I previously wrote an essay about the Atonement, laying out my view that God is in search of people to supply them with Love and Life, to counteract all that hinders Love and Life, to destroy Death. God wants to move all things to a grand reality of Shalom.
In writing that, I avoided going explicitly to the Bible. Scriptural interpretation can often be a fraught endeavor. Even still, I think it’s necessary. So, I embark in that direction here.
I am quite aware that not everyone will follow my way of reading the Bible. That’s more than fine. I have no desire to manhandle people into following the way that I understand the Scriptures and the Divine. I do, however, care about clarity.
My concern for clarity is a deeply moral one. It stems from, at least, two different Quaker testimonies that have influenced me, namely, integrity and plain speech. Integrity means more than just, “Don’t lie!” Integrity means that all you know and are should come into a unity. Additionally, the history of plain speech guides me into using words accurately and justly, even as I know they fall short.
With this caveat—that I will fall short in my explanation—I hazard forward.
As I’ve decided to level my weight against a particular theory of the Atonement, namely Penal Substitutionary Atonement, I will address the major passages used in that theory, of which there are six: Isaiah 53:4-6, 10, 11; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 Peter 3:18; Romans 3:23-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:10, 13.
I think a definition of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (heretofore PSA) will benefit the conversation as we move forward.
So, in PSA, God desires to forgive people, because one of God’s attributes is love, yet God cannot simply forgive people of their sins because that would break another of God’s attributes, namely, justice. PSA holds that Jesus died to receive the EXACT punishment for the sins of every person for whom Jesus died. This substitution—Jesus for the sinful people—satisfies God’s attribute of justice and allows God to act in forgiveness. The nature of the punishment being exactly retributive is what distinguishes PSA from other types of Substitutionary Atonement.
Alright, with that in mind let’s move forward.
Isaiah 53 is a hotly debated text. Most Christians have viewed this passage as a direct prophecy about Jesus. Many Jewish scholars have understood this passage to be referring to the nation of Israel. Without going too far into that debate, I would say that these are not mutually exclusive options.
The passage does seem to be continuing the anthropomorphizing of Jerusalem that began in chapter 52. The servant of this passage is Jerusalem. It suffers the torments of the evil nations that seek to destroy it, but God promises that it will be whole again. It will be revived, and all the nations will answer to it. Jerusalem will establish righteousness among the nations. It will be the great exemplar. Even especially as it suffers the sins of the nations and seemingly perishes at their hands, it will rise and make a stand for righteousness. What I want to make clear is that there is no metaphysical carrying of sins here, rather there is a suffering of actual sins.
1 Peter 2:22 applies the words of Isaiah 53:9 to Christ. The previous verse of 1 Peter 2:21 calls Christ an example. It is under this notion of example, with Isaiah’s suffering servant in mind, that we need to understand 1 Peter 2:24 and 3:18.
Peter declares that Jesus “bore our sins,” which is to say that Jesus suffered the actual sins of those at that time, including Peter’s denial of Christ. Jesus bore these sins in order to set forth an example for all to follow. Rather than return evil for evil, we are instructed to turn evil into good, to turn the other cheek—to allow another’s vice to become our virtue, whether of patience or even amazingly…love (3:9-10). If everyone had a mind to do that, then there would be no vice.
So, those passages do not mean that Jesus died on the cross to pay for the fact that I lied yesterday. Not exactly. Jesus died because actual people lied about him and murdered him. The passages do want us to understand that all vice leads toward spiritual death and dissolution, that to stop this ignorant cycle we must be righteous, but they do not elaborate a theory of exact retributive justice.
In other words, I am to look to Christ, see that he died in the midst of sinful people and because of sinful people, and I am to follow his example—to live and to tell the truth no matter the consequences that may come from the unrighteousness of other people, or from me correcting my own unrighteousness—in this instance, confessing that I lied and making it right. My conscience is to be awoken by Christ’s example.
As we move now to our passage in Romans, we need to remember that this letter, like Isaiah, is a piece of writing that has inspired a mountain of books in commentary on it. But here’s my exegetical sense of things when it comes to Romans 3:24-26 as understood in its context.
Much is said about the Greek word hilasterion, which appears in verse 25. The debate has surrounded how this should be interpreted, with the main options being propitiation, expiation, sacrifice of atonement, and mercy seat.
The first three in that list all have a sort of pagan feel to them. They draw conceptually from pagan notions of sacrifice. I hate to sound judgmental, but…they all have this notion that God requires that God’s justice be balanced by a human offering a human life. I find that revolting—as per Deuteronomy 24:16; 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Chron. 25:4; Jer. 31:29, 30; Ezek. 18:20—and I firmly believe that’s not at all what Saint Paul was saying. Let’s look closer.
The notions of demonstration and forbearance are very important in this context. What they point out—what they demonstrate—is that God was the one acting. The hilasterion was not primarily coming from the human side of things. It can’t be the pagan notion of a human giving something to God in order to get a favor in return. No, it was God publicly displaying something.
What was God displaying?
Well, verse 25 talks about God forbearing sins. And since, in the previous chapters, the history of sin in the world is recounted, we are to assume that God has been forbearing since the beginning. But if God is up there, forbearing all of this, it might look to a skeptic like God isn’t doing anything in order to eliminate sin. So, to show what God has been doing and what God plans to do, God sends Jesus as a demonstration that God is both just and a justifier.
God shows how bad sin is, proving it by sending a righteous man into the world, a man who is accused of being guilty then murdered. But God also shows that the only way to overcome injustice is through forgiveness and mercy. God intends to be a justifier by motivating people to be forgiving and merciful, by eradicating vengeance through love, therefore promoting Life.
