Friday, April 06, 2007

the idea that God murdered his son for the salvation of the world, is unbiblical, barbaric and morally indefensible

Cross purposes

Penal substitution, the idea that God murdered his son for the salvation of the world, is unbiblical, barbaric and morally indefensible.

by Giles Fraser

April 4, 2007 5:00 PM | Printable version

Easter is a time for stringing up the innocent. And this year, once again, the sacrificial victim is the dean of St Albans, Dr Jeffrey John. Of course, we all know the reason why he's hated by conservatives in the church. No, not because he is gay, but because he's honest. And it's this same honesty that has got him in trouble again. For, once again, what he has been saying is nothing other than a truth known by most people in the pews: that the idea of God murdering his son for the salvation of the world is barbaric and morally indefensible. It turns Christianity into "cosmic child abuse".

The technical theological term for this nasty perversion of the Easter story is penal substitution. It was dreamt up by Anselm in the 11th century and later added to by Calvin. The argument goes like this: human beings have sinned against God and thus insulted him. Under medieval conceptions of law, human beings must be put to death for insulting so grand and mighty a personage as God. There is a way out, however. In order to escape death they can make some sort of "satisfaction" to compensate God for the insult against him. The problem is, no human being could pay off the size of debt required by so grave an insult as an insult against God. Therefore human beings are doomed. Except - ah, here, apparently is the wonderful bit - God graciously allows his son to take our place, paying off the debt by giving to Jesus the punishment that is properly ours. Thus satisfaction is achieved and human beings are spared hell.

Jeffrey John is quite right to think of this as sick. Speaking on Radio 4 tonight, the good Dean will say this:

"Even at the age of 10 I thought this explanation was pretty repulsive as well as nonsensical. What sort of God was this, getting so angry with the world and the people he created, and then, to calm himself down, demanding the blood of his own son? And anyway, why should God forgive us through punishing somebody else? It was worse than illogical, it was insane. It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this we'd say they were a monster."

Hear, hear.

The two theological problems with this account are that it refuses to believe that forgiveness can ever be a proper response to sin and furthermore that the resurrection plays no part in the story of human salvation. This makes it a heresy.

The first problem means that penal substitution is profoundly unbiblical. Much of the Bible speaks of forgiveness. Debts are to be unilaterally wiped away. It's what has inspired Christians to campaign for the unilateral eradication of third world debt. Jesus clearly follows this tradition. Not an eye for an eye, but the forgiveness even of enemies. Unfortunately, conservative evangelicals don't agree with Jesus. They see him as a dangerous liberal. Instead they think all debt has to be paid off in full. And their message of Good Friday is as simple as it is nasty: sin can only be paid off by blood. Its no coincidence that where Christians believe in penal substitution they also strongly believe in capital punishment. Thus the cross, originally a symbol of the horror of capital punishment, turns into its greatest cheerleader.

The second problem is that conservative evangelicals don't really believe in the resurrection either. Sure, it's there in the Bible so they want to believe in it. The problem is that all the salvation work goes on during Good Friday. According to them, it is on the cross that Jesus pays off the price of sin. And therefore it is on the cross that we are saved from God's wrathful anger. According to this theology, the resurrection has a bit part in the story of human salvation. Secular atheists may balk at the miraculous aspect of the resurrection, but its message is life-enhancing: the triumph of good over evil, life over death etc. Conservative evangelicals refuse this message in favour of salvation by punishment. Well, not in my name.

reposted from: CIF
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