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The Atonement and the Embrace of God

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : May 2, 2007

The Cross is the climax of the Gospel. It is a deep, reverberating shift in history–both for human history and the history of all creation. What happens on the Cross cannot–must not–be reduced down to a single theory.

One of my biggest beefs with some Christians is that they “boil down” Christianity to just the Cross…and then boil down the Cross to a combination of the penal substitutionary view of the Atonement (the idea that Jesus received the punishment we deserved) and the Satisfaction theory of the Atonement (the idea that God’s honor or sense of justice demanded some sort of payment for sin). Thankfully, not all conservative evangelical protestants put all their eggs in that conceptual basket. But the over-emphasis troubles me. The biblical narrative is simply richer than that.

We need to have a robust understanding of the Gospel that includes the Incarnation and Easter and Pentecost as essential components in our understanding of the Gospel. And within the grand narrative of the Gospel, we must have a textured, multi-faceted view of the Atonement. If we can accomplish that much as evangelicals, then I wouldn’t be so concerned about including the penal substitutionary view of the Atonement as it is currently understood among most evangelicals.

Nevertheless, I do have problems with the penal substitutionary view of the Atonement (and its oft-accompanying Satisfaction theory). For those that place this view front and center, the most important truth about Christianity is that the God-man Jesus came as the perfect sacrifice to take our place in receiving God’s punitive wrath.

I disagree. I don’t think the most important thing about the Cross is that it saves us from God. I think the most important thing about the Cross is that it saves us from ourselves. In this, I basically agree with N.T. Wright, that the best starting point is the Christus Victor view of the Atonement. This view basically says that the work of Christ is, first and foremost, a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.

There is a lot going for this view. It gives the other parts of the Gospel a valuable role. The Incarnation isn’t simply a preamble to the cross, it is now God, in Jesus, embracing the human condition in order to ultimately liberate it. And Easter becomes a triumph rather than simply Divine proof that Jesus was a pleasing sacrifice. Indeed, even Pentecost is seen as an important part of the Gospel in that through the Spirit the victory of God becomes a tangible reality as the Church is transformed into a just society.

If we make our way to the Cross through the teachings of Jesus first, we would be tempted to see the Cross as not simply an appeasement to God for our sins (which I think is an overly simplified reading of Old Testament sacrifice language), but the Ultimate Turning of the Cheek. In other words, Jesus takes upon himself the brokenness, sinfulness and wretchedness of humankind upon the Cross. Even more so, Jesus takes upon himself the corruption of all of Creation itself, including the full assault of every demonic, dark, force. On the Cross, Jesus defeats sin (Romans 6:6), death, Satan, and the Fallen Powers (Col 2:15). And on the Cross, old divisions are executed (Eph 2:15, Col 1:20). And thus the Cross is the death of the old creation, and opens the way for the birthing of the new.

I’m not satisfied with the assumptions behind the penal view–the main assumption being that the Big Problem which the Cross addresses is God’s wrath. It is God’s wrath that is the problem, and the solution is to have Jesus become the perfect substitutionary object of God’s wrath. In this view, God is taking out his anger on God.

Instead, the Christus Victor model starts with the assumption that the Big Problem is fallen-ness, corruption, sin, and evil. And here the solution is to have God, in Jesus, embracing the dark places of creation in order to transform it. In this view, God is embracing his creation and, in effect, sowing the seeds for the redemption of the Universe.

But Mark, you might ask, what do we do with verses like these?

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25-26)

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:9-11)

These passages (and some others in the Pauline Canon in particular) certainly suggest that the Atonement is a punishment laid upon Christ to spare us from God’s wrath. And, for sake of argument, I were to take the standard satisfaction/penal view of the atonement from these verses (and the few others like it), I would still maintain that this shouldn’t be the dominant lens through which we understand the Atonement.

I’m not sure it is either helpful or accurate to equate God’s wrath with some sort of burning emotional anger. God isn’t deeply pissed off here, in my opinion. He isn’t Zeus–throwing lightning from Olympus at those who draw his ire.

When I look at Romans 1, I see God’s wrath being equated with a “giving over.” And so, the wrath being poured out upon Christ isn’t God’s hot anger. Instead, it seems to me, that God is allowing the full weight of human sin and corruption to come to Jesus. Jesus is taking upon himself our sin, our death, our shame. He is our substitution. And, in a sense, he is receiving our punishment. But that punishment isn’t the wrath of God in a punitive, angry, my-honor-must-be-satisfied sense. No. The punishment Christ receives is the full consequences of a sinful humanity.

And so, in summary, I believe that the Cross is first, and foremost, a Triumph over those ills which plague creation. Jesus isn’t simply our substitution in some legal sense–as which he receives the angry Justice of our God. No, he is instead the very God who comes to us, takes upon himself the full scope of our humanity. In Jesus, God embraces brokenness, sin, death, demonic oppression, and shame in full, and triumphs. And it is therefore, through the transformative work of God in Jesus that we can know God.

