with Jeremy Westcott –
“Good souls many will one day be horrified at the things they now believe of God” (George Macdonald, 1824-1905).
For me, that day has come. As I have encountered God, He has shown me that more and more of the things I believed about Him were not really true. He has been really considerate and taken me in stages through this process, because it would have been too much for me if He had done it all in one go. Will you let Him do the same for you?
Jesus is the exact representation of the Father, but that is not the picture religion paints at all. A whole host of doctrines widely accepted without question by most believers today do not really line up with a God who looks like Jesus. Since God is love, I am now very suspicious of any image of God that does not look like love.
Penal Substitutionary Atonement
One such doctrine is ‘penal substitutionary atonement’ (PSA): that Jesus died to appease God’s wrath. We will look at God’s wrath, anger, eternal judgment, punishment, eternal conscious torment and hell later in this series of posts, but PSA is the key to all these others. It is a really warped view of God which has Him saying ‘I will kill My Son to show you how good I am’.
Does God’s anger really need to be appeased? Almost all human justice systems come from the DIY tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and are based on retributive justice, making offenders pay for their crimes one way or another. If we are hearing a little more about restorative justice today, it is because people are realising that retributive justice does not work. But God’s justice is and has always been restorative. The fear of punishment is not a good motivator. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love (1 John 4:18). Why would God use fear of punishment to keep us in line?
It was man who came up with a ‘GOD’ who required appeasement (look at any primitive religion). But the truth is that ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire’ (Ps 40:6, quoted in Heb 10:5) and ‘You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering’ (Ps 51:16).
“You have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness…” (Matt 23:23).
The Pharisees’ religion was all legalism, missing out truth, justice and mercy altogether, and in the ‘Christian religion’ (itself a contradiction in terms), a belief system of so-called ‘redemptive violence’ will inevitably affect the way we relate to others. We will steward the cosmos from that angry, retributive perspective. That is the ‘GOD’ image we will reflect to a broken world which needs healing, not punishment.
But God is not as we have been led to believe. The corrections of God are always restorative. The judgments of God are pure and bring mercy and life:
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne;
Mercy and truth go before Your face. (Ps 89:14 NKJV).
Mercy and truth always go before Him. His justice is mercy and love, not punishment and retribution. Even painful truth is revealed only for our good and healing.
“God is a God of fierce judgement. I sense God’s burning judgement falling upon many of you today. He has made up His mind and the verdict is unchangeable. His judgement is: ‘You are forgiven, loved and accepted’. So, enjoy your judgement” (Benjamin David, Facebook post).
Jesus warned his disciples that He was going to the cross. He did not say He would suffer the just punishment for our sins at the hands of His Father but that He would suffer at the hands of men:
“Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44).
“From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Matt 16:21).
For He was teaching His disciples and telling them: “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.” (Mark 9:31).
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will hand Him over to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up” (Matt 20:18-19).
Jesus suffered at the hands of ruthless men, Jews and Gentiles, representing the religious and political systems. They agreed to condemn Him to keep their DIY system in control. Men crucified Jesus, and God used our punishment of Him to bring restoration and reconciliation.
He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through by our transgressions, He was crushed by our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed (Isa 53:3-5).
There is simply nothing in scripture to support the idea that Jesus went to the cross to suffer the fiery wrath of His Father so that we could escape it. ‘We ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted’ but that is not how it really was.
The purpose of the cross was to undo the consequence of Adam’s sin, a loss of identity which produced spiritual death. It was a demonstration not of God’s wrath against humanity, but of His love towards humanity. When Jesus took the sin of the whole world upon his shoulders He was showing us the depths of God’s love.
“Our Father never needed a sacrifice; we did. And we, as one man, with one accord damned His Son, and our Father accepted our ‘faith’ and our ‘will,’ and our ‘decision’ to crucify His Son as the means to establish a real and everlasting relationship with us inside our faithless betrayal. This is salvation. This is adoption. This is redeeming genius and love almost beyond our wildest imaginations” – C. Baxter Kruger.
In the New Testament the Greek word katallagé (reconciliation) is often misleadingly translated ‘atonement’. ‘To atone’ is to make amends, to make reparation for wrongdoing. However, this old covenant word used to describe how a sacrificial animal covered people’s sin is not a word used in the new covenant. And animal sacrifices were not tortured by the priest, they were just killed.
Hilasmos (‘propitiation’) is another word which has been translated in a way which assumes an angry deity who needs to be appeased. It comes from the verb hilaskomai, meaning ‘to conciliate, be merciful, forgive, show favour’. It does not mean ‘atone’.
“But the church has always believed this!”
It hasn’t. Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) may be a commonly held view in evangelical circles today but it was not formulated until the 11th century, by Anselm of Canterbury. Personal encounter with God could never lead us to the conclusion he reached through scholasticism, a method of study that emphasises reason, research and constructive criticism.
PSA is a man-made, demonically inspired doctrine of distortion. It only sounds plausible to us because we have been conditioned to accept that God is angry with us.
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Ps 22, quoted by Jesus on the cross in Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34).
This was Jesus’ cry of true identification with us in our brokenness and in our deepest, darkest pain. It was our separation He felt. Most of those who heard Him would know the rest of the psalm, including v24:
For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from him; but when he cried to Him for help, He heard.
We have seen before that God the Father never left Jesus the Son. Do we really imagine that the Triune God was somehow pulled apart at the cross? Whose side was the Holy Spirit on? The whole concept is preposterous when you know God for yourself. And yet we happily sing:
“One final breath He gave
As heaven looked away…”
(Forever by Brian Johnson, Kari Jobe, Christa Black Gifford, and Gabriel Wilson).
Heaven did no such thing.
The wages of sin
The cross was God showing the world that He was willing to take on flesh and die – for us and as us – not to pay off an angry God who couldn’t stand the sight of us. Jesus did not save us from God, He saved us from death (the wages of sin). The aim of Jesus’ death was to make personal, healing, life-giving, forgiving contact with us sinners, at the root of our sin and alienation.
A battered reed He will not break off, and a smouldering wick He will not put out, until He leads justice to victory (Matt 12:20, quoting Isa 42:3).
God’s justice does not break people; it heals those who are broken.
“God doesn’t need to punish anyone. “Sin is its own punishment.” … No one gets away with anything. There are terrible consequences for our actions, but God is forever with us, weaving grace into our stories to redeem even the worst situations for our good” (Brad Jerzak, ‘Unfundamentalist Parenting in The Shack – Part 1’).
But please, don’t believe anything I say. Not without meeting God for yourself.
How much of what we believe has been handed onto us by someone else? Reading books, hearing sermons, just picking it up from being in a particular stream or community… none of that is a valid substitute. Get your revelation direct from Him, otherwise you are just leaning on someone else’s understanding (when, according to Proverbs 3:5, you ought not to even lean on your own). My understanding has come from my own personal experience, but it is no good to you. You need your own experience.
So meet God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Meet Him face to face and find out what He is really like. Let Him reveal Himself as the Truth. And be prepared to lay aside anything which does not line up with Who He is.
Recommended articles by others
- Beyond “Without the Shedding of Blood …” – Brad Jersak on PSA, sacrifice and offering (Christianity Without the Religion blog).
- Incarnation instead of Atonement – Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM (Center for Action and Contemplation, Daily Meditations).
- God in the hands of angry sinners – C. Baxter Kruger
- Unfundamentalist Parenting in The Shack – Part 1 – Brad Jersak
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