Atonement - Explaining How Salvation Works

There are a number of different ‘atonement theories’ (ways to explain salvation). The first thing to note is that they are all theories - none of them is ‘proven’. Some are more popular than others in different parts of the church, and this has varied over time. In Protestant churches nowadays, one theory is overwhelmingly dominant - in fact most people see it as ‘the gospel’ and have no idea that there are alternative, competing, theories - in fact they usually state it as accepted fact, not even realising that it is a theory.

This theory is known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (hereafter PSA), and it is usually paired with another doctrine, Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) to form what most Protestant churches believe is the gospel. I won’t go into the fine detail of how it supposedly works because it is probably familiar to most of my readers, but the basic idea is that of a courtroom, with God sitting as judge (and jury and executioner too?). That the model should be this way is unsurprising because it was devised by a lawyer,back in the sixteenth century- none other than John Calvin. The basic idea is that we are found guilty in this court, and our sin makes God, the judge, so angry that he wants to kill us. But Jesus, on the cross, takes the punishment due to us as a sacrifice on our behalf, as our substitute, so that God the judge will no longer be angry with us, and will let us enter the heavenly kingdom. In the second, complimentary part of this narrative, ECT, the idea is that those who do not ‘accept Jesus as their saviour’ during this lifetime will spend eternity being tortured for not having done so. The argument as to why the punishment should be eternal is largely based on the idea that transgressing God’s perfect, infinite, holiness deserves infinite punishment.

These two doctrines profoundly perturbed my equilibrium some years ago. I began to struggle to believe that God was angry at all, let alone whether he was unjust enough to torture someone for eternity for making one mistake - whilst perhaps not even realising they had made a mistake. It does not seem to me just - the punishment does not seem to me to fit the crime.

And so what I am about to say is, perhaps, the nub of where I’m at regarding Christianity.

First of all, note that PSA is just a theory. It is dominant in Protestant, and particularly evangelical Protestant, theology, but in fact it is only one theory amongst a fair number - there have been about seven relatively popular ones down the millennia - Wikipedia isn’t a bad place to start to read about them.

Some parts of the universal church actually see PSA as a heresy… And I have considerable sympathy with that view. I shall try to explain some of the reasons behind my rejection of PSA, and look briefly at what I prefer in its place - and I’ll go on to discuss it in more detail in my next post.

First of all, God doesn’t like, or want sacrifices. There are numerous places in the bible where God tells us that.

Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the LORD?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
1 Samuel 15:22

The multitude of your sacrifices -
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
Isaiah 1:11-13

With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:6-8

For I want mercy and not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. Hosea 6:6

The latter is quoted by Jesus in Matthew 9:13, and again in Matthew 12:7, whilst arguing with the Pharisees.

People often explain away God not usually wanting sacrifices, but making an excuse this time by a sort of ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’ argument… Or by saying that God didn’t desire all those other sacrifices, but he accepted them anyway; and that sacrificing his son is different in any case. But, really, the way those passages against sacrifice have been translated into English is quite weak - and perhaps deliberately so. Translating them more carefully, it seems that it isn’t just that God doesn’t desire sacrifices, but that they are absolutely not his will; he doesn’t want them; he is determined not to accept them.

Odd then, that he should suddenly decide after all, that the best way to reconcile himself to humanity is by means of a sacrifice. And not just any old sacrifice, but a human sacrifice… Which, if you know your Old Testament, you should also know is one of the major issues God had with the original inhabitants of the land of Canaan, and sometimes with Israel too - this is just one scriptural example:

‘Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah and people of Jerusalem. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods ; they have burned incense in it to gods that neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal - something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind. Jeremiah 19:3-5

What this tells us is that the very idea of human sacrifice is abhorrent to God.

Secondly, the idea that God ‘turns against’ Jesus when he ‘becomes sin for us’ shows a poor understanding of the notion of the godhead, and the Holy Trinity. By saying that, at the crucifixion, God the Father abandons Jesus is, in effect, to fracture the Trinity. It denies the deity of Christ… It implies that, even if only for a short time, Jesus stops being God at that point. Effectively it also says that the alienation caused by sin is stronger than the love which binds together the three persons of the Trinity. And it says that God can’t look on sin. We argued, earlier, that this cannot be the case.

