Re-Visioning Jesus’ Atonement: Beyond Liberal and Conservative a year ago, I wrote a post that became one of my most controversial to date: Spilled Blood & The Cosmic Christ: Atonement Dissonance. In my youthful zeal of last year, I expressed myself in some ways that I wish I’d stated differently. Given my newfound ROM-and-centering-prayer perspective, I think some of my thinking is clearer and more precise. Let me see if I can better lay out the perils and promises of atonement models as I see them.

Simply put, it’s exceedingly difficult to take Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence and peacemaking seriously while also taking seriously a punitive model of Jesus’ atoning death. Penal Substitutionary views of atonement (a fancy way of saying that Jesus died in my place so I don’t have to, because God requires the shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sins) just don’t square with the God of Jesus Christ, who encourages us to not remove an eye for an eye, or plot against our adversaries. Sure, ‘Vengeance is mine, says the Lord,’ but we cannot be sure what God repays. As Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch say in ReJesus, “It is true that Jesus is like God, but the greater truth, one closer to the revelation of God that Jesus ushers in, is that God is like Christ.” (pg. 12) How would a Christ-like God redeem humanity?

To place this in a larger frame, it’s difficult to hold with integrity both the message of Jesus (that is, change your living for God’s in-breaking, all-encompassing Kingdom is at hand) and the various messages about Jesus that have been promulgated in the millennia after Jesus’ death and resurrection. If I’m honest, it’s even difficult to square the message of Jesus in the gospels with some of the messages about Jesus even later in the New Testament. Not trying to be a reverse-Marcionite or anything…just sayin’.

And yet! One of the tasks before me, as an emerging Christian, is to hold liberating truths in creative tension. As a follower of Jesus in this era that many of us believe is one of ‘great emergence,’ I feel like our task – not in some lofty way, but simply for our individual & collective spiritual sanity – is to not repeat the mistake of the 20th-century modernist-fundamentalist divide. The Church of 100 years ago was being met by a flourishing of science, the arts, and scholarship. They were also, we now know, on the cusp of meeting the full impact of the darker side of full-on modernity: eugenics, total war, entangling geopolitical alliances, racism, environmental degradation on a massive scale, and the full industrialization and compartmentalization of everyday life, from cooking to entertainment.

In the face of all of this change and sensory input, the Church in the West fissured (as we Western Christians often do). The fundamentalists forged a retreat from the promise and terror of the modern world, from its evolutionary science to its weapons of mass destruction. They chose the messages about Jesus, the good news as told by his friends. They dismissed the message of Jesus as too utopian for this life; it must be referring to far-off heaven, to the world that awaits us after this corrupt place breathes its last. Thus did the message about Jesus become in vogue for fundamentalists and later evangelicals; thus did the good news about Jesus become distorted beyond recognition.

But that isn’t the whole story of the split. The modernist Church, by contrast, saw much that was amenable about modern culture. They wanted to engage this culture, and be relevant. There was heartfelt concern about the viability of major components of the modernist project, and the teachings of Jesus were, in a fashion, brought to bear on these problems – poverty, for instance, and other forms of injustice. But where science or critical scholarship brought into question some of the tenets of Christian belief – the actuality of cherished confession and experience – the modernist Church was quick to capitulate, feeling that earlier generations probably didn’t know what they were talking about when they were ‘strangely warmed’ by amazing grace.

By contrast, I want it all. And so do you, I think. I don’t want an Ockham’s razor minimalist faith, that attempts to strip down to the “real” or “historical” Jesus. Faith has ways of knowing that sight simply doesn’t know. So I wish to embrace the good news of Jesus and the good news about Jesus. But my problem, my struggle, is that the good news about Jesus needs to be ethical, it needs to be loving, and it needs to square with what I’ve apprehended of Jesus’ own life, message, and depiction of Abba God. And frankly, most of the atonement metaphors in vogue today seem to be about an evasion of justice, a glorification of violence and victim-hood, and a denial that the message of Jesus really has the power to work in our day and age.

I want to affirm the historic Christian faith (and reality!) that Jesus saves us. More specifically, I want to joyously experience Jesus’ incarnation, life, teachings, signs & wonders, death, resurrection, ascension, and indwelling as saving us.

The crux of the question – both for followers of Jesus and the world at large – is how Jesus saves us, and from what Jesus saves us. Tomorrow I’m going to try and articulate how I’ve been processing this lately.

To be continued in Re-Visioning Jesus’ Atonement: Possible Reconstructions.

51 Responses to “Re-Visioning Jesus’ Atonement: Beyond Liberal and Conservative”

  1. 1 Doug Hoag February 6, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    You might already know this, but there is a fantastic essay written by Derek Flood called “Penal Substitution vs. Christus Victor” that you can get online at


  2. 2 Bob Hyatt February 6, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    I get that the Cross is disturbing. It’s *meant* to be. I think ultimately, the task is to understand the biblical narrative in its paradoxical complexity, not try to wave it away. What I see most often in discussions of this, not to put too fine a point on it, is not a lack of faith or love for Jesus, but an unwillingness to sit with the tension inherent in the cross until (allow me to go zen here) enlightenment comes.

    “And frankly, most of the atonement metaphors of today seem to be about an evasion of justice, a glorification of violence and victim-hood, and a denial that the message of Jesus really has the power to work in our day and age.”

