My faith first found its home in a Southern Baptist church. I still have found memories of my time in the youth group and Sunday School, but many things have changed about my understnading of God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Sciptures, etc., even as I am deeply indebted to them for the deep respect and importance they taught me that Scripture has in the Christian life.
One area where I have massively diverged from them is the idea that Jesus Christ’s death was a substitute on our behalf. But, to be clear, my rejection isn’t of simply penal substitution, the most prominent for substitutionary atonement theory. And, to their credit, I don’t remember that church as portraying God as incredibly angry; while I think the PSA narrative is deeply problematic, it would not be fair to characterize them, or many churches, of peddling a hateful God. Rather, it would probably be more accurate to suggest that for many of them, they were unintentionally creating a narrative of fear about God, unaware of how people would interpret their discussion about sin and punishment. This isn’t to absolve them and other churches of any role in portraying God in a very angry manner, but only to recognize that there were factors that were outside of their control and that they were unaware of.
Rather, my criticism extends to the very concept of substitution as an explanation for the soteriological significance of Christ’s death as being unnecessary to the Biblical narrative and texts. More than simply being unnecessary, I would suggest it misunderstands the significance of God taking the matters of atonement in His hands. In its place, the notion of Jesus participation in human life and overcoming the powers of sin and death is a better model.
However, a fundamental mistake is to think that atonement was caused by only a singular feature: the blood of the animal on behalf of other people. This reduction of causation is at the heart of how the entire sacrificial system become a religious automation, which is what the prophets criticized. While not explicit in the texts that directly speak of how the sacrifices are offered, the prophetic critique says without the heart of the person for God, God does not desire the sacrifices. Rather than seeing the prophets as deconstructing a religious practice, this perspective sees the prophets as trying to redirect people towards the original purposes of the sacrificial system as a genuine expression of the people’s relationship to God in love and to others
If we take this as true about the prophets and that their voice represents something substantive about the meaning of the system of sacrifice and atonement in the Torah, then the atonement is effective due to a constellation of causes. Put differently, the substitution of the animal’s life in the blood for the life of another was
However, when Jesus becomes an atonement for sins, the entire logic of the
What does this mean? By God taking upon both roles, this means that the efficacy of the atonement apart from the Mosaic Covenant is no longer understandable by direct analogy. You should not automatically jump from the nature of substitution in the Torah to substitution in Jesus Christ.
In this framework, something different occurs. Rather than a pure conscience of the people making the sacrifices effectual, Christ’s sacrifice offered in a pure conscience is offered to make other consciences pure. While remaining faithful to the covenant, the effect of the sacrifices for sin shifted from substitution to purification of the person. It is no longer about substitution but transformation. It is no longer about the pure of heart getting their sins forgiven; it is about people who by God forgiving their sins and offering atonement Himself may make them purified in heart. This, I believe, stands at the heart of Hebrews: while God is faithful to the covenant, everything gets flipped on its head.
This comes to play when it talks about Jesus’ own experiences in suffering as a necessary condition for His offering help. Jesus experienced what people experienced. But, rather than facing the human experience and becoming faithless, Jesus was faithful to the point of death. In his own life, Jesus overcome what humanity could not overcome to the point that his blood was shed. The blood of the atonement is no longer used to cleanse the altar, defiled by human sin, but rather is used to cleanse the altar of human hearts. In other words, there is a transformation of function from the animal sacrifices to Christ, even as Christ fulfills what is expected of sacrifices.
At the root of
Jesus takes on the experiences of human life and victoriously conquers the powers that pervade it, altering the course of the inevitable destiny of human persons. But this inevitable destiny is the destiny of judgment of God’s ‘redemptive’ wrath1 upon human
The only sense of “substitution” that I accept as part of Christ’s atonement is a sense of an ironic substitution as in Isaiah 53, where the people who put the suffering servant to death were committing the very things they condemned the servant of. But the conditions of this type of substitution is built around false accusations and thus is not explanatory of why the atonement of Christ is effectual, but rather that it is effectual even for those who punish for what they themselves do.
In conclusion, then, I offer six rudimentary statements in need of further fleshing out to explain my view of the atonement.
- Jesus Christ participates in the fullness of human experience.
- Human experience of the powers that lead to an inevitable death also has a humanly inexorable pull towards sin.
- This inexorable pull towards sins continues to malign God’s creation such that judgment is necessary to restore the integrity of God’s creation.
- By the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ overcomes the influences that human experiences have to take us away from faithfulness to God.
- By the power and leading of the Holy Spirit conjoined with the imitation of Christ, we who believe in Christ may then have a faith like Christ so that we can overcome these influences of human experiences so as to be faithful
- Through the transformation of Christ-imitation and Spirit-leading, Christian
arebeing purified of the problem of sin that necessitates judgment.
The idea of Christ’s atonement realized through the Spirit may be understood as the Triune God’s power of new creation. In it, there is no divinely necessary condition that determines how God must act to get a specific effect, such as
This resembles the notion of Christus Victor, except one doesn’t have to postulate the satisfaction of some devilish power. Rather, Jesus conquers the devilish power by empower people to overcome the influence of the powers of sin and death; people’s own experiences are transformed from within through Christ and the Spirit so that they then experience freedom within themselves from the devil rather than simply some act against the powers from without. So, while resembling Christus Victor, the narrative and mechanism of atonement are in some ways worlds apart as Christus Victor portrays a more top-down view, whereas this potrays a more bottom-up narrative.