CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Part 1 -- The Data, The Problem, and The Thesis

My friend Victor Reppert, over at Dangerous Idea, has been recently engaged in a series of posts on historical analysis of the accuracy of the New Testament; and the thorny topic of Theudas came up again a week or two ago, this time in context of Richard I. Pervo’s thesis that the author of Acts of the Apostles knew about Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews and so must have composed Acts sometime substantially after Ant.’s publication.

I am a bit handicapped here in analyzing Dr. Pervo’s thesis, since I don’t have access to a university library; I have only found access to (a very large) part of the relevant chapter in Dating Acts (thanks to Amazon’s Search Inside feature), and no access at all yet to his later Acts: A Commentary (part of Hermeneia’s Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible)--nor do I much fancy buying one or both books merely to assess this one thesis. Hopefully some of our readers will have one or both books at hand, and can provide further information relevant to my critique, in fairness to Dr. Pervo.

(I want to stress that this is also a strong caution to our readers that, for all I know at the moment, Dr. Pervo may have already sufficiently addressed these critiques where I haven’t been able to see him yet. Dating Acts has been out for a few years. The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling Its Story was published later, the same year as Dr. P’s commentary on Acts, but a thorough search of its text by Amazon’s tools shows no mention of Theudas or Judas the Galilean at all. A search for Josephus in the same text turns up numerous entries, including Dr. P’s continuing position that Luke borrowed from the later books of the Antiquities; but doesn’t seem to include even brief arguments for why he holds that belief. I can’t tell from this whether he still holds to the Theudas/JudGal theory, or not. Possibly Amazon’s search feature doesn’t include enough of the text of this book. Readers who are slightly less lazy than I am, and/or substantially more familiar with his body of work, are welcome to provide links to papers from Dr. P on this topic, in the comments.)


The basic textual facts for the problem, and for Dr. Pervo’s proposed solution, stand as follows:

In the 20th book of the Antiquities of the Jews, chapter 5 (William Whiston’s translation):

1. Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. This was what befell the Jews in the time of Cuspius Fadus's government.
2. Then came Tiberius Alexander as successor to Fadus; he was the son of Alexander the alabarch of Alexandria, which Alexander was a principal person among all his contemporaries, both for his family and wealth: he was also more eminent for his piety than this his son Alexander, for he did not continue in the religion of his country. Under these procurators that great famine happened in Judea, in which queen Helena bought corn in Egypt at a great expense, and distributed it to those that were in want, as I have related already. And besides this, the sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain; I mean of that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Cyrenius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews, as we have showed in a foregoing book. The names of those sons were James and Simon, whom Alexander commanded to be crucified.


Earlier, in the 18th Book of the Antiquities chapter 1, Josephus wrote about Judas the Galilean

[From Chapter 1] Moreover, Cyrenius came himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus's money; but the Jews, although at the beginning they took the report of a taxation heinously, yet did they leave off any further opposition to it, by the persuasion of Joazar, who was the son of Beethus, and high priest; so they, being over-pesuaded by Joazar's words, gave an account of their estates, without any dispute about it. Yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonite, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty; as if they could procure them happiness and security for what they possessed, and an assured enjoyment of a still greater good, which was that of the honor and glory they would thereby acquire for magnanimity. They also said that God would not otherwise be assisting to them, than upon their joining with one another in such councils as might be successful, and for their own advantage; and this especially, if they would set about great exploits, and not grow weary in executing the same; so men received what they said with pleasure, and this bold attempt proceeded to a great height. […]Such were the consequences of this, that the customs of our fathers were altered, and such a change was made, as added a mighty weight toward bringing all to destruction, which these men occasioned by their thus conspiring together; for Judas and Sadduc, who excited a fourth philosophic sect among us, and had a great many followers therein, filled our civil government with tumults at present, and laid the foundations of our future miseries, by this system of philosophy, which we were before unacquainted withal, concerning which I will discourse a little, and this the rather because the infection which spread thence among the younger sort, who were zealous for it, brought the public to destruction. […] But of the fourth sect of Jewish philosophy, Judas the Galilean was the author. These men agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord. They also do not value dying any kinds of death, nor indeed do they heed the deaths of their relations and friends, nor can any such fear make them call any man lord. And since this immovable resolution of theirs is well known to a great many, I shall speak no further about that matter; nor am I afraid that any thing I have said of them should be disbelieved, but rather fear, that what I have said is beneath the resolution they show when they undergo pain. And it was in Gessius Florus's time that the nation began to grow mad with this distemper, who was our procurator, and who occasioned the Jews to go wild with it by the abuse of his authority, and to make them revolt from the Romans.


Josephus had also written a bit about Judas the Galilean earlier, in Book 2 (Chapter 8) of “The Jewish War”:

And now Archelaus's part of Judea was reduced into a province, and Coponius, one of the equestrian order among the Romans, was sent as a procurator, having the power of [life and] death put into his hands by Caesar. Under his administration it was that a certain Galilean, whose name was Judas, prevailed with his countrymen to revolt, and said they were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans and would after God submit to mortal men as their lords. This man was a teacher of a peculiar sect of his own, and was not at all like the rest of those their leaders.


There’s a quick note in passing toward the end of Book 2 of JW, too (Chp 17), connecting JudGal with the taking of the Masada fortress via his son:

In the mean time, one Manahem, the son of Judas, that was called the Galilean, (who was a very cunning sophister, and had formerly reproached the Jews under Cyrenius, that after God they were subject to the Romans,) took some of the men of note with him, and retired to Masada, where he broke open king Herod's armory, and gave arms not only to his own people, but to other robbers also.



In what we now call the fifth chapter of the canonical Acts of the Apostles, the author (hereafter “Luke” on occasion for convenience) presents the following scene set roughly 30CE (or anyway the same year as the death of Jesus):

[NASV translation] But a certain Pharisee named Gamaliel, teacher of the Law, respected by all the people [i.e. Gamaliel I, son of Simeon, grandson of Hillel, and grandfather of Gamaliel II who would go on after the Jewish War to refashion the Pharisee party into its dominant form], stood up in the Council [i.e. the Sanhedrin, which is debating what to do about Peter and John and their preaching and healing] and gave orders to put the men [i.e. Peter and John] outside for a short time.

And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody; and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him--who was slain, and all who were obeying him were dispersed and came to nothing.

“After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away people after him--he too perished, and all those who were obeying him were scattered.

“And so in the present case, I say to you: stay away from these men and let them alone! For if this plan or action should be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them--or else you may even found to be fighting against God!”


Relatedly, in the 17th book of Antiquities, ch. 10, Josephus talks about several of many other revolutions preceding Judas the Galilean but after the time of the death of Herod the Great (while his son Archaelus was attempting to secure the throne by Imperial appeal); the heads of only some of which are named by Josephus.

It is worth keeping in mind, too, that while the form Theudas is rare, it is also one of several much more common variants; and indeed can also be used as a more particular substitute for the vastly common Judas! (Much like “Jason”, a purely Greek name, was substituted occasionally for “Jesus/Joshua” by Hellenized Jews as a proper-name option: the sound and/or meaning were close enough to putt in with a multi-lingual pun.)