    Keep going, Mike. It’s meant to raise dissonance in your head about these very things. How can a just God do this?
    Why are Isaiah 53 and the crucifixion narratives so troubling to some people?
    A lot of reasons… first, the violence of this death. All through the OT, God had promised a Messiah, someone who would come and bring peace, healing, wholeness, and restore justice and fairness. From Genesis, all the way up to the early chapters of Isaiah, this anointed one is talked about. Then you get to the middle part of Is. chpts 40 and on, and he appears- it begins to describe Him, bringing what was promised, bringing salvation to the nations.
    But when we hit ch. 53 something tragic, something appalling happens. The one who was supposed to bring an end to violence becomes the victim of violence- the one who was supposed to end injustice becomes its victim. “Pierced” for us. The word carries the connotation of someone being impaled- run through, in the front, out the back. It’s a vivid description of a horrible, painful death.

    And the question is- How could this be the Messiah? It contradicts everything else that’s been said about Him to this point! How could the Messiah bring an end to injustice and violence and the brokenness of the world… by being broken Himself?
    It makes no sense.
    And even more shocking and offensive to some, this is a vicarious death- that is, the innocent in place of the guilty. Pierced for OUR rebellion, crushed for OUR sin…
    And this is no lamb, but a Man- the “Lamb of God.” All through the OT we see sacrifices described- the life of a lamb or a goat or a bull as a covering for the sin of the people, a guilt offering to deal with their sin. But one thing the Bible is very clear on- never were the people to consider human sacrifice- that was a thing the other nations did, and God despised the idea. And yet… that’s what this is. For someone else’s sin and rebellion, He was pierced and crushed, beaten and whipped. So others could be whole. God condemns human sacrifice, and yet here- that’s exactly what the Messiah becomes.

    One other thing is personally shocking to me- the fact that this is a voluntary thing. He picked up and carried our weakness, He shouldered our sorrows- something is accomplished by His anguish and He goes to it willingly…

    This is hard stuff to make sense of, no doubt. Some people do it by trying to make this purely figurative, saying, for example, that this passage is a poetic, figurative depiction of the nation of Israel itself- the Jewish people. A picture of the suffering of the Jewish nation. Of course, there’s a problem with that, and the problem is this- the one in this passage suffers on behalf of the nation, in place of the people. This one suffers so the people don’t have to. But if this suffering servant is just a symbol for the people, how can the people suffer so the people don’t have to? How can the nation suffer in place of the nation?

    The whole thing begins to make sense when we get our Trinitarian thinking straight… If this is Immanuel, God With Us, then… God in human flesh is the only one who can say- My life is My own and I willingly lay it down- no one takes it from Me. The only one. And He laid it down- for us?

    This also begins to explain the vicariousness of it- how an innocent person suffering for the guilty could conceivably be just.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “Forgiveness is a form of suffering.” And what that means is this- When someone wrongs you, it’s pretty obvious how you suffer. What’s less obvious is that if you refuse to forgive them, you continue your own suffering. Generally, the person who hurt you couldn’t care less about your forgiveness- if they did they probably wouldn’t have hurt you that way in the beginning. So by refusing to forgive, by sitting in growing bitterness and anger, you simply magnify your own suffering.

    But what is even less obvious than that is that forgiveness itself is suffering. When you want payback and vengeance and you refrain, you are the one who pays. When you want them to suffer and yet refuse to strike out at them, you suffer, you take back within yourself the full brunt of what’s been done. Forgiveness is willingly living with the consequences of someone else’s sin. Doing wrong, hurting others causes suffering. It can’t be escaped. We simply get to choose by forgiving or not forgiving which flavor of suffering we’ll experience when someone wrongs us.

    And if that is true for us, with our limited and myopic sense of justice and right and wrong, how much more true is it for God? This is God suffering in order that we might be forgiven. If God wasn’t going to pay us back for the wrongs we do to each other and to Him, then He was going to have to pay. He would suffer. And the cross, a gruesome as it was, showed that in stark reality. There- for all the world to see, our hatred, our violence, God’s love, God’s forgiveness… God suffering on our behalf.

    I dislike as much as anyone else the overemphasis on God “crushing” Jesus. But don’t swing too far the other way. Yes- the cross is violent. But it’s OUR violence. Yes, the pain is real- a real demonstration of what God suffers in forgiveness. And yes, it’s vicarious- my penalty, willingly taken. Keep wrestling with it, but don’t neuter the violent, vicarious and yet voluntary death of Jesus on the cross.

  3. 3 andrew February 6, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    dang mike. good post. really glad you are doing this.

    i find it easier to talk about atonement by referring to particular verses in the Scriptures and building out from them. it might be helpful to share your interpretation of some of those verses in the next few posts. otherwise, my fundie friends will be coming over to fight for their cherished doctrines and theological constructs, assuming the ‘biblical’ interpretation of those verses is already settled.

  4. 4 Neil C February 6, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    “If I’m honest, it’s even difficult to square the message of Jesus in the gospels with some of the messages about Jesus even later in the New Testament…The fundamentalists…chose the messages about Jesus, the good news as told by his friends.”

    I don’t personally care much for what either fundamentalists OR modernists have done with the good news. They both have their own distortions (which I understand is your beef–you want it all).

    But isn’t even the message OF Jesus just as much his message “as told by his friends?” It seems the split ends up being over which friends to listen to first. The bottom line for me, though, is that neither is chosen at the expense of the other. That kingdom is built on a foundation (not the philosophical, epistemological kind) of people who knew Jesus personally. Their testimony takes priority over anyone else’s. Struggle with the text we may, but in the end their voice should be our guide.

