Posts Tagged ‘Abelard’

The Fuzzy Math of Penal Substitution

September 21st, 2009 15 comments

One of the hallmarks of evangelical theology is the concept of penal substitution.  Basically this is a form of substitutionary atonement theory which states Jesus died on the cross in place of sinners in order to satisfy the penalty of their sin.  In other words, the death of Christ is substituted for the punishment sinners should receive (which is generally understood to be “death” and separation from God.)  Christ takes our punishment so we can be forgiven.  When you hear a pastor say “Christ died for my/your sins” what you are hearing is an articulation of substitutionary atonement.

Crucifixion, D. Velázque, 17th c.

Crucifixion, D. Velázque, 17th c.

This idea of atonement has origins going back to the early church fathers, but its formal outline is generally attributed to the 11th century monk Anselm of Canterbury who preferred to talk of “satisfaction” rather than of “substitution”  (Christ’s death was a satisfactory sacrifice for our sins rather than a substitution for the penalties of our sins).  It was further developed and brought to wide spread acceptance by John Calvin and the reformers.  It should be noted that while penal substitution is certainly favored by evangelical (especially reformed) Christians/churches/theologians, it is not the only theory of atonement. Two of the other major atonement theories are: Moral influence (Christ’s death show perfect obedience and love), and Ransom / Christus Victor (Christ was the ransom for humanity’s debt to Satan.)   Other theories often combine / tweak concepts found in these approaches.

Penal substitution is based on a few premises.

  • God requires punishment for our sins to be forgiven.  (If you go with Anselm’s satisfaction concept, you would say God requires sacrifice for our sins to be forgiven).
  • The death of Christ covers the punishment / sacrifice for all sinners.

It is with this second point that things get tricky.  First, we must ask, “who is covered by this.”  Those in the reformed camp will say it is only for the elect — that is, those whom God has predestined to be saved.  Those in the free will camp will say it available for all, but only effective for those who trust in Jesus.  Finally, those in the universalist camp will say all people are covered regardless of status.   When we begin to ask who is covered by the sacrificial act of the cross, we begin to get into the fuzzy math of substitutionary atonement theory.

This leads me to a question I have pondered for years and have yet to hear a satisfactory answer:

How can the death of one person be the acceptable substitute for the sins of all humanity?

Let’s walk through the court room imagery upon which this theory is based.  So I die and stand before my creator.  God says to me, “It looks like you have sinned and thus you must be punished.”  At that point Jesus comes in and says, “I don’t want him to be punished, since I have lived a sinless life, let me stand in his place.”  Jesus is then led to the cross and crucified.

Okay, that works out great, until the next sinner comes before the throne of judgment.  Presumably Jesus is allowed to stand in my place because he lived a sin free life and is the only person in the history of the world who does not deserve punishment / judgment for sin.  His life for mine – its a fair trade.  But now that Jesus’ perfect life has been traded for my life, what is left to be traded (substituted)?

The problems don’t stop there.  If we are truly talking about the substitution of a penalty, we must examine the trade closer.   In the way this theory is generally taught, we avoid damnation (judgment) because Christ voluntarily died on the cross.  But, we must admit this is not a fair trade.  Christ experienced physical death that lasted 3 days.  Sinners on the other hand would experience eternal damnation (in addition to physical death) if it was not for the work of Christ.  Again… this does not seem to be a fair trade.

So at the end of the day, the equation looks like this:

3 Days of physical death by sinless man = eternal damnation for countless people and their lifetimes of sin

I am sorry, but that math just doesn’t work out.

The books are obviously being cooked in some way.  I have heard people claim that this equation still works because it was not just a man who died, but it was God himself.  That seems logical, but then at the end of the day we still run into problems.  How can it be a trade if God in fact did not die and did not experience damnation.  The need for judgment still has not been satisfied.  And, if we assume that this equation meets God’s standards so God can still be just, we must ask why it had to happen at all.  If God can determine what meets the standards of a fair trade, it can be assumed that he could also waive the need for a penalty.

Now lets get back to another question: who is covered by this act?  Even if somehow the math works out, and the death of one god-man can cover infinite sinful lives, then why wouldn’t this lead to universal salvation?  Why must people individually accept this sacrifice?  If it has the power to cover the sins of all, then why would it not be extended to all, especially if we believe God desires none to perish. (There are certainly some people who think that God does in fact desire some to perish, but that is an entirely different conversation into the nature of a loving God.)

The problem is not alleviated if you take Anselm’s view of satisfaction over substitution.  It does answer a few more questions because the Old Testament does teach of a sacrafice that covers an entire group of people (i.e. on the Day of Atonement)  but at the end of the day you run into the same problems concerning who is covered by this act (along with some new problems: Does God allow for, and indeed propagate, human sacrifice?).

