What is the Bible’s Big Story? Part 6

This is part 6 of Dr. Ronn Johnson’s blog series. Please see my own posted thoughts of a few days ago. It’s good to think about what words we use to describe what the cross (and subsequent resurrection) accomplished. It’s not as easy as you’d think. — MSH


If you would like to catch up with any of the previous five parts to this blog, shoot me a quick email at ronnjohnson7@gmail.com and I will send them to you. Or you can search Google using “drmsh.com” and keywords “Bible’s Big Story.”

This next brick is foundational to the evangelical Big Story wall, so it will take up this entire post. While writing about it I was reminded of the Sunday School teacher who asked her students “What is brown and has a fluffy tail and lives in trees and eats nuts?” One confused child answered “I know it’s a squirrel, but I think you want me to say Jesus.” I think this is how the average Christian struggles with the question “How does God ultimately solve your moral guilt?” They want to say something about mercy and forgiveness, but end up saying “Jesus” because they think they are supposed to. This brick has been the direct cause of this sort of confusion. Here is its wording:

God taught that a substitute could take the punishment of a morally guilty person.

 I now take a step back from the meaning of sacrifice (as I talked about in Part 5) and ask a larger, or more broad, question: Does Scripture teach that human moral guilt can be solved in the mind of God through a substitute who is willing to absorb the punishment which is due the guilty person?

Asked that way, my immediate gut-response is “Wow—how could anyone think like that?” I hope that is not disrespectful to God, of course, if indeed this is how he thinks about sin and guilt and how he wants to solve it. I am just being honest. I have never met anyone who thought this way, nor am I familiar with any culture or society which conducts its business in this fashion. Parents certainly don’t parent their children this way, and judges do not sanction substitutes in their courtrooms. I have to leave to you the decision whether God thinks like this. One of my good friends recently responded to this question with “Yes—God does solve guilt through substitution, and it is not up to you to question God’s character. So be careful.” We have to at least consider the possibility that he is right. But I think it is fair to question this idea, or see if it is taught in the Bible. If it is not taught in the Bible, the entire evangelical story will need to be adjusted.

I always like to start with the How would the Bible sound if such-and-such were true? Test. If God accepted substitutes for solving moral guilt, would the Bible say this? And how would it say it? In my opinion, I do not think the subject would be handled quietly. To the contrary, it would get top billing, as this is huge news: God accepts substitutes! Guilt is transferrable! I believe this captivating (if not incredible) idea would be celebrated in the Bible’s teaching at all points across the larger story, and discussions about God’s character would proceed in light of it.

But this is not what we find. In my previous post I said that the original words for “substitute” or “exchange” (chalaph and mur, Lev. 27:10; antallagma, Mark 8:37) appear about 50 times in the Bible, and that they are never used for the subject of how sacrifice works. I just skimmed through all the uses of these words again and believe we can push the point further: the Bible never uses “substitute” or “exchange” in any discussion of how God handles human moral guilt. So now we need to ask how this idea could have become so popular within evangelicalism. Surely it must have some merit.

This quotation from a theological dictionary seems to offer a clue: “While Christ’s substitutionary atonement is the central theological doctrine of the Christian faith, the imagery of substitution in the Bible is remarkably scarce” (“Substitute, Substitution,” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, IVP, 1998, p. 824). If we flip the two clauses of this sentence around we discover an interesting admission: the imagery of substitution in the Bible is remarkably scarce and [yet] Christ’s substitutionary atonement is the central theological doctrine of the Christian faith. Said another way, Jesus becomes the answer (“He is my substitute”) before we even settle the question (“Does God accept substitutes?”).

I can think of two reasons why we may think that God deals with substitutes. The first goes back to sacrifice again; as the animal lay dead on the altar it may have been tempting to think “Oh well, better him than me.” While I agree that sacrifices may have contained a picture of substitution, I do not believe they explicitly taught substitution, and I trust you can work out that important distinction for yourself (see Part 5 for my argument). Secondly, and more commonly, our minds naturally think substitution when we hear of Jesus “laying down his life for the sheep” (John 10:15) and dying “for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6) and dying “for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3). I will later spend a great deal of time on Jesus’ atonement when I build my Big Story wall. At that point I will defend, as a very biblical idea, that Jesus died for our sins. The text says as much, so we know it is true. But the question here is whether Jesus’ death for us, or for our sins, is teaching literal substitution in the sense of solving our moral guilt. I do not think so, and ask that you hear me out as I try to explain why.

First, consider how substitution works, or what we mean by it. We think of a substitute as something that switches with something else, as in a replacement teacher or a pinch-hitter, because procedural standards allow for it. For example, the rules of baseball say that either player A or player B can come up to hit, and it does not matter to the umpire. He simply wants someone in the batter’s box. He has a higher goal (in this case a rule book) than hoping for a certain team to win, or for any one player to play well. His intentions and expectations and means of satisfaction are purely non-personal. I trust you see where this is going. When we say that God “allows a substitute to take the punishment of a morally guilty person,” we are likening God to that umpire. We are saying God’s intentions and expectations and means of satisfaction are non-personal because he is operating by some kind of standard which gives the concept of substitution its room to work. Any situation which accepts substitutes must in the end be impersonal. This is important, of course, because we are trying to understand how God ultimately solves moral guilt, a highly personal issue.

(We may wonder if a soldier who dies on the battlefield “for” another—falling on a grenade, let’s say—is a substitute in the sense that we are discussing here. I would say this is one example of substitution, but not the kind we are talking about here. A battle does not begin by defining how many people need to die in order to satisfy the general. It is important to remember that in the evangelical view of Christ’s substitution for sin that God requires that someone dies even as the story begins. He is like an umpire who will accept either the guilty sinner or the sinless Jesus—the rules allow for either one. In this sense the battlefield analogy seems to fall short.)

