Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reconcile This.

I may have stumbled upon a core reason as to another reason why the penal substitution atonement theory bothers me.

We say that God is just. The Bible has many sections where God's justice is praised, is sought out, and is seen as a wonderful thing.

We know what justice is. If we say that the society is just, we mean that is fair, it is equal, it doesn't oppress its people or exploit them. It's a wonderful place to live in.

If someone breaks a law, and we say that they must face justice, we mean that they must be held accountable for their actions. That person, and not anyone else.

If we look in a dictionary, "just" means as follows:

a: having a basis in or conforming to fact or reason : reasonable -- a just but not a generous decision -- : faithful to an original c: conforming to a standard of correctness : proper -- just proportions --
2 a (1): acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good : righteous -- a just war -- (2): being what is merited : deserved -- a just punishment -- b: legally correct : lawful -- just title to an estate --

However, we also have an idea that Jesus took our punishment in our place, thus satisfying God's justice. Therefore, if someone has wronged you, and then repented to God, Jesus has taken their punishment, and satisfied the requirements of justice.

Yet justice demands that the person who did the action is the one held responsible for the action. If Jesus takes on the responsibility for the outcome of the action ... can we still call this situation just?

Can we even still call God just? If our society suddenly changed the idea of justice to be that an innocent person could take the place of a guilty person, there'd be an uproar. Especially from those who are the victims, and the uproar would be because such a change would not be just.

Can saying "God is just" hold any meaning if an innocent man is punished in our place? Even if the innocent man offered to take the punishment, willingly offered with his whole heart, shouldn't the very fact that God is just prevent God from accepting such an offer in the first place?

If Jesus accepting the punishment completes God's justice, then it seems justice is no longer about what is right or what is fair, but justice becomes all about a punishment occurring no matter what. Doesn't this mean that the situation is no longer moral?

If the morality of the situation is violated -- the innocent in the place of the guilty -- then can we still have justice? Or does it just become about retribution and revenge?

14 comments:

Luke said...

the book Proverb of Ashes would be right up your alley!

i never got the "God kills God to appease God" logic of the blood atonement doctrine... just seems... silly! down right silly.

Mystical Seeker said...

That's an interesting point, and I hadn't really thought of it that way before. You're right--justice in the sense of penal punishment requires that the person committing the crime is the one who undergoes the punishment. Imagine in a court of law if a murderer were able to get off scot free by offering someone else up to serve time in his place.

No matter how you look at it, the whole notion of Christ's substitutionary atonement is bizarre from the standpoint of justice. As I've mentioned before, the punishment is way out of proportion to the crime to begin with--or the idea that everyone suffers the same punishment no matter how little the crime is completely outside the bounds of the normal human concept of justice.

OneSmallStep said...

Luke,

**i never got the "God kills God to appease God" logic of the blood atonement doctrine... just seems... silly! down right silly.**

Especially if death is supposed to be the last great enemy. God appeases Himself through the last great enemy?

Mystical,

This blog post occured to me yesterday, when I was dialoguing/debating with someone else, and then it clicked for me -- maybe this is a core reason as to why I find this atonement theory lacking justice.

**or the idea that everyone suffers the same punishment no matter how little the crime is completely outside the bounds of the normal human concept of justice.**

Especially because our society could not survive that way at all. No society could. You'd be sent to the execution chair for a harsh word, and sent there for mass murders. There are levels between the two.

The other thing I'm wondering ... accountability for our actions is usually accompanied by growth. We face the consequences for what we've done, we analyze, and we try and do better the next time. We've learned something about ourselves, and hopefully it'll help us the next time.

Can we face such growth if someone else takes that accountability?

Pastor Bob said...

Just a thought:

Do you think the American idea/tradition of individualism has something to do with your evaluation of this particular part of the New Testament tradition? In the time of the Roman empire, and through much of history people saw themselves primarily as part of the group (family, village, tribe) rather than as individuals.

This does not deal with the justice question directly but it may deal with one in the community as a representation of all.

OneSmallStep said...

Pastor Bob,

When you ask "Do you think the American idea/tradition of individualism has something to do with your evaluation of this particular part of the New Testament tradition?"

