This comes up through my continued reading of Calvin’s Institutes but also is an ongoing issue with me as I think about theology in general, in pretty much every time and place.
The theory goes something like this: God’s justice requires punishment for sin, and that punishment is death; but God’s mercy enables God to punish Christ with death instead of punishing all of us, freeing God to love us and to be merciful to us. Satisfying the justice of God, through God’s merciful murder of Christ, reconciles us to God.
I’ll try to succinctly list the problems I have with this, and then I have a big finale:
1. The idea that God’s justice requires death as reparation for sin is morally and theologically apalling. Why is it that God can’t be as merciful as most human beings? Its a rare person who has to kill you for wronging them. Why can’t God’s justice be restorative rather than retributive?
2. The idea that torture and murder are restorative of relationship is morally and theological apalling. Does God welcome us home with God’s child’s blood still on God’s hands? The father in the parable of the Prodigal Son is far more merciful than this God. In fact, a father who merely abuses a child rather than killing them outright is more merciful that this God.
3. In a theology of substitutionary atonement, God’s mercy is empty and meaningless. God isn’t merciful – God’s horrific requirements are not reduced whatsoever, they are merely assuaged. God is still the Great Punisher, howling for blood, but other blood is offered instead of ours.
4. God in this situation is deeply disturbed and internally contradictory, becoming a Son in order to be executed in place of humanity in payment for sin. Its almost like God is playing a bait-and-switch on Godself, as if the merciful personality is outsmarting the retributive personality.
5. How is it that God would create human beings with the power to be evil but not to be good? How can we be so responsible for our failures and yet unable to take responsibility for any good that we do accomplish? Why is our punishment infinite but our reward conditional?
6. How is it that God would create human beings, knowing that they were powerless to live up to God’s expectations, and then demand human sacrifice to atone for this inability? This is an absurd, cruel, catch-22 God who must delight in the torturous trap that has been devised. “Ha! You can’t do what is right, and I know that you can’t, but I’m going to demand your punishment for failure anyway!”
7. Christ’s suffering is insufficient. There are billions in our world who suffer more in their lives than Christ suffered in his, and millions who die in more agony than Christ did. Added to this is the difference that Christ chose this suffering – it is far worse to suffer when you are powerless to end it, as so many do in our world this very day.
8. This theology is present in the Bible but it is far from the only interpretation of salvation. It certainly isn’t necessitated. There are many ways that God’s mercy and our reconciliation with God are expressed, and substitutionary atonement is only one of them. The focus on it arises out of a Medieval view of God-as-noble-Lord who’s honor cannot be smudged by accepting the insult of sin. That’s where the supposed justice of God in substitutionary atonement comes from – the Medieval fear of an insulted Lord’s rage. This is hardly what we want as a paradigm of the divine.
9. Most of all, I think this theology of atonement lets us off the hook too easily. If Christ’s death was somehow necessary to erase our sin, then it was a noble undertaking, and we were just participants in divine salvation history. If, however, Christ’s death wasn’t a payment of a sin-debt, a satisfaction of the honor of a medieval-noble God, then we’re in a lot of trouble, because we tortured and executed Christ. We cried out for Christ’s blood, not God. We condemned him to die. We watched it happen and did nothing. We denied him afterwards to save our own skin. And we continue to crucify, day in and day out, as we crush the poor and grind the oppressed into submission and reap the benefits of injustice. We are crucifiers as we sit atop an economic and social structure rooted in evil and crow about our own power, reveling in our impenetrability. We are the ones who demand the sacrifice, who demand that hundreds of prisoners pay with their lives in our justice system.
Substitutionary atonement commits the sin of foisting our thirst for the blood of the innocent on God. Christ’s resurrection was necessary – because God is the God of the cosmos, the God of infinite and unkillable love, who is God-with-us to the end of time itself. Christ’s crucifixion was necessary – to us, because we do evil and terrible things to those who love us and who pose no threat to us; because we will do anything, make anyone suffer, to preserver our power and safety; because we cannot bear to hear the truth about ourselves even from the lips of love; because we fear the Kingdom more than we fear a lack of it; because we confuse love and mercy with weakenss; because our hearts cannot hold and our minds cannot conceive and our words cannot describe the depth of God’s love – and we fear what we do not understand.