Dr. Pervo’s thesis is that the order of mention by Gamaliel, first Theudas and then Judas the Galilean, suggests (or, for Dr. P, practically demands) that Luke borrowed this information from Josephus, specifically from Book 20 (written very late, indeed the last book of Antiquities completed before Josephus’ death). The main positive evidence in favor of this thesis (unless Dr. P brings out stronger positive evidence where I haven’t been able to read him yet), is that Josephus happens to mention Judas the Galilean after writing about Theudas the (messianic) “magician”; thus, in a trivially sequential way, first Theudas is mentioned, then Judas the Galilean. Whereas, if Luke was really writing with actual living knowledge of conditions in pre70s Palestine, he would not have put Theudas before JudGal, and certainly would not have put a reference to Theudas at all (much less before JudGal) in the mouth of a character decades prior to the rebellion of Theudas. As Dr. Pervo quips (p.153 of DA), this would be like Winston Churchill making a speech in 1932 exhorting Parliament to recall the rise and fall of Hitler after whom Kaiser Wilhelm rose up and fell.

This is (or was?) Dr. Pervo’s theory for dealing with the problem of the data.


Next time: why salting a pizza before eating is very important

(...wait, did I spell that right? Should it be 'blogsphere'?)

http://christthetao.blogspot.com/

My friend David Marshall has finally started a web journal at the above address. David is a Christian apologist who usually (although not always) works along the line of cultural apologetics. (The title of his journal, as well as of his main site, goes back to his first book on convergences and contrasts between Christianity and Chinese religious culture.)

His first set of posts out of the gate (aside from some photos from his family trip into the Pacific Northwest countryside near Seattle), involve a running debate with Dr. Hector Avalos on connections (of various sorts) between Christianity and slavery.


Interviews with him on his latest two books, can be found here on the Cadre Journal at:

http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2007/10/david-marshall-interview-oct-2007-part.html

and

http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2007/10/david-marshall-interview-oct-2007-part_24.html


Links, with some commentary here at the Cadre, to debates between David and Barry Duke and Robert Price (respectively) can be found:

http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2008/01/david-marshall-debates-barry-duke.html

and

http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2008/03/robert-price-vs-david-marshall.html

A recent defense of penal substitutionary atonement (hence PSA), Pierced for our Transgressions, attempts to establish that PSA was the dominant understanding of the atonement among the early Church Fathers, and was not just an innovation of the Reformation. However, a recent article by Derek Flood shows that the authors of PFOT use an overly broad criterion for detecting PSA in the early Fathers and lift quotations that seem to support PSA out of the broader context of the individual Fathers' soteriology. Since a commentator on Triablogue recently asserted that Athanasius actually affirms PSA when I suggested that he was a counter-example, I will reproduce some of Flood's remarks on Athanasius and Augustine.

Flood first distinguishes, as I have done, between the general idea of substitutionary atonement and the more specific idea of penal substitution:

Substitutionary atonement broadly speaks of Christ's death being vicarious: Christ bearing our sin, suffering, sickness, injustice, and brokenness. Penal substitution is a subset of substitutionary atonement which focuses specifically on the penal aspects of that vicarious suffering, understood in the context of fulfilling the demands of judicial retributive punishment, and thus appeasing God's righteous anger. (p.143)
The problem Flood sees with PFOT's citation of the Fathers is that they use a broader criterion to detect PSA than is warranted by the above definition. The authors rely on a dissertation by Garry Williams which states that "An author can be held to teach the Penal doctrine if he plainly states that the punishment deserved by sin from God was borne by Jesus Christ in his death on the Cross." (quoted on p.143) This might be seen as a necessary, but insufficient criterion, because it does not specify the purpose for which Christ bore that punishment, and for a model of the atonement to qualify as PSA it must explicitly assert that "God's justice, which demands punishment, is satisfied by Christ being punished instead of us." (p.144) But as we will see in the case of Athanasius and Augustine, they do not understand Christ's bearing the punishment for sin in that way.

In his classic treatise On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius refers to corruption leading to death as the 'penalty' for sin. Picking up on this the authors of PFOT identify Athanasius as an advocate of PSA. However, this is not borne out by the wider context of his argument:

Instead of externally inflicted judicial punishment, the model Athanasius has is one of natural consequence. In breaking our communion with God, Athanasius says that we have cut ourselves off from the very source of Life. As a result we return to the state we were created out of: nothing, "returning, through corruption, to non-existence again." (ch.4) Being separated from the source of Life, we die. This 'corruption' and resulting 'death' is not understood by Athanasius in terms of a punishment externally inflicted, but as the inevitable consequence of sin: "Inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it." (ch.4) Consequently, because Athanasius does not see sin as simply a transgression of the Law, but involving a sickness of the soul, he says that repentance was not enough: "Had it been the case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough." (ch.7)...What Athanasius is saying here is that the problem of sin goes deeper than mere legal transgression, and therefore cannot be addressed simply through interpersonal legal measures, because neither repentance nor punishment can heal the corruption in us. What we need, Athanasius tells us, is a renewal of our image, the healing of the corruption of sin. (pp.147-148)

Athanasius' understanding is consonant with my own. As I have argued before, the legal aspect of forgiveness is the least problematic part of the atonement. When God forgives, he entirely blots out the transgression, as if it never happened. The real problem is dealing with the corruption of our nature which results from that transgression. For example, a father might forgive a son for drug abuse in the sense that the father will not turn the son in to the police to do jail time, but the son must still undergo rehab to treat the effects of addiction.

The corruption of our nature brought about by sin was such that the only way we could again enjoy eternal life was by the literal re-creation of the divine Image in us by the Word, who had created it in the first place:

"In order to effect this re-creation, however, he had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore he assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image." (ch.13) As the above quote indicates, the key focus of Christ's substitutionary atonement here is in conquering death in order to bring us new life...Athanasius explains that because Jesus was human he could die, but because he was also God ('the indwelling of the Word') the Life of God in him overpowered Death, setting us free. (pp.148-149)


I still think the best way to understand Athanasius' thinking at this point is the medical analogy I gave earlier. In order to conquer the deadly disease of the corruption of sin, Christ took on a body which could be infected by it, knowing that he had the strength and vitality to neutralize it, thus restoring and renewing human nature.

But the real challenge of Athanasius' view to PSA is that, far from arguing that by Jesus' death the law of death is satisfied and thus we are freed from its domination, Athanasius argues that Jesus came to abolish the law itself, so that it could take no further prisoners, not even he himself. To extend the prison analogy, if penal substitution asserts that Jesus descended to the prison of death and served our sentence so that we could go free (which presupposes the legitimacy of the institution itself), in Athanasius' view Jesus came down to the prison and destroyed it entirely, without satisfying its 'just' demands. Or to use a different permutation of the same analogy, instead of going down to the prison and telling the warden that we could go free because he had served our time for us, Jesus went down there and told the warden that we were no longer guilty, because we had been re-created in the divine Image. We had been transformed from transgressors to righteous people. As Flood says:

What we ultimately have in Athanasius is an understanding of salvation that involves a real and profound change in who we are, and one that addresses evil, suffering, and injustice on an ultimate level. It is an understanding of salvation which involves our healing by way of Christ 'abolishing' the very system of death through his death and resurrection. In other words, substitutionary atonement is understood within the conceptual framework of what we might term restorative justice. It is restorative in the sense that salvation is focused on our healing and re-birth (restoring us), and restorative in that it seeks to overturn the system of death (restoring God's reign). This represents a paradigm of justice not based on a punitive model, but one focused on setting us right by transforming us, and setting the world right by overthrowing 'the law of sin and death' (Romans 8:2). In this latter sense it reflects a model of justice that is in fact the opposite of retributive justice, because it seeks ultimately to abolish retribution, not to appease it. (p.149)

I can't resist making one more analogy to the courtroom. It is as if God is our judge, and sees that according to the law of death that now rules over people because of their sin, he has to condemn us to death for sinning. But he doesn't want to condemn us to death, because he loves us. So he needs to find a way to overturn the law itself. He needs to find some way to defeat it at its own game, to de-legitimize it so that it loses its 'just' claim on us. But how exactly did this work? Augustine came up with an intriguing suggestion.

