Many evangelicals would understand the atonement in something like the following manner: Our sin breaks God’s holy law and results in His wrath against us. Sin must always be punished. If we were to bear the punishment of the sins that we committed we would have to suffer the punishment for all eternity in hell. However, God, in His love, punished Jesus instead of us. He bore the punishment that we deserved, God having put our sins to His account. He was condemned so that we might go free.
This understanding of the atonement presents the justice that is being exercised largely in terms of retributive justice. Underlying this approach is the idea of ‘recompense’ that is common to many theories of the atonement. In some manner or other God’s justice must be satisfied or honour must be compensated for the each of the sins that we have committed. Most evangelicals think of the recompense principle operating in terms of criminal law, rather than in terms of civil law. When we have committed sin God’s justice requires retribution. In order to maintain the divine justice and yet save us from punishment, someone must suffer the punishment in our place. Christ’s action on the cross was His bearing of the punishment due to our sins, so that we ourselves might not be punished.
This is essentially the position that I will be critiquing in this post.
Many have objected to this notion by pointing out that guilt and punishment are inalienable. Whilst another person may pay a fine that you had incurred for you, no one could serve a jail sentence for you without injustice taking place. This objection is certainly not without its force. It is hard to believe that a judge would be just were he to allow a convicted murderer to walk free and execute an innocent man in his place.
Despite the force of this criticism, I believe that it is important to highlight some of its limitations; there are reasons to question whether this criticism is actually as forceful as it initially appears to be. The biggest problem that I have with it is that it seems to be thoroughly individualistic. Scripture presents punishment in terms which are far from individualistic. In the OT we read a lot about national punishments; Israel is frequently punished for his sins. Even though there were many in Israel who may not have been personally guilty of the apostasy that led to Israel being punished in various ways, they still suffered the punishment along with the rest of the nation.
Within the covenant there were structures that could lead to the nation as a whole being punished for the sins of its leaders or for the sins of other individuals within the nation. The sins of individuals within Israel were never really just ‘individual’ sins, but had consequences for the nation as a whole. The punishment for sins committed by individuals was not limited to those individuals alone. Indeed, in certain circumstances it was possible for the punishment to fall on people other than those who were guilty of the sins that had resulted in the punishment, without any idea of the justice of God being impugned.
Part of our problem today is that, following many centuries of thinking of the role of the Law as something like an abstract set of moral commandments addressed to individuals, we forget that the Torah was the covenant document and the charter for Israel’s national life. It simply was not the case that each and every individual in Israel enjoyed a private covenant relationship with God hermetically sealed from those enjoyed by every other member of the nation. Keeping the Torah was not merely a case of individuals living lives that were faithful to the covenant, important though that was; keeping the Torah was primarily about the life of the nation as a whole.
I believe that this is illustrated in such passages as Romans 2:17-24. Paul’s argument in this passage is not that each and every Jew is guilty of committing adultery or robbing temples. Rather, he is claiming that the existence of these sins within Israel undermines any claim that Israel might have to be affirmed as she stood.
Given the ‘corporate’ character of keeping the Torah, we should also recognize the existence of ‘corporate’ guilt in Israel. Israel as a whole could become deserving of God’s punishment and not just individuals within him. For Israel the state of the nation as a whole impacted on the spiritual benefits enjoyed by individuals. The spiritual life of the individual and that of the nation as a whole were bound together inseparably. Forgiveness of sins was not a mere privatized blessing, but was something that the whole nation earnestly longed for.
In addition to the covenant providing mechanisms whereby the punishment for the sins of a few individuals within the nation could be suffered by the nation as a whole, the covenant also provided mechanisms whereby a few individuals, or even one individual, could bear the punishment for the sins of the entire nation.
A number of authors have pointed to the reported statements made by some of the Maccabaean martyrs as illustrative of a Jewish understanding of this principle. They prayed that the suffering that they were experiencing would suffice for the whole nation.
