Fair warning: my musings here are only penultimate thoughts, not rigorous defense of a position I have claimed for my own. That’s what this blog is for: musing and exploring on subjects that often don’t get discussed.
This post concerns atonement theory. It would surprise many evangelicals to hear that the “propitiation of divine wrath” theory is not the only way to construct the nature of salvation. The other popular view is typically referred to as the “nonviolent atonement,” but is better termed “restorative justice.”
The “restorative justice” atonement theory questions the evangelical construction of salvation, which claims that the principal appeasement of Christ on the cross was done in order to alleviate the “wrath of the Father.” We’re so used to hearing the work of Christ explained in this way that any other explanation is likely to sound odd and tin-eared at first. We must be on our guard not to dismiss such issues out of hand as impossible, but attempt to give them a fair hearing.
Doug Jones (Dismissing Jesus, ch. 12) covers this in some detail, and he points past himself to Darrin Belousek’s Atonement, Justice, and Peace for a detailed defense of the “restorative justice” theory.
Boiled down to their basic differences, the two theories work out in this way.
Penal substitution views the central problem solved by salvation to be the wrath of the Father – we sinned and violated the Law of God, therefore He is angered with us and must be appeased by the blood of a human sacrifice (this position is defended by Steve Jeffery et al, Pierced for Our Transgressions).
Restorative Justice views the central problem solved by Christ’s work on the cross to be our enslavement to death and Satan – we were betrayed by Lucifer, sent to help us, and labored under the dominion of spiritual death which leads to sin. In this view, Jesus’ death was not intended to appease the Father through blood-letting, but instead was designed to absorb all the powers of death and evil until their strength was broken, so that their hold over the cosmos was undone.
Notice that these two views aim in opposite directions.
The implications of the penal substitution view is that God is angry with us to such an extent that He must be sated by blood sacrifice. This assumes certain things about how to understand the Mosaic Tabernacle and Temple system, as well as the intention for the sacrifices – namely, that it was by blood sacrifice that sins were forgiven. This view tends to be focused on the individual – Jesus died for each individual, so that they could be atoned for by his blood one at a time.
The implications of the restorative justice view, on the other hand, is that mankind is enslaved to death and Satan, and that Jesus’ intention in dying on the cross was to break the power of these two dominions over man and the cosmos. This view sees the Christus Victor model (aka, Jesus defeated Satan and all the principalities and powers on the cross) as central to Scripture and Jesus’ work on the cross, and it seems as though Scripture is on their side in this:
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:8)
And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matt. 12:27-28)
Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. (John 12:31)
God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (Acts 10:38)
And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ (Acts 26:14-18)
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil (Heb. 2:14)
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col. 1:13)
He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Col. 2:15)
Moreover, what are the implications of seeing divine wrath as the problem to be solved, so that Jesus must come down and appease the Father by way of blood sacrifice? Among other things, it implies that God cannot bear with sin, even though we know that He does, and did, before Christ: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,” (Acts 17:30).
The effect of arguing that God’s own anger is the problem to be solved is to turn God into the Accuser of the faithful. It is God who is prosecuting us for our sins, so Jesus had to come to calm God down by the shedding of his blood in a human sacrifice. But in the great cosmic courtroom drama in Scripture, this is not at all the picture that we are given. God is not the Accuser, God is not the prosecuting attorney. That job falls to Satan (the word satan literally translated means “the accuser.”) Satan is the one who accuses the saints of their shortcomings before a forbearing God in an attempt to get Him to punish His own people, His beloved (Job 12:1-7; Zech. 3:1-2). In the book of Revelation, we see what salvation actually grants to God’s people:
And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Rev. 12:9-11)
So we can see that “salvation and the power an the kingdom” arrive precisely because “the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down.” God certainly does judge nations and peoples, but this is never a judgment upon His people. Judgment is reserved for the wicked and unrepentant; that same judgment is a glorious vindication of God’s chosen people.
So the penal substitution view seems to have cast their actors in the wrong parts. God is turned into the Accuser, and Satan for some reason doesn’t much matter, or play much of a role. But a God that accuses His own people of every little stumble does not seem to characterize God very well. “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever,” (Psa. 103:9). “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities,” (Psa. 103:10).
I need to do more reading on this subject before I come to any firm conclusions, but what is given above ought to at least make us keenly interested in investigating every possible angle to ensure we have not built our understanding of the cross on a mischaracterization of the Father.