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Q & R: Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Here's the Q:

Hi Brian, I am intrigued by the growing debate on penal substitution. My history over 35 years is – started Baptist, migrated to neo Pentecostal community church then Vineyard. Now ‘outside the institutional church’. Where does the problem lie with this theory? Does it matter? Suggestions for further reading? As P.S through reading a new kind of Christianity I read ‘The light has come’ (Lesslie Newbiggin) an excellent life changing book!

Here's the R:
First, I should note how many people I meet and hear from in your situation - former church members and even leaders/pastors who have made a few lateral moves in church affiliation but are now "alumni." My suspicion is that there is a relationship between church-dropouts and atonement theory (among other things).

One major problem with the theory as popularly propounded is this: it posits that God is planning eternal conscious torment for all human beings, except those who gain an exemption through some facet of the Christian religion (including, for some, believing in this theory). God cannot forgive, the theory (in at least some of its versions) posits, without inflicting pain on someone. When you believe that the greatest existential threat to a human being is God venting God's wrath on that human being - whether that wrath is deemed just or not - you put human beings in two categories: the saved and the damned, the beloved and the hated. (You'd be surprised how many people quote Ps. 5:5 and Lev. 20:23 to me ... which too easily leads to Psalm 139:22, and even Psalm 137:9.)

How different if we believe that the greatest existential threat to human beings is human evil ... violence, greed, lust, fear, pride, anger, superiority, hate, malice, apathy, haste, rage, etc. If that's the case, then God enters the picture as the one trying to save us from the destructive effects of our own evil. God is not our greatest threat, but rather our greatest hope. God is not violent in nature and does not inflict harm ... but rather is the model of nonviolence, forgiveness, reconciliation, pardon, grace, and kindness, inviting our imitation.

True, most proponents of the theory quickly turn from emphasizing God's need/requirement/desire/necessity to eternally and consciously torment human beings to God's willingness to substitute God's Son for sinners. But the theory's assumptions about God's character can't be hidden, and even the escape clause has problems: how can justice and mercy be achieved through an act of injustice? If God is just, how can an innocent person be punished?

My special concern with the theory comes up in relation to our attitude towards "the other" - people of other faiths. If God's default mode is "against" all in hostility, then those who identify with this vision of God will find it too easy to justify a similar attitude towards "the other." This will be a major theme in my upcoming book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. I'll explore it especially in relation to our practice of the eucharist.

Many people will not see any problem with the theory, or even if they do, they will not be able to bring themselves to question it. I hope that folks in that category will at least decide to guard themselves from the potentially hostile consequences of holding the theory ... which is why I think they'll find the upcoming book helpful, even though they will in the end disagree with some of it.