Countless people filling our pews have adopted this hurtful view of God and themselves. It has led many to internalize feelings of shame and self-loathing, thinking this is what God desires. Others have lost their faith entirely because of it, unable to worship a God who seems to them to be a moral monster. Faith motivated by fear, threat, and feelings of worthlessness. How could things have gone so wrong? When did the good news become bad news?
Behind all of this lies an understanding of the cross rooted in retributive justice known as penal substitution. Simply put: in this theory of the atonement Jesus is punished (penal) instead of us (substitution). Penal substitution is, without question, the most widespread theory of the atonement today. So much so, that many people do not think of it as a theory at all, but simply as “what the Bible says.”
Consequently, in an effort to be true to the teachings of the Bible, many Christians struggle to believe in penal substitution, even though it seems wrong and hurtful to them. We hate it, but think this is what God wants us to believe.
In my new book Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross I propose an alternative: The book takes a deep look at Scripture and makes the case that the above view is neither representative of Jesus and his teachings, nor is it reflective of the New Testament. Rather, it is the result of people projecting their worldly understanding of punitive justice onto the biblical text.
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It wasn’t always that way of course. For the first thousand years, the work of Christ was understood primarily in terms of God’s act of healing people, and liberating them from the bonds of sin and death. This understanding of the atonement is known as Christus Victor. But gradually there was a shift towards a legal focus, and with it a focus on violent punishment. The message was flipped on its head: instead of the crucifixion being seen as an act of grave injustice (as it is portrayed in all four Gospels), there was a shift towards the claim that God had demanded the death of Jesus to quench his anger. Not coincidentally, this coincided with increased violence perpetrated by the church, and it went downhill from there.
Here’s a simple rule of thumb: if your theory of the cross completely contradicts everything Jesus stood for and taught… it’s probably wrong. It’s sad that I need to say this, but the gospel is rooted in love of enemies, not in retribution. Retribution is the opposite of forgiveness. So the idea that the entire work of Jesus was to fulfill the demands of retribution is simply absurd. It’s high time we went back to the focus of Jesus, which was not on violent demands for so-called justice, but on restoring broken lives, and showing enemy love. That’s what the cross is really about.
However, centuries of reading the assumptions of punitive justice into the Bible won’t be easy for us to shake off. It’s become so ingrained, so indoctrinated into our religious imagination that it seems almost self-evident to us now. Therefore, we will need to take a fresh look at Scripture in order to recognize that the model of restorative justice is indeed at the heart of the biblical narrative.
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That is, of course, a task far too big for a single blog post, but one I take on in detail in Healing the Gospel. The book challenges the assumption that the Christian understanding of justice is rooted in a demand for violent punishment, and instead offers a radically different understanding of the gospel based on God’s restorative justice–showing how we have projected our cultural assumptions of punitive justice onto the Bible, and digging in deep to uncover a radical vision of the gospel that exposes violence, rather than supporting it.
Because Healing the Gospel takes on such a major doctrine, it is sure to ruffle some feathers. But I don’t really care. I’m not writing for those people anyway. I’m writing for the many people who have been hurt by this doctrine, and who want to find a better way.
To them I say: You don’t need to accept an understanding of the cross that seems hurtful and unjust because “the Bible says so” because guess what? The Bible doesn’t say this at all. You don’t have to adopt a schizophrenic view that pits God against Jesus. You don’t need to accept a doctrine that flies in the face of the grace and love you have experienced. There is a better way: one that is both fully in line with the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament, and at the same time grace-focused and life-giving. That really is good news.
Derek Flood is the author of Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross. He is a featured blogger for the Huffington Post, Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, and writes regularly at his website theRebelGod.com. A longtime voice in the post-conservative evangelical movement, Derek’s focus is on wrestling with questions of faith and doubt, violence in the Bible, relational theology, and understanding the cross from the perspective of grace and restorative justice.