  5. 5 poopemerges February 6, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    Mike, it seems to me that your view of Jesus starts and ends in the Gospels..and even that in my opinion a little slanted to a pacifist view of Jesus which is just as partial as a “Judging Jesus”. My point being that I think we must see Jesus from Genesis to Revelation. And a view of Jesus as non-violent is going to have serious issues in dealing with the Jesus we find in the book of Revelation and with any conception of God in the Old Testament. (Which you acknowledge) It is also going to have trouble I think making any sense of the covenants. The OT becomes useless to us and the God of the OT becomes completely sucky, unless Jesus is seen through all of scripture and grace along side his justice and wrath.

    Just my 2 🙂


  6. 6 Craig February 6, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    good stuff. I’ll have to digest it more fully later. Are you reading any Miroslov Wolf (or Miroslov Pelikan, I forget). One of those guys takes this issue head on.

    Non-violent atonement (at least in terms of God’s attitudes and actions). That’s where I’m at, too.

  7. 7 Mike L. February 6, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Great post! I share your desire to look past modern mistakes from all angles. You are right to suggest we all share those goals and you are right to suggest the answer is not simply picking a winner of the modern battle for absolute truth. However, I have one concern that I can’t shake. As I listen to the many voices of the emergent dialog that has nourished my own faith for the last few years, I’m concerned that we may start our rebuilding project on a false view of the past. If we are going to correct mistakes, I feel we should be very careful to start with an accurate assessment of the mistakes that we look to remedy.

    I hear and agree with the many detailed criticisms of conservative theology. Normally those criticisms are followed by something like “well the liberals are wrong too” or “the other side is no better”, but I’ve not seen a clear critique of what it is we’d seek to correct in liberalism. Since most of the emergent voices are post-evangelicals, I’m not sure we’ve started with an accurate portrait of the “other side who must surely be just as wrong”.

    As I’ve studied the theology of the last few centuries, I’ve seen in liberalism something that resembles the “3rd way” that I thought we needed to build from fresh ground. Maybe you’re seeing something different? I’ve begun to wonder if my view of this view was an urban myth. I had merely a straw-man perspective of that viewpoint. By liberalism, could you actually mean secularism? Liberalism at its core is a thirst for knowledge, hope for progress, and tolerance of diversity in our dialog.

    So my question for you is: What is it in liberalism that we seek to critique or “move past”? Are we so sure that we’ve correctly identified this other “flawed” position?

  8. 8 Christine Sine February 6, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    Great post. I look forward to seeing where this discussion goes. Don’t you think that some of our views of the atonement come out of our Christendom worldview rather than out of the gospels? Also I do think that the very male dominated theology we have all imbibed tends to reinforce these views.

  9. 9 David Gladson February 6, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Mike… thwo thoughts…

    1) Thank you so much for the reminder that my theology/practice is holisitc… How I respond or think is connected to how I treat my body and my spriit… aka need for exercise and spiritual discipline. It really makes a difference.

    2) I love the connection you made b/t non-violence and punitive atonement. I don’t care how much heresy I get charged with… I cannot and will not assume that God has to punish anyone in order to forgive… That is putting limits on God and contrary to the “illogic” of grace.

  10. 10 Bob February 6, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    You can believe in substitution without seeing it as primarily “punitive.”
    God may be able to forgive without punishing… But I think He can’t forgive without suffering. None of us can.

  11. 11 Brother Maynard February 6, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    What can I possibly add to the discussion? Good stuff Mike, and Bob. I haven’t tossed out penal substitution completely, but I’ve shifted my one-time fundamentalist / evangelical viewpoint to say that penal substitution alone is a rather shallow view of the atonement. This means living with some degree of paradox, but I personally find it to be a more rounded (holistic?) way of seeing things.

  12. 12 MattR February 6, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Good stuff Mike!
    Keep going… keep pushing… we need this conversation.

    And I feel like you’re right, some have (both liberal and conservative) circled all around the atonement but have often missed it in its holistic beauty.

    If you haven’t already, Scot McKnight’s book ‘A Community Called Atonement’ is helpful with this. He doesn’t go far enough sometimes for me, but I also can’t help but be encouraged and challenged by his balanced approach. Also have appreciated Greg Boyd on this.

    A thought:
    What is the relationship between our violent metaphors of atonement, that see God primarily as aggressor instead of suffering servant/victim, and our own western culture of war and violence? My hunch is the two are related, and as I talk to people many stories seem to confirm this.

  13. 13 tripp fuller February 6, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Great Stuff. I appreciate Mike L.’s response and think that perhaps the error of liberal understandings of atonement lie in anthropology. SOME, not all, liberal theologies do not understand humanity to be in a situation that it is in need of a divine work it cannot manufacture on its own.

    Looking froward to the next post.

  14. 14 natrimony February 7, 2009 at 5:16 am


    The atonement is simply to big of a biblical entity to label with one term. I’ve written extensively on this topic and hope to develop my thoughts even further throughout seminary. With that said, I argue for a progressive-holistic view of the atonement of Jesus Christ which attempts to take seriously all of the biblical language pointing to this wonderful reckoning between God and man. I believe one may affirm substitutionary atonement without focusing on the punitive aspect just as one may focus on Moral Example without excluding the reality of total depravity.

