Questions about Penal Atonement

Toby Sumpter, a pastor in the CREC, a strongly conservative Presbyterian denomination, has written a piece responding to part of a piece by Derrin Belousek regarding the latter’s work on penal substitution. Right, got that sorted out?

Now, Sumpter has not read Belousek’s 600-page tome taking down every brick in the Penal Substitutionary theory, so he can perhaps be forgiven for getting late to the party and trying to chime into the discussion without knowing what’s been going on beforehand. Sumpter objects to Belousek’s description of PSA, which is this:

God, who is holy and just, cannot tolerate sin and so must judge sin by punishing sinners with death; but God, who is also merciful, provides sinners an escape from divine retribution by ordaining Christ’s death as punishment in their place.

Sumpter calls this a “rhetorical setup” which is “skewing the question” in order to make PSA look like a “distortion of God’s character.” Even though it needs no rhetorical skewing to be a fundamental distortion of God’s character – but I digress. No, the problem is that Belousek’s description is the standard definition of PSA given by its supporters, so his complaint that it is an unfair caricature seems like special pleading. Pick any of the major defenses of PSA and you will essentially find this definition (for example, this one).

The second problem with Sumpter’s complaint is a big one, and it has to do with the entire spread of his post, and it is that when Belousek is speaking of God’s intolerance of sin in his article, he is specifically talking about the claim that God supposedly abandoned the Son on the cross. Sumpter assumes that Belousek thinks the intolerance of God for sin means that He must punish us with death immediately, that He can have no patience with us at all. But Belousek’s point is that

if God can abandon his own Son at the cross, what assurance do we have that God won’t abandon us in our time of trial? If the cross shows that God left his own Son derelict as he faced powers of darkness and death, what assurance do we have that God won’t leave us derelict to face peril and sword? Can anyone trust this God?

And Belousek is pulling his punches here too. If, after all, the primary agent that has set itself against Jesus in this place is actually the Father throwing all of His fury and wrath upon His own Son, then not only do we have to worry about God abandoning us, but also kicking us while we’re down, so to speak. Not only was it a sham trial through which Jesus was falsely killed, but the whole thing was ultimately God’s doing. Yikes.

One can nitpick about Sumpter’s understanding of the Torah and his definition of wrath and justice and hell, but at the base of it he just seems to think that only PSA can make sense of these ideas. As if deniers of PSA have never heard of wrath before. But those who deny penal substitution have not only heard of wrath, they also make sense of it within their paradigm. No one denies that God has wrath, or that He has the right to destroy anyone for committing sin. The question is really about whether God must destroy anyone. That God has the right to do so does not mean that He must exercise this right (Belousek discusses this at length in the second half of his excellent book, Atonement, Justice, and Peace). We see God as having the right to penal punishment but as choosing in His grace and mercy to employ restorative justice, justice that does not destroy but restores our humanity through love and peace rather than destroying us through retribution and wrath.

All this leads us to ask some fundamental questions about PSA.

Why does every single summary of the cross and what it accomplished always speak of it as the defeat of the devil and as an exodus, rather than God’s punishment for sin?

Why does the New Testament always speak of the Father and the Son working in concert through the cross to accomplish peace for humanity, rather than the Father’s penal action upon the Son?

Why does the New Testament never speak of God’s wrath coming upon Jesus, or Jesus bearing the wrath of the Father as a substitute?

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Sacrifice in the Garden?

I just received my monthly newsletter from Biblical Horizons, the ministry of theologian James B. Jordan. Jordan is a typologist and – while believing some funky things – is viewed by a number of people as an insightful interpreter.

One of his big claims is that when God killed the animal in the Garden and clothed Adam and Eve with the skins (Gen. 3:21), this was a foreshadowing of Israel’s sacrificial system, of course presumed to be penal substitutionary in nature. He’s not the only one to make this claim, but he puts a lot of weight on this reading of the passage. In the mail this month came a lengthy defense of this reading, which I found to be rather specious.