Augustine makes some statements which would seem to put him squarely in the PSA camp. For example, in Contra Faustus he says, "Christ...submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse that accompanies death. And as he died in the flesh which he took in bearing our punishment...He was cursed for our offenses, in the death which he suffered in bearing our punishment." (quoted on p.154) But as indicated above, we need to ask what the purpose was for Christ bearing our punishment. It only qualifies as PSA if this purpose was to suffer that punishment in our place so that God's retributive justice would be satisfied. But Augustine has a quite different view.

In the same treatise a few paragraphs up Augustine says of Christ's atoning death that "Thus was death condemned that its reign might cease, and cursed that it might be destroyed. By Christ's taking our sin in this sense, its condemnation is our deliverance." (quoted on p.154) Note that on the PSA view death's reign does end, but not because it was 'condemned' and 'cursed', but because it had been satisfied. Again, as with the prison analogy, this presupposes the validity and legitimacy of death's reign. But in Augustine's view, death's reign ends because it has been overturned. Take the case of a kidnapping: if the only way to ransom the victim is by paying off the kidnappers, then ultimately it is they who are victorious, even if the victim goes free. But if the kidnappers are found and apprehended without paying the ransom, they are humiliated and defeated.

Augustine describes how exactly the kidnapper, Satan, was overpowered by Christ's death on the cross:

The devil jumped for joy when Christ died; and by the very death of Christ the devil was overcome: he took, as it were, the bait in the mousetrap. He rejoiced at the death, thinking himself death's commander. But that which caused his joy dangled the bait before him. The Lord's cross was the devil's mousetrap: the bait which caught him was the death of the Lord. (quoted on p.155)
Flood explains further how this worked:
First, Augustine emphasizes that this was not a case of God deceiving the devil. Instead he frames the exchange in terms of God acting in justice: "Death found nothing in him to punish, so the devil might be overcome and conquered not by power and violence but by truth and justice." The devil's downfall was due to his own malice and injustice. In killing Christ who was without sin, Augustine reasons, the devil lost all rights to hold humanity captive. At the same time, Augustine describes the crucifixion, not in terms of the fulfillment of justice, but as an act of the devil who "had most unjustly put Christ to death." Elsewhere Augustine describes our redemption as coming through Christ's "just blood unjustly shed." So we have a complex picture of God acting justly, but the crucifixion seen as an unjust act.

Second, the ransom or redemption price, which Augustine understands as being paid to the devil, should not be understood in the sense of a tyrant oppressing God, because it ultimately leads to the devil's downfall. As Augustine writes, "In this act of redemption the blood of Christ was given for us as a kind of price, and when the devil took it he was not enriched by it but caught and bound." This picture of the devil being "not enriched, but bound" evokes the idea that condemnation and retribution are not satisfied or 'exhausted' as they are in penal substitution's retributive model, rather they are bound, abolished, destroyed.
To tweak the legal imagery a little bit, we can understand God as our lawyer invalidating the witness for the prosecution by showing that there are contradictions in that witness's statement. By unjustly condemning a just person, the devil inadvertently demonstrates that he is not in fact a rightful authority. He is a sham, a con-artist and has lost all credibility. This theme will show up again in Origen's discussion of martyrdom, which I believe has significant implications for understanding Christ's death as well, and which I will blog on soon.

Finally, Augustine addresses the question of whether God's anger was appeased by the cross. Augustine asks, "Does this mean then that the Son was already so reconciled to us that he was even prepared to die for us, while the Father was still so angry with us that unless the Son died for us he would not be reconciled to us?" (quoted on p.156) This seems to be implied by advocates of penal substitution, for example when John Piper writes in the introduction to PFOT that "[i]f God did not punish his Son in my place, I am not saved from my greatest peril, the wrath of God." (quoted on p.156) In response, Augustine insists that God loved us before the foundation of the world, and that His redemption was a pure act of love toward us. Now to be fair, advocates of PSA would also insist on this, but the fact remains that they posit an inability on God's part to forgive us unless he vented His wrath on something. This might be termed the 'Firestarter' model of atonement. I'm referring here to Stephen King's novel, in which Charlie McGee is a little girl who has the ability to start fires with her mind. The problem is that when she lets the power out, it takes on a life of its own and can only be extinguished by aiming it at a huge block of ice or another suitable target, which then melts and evaporates as McGee's power slowly subsides. (see the movie trailer for an example)

In contrast,

With Augustine this is reversed. It is not the appeasement of God's wrath that allows God to forgive, it is the healing of our sin that removes the cause of God's righteous anger. In On Nature and Grace, Augustine writes, "God himself spiritually heals the sick and restores the dead to life, that is, justifies the sinner, through the mediator between God and human beings, the man Jesus Christ...God then heals us not only to destroy the sins we have committed, but also to provide us with the means of not sinning." Note here that Augustine makes the idea of God 'healing' and 'restoring to life' synonymous with justification. As with his imagery of sin as bondage in need of a Liberator, because Augustine's view of human sin was so grave, he does not conceptualize of it merely as a crime to be remitted, but as a grave wound to be healed. (p.157)
So ultimately how did Jesus turn God's wrath away from us? Not by focusing it on another target so that it would exhaust itself, but by changing us into something which is no longer the object of God's wrath. To take a rather crude analogy, if we are dressed in red and God's wrath is the bull, Jesus does not distract the Bull by presenting it with another red target, but by covering up our red clothes so that the Bull does not see either of us as a target. This was certainly God's own initiative, but it was not accomplished by means of substitutionary punishment.

In fact, I think the word substitutionary is not the best one for the views of these Fathers of the faith. Substitution implies doing something or undergoing something which the original person could have also done or undergone. But what Christ did for us we could not have done for ourselves. Only on PSA is the word substitution rightly used, because if Christ had not undergone our punishment for us, we would have had to (and would have been able to) ourselves. Instead, we should use the word 'vicarious' in the sense of simply doing something 'for' someone or 'on their behalf'. The Father's scheme of atonement is vicarious, because all that Jesus did, including his suffering and dying was 'for us' and 'on our behalf' and 'because of our sins'.