    With some groundwork laid (the Bible is rife with explanations of Christ’s redeeming activity) the segue into the biblical language of atonement properly demonstrates the holistic nature of the various descriptions intended for the appropriate explanation of ongoing redemption. The text and genre certainly supports various perspectives in this instance. Working from OT narratives coupled with Levitical imagery NT elucidations include language of the battlefield, the courtroom, the marketplace, the sacrificial altar, and both reconciliation and propitiation.

    Within such a variegated amount of description the movement of the atonement finds its way across the boundary of every single definition. The use of imagery, simile, and metaphor—word pictures—display the transcendent quality in which the progressive activity occurs. The atonement is not a stationary or static concept. No. The work of Christ is as alive as Christ himself. It is active and able just as the 2nd Person lives and acts. The work and person of Christ are inseparable.

    By this token requiring any of the main atonement definitions without regard to the other two is a futile practice. Joel B. Green, arguing from a self-declared Kaleidoscopic view, makes a confrontational statement with:

    “I claim that debates regarding the best way(s) to articulate the saving message of the cross of Christ comprise an intramural conversation, and not one that can serve to distinguish Christian believer from nonbeliever or even evangelical from non-evangelical.” . “Kaleidoscopic View’. Edited by James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy in “The Nature of the Atonement”.

    Intramural discussion of the atonement is certainly required, for the academy often engages in jejune pursuits without some controversial dialogue. However, the wider acknowledgment of an ecumenical conversation would be just as warranted, if not more so. In order to move forward with a complete view of the accomplished and accomplishing work of Christ the church would do well to embrace the strengths of each atonement concept. A willingness to progress, meeting half-way on points of contention, ground the faithful in a loving practice of unity.

    All Biblical atonement imagery may be confirmed. Whereas the pastor/theologian may broach a specific construct within which to place the atonement to prove his point; in the end, the biblical text will only allow for the equal treatment of the many redemption motifs. Nevertheless, in the three predominant theories: Objective, Subjective, and Classical/Christus Victor (and their various evolutions) something invariably gets left out of the construction. When discrepancies are pointed out then defensive overreaction leads to distorted characterization.

    The orthodoxy of a progressive holistic view of the atonement should be obvious. Again Green provides elucidation brevitas et claritas.

    “Similarly, in the wake of both the Old and New Testament writings, with their compounded array of images of the saving work of Christ, the church has worked faithfully to embrace the message of atonement without presuming that one image subsumed or trumped the others…Those [atonement theories] that counter the narrative of Scripture as this is understood in the classical faith should be left aside.”

    With that said, an accepted synthesis of each major view must allow for tensions and promote awareness of existing language constraints. Language is imperfect. Finite and corrupt is our conveyance and apprehension of meaning and yet how great is the condescension of the infinite and incorruptible God to allow His perfect work of redemption to be described in every day terminology! For isn’t that how the Bible describes the atonement? And…Ultimately, it is the Bible which describes the atonement finally.

    “There is only one source from which we can derive a proper conception of Christ’s atoning work. That source is the Bible. There is only one norm by which our interpretations and formulations are to be tested. That norm is the Bible.” John Murray, “Redemption Accomplished and Applied”

    Biblical atonement verbiage is most often tangibly vivid—very rarely technical—and transmitted through common enough representation. The message is tailored to the situation. Meanwhile, the audience receiving the idea understands the concept more fully by way of a rounded and active panoply of meaning. The affinities involved in a holistic picture of the atonement, “forms a unified whole in which every part should receive its due recognition and attention if the full-orbed biblical gospel of grace is to be proclaimed,” according to Roger Nicole, one of the most generous defenders of substitutionary atonement.

    What may be said about the three major atonement theories in no way devalues the significance of each one’s individual contribution to atonement understandings. John Stott even notes the value of perspective in his substitutionary opus “The Cross of Christ”. But, the purpose of a progressive-holistic atonement is not to undermine the importance of definite conceptions of the reconciliation of Jesus Christ. Instead, the aim of this realization is to reconcile the main points of each contribution and bridge the gap in moving forward into the continuation of dynamic redemption knowledge revealed in Scripture.

    Whereas, each view may address certain aspects more completely (i.e. victory over evil power, moral example, objective legal standing) they do not abide alone but intermingle, pointing to the holistic nature of Christ’s atonement. For this undertaking of redemption is a deed, an activity, and therefore involves movement.

    The atonement is not an inert concept, although it does have definition. It proceeds within peripheries. John Calvin clearly emphasizes that, “one sacrifice of Christ effects sufficient atonement.” “It therefore follows that the power of one sacrifice is eternal and extends to all ages.” One the other hand, there is definitely more space within one simple “atonement” for the particular emphasis of each individual theme without elevating any single supposition to primacy. A holistic-progressive view of the atonement allows for the strength of each theory and at the same time settles the squabble over primacy. The synthesis is achieved when the importance, even the necessity, of each formulation is noticed, then integrated into a comprehensive appropriation of qualitative truth. In effect it reconciles reconciliation. And isn’t that the primary thrust of the verb to “atone”? Which is simply this: to make “At” “One”.

  15. 15 natrimony February 7, 2009 at 5:29 am


    I am in complete agreement with your post. You described the substitutionary component with an emotional logic which was obviously well-thought through. And yes, the overemphasis on the crushing of Jesus by the Father is often way out of line. It is both overemphasized as a characterization by those who despise substititionary atonement and as an improper vehicle for the elevation of the 2nd person of the Trinity for those who cannot see the worth in any other atonement imagery. The latter group in effect often become Unitarians of the 2nd Person–in effect pitting Father against Son.

