Last month, I wrote an article on the nature of faith and its relation to doubt, specifically noting that the creedal beliefs subscribed to by a church community is not the same as its faith. Instead, faith is always being lived out and embodied. Our faith is not simply known by subscribing to particular doctrines, but is demonstrated by where we spend our money and our time, how we relate to those living on the margins of society, and how we relate to our own self.
However, this does not mean theology is unimportant, that how we think about God has no influence on our lives. Our paradigmatic lenses through which we see the world, our ideas concerning other human beings, our God-talk: these all deeply inform how we relate to each other and think about ourselves. If this were not the case, our theological depictions of God would be meaningless.
Indeed, our theology does inform our faith, as demonstrated by the Spanish Inquisition; the Christian imperialism which colonized the southern and western hemispheres; and the participation in oppressive systems of racism, sexism and classism by many churches here in the United States. We know that violent theologies give rise to violent relationships. Throughout the unfolding of Christian history, Christians have, in the name of Jesus, justified the destructive desire for power and wealth with lethal theology: from early forms of anti-Judaism, to the Crusades; from the first ghetto, to the Klu Klux Klan; from the Apartheid in South Africa to mass incarceration in the United States. We cannot continue to ignore the consequences of how we think and speak of God.
Given that some form of penal substitutionary atonement is most common in the United States, we ought to inquire as to what this understanding of salvation implies regarding how genuine reconciliation, restoration, and healing are worked out in our lives.
You may be wondering how penal substitution could relate to systemic violence supported by Christians, such as the apologetics of police brutality against black and brown bodies, indifference toward suffering refugees, or the “Bible Belt’s” relentless support of capital punishment.
If our theological depictions of God envision an authoritarian dictator who responds to brokenness with bloodshed, then we will incarnate this abusive tyranny. If our theology perceives violence as the crux for salvation and atonement, we will embody this violence. But if our theology purports that death and destruction is not at the heart of God’s redemptive and salvific work, and that God seeks the redemption of the world through other means, then we, too, will seek to participate in the healing of the world without utilizing violence.
So let us ask: According to penal substitutionary atonement, what is required for salvation to occur?
Are You Satisfied?
Penal substitutionary atonement is a revision of Anselm of Canterbury’s satisfaction theory. In the beginning of the second millennia of the Common Era, Anselm thought humanity to be indebted to God due to the hereditary nature of sin. Echoing the medieval feudal system of his time, the sin of humanity—the slave—had dishonored God—the Master—and God’s honor could not remain damaged. The Master’s honor must be restored by a violent act of retribution on an innocent human being.
Anselm’s theory of satisfaction is not primarily concerned with the penalty of sin being death, like its revision in the Reformation period emphasizes; instead, the point of emphasis is God’s honor and its restoration.
The penal substitution theory of the Reformers took Anselm’s idea of satisfaction and shifted the focus from the restoration of the Master’s honor to the divine punishment humanity deserves. The penalty of sin, according to this doctrine of salvation, or soteriology, is death: namely, God’s death-dealing wrath responds to the destruction of sin with even greater violence. The infractions of humanity are most adequately responded to with equal or greater injury. Hope for salvation—the redemption, healing, and reconciliation of the world—is made possible primarily by the satisfaction of God’s retribution.
Salvation requires that the wrath of God against humanity be satisfied. This is why Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice who willingly “takes our place” in our deserving crucifixion and receives the punishment of God upon himself.
Essentially, to love is to harm; to show compassion is to punish; to extend grace is to injure.
Is this truly the God Christians long for? Does the God of Christ respond to the reality of sin and destruction with even greater violence? Is liberation and redemption inherently retributive?
If the Good News of Jesus Christ is that we are saved from God, this is no good news at all.
There are a number of different ways in which salvation through Jesus Christ is understood. The tradition of Christianity, including the Bible, holds within itself a plurality of understandings regarding how healing and reconciliation occur in our lives, as well as what salvation really looks like. It’s true that penal substitution theory can be related to parts of scripture, but it would be unfaithful to the pluralistic nature of biblical testimony to say that the writings present a unified front regarding what salvation means.
Furthermore, the problem is not Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice his life out of faithfulness to God and love for the world. Nor is it problematic to say that God responds to sin with justice—in fact, we must speak of, and incarnate, the justice of God! The problem with penal substitution is that God, rather than the authoritarian, imperial powers of the empire, crucifies Jesus. God becomes, first and foremost, the one who crucifies. Christian hope becomes dependent upon violence and war is now believed to be the only road to peace.
What does the justice of God call for in this world of greed, inauthenticity, and apathy? When brokenness and death prevail, how are we as Christians to respond? Is it with vengeance? maximum sentencing? a prison cell? a bomb? capital punishment? a food and water blockade?
Violent theologies lead to violent forms of relationship, and if our soteriology claims our hope for abundant life is dependent upon death, we will surely create, perpetuate, and tolerate a world in which others need saving from us. If we truly are to be known as Christians by our love, we must repent from our violent ways of being in the world, become aware of our violent God-images, and revisit what we believe the crux of Christian hope to be grounded in.
Latest posts by Chase Tibbs (see all)
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