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of JesusManifesto.com. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He and his wife Amy have been married since 1997. They are expecting their first child in April.


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Comments

10 Responses to “The Atonement and the Embrace of God”

  1. Anna on May 2nd, 2007 3:50 pm

    Amen, Hallelujah, Bravo and Chocolate Cake, too!

    You might also want to touch on the emphasis of Heaven as our final resting place instead of a new Earth and Heaven as would befit the distinctions you have made here about the Cross. I seem to notice those who use the penal substitutionary view also tend to emphasize going to Heaven and that’s it. They ignore, of course, the last couple chapters of Revelations where we get the whole kit all sparkling clean again.

    Anna

  2. ron on May 2nd, 2007 3:56 pm

    “Instead, the Christus Victor model starts with the assumption that the Big Problem is fallen-ness, corruption, sin, and evil. And here the solution is to have God, in Jesus, embracing the dark places of creation in order to transform it. In this view, God is embracing his creation and, in effect, sowing the seeds for the redemption of the Universe.”

    Mark I love this byte from Eugene Peterson’s The Message…Colossians 1:15-18 …

    15-18We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body.
    18-20He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.

    In my wild imagination, the Word from Genesis that spoke all, and holds all of creation together, and the Living Word that pitches his tent in the neighbourhood of humanity…hung on the Cross. The reality…” all of creation ” hung in balance on the cross. We have turned Atonement and Redemption in a snapshot, when in reality it is beyond our wildest dreams. It is the very imagination of God.

    When we see it as such Atonement, and redemption become much more than ” penal substitution ” and ” satisfaction theory “…suddenly it is about every bit of creation…not just a free pass on the glory train home. It becomes the Missio Dei of restoration…making at-one-ment with creation and God.

    What does this mean for the mission of the Church? The mission becomes more than saving souls. It becomes as much about global justice and equality, poverty, politics, the environment…it is bigger than our dreams.

    Some how around a table of conversation, I find myself often alone in my thoughts…viewed by most of my friends as a heretic…some one who has lost his way.

  3. James Kingsley on May 2nd, 2007 5:31 pm

    great post mark. you’ve beautifully articulated the idea that it is possible to think bigger AND clearer at the same time. cheers to pulling the camera back and capturing the bigger picture.

  4. Jonas Lundström on May 3rd, 2007 3:54 am

    Mark, Anna, Ron. Great words! I feel encouraged.

  5. graham on May 3rd, 2007 7:14 am

    Good stuff, Mark. I’ve also taken to referring to the death (and, indeed, whole ministry) of Jesus as God turning his cheek.

    However, I don’t see any need to speak of the passages from Romans 3 and 5 in a traditionally penal way. In fact, I’m not sure that you do either, even if you claim to. I think it is more helpful to say, as you do, that the ‘punishment Christ receives is the full consequences of a sinful humanity.’

    I’ve thought of it as a consequence of sin being death to humanity (understood in an Eastern sense). When God then chooses to unite with humanity to fight Sin, he consequently chooses to stand with them in the suffering of death.

    Nevertheless, good stuff!

  6. Chris on May 9th, 2007 1:17 pm

    With my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, I have to confess that I am still not satisfied (I will not, however, DEMAND satisfaction). I’m glad that you distinguished at the start between the penal substitutionary view and the satisfaction view, but it strikes me that you just went on to conflate the two anyway. As I was commenting in a previous post, I mentioned the idea that wrath is not a necessary constituent of the penal substitutionary view, but you seem to imply that it is. If you were to develop these ideas more, I think it would be fruitful to reconsider the biblical concept of the wrath of God, especially as it functions in his love and justice. There are some very complex questions that lots of different views of the Atonement try to answer. If God was angry before the Atonement, who was he angry at, and why? Did his anger change after the Atonement or not? If he was not angry about sin, why not? In the first passage you quoted from Romans above, it says that God delayed the punishment of sin until the Atonement. If Jesus was punished in the Atonement, was there wrath involved or not? I realize the format of the blog doesn’t allow for an in-depth exposition of these things, but I think the issue is quite a bit more complicated than shifting the priority we give one Atonement theory over another.

  7. markvans on May 9th, 2007 1:59 pm

    Chris…I’m going to beat the crap out of you for asking for satisfaction…though I will allow someone else to take the beating in your stead. ;)
    Blog posts are supposed to be conversation starters. I wish I had one of those super-popular blogs where the readers respond to one another so completely that I, as the author, don’t need to do anything but sit back. Alas. Mine is the sort of blog where I have to respond to the inadequacies of my blog posts myself.

    I confess…I reached for the low hanging fruit. I wanted to get right to the point and didn’t want to detour through the land of intellectual rigor. Yes indeed there is more nuance to be mined here. If I had it to do all over again, I would have started with a post outlining the major views of the atonement–ever so briefly–and proceed to show where evangelicalism lands today. My beef is with the Satisfaction Theory–but also with the Penal view as it is popularly understood. Instead of bringing clarity to the debate, I left the poorly understood doctrine remain poorly understood so that I could continue with my arguments.

