Part 2 — What we often hear in church
In Part 1, we talked about the atonement and why we need to understand this so that we can understand what it means to us. We’ll now look at the explanation given by most mainstream evangelical churches, and see how how well it is supported in scripture.
Over the centuries, there have been many attempts to explain the atonement. Each attempt, or theory, gives a different perspective on the meaning behind it. We’ll start with the more common one first.
Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA)
Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Well, the bad news is that we have sinned and this has offended God’s honour. The good news is that Jesus took the blame instead of us. At least, that’s what this theory tells us.
In 1098, Anselm of Canterbury published his work on Satisfaction Theory. The theory was that when Jesus went to the cross, he was taking the place of humanity. As all had sinned, Jesus was saving everyone from this punishment by taking it on our behalf. This was known as Satisfaction Theory.
And why did this sin need to be punished? Anselm said that sin dishonoured God, so God demanded justice.
John Calvin was a French Protestant Reformer. In the 1500s, he came up with his theory of Penal Substitution. As with Anselm’s theory, Calvin posited that when Jesus died, he stood in for humanity. But instead of Jesus being punished for our sins, it was sin itself that was being punished.
Most Christians will likely recognise at least some form of this theory. It is the one most preached in churches around the world today. It’s easy enough for us to understand given our familiarity with concepts of justice. And as a scholar of the laws, the legalism probably resounded strongly with Calvin.
Many churches use a simple analogy to help their members understand this concept. The analogy usually goes something like this. A criminal appears before a judge, convicted of a very serious crime, which warrants a hefty fine. As the judge is upright and just, he cannot simply let the crime go unpunished. He also understands that this man is very poor and has a family to support. So instead of throwing the criminal into jail, the judge steps down and pays the fine on the man’s behalf.
Proponents of this theory often point to Bible verses such as Isaiah 53:8. In the New International Version of the Bible, we see:
For the transgressions of my people he was punished
Isaiah 53:10 seems to take this further:
Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer…
But older translations of the Bible, such as the Greek LXX, do not even mention punishment here. In the literal English translation of the LXX (Septuagent), we see the following:
And the Lord desires to purify him of the plague…
So the LXX regards sin as being a plague, which the Lord wants to purify Jesus from.
Many followers find it difficult to understand how PSA works, how it makes us right with God and how it was sin itself that was being punished instead of Jesus.
PSA also does not attempt to explain the purpose of Jesus’ resurrection. It does not even seem to consider it as part of the atonement itself. So why did Jesus rise from the dead? Supporters of PSA will often explain that Jesus’ resurrection was necessary to prove his divinity. This is certainly true, but I don’t think it gives us the complete story. The Bible tells us that the resurrection secured our victory over death. For example, in Ephesians 2:6 we see:
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus (NIV)
So clearly, there is more to the resurrection of Jesus than proving that he was whom he claimed to be.
Critics of PSA also point out that the Bible tells us clearly that God forgave our sins. If PSA is telling us that God needed a penalty to be paid, then we could not then say that he was forgiving. We would say he was just accepting the penalty paid by Jesus on our behalf.
Supporters of PSA often point to the words spoken by Jesus as he was dying on the cross. The words were:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
We are often told in church that this was Jesus feeling separation from God the Father as the Father’s wrath was poured out on his son. But in reality Jesus was simply quoting Psalm 22. We need to remember that in Jesus’ day, everyone learned the scriptures by heart, so to simply quote them the first line of a psalm was to remind them of the whole thing. It has a very solemn start:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest. [NIV]
But in verse 22, things start to become clear:
I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honour him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help. [NIV]
Notice how this contradicts the popular claim that God the Father turned his face away from Jesus when he was on the cross?
Finally, in verse 29, we learn of Jesus’ victory:
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him —
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
So Jesus was not really suffering under God’s wrath on the cross. There must be another explanation.
We do know that he died because of our sins. But why? And what was the victory that Psalm 22 speaks of?
Let’s find out more in Part 3!