The first observation I make is that we’re not required to take this interpretation. That is, the text doesn’t require this reading and nothing is endangered by deciding that we don’t agree with it.

But let’s start with noting what the text itself says: “Yahweh God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them,” (Gen. 3:21). This is all the information the text itself gives us. After the fall, God killed an animal and gave the skins to Adam and Eve to replace the garments of leaves they had made for themselves.

That’s everything the text communicates, but efforts have been made by Jordan and others to fit this passage into a penal substitutionary atonement paradigm. Jordan explains the connection in this way:

God killed an animal and from it provided tunics for Adam and Eve. (“Skin” is singular, which at least implies only one animal for both tunics.) God had said that in the day they ate of the forbidden fruit they would die, and they did in the sense that the human race lived under the shadow of death until the resurrection of Jesus. God taught them that this half-life was possible because a substitute dies in their place.

I think this goes far beyond what we can say is the meaning of this action by God. It certainly is not the obvious meaning of the passage when looked at in the context of Genesis 2-3. There’s no reason that I’m aware to see the promise of death as anything other than physical death which was commuted by by God out of his forgiveness and mercy. The “dying you will die” is often taken by evangelicals to mean they did not die physically on that day, but they died spiritually. But the clearest reading of the passage is simply that God said, “If you eat of it, you will die that very day,” and then decided not to enforce His promise of the death penalty. Likewise, the curse of Genesis 3 can be interpreted either descriptively or prescriptively – that is, it can be understood to be a description of what is going to happen because Adam and Eve are enslaved to the Satan, or as a proscriptive curse which God puts upon them. The proscriptive is the side many evangelicals have embraced, and would make a substitutionary act in v. 21 more reasonable. But there aren’t really many compelling reasons to understand the curse prescriptively. The only two parts of the curse imposed by God is the enmity between the woman and the Serpent and the increase in travail during childbirth (Gen. 3:15-16).

So to say that God “taught them” that their life was spared because of a substitute that died in their place is to go far beyond the intended meaning of the text. The text simply indicates that God provided for them. He sent them out of His Garden-Presence, yes, but this was an act of mercy. What this passage teaches Adam and Eve is that no matter what they do, their loving and merciful Father will provide for their needs. This same mercy and provision is seen when God not only refuses to kill Cain for murder, but actively protects him from retaliation (Gen. 4:10-16). And Jesus frames this same mercy as the central characteristic of the Father as well: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matt. 5:45). “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” (Luke 6:35-36).

Jordan then says,

Only skin made from an animal’s death would be enough to make a wall between humanity and the wrath of their father.

It is at this point that the logic of Jordan’s essay starts coming apart, because this simply is not true. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” (Heb. 10:4). Far from being able to put up a wall (or covering, or cleansing or whatever term you’d like to apply to it) between humanity and the wrath of God, an animal’s death actually did nothing of the sort at all. We see this example in the very next story in Genesis. Cain kills Abel, a sin which (according to the penal substitutionary view) must require the blood of a substitutionary atonement is simply forgiven without any sacrifice at all. God does not need blood in order to remain in communion with humanity. The idea that God would run away from sin and brokenness is the attitude of Cain himself: “I will be hidden from your presence,” (Gen. 4:14). God’s answer is surprising under the penal view: “Not so!” (Gen. 4:15). God will not abandon the sinful.

Moreover, the making of the animal skins in Genesis 3:21 does not even match with the sacrificial system which penal substitution has developed. The PSA paradigm states that only the blood of a substitute can cleanse sin and restore us to fellowship with God. Jordan acknowledges this himself: the animal death here is “offered as a way to restore broken communion with God.” Under the sacrificial system this permitted the Israelite to come back into God’s presence in the Temple-Tabernacle. And, as Jordan has repeatedly pointed out, the Garden functions as a proto-Temple. Being clothed in the skins means that “Adam and Eve are allowed to begin again as priests.”

