Friends and commentators from all over the theological spectrum have mentioned that I don’t seem to have given susbstitutionary atonement theory its due in my post from earlier this week, The Wrath of God and the Presbyterian Hymnal.
In that post, I leaned heavily on presenting substitutionary atonement as “cosmic child abuse” (an excellent turn of phrase I’m borrowing from Sarah Sanderson-Doughty). I wrote:
…penal substitution sets up a scenario where Jesus saves humanity from the rage (not the wrath) of an out-of-control, abusive parent. When all is said and done, the church gathers around a crucifix and hears, “This is your fault. Look at what you made God do. You are so bad and dirty that God had to torture and kill this beautiful, innocent person so that he wouldn’t do the same thing to you. Therefore, you’d better shape up and be thankful or else God will change his mind and torture you for all eternity. And don’t forget: this is Good News and God loves you.” If any human parent did that, he or she would be rightly incarcerated, even if the innocent victim was willing. If that’s what Christianity is, then you can count me out.
Sadly, this (admittedly extreme) depiction accurately portrays substitutionary atonement as it was presented to me by fundamentalist pastors and teachers I encountered in high school and college.
However, I realize that thoughtful evangelicals and catholics will cringe at my presentation, since they accept the theory, but not in its “cosmic child abuse” form. For them, it represents the epitome of love and sacrifice. I remember seeing an art project made by a teenager that showed one person pushing another out of the path of an oncoming car with John 15:13 written across the top: “Greater love hath no man (sic) than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” For them, substitutionary atonement is precisely the opposite of child abuse: it is the ultimate standard of loving sacrifice, established by Jesus himself, to which every parent, spouse, and friend should aspire.
I understand and respect this angle, but I suspect that many of these more informed and compassionate evangelicals and catholics may not realize what is being propagated in their name. The heresy of “cosmic child abuse” is alive and well in traditional, orthodox congregations and parishes the world over. Curious outsiders and wounded insiders are being exposed to violent, hateful theology and end up rejecting Christianity at large based on this misrepresentation. That’s why I think it is incumbent upon liberals, evangelicals, and catholics alike to think well about what their atonement theology does mean to them and then speak up (loud and often) to counterbalance the voices of violence and hate that dominate public media in Jesus’ name.
With that in mind, I thought I might revisit the subject of substitutionary atonement today and present what I think are some of the more positive contributions it might make to the Christian theological project, writ large. Sections of this article have been lifted and adapted from my reply to a comment on the previous post.
Many of the New Testament passages dealing with substitutionary atonement center around interpreting the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion through the lens of sacrificial worship in Second Temple Judaism. The use of such a schema made total sense as an apologetic strategy in that time and place (much like Anselm’s strategy made sense in feudal Britain).
Jesus, of course, is presented as the priest and the sacrifice that supersede the Temple cult. The temple authorities claimed exclusive access to God through their rituals and institution. The early Christians, on the other hand, used this priest/sacrifice imagery to legitimate their own Christocentric practice while demonstrating its continuity with traditional Judaism. The language of temple, priest, and sacrifice would have helped the gospel make sense to a first century Jewish mind. Obviously, the strategy worked: Christians and Pharisees were the only forms of Judaism to survive the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. This interpretive schema gave Christians the framework they needed to survive without a standing Temple.
The Pharisees, for their part, had the Torah, the synagogue, and the family home as centers for their faith-practice. They went on to complete the Talmuds and form the basis for modern rabbinic Judaism as we know it today. The Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots all pretty much died out as movements by the end of the second century.
Substitutionary atonement, understood within the cultural context of Second Temple Judaism, makes total sense as a first century apologetic strategy. It’s actually rather brilliant and obviously effective, given the lasting impact it’s had on the development of Christian atonement theory. The scholastic Anselm further developed the idea susbstitutionary atonement in the 11th century as part of his own brilliant and timely apologetic effort.
My only problem with it is when it is used as the primary or only legitimate atonement theory in our day. Such a narrow focus ignores the multiple other models for salvation presented by scripture and tradition. I fear that a one-sided emphasis on individual guilt and forgiveness through substitutionary atonement is unnecessarily handcuffing our evangelistic efforts by ignoring the many ways in which the gospel might be interpreted, preached, understood, and received by people today.
In addition to priest and purifying sacrifice, Christ can also be embraced as a physician for the sick, a liberator for the oppressed, a light in the darkness, food and drink for hungry souls, or a friend for the lonely. My hope is that Christians today might let these many images take root in our imaginations so that we might be inspired to become more faithful and effective witnesses of Christ in word and deed.
Rene Girard is one writer whose work presents, in my opinion, some rich possibilities for understanding the crucifixion of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice. A Roman Catholic scholar of mythology, Girard identifies patterns of mimetic violence at work in the development of religions and societies.
From birth, human beings are presented with models that we are meant to imitate. This happens on a primal level with one’s parents and siblings. As societies grow, our caches of models will grow as well. Post-industrial consumer capitalism in the Information Age presents us with a greater supply of models than any other culture in the history of the planet.
As imitators of models, we compete with one another. Over time, our competition grows fierce. The “war of all against all” (thank you, Hobbes) threatens to unravel the fabric of society and return us to primal chaos.
At this point, according to Girard, a scapegoat is chosen: someone at whom the rest of society can redirect the energy of their internal conflict and self-hatred. The scapegoat is made to bear the blame for this conflict and is summarily sacrificed.
In the wake of the sacrifice, the mimetic conflict is temporarily relieved and the community enjoys a period of relative peace and stability. Previously blamed for the violence, the scapegoat is now credited as the source of the temporary peace and is deified as a god. Girard’s theory is that this is how the deities of classical mythology received their identities. The cycle of violence then resets and repeats itself.
Applying his theory of mimetic violence to his own Roman Catholic theology, Girard presents Jesus as the willing scapegoat. Jesus deliberately enters into the cycle of mimetic violence with the intention of stopping it. He is aware of what is involved in that process and embraces the role of scapegoat.
According to this reading of the atonement, Jesus is still “sacrificed for our sins” but the wrath he is appeasing is not the wrath of God, but the rage of sinful, selfish humans. He substitutes himself in the place of all other scapegoats who endure the unjust violence of society.
In the resurrection, God intervenes to vindicate the scapegoat, unmasking and disarming the patterns of mimetic violence. Christians, as followers of Jesus the willing and vindicated scapegoat, are called to side with all future scapegoats and end the cycles of violence and exclusion, even if it means being crucified ourselves.
Rene Girard’s theory presents us with a way of unserstanding susbtitutionary atonement that can redeem it as a viable apologetic strategy in this consumer capitalist society, just as Anselm of Canterbury and the New Testament authors used it in their respective eras.
In this Girardian sense, I am able to reclaim substitutionary atonement and “cling to the old rugged cross”. I see in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection the end of all hate and violence. I look forward to a time when all humanity will “exchange [the old rugged cross] one day for a crown” as cycles of mimetic violence come to an end.