I’m finishing up The Nature of the Atonement (eds. Beilby and Eddy). The book presents four differing views of the atonement—the Christus Victor view (defended by Greg Boyd), the kaleidoscopic view (Joel Green), the healing view (Bruce Reichenbach), and the penal substitutionary view (Tom Schreiner). Each author is given a chapter to defend his position, followed by a response from the other three contributors.
While there is a significant amount of disagreement between the four contributors, what I found interesting is that Boyd, Green and Reichenbach are fairly united in their criticism of penal substitution (perhaps Reichenbach less so). With one voice, they call into question the very idea that humanity needs to be saved from God. This is seen perhaps most clearly in Boyd’s chapter and subsequent responses. In defending the Christus Victor view, Boyd argues that the cross of Christ is about being saved from Satan and the evil spiritual ‘powers,’ rather than from God. The idea that we need to be saved from God, Boyd argues, is a misread of Scripture. “The New Testament concept of salvation,” he writes, “is centered on our participation in Christ’s cosmic victory over the powers [Satan]. It does not first and foremost mean ‘salvation from God’s wrath’ or ‘salvation from hell’ as many Western Christians mistakenly assume” (p 35).
This seems to be a fairly common criticism of penal substitution. God is love, the argument goes, and he does not need to be paid off or placated. The cross is about God saving humanity from evil powers (Boyd), the effects of sin (Reichenbach), or a combination of both (Green). But it’s not about humanity being saved from God’s vengeance or wrath. After all, God is the Savior!
But such thinking misses a key element of God’s salvific activity. Let’s recount the Passover.
Moses, as the mediator of God’s wrath, has stretched out his hand over the land of Egypt and brought destruction upon Pharaoh’s kingdom. Yet Pharaoh will not yield. Not to worry, the Lord tells Moses. One last plague is coming, different from all the others, and with this plague Pharaoh will fold. But the difference with this plague will not merely be the degree of its severity; the difference will be in who delivers it. With the plague of the firstborn, God himself will come to visit the land, directly and without a mediator. This is a significant escalation in the conflict. Amidst the terrors of darkness, in the black of night, Yahweh will descend upon the land, a sword of judgment in his hand. Yet a problem presents itself. The Israelites have called in fire on their own position. The nearness of their God is both a blessing and a bane—the fire that will consume their enemies threatens to consume them as well.
God is for the Israelites, but they have not been properly for him. They have joined the opposition and sided with the enemy—an enemy God is determined to crush. But God is gracious in the midst of his vengeance. Another ark of salvation is prepared in the midst of a second flood of vengeance; the blood of a lamb is shed and God’s people are delivered once again…from God. We, like the Israelites in Egypt, need to be saved from our Savior.
And that’s a basic point of penal substitution—that God, in his willingness to save us from the power and dominion of sin—must also somehow save us from himself. Any view of the atonement that fails to grapple with this uncomfortable—yet distinctly biblical—reality, falls short.
Just another terrific post from the guys at Straight Up.