I just want to post some short thoughts on Dr. Johnson’s series. He’s doing what he does best – making us think about things we take for granted. I’ve jotted down some notes and sharing them is overdue. Here are some thoughts…

I believe in the concept of penal substitution, but I’m going to question that terminology a bit below. I believe in it if what is meant is that “we have redemption through his blood” (i.e., that the cross event was about our redemption, saving us from a fate that we could otherwise not avoid). In that regard I consider the atonement more than an example and not a ransom to be paid to Satan. However, I think the other views of the atonement make some contributions. We either “have redemption through his blood” (Eph 1:7; Heb 9:12) or not. Those verses seem quite clear to me.  But “penal” implies a punishment, and “substitution” implies taking a punishment on our behalf. If the death of Christ on our behalf wasn’t really about giving God a substitute on which to pour out his wrath (this is what Dr. Johnson is beginning to focus on), then “substitution” likely isn’t the right word. Again, to repeat, I think Christ did die for our sake, but how to describe how that worked may require language other than “penal” and “substitution.” For certain the subject of penal substitutionary atonement has been articulated carelessly in evangelicalism. This is (for me) the chief value in Dr. Johnson’s series. For now I’ll go with the traditional nomenclature. So far in my head the issues needing attention are:

  • Is penal substitution consistent with the character of God? I’d agree with Dr. Johnson that it’s a mistake to say that the point of the sacrifice of Christ was that God was angry at the sinner. That’s a common way to talk about penal substitution but the NT articulation of the cross doesn’t really approach it that way. We might say that God is angry with the sinner instead of at the sinner. He’s angry because the sinner is forfeiting what he could have in relationship with God, or that sin is self-destructive. God loves people and sin destroys them. That makes God angry. But that’s different than God being angry at the sinner. I think you can make a good case that Rom 1:18 is really following the trajectory that God is angry with the sinner because of what sin costs the sinner. God hates what sin does to people. He hates that it irrupted into his good world. He doesn’t hate sinners, though. I would think John 3:16 makes that clear. Consequently, what Jesus did on the cross isn’t about satisfying God’s lust for the sinner’s punishment or soothing his hatred. As noted above, that puts the vocabulary of “penal” into question.
  • Did God select and intend the death of Jesus as a penal substitution, or did he just foreknow what would happen to Jesus on earth (not intending that he die) and then, through raising him from the dead, endorse him as a substitution? It seems to me that God foreknew humanity would suffer the loss of immortality (i.e., Eden would fail and with it, everlasting life with God). God knew this meant that death separated him from the humans he loved and wanted in his family forever. Death was a problem that needed solving—for everyone. This makes the focal point of God’s plan the resurrection, not the violent death. In other words, it ultimately wasn’t the death of Jesus that brought about redemption for lost humanity.  It was the resurrection. Think about the meaning of “redemption” and you’ll see the point. To “redeem” something is to “buy it back”. In our case, the death of Christ enables us to come back into relationship with God. It cures the death problem, which is/was brought on by sin (my own view of Rom 5:12 helps here — that we are guilty before God not because of what someone else did [even Adam] but because of what we invariably and inevitably do — we sin). Christ wasn’t God’s chance to vent his anger on his Son. It was his chance to defeat death with resurrection and so secure eternal life for all who believe in the work of Jesus on the cross. So does “substitution” really work to describe this?
  •  Obviously, you can’t have resurrection without a death, and you need a death that is sufficient for all humanity at all times. I think this necessitates the death of the Son (the everlasting-ness of the atonement seems to require it). At any rate, it provides symmetry and a lot of OT thinking about sacrifice is about abstract ideas like balance and symmetry.
  • There is also the issue of Passover typology (i.e., what happens to Jesus needs to correspond to the Passover lamb; 1 Cor 5:7). This is more relevant to the issue of the cross than other sacrifices in my mind. Evangelicalism has routinely mis-applied the OT sacrifices to Jesus. The blood, for example, is never applied to people except to sanctify the priests (they needed to be de-contaminated for occupying sacred space). That had nothing to do with forgiveness for moral sin. Passover is the more significant point of reference.

The above (somewhat random and undeveloped) thoughts lead me to believe that, rather than denying penal substitution, maybe we should do a more careful job of explaining it in other ways besides wrath and hatred. Dr. Johnson’s series is exposing that need. The notions of “substitution” and “having redemption through his blood” do not need to be about hating sinners, but showing what the result would be without the grace of God in redemption – we are undone, we do not have eternal life, we are de-created in death. Rather than our de-creation, God offered his son to prevent that. The emphasis is love and life, not hatred and violence. Or at least it should be.