  16. 16 robbymac February 7, 2009 at 5:42 am

    I think that as long as we attempt to negate one view by supplanting it with another (ie. replace penal substitution with Christus Victor), we will always have a lop-sided and therefore inaccurate view of the atonement.

    Which would be so very “modern” of us, if we created a binary opposition out of atonement theologies. 🙂

    Just sayin’…

  17. 17 zoecarnate February 7, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Wow, so much awesome interaction, and from across the spectrum! I’ll try & respond briefly to each of you before posting Part II.

    Doug, I was vaguely aware of this essay but thanks for bringing it back to my attention! I shall read it soon.

    Bob, I appreciate your impassioned-yet-clear thoughts here. Lemme spend a second interacting with this – you’re right, it is supposed to cause dissonance – I don’t think anybody’s trying to make the cross pretty. “something tragic, something appalling happens. The one who was supposed to bring an end to violence becomes the victim of violence.” And this is tragic & appalling. I think what some find even more appalling, though, is when God the Father is seen as the ultimate purveyor of violence upon his Son, venting “His just & holy wrath” upon this innocent victim. In other words, absorbing the violence & wrath of the world? Revolting, but okay. Taking fatal licks from his Daddy? Not okay.

    You capture well the revulsion Jewish folk would have at the notion of human sacrifice, even as the early Christian community begins to interpret Jesus in just these terms. Here’s the part where I think you begin to mix your metaphors – and we all do at some point:

    “For someone else’s sin and rebellion, He was pierced and crushed, beaten and whipped. So others could be whole. God condemns human sacrifice, and yet here- that’s exactly what the Messiah becomes.”

    I’m going to pose a question to this statement that *should* be Evangelical Christianity 101. We say it so much that it’s axiomatic; to question it is to be met with blank stares. My question is In what way does Jesus’ particular suffering in a first century empire make *any* others whole? How are Jesus’ trumped-up charges interpreted as ‘someone else’s sin and rebellion’?

    I don’t have an answer to this; I have yet to hear a satisfying answer (kinda similar to why Augustinian articulations of ‘original sin’ ring hollow to me). But I acknowledge that the Christian tradition always connects Jesus’ particular suffering in his time & place with a kind of redemptive suffering on behalf of humanity, and indeed the cosmos. Maybe the incarnation transforms Jesus’ love into Cosmic Love, his death into Cosmic Death, his resurrection into Cosmic Resurrection? This is more of a storytelling technique than a mechanical ‘answer,’ but I can buy it provisionally.

    Bob, you ask “This one suffers so the people don’t have to. But if this suffering servant is just a symbol for the people, how can the people suffer so the people don’t have to? How can the nation suffer in place of the nation?”

    Here is another problem I have with our currently in-vogue model: It’s not just the penal part, it’s the substitution part. Does Jesus really suffer “so we don’t have to”? I think we all suffer, and my reading of the Gospels indicates that Jesus calls us to “take up our cross daily” and follow him. And the epistles proclaim that we participate “in the fellowship of his sufferings.” I feel like the evangelical substitutionary gospel is “Jesus did all this great/hard stuff, including suffering at the hands of the injustices of the Powers, so we don’t have to.” I simply don’t buy it. Nor do I buy that what Jesus suffered that we don’t have to refers primarily to some anger/wrath of the Father. Not to turn this into a debate on hell, but from a storytelling angle this plot device is about as thin, sometimes, as superhero comic books. The hero has nothing to do unless the architect of say, the Marvel or DC universe, also creates super-villains for the heroes to trounce. Because obviously (with the exception of Superman IV the movie), all-powerful heroes can’t simply stop wars, disarm the planet, and help create alternative forms of energy. There would be too much dissonance between this fictitious world and our world; we might be able to suspend disbelief about men wearing tights, but not about that. So superhero comics create the problem they want to solve: super-villains. Similarly, I feel like contemporary evangelicalism (and maybe Christendom in general going back to Medieval times) creates the problem – the abiding hatred & wrath of God – that it then presents the solution to: Jesus’ penal, substitutionary death on our behalf.

    I sound more negative than I intend to; I freely acknowledge that there’s something in both (say) Lutheran and Wesleyan formulations of conversion & grace that are deeply liberating. I’m still trying to figure out what that is, though. I’m reading some Robert Farrar Capon to help me.

    “The whole thing begins to make sense when we get our Trinitarian thinking straight…” I agree, Bob. And yet it’s important, still, to get straight what God is incarnating into the world to remedy. If it’s the world’s sin, death, and violence then that’s one thing. Then the Father sending the Son to deal with that, or God incarnating himself to redeem us from that, is heroic – even if it’s knowingly leading to death, we can rightly speak of that death as sacrificial. But if what God’s coming to redeem us from is a scheme of God’s own deliberate making – the whole comic book creators making villians for the heroes thing – then the Father sending the Son to absorb the Father’s own wrath becomes (what has been infamously described as) child abuse. And an incarnational understanding is not much better: This becomes a suicidal God, killing Godself to play by his own rules.

