Is Substitutionary Atonement Just a Type of "Cosmic Child Abuse" That Christians Came Up With in the Middle Ages?
Did you ever think you'd be living in a day when believing in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus' blood would be controversial among Christians? Welcome to 2018, when saying "Jesus died for my sins" is considered at best a pagan idea (1) and at worst "psychologically damaging" to children.
What did Jesus accomplish on the cross? This is possibly the most important question a Christian can ask. Did He go to the cross in order to take the punishment of our sins upon Himself? To bring us into an adoptive relationship with God the Father? To ransom us to God? To set a moral example for us to follow? To victoriously defeat sin and death?
The answer? Yes! To all of the above. Scripture uses all kinds of different language and metaphors to describe the atoning work of Jesus, and a complete picture of the cross will only be found in considering all of them.
For example, prior to the 1800’s, when theologians talked about the cross, they generally didn't narrow it down to just one thing. Dallas Theological Seminary Professor Glenn Kreider noted that they were "like poets unpacking how beautiful an event this is." However, in more modern times, one atonement theory in particular is under attack.
First, let's define some terms.
What is atonement?
Theologian Wayne Grudem defines the atonement as "the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation."(2) The word itself breaks down into three parts: at-one-ment. Put simply, atonement is how we are brought into "oneness" with God through Jesus.
The primary understanding of the atonement throughout Scripture and church history is what is called substitutionary atonement, sometimes referred to as vicarious atonement. This is the idea that when Jesus died on the cross, He took our place—that He died instead of us....as a substitute. But the Bible doesn't talk about Jesus only as substitute—it also talks about Him paying the penalty for our sin. This is what is referred to as penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).
Many Christians, including myself, would consider the doctrine of PSA to be central to the gospel. Although this isn't the only way to understand the atonement, it is one way that is fundamental to salvation, and essential to the historic Christian faith.
But isn't PSA something that was first thought up in the Middle Ages?
Often when discussing the atonement, someone will bring up the challenge that PSA was not something the earliest Christians believed...that it was a later invention of Anselm of Canterbury in the Middle Ages.
What Anselm introduced in his work, Cur Deus Homo, was not the classic understanding of PSA, even though the two are often conflated and/or confused. While PSA states that Jesus paid the penalty for sin by dying in the place of sinners, Anselm's theory had more to do with God's offended honor and dignity being satisfied in the sacrifice of Jesus—that is referred to as penal satisfaction. They go together, but they aren't the same thing.
The doctrine of PSA is all overboth Old and New Testaments, as well as the early church fathers. It is decidedly the very essence of Christianity.
Cosmic child abuse?
Recent efforts by several Progressive Christian writers have sought to vilify the idea of substitutionary atonement, characterizing it as a misunderstanding of the cross. Even though he doesn’t deny a broader definition of substitutionary atonement, Steve Chalke describes the “cosmic child abuse” of PSA in his book The Lost Messsage of Jesus as:
There are a couple of problems with this view. First, to portray Jesus as some sort of helpless "victim" of the Father is to misunderstand the nature of the Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are One. Jesus wasn't a defenseless casualty of divine wrath...He IS God. He, as God, became flesh and laid His life down of His own will (John 10:18). It's actually the reason He came to earth.
Secondly, PSA involves God's wrath, and to modern readers, this idea can seem terribly intolerant. But it is entirely biblical, and is actually very good news when we understand His love, justice, and holiness, and mercy.
I once met a woman who had been horribly abused by her father when she was a child. He was mean, vindictive, and seemed to even take pleasure in her pain. Understandably, whenever she heard language referencing God’s wrath or anger, she winced—all she could think of was the senseless and petty “wrath” of her earthly father. We humans have the tendency to confuse the sinful abuse of some of our earthly fathers with the perfect justice and mercy of a God who is, by His very essence, love.
God’s wrath is not petty or spiteful—it is just, holy, and loving. In the words of Derek Rishmawy:
The wrath of God does not contradict His love—He has wrath because of His love. Theologian Miroslav Volf realized this after witnessing the horrors of the Bosnian war:
In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul said, "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." The message of the cross is "foolishness" to unbelievers. It was true then, and it is still true now. The Penal Substitutionary Atonement of Jesus was not a late invention, nor is it some type of cosmic child abuse. It is the heart of the gospel—and that is indeed "Good News!"
(1) Rob Bell wrote about this in his book, Love Wins, and jokingly referred to atonement theory as "God is less grumpy because of Jesus" in this lecture.
(2) Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 1994) p. 568
(3) Chalke, Steve and Mann, Alan, The Lost Message of Jesus, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), pp. 182-183
(4) Volf, Miroslav, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, (Zondervan 2005) pp. 138-139