God has spoken a true word in the public demonstration of Jesus as the hilasterion, the Mercy Seat. God has been merciful for the entirety of time, not counting sins against people, rather intending that they forgive one another, that they be reconciled.
Brief pause: I haven’t said this heretofore, but reconciliation is the main biblical word for Atonement. Atonement comes from an English amalgam: At-one-ment, to be one with someone. The notion is consonant with reconcile: to return to council with someone after parting ways.
God gave Christ as a demonstration—as proof—of God’s intentions toward us, to be God for us, so that we would be “fully assured that what God had promised, he was able also to perform” (Rom. 4:21). We parted ways with God, but God wasn’t happy to let us slip into death and destruction, to move into un-freedom. God wants us to be free, to be alive. This is God’s promise to us. We are to look away from the past and toward the future, toward Life, toward the Resurrection.
Toward the Recreation…
And now we take a look at 2 Corinthians 5:21, which says “God made Jesus, who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” And given the fact that Paul often equates sin and death, almost inseparably at times, and righteousness and life are often equated (Rom. 6:16), I believe we can see what Paul means in the above statement through the parallel statement here following. In verse 5:15, Paul says, “…and he died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and rose again on their behalf.”
It’s not that Jesus became our sin, strictly speaking. It’s that Jesus died. He entered the state that sin brings us to enter. Jesus receives the wages of sin: He dies. But it’s not because he sinned; it’s because of those who sinned against him. Jesus entered death, and it’s important to remember that death is unholy, as per the tradition (Num. 19:10-22). This is Paul’s, at bottom, meaning: Jesus was ritually unholy while in a state of death. In this sense, Paul could say that Jesus was sin—not because Jesus took on our exact sins in some metaphysical sense. No. It’s ritual, symbol.
Jesus entered this state on our behalf, because he wanted ultimately to move us toward Life. Jesus wants us to recognize that people can move through and beyond death toward eternal Life. We can live now in light of this promise. We can leave fear and resentment behind. So, it’s not sin or death that are the real concern.
Actually, the Resurrection is the point, because it points to the grand new reality that God has in store for his creation, namely, New Creation. In verse 5:15, the New Creation is put in terms of living for the sake of Christ. In verse 5:21, New Creation is described in terms of righteousness.
The notion of New Creation was hinted at back in chapter 4, verses 10 and 16: “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body;” “…our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” New Creation is stated outright in 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, she is a new creature.”
With this New Creation comes the need for ambassadors to declare its reality, in order that people may begin living it now. In a verse that hints very much in the direction of Romans 3:25 and of God’s forbearance of sin, Paul says that “…God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). To spread this message is to be involved in Atonement, in reconciliation—the promotion of Love and Life.
I see a clear example of this kind of reconciliation in Ezekiel 18:27-28: “Again, if a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all his transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.”
Now, the last verse in the list of traditional PSA texts is Galatians 3:13, which says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” Saint Paul is quoting a verse from Deuteronomy to make his point. It’s perhaps best that we take a look at the Deuteronomic context.
Deuteronomy 21:22-23 spells out what it means for someone to be cursed of God by hanging on a tree. Verse 22 tells us that it’s a man who “has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree.” This verse is interesting in a two-fold sense: 1) It implies that not all sins are worthy of death, which helps to jeopardize PSA all the more; 2) Jesus does not fit the bill for someone who has committed a sin worthy of death. So, Jesus doesn’t meet the realistic qualification for an actual curse.
Verse 23 can help us to understand how Jesus might, in Paul’s mind, be considered a curse. The insight comes from the command that the person hanged on the tree should be buried on the same day as he was hanged, “so that you do not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.” So, it seems then that Jesus could fit the bill as one who was ritually impure or defiled, ritually under a curse, if not actually cursed in the strict sense. This assessment should harken back to 1 Corinthians 5:21.
Christ was falsely accused, ritually accursed, but he actually died. Let’s put this together with what it might mean in the context of Galatians.
Paul goes on, in Galatians 4, to elaborate his distaste for the stoicheia, the weak “elemental things” of the world. He mentions the earthly rhythms of days, months, and seasons. Yet, the notion of stoicheia goes deeper than that, as Paul was certainly aware. Ancient Greeks, like Paul’s audience, would have understood elements like earth, fire, wind, and water to be the foundational material that make up the world. These are the stoicheia. Paul believes that in the death of Christ these things are overcome. There’s a New Creation on the rise.
In light of this, Paul spends much of this letter arguing vehemently against the fleshly practice of circumcision. Paul understands this to be a vestigial stoicheion of the tradition. Or as Paul puts it: “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a New Creation.”
The Resurrection is the New Creation that has happened for Christ, though not yet for us. Even still, we are to live in the Spirit, looking forward to the New Creation and attempting to live as if we are in it now, because in our relation to Christ we are. Whatever Law might have cursed us in the past is now no longer a threat. There’s a new reality rising. So, be of good faith.
In all of the passages that we’ve surveyed, it seems to me that none of them sets forth a notion that there is an exacting exchange of retributive justice. I don’t believe that PSA stands up to close scrutiny.
Rather, God has sent his Son into the world in order to demonstrate God’s mercy and forgiveness. Jesus does this through ritual, symbol, and the heroic act of remaining righteous in the face of evil’s worst attack. In Jesus, we actually witness God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
I believe that mercy triumphs over judgment, as Saint James said so long ago.
And as it was said even longer ago:
“Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? ‘For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God. Therefore, repent and live” (Ezekiel 18:31-32).