And there’s an oddly ‘circular’ argument going on if we follow the lines of reasoning which PSA implies. The logic goes something like this: God is angry with humanity for sinning. God determines that there must be a sacrifice in order for him to be able to ‘forgive’ humanity’s ‘debt’, and He sacrifices His son to pay the price. So...

God sacrifices God to God, in order that God might forgive humanity for offending God.

Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me! Why demand the sacrifice of someone you love to allow you to love someone else as well? It just isn’t logical.

Pagan gods demand sacrifices. I believe our god is different - He’s infinitely better than that, and showing us a better way to be too.

And, on the whole forgiveness thing… Why is it that, according to the Lord’s Prayer (and other places) we have to forgive freely those who sin against us, whilst God is allowed to demand ‘payment’ before He will forgive those who sin against him? Heck, we even pray:

Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
Luke 11:4

By this argument, it seems that humanity is held to a higher standard of morality than God!

And, again, on the matter of forgiveness; if a payment has to be made to settle a debt, then the debt has not been forgiven, instead it has been settled. So God, in that case, doesn’t forgive us - because to forgive us there would have to have been no payment asked or received. Instead, it’s a (rather sordid) transaction, involving the torture and sacrifice of a person as ‘payment’.

The cross wasn’t God’s idea; it was humanity’s. It originated in the depraved imagination of humanity. People devised the obscene spectacle of nailing a person to a cross to torture and kill them. You can’t blame God for that. But it was God’s will to submit himself to humanity’s violence so as to demonstrate the wisdom of divine love - which is the antithesis of all mankind’s violent rebellion.

As we saw above, Jesus twice quoted the passage from Hosea 6:6 stating that God doesn’t want sacrifices, but that he does want mercy. There’s a lot one can say about the ‘trajectory’ of the bible narrative in this - big picture stuff. If we assume that, instead of being ‘all equally true, all the time’, the bible instead portrays humanity’s gradual realisation of the nature of God’s character (or, looked at from the other side, a gradual revelation of God) we see a dawning realisation that God isn’t demanding sacrifices like the pagan Gods - as Israel seems to have assumed early in its existence. Indeed, God denies, through his prophet Jeremiah, that he had ever demanded sacrifices:

"For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you." - Jeremiah 22:23

By the time of Christ it becomes abundantly clear that Christ’s sacrifice was not demanded by God - because God isn’t one of those bloodthirsty pagan gods. Sacrificing to violent gods is purely the invention of depraved humanity. Instead, God submitted to our violence in order to subvert it, and to subvert the whole notion of sacrifice.

If it’s a sacrifice at all, it’s a self-sacrifice to defeat violence and evil, which God the father endorsed by also using it to defeat death, and thereby potentially bringing all of humanity back to the pre-fall, pre-curse, state… Jesus becoming the second Adam to achieve this. That is the basis for my preferred theory of the atonement: Recapitulation Theory, in which Jesus ‘recapitulates’ human life, getting right all the things Adam got wrong. The significance of his resurrected self being encountered first in a garden (harking back to the Garden of Eden), and Him being mistaken for the gardener ought not to be lost on us!

As I said, God doesn’t appear to either need or want sacrifices in order to forgive us, let alone a human sacrifice. He doesn’t seem to get off on watching animals get their throat cut either … It seems to me that he’s quite deliberately rejecting all that stuff.

If God didn’t command, and neither needs, nor wants, sacrifice, that must mean that He can forgive us without sacrifice, and presumably already has. In which case, sacrifice in general, and Jesus’ sacrifice in particular, isn’t to reconcile God to us. It is, instead perhaps, us attempting to reconcile ourselves to God - a way for us to cleanse our consciences, rather than being necessary for God to forgive us. Or, perhaps, it’s a way for evil men to ‘remove’ a problem - that problem being someone who’s consistently, and persistently, calling out their evil ways; exposing their lies, corruption, and false religion; or who is seen as a dangerous rebel, fomenting revolution.

Next time we’ll go on to discuss the ‘Recapitulation Theory of the Atonement’ in more detail (and perhaps one or two other thoughts around the life and death of Jesus).

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022