Now some might protest that, regardless of what these early Fathers taught, we should ultimately take our cues from the Bible itself. Tradition is always supposed to be corrected by Scripture itself. I would say two things to this however: 1) both Athanasius and Augustine were highly competent exegetes of Scripture, and 2) we should wonder, if penal substitution is really the heart and soul of Christian piety, why so many early interpreters of the Gospel understood atonement in such a different fashion (Flood also discusses Justin Martyr, Eusebius, Irenaeus, and Gregory of Nazianzus, none of whom hold to PSA). By all appearances, talk of the 'satisfaction' of God's justice by Jesus' punishment did not explicitly appear (although there are hints of it in some of the early Latin fathers, like Ambrose of Milan) until Anselm, and even there Anselm's view is quite distinct from penal substitution as the Reformers understood it. In fact, Anselm himself rejected the logic which is central to penal substitution:

What man would not be judged deserving of condemnation if he condemned the innocent to free the guilty?...It is surely to be wondered at if God so derives delight from, or has need of, the blood of the innocent that he neither wishes nor is able to spare the guilty without the death of the innocent. (quoted on p.153)

Instead of reading back PSA into phrases like 'Christ bore our punishment' or 'Christ was made a curse for me', we should delve more deeply into the original contexts of those expressions, and I think we will find there a much richer, more satisfactory account of the atonement.

I've been posting a lot recently on different models of the atonement (and there's more to come!) but recently I came across a potent reminder of why we need it in the first place. Usually affirmations of human depravity come from theologians, and we are tempted to think they make such affirmations only because their job depends on it! But recently I have come across quite a few unabashedly secular authors saying surprisingly religious things about the human condition. A recent, eloquent and persuasive example is an essay by Theodore Dalrymple (by the way, if you have not read absolutely everything written by him, you have your homework assignment; he's that good).

It is titled 'Modernity's Uninvited Guest', a very appropriate title, given Dalrymple's thesis: put very simply, we weren't supposed to be worrying about evil anymore. It was a basic tenet of Enlightenment thinking that people are basically good, and only become evil through exposure to bad environments. The problem of moral evil, then, was reducible without remainder to natural evil, a problem which was presumably within the capacity of rational planning to resolve: if only we could engineer a society in which most people were clothed, fed and entertained, we would stop being so nasty to each other. Or, assuming there was still a remainder of nastiness, we could eliminate or at least bring it under control through application of detailed psychological knowledge.

Well, in Western societies we have achieved those goals to a great extent, but unfortunately things didn't quite work out the way we hoped:

Whether men behave better or worse, individually or in the aggregate, than they did before the Enlightenment, is probably a question that we cannot answer approximately, let alone definitively. But what is certain is that moral evil has not only failed to disappear but has taken on a more deliberate, calculated character. Whereas the torturers of Damiens [a would-be assassin of Louis XV who was tortured to death for attempted regicide] did their evil unself-consciously because it was the natural or preordained thing to do, modern evil is done after intellectual reflection, divorced from any tradition that might guide conduct.

The two greatest moral catastrophes of the twentieth century, wrought by Lenin and Hitler, were perverse effects of the Enlightenment. Lenin and Hitler were creatures of the Enlightenment not in the sense that they were enlightened, of course, but in the sense that they believed they had the right and the duty to act in accordance with their own unaided deductions from their own first principles. Everything else they regarded as sentimentality. Lenin preached no mercy to the non-proletarian, Hitler none to the Jew. The truth of their theories, supposedly rational and indubitable, was more evident to them, more real in their minds, than the millions killed as a consequence of those theories. If a syllogism ended in a command to commit unspeakable evil, you did not doubt the premises or the argument but obeyed the command...

That evil has not disappeared pari passu with German measles puzzles and troubles us. Evil remains a conundrum, as evidenced by Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton’s recently published book On Evil. Eagleton is not one of those Marxists for whom, like the late historian and Stalin apologist Edward Hallett Carr, the problem of evil does not exist. “I don’t think there are such things as bad people,” Carr once said. “To us Hitler, at the moment, seems a bad man, but will they think Hitler a bad man in a hundred years’ time, or will they think the German society of the thirties bad?”

Eagleton sees clearly that this will not do. Helping him in this recognition is that he is a Christian as well as a Marxist, and no Christian can believe wholly in social determinism. The problem of the human heart is real, not just a remediable social artifact. The relationship between society and human behavior is dialectical, Eagleton believes. Society has its effect, but it is acting on an already imperfect nature, which in turn is bound to produce an imperfect society.

Significantly, Eagleton begins his book by citing the case of two ten-year-old British boys who abducted, tortured, and killed three-year-old Jamie Bulger in 1993. Here is the opposite of childhood innocence, for the two boys knew that what they were doing was deeply wrong but went ahead and did it anyway. The human mystery is that neither their environment nor their nature can fully explain them. Man is not only wolf to man; he is mystery to man.

I think Dalrymple is absolutely right. For all the advances we have made in understanding nature, including human nature through psychology and biology, there is still an irrational, inexplicable remainder of evil that haunts the human psyche. It is indeed sobering to ponder Dave Sedaris' question, posed in his reflection upon the nastiness elicited when people pass through airports:

We’re forever blaming the airline industry for turning us into monsters. But what if this is who we truly are, and the airport’s just a forum that allows us to be our real selves, not just hateful but gloriously so?

1. It is important to note that, while the New Testament does say that the death of Jesus was unjust, nevertheless God did act to deliberately bring it about, which is to say that men's motives for bringing about the death of Jesus were not the same as God's:


“Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23)

"Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief" (Isa 53:10)

And yes, it is clear that the suffering and death of Jesus was something God wanted to happen, and made sure that it did happen. It is also true that God is not (necessarily) unjust in allowing or ordaining something evil to happen in order to bring about a greater good. However, what's at issue here is not whether God ordained something to happen for a greater good, but what his intentions were. Advocates of PSA assume that the purpose for which God ordained Jesus' death was to show His justice in punishing sin, but the above texts and similar ones do not establish that. They only establish that God ordained Jesus' death for a purpose, they do not specify what that purpose was.

We must make a clear distinction between the claim that God was just in ordaining that Jesus suffer, and the claim that the purpose of that ordination was to reveal the justice of God in punishing sin.

2. Another issue concerns the presence of cases of corporate responsibility in the Bible. For example:

"...For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, and showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Exodus 20:5-6; cf. 34:7, Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 5:9-10; interestingly, in Deuteronomy 7:9-10 the faithfulness to a thousand generations is repeated, but the pursuit of further generations of those who reject God is dropped)

First of all we should notice the asymmetry in the two cases: even if God does pursue future generations of those that hate him, it is only to the third and fourth generation at most, whereas his mercy and faithfulness extend to a thousand generations. Even if there is a concept of corporate responsibility in the Bible, it is strictly limited in extent.

Second, we should make a distinction between punishment for the sins of another, and suffering for the sins of another. Because no man is an island, obviously many sins will have consequences for others who are not individually culpable for those sins. I may go to jail or death-row for blowing up a building which caused the death of several people, but those deaths are not punishments for my sin, they are the consequence of my sin. Succeeding generations may certainly suffer for the sins of the prior generation. Indeed, it is part of the punishment of that generation that their children will suffer for it.

