The Baptist hymnal that my church and many Baptist churches sing from every Sunday is immersed in substitutionary atonement theory. In the church I pastor we omit certain verses of hymns because of allusions and references to Jesus’ death as a substitution. Most members in most Baptist churches across the country don’t know it as theory; they believe it as gospel.
It was one of the five principles (fundamentals) issued in 1895 at the Niagara Conference of Conservative Protestants that were claimed to be necessary for true Christian belief. (The other four were the inerrancy of Scripture, the divinity of Jesus, the historicity of the virgin birth, and the physical, corporeal return of Jesus.) Popular Baptist preachers and evangelists over the years have emphasized trust in Jesus’ substitutionary death as essential for salvation. It is such a staple in many Baptist churches that pastors, even though they don’t believe it themselves, refuse to touch it.
I believe, however, we have to try. There are serious flaws with the theory. Bad Christian theology leads to bad Christian living. If one has any doubt about that just consider the voting record of evangelicals in the last election. Eighty percent voted for Trump.
But first, let’s be clear on what we are talking about. Some scholars distinguish between satisfaction and substitution, but lay Christians do not, so I do not here. Do any of the following presentations sound familiar?
- Jesus bore the penalty of sin (eternal death) resting on sinners, thus making possible the sinner’s forgiveness.
- Jesus paid the debt that sin incurs, making possible the sinner’s acceptance before God and release from the obligation to God sin imposes.
- Jesus purchased the sinner from the slave market of sin, setting the sinner free to now serve a new master.
- Jesus bore the wrath or judgment of God against sin, thus propitiating God (satisfying God’s offended sense of justice and holiness; satisfying God’s honor).
- The sin of humanity was imputed to Christ on the cross while the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to the believer (credited to the believer’s account) when the believer exercises saving faith. This is normally how traditional evangelicals understand the doctrine of justification. On the basis of this imputation the believer is declared “not guilty” and “righteous” before God — not practically, but positionally — that is, this is the believer’s standing or position before God. The believer is clothed with the righteousness of Christ, therefore, all the believer’s sins are covered — all of this being accomplished through the blood (the death) of Jesus who died for the sinner.
At the heart of all these basic concepts — penalty bearing, debt canceling, wrath placating, honor satisfying, holiness propitiating, etc. — is the idea that Jesus died in the sinner’s place (in the sinner’s stead or in the sinner’s behalf), as a sinless, innocent sacrifice, taking on the sinner’s punishment. The one who was sinless and did not deserve to die, but became the willing sacrifice unto death on behalf of the sinner, so that it is possible for the sinner to be released, forgiven, justified and accepted as righteous. Jesus’ death thus solves the dilemma of how God can remain just and still justify (acquit, forgive, accept, reconcile) the sinner.
Many Christians believe this to be the gospel truth. To deny this truth is to deny Christ. But this theory of the redemptive significance of Jesus’ death is seriously flawed. The major problem with substitutionary atonement is the way it imagines God. This interpretation of Jesus’ death makes God the source of redemptive violence. God required/demanded a violent death for atonement to be made. God required the death of an innocent victim in order to satisfy God’s offended sense of honor or pay off a penalty that God imposed. What kind of justice or God is this? Would a loving parent make forgiveness for the child conditioned upon a violent act?
God saving us from … God?
Substitutionary atonement imagines a self-giving Son who gives his life in order to pay off/placate/satisfy/appease a harsh, vindictive Father. Even when God’s union with Jesus is emphasized through Trinitarian configurations, the problem is not alleviated. No matter how positively nuanced the exposition, the result is still that God must save us from God.
Proponents of substitutionary atonement explain that God’s holiness or justice demanded a substitute. Why? If God is sovereign, as advocates of substitutionary atonement contend, then God is the source of all justice. God is not subject to some sort of cosmic principle of justice outside of God’s own nature. If God chooses to simply forgive sin the way a loving parent would forgive sin, without requiring some sort of pay off or sacrifice, there is no one to tell God that God is violating the demands of justice. God sets the standards of justice.