    And yet I wonder if our disagreement is more semantic than substantial. Because I really do resonate when you say “But what is even less obvious than that is that forgiveness itself is suffering. When you want payback and vengeance and you refrain, you are the one who pays. When you want them to suffer and yet refuse to strike out at them, you suffer, you take back within yourself the full brunt of what’s been done. Forgiveness is willingly living with the consequences of someone else’s sin. Doing wrong, hurting others causes suffering. It can’t be escaped. We simply get to choose by forgiving or not forgiving which flavor of suffering we’ll experience when someone wrongs us.”. Though I still wrestle with the logic of “If God wasn’t going to pay us back for the wrongs we do to each other and to Him, then He was going to have to pay.” But, as you admonish, I’m still wrestling! 🙂

  18. 18 zoecarnate February 7, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Andrew, I get into Romans 5 with my next post. But I don’t know how well I’ll escape the wrath of your fundie friends – or even you. Yikes!

  19. 19 zoecarnate February 7, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    Neil, I get what you’re saying, & agree: whether we’re talking about the Gospels or Epistles, we’re talking about interpretations of Jesus by people other than Jesus. As far as we know, Jesus didn’t pen any original works. (Which is really disappointing to me as a writer, especially considering that he’s the author & finisher of our faith! Who’s his agent, anyway..?) But wouldn’t you still agree with me that those interpreting Jesus in the Gospels focused on his life story, and his message, whereas those interpreting Jesus in the epistles are focusing on a ‘larger’ message about him, fleshing out Jesus’ significance as they saw it?

    I think you’re agreeing with me, that we should take both Gospels & Epistles when wishing to take Jesus as our guide & empowerment, and when looking at atonement in particular. So yeah, the texts should be our guide – though we can’t discount reason, tradition, or experience either. I’m a Wesleyan Quadrilateral kinda guy.

  20. 20 zoecarnate February 7, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    Mr. Poop, I hear ya. I don’t want to be a gnostic or Marcionite on the one hand, utterly neglecting the Old Testament as out-of-hand for our faith & practice. But I don’t want to be (I’m sorry if this sounds offensive – I don’t mean it to be, nor do I mean offense to contemporary Marcionites or gnostics – I know some of them too!) a fundamentalist or a Calvinist either, who in my opinion make the opposite error of refusing to wrestle with the text of Tanakh like a good Jew (and like Jesus). For more contemporary literal-minded folks, the sign of respect for Scripture’s inspiration is to refuse to question it. Yet stories of Abraham & Jacob & Moses (and endless Talmud commentary) reveal that our heroes of the faith wrestled with God himself! I think that Jesus reveres the Hebrew Bible, but he’s not afraid to say “Moses said to you…but I say to you…” The problem with being unwilling to do this, is that you take the Old Testament accounts of God declaring war & genocide as normative and end up marginalizing Jesus’ clear teaching on what God is really like. This isn’t to debate the historicity or allegory of those contested passages, only to say that as followers of Jesus we have to marginalize all images of God that contradict the picture we have in Christ.

    As for Jesus in Revelation, I’d highly recommend you check out Barbara Rossig’s Rapture Exposed for a compelling biblical portrait of the continuity between the Gospels’ suffering servant and Revelation’s triumphant King. I’ll give you a hint: the Lamb of God is a hermeneutical key.

  21. 21 zoecarnate February 7, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Hi Craig! I’ve been meaning to read more Miroslav Volf & Jaroslav Pelikan…they’re both on my stacks! I know Volf would take issue with my conception of God’s forgiveness in Christ; he’d say I’m too much of a Western softie & don’t understand the significance of God’s vengeance being a deterrent from humanity’s violence in third world cultures.

  22. 22 zoecarnate February 7, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Mike L., I am appropriately chastised. I get far more specific in my critique of evangelicalism because that’s where I’ve come from; I tred more lightly with mainline/liberal Protestantism as I only know it from afar. But this is where your critique has merit: why do I then assume, in Hegelian dialectic fashion, that there must be imbalances on the liberal Protestant side? Let me take a few stabs at that.

    My first – and admittedly weakest – gut feeling is that if mainline churches were truly more insightful and balanced on this, they’d be growing more, emergents would have heard of ’em right away, and we’d be flocking to their congregations. But I sense a malaise in most mainline congregations that doesn’t seem to emit the potent aroma of a people who have discovered the heartbeat of the Spirit in bringing Shalom to the world. BUT, this critique is a bit weak because a.) Since when is the message of Jesus faithfully-embodied necessarily popular, and b.) My direct experience with mainline churches is limited.

    So my second observation begins with a confession: Much of my spiritual reading these past several years has been books by mainline Protestant, Catholic and – more recently, East Orthodox – authors. I find nourishment and provocation drinking from these Wells that I haven’t in a long time in my own tradition. So I offer my unqualified appreciation for the reading – this might be your experience too.

    But in actual practice…again, I haven’t visited a ton of mainline or progressive Catholic congregations, but I have visited some…it seems that there is a disconnect between brilliant denominational theologians and the practice from pew & pulpit. I’d hazard to say that this is a problem with most churches, and something that those of us more on the ‘house church’ side of the emergent spectrum feel is a problem with professionalized clergy & theology in general…we’re not anti-intellectual, but we wish more theology & spirituality would be done on a local, congregational level rather than being left in the hands of professionals and specialists.

    The last I think I offer, somewhat hesitatingly (because I know it doesn’t describe everyone) is an excessive ‘politeness’ that borders on embarrassment to name Jesus as the root of our understanding of God & mission in the world. I think of Bishop Robinson’s recent invocation to “The God of our Many Understandings.” I think Tripp Fuller gets it dead-on when he replies “Does he really think he’s written a prayer that encompasses all faiths? Quit pulling everyone’s leg and just say “God of my understanding.” I like your understanding just fine. That’s why you were asked to do this.” I sense that mailiners are suffering from a bit of ‘post-Christendom guilt’ parallel to post-Colonial guilt on the global stage. I empathize with this. To be sure, we Christians have behaved quite ugly when we were ‘in charge’ culturally and politically. But I don’t think the answer is to slink away apologetically from Jesus. It’s okay to be specifically & distinctively Christian; to be otherwise is impotent, false advertising, or both. I’ve been meditating on this phrase (that, to the best of my knowledge, I made up) “specificity need not equal exclusivity.” I think there might be some wisdom there.