(For that matter, we might add that the faithfulness of God's people can have positive repercussions for those who do not deserve them; take, for example, the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Matthew 13:24-30: the person who planted the good wheat, when he finds weeds in his field planted by an enemy, does not immediately root them out, for fear of damaging the good wheat, but lets both grow together until the harvest. This does not mean that the weeds are being 'blessed' for their sins.)

Take the exile, for example. It was simply inevitable that, in punishing Israel for its apostasy by exiling it, God would be involving future generations in that punishment, even if those future generations did not themselves apostatize. The consequences of exile would extend far beyond the first generation.

But successive generations cannot use the fact that they are suffering for the sins of their fathers as an excuse to cover up their own sins. That is the point of Ezekiel 18. There is a clear difference to be drawn between the exilic condition and individual punishment for sins. For succeeding generations, the exile becomes the backdrop against which they must reckon with the consequences of their own actions. It also becomes the backdrop against which God can use pious Israelites for his own good purposes, for example the exilic prophets to lay out the vision of God's final redemption, or people like Daniel and his friends to be a witness for God in the courts of Babylon. For them being exiled was not a punishment (even though they were suffering for the sins of their forefathers), but an opportunity for them to be a witness. God works in all things for the good for those who love him.

But what about a case like 2 Samuel 21:1-9, in which God sends a famine upon Israel because of the injustice Saul committed against the Gibeonites, and to make atonement for which seven of Saul's sons had to die? Isn't this a case of the sons being punished for the sins of the father, and indeed of their being punished as a blood atonement, so that the Gibeonites would be appeased and would again bless Israel? Weren't these sons (and a few grandsons) of Saul innocent of this crime?

Actually, the way the Lord lays out the reason for the famine gives us some reason to think that they were not entirely innocent. The Lord tells David that the famine is "for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites." (2 Samuel 21:1b, KJV)

Bob Deffinbaugh, after noting the Pentateuchal command that "Fathers must not be put to death for what their children do, nor children for what their fathers do; each must be put to death for their own sin," (Deuteronomy 24:16), suggests that "God's words to David seem to emphasize the fact that Saul did not act alone in seeking to annihilate the Gibeonites. He would have needed help, and who would be more likely to help than his own family? Whether any Gibeonite blood was shed by their hands or not, they must have known, and thus they became accomplices in this heinous plan." As accomplices, Saul's sons and grandsons were not innocent of this crime, and thus could justly bear responsibility for it when Saul died.

A similar thing can be said of the slaughter of Achan and his family when he absconded with some of the spoil of Jericho that was set aside for the Lord (see Joshua 7). As McIlwain himself notes,

Achan died with his whole household. We don’t know how many were in this family, but we might reasonably surmise that what Achan did – rebelling with lust for silver and gold – received the approval of his children. Quite likely the family knew what was in the tent, but said nothing and may even have been secretly pleased about it. Just because they were not the ones to take the initial decision, in defiance of God’s command, does not mean that they had disapproved of Achan’s actions. Nothing is said, but God does not punish the innocent. If such punishment is brought upon the sons and daughters, then the children have been corrupted and complicit in some way in the crimes of the parents, perhaps by following their wrong example.

That all of Israel was 'troubled' for Achan's sin should be explained according to the principle that even individual sins can have negative repercussions for a larger group. We see this principle illustrated again and again in Scripture, but we should still draw a difference between being punished for one's sins and suffering as a result of another's sins. The biblical principle that only the guilty are punished for their sins stands.

We must also keep in mind that the Gibeonites had entered into a covenant with Israel for their protection (Joshua 9:3-27). This covenant was made rashly by the Israelites, who did not realize that the Gibeonites had tricked them into thinking that they had come from a distant land. But God takes covenants and oaths very seriously, even those that are made foolishly (That is perhaps why Jesus cautioned people to avoid making oaths at all, and instead to simply agree or disagree to do something, Matthew 5:34-37). The reason why God was so displeased was that a covenant the Israelites made had been broken. The famine was his signal that David needed to make something right. But the famine should not be seen as punishing Israel, but rather as a side-effect or consequence of the sin of Saul and his sons. Again, no man is an island.

Given that the apparent examples of corporate responsibility are either limited in extent or involve complex historical trajectories in which it is far from obvious that those who are being punished are actually innocent, these should not outweigh the clear biblical evidence in the form of specific commandments that the innocent should not be punished for the guilty. If the two sets of texts appear to conflict, we should conclude, not that the principle of the proper meting out of punishment has to be qualified, but that in the cases where this principle seems to be ignored, we simply do not have all the information we need to verify that that principle was indeed upheld. We should simply trust that God always acts justly, and we saw reason for believing this despite the appearances in the story from 2 Samuel.

So when it comes to Jesus, we should not think that his suffering for sins means that the guilt for those sins was laid upon him. It could not, seeing that he was innocent of all sin and never consented to any sin either. God made Jesus to suffer for our sins, not as a punishment, but so that he could truly claim to be the One sinned against, so that his obedience could be made perfect and so that he could truly empathize with those who suffer and thus effectively intercede for them. There is no hint of Jesus being burdened with the guilt of our sins, only that he was burdened with the sins themselves, that he suffered their consequences.

3. Another possible worry is that this objection (that the innocent should not be punished for the guilty) simply trades in the problem of the punishment of the innocent for the suffering of the innocent. If God would be unjust to punish an innocent person, wouldn't he also be unjust by making him suffer, even if that suffering is not punishment?

But it is obvious that these two cases are not at all analogous. God allows the innocent to suffer for many good reasons: so that they can show their faith and obedience to Him (see Job or the suffering believers that Peter writes to), so that the wicked can fill up their cup of judgment by showing how fully they hate God and his anointed ones (or by bringing their wickedness to light in the first place), or so that God's power can be revealed in their suffering (for example, Paul's thorn in the flesh). The problem of God punishing an innocent person is a problem of justice: He would be unjust and going against his nature to do so. But the problem of God allowing the innocent to suffer is a problem of His goodness, IF we assume that God's goodness means that the innocent would never suffer from anything, and we never get this guarantee from Scripture (indeed, all who live Godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution). The two problems are not at all analogous.

Since it is crucial that one's view of the atonement be based on Scripture and not just abstract philosophical considerations, I've decided to blog through Norman McIlwain's book in which he lays out a substitutionary, but non-penal, model of the atonement. The heart of McIlwain's thesis is that the debt we owe to God is not death, but righteousness: we all owe God a perfectly righteous life, which debt however we cannot pay because of our sinful condition. So the debt that Jesus paid in our stead was the debt of righteousness: a life offered up to God in perfect obedience, even unto death. In this post I will summarize the Scriptural evidence discussed in Chapter 1 of his online book, The Biblical Revelation of the Cross, while adding some comments and additional evidence of my own.


