Someone recently said that they thought the debate over the atonement would have to stop before any type of serious reconciliation could happen within the church. I disagree! And whether it’s the eternal optimist in me or my love of debate I cannot tell. But what I do know is that this topic is worth continued contemplation and discussion and instead of it being a roadblock to reconciliation it might be a path leading to it. In this spirit I recently spoke with Joshua Ryan Butler about his portrait of the atonement in his book The Pursuing God. You can find this conversation on twitter here (the thread was a little hard to follow so the link sends you to the last tweet and you will have to scroll up. Unless you want to read the conversation in reverse!). I think the conversation is a stunning example of an author (Joshua) displaying humility and patience by interacting with a critic (me) on a complex issue through a medium (twitter) that is often criticized for its inability to facilitate complex dialogues. In the following paragraphs I will try to give a summary of this discussion and how it and several other factors have influenced my thoughts on this topic.
But first I want to reiterate the importance of a proper understanding of the atonement. The cross is the foundation of what Christians believe God is like and in my experience many pastors, youth pastors, and volunteers teach this topic to children in a way that is deeply troubling. I recently heard a prominent minister describe the atonement this way. He compared it to a youth minister who was upset with his youth group over something that had been broken at a sponsor's home. The anger that he felt, over the broken object, was similar to God’s wrath and the cost of replacing the object was similar to the price Jesus paid on the cross to appease the wrath of God. This analogy and dozens more like it that equate God's wrath to something that must be paid off or suggestions that there was an actual (ontological) separation between the Father and the Son are inappropriate. The complex discussions that occur at the upper levels of higher education and between people who are passionate about this topic are critical because by the time they make it to the pews they can become gross misrepresentations of the original thoughts. Therefore the original thoughts need to be as accurate as humanly possible because misconceptions about God's nature have serious and dramatic consequences for people in their everyday lives.
This leads us back to the conversation with Josh. By the end of our discussion I think we had come to an agreement that Jesus’ suffering was an experiential separation from the Father. This is important because an actual (ontological) separation would necessitate a division within the trinity which we both agreed was impossible. (I keep inserting the word "ontological" into the discussion because I want people to know that an experiential separation is an "actual separation" I don't want to diminish the pain and suffering that occurs from this type of disconnection. But the "ontological" or "actual being" of God was not separated.) This still leaves us at an impasse because I do not believe this experiential separation occurred because of the Father withdrawing his "protection" or "particular presence." I also view Jesus’ experiential separation from the Father as being in solidarity with humanity whereas I think Joshua still views it as substitutionary, meaning Jesus experienced it in a way that we won't have to. We agree that Jesus did experience the feeling of separation from the Father and that it was his desire to unite humanity with divinity in a way that we as individuals and communities will some day not experience any separation. But until that day we will continue to experience the separation that Jesus felt and many times that will occur through suffering for the gospels sake. As Luther put it in his 94th thesis, ““Christians should...be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.”
Now those who question the Penal Substitutionary view of the atonement are often criticized for creating caricatures of the doctrine and I agree that happens often. But recently a dear friend of mine recommended a book that contains an illustration of substitution that is similar in may ways to the concept of Penal Substitution. Before you read any further I want to warn you that the rest of this article will include spoilers from the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. In the book Okonkwo, a powerful tribal leader, raises a young boy from another tribe named Ikemefuna. Someone from Okonkwo’s village was murdered by someone from Ikemefuna’s village and to prevent a war between the tribes Ikemefuna is given as an innocent sacrifice. The sacrifice does not occur for several years and Okonkwo is chosen to keep the boy in the meantime. During this period he grows to care for Ikemefuna even more than his own children.
Before the sacrifice occurs Okonkwo is warned by an oracle not to take part in the boy’s death. He ignores this advice and when the sacrifice goes wrong he ends up killing Ikemefuna and that is when everything starts to “fall apart.” As I was reading the book the similarities to christian theology were jumping off the pages. A father sacrifices his son whom he has grown to love in order to prevent a war that he knows will create a tremendous amount of suffering for his own tribe and many others. Now this is not a perfect example of Penal Substitutionary Atonement but it’s pretty close and when reading the book you instinctively know something is wrong. You know that the author has constructed this scenario for you to understand that this is a pagan practice corrupt at its core. If Okonkwo's tribe wants to prevent war all they have to do is forgive the murderer. The innocent sacrifice does not have to die.
Now I want you to imagine something dramatically different occurs. Imagine the murder still happens but instead of the innocent boy being offered as a sacrifice Okonkwo offers himself as the sacrifice. A member of the victims tribe offers himself as the sacrifice to prevent the suffering that he knows will occur. I believe this is the more accurate description of the atonement or as Brad Jersak described it in a recent podcast the At-One-Ment. God himself experiences the pain and suffering of sin in the flesh, in solidarity with humanity, in order to prove his love and prevent future suffering. In other words, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them." So while substitution gives the appearance of effectiveness, of “paying off,” solidarity reveals the corruption of the sacrificial system that we all must continue to experience with Christ until it finally and fully comes to an end.