[This post is part of the Atonement series]
Rather than pushing too far forward with the limited/unlimited issue with regards to the atonement, I thought it might be better to put forward, and defend if necessary, the view of penal substitutionary view of the atonement. It seems in reality that the limited/unlimited question is a secondary concern, and that belief and understanding of atonement as both penal and substitutionary is not just primary, but is necessary to be a Christian in any meaningful sense. To deny penal substitution as means of entering the Kingdom is to virtually deny the very gospel that upholds your faith.
Consider this interchange in a recent interview. You can read the whole article at that site, but I have to give credit to this gentleman, on whose blog I originally found the excerpt. Here’s the Q/A:
The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?
I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.
Interestingly, the question is posed by Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell. The answer is given by, of all people, Christopher Hitchens, who has become more or less a hot topic on this blog recently. In other words than what appear above, it seems for Hitchens, whether or not you believe in substitutionary atonement, Christ’s divinity, and His resurrection determines whether or not you are a Christian in terms of your core beliefs. The whole interview is worth reading, as Hitchens seems to almost ridicule this lady’s beliefs and seem confused why she would want to retain the title “Christian” and wonders just what exactly she has faith in. He also comments that if Christians were all like her, he would have never written his book.
Hopefully she found that insulting. If she didn’t (which is probable), what you are really reading in that interview is just one atheist interviewing another. Hitchens though wins in a battle of integrity for at least not playing charades like Sewell seems to be doing.
Anyway, not that Hitchens should have the final word on what does or doesn’t make one a Christian. He does though seem to get how central a proper understanding of the atonement is for Christians, and that for all intents and purposes, it is the gospel. The gospel can be broadened to include proclamation of the Kingdom, but it cannot be reduced to exclude substitutionary atonement.
Unless Christ died (suffering the penalty of sin) to bear God’s wrath in our place (substitution), then it matters little that there is a Kingdom. We would have no part of it. Only those for whom Christ died this sort of death can be a part in this Kingdom. Christ is the Head of this new creation, and only those who are united with Him in His death and resurrection benefit.
This is also why the resurrection is so central to Christian faith, but that is getting too far ahead to comment on here. The point though is that penal substitutionary atonement is perhaps the core of the gospel; yet it is attacked today by many. There are perhaps 20 or so primary objections that have been articulated in print, although all of them flounder when presented against the textual and theological evidence from the Scriptures.
Rather than tackle all 20 of them, here is what I am planning on doing. I’ll present the objections here in this post. Then I’ll present the textual and theological evidence for this view of the atonement. And then I’ll respond to any objections that you the careful readers still think need further explanation. Some of the ones listed here will be undercut just by a simple presentation of the Biblical data, but of course some will need additional posts to clarify just why it is that they are not valid objections.
Without delaying further, here is the list of objections against penal substitution, as pulled from the Pierced For Our Transgressions (pgs. 10-11):
- It is not the only model
- It is not central to the atonement
- It diminishes the significance of Jesus” life and resurrection
- It is not taught in the Bible
- It is not important enough to be a source of division
- It is the product of human culture, not Biblical teaching
- It is unable to address the real needs of human culture
- It relies on biblical words, metaphors and concepts that are outdated and misunderstood by our culture
- It rests on unbiblical ideas of sacrifice
- It involves a type of violence that amounts to ‘cosmic child abuse’
- It involves retributive violence that contradicts Jesus’ message of peace and love
- It is an inherent example of “the myth of redemptive violence” which can never overcome evil
- It is unjust to punish an innocent person, even is he is willing to be punished
- Biblical justice is about restoring relationships not exacting retribution
- It implicitly denies that God forgives sin
- It does not work for the penalty Christ suffered was not equivalent to that due to us
- It implies universal salvation which is unbiblical
- It implies a division between the persons of the Trinity
- It relies on an unbiblical view of an angry God that is incompatible with his love
- It misunderstands the relationship between God’s wrath and human sin
- It generates an unbiblical view of a God constrained by a law external to himself
- It is an impersonal, mechanistic account of the atonement
- It fails to address that issues of political and social sin and cosmic evil
- It is an entirely objective account of the atonement, and fails to address our side of the Creator-creature relationship
- It causes people to live in fear of God
- It legitimates violence and encourages the passive acceptance of unjust suffering
Ok, so there’s 26. A couple of them will fall off with just the barest exposition of Scripture. Several more will vanish once a proper theological framework is established. I cannot realistically blog on all the objections, and after all, the book I drew these from has already responded to all of these. But I can answer ones that you are interested in hearing answered.
So in that case, what do you think?