McIlwain begins by pointing out how odd it is that while theologians have tended to see the cross as revealing the justice of God, in that Jesus bore the penalty for our sin, the New Testament authors tend to think of the cross as revealing instead the injustice of man. This is especially apparent in Luke-Acts. Luke has the centurion in charge of the crucifixion declare, "Certainly this man was innocent!" (Luke 23:47) In Peter's speeches in Acts, which most scholars would agree give the substance of early Christian proclamation, we find no hint that Jesus suffered the just penalty for anyone's sins, but what we do find stressed is that Jesus was "disowned" by His people and wrongfully executed in the place of a murderer (Acts 3:15). When Philip discusses Isaiah 53 with the Ethiopian eunuch, the following passage is emphasized:

He was led like a sheep to slaughter,
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In humiliation justice was taken from him,
Who can describe his posterity?
For his life was taken away from the earth. (Acts 8:32-33; Isaiah 53:7-8)

The injustice of Jesus' death is also stressed by Peter in his letter to persecuted believers: "For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly." (1 Peter 2:19-23) According to Peter, what was pleasing to God about Jesus' death was that he endured injustice without sinning in return, either by striking back or by lying to get out of it. Jesus held back, confident that God, as opposed to men, would render a just verdict. And indeed, God did overturn that verdict by raising Jesus from the dead and seating him at the right hand of God.

McIlwain argues that it would have been exceedingly unjust of God to punish an innocent man instead of the guilty. This principle is expressly stated many times in Scripture, most clearly in Proverbs: "The one who acquits the guilty and the one who condemns the innocent-both are an abomination to the Lord...It is terrible to punish a righteous person, and to flog honorable men is wrong." (17:15, 26) We see this principle dramatically illustrated in Exodus, when the Lord was furious with the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf. Moses goes up the mountain to intercede for the people: "Alas," he says, "this people has committed a very serious sin, and they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin…, but if not, wipe me out from your book that you have written." (Exodus 32:31-32) In solidarity with his people, Moses insists on being punished along with them, even though he himself had not committed the crime, perhaps hoping that God would spare the Israelites in exchange for his own punishment. But the Lord will have none of it: "Whoever has sinned against me-that person I will wipe out of my book." (32:33) This principle is given its clearest expression in Ezekiel 18. In exile, the people were complaining that they were suffering unjustly because of the sins of their ancestors (a proverb was apparently circulating: "The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth become numb," Ezekiel 18:2). In response, God makes it very clear that each person is accountable for his own sins: "The person who sins is the one who will die. A son will not suffer for his father’s iniquity, and a father will not suffer for his son’s iniquity; the righteous person will be judged according to his righteousness, and the wicked person according to his wickedness." (Ezekiel 18:20) God is clear that they have no right to complain that God is being unjust: they will live or die by their own conduct.

In light of the injustice of punishing an innocent person instead of the guilty, McIlwain suggests another way of understanding what Christ did for us:

Jesus gave His life for us as a perfect sacrifice, without sin. Yet, in His body He bore our sins—the sins of man. He was bruised, lacerated, torn and pierced. The sins of mankind were plainly visible in His flesh. He also bore the pain of man’s sins in His heart. He was burdened by those sins, but He was never the One responsible for them. The sins were the sins of mankind. Justice demands that the guilty must answer for their sins, not the innocent. How then are we set free from the penalty of death? It is through the offering Christ made of His life. This He gave willingly to God for us—as the perfect offering and covering for sin—sufficient for all who truly believe and repent.

McIlwain finds his hermeneutical key to what the New Testament authors understood as Jesus' sacrifice in Ephesians: "Therefore, be imitators of God as dearly loved children and live in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God." (5:1-2) Now it is customary to read that 'gave himself for us' as a reference to his death, but it is interesting that here in this passage it is connected to a life of love, not death. This understanding is further verified in two other passages that use the same or a similar phrase. Paul praises the Philippians for sending him sustenance in a time of need: "For I have received everything, and I have plenty. I have all I need because I received from Epaphroditus what you sent – a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, very pleasing to God." (Philippians 4:18) The acceptable sacrifice here is one of service. Also in Romans we have Paul urging the believers to "present your bodies as a sacrifice-alive, holy, and pleasing to God-which is your reasonable service." (Romans 12:1)

According to McIlwain, Jesus' entire life of self-sacrificial love for others in complete obedience to God was the sacrifice he offered. God was pleased with his offering, not because his wrath had been vented on a hapless victim, but because Jesus was completely righteous. God's wrath toward us because of our sin was turned aside, not because he saw Jesus' endurance of punishment and was satisfied, but because he saw the perfect life he lived in complete obedience, even to the point of dying an unjust death without striking back. God is placated not by punishment, but by righteousness, as is clear in the prophet Micah: "Will the Lord accept a thousand rams, or ten thousand streams of olive oil? Should I give him my firstborn child as payment for my rebellion, my offspring – my own flesh and blood – for my sin? He has told you, o man, what is good, and what the Lord really wants from you: He wants you to promote justice, and be faithful, and to live obediently before your God." (Micah 6:7-8) God is clear with regard to the payment he wants because of the Israelites' rebellion: to promote justice, be faithful, and live obediently.

That God is placated by righteousness is also clear from the story of Noah. After the flood Noah makes an offering of clean animals, and the Lord smells "the soothing aroma" and promises never again to the destroy the entire Earth (Genesis 8:21). What was so pleasing about this aroma? Rather than concluding that God, like the deities of the surrounding regions, actually got hungry and thought the sacrifice smelled tasty, we should rather interpret the soothing aroma, just as it was in the New Testament, as evidence that he found Noah's righteousness pleasing. Remember, Noah was "a godly man; he was blameless among his contemporaries. He walked with God." (Genesis 6:9) Thus we should not understand this offering as a sin-offering, but rather as an expression of Noah's faithfulness to God. And God was pleased with the offering.

(Addendum, 08/23/2010: We also have direct confirmation of this principle in Proverbs 16:6: "Through loyal love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, through fearing the Lord one avoids evil.")

Under this aspect we can understanding the significance of the OT sacrificial systems in a new light: the sacrifices were pleasing to God, not because they involved the slaughter (and hence punishment) of animals, but because they were done in obedience to the instructions that He had given. This is clear from the harsh punishments prescribed in case of deviation from these instructions: what God really wants is for the Israelites to follow them to the letter, thus showing their complete obedience and allegiance to Him. There is some evidence that very close to Jesus' time the rabbis were thinking along similar lines. A near contemporary of Jesus, Yohanan ben Zakkai, in commenting on the efficacy of the red heifer ritual described in Numbers 19 says "God has Decreed. A Statute I have ordained and an institution I have established and it is not permitted to transgress the Law." (Numbers Rabbah 19:8) In other words, it's nothing in the heifer itself that is particularly salvific: what is important is that the Israelites obey the Law.

McIlwain comments on the significance of the OT sacrifices for the sacrifice that Jesus made:

The sacrificial animals were required to be without spot or blemish—as a sign of purity, symbolizing the righteous life God demands of us. The blood of these animals was used for the ceremonial cleansing and sanctifying of the people and items used in worship (Ex.24:3-8; Heb.9:19-22). The blood was used to symbolically cover over past sins, ‘and without shedding of blood there is no remission’ (Heb.9:22, NKJ). However, without sincere and earnest repentance, the sacrifices were meaningless and unacceptable: ‘Bring no more futile sacrifices … I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting’ (Is.1:13, NKJ, cf.1:10-15). ‘Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices sweet to Me’ (Jer.6:20, NKJ). What mattered to God was a change of heart: ‘Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit’ (Ezek.18:31, NKJ).