    I’d like to think that I did more than simply shift priorities. I articulated a way of understanding penal substitution that fits more directly with the Christus Victor model. And I didn’t diminish the nature of the substitution in the manner that many who elevate the Christus Victor are so likely to do.

    Oh, by the way, I’m not sure it is possible to have a penal substitutionary view without wrath, unless God isn’t the one doing the punishing. I’m willing to be challenged on this, but I don’t know of any articulation of the view that DOESN’T include wrath.

    Now, to briefly answer your questions:

    If God was angry before the Atonement, who was he angry at, and why?

    I’m not sure he was angry in the ways that we normally think of “anger.” In other words, YHWH isn’t like Zeus. It seems to me that the anger of God is/was an intense longing and jealousy for his people that was frustrated by the sins of those people.

    Did his anger change after the Atonement or not?

    Yes. I believe so. Because the nature of the covenant and the nature of the “people of God” changed. In addition, I believe Jesus helps us understand the nature of God’s anger and love towards his people.

    If he was not angry about sin, why not?

    He was angry about sin.

    In the first passage you quoted from Romans above, it says that God delayed the punishment of sin until the Atonement. If Jesus was punished in the Atonement, was there wrath involved or not?

    Yes. Indeed. I’m not denying that God has wrath. I’m just clarifying what that “wrath” might be. The problem is that popular Evangelical culture has a picture of what the wrath of God looks like:

    God hates sin so much that he wants to send us to hell. Which is eternal torture at God’s hands. And so, he poured out all of his hatred, anger, venomous rage, and grumpiness on Jesus. His anger was so bad that it demanded blood. And Jesus was born for just that reason–to shed his blood to assuage God’s anger.

    My whole post is an attempt to deconstruct this understanding. Not destroy (because there is indeed some truth in this), but deconstruct and reframe. That is why I skipped through the nuance. I wanted to address this idea head on and offer a better way to approach things. And I didn’t want to have to write 8 posts to do so.

  8. Chris on May 9th, 2007 7:59 pm

    Well I think you did a fine job to be honest. Certainly you’ve tackled a tangled knot of issues all wrapped into what often ends up as a very monolithic dichotomy. I guess my questions were more hypothetical, but I think you gave good answers that I agree with for the most part. I think one of the best hypothetical questions being asked by critics of the penal substitutionary view is, “How can it be just for an innocent man (Jesus) to get substituted for the wrongdoing of (many) others?” I also think another great hypothetical question gets at the inevitability of the “Fall” and its relationship to God’s justice. “If sin were in a sense an inevitable result of our “otherness” as creatures, is there a sense in which God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus as God?” Anyway, I consider this all very important and overlooked stuff, and you’ve definitely treated it with a good deal more discipline and care than most. Eight more posts would be great!

  9. Steve Treichler on May 18th, 2007 11:10 am

    God hates sin so much that he wants to send us to hell. Which is eternal torture at God’s hands. And so, he poured out all of his hatred, anger, venomous rage, and grumpiness on Jesus. His anger was so bad that it demanded blood. And Jesus was born for just that reason–to shed his blood to assuage God’s anger.

    Mark, man, that is a pretty easy ’straw man’ to knock down about the reformed view of the atonement. Pretty unfair, I would say…

    Again, I think you are speaking out of both sides of your mouth - you bash the reformers view of penal substitution, yet you said it satisifies the sin and even the anger of God. I am seriously confused. Are you refusing to put yourself into categories to avoid argumentation, or are you trying to be more ‘comprehensive’ in your view of the atonement?

    I too do not like the oversimplification of the gospel message to just the vicarious atonement - however, it is the MOST IMPORTANT PART!

    3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4, NAS95).

    16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:16, 17, NAS95).

    16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:16-18, NAS95).

    Not to be that guywho puts proof texts into his commnets, but I really do see as primary importance the removal of our sins and the wrath of God (which is significant, powerful and aweful (see hell).

    Is the gospel more than justification and imputation? Absolutely!!! It is so much more!!! And that is where many evangelicals err, and I agree with you - it is frustrating. Our incredible union with Jesus is so much more now than just getting our sins taken care of - adoption into his family, care for the least of these, environmental issues, justice, love, righteous anger over injustice, etc. However, the atonment is NEVER LESS than justification and imputation.

    It seems to me, by your posts that you are trying to elevate the other (correct) view of the atonemnt and (for some reason I don’t fully understand) take the reformed view of justification and downplay it or even dismiss it.

    Just one man’s morning thoughts. Thanks for the posts and I look forward to continued discussion.

    By the way, where did my previous post on this issue go?

  10. Steve Treichler on May 18th, 2007 11:16 am

    Okay, I’m an airhead - I’ve already posted this last post on the other site - dude, I am so 42! No need to reply, Mark - you already did on the other post:

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