In the light of all of this, I believe that we should be cautious of being overly hasty in banishing the ideas of punishment and substitution from our explanations of what happened at the cross. As I have sought to argue, there is no basis for the claim that one man bearing the punishment that is due to a whole nation is inherently unjust.
It is at this point that we must turn to analyze the common evangelical form of penal substitution and question whether it provides a satisfying account of the atonement.
I have already suggested that penal substitution may be biblically viable, despite its many critics. However, not all of the models of penal substitution that we are presented with are in any way adequate. There are certain conditions that must be met for penal substitution to work and the common evangelical forms of penal substitution generally do not satisfy these conditions.
The first condition has to do with the type of sins for which the punishment can be borne by someone other than the sinner. Many Christians think of sin as a merely individual thing. When they think of Christ bearing sins they think of the sins of all elect individuals throughout history being ‘put to Christ’s account’ and Christ paying the punishment due to them (even before some of the sins have ever been committed).
Such a situation is, I am persuaded, quite contrary to God’s standard of justice. Punishment and guilt are inalienable and cannot be transferred from one person to another. They are inseparably attached to those who have committed them. The idea of an extrinsic transfer of guilt or punishment on which the common evangelical forms of penal substitution tend to rely is simply unworkable. The model that I have provided does, I believe, account for this problem: Israelites were never abstract individuals and their personal sins were imputed to the nation as a whole, not by means of an extrinsic transfer
but by virtue of the character of the covenant relationship that existed between God and the people and the manner in which the covenant document of Torah drew sin onto the nation.
In the light of all of this I believe that we can claim that the statement that God punished Jesus instead of
Israel is patently false; rather, God punished Israel in
Jesus her Messiah.
Lying behind what I have just stated is the fact that the substitute cannot be ‘external’ to those for whom he suffers. The idea of any man off the street in Japan, for example, bearing the punishment due to Israel is simply nonsensical. The transfer of guilt and punishment in such a manner is impossible. Any notion of the imputation of sins to a person as a merely outward and external legal transfer is quite untenable.
The suitability of a person to act as a substitute for others presupposes the existence of some form of solidarity between the two parties, to such a degree that the guilt of those who are being substituted for can be in some manner entered into by the substitute. Jesus was perfectly suited to die as the substitute for Israel as He was the Messiah — the one in whom the whole nation was summed up. As the Messiah He could bear the punishment that belonged to Israel because, even though He was personally innocent, He identified fully with Israel as a guilty people.
The imputation of sins to Christ should not therefore be seen as an external, legal transfer or divine decree; rather, sins were imputed to Christ as He identified with Israel. The Torah had imputed sin to Israel and Christ so identified with Israel as to take this sin upon Himself. Christ’s identification with the sinful covenant humanity under Torah in His coming in the likeness of sinful flesh and being born under the Torah were absolutely essential prerequisites for His work of bearing Israel’s sin on the cross, as was the fact that He ‘was born of the seed of David according to the flesh.’
In Scripture Israel is spoken of as God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22). The king of Israel was identified as the son of God in an even greater sense (2 Samuel 7:14). God had entered into covenant with Israel and its king in a manner that set Israel apart from all of the nations. Israel, however, had consistently broken this covenant and God punished them in various ways. Israel’s punishment was more severe than that received by the other nations of the world, due to the great blessings that Israel had received from God’s hand (Amos 3:2).
In the relationship that existed between filial relationship that existed between Israel and YHWH there was only one possible consequence for the consistent rebellion that Israel practiced — that of final destruction (see Deuteronomy 21:18f.). God had continually chastened Israel in order to teach him to obey, but Israel hardened himself in his obstinate disobedience. In His patience God held back from exacting the final penalty of entirely cutting Israel and his kings off.
