Hmm… According to my last “Thoughts on Faith” post, this post is going to reflect on atonement a bit more. Now I’m thinking, “What have I got myself into?”

Really… what am I thinking? I don’t have anything to say on atonement. I only have questions, along with some other people’s thoughts that I’ve found useful in guiding my own thinking. So that’s what you’re going to get, along with this disclaimer: I’m not doing academic work here. I’m not presenting well-reasoned theology. I’m just embracing my own struggle to understand how God saves us. I’m not going to be afraid of the questions, because I think the answers are vitally important. How we understand God’s relationship to us has quite a bit to do with how we relate to others. Ok, then – let me pick up where I left off a few posts ago

As I said then, I had some issues with the view of atonement that seems to be popular in Western Christianity right now: penal substitution. Basically, that view presents a violent image of God that I couldn’t embrace, and it seemed to give God a dual personality. God on the cross was not the same as God in heaven, and I couldn’t reconcile the two.

The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver was the book that started me on my search for a new way of understanding. It said, “Look – Jesus’ death was the epitome of human violence, not the result of God’s demand for blood.” What I missed in the book, however, was a satisfying explanation of how to approach the biblical imagery that gave rise to penal substitution in the first place. (Note: Such an explanation may have been there. I just missed it.)

Recently, I’ve started reading Richard Beck’s new book, Unclean. From a psychological perspective, he examines Jesus’ command, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” Beck argues that purity metaphors create a powerful psychological barrier that makes it hard for us to understand what Jesus is trying to say. But there are an abundance of other metaphors for describing the relation of sin and grace: legal, economic, light, health, and military, just to name a few. Beck gives twenty-two in a list that isn’t intended to be complete. However, the point is that there is more than one way to consider what happens when God deals with our sin.

Atonement metaphor comes up again in Rob Bell’s book. (Alan Stucky, writing in Mennonite Weekly Review, found it unfortunate that the chapter on atonement was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding hell.) Says Bell…

What happened on the cross is like…

a defendant going free,
a relationship being reconciled,
something lost being redeemed,
a battle being won,
a final sacrifice being offered,
so that no one ever has to offer another one again,
an enemy being loved.

He goes on…

The point, then, isn’t to narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism. To elevate one over the others, to insist that there’s a “correct” or “right” one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work the first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors.

I found that to be such a useful, corrective insight. And Richard Beck helped to complete the loop and showed me ways of understanding the metaphors behind penal substitution:

The problem with the penal substitutionary metaphors is that they are so very strong. Too strong to be deployed on a regular basis. And that is the real problem. It’s not so much that penal substitutionary thinking is wrong, it is rather that it is wrongfully deployed. Penal substitutionary atonement is at its best when deployed rarely and only in the most extreme circumstances. It can’t be everyday fare. The trouble is that it IS everyday fare in many churches. Penal substitutionary atonement is like a very strong acid. It has to be handled with care. And if you handle it as much as we do in our churches, often and carelessly, you end up with chemical burns. Thus many Christians are pulling away from churches in pain.

So when is the proper time to deploy penal substitutionary atonement? Like I said, penal substitutionary thinking is at its best when it speaks to profound human guilt. Specifically, some of us have committed such awful sins that our self-loathing, guilt, and shame destroy the soul. We cannot forgive ourselves. Only a very strong concoction can wash us clean. Penal substitutionary atonement is that chemical bath. It’s strong acid–You deserve death and hell for the life you’ve lived–making it the only thing powerful enough to wash away a guilt that has poisoned the tap-root of a human existence. Nothing more mild (e.g., the moral influence views I so love) can speak to this issue.

So – with all that said, I’ve come to understand two things about atonement and metaphor. There are so many different images, because…

  1. Atonement is complex. Ultimately you can’t put atonement into a nice, neat package. You might have some preferred metaphors (non-violent ones, perhaps?), but a single metaphor will not do justice to the amazing work that Jesus did on earth.
  2. People are complex. There are so many people who need to encounter God in so many different ways. We need a variety of understandings in order for that to happen.