Secondly, literal substitution is not what we mean when we speak of Jesus dying “for us.” If we were to hear someone pray, “Jesus, thank you for dying on the cross for my sins so that I wouldn’t have to die on the cross for my sins,” we would be simultaneously impressed by their attempt at accuracy and by their distinct lack of accuracy. No careful theologian has ever claimed that you or I deserved to be on Jesus’ cross that day, nor that our death would have done any good, for anyone. My point is that literal substitution is not in view when we hear of Jesus “dying for us/our sins” and that the evangelical tradition has known this all along. They are not claiming that Jesus took your place on his cross. So what do they mean?

As I finished that last sentence I walked over to our office printer. While waiting for my copy I found a stray rubber band and shot it into the wastebasket across the room. It occurred to me that it had been years since I shot a rubber band, maybe not since my school days. It also occurred to me that I didn’t really shoot it—I had put one end of it on a finger and then pulled it back and then aimed it and then let it go. “Shooting” involved several steps that really didn’t have to do with shooting.

Pardon the illustration, but this seems to be what is happening when evangelicals equate Jesus’ death to solving moral guilt by means of substitution. Numerous steps are required to get from “Jesus died for my sins” to “My moral guilt is therefore solved” even if most people mistake this for a single process, as in shooting a rubber band. I am honestly not trying to create a brain twister here, but I can count at least thirteen logical steps that make up the gap between these two ideas:

When the Bible says “Jesus died for my sins”

1) the word sins refers to issues concerning my personal moral guilt, and

2) the words died for mean died as a replacement for the punishment for my personal moral guilt.

3) The punishment that my guilt deserved was eternal hell.

4) This punishment cannot be forgiven, but

5) must be served by either me or

6) an innocent substitute.

7) Since Jesus was sinless,

8) he qualifies as this innocent substitute for me and

9) for all other guilty people since

10) his physical death counts as eternal punishment. This means that

11) God never really forgives us because

12) he chooses to go ahead with our punishment

13) by means of punishing our substitute. In this way

my moral guilt is therefore solved.

Each of these steps deserves a conversation in their own right. I will deal with some of them as remaining bricks in the traditional wall (e.g., “Jesus’ momentary death equaled the punishment of eternal hell for all humans”), though suffice it to say for now that most people do not realize what is traditionally being packed into the idea that Jesus died for their sins. What they are hearing from evangelicals is much more than the Bible is actually saying.

So what should we do with this brick? What does the Bible teach about the relationship between substitution and moral guilt? I recommend we start with the words of James Garrett, a Southern Baptist professor who is a proponent of substitutionary atonement himself: “The NT evidence for Jesus’ death as his punitive substitution for the death due to be suffered by sinful humans is less pervasive than some of its modern defenders have claimed….” Systematic Theology, vol. 2, p. 17). I appreciate his honesty and recommend it to others. Let’s just admit that substitution has become a forced concept in our theology and that it is not part of the Big Story of the Bible. If the Bible wanted to use words like “exchange” and “substitute” for God’s dealing with moral guilt, it could have. But it doesn’t.

I believe that the Bible argues for a nearly opposite view: everyone will be judged for what they do, and whatever guilt a person carries, they themselves bear it alone without hope of transference to anyone else (‘the soul that sins shall die,” Ezek 18:4; “…because of the iniquity that he has committed, he shall die,” Ezek 33:13; “[God] will render to each one according to his deeds—eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality,” Rom 2:6-7; “so then each of us shall give an account of himself to God,” Rom 14:12). When we pause later and review the texts (in both testaments) that argue this way, the sheer volume of material will be surprising to many of you who were brought up in a traditional church. I know it was a surprise to me. I have now changed my mind to realize that substitution is both unnecessary to the Big Story and even contrary to it, principally because sin should never have been placed at the beginning of the conversation for why people face the judgment of God. We started wrong, so we got the whole story wrong.

I can’t help but think that the greater message of substitution—the concept that God needs to replace me and what I’m really like with something morally perfect, even Jesus—has harmed our modern presentation of the gospel big-time. I can see why many people are confused when they hear that God loves them but that he also can’t stand being around them. That would confuse me too. The courtroom substitution picture that we have so often appealed to is also confusing. A judge who accepts someone else’s death for what I have done may sound romantic to some, but it does not sound romantic to me, nor to most of my non-Christian friends. I know this because they have told me. I’ll paraphrase what one of my atheist friends said about the courtroom picture he was given as a kid at church: “I did not understand then, nor do I understand now, how this shows love, or shows forgiveness, or how it ultimately solves the situation. After Jesus dies I am just as guilty as I was before. The ‘good news’ Christians speak of only deals with the punishment phase of the story, not with the person who is still left standing in the courtroom.” This friend is currently the president of Minnesota Atheists.

Of course the Bible will use plaintiff / judge terminology in describing our relationship to God, but this will be the exception. Most commonly our relationship to God is defined in terms of ancestry, asking to which family do we belong? And that becomes a beautiful story of love, forgiveness, and solving my moral guilt. I can understand why substitution is necessary for those who describe salvation in terms of sin management, since in this view God ultimately is satisfied by nothing less than moral perfection, whether mine or Jesus’. But substitution will never enter the discussion for those who see salvation as primarily relational, or family-oriented. Parents don’t need substitutes for their kids. I am excited to talk of this when I present my case for the Bible’s Big Story. I don’t need to be substituted! God accepts me, the real me, as his child. And as for moral guilt, be assured that once your relationship with God is settled—when you are a member of his family—your moral guilt will certainly be solved in God’s chosen way. Thank goodness. Thank God! And toss this brick aside.

 If you would like to respond to this post, I welcome your emails to ronnjohnson7@gmail.com. I will certainly reply.