God’s delay in finally judging Israel was due to His intention that the curse for Israel’s apostasy was to be borne by Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. Jesus identified with the apostate Jewish nation as their Messiah and bore the curse that the Torah pronounced over God’s rebellious son on the cross (Galatians 3:10-13; cf. Deuteronomy 21:18f.). In this manner the old rebellious (Adamic) humanity was removed and a new humanity characterized by faithfulness could take its place.
Circumcision was practiced in order to set apart Israel from the old humanity, to mark Israel out as a people of promise. Circumcision on the eighth day was to be a sign that Israel put no confidence in the flesh and looked for the coming new creation. However, the rite of circumcision itself was always incapable of finally removing the flesh. The final removal of the flesh and the circumcision of the heart of the people of God was accomplished by the cross of Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:11).
A further problem with the common forms of penal substitution is that they operate primarily in terms of sins as discrete acts and seem to give little attention to Sin as a hostile force and realm of bondage. I have already criticized
this understanding of sin in reference to the doctrine of hell.
The problem comes when hell is viewed as the retributive punishment for the discrete sins of individuals. This approach raises the question of God’s justice. How can God be just and yet subject individuals to eternal punishment for the sins that they have committed in a finite lifetime? This is an objection that is frequently raised by conditionalists. All sorts of responses are given to this objection. Some argue that hell is eternal because sin continues in hell forever; others argue that hell is eternal because sins committed against an infinite God demand an infinite punishment. I am not sure that either of these proposed solutions satisfactorily accounts for the problem.
In tackling these problems I believe that it is important to question some of our assumptions. First of all, those who operate using the idea of retributive punishment tend to think in terms of justice requiring the imposition of equivalent suffering. The principle is that of the lex talionis
— an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The problem with this approach is that it neglects the fact that sin is the breaking of relationship, not merely of a law. God’s response to sin should not be thought of as merely conforming to something natural law like the lex talionis
; rather, God’s response to sin is a personal one.
I believe that, as Western theologians have tended to treat the atonement as something like a balancing of cosmic legal books, sight has been lost of the character of God’s judgment against sin. Sin is a relationship of hostility to God and the judgment of sin does not ultimately take the character of a sum of retributive punishment in response to individual sins, but that of final death and separation from God.
I believe that it can be unhelpful to think of death as God’s retributive punishment for sin. Death is certainly, in some senses, a punishment from God, but within a filial relationship with God — which Adam enjoyed in the garden and Israel enjoyed under the Law — things do not function in the same way as they do within a scheme of retributive justice. Within a filial relationship there is certainly punishment for disobedience, but the punishment exercised by a father is not to be confused by the punishment exercised by a judge operating according to the lex talionis
. If we are to understand God’s judgment upon humanity in Adam and against rebellious Israel, we must always appreciate that the character of the judgment presupposes a loving covenantal relationship. Adam and Israel suffer God’s jealous anger, which is nothing but the revelation of the fiery strength of His love.
I believe that one of the consequences of evangelicalism’s general failure to understand that the Law was the covenant document is seen in its preoccupation with retributive justice. The loving Father God pleading with his wayward son to turn back to Him is re-imagined as the vindictive and rigorous judge who demands retribution for everything that goes against His perfect standard of justice. The view of divine justice propagated by many evangelicals presents us with a God whose righteousness is chiefly concerned with exacting equivalent suffering or compensation for sins committed against Him, rather than with the restoration of relationships.
Under the Torah, persistent rebellion in a filial relationship was punishable by death. However, I do not believe that it is really helpful to try to view this punishment in terms of retribution. The punishment is God’s judgment upon persistent rebellion, but is not really one that is retributive in character. Adam’s expulsion from the garden and his subjection to death was a God-ordained consequence of rebellion, but it was not a retributive punishment.
Joel Garver has argued
that it is unhelpful to describe covenantal relationships such as marriage as ‘conditional’. A true relationship between a husband and a wife, or a child and a parent is not constituted
by conditions in a contractual manner (‘you do this, I’ll do that’); rather, the relationship is constituted by unconditional reciprocity. Within these relationships you are not merely seeking to satisfy certain conditions, but are living in a loving relationship. Conditions only come into play when the relationship breaks down in some manner or other.