Do you mean this in the sense that the American sense of individualism plays into the concept of justice? Such as our idea of those who do the actions are the same ones held accountable?

I'm not sure if it would factor in to my evaluation, because my understanding is that the penal atonement theory is focused on the individuals -- it's the pentaly that must be paid for individual sins. And that the penal substituion theory was really hammered out after the Reformation, which was something that occured in the Western world, and focused on individuals, as well. So even the whole atonement theory didn't arise out of a group-thought.

Joe said...

Nope, that is the main reason I think penal substitutionary atonement is rubbish.

I've often heard this story given of a judge in a court of law that sentences a friend then pays off the debt. I'm sure others have heard it too.

But my reaction is that isn't justice, it is corruption. If someone is killed for a crime someone else commits, that is not any kind of justice we would accept (and I contend that God's justice is rather higher than ours is, yet we seem to blindly accept this oxymoron).

I think the only logical explanation is that Christ's death had nothing to do with justification. Unpopular, but there we are.

Pastor Bob said...

First allow me to point out that substitutionary atonement is only one theory of justification. It is found in the Bible but along with other theories. However the Biblical theory is a community view, not an individual view. Paul speaks of the first Adam and the second Adam. Both represent communities.

Second a more prominent theory in the Bible is that of redemption. Redemption theory grows out of the obligation of a relative to redeem a poor relative from slavery or to redeem that relative's land. Again the community has responsibility for the individual.

Substitutionary atonement as a theory about individuals really grows during the late 1700's and early 1800's in America. Scholars in that time produced the same arguments related in this article. Thus we saw rejection of original sin as well as substitutionary atonement. Further the emphasis on individual decision making for salvation extended the popularity of the doctrine for individuals.wgat

OneSmallStep said...

Joe,

**I've often heard this story given of a judge in a court of law that sentences a friend then pays off the debt. I'm sure others have heard it too.**

I've heard this story, too. ANd my reaction is the same as yours, because if the judge accepts this trade, then the judge is making a mockery of his position, and what he's supposed to enforce.

Pastor Bob,

**First allow me to point out that substitutionary atonement is only one theory of justification.**

Okay, but there's the substition atonement, and then there's the penal substition atonement, which really narrows the basic sbustition atonement idea. Substition is that Christ suffers for us, and the penal substition is that Christ is punished in our place. And it's the latter view that I find violating the concept of justice, and it's that same view that really came into play with the Reformed tradition, which also focused on the individuals. So I'm not sure if we're talking about the same thing. I'm focusing on the punishment aspect, and Jesus satisfying God's justice which required the punishment of sinners. However, you do mention that substition theory in relation to the 1700s, so are you refering the penal substition there?

**Paul speaks of the first Adam and the second Adam. Both represent communities. **
I read this verse as Paul contrasting two individuals -- the first Adam made of dust, the second a life-giving spirit and so forth. I do see where Paul is saying that there are those like the man of dust, and those like the man of heaven. But he's using the two individuals to say what groups of people are like. So I would see a difference between saying that the man of dust represents a community, compared to pointing to an individual to get an idea of what the communitity is like.

**Redemption theory grows out of the obligation of a relative to redeem a poor relative from slavery or to redeem that relative's land. Again the community has responsibility for the individual.**

All right -- so redemption in the sense of freeing from capitivity by payment of ransom? This would call into question, though, who the ransom is being paid to. If Jesus is freeing us from captivity, then sin is what holds us captive, and so Jesus is paying the ransom to evil? Yet the idea is that Jesus pays the debt owed to God, except God isn't the one who holds us in captivity to sin (And if I'm recalling correctly, this is why the Ransom theory was modified, since people felt that if Satan had the the debt owed to him, that dismissed God, in a way).

Yael said...

OSS,
As so often happens, you point out things that I also wrestled with at one time. Obviously you know the conclusions I reached as a result so usually I don't comment, but....

The discussion has become one of individual vs communal, but I would like to take it back one step just to the act of human sacrifice.

