human sacrifice. We see this most vividly in God staying Abraham’s hand as he is about to sacrifice his son Isaac, and replacing him with a ram (Gen 22). As God is recorded as saying regarding human sacrifice at Jeremiah 7:31: “And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.”
Animal sacrifice might be seen, then, as a sort of “divine accommodation” to a people in their context, if not an exact representation of God’s will, the goal of which was to lead people away from human sacrifice, away from all sacrifice, to a true understanding of God’s character and true worship that consists of love for God and others.
Grace Jantzen argues in Foundations of Violence that violence stems ultimately from a fear of and obsessive preoccupation with death and that to combat it, we must redirect our energy and focus toward new life and human flourishing. If it is true that humanity has been possessed by an obsession with and glorification of death, has it shaped our understanding of justice? Is it the source of our unquestioned assumption that justice is achieved through punishment?
Punishment is what we humans turn to because we are incapable of providing the restoration that all victims desire: it is much easier to take away from wrongdoers than to provide restitution to the wronged. The resurrection of Jesus reveals to us that God, who is the inexhaustible, ever-flowing abundance of life, is the only one who can provide the true justice that is complete restoration of everything that has been broken, destroyed, or stolen. It shows us that we must reorient ourselves from death to new life.
We can affirm that God, through Jesus Christ, made the necessary satisfaction for our sins without accepting the belief that God’s perfect justice requires punishment. Anselm was correct that only God is able to make the satisfaction for our sins, but if we follow the later Reformed tradition in believing that punishment is necessary for justice, we may be failing to accurately discern the character and the power of God. This is extremely important, because this misconception has bled into our attitudes concerning justice in our own world. It has led to apathy and complacence toward those who are suffering, either by glorifying suffering for its own sake or by assuming, like Job’s friends, that it must be divine punishment. It has the potential to damage our own relationship with God, if we see God as an angry and oppressive authoritarian who is the cause of our suffering rather than as the one who suffers with us.
Jesus revealed that God is generous and merciful, and that he offers his love and mercy to us freely, just as he freely forgave those who were crucifying him. His resurrection proves that God could restore the entire cosmos, and everyone who has ever lived, dry every tear that has ever fallen, heal every relationship that has been broken, through the spring of life that is Godself.
What is Hell, then, if not eternal punishment? I find the Eastern Orthodox position on Hell to be consistent with God’s character, which is that both Heaven and Hell are found in the presence of God:
For those who love the Lord, His Presence will be infinite joy, paradise and eternal life. For those who hate the Lord, the same Presence will be infinite torture, hell and eternal death. The reality for both the saved and the damned will be exactly the same when Christ “comes in glory, and all angels with Him,” so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15–28). Those who have God as their “all” within this life will finally have divine fulfillment and life. For those whose “all” is themselves and this world, the “all” of God will be their torture, their punishment and their death. And theirs will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 8.21, et al.).
From this perspective, Hell is the natural consequence of refusing a restored relationship with God. And if we use this model for our own earthly justice systems (or our method of disciplining our children), we will reject punishment (especially capital punishment) in favor of responses that are more consistent with “natural consequences.” For example, separation from society through incarceration might be seen as a natural consequence of damaging one’s relationship with “society” by violating the rights of others. Incarceration would not be a natural consequence for “crimes” that violate no one’s rights. Punishment can be arbitrary and abusive, subject to the flawed judgment of the person who wields it. Natural consequences are the source of wisdom and inherently just.
We might understand true justice, then, as a combination of restoration and natural consequences that respect both the bountiful mercy of God and the free will of human beings.