In case you haven’t noticed, attacking the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ is en vogue today. Now Mel Gibson and his movies are the product of a blood-lusting, wrath-obsessed, Scripture-ignoring worldview of conservative nuts draining morality from the core of Christianity. This according to Giles Fraser in his column today at Ekklesia. The problem, however, doesn’t seem to lay in Gibson.
“The root cause is a theology associated particularly with Anselm and Calvin. Human beings are wicked and can only make it to heaven if they are punished for their sin, thus righting the scales of justice and wiping clean the slate.
The problem is, human wickedness is so deep that the required punishment would be too much for us to bear. So Christ offers to take our place, accepting our punishment in the form of an excruciating crucifixion. It’s the story of salvation, as read by the religious right. All sin must be paid for with pain.
The technical term for this theology is penal substitution. It is, among other things, the reason so many conservative Christians like Gibson support the death penalty – wickedness must be paid for with blood. And it’s precisely this equation that has come to rot the Christian moral conscience from within. For this theology is intrinsically vindictive, bloodthirsty and vengeful.
Though many evangelicals and conservative Catholics think it the beating heart of the good news, it’s a much later medieval interpretation that refuses the gospel’s insistence upon forgiveness and non-violence.
Jesus put it pretty clearly when he quoted his favourite passage of the Hebrew Scriptures: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ The retributive logic that sin can be cancelled by pain is just what Christ resisted. And it was a stand taken by the Hebrew prophets before him. By contrast, in Gibson’s films, only blood can pay for blood.”
Note carefully what this author omits — the holiness of God. Often when the atonement is misunderstood, a foundational expression of God’s holiness in His perfect Law is omitted. … I’ll skip over commenting on some other favorite Hebrew texts of Jesus (like Isaiah 53 in Luke 22:37), to ask my main question: If you take away the justice and mercy of God revealed in the bloody death of Christ, on what basis will the Christian stand against injustices and offer mercy to the world? How is eliminating the substitutionary atonement advancing the Christian moral conscience?
Related: “A Substitute has appeared in space and time, appointed by God Himself, to bear the weight and the burden of our transgressions, to make expiation for our guilt, and to propitiate the wrath of God on our behalf. This is the gospel. Therefore, if you take away the substitutionary atonement, you empty the cross of its meaning and drain all the significance out of the passion of our Lord Himself. If you do that, you take away Christianity itself.” R.C. Sproul in The Truth of the Cross (Reformation Trust: 2007) p. 81.