One of several other justice things that always used to bother me with this teaching is in Tanakh we were taken to task how many times for the abomination of offering our children as sacrifices? After the Temple was destroyed, however, we finally got over idolatry. Never again was this a problem for us.

So....after ragging on us for centuries and after finally teaching us a permanent lesson, this was the time for God to get into the sacrificing humans act?

Suppose when my kids were little they had problems now and then with stealing candy from stores. I tried to reason with them, I warned them not to do it anymore, but they just couldn't stop. Finally I punished them quite severely for their stealing; my kids learned the seriousness of their wrong-doing and and never again was stealing a problem for them. So, my kids grow into teenagers and we're in the grocery store one day picking up a few things only to realize we have no money on us. Because my kids are really hungry should I now just steal for them rather than putting back the food until we can come back with money? Would anyone consider this some wonderful thing for me to do, teach my kids one way and then turn around and blatantly go against the very thing I worked so hard to teach them? Is that justice?

I look at the human sacrifice thing the same. If it's wrong for us to sacrifice humans, and Tanakh seems really clear on that point, then it's just as wrong for God to do so as well. I don't see how by any stretch of the imagination a god who teaches us to 'do as I say but not as I do' can be called just.

OneSmallStep said...

Yael,

**Would anyone consider this some wonderful thing for me to do, teach my kids one way and then turn around and blatantly go against the very thing I worked so hard to teach them? Is that justice?**

I understand what you mean. For me, what it comes down to is if God commands people to not do a certain thing because it is wrong or immoral, then by that very command, God has shown us that He is incapable of doing that very thing, since God cannot do something that is immoral (assuming the character of one's God cannot do an evil act).

The other thing thta always makes me pause about God needing a blood sacrifice is the mental image. I believe there's a scene in 'Carrie' where the character is covered in pig's blood as a practical joke. Whenever someone says that they are cleansed in the blood of Jesus, I picture that scene from 'Carrie.' Or just picture the person covered in blood, and God smiling upon that person in approval.

It's not a nice or pleasant picture. It's not even a comforting picture. If none of us were raised with that Christian idea, and then it suddenly "popped" into existence, I think it would repel a lot more people than it actually does. If anything, the idea of blood has almost become sanitized because of the image of purity/salvation it now conveys. What I see it saying is that the God one worships can only look upon a person in approval so long as that person is drenched in blood.

Yael said...

I agree with you about the blood image. Even worse the Catholic view of the wine turning into blood and then priests drinking the stuff. No thanks.

Say, I was wondering if you would be willing to help me out with a comparison I'm working on. I need someone to point out any holes in my logic and give input on what could improve this comparison, if there's any merit to it, if it's totally invalid, etc. I think you're just the person who could give me that kind of feedback since you can stand back and look at things logically.

The post is on a blog of mine that I've opened for your viewing but not for general viewing. (Don't want you to think I'm trying to direct traffic my way nor do I want to get sucked in to blogging again!) If you'd be willing to read the post, which isn't long, and comment, I'd appreciate it.

mysteryofiniquity said...

Pastor Bob,

Really? I honestly did not know that about the timeframe of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. I'm not sure why I didn't with all the reading I've done, but I assumed it was an old doctrine. Thank you for bringing that tidbit to light.

Great thoughts as always, OSS!

John T. said...

I have this sense that the Jesus story is to help comfort us in regards to what happens to us after our physical death. Kind of like hes saying dont worry everything will be ok, I will take care of it. I dont believe it was meant to have us not experience consequence for our actions, in fact if we do continue in spirit form I believe the consequences from our actions, now, will follow us. The format seems quite clear to me. You reap what you sow, or what goes around comes around. Thats why I know I will be learning stuff for a long long time ;)

OneSmallStep said...

Yael,

I tried looking at the post, but it told me I had to sign on. However, could you e-mail me the post instead? Even if you give me access, I'll have to try and read the post thorugh this comment window, and there won't be enough room to see everything.

E-mail me at windravenus@yahoo.com

Moi,

Thanks!

John T,

I agree -- I think that's why Paul specifically mentions that the last enemy is death, rather than Satan/hell.