Atonement under attack

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?

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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.

4 thoughts on “Atonement under attack

  1. “Jesus put it pretty clearly when he quoted his favourite passage of the Hebrew Scriptures: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’”

    Wow. I don’t think I’ve seen a passage taken out of context so completely in a long time. And when did Jesus say that was his favorite passage? What a goober.

  2. Talk about biting the hand that feeds us. What a beautiful, glorious demonstration of the righteousness of God (Who in forbearance passed over sins previously committed) so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:24-26)! We ought not to malign as hateful those things God reveals to us as expressing “the kind intention of His will” (Ephesians 1:5, c.f. 9). The substitutionary atonement is the sweet savor of the gospel (whereby Christ tasted the bitterness of death for us!); and what greater do we have for the world when the fragrance of Christ to God is to them an aroma from death to death (2 Corinthians 2:15)? As if God sent us His Son saying, “They will respect my son,” and they took him, threw him out and killed him saying, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance!” (Matthew 21:33-46). God have mercy on our souls.

  3. It grieves me to see the Lord’s most glorious gospel being attacked like this. It demonstrates how totally depraved man is without the mercy and grace of God. Fraser also must have never read Hebrews 9:22, for “without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”.

  4. I find it interesting the leap that was made – on the one hand, the author recognizes this theology of conservatives; but he doesn’t stop there, he makes a logical leap to the death penalty. That is quite a leap! I don’t know of any conservative theologian that would make the case that the death penalty atones for sin, thus giving passage to heaven. It seems to be he has a misunderstanding of the biblical basis used by conservatives for both positions. The key is, as you noted, the holiness of God in the atonement. But it seems to be even more expansive – his anthropology and harmartiology are woefully in contradiction to biblical data.

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