But if sacrifice restores communion and recommissions as priests, then why were Adam and Eve not permitted to re-enter the Garden? If they were indeed priests serving in the Garden-Temple, and their sin exiled them from serving in this way, and sacrifices restores them to that service, then they should have been free to reenter the Garden. But they aren’t. They’re sent away. To my mind this casts doubt upon the whole interpretive enterprise.

To recap, 1) the interpretation is not required, 2) it depends upon the penal substitutionary atonement paradigm, and 3) it doesn’t even fit the facts according to adherents’ own system. This indicates the whole business has overcomplicated a beautiful statement about God’s mercy and compassion and provision of those who have broken fellowship with Him.

That Bit About Brimstone

I try to stay positive, in life and in theology. Books and blogs that are all about “refuting” the other guy don’t really appeal to me very much. I’d rather here about why something is right instead of all the reasons somebody else might be wrong.

I mention this because the springboard for my comments in this post come from a fairly negative source, on a rather negative topic. Doug Wilson, the resident shock-doctor Calvinist (outside of the Neo-Calvinist movement), has written some harsh words about hell the other day that I thought would be useful for asking some important and pointed questions.

Now, Wilson starts off in a promising direction. The first sentence of his post is this: “I want to begin by acknowledging that the metaphors of damnation that we find in Scripture are quite possibly not literal descriptions.” So far so good. Given that Wilson is in essence a sophisticated fundamentalist, I found this to be a promising start. But it doesn’t take but another sentence to open up a whole host of problems. He writes, “But before assuming that I am quietly becoming a liberal, let me point something out about the nature of symbolic language.”

Now, this is problematic because it assumes that the great sin is to become “liberal,” whereas I was under the impression that the real problem was being “unbiblical.” Of course, these two terms are routinely conflated, but the point is that we really ought to be endeavoring to present what we see in Scripture regardless of whether that makes us seem like a liberal or a conservative.

But the real problem is what Wilson says next. His paragraph discussing symbolic language argues that the reality to which the symbol points is always bigger than the symbol itself. The nation is larger than the flag, the marriage is greater than the ring, etc. These are classic metaphors for Wilson to use, ones which he has always laying in the wings to be employed. But they are less than helpful when talking about apocalyptic and eschatological language, because these sorts of symbols frequently use bigger things to point at littler things. The “end of the world” metaphors of eschatological literature in the New Testament is really pointing at the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Hardly the end of the world, though it was the transition from the Jewish to the Messianic Aeon. The fact that Jesus said the stars would fall from heaven and said this symbolically, does not mean something actually bigger than a star is going to smash into the earth. Rather, he is quoting Isaiah 13, where cosmic collapse language is used to discuss the fall of a particular nation. So, as regards this sort of metaphor, the reality does not have to be worse, or bigger, or anything like that at all.

Here is the point the wheels start to come off Wilson’s train as he takes the curve at 150 MPH. He wants to preserve the horribleness of hell: he views it as evangelistic in nature. That is, serving God out of a fear of hell is a good and right and proper motivation for doing what we do. This is classic fear-based fundamentalism and Wilson would be right at home with Jonathan Edwards’ most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

He writes, “One of the reasons we object to language about judgment is that we believe that it corrupts our motives for coming to Christ. We should love Christ, not fear Him. Right, but as sinners we are in no shape to love Him, and our sins require us to fear Him.” I don’t see much of the Jesus of the gospels in this sort of idea. He didn’t treat the sinners he dealt with as “in no shape to love Him.” In fact, Jesus assumed the opposite. He assumed that not only did the tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners need love, but that they would be far more reliably compelled to follow Him by the offer of love rather than fear – they got plenty of fear-based nonsense from the Pharisees and look how effectively that solved their problems. In fact, “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear,” (1 John 4:18). Fear-based theology is not theology at all, because theology is the study of God, and God is love, and love casts out fear.