Substitutionary atonement reflects more of an ancient, primitive view of God than the view taught and embodied by Jesus of Nazareth. In the ancient world, sacrifice was demanded to placate the offended deity; to stay the deity’s wrathful vengeance. Jesus imagined God as Abba — a loving, compassionate parent — seeking the best for God’s children. The God of Jesus would have no need to save us from God’s self.
Another problem with substitutionary atonement is that it reduces salvation to a legal transaction that has nothing to do with the actual transformation of the individual. When a person “believes” in this arrangement (accepts Christ as personal savior) the believer is forgiven all sin and justified (acquitted and declared righteous) before God. What is not explained (nor can it be adequately explained) in this manner of conceiving salvation is how this legal transaction actually effects change (salvation) in the inner life and outer conduct of the one who accepts the doctrine. Christ’s death becomes the solution to the problem of the next world (heaven and hell), a fire insurance policy against divine retribution, but does nothing to effect moral transformation in this world.
In his excellent book, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard describes this as “bar-code faith.” Scanners are used in stores to read the bar-code on goods being purchased. It makes no difference to the scanner what is actually in the package, box or bottle that contains the bar-code. The electronic eye reads the code and a price is assigned.
Many Christians believe that when the sinner makes a “decision” for Christ (invites Christ into his heart, trusts in Jesus’ death for sin, confesses Christ publicly; various churches and traditions use different language) God “scans” the believer and then shifts the believer’s sin onto Christ while Christ’s righteousness is shifted to the believer’s account in heaven, with the result that the believer’s sin debt is paid in full and the believer is forgiven. This is usually explained as a private, personal act; a decision between the believer and God. When the believer makes this decision, God sees only the righteousness of Christ, regardless of what is actually in the heart and mind. In such a Christian system the actual life and teachings of Jesus have little bearing on what it means to be a Christian.
Symbol and metaphor
Perhaps the first step in dethroning such a terrible doctrine is to help Christians realize that the sacrificial language utilized in the New Testament are symbols and metaphor, not to be taken in any literal sense. For example, the reference to Christ’s sacrificial death in Matthew 20:28 is often assumed to be a reference to substitutionary atonement. Nothing could be further from Jesus’ mind, if indeed the saying originated with Jesus. In the passage Jesus rebukes his disciples for aspiring after positions of power and authority, calling them to a life of service: “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:27–28). Scholars have pointed out that “ransom” (lytron) in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) had already lost its specific meaning of “release by paying off the captor” and had come to mean deliverance or liberation through an act of God’s power (e.g., Ex. 6:6; Deut. 7:8).
In the context of Matthew 20:28, the liberation, deliverance or redemption that Jesus is speaking of is a liberation from the need to pursue power, position and prestige by being a faithful servant to all people, regardless of station, class or rank. It is not Jesus’ death alone that is the means of rescue or redemption; rather, it is Jesus’ life as a whole, offered up selflessly and sacrificially in service for the good of others, even unto death.
Matthew changes Mark’s simple conjunction “and” to “just as” in order to clarify that Jesus as Son of Man is the model for the disciples own lives and ministry. They are “rescued” from a life of self-aggrandizement and egotism by following Jesus in a life of humble service to others. Substitutionary atonement is clearly not in the picture.
All religious language is symbolical language. For example, when Paul says explicitly or implicitly that Christ’s death brings redemption Paul is not suggesting that Jesus’ death was the literal price paid to God (or to Satan, as some have argued) to secure the disciples’ release from the penalty or power of sin. Rather, Paul is simply saying that Christ’s death is the means of deliverance/redemption, but he does not explain or elaborate how it works. This is why theologians and biblical interpreters talk about “theories” of atonement; the biblical writers use images and metaphors that are left loose and hanging, and are therefore subject to various interpretations.