A father’s relationship to his son is not essential contractual; the son is not an employee seeking to earn his way. When the son is disobedient there are punishments. The design of these punishments is not ultimately that of imposing equivalent suffering, but of restoring the relationship. The punishments come as a consequence of damaged relationships and if we think of them in terms of retribution all that we do is mischaracterize the relationship that exists between a father and his son. The father is principally concerned with the maintaining of a true relationship between himself and his son, not the maintaining of some abstract principle of justice.
When the relationship between father and son is broken irreparably there is the ultimate punishment of death. This punishment is best seen, I believe, as the final consequence of sin’s breaking of the relationship rather than as a retributive punishment for particular sinful acts. The death serves to declare the irremediable brokenness of the relationship; it is not a retributive punishment for a failure to meet certain conditions that supposedly constitute the relationship.
Adam’s relationship with God was not contractual but filial and covenantal. Within the relationship that Adam enjoyed with God, God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not a condition of the type: ‘if you eat of this tree, then I will kill you.’ Rather, God’s statement was: ‘in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ Adam’s relationship with God was not constituted by such conditions as the ‘covenant of works’ doctrine might suggest. Adam was blessed and was to live in the loving reciprocity of eucharistic life with God. It was in Adam’s abandoning of this relationship in order to take for himself the forbidden fruit that death came.
I believe that the Bible speaks of death primarily as something brought about by sin, rather than seeing it primarily as something brought as a punishment from God. After the Fall God gave man over to experience the consequences of his sinful rebellion (i.e. death); He did not inflict death upon man as revenge for his rebellion. In the OT, when a son was put to death for persistent rebellion the judgment was not one of retribution, but of giving over to the ultimate consequences of his actions.
When someone goes to hell it is primarily as a result of the fact that they are, in Adam, no longer living in fellowship with God but are, through sin, hostile to Him. Eternal death is the final consequence of humanity’s willful turning away from life in relationship with God, and not some retributive punishment.
The purpose of Christ’s death was not primarily that of compensating or taking the punishment for the sins of the past, but that of establishing the gracious foundation for the future. Those who think in terms of retributive punishment often lose sight of this. Jesus came in order to bring in the new creation and the new covenant. The cross does not leave us merely as forgiven sinners, but as participants in a new creation.
In order to bring in the new world order Jesus had to deal with the old apostate humanity. He did this by bearing it down to death on the cross. Through His death and resurrection Jesus reestablished the loving reciprocity between God and man and established a new faithful humanity, governed by the Spirit. The greatest act of God the Father’s self-giving (‘who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all’) led to the giving back of humanity to God in Christ (who gave Himself up for the Church, His Bride). Eucharist fellowship between God and man was reestablished by the cross of Jesus Christ.
By being incorporated in Christ’s act of self-giving we are drawn into the relationships that exist within the Triune God. Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost are all moments in a Trinitarian movement into which the Church as Christ’s Bride is being introduced.
Now that the loving reciprocity of true relationship between God and humanity has been reestablished through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, we are drawn into this relationship by the Holy Spirit and conformed to the image of the true Son. There is no possibility of the relationship between God and humanity being broken once again as it was in the case of Adam and Israel; we have Christ Himself as assurance of this. Christ is the One who brings together God and man in both His Person and His work, so that, once joined together, they might never be separated again.
As Christians we will experience God’s chastening, but this chastening is always so that we might be conformed to Christ and know the fullness of relationship. In the new covenant, the contagious power of the rebellion of sin that operated after Adam has been replaced with a contagious faithfulness flowing from Jesus Christ Himself. We are called to be those who, by faith and repentance, live out of the perfect relationship of mature faithfulness that Christ enjoys with His Father. As we live out of His faithfulness we know the benefit of a restored relationship with God and the surety that one day we will know the fullness of the relationship that we now experience the firstfruits of.