Friday, 9 October 2009

Is substitionary atonement immoral?

Reading a comment by Mahmut on Simon Hutton’s blog here set me thinking about the morality of the biblical doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Simon has already posted a really helpful response here showing the necessity of understanding the biblical framework if you’re to meaningfully challenge the doctrine of substitutionary atonement – which is great, as that’s where I’d had in mind to start, but now there’s no need to say what’s already been said! So I’ll restrict myself to reflecting on just one point – doesn’t this doctrine lead to a ‘legal fiction’?

The Bible doesn’t simply teach that Jesus decided to step into our place and take the punishment on our behalf. Substitutionary atonement is only one part in a much bigger doctrine of salvation. Would that be moral? Would that satisfy God’s eternal justice? I think not. That tends to lead to ideas of God as an impersonal dispenser of justice – it doesn’t matter who 'gets it', just so long as someone does.

The Bible teaches something far greater than that – and, it must be said, something very different to our contemporary Western individualism. The Bible teaches that Christ acts as our representative head, just as Adam did. Perhaps a better illustration than the stories of one innocent person voluntarily standing in for the guilty would be the situation of the CEO of a corporation. He knows that his job will be on the line if there is corruption within the company – even if he wasn’t involved. He must be prepared to take responsibility for those under him. I am well aware that this illustration is very far from perfect – I offer it simply as a slight improvement on others that are more often heard to try, getting away from these ideas of radical individualism and suggesting ideas of more ‘corporate’ responsibility.

But the Christian’s relationship with Christ is not that of employee to CEO. The Bible describes it as being a far closer, more intimate and vital relationship – the relationship between the head and the body (Ephesians 5:23) or like a vine and its branches (John 15:1-7). The NT letters are peppered with phrases such as ‘in him’ or ‘in Christ’ to describe the Christian’s position.

Martin Luther, the great reformer, points to another NT image of the Church’s (=all Christians) relationship to Christ – that of bride to bridegroom in the covenant of marriage:

The third incomparable grace of faith is this: that it unites the soul to Christ, as the wife to the husband, by which mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul are made one flesh. Now if they are one flesh, and if a true marriage--nay, by far the most perfect of all marriages--is accomplished between them (for human marriages are but feeble types of this one great marriage), then it follows that all they have becomes theirs in common, as well good things as evil things; so that whatsoever Christ possesses, that the believing soul may take to itself and boast of as its own, and whatever belongs to the soul, that Christ claims as His.

If we compare these possessions, we shall see how inestimable is the gain. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation; the soul is full of sin, death, and condemnation. Let faith step in, and then sin, death, and hell will belong to Christ, and grace, life, and salvation to the soul. For, if He is a Husband, He must needs take to Himself that which is His wife's, and at the same time, impart to His wife that which is His. For, in giving her His own body and Himself, how can He but give her all that is His? And, in taking to Himself the body of His wife, how can He but take to Himself all that is hers. In this is displayed the delightful sight, not only of communion, but of a prosperous warfare, of victory, salvation, and redemption. For, since Christ is God and man, and is such a Person as neither has sinned, nor dies, nor is condemned, nay, cannot sin, die, or be condemned, and since His righteousness, life, and salvation are invincible, eternal, and almighty,--when I say, such a Person, by the wedding-ring of faith, takes a share in the sins, death, and hell of His wife, nay, makes them His own, and deals with them no otherwise than as if they were His, and as if He Himself had sinned; and when He suffers, dies, and descends to hell, that He may overcome all things, and since sin, death, and hell cannot swallow Him up, they must needs be swallowed up by Him in stupendous conflict. For His righteousness rises above the sins of all men; His life is more powerful than all death; His salvation is more unconquerable than all hell.

Who then can value highly enough these royal nuptials? Who can comprehend the riches of the glory of this grace? Christ, that rich and pious Husband, takes as a wife a needy and impious harlot, redeeming her from all her evils and supplying her with all His good things. It is impossible now that her sins should destroy her, since they have been laid upon Christ and swallowed up in Him, and since she has in her Husband Christ a righteousness which she may claim as her own, and which she can set up with confidence against all her sins, against death and hell, saying, "If I have sinned, my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned; all mine is His, and all His is mine," as it is written, "My beloved is mine, and I am His" (Cant. ii. 16). This is what Paul says: "Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ," victory over sin and death, as he says, "The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law" (1 Cor. xv. 56, 57).

Martin Luther, The Freedom of the Christian, written 1520.

Now, that may not sound terribly convincing to the modern mind either, but that’s because our radical modern individualism has seriously undermined our understanding of marriage. In the last year there has been a huge increase in the number of pre-nuptial agreements (I forget the figures – it was reported recently on the radio) as the modern individualist, quite logically, is in it for what they can get rather than for what they can give to their spouse, so it becomes a priority to protect yourself against the eventuality of it going wrong.

No, I’m not digressing. Rather this thought highlights a bigger issue – given the Bible’s teaching on salvation into which substitutionary atonement fits, the question of whether or not substitutionary atonement is immoral depends upon another question: should modern radical individualism be unquestioningly accepted as the basis of our ethical understanding, or could it be possible that this modern Western ideology may not hold the total supremacy it tends to assume for itself? If you hold on to your Western individualism, you won’t be able to make sense of biblical teaching. But if you allow the Bible to challenge your worldview, and if you begin to see the beauty and coherence of what it offers (I know which sort of marriage I want mine to be!) it all begins to fall into place.


  1. Thanks Peter

    Useful post, esp. the link to marriage and pointing out Christ to be our rep. head.

    More to follow, no doubt Mahmut will be in touch. Here's for a good debate!

    Thanks again


  2. "Now, that may not sound terribly convincing to the modern mind either, but that’s because our radical modern individualism has seriously undermined our understanding of marriage."

    Or maybe because such misogyny is a product of an infantile age where thinking constituted accepting sacrifices for ones sins and believing that illness and other unexplained phenomenon was a product of outside, demonic agencies. A lot of us have outgrown such delusion. I suggest you read the Carlo Strenger post on Simon's blog.

  3. As I said, '...the modern individualist, quite logically, is in it for what they can get rather than for what they can give to their spouse, so it becomes a priority to protect yourself against the eventuality of it going wrong.'

    So misogyny is defined as self-sacrificial love that puts the other person first even when it's highly costly to yourself? I've just checked with my wife, and on that definition she would really like me to try my hardest to be a total misogynist. But I do believe the dictionary definition is more along the lines of 'hatred of women'....

    Carlo Strenger's piece doesn't have much clout - I gave up reading after the first few logical leaps of faith it required me to make. My favourite - 'This doesn’t mean that religion is true (it can’t, because religions contradict each other)'!!!

  4. Hi Peter

    An update to the debate...
    There have been tons of comments on huttonline, but we're still nowhere nearer discussion penal substitution!
    However, David Anderson has chipped in with an article that may get the discussion steered in the right direction again.

    Hope you're well.