This past Palm Sunday at First Baptist Austin, pastor Roger Paynter confessed his confusion and discomfort with the penal substitution theory of the atonement.  In attempt to nonetheless make sense of what God was doing through Christ’s willingness to suffer, however, and after making illustrative reference to the witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s death thirty years ago, Paynter suggested that, “only as goodness is willing to involve itself with evil is there any hope of evil being turned around.”

This got my attention.  I’ve written about atonement before (here and here) and what I’ve learned about the importance of seeing it not just as forgiveness for sin but as the protest of oppression, God’s solidarity with the victims of history, and the overcoming of unjust death.  This year for Holy Week though, I’m wondering once again about atonement as forgiveness.

I think I’ve slowly come to believe that death as a result of unconditional, unselfish love is something different from death for the purpose of appeasing God’s wrath.  The Prodigal Son parable is perhaps the best illustration of this (see the post below).  This is obviously not to deny that God is depicted as wrathful in the Bible or that God’s anger is justified against humanity’s sin.  Nor is it to downplay the significance of warning about judgment or the language and metaphor of sacrifice.  But whereas the appeasement of wrath is a transaction intended to satisfy the requirements of a strict accounting of what is due, unconditional love is a donation of abundant generosity and giving rather than of necessity. The idea of a “wrath absorbing sacrifice,” as I’ve heard many preachers call it, still answers to the law rather than to grace and mercy.  The cost is still “covered”, not forgiven — even if someone else more suitable makes the payment.

In this way then, the death of Jesus is not so much sacrifice of or violence against himself but the consequence of living self-exhaustively for the sake of others. As Ingolf Dalferth expresses it, Jesus’s death is a life lived

so unrestricted that even [his] own self-preservation does not present itself as an obstacle or limit to this love . . . [Christ’s] death is neither the end nor a means of what [he] does, but is rather taken as an unavoidable collateral damage, so to speak, in abiding under all circumstances by the love of neighbor (from the International Journal of Philosophy of Religion, 2010, 68:77-94: “Self-sacrifice: From the Act of Violence to the Passion of Love”).

In his book Economy of Desire, Daniel Bell argues that

God needs nothing and no necessity compels God to act as God does in redeeming us from sin.  Already the standard interpretation of the cross is in trouble, insofar as it asserts that some necessity compels God to exact compensatory suffering as the penalty for sin . . . Indeed as Anselm argues, in the work of atonement God in Christ both dismisses every debt and gives a gift that far exceeds any settling of accounts, since in Christ we are renewed even more wonderfully than we were created (p. 149).

In other words, yes, sin is an offense to God’s honor and holiness, but only in the particular sense that it is not fitting that God’s will or intention for humanity be thwarted, Bell says.  Put another way, Christ is less our offering to God and more of God’s offering to us (Romans 5:8) – despite humanity’s frequent rejection of it.  In Christ God reconciled the world (2 Cor. 5:18) by refusing to render to humanity what it has brought upon itself.  Instead God graciously endures humanity’s rejection and violence, ever extending to a guilty human race the redemption and reconciliation of Jesus (Romans 3:25).  Bell explains that Paul makes the same argument by referring to Jesus as the justice or righteousness of God, as the incarnation of God’s faithfulness to the redemptive promise made to Abraham for the sake of the Jew and Gentile alike.

Moreover, God does not merely forgive us as though we were guiltless, leaving us left otherwise unchanged (this is what penal substitution seems to say).  A purely negative pardon would mean that humanity remains unable to enjoy blessedness.  But this is of course not the case.  Instead, we are invited into transformation and restored relationship with God and others as demonstrated with the unconditional love of God in Christ.  Christ’s death and resurrection is the grand impetus for this, which is what we are really celebrating during Easter.

As Bell concludes, “Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice is an instantiation of the divine plenitude and superabundance that creates, sustains and now enables us to return to our source to get to participate in the divine life – in the reciprocity that is the triune circle of love, and that is our true purpose in and for which we were created” (p. 152).