Rethinking the Atonement

My friend Mike Todd is rethinking his view of the atonement:

I won’t keep you in the dark on what I think any longer. The notion that I have let go of is the Penal Substitution theory of atonement…

He argues that no single theory can explain God, that penal substitution makes God less than God, is incompatible with grace, fails to place the atonement within the larger story of God, and misunderstands God’s wrath. The heart of the gospel, he says, is that God is quite fond of us, and plans to redeem all of creation.

In the comments, Mike suggests, “Jesus, who was without sin, took our sin upon himself, but I think perhaps he did it so we could get over it and move past it.” God didn’t require a sacrifice for sin; we did.

A few reflections:

First, the penal substitution perspective is often misunderstood, and we need to take care that we don’t believe in a caricature. John Stott writes of some of the wrong ways we present this perspective:

Reluctant to suffer himself, [the Father] victimizes Christ instead. Reluctant to forgive, he is prevailed on by Christ to do so. [The Father] is seen as a pitiless ogre whose wrath has to be assauged, whose disinclination to act has to be overcome, by the loving self-sacrifice of Jesus.
Such crude interpretations of the cross still emerge in some of our evangelical illustrations, as when we describe Christ as coming to rescue us from the judgment of God, or when we portray him as the whipping-boy who is punished for the real culprit, or as the lightning conductor to which the lethal electric charge is deflected. (The Cross of Christ)

In other words: be careful not to caricature the penal substitutionary perspective. Scot McKnight rightfully says, “I believe the hue and cry by emerging Christians about penal substitution is a gut-level reaction to caricatures of the doctrine.”

Second, Mike is right that there is more than one perspective on the atonement. I don’t like the word theories as much as I do perspectives – different ways of looking at the same thing. This is the beauty of Scot McKnight’s book A Community Called Atonement. There are other perspectives on the atonement: the atonement as example, as a demonstration of God’s love, a demonstration of God’s justice, and as a decisive triumph over evil. Millard Erickson argues that “each of the theories of the atonement contains a valid insight,” but “it is only on the basis of the substitutionary view that those other insights bear force.”

Third, the penal substitutionary view is not only the view of some Reformed types, but is also held by others such as McKnight and N.T. Wright (see here and here). I realize that you don’t win an argument by stacking up experts, but we need to counter the view that it’s a novel or fringe view held by only the very conservative.

Finally, this reminds me of that game I played as a kid with sticks and marbles. The object was to pull out a stick without all the marbles crashing down. I’m all for pulling out sticks that don’t belong, but I am a little worried about what marbles are about to fall. We need to be careful about redefining God’s wrath. or suggesting that we have more of a problem with sin than God does. There are so many important themes across Scripture, as well as some significant passages of Scripture, that need to be dealt with any time we rethink an important doctrine.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Liberty Grace Church in Toronto. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada