As we discussed last time, the New Testament writers agree that the death of Jesus on the cross has a tremendous effect on us, but they never quite explain what they think this effect is or how it works. The Church Fathers were not content with this ambiguity and developed theories of what they imagined happened on the cross. When we talk of the Church Fathers, we simply mean those Christians who wrote about Christianity; it does not imply that they were considered authoritative.
The earliest wide-spread view of atonement (what happened on the cross) is the Ransom Theory. The thought is that in the fall of Adam we became subject to the devil instead of God. Jesus ransomed us; thus Jesus was victor over the devil. There were other theories, but this one was widely held for about a thousand years until it was challenged by Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory in A.D. 1098—about 900 years ago.Anselm and the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement
By Anselm’s day Europe had become a feudal society. Common people (serfs) served a knight who protected a certain area and its population. Socially, there was great distance between knights and serfs so that, while an offense of a serf against another serf might seem fairly insignificant, an offense against the honor of a knight was considered very serious requiring the satisfaction of heavy punishment. Knights could not simply forgive an offense because it would indicate that it didn’t matter much.
The knights, in turn, served the King. Offense against a King was even more serious and warranted an even more severe response.
Rejecting the Ransom Theory, Anselm devised a new theory to explain the need for Jesus’ death. Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory was very much influenced by the feudal society in which he lived. In Anselm’s mind, sin was an offense against the honor of God, and just as a King could not ignore affront to his honor neither could God ignore our affronts to his honor. They had to be punished. However, Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied that honor, so that his death paid for our sins. Jesus suffered punishment as a substitute for us.
This was the first theory that atonement was payment for our sin.
The Protestant Reformers and Penal Substitutionary Atonement
A few hundred years after Anselm, the world of Europe was changing and people were challenging the ideas and restrictions of the old society. One expression of this challenge was the Protestant Reformation led by Luther, Calvin, and others. And one result was the development of a new theory of atonement called Penal Substitution.
Penal Substitutionary Atonement was built on Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory but with a significant difference—these reformers did not see the atonement as Jesus satisfying the honor of God in our place; instead Jesus satisfied the holiness and justice of God.
The idea was that God is holy and cannot abide the unholiness of sin, and he is also just and cannot ignore sin—he must punish it. So God poured out his necessary wrath for our sin on Jesus. Therefore, Jesus paid the debt for our sins in satisfaction of God’s holiness and justice.
Like the Satisfaction Theory, Penal Substitution theory is based on vengeance and retribution rather than love. I believe this falsely portrays the Father as an angry, harsh, vengeful God. Jesus describes him otherwise–as a loving Father seeking our good.
We often feel alienated from God, but the alienation we feel is only from our side; God is NOT alienated from us. The crucifixion of Jesus was unjust. Reflecting on this injustice changes us–not God. God did not ‘require’ a substitute to change his attitude toward us. His forgiveness was already available. Jesus came in order to share the Father’s love for us and to bring reconciliation (atonement).
Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory Today
Millions of believers today continue to embrace the misguided Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory. I call it The Story of Sin and Salvation: Common Baggage Version (CBV). You likely have encountered it yourself. It is often communicated something like this:
God created Adam and Eve in perfection, but then Adam and Eve rebelled against God and sinned by eating the forbidden fruit. God put curses on both of them, and everyone born since then carries Adam’s ‘original sin’ and is separated from angry God.
God is so holy he cannot even look at us because of our sin. And because we are guilty of sin against an infinite God, we must receive an infinite punishment. Therefore we are all on our way to eternal suffering in the fires of hell, and there is nothing we can do to avoid it.
However, God himself made a remarkable provision. He sent his own son to take our sin upon himself. At the crucifixion, God poured all his wrath from our sin upon Jesus, who was infinitely righteous; Jesus suffered the penalty of sin for all of us. Therefore, if we accept the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins, God is able to look at us through the blood of Jesus and forgive our sin.
If we accept Jesus as our savior in the proper way, and separate ourselves from sin in our lives, we can avoid eternal suffering in hell and, instead, go to heaven when we die.
This is an atrocious understanding of God, sin, and forgiveness. It presents God as angry and vindictive instead of a loving Father, and this creates in us fear and alienation. But God wants to heal our fear and alienation. Penal Substitution also presents a mistaken perspective on sin as an affront against God and his many religious rules rather than our harming ourselves and other people.
In addition, there is no forgiveness involved at all. If we owe a debt, the person owed can choose to forgive our debt. But if our debt is paid, then it can’t be forgiven—it is already paid. This theory also brings up the question of God’s abuse against his own son—an abuse anyone would consider nothing less than horrific for any father among us.
There is nothing helpful about Penal Substitution theory; it is all harmful and draws us away from the message of Jesus. Yet those who embrace this theory will offer proof-texts and sometimes harmonize them as proof of this awful theory. But they are only reading their own theory of Penal Substitution back into the biblical passages.
I don’t think any of the three theories we discussed today are anywhere near on target—and by focusing only on Jesus death on the cross they completely leave out what I believe is the most important element of all—his resurrection. Next time, we will talk about resurrection, as well as a better understanding of what Jesus’ death means for us that many believers embrace today.
Articles in this series: Sin and Forgiveness
The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV)
What is Sin but Pain and Alienation?
Addressing Sin in the Old Testament
The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way
What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!
The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’
What does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?
How Substitutionary Atonement Fails
Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?
Are Sins Primarily Sins against God?
“If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!”
Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer
What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?
We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam
Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?
Who Does God Refuse to Forgive?