The sacrifices, offered as God intended, allowed the people a ritual demonstration of their seriousness before God. The offering of sacrifices acted as an expression of this desire for purity. Nevertheless, sacrifices had to be offered year by year, indicating that the problem of sin remained and could not be dealt with through the Mosaic law. The sacrifices foreshadowed the One who would deliver mankind from his sins. Now, by the one sacrifice of Himself, Jesus has prevailed for our complete forgiveness and justification: ‘Because by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’ (Heb.10:14, NIV)

McIlwain stresses that forgiveness is not the problem when it comes to dealing with human sin:

Forgiveness is not dependent on the payment of a penalty or debt. With sins, there is condemnation, but with forgiveness, the condemnation for those sins is removed. When we truly repent and seek forgiveness, we are asking God to forgive our past sins. However, the forgiveness of past sins does not deal with our unrighteous spiritual condition—the fact that we will sin again and again, for a whole variety of reasons, sometimes in ignorance, sometimes unintentionally. God demands that we offer Him righteous lives. This is what we owe Him—this is what we cannot give of ourselves, because of our sinfulness. How then can we stand righteous before Him? It is through the righteousness of Christ. His sacrifice avails for all who repent and call upon Jesus as Saviour and Lord.
McIlwain explains further how it is that Jesus' offering of his life to God is efficacious for our salvation:

Jesus is the only one who made a pure and perfect sacrifice of His life—when He died for our sakes on the cross. This was the debt He paid on our behalf. It was not the penalty of death, He paid the debt of righteousness—the gift to God of a righteous life, which is our due. Christ’s righteousness is our covering if we are united in Him. The Father accepts us along with His Son. He has paid our due offering that we may be covered by His life and judged righteous. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom.8:1, NKJ). His righteous life is imputed to us who look to Him in the oneness of the Spirit. It is Jesus who is ‘THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS’ (Jer.23:6). Of ourselves, we can never be righteous. It is only through faith in Christ.
On this reading, we are saved from God's wrath, and Christ's blood covers our sins, not because that blood is evidence that the punishment for sin has been paid, but rather it is evidence of the perfect sacrifice of a righteous life. God looks at those of us who trust in Jesus and sees nothing but Jesus' own righteousness, which is pleasing to Him.

But why was it necessary for Christ to suffer for our sins? One reason that Hebrews gives is that it was necessary in order for Jesus to be able to sympathize with those who suffer, and thus to be able to effectively intercede for them (Hebrews 2:10). We also read that the suffering was necessary in order for Jesus to learn obedience (Hebrews 5:8). We should not of course read this as indicating that Jesus was rebellious and needed to be punished and brought back in line, but rather that true obedience can only be demonstrated in hardship. Anyone can be obedient when it doesn't cost them anything, but perfect obedience is demonstrated when one endures the most intense suffering while remaining faithful. This is the promise the martyrs were given in Revelation: "Remain faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown that is life itself." (Revelation 2:10) Of course the martyrs' obedience could not have brought about life for everyone, because they themselves were only righteous under the covering of Christ's righteousness. But when Jesus was faithful unto death, he not only provided a model for his followers but he secured a crown of life for himself and for everyone who believes in him.

McIlwain also gives another reason for Jesus' suffering, and ultimately for his incarnation:

Sin cuts like a two-edged sword against man and God. Yet God’s nature is different. In essence, He is Spirit, while man is flesh and blood. When we sin, we sin against both the divine nature of God and the human nature of man...How, then, can God – who is Spirit and divine in nature – forgive that aspect of sin that is not against Himself, but against human nature? – It is because of the incarnation of the Word. Sometimes we speak of sins, in extreme cases, as ‘inhuman’ – as crimes against humanity. However, all sin is essentially againsthumanity – against what is human and intrinsically good in our nature, as God created us. Being Spirit, therefore, God took on human nature and so became able to forgive man all sin. He accepted upon Himself the sins of the world, as the Head of humanity, and now takes them away through the forgiveness He now offers. Moreover, He could not have come cocooned as One protected from the pain and anguish caused by sin. That would not have allowed Him to forgive sins as One truly sinned against. He had to endure the suffering of sin against His human person as the One delivered up to die as a result of those sins – sins that were representative of all the sins of all humanity throughout all the ages. Only by accepting the ultimate sacrifice unto death could God forgive and absolve repentant man of all guilt and sin. Through the incarnation, sacrifice and death of Jesus Christ, the way for our atonement was opened.
So to sum up: the sacrifice Christ offered to God on our behalf was a life in complete obedience to God, even to the point of death (Paul stresses that it was the obedience of Christ, not his suffering, that made many righteous; Romans 5:19). God's wrath is placated, not by punishment, but by righteousness: the life Christ lived on our behalf was received as a fragrant offering which covers up our sins: God no longer sees them, he only sees Christ's righteousness. Jesus suffered and died because of our injustice. We thought that God had stricken and afflicted him, but he was really suffering because of our sins. He himself was innocent. The suffering and death were necessary so that Christ could perfect his obedience (because true obedience will endure anything, even death) and be an effective advocate for those who suffer. Also, as we will see in the next post, Christ had to die in order to destroy the power of death and to remove its sting (see the analogy with the healthy person infecting himself with a deadly disease in the previous post).

Securing forgiveness, i.e. canceling the penalty for past sins, was not the problem. The problem was securing our righteousness, i.e. the complete destruction of our sin nature and the satisfaction of the debt of a perfect life that we owe to God.

I have a longer post in preparation with some thoughts on the theory of retributive punishment, but I wanted to share what I think is a helpful word picture (pun intended!) derived from St. Athanasius' classic On the Incarnation of the Word that can help understand why it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and die, without that suffering and death being penal, i.e. a punishment inflicted upon him.


According to Athanasius, the ultimate goal of the incarnation of the Word was to purge human nature of the corruption of sin and revive it. But human nature could not be cleansed of corruption from the outside: renewal had to take place from within. The only being with the kind of life which could renew the life of the human creature was the Word. Thus the Word took on a body and allowed that body to suffer all the consequences of sin, including death, so that the Life of the Word could then neutralize and destroy them entirely.

A helpful way to think about Athanasius' argument is in disease terms. Imagine a healthy person deliberately exposing himself to a deadly disease, knowing that he has the vitality and strength to neutralize it and thus produce an antidote. To do so the person has to actually suffer from the disease. It is painful for the body to go through the systems as the immune system furiously develops the antidote (it goes without saying this analogy should not be pressed too far!), but ultimately the disease is completely neutralized, the person springs back to health and can now 'infect' others with the antidote.

Jesus suffered death so that he could destroy it and infect us with life. He is truly the Great Physician.

"I do not need to take a bull from your household

or goats from your sheepfolds.

For every wild animal in the forest belongs to me,

as well as the cattle that graze on a thousand hills.

I keep track of every bird in the hills,

and the insects of the field are mine.

Even if I were hungry, I would not tell you,

for the world and all it contains belong to me.

Do I eat the flesh of bulls?

Do I drink the blood of goats?

Present to God a thank-offering!

Repay your vows to the sovereign One!

Pray to me when you are in trouble!

I will deliver you, and you will honor me!”