The problem here is that everything about this sort of theology is messed up. It gets everything backwards. It thinks we need fear when we really need love, and it confuses vindictiveness with justice. Wilson writes, “We are so befuddled in our self-flattering conceits that we do not recognize that Heaven is the actual challenge to God’s justice. The problem is not how a just God could condemn anyone, but rather the problem is how a just God could allow any of our muddy boots even to touch the marble floors in His presence.” Here we have the ghosts of the “God is too holy for sin” doctrine, which is nonsense and hokum. This sort of God has more in common with the heathen gods of old than Yahweh of the Old Testament – or even Jesus in the New Testament. Where is it said that God is so concerned with the state of his floors that he is more concerned about that than about welcoming the broken? This whole concept of God’s character is ridiculous.

In fact, there is no place in any of the 66 books of the bible that states Jesus was punished by God in our place. Divine retribution against sin is not the picture we see on the cross. We see Jesus going to the cross crying out that the Father would “forgive them, for they know not what they do,” not, “Father, add this sin to the sins you’re going to whip me to death for.” In Hebrew and Greek, “righteousness” and “justice” are exactly the same word, and refers to a process of restoration, not the meting out of the strict letter of the law (on this subject, check out Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, 255-258; Perry Yoder, Shalom; Marshall, Beyond Retribution 47-50; Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace, 62), and thus function under the category of love and mercy, not judgment. Wilson, of course, leaves his definition of “justice” entirely undefined and functioning as an assumption, not an argument.

This is where exegesis comes into play, and where all this gets interesting. Most of his citations about hell are actually taken from the parables of Jesus. As a number of scholars (including N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope) has established, the rhetorical function and purpose of the parables is not to teach eternal truths about the afterlife, but are actually designed to confront Israel with her own violent behavior. Jesus is essentially warning Israel that if they do not shape up, Rome will deem them in need of a good re-conquest and reduce them to the smouldering trash-heap in the canyon outside Jerusalem. That is, they are 1) this-worldly, and 2) dealing with Israel, not general humanity, and 3) addressing Israel as a community, not as individuals. This in turn means they’re not about hell, but about this-worldly destruction of a nation-state by another nation-state. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus doesn’t communicate anything about the actual experience of the afterlife, because it is first of all a metaphor about who God is going to vindicate in the here-and-now, and upturns Israel’s expectations by God’s decision to side with the poor and oppressed rather than with the rich and powerful, and is connected to the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 (another image associated with final metaphysical judgment that should be understood as dealing with Israel again, in the first century), in which the sheep are accepted on the basis of their kindness and care for the poor and oppressed.

The central passage Wilson appeals to is Revelation 14, where the wicked are said to be tormented in front of the angels and the Lamb forever and ever. But Revelation is frequently subversive of this kind of imagery – in fact, the whole NT is. The “terrible day of Yahweh” of Joel 2 full of destruction and wrath is fulfilled by the tongues of fire and mass conversions (Acts 2). In Isaiah 61, the “day of vengeance” is parallel to the “year of Yahweh’s favor,” a vengeance fulfilled by Jesus’s ministry of care for the poor and sick and oppressed (Luke 4). Even in Revelation itself, the wrath and fury and violence brought by Jesus against his enemies is a slaughter by the sword that comes from his mouth, the word of G0d – that is, Jesus slaughters His enemies in conversion. So we should already be prepared for the fact that the text might be behaving a bit disingenuously with its own choice of language. The worshipers of the beast said to be punished by the wine of the wrath of God (Rev. 14:10) is fulfilled in the next section, when the angels reap a harvest of bread and wine, a sacramental picture symbolizing the final martyrdom of the Church crushed for their faithfulness to Jesus’s call to enemy-love (Rev. 14:14-20). These two pictures can’t be separated from one another because the first is fulfilled in the second (compare Rev. 14:10, 19-20). Thus, the wrath promised to the wicked is fulfilled when the Church loves her enemies and is killed by those enemies for the sake of the gospel. Hardly a picture of wrath or hell there. And, of course, in Revelation 19, Jesus ride out with the Church to slay his enemies with the conversion of the gospel (Rev. 19:15). The metaphorical and symbolic powers, the beast and the false prophet, are cast into the lake of fire, but their servants and armies are slain by the gospel of Jesus – the humans are converted (Rev. 19:21).