    That said, Mike L, I have enormous respect for mainline churches. They’ve been right so many times this past century when evangelicals have been wrong. I just hope we can all transcend the past century & find new ways to learn from each other.

  23. 23 zoecarnate February 7, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    Christine, I think you’re right. As you know Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker do a great job teasing out threads of both Christendom & patriarchy and their influence on atonement in their magisterial tome Saving Paradise. And I feel like they do it in a very gracious and non-partisan way.

  24. 24 zoecarnate February 7, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    David, my old commuter buddy…thanks for your kind words!

    1.) Yeah, it’s amazing how important physical exercise has become to my spiritual sanity. There’s a blog post in that…

    2.) Indeed. That’s the tension I’m exploring, and it’s not gonna please everyone…

  25. 25 zoecarnate February 7, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    Bob, I love your second quote,

    “You can believe in substitution without seeing it as primarily “punitive.” God may be able to forgive without punishing… But I think He can’t forgive without suffering. None of us can.”

  26. 26 zoecarnate February 7, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    BroMay & RobbyMac, you all express similar thoughts (not surprising!) so I’m going to respond to y’all 2 getha.

    At the very least, I totally agree – penal substitution alone is a shallow way of looking at atonement. And if it’s at all possible for me to ‘keep’ penal substitution in my repertoire, I will do so. I ever every motivation to, for the sake of unity with other Christians and a sense of connection with how many interpret the Bible, etc. And yet – and I realize this is a very un-emerging thing for me to say – sometimes two ideas just flat-out contradict each other, and one’s just gotta go. If penal substitution ends up being the square peg to the round whole of the message of Jesus and the Christlike God whom Jesus proclaims, then I will jettison it. The beautiful news of the Gospel of Peace is too important to compromise by forcing its marriage to a view that might be a grotesque distortion and malignment of God’s character.

    I’m not saying I’ve concluded this – I haven’t. But if my study & conscience bring me there, I’ll go there.

  27. 27 zoecarnate February 7, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    MattR, I think your hunch is correct…and I have read Scot’s book. I enjoyed it, and like you feel like it doesn’t go ‘far enough’ in places – namely, exploring the ways in which penal substitution might actually be at odds with all of the other models & metaphors.

  28. 28 zoecarnate February 7, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Tripp, you would know better than me what mainline shortcomings are. I hope I didn’t make an ass of myself in my reply to Mike L.

  29. 29 zoecarnate February 7, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Natrimony, wow, you’ve obviously given this a great deal of thought! And you’re not as ‘Reformed’ as I thought if you like Joel Green…I have an RTS grad friend who, I think, did his master’s thesis against Green & Wright’s atonement thoughts, primarily using Murray’s “Redemption Accomplished and Applied.” So that you can hold these thoughts in tension with each other is muy commendable.

    Do have a paper where you get into your thoughts? If so, I’d love to read it.

  30. 30 Mike L. February 7, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    If one critique of liberalism is that it is too polite, then making an ass of yourself should be a solution, right? LOL

    Good responses, Mike! Tripp also brings up a great point about anthropology. (perhaps from Leron Shults?) This might be one of the places post-liberalism can really help us.

    I suspect the core problem with atonement symbolism is that we might be imagining metaphorical solutions to the wrong problem. Conservative atonement theories superimposed the problem of our afterlife status on top of stories that were not necessarily about afterlife. Liberal theories tend to look through the lens of cultural anthropology. Through this lens we are more likely to find that the problems Jesus point us toward are found in the corrupted system of temple sacrifice, which instituted unfair temple taxation, impossible purity laws, and the lack of leadership responsibility due to its cooperation with the occupying armies of Rome. A cultural anthropological approach to Jesus, might lead us to better atonement theories that seek to solve the the 1st century’s version of unjust CEO compensation and pleas for an economic stimulus package.

    So my questions are: Do any of our atonement theories and metaphors seek to solve the right problems? Do they solve the problems Jesus addressed and protested in Jerusalem?

  31. 31 Mike L. February 7, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    FYI… I don’t necessarily agree 100% with the liberal view that I mentioned above, but I thought it made sense to bring it out for critique. Fair and balanced, right?

  32. 32 natrimony February 7, 2009 at 4:42 pm


    My paper approaches 40 pages…but if you would really like to read it then I would be happy to send it to you via attachment.

  33. 33 Brittian Bullock February 7, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    This is truly amazing stuff Mike. I too am incredibly impressed by the diversity (and celebrity) of the comments going on here.

    You and I have talked a lot about this before–but this brings up another set of questions…

    As I’ve told you before, I struggle with the notion of Daddy God beating the shit out of his boy. As the Franciscan position argued against the Dominicans over a 1000 years ago, the penal substitution effectively destroys the doctrine of the Trinity. It makes God the Son out to be Loki the trickster pulling the wool over his Father’s eyes, and ultimately being bludgeoned by a vengeance happy Sky God…”fooled ya Dad! You thought it was humanity you were pummelling. Surprise, it’s me–your Son! Now you don’t have to beat the crap out of them!” Essentially there begins to be a fracture in the quality of relationship of the Triune God…to say nothing of the oblivious nature of the Spirit in this whole transaction.

