With all the ink that has been spilt over the Christian doctrine of atonement over the past 2000 years, it is fair to ask why I feel the need to jump into the fray at this point in my life. To answer that question I will offer you a glimpse into my personal faith pilgrimage of the past half century or more.
I was raised in a Mennonite church that had drunk deeply at the wells of American fundamentalism. The “Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory” was part and parcel of that movement. That theory was first articulated by John Calvin in the 16th century and then refined and popularized by Charles Hodge in the 19th century. This theory was gospel truth!
In simple form the theory went something like indigenous pastors who had been taught by evangelical missionaries in Panama told it to Mark D. Baker. He records it in his book, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross.
God would like to be in relationship with humans and dwell together with us forever in heaven, but human sin does not allow for this since God is holy and cannot associate with anyone corrupted by sin. It is impossible for humans to achieve the sinless perfection necessary, and because God is just, he must punish us for our sin. God, however, provides a solution. God the Father sends his Son to earth to suffer the punishment we deserve by dying on the cross. Since Jesus paid the penalty for us, God can regard us as not guilty. If we believe that we are sinners deserving hell, but that Jesus died in our place, then we can be in relationship with God and go to heaven (140).
Any questioning of this “theory” simply would not have been tolerated in the church of my youth. It would be many years later that I began to question what this theory actually said about God. Sharon L. Baker articulates well my growing unease with this theory in, Executing God: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about Salvation and the Cross:
God would not simply wipe sin’s slate clean, write off the debt, and forgive sin. Instead God needed some sort of violent recompense or payback before forgiving our sin. Consequently the penal model of the cross compromises the entire foundation of forgiveness…We can receive forgiveness only through some sort of economy of quid pro quo. Lurking behind this theory is the ghost of a punitive father, haunting the image of forgiving grace, a cruel tyrant who demands the blood of an innocent person, finding the death of his own son an agreeable way to forgive and to save the world (73).
But back to my youth, I remember the night my quest to find God came to an end just after turning sixteen; when I finally was able to believe that my pleas to be accepted by God had been heard. I had been schooled to view God as forever balancing his attributes of love and justice. God loved me with an ever-lasting love, I was told, but hated my sin. And if I didn’t reciprocate that love appropriately, God’s wrath would lead me straight to eternal damnation.
I will not elaborate here on what made it so difficult for me to believe the story I was told about how I could be “saved.” But I will say that as I knelt alone by a chair that night, hoping against hope that this time my pleas would dent the heavens, I remember being engulfed by wave after wave of God’s love. I was surprised. I had kind of expected to see an image of God slowly lowering his cudgel and hesitantly inviting me to come to his side. Instead I knew intuitively that, like the father in the story of the prodigal son, God’s arms of love, grace and forgiveness had been extended my way right throughout my torturous teens.
But, now I was on the inside of the divine circle and there was much rejoicing in my little country church. And I eagerly took up my role as a model convert and soon a number of my buddies had joined me in that circle.
In my early adulthood, I was exposed to the fact that there were, in fact, other “theories of atonement.” But it was clear that the default position of my church community would continue to be the “Penal Substitution Theory.” So that is what I taught as a missionary in Bolivia and hesitantly agreed to promote in the church and its institutions upon returning to Canada after completing seminary. However, I became intrigued by the fact that one of my colleagues, Dr. Archie Penner, regularly argued for a broader concept of redemption and a grander vision of God. What parent, he argued, would tell a child it was loved but that that love would turn to wrath if it was not returned in kind? God is love! he thundered, not wrath!
Ever since, I have been on an increasingly more open quest to uncover a view of atonement that is fully consistent with God’s character. And over the last decade or so I have discovered that a lot of Christian thinkers and writers have been on a similar journey, persons who have become my “travelling companions.” While I remain indebted to the church of my youth for introducing me to Jesus Christ, it will become evident in this series of essays that I have moved well beyond the “myth of certainty” that pervaded that community of faith.
For quite some time I have been hesitant to verbalize publically the place I have come to on this topic. At the same time, much of what I have written over the past three or four years constitutes some of the building material I will use to write this series.
So I invite you to come with me as we revisit the doctrine of atonement in the 21st century.