I will be the first to admit, these are not easy questions and I do not profess to have the answers.  The things we are dealing with here are of the utmost theological importance.  We are talking about the very nature of Christ, his mission, and its effect on our relationship with God.  When we talk about atonement, we are talking about how God interacts with and responds to humanity and vice versa.  This is no minor matter.

But at the same time, I fear we have all to often assumed the only orthodox understanding of atonement is that of penal substitution without first examining the workings of such a theory.  Its not that I reject this approach, its that I don’t understand it.  This post is a sincere effort to work through my questions and I invite all my friends who take this approach to help me understand it.


10 People

July 15th, 2009 No comments

We continue with day 2 of our 10 lists on 10 days.  Today, Beth and I have listed the 10 people we would most like to sit and have coffee with.  Of course the consumption of coffee is optional — surely it would make more sense to share a beer with a few of these folks, and others, I would rather talk with as we hiked through nature.  As always, these are in no particular order.

  1. Martin Luther King Jr. — Surely no surprise here.  After all, my daughter Mikayla Lillian is named after this civil rights leader.  King is best known for his role in fighting for equal rights for minorities.  However, he was also a passionate pacifist.  He was as opposed to the Vietnam War as he was Jim Crow laws.  I would want to share a drink with him to ask him what issues he saw as most pressing?  Would he concentration on gay rights?  Would he address war and torture?  Would he shift his attention to international issues?For me, MLK embodies the concept of the prophetic imagination (a concept we will explore in a later list).  I still cannot hear his I Have a Dream speech without tearing up.
  2. Desmond Tutu – Since we are talking about baby names, I must mention Desmond Tutu.  If our firstborn had been a male, I was advocating for the name Desmond.  Originally we were going to go with Douglas (my middle name), but I realized I would prefer my child to emulate him than me.  Tutu was instrumental in ending apartheid and symbolizes for me how a pastor can lead social change in the name of Christ.  His work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is awe-inspiring.  I want to know from him, how we can apply these concepts to our daily societal fissures.
  3. Bono – I wouldn’t have a string of questions for the lead singer of U2 like I would with many of the others, but in terms of having a good time, hanging out, discussing the ebbs and flows of life, I would think Bono would be the man.  Plus, his lyrics are so deep and harmonize the secular and the sacred.
  4. Peter Abelard – Perhaps the most obscure on my list.  Abelard was a tormented theologians in the 12th century (read about him here).  Theologically he is best known for going toe to toe with Anselm over atonement theory.  Abelard advocated for a Moral influence understanding over a substitutionary understanding.  He was quite eccentric and misunderstood.  Here is a paper I have written on him.
  5. Henry David Thoreau – I love his unfiltered commentary on life and society.  In addition to his emphasis on self reflection and the awe of creation, he is always honest with his understanding of faith.  I also have been influenced by his thoughts on civil disobedience.
  6. Stephen Hawkins – I have been fascinated by theoretical physics since I was in Middle School.  It is only a short jump from physics to philosophy and then to theology.  Hawkins not only provides an entryway into this crazy world, but the way he has approached life’s struggles epitomizes focus and direction.  As you will see in susequent posts, I am convinced quantum physics provides insights into truth.  Here is an approachable clip that will force you to reexamine your understanding of the world.  (Not Hawkins, but he works in the same areas.)
  7. John Howard Yoder – deep down I am a Mennonite, I just have not admitted it yet (well except to Brett).  I have learned more from other theologians, but I have yet to find a person who such consistency in their life, faith, theology and philosophy.  Politics of Jesus should be required reading for… well… everyone.
  8. N.T. Wright – There is not a simple person who has been more influencial in shaping my theology and understanding of the world and scripture than Bishop N.T. Wright.  I have listened to so many of his lectures I can hear him speak when I read his books.  I find so many of the concepts I regularly explain and rely on come from Wright.  I doubt I could keep up with him, but I would love to drink from the fire hydrant of his knowledge.  Plus, he has a that super cool British accent.  Here is a great resource for other lovers of his work.
  9. The Tank Man – Bravery is not something that is planned.  It is not something that is sought out.  It is something that occurs when we stand up for what is just.  I am fascinated by the story of the Tank Man – the young man who stopped a whole line of Chinese tanks through a simply act of resistence.  There are a couple reason he makes my list.  First… I want to know who this person is (to this day, it unknown).  But more importantly, I am drawn to this person because they were able to change the world with simple acts without demanding fame or recognition.
  10. Jesus – rounding out my list is the God-Man Jesus Christ himself.  I almost didn’t list Jesus.  That is not because I don’t think it would make for excellent conversation, or because I don’t have the ultimate respect, love, and devotion to Jesus.  Rather, it is because I realize I am way too like Peter (see below) and rather than sitting down with a whole list of questions, I would love simply follow Jesus as he navigated the world today.