(Psalm 50:9-15 NET)


"The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God." (Psalm 51:17 NLT)


I have two main reservations about the traditional penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. The first is that it seems to clearly contradict a fundamental principle of biblical justice, that the only one who can be justly punished for wrongdoing is the wrongdoer himself. The second is that penal substitution seems to misread the meaning of the sacrificial practices which were the type for Christ's perfect sacrifice. It is the second reservation I want to develop in this post.


To ask after the meaning of sacrifice is to ask what it is for: what does it do for the person who offers it, or for the deity that receives it?


If the penal substitutionary theory is correct, the answer would go something like this: when people violate God's commandments whether in deed or in thought, they incur a punishment which they must suffer. That punishment must be inflicted on something, otherwise justice is not done. So God in his mercy decreed that He would demand the life of an innocent sacrificial animal instead of the life of the offender. So on this view, what is atoning about the sacrifice is the killing itself, which is the punishment which normally would have attached itself to the offender (the wages of sin is death), but is instead attached to an innocent animal.


The problem with this idea is that nowhere in the Bible is this view suggested for the significance of any sacrifice (if anyone knows of a passage where sacrifice does take this meaning, please let me know).


We can start with the very first recorded sacrifices, those of Abel and Cain. The Bible says that "At the designated time Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground for an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought some of the firstborn of his flock-even of the fattest of them. And the Lord was pleased with Abel and his offering, but with Cain and his offering the Lord was not pleased." (Genesis 4:3-5) It seems clear why the Lord preferred one offering over the other: whereas Cain only brought 'some of the fruit of the ground', Abel brought 'some of the firstborn of his flock, even of the fattest of them'. There is a clear difference in the value or costliness of what was offered to the giver: Cain could easily afford to spare a few vegetables for a sacrifice, whereas for Abel to give up some of his fattest, healthiest animals was a significantly costlier gesture to him personally. Notice also that the difference in quality between the two sacrifices was not that the one involved killing or punishment and the other didn't. It's all about the value of what was offered to giver. And it is also not a sacrifice of atonement for sins: it is simply an offering, a worshipper giving up something of value to God in order to show thanks and appreciation.


We see this kind of sacrifice again in the famous 'Akedah' story of Genesis 22. There is no indication that Abraham had done something wrong for which the death of Isaac would atone. No, the point of the sacrifice was for God to see if Abraham loved God so much that he would be willing to give up that which was most precious to him, his beloved son, the son of the promise. The point of this kind of offering (the 'burnt offering') was not to atone for wrongdoing, but to show one's acknowledgment of the debt of gratitude one owed to God by giving up a valued possession. This sentiment is reinforced in 2 Samuel 24, the famous incident when David went and bought a threshing floor from a landowner in order to offer burnt offerings. The landowner insisted on giving him both the floor and the burnt offerings, but David in turn insisted on paying the full price, saying "I will not offer to the Lord my God sacrifices that cost me nothing." (2 Samuel 24:24)


So we see that generally in the Bible what matters most about a sacrifice is not the killing itself but the value of that which is given up. Sacrifice is a ritual that allows a person to demonstrate before God and man that he is very serious about wanting to give God his due, and to acknowledge his absolute dependence on God for everything he has.


But what about those atoning sacrifices in Leviticus, which do involve the slaughtering of animals after laying one's hands forcefully upon the sacrifice as a gesture of identification with it? Doesn't the necessity of slaughter indicate that here indeed we have penal substitution, the infliction upon an innocent animal the punishment which should rightly have befallen the worshipper?


Actually, no. In Leviticus 17 we read that what is actually atoning about the whole process is not the killing itself, but the blood of the sacrificial animal: "for the life of every living thing is in the blood. So I myself have assigned it to you on the altar to make atonement for your lives, for the blood makes atonement by means of the life." (Leviticus 17:11) Here we have a very clear statement that the blood is atoning, not because it represents the just punishment suffered for sin, but because it carries the life of that which was offered. What the worshipper is really offering here is life itself.


Recall from my previous post that what we properly owe to God, our sacrifice, is nothing less than a life lived in perfect obedience to Him, a life of perfect righteousness. That is the only way we can discharge our obligation to God, stand justified before Him and claim life and blessings from Him. The problem, however, is that in our sinful state we cannot give this perfect offering. No matter how sincere or strenuous our efforts, we find it impossible to fully and perfectly obey God in thought and deed. As such, we find ourselves in danger of having to forfeit the life God gave us. But God does not want to extract this penalty from us. He does not want to take away our life, so that we would perish. So in his mercy, he gives us a way to 'redeem' our life by offering up the life of a spotless substitute.


Now here we must be careful to take the symbolic nature of this act seriously. It is not as if the Israelites believed that the blood was like a currency for buying off God's wrath. There is no indication that God consumes blood (see the opening quotation) or that he has any need of it. Its value in God's eyes is that it symbolizes the worshipper's sincere repentance and acknowledgement of what he owes to God. Precisely because blood is such a costly, precious substance, spilling it before God indicates that there is nothing the worshipper would withhold from God, just as Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac showed that there was nothing Abraham would not withhold, even his beloved son. Also, that the blood comes from a spotless sacrifice symbolizes the worshipper's wish to offer God, not just a life, but a perfect and blameless life. The spotlessness of the sacrifice does NOT however mean that the sacrifice is an 'innocent' substitute which bears the punishment of the sinner. There is no sense in which animals are innocent or guilty, because they do not sin. And like I said earlier, the significance of the sacrifice is not the killing itself as representing punishment, but the value of what is offered.


If we read the texts carefully we will see that even in the cases where sacrifices are offered with the hope of appeasing God's wrath (of which the above story of David is one example), the value of the sacrifice is showing to God that one really has the requisite repentant attitude necessary for God to grant mercy and forgiveness. For the ancient Israelites it was not enough just to feel really sorry on the inside, but go on in everyday life showing no indication of having repented of anything. No, repentance had to be enacted, before God and before the assembly, through the offering of sacrifices. Even in the parable of the self-righteous Pharisee and the tax collector, the latter's repentance was enacted through the beating of his chest and keeping his head lowered towards the ground. What really matters to God, the real sacrifice he desires of sinners, is a broken and repentant heart. And when God responds to genuine repentance, he wipes out their transgressions completely. He doesn't say, "Well yeah, I'd like to forgive you, but first you gotta pay up." No, when God blots out sins he erases them from his books entirely and no one will ever have to pay the punishment due for those sins.


Now when Jesus came along, he did not offer a sacrifice of repentance, because he didn't need to, having never sinned. What he did was live his whole life in perfect obedience to God, which obviates the need for sacrifices. We see in Jesus that the spilling of the blood under the Old Covenant represented the offering of life to God. Of course Jesus actually did shed his blood upon the cross, but I think that when the NT authors talk of Jesus' blood cleansing us from sin they are referring to the way his entire self-sacrificial life, even to the point of death, was an offering pleasing and acceptable to God, so that God counts our obligation to offer him a sinless life discharged. As I explained in the last post, Jesus' suffering and death had a different role to play in the divine economy of salvation. Insofar as one of the barriers to our reconciliation with God was that we cannot discharge our debt of a perfect life to God, that barrier crumbled in the face of Jesus' life of perfect obedience.

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