Holy Week is an invitation to reflect on the cross. It is more than this, no doubt, but it is not less than this.
Within the Western Evangelical tradition we cannot talk about the cross without talking about Penal Substitutionary atonement. This, of course, is the belief that all of humanity stands condemned because of Adam’s sin and is therefore worthy of nothing less than God’s wrath. Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice in our stead in order to appease the wrath of God so that we can be let off scotch free and enjoy life with God eternally.
It seems that this theory of atonement has become, for many, synonymous with the gospel itself. The gospel is that Jesus “died in our place and for our sins.”
But what does it mean that Jesus “died for our sins”?
If we appeal to Penal Substitution then the answer is clear: to say that Jesus died for our sins is to say that he took the punishment that we deserved upon himself. In this sense our sins are paid for.
An important question must be asked, though: who decided that Jesus had to die in order to appease the wrath of an angry God?
Is God bound by some sort of system of justice that requires blood for sin? If so, it would seem that this system of justice is more ultimate than God is for even he, the Creator of all, must bow to its requirements. This is problematic.
I’ve also found it interesting to explore the various theories of atonement from a narrative perspective. Every narrative has a protagonist and an antagonist. Take the Christus Victor theory for example. In this narrative, humanity is enslaved to the Devil (the antagonist) and in response God (the protagonist) sends his son Jesus (a co-protagonist) in order to rescue us from the dominion of Satan. This is an oversimplification but you get the point.
Compare that with the Penal Substitutionary view:
Jesus, of course, remains the protagonist in the story. The interesting thing, however, is that he rescues us from…
Jesus rescues us from God and his wrath.
Any narrative that casts God as the main antagonist should, in my humble opinion, be thoroughly rejected for reasons that are too obvious to state.
It must be made clear that there are other options when it comes to understanding the atonement. If you’re interested I’ll appeal to emergent blogger/author Tony Jones who has been offering up bite sized summaries of alternative atonement theories every Wednesday during Lent on his blog.