I’m convinced that when Paul references the death of Christ he intends to gather up the full significance and meaning of the Christ Event. It is quite possible that the first Christians spoke of Jesus’ death as a way of summing up the redemptive meaning of the whole story of Jesus. This is the way Jesus’ death is presented in Philippians 2:5-8 in the Christ hymn. Here, Jesus’ death is not a payment for sin demanded by God, but is seen as the culmination of his life of obedience to God’s will and cause in the world. Jesus’ death at the hands of the powers is seen through the eyes of faith as self-giving love poured out for others. Jesus lived for God’s cause (the kingdom of God) and for the good of others, even though it led to his rejection and crucifixion by the powers that be. God offered Jesus up only in the sense that he sent Jesus to be his agent for mercy and justice in the world. We (human powers) killed Jesus.
Jesus bore our sins on the cross in the sense that he, as the Son of Man, as the representative human being, bore the hate and animosity of the world in his service to God. He became a scapegoat to end scapegoating, to expose the folly and evil of scapegoating any human being. He became the lightning rod where the pent up oppositional energy of the powers that be (the world) became focused. In bearing the sin — the hate, evil and animosity of the world — he exposed it and exhausted it, thus overcoming it. The resurrection served as God’s vindication, God’s “yes” to Jesus’ sacrificial life and death.
No need for a sacrificial victim
Unfortunately, the sacrificial images employed by Paul and other New Testament writers carry a lot of baggage. When we think of sacrifice in a religious context it is natural to think of a worshiper offering a sacrifice in order to satisfy the honor or turn back the wrath of an offended or angry god. The God of Jesus, however, does not need to be propitiated. God’s attitude toward God’s children is love. Love does not need or require a sacrificial victim. Jesus did not have to die in order to satisfy some need in God or to pay off some debt owed to God. God is able to forgive freely. Humans crucified Jesus. Jesus didn’t have to die in order to make atonement to God for sin. We are the ones needing atonement, we are the ones needing to change, not God. Jesus’ death was a necessity only in the sense that given his prophetic challenge to injustice, his proclamation of the kingdom of God, and his bold critique of his own religion, his death at the hands of the worldly powers was inevitable.
When the Roman emperor Constantine declared the Roman Empire Christian, unfortunately these sacrificial metaphors became the prevailing way of talking about Christ’s death and the Christian’s salvation. Jesus’ proclamation and teaching about God’s new world and his radical call to deliberate nonviolence and love for enemies was ignored and fell out of favor. Jesus’ countercultural teaching, his critique of conventional wisdom, and his confrontation of the powers that be became subversive to the church’s role in the state religion. Salvation was reduced to an individual transaction or relationship between the believer and God. Paul’s sacrificial metaphors took preference over Jesus’ life and teachings because Paul’s sacrificial metaphors could more easily be adapted to the interests of the empire. The Abba of Jesus, the loving, caring, merciful Father/Mother was replaced as the dominant image of God with a God of wrath who demanded the violent death of a sinless substitute as a ransom for sinners.
The nonviolent God of Jesus, however, is incompatible with a God who makes a horrendous act of violence a divinely required act of atonement. Jesus didn’t die because God needed a sacrifice. Jesus died because the powers that be had him killed. But in a symbolic way, he bore the suffering, hate and evil of the world. We are called to do the same. When Jesus told the disciples to take up their cross and follow him, he was telling them to fall in line behind him. We, too, are called, on behalf of the kingdom of God, on behalf of mercy and justice, on behalf of what is good, right, true and just, to be lightning rods, to bear the hate of the world without returning it, so that it might exposed and so that forgiveness is given a chance.
I’m not sure anyone in the church today wants to hear this. But this is the gospel that has the potential to bring peace and reconciliation. This is the gospel that has the power to change lives, communities and whole societies. Now, if we could just get some preachers to preach it.