    I’ve asked myself numerous times–does this matter? I mean, ultimately does it matter HOW we get around to the fact that we now live in a state of open relationship with a loving and benevolent, graceful God? I’m at the place where I suggest that yes…it does matter. The ends don’t justify the means…in fact, as we’ve all heard before, “the medium IS the message”…I’ve watched it played out in church life. CHristian workers who see the Father as using ANY means to bring people back into loving relationship with himself, including using violence and vengeance, are more willing to do so themselves. And I’ve SEEN that. I’ve even heard such Christian workers cite this as their reasoning for manipulating, lying, or even outright damaging other believers all in effort to “love God’s people”….

    Well…anyhow…thanks for this post brother!

  34. 34 tripp fuller February 7, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    Ok I don’t have much to add other than this is really fun to read. I like this post. I like the comments. I would really like to get all yall at a table with a brew and nice cigar and talk this through.

    Liberals have “post-christendom guilt.” That was theologically bad as*. Do you really think it is limited to liberals? I bet part of the growth of the anabaptist movement among evangelicals has something along the same cause. I see another series of posts, “Beyond Post-Christendom Guilt.”

  35. 35 Cathryn February 7, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    hey mike,
    NICE…Love it!
    I maybe – and probably admittedly am thinking way toooo simplistic- yet, i don’t mind the childlike faith part-

    I guess, if Jesus’ death was the only focus in this Divine redemption- i’d agree with all the angst around the debate/discussion… but i just don’t see it like that- For my Spirit/Heart’s Mind- it’s the resurrection that trumps it. (last time i checked on Yom Kippur the slain lamb didn’t jump off the altar in 3 days)- But Jesus did, and in that it restored cosmic DNA- so that the power of death (by whatever means -was broken)- the consequences- wages of sin, because of all the killing (Cain and Able shin dig) was completely shattered by the Power in the Resurrection.

    We can still lay down our life for another, to spare them suffering, to save them from death (jumping in front of a car- to push someone outta the way- and “getting dead” ourselves- AND some would do it without even KNOWING the person.. )- but we can’t do the Dr. Who regeneration- or Jesus’ resurrection – Something changed there- something wonderful – something amazing- something that changed this physical realm and the spiritual realm- God’s quantum physics..

    I guess, i can’t think about this topic with out looking at that part- and perhaps we understand that much less than the first part of this divine equation. So to me, it’s not so much why did he have to die like that, somewhere in my heart’s spirit/ or spiritual Original DNA- that resonates- vibrates Love to my core,- i scratch my head more about the Rising- not to mention going and swiping the Keys outta the enemies hands! I can’t separate the two. Just my thoughts on that one.. and how my heart ponders……
    Shalom & Ahava,

  36. 36 len February 8, 2009 at 12:02 am

    I’m with those who argue we need it all. Just as light thru a prism splinters into a dazzle of colors, we see in part and prophesy in part and we get closer to the truth thru multiple lenses. I like Geoff Holsclaw’s comment last year on McKnights book, “Atonement language includes several evocative metaphors: there is a sacrificial metaphor (offering), and a legal metaphor (justification), and an interpersonal metaphor (reconciliation), and a commercial metaphor (redemption) and a military metaphor (ransom). Each is designed to carry us…to the thing. But the metaphor is not the thing. The metaphor gives the reader or hearer an imagination of the thing, a vision of the thing, a window onto the thing, a lens through which to look in order to see the thing. Metaphors take us there, but they are not the “there”, (38).

  37. 37 Joseph March 3, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (3:13)

    So simple! So plain! Not a theory – a fact! Christ became a CURSE. Why? because “He who knew no sin, became sin for us …?

    And if he became sin than there is no doubt that he suffered the wrath of God because of it.

    I say again. This is no theory. It is plainly and simply set forth in scripture.

    May God open your eyes.

  38. 38 Theodore A. Jones November 15, 2009 at 12:15 am

    “It is NOT those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who OBEY the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    What is this law he is talking about?

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  1. 1 Links for February 6th | jonathan stegall Trackback on February 6, 2009 at 11:01 pm
  2. 2 Re-Visioning Jesus’ Atonement: Possible Reconstructions « zoecarnate Trackback on February 7, 2009 at 6:18 pm
  3. 3 Penal Substitution and non-violence at Between the Trees Trackback on February 13, 2009 at 5:01 pm
  4. 4 Random Acts of Linkage #99 : Subversive Influence Trackback on February 15, 2009 at 11:25 pm
  5. 5 why I am blogging for lent « broke with bandaged soul Trackback on February 28, 2009 at 3:27 pm
  6. 6 Who are the NeoReformed by Scot McKnight Trackback on March 1, 2009 at 2:32 am
  7. 7 zoecarnate Trackback on March 1, 2009 at 3:28 pm
  8. 8 sin kills god: why jesus had to die – Trackback on March 30, 2009 at 4:03 pm
  9. 9 Random Resources on the Atonement « to tell the truth Trackback on September 8, 2009 at 10:06 pm
  10. 10 Ash Wednesday: Atonement Round-Up - The New Christians Trackback on July 19, 2011 at 5:18 pm
  11. 11 Ash Wednesday: Atonement Round-Up Trackback on February 29, 2012 at 4:56 pm

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