So where does this leave us with regard to hell as a concept? I honestly don’t know. There isn’t much in Scripture that actually addresses some kind of metaphysical location for the damned in the supernatural sense. The actual passages, or at least the vast majority of them, are singularly focused on the national destruction of Israel, pictured in symbolic terms and using archetypal figures and are therefore irrelevant to the discussion. I am disinclined to accept universalism, since God respects us enough to honor the wishes of those who would refuse to dwell in His presence. God is love, as we have said, and love “does not insist on its own way,” (1 Cor. 13:5). Greg Boyd’s comments here and here and here are worth exploring for those interested.

Excuses, Excuses . . .

It has seemed to me that, as Christians, our general approach to Scripture has been problematic. I have no high, theological issues to discuss here about inerrancy or the like, merely an observation on how our attitudes frame what is acceptable discourse and what isn’t.

Let me explain. In my Bible study group we’ve been going through the Gospel of Matthew, and we’ve recently gotten into that stickiest of passages, the Sermon on the Mount. Now, the Sermon is not all that complicated in my view, and Jesus’s commands are fairly straightforward. But to my amazement, I watched the straightforward words of Jesus get turned upside down and inside out. As it turns out, most Christians think the Sermon is a highly contextualized document that requires a fine reading that splits all the hairs that are possible. Jesus’s command not to take oaths, for example, now means that oaths are perfectly okay, so long as you mean what you say and actually do it. Not only are religious oaths okay, but so too are oaths of a civil and national nature. It is not a violation of the taking of oaths to say the pledge of allegiance. Obviously. Jesus was totally on board with nationalism, apparently.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find out that not only does Jesus’s straightforward statement “Do not resist with violence those who would harm you” actually mean “go ahead and resist with violence those who would harm you,” but that doing violence and harm to them can itself be fulfilling the command to love one’s enemies. This sort of reasoning, no matter how popular, is really twisted. How exactly is this kind of thing different from how the Pharisees treated the Torah? It does have a long tradition, though. Augustine’s classic commentary on the Sermon says this, “Nor are we thus precluded from inflicting such punishment [requital] as avails for correction, and as compassion itself dictates.” Oh, right, of course. Correcting someone violently is actually compassionate. That’s obviously what Jesus meant. Augustine goes on, “But no one is fit for inflicting this punishment except the man who, by the greatness of his love, has overcome that hatred wherewith those are wont to be inflamed who wish to avenge themselves,” and claims that it is “not a rule for outward action.” Right, that obviously makes sense. That is, basically, so long as you’re not punishing out of inner hatred, you’re in the clear.

Excuses, excuses.

John Calvin was little better. He claims that the “design of Christ was merely to train the minds of believers to moderation and justice, that they might not, on receiving one or two offenses, fail or lose courage.” Right, sure. Don’t use violence against your enemies means inward mind training and extends to “one or two offenses.” Further, for Calvin, it is “unquestionably” true that “Christ did not intend to exhort his people to whet the malice of those, whose propensity to injure others is sufficiently strong: and if they were to turn to them the other cheek, what would it be but holding out such an encouragement?” Again this magical love that lets us overturn Jesus’s own words. You can’t just refuse to defend yourself at all, that’s crazy, right? I mean, if they love violence, then you’re just encouraging them in their sin, and we can’t have that, can we?

Excuses, excuses.

And so here’s my point. Christians spend more time talking about what certain things in the Bible don’t mean than what they do mean. It happens in the Sermon most of all, but also in Acts 2 and 4, because it just cannot mean what it appears to be saying. But why? Why can’t it mean exactly what it says? Why is it that we have to twist and dig and rend and explain the power out of these passages?

There isn’t a good reason. There are just excuses. So when someone tells you that the Bible “just can’t mean that,” stop and ask why not? What happens if it did mean that? Most of the time when this happens, you have some sort of ideology or prior commitment hovering around in the background not too far off.