Reinterpreting the Cross

mad godThe crucifixion of Jesus is hugely significant to christian theological thought. The way you view the cross will largely determine the way you view God. Yeah. It’s kinda important.

The lamb was slain before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). I understand that to mean that, ontologically speaking, the cross didn’t change anything; all of its “effects” took place before the world was made. It did, however, change our perception of who God is and what he is like.

Reconciliation and similar language in the scriptures that speak of mending our relationship with God are metaphors that were culturally relevant to the recipients of the writings (especially to Jews), ultimately pointing to our experiences of realization of the reality we never knew.

God didn’t bring about the crucifixion. Sure, God saw it coming, but it wasn’t the Father who predestined his Son to get tortured on the cross (knowledge and foresight do not necessarily imply predestination or causation). God didn’t decided to have Jesus crucified and make people act accordingly to make sure it happened. Rather, God saw that people would crucify Jesus when he sent him, so he acted accordingly prior to that, predicting it through prophets and scheming a revelation of himself through it.

God saved the world through his Incarnate Word in Jesus by the historical accident of a judicial murder. – Robert Capon

It was people who crucified Jesus, not God. God didn’t kill his own son so he could finally bring himself to forgive humanity. God watched humanity murderously unite against him, but he still did not retaliate.

God went to show that no matter what people did to him, his love for them would never change.

God wasn’t angry with Jesus or even with people. People were angry with Jesus, and that’s why they decided to crucify him.

[God] is not a schizophrenic deity bouncing between love and hatred. The point of the cross was to redeem mankind from his own self-destruction … not to pay off an ill-tempered, narcissistic God who was spitting mad at you for sinning against Him. – John Crowder

The cross was man’s doing, but the incarnation was God’s doing; it was God’s way of showing the reality already in place. Through Christ’s incarnation the union of all of humanity with the Godhead was revealed.

Jesus wasn’t sent to die but rather to reveal God’s heart toward us. His death wasn’t necessary for us to be reconciled to God (we already were in God’s mind), but it was the greatest manifestation of the fact that God never had a problem with us.

God surely anticipated that a person like Jesus would be killed by an order established on violence, but God did not kill Jesus, or require his death, or manipulate others into sacrificing him. God may have found a way to triumph over this crime, but God did not cause it. – Walter Wink

It was humanity who caused Jesus to be crucified, not God. And yet, God used our act of violence for good, through it revealing to us what he is really like. God presented the sacrifice, not people (Romans 3:25). He sacrificed his option to respond with violence toward us to our act of violence toward him.

Christ is a divine offering to humankind, not a human offering to God. – Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Instead of us bringing a sacrifice to God to appease him, through the cross God brings a sacrifice to us to reconcile us. – Derek Flood

The cross was and is the ultimate revelation of who God is. The cross is enlightenment, not payment. It enables us to believe the truth about God that we couldn’t believe without it. The cross went to demonstrate, not effect, that not even killing the one who loves us could separate us from him!

Jesus didn’t make God graceful towards you. He didn’t satisfy some blood lust against sinful man in order to change His nature into a forgiving nature. That isn’t even real forgiveness. God has always been a God of grace. He has always forgiven you, and been kind to you. The cross just demonstrated that fact. The cross is the expression of the Lord’s forgiveness of mankind, not the prerequisite for it. – Christian Erickson

The authentic Creator, the true light that enlightens every man was coming into this world. His mission was nothing less than shattering our illusions, exposing the unreal, unoriginal and fake identity that we embraced outside of Him. – Andre Rabe

Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us but to change our minds about God. This is why he went around telling people to “repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” The kingdom was already there, fully available. People just needed to change their minds (i.e. repent) about that reality.

[In a retributive view of the cross,] our problem is God’s offense. The cross comes to bring God to repentance. The cross is the means by which he gets rid of his anger and frustration so that he can be kind to us again. God has never been our problem. Jesus doesn’t come to change God’s mind about us; he came to change our minds about God and one another. We are the ones who needed to change our thinking. We are the ones who needed to be converted. It is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance. It isn’t our repentance that leads God to goodness. God was good long before we repented. – Andre Rabe


Also see:

The Contradiction of the Cross (by Andre Rabe)

The Revelation of the Cross (by Andre Rabe)


Punished For Us?

kill my son

I previously wrote on the topic of punishment in The Abolition of Sacrifice (particularly as it relates to sacrifice as hinted by the title). There turned out to be a bunch of people who gave me feedback that didn’t like it.

One concern was my claim that the cross was an accident (i.e. that it was humanity that murdered Jesus and that God did not cause it or bring it about, and yet that God brought about good through the evil plotted by people). This issue was addressed in an exchange in the comments section of that post.

Another concern was that by rejecting the notion that God is required to punish sinners and that the cross was not necessary for God to be able to forgive sinners, I was undermining God’s justice. (Let me repeat the clarification I made in What I Am Not Saying; Although I believe that the cross was unnecessary for God to be able to forgive us, I do maintain that it was necessary for our salvation.) In The Union of Justice and Mercy I explained how the scriptures describe justice as restorative, not retributive, and how mercy and justice are not in conflict with each other but rather are one and the same.

Something at the heart of this issue that I have not yet addressed is the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. This is the idea that Jesus took the just punishment we deserved as our substitute to save us from God’s wrath.

In this post I will deconstruct this idea and explain why I have become convinced of what I consider to be a much better and accurate conception of who God is.

My Experience with Believing Penal Substitution

I grew up being taught penal substitution. I was never told that alternatives existed, so I thought that it was the only possible and correct interpretation of the scriptures. Consequently, I read bibles through my interpretive lens of penal substitution. It wasn’t hard to find verses that seemed to support the beliefs I already held.

(Let me point out that just because we see the language used in penal substitution also used in the scriptures doesn’t mean that the scriptures are endorsing that way of thinking. There are plenty of false ideas that people invent that are formulated using biblical language but do not accurately reflect the truth.)

I also preached penal substitution when I shared with others what I considered to be the gospel. Yet I distinctly remember a sense of uneasiness whenever I did, because I could sense an uneasiness in the hearers. Really, who wants to get acquainted with an angry God, even if his wrath had been “satisfied”?

Of course, by no means does that automatically disqualify the theory. It did, however, plant the first seeds of doubt in me.

The Unreasonability of Penal Substitution

In college I started to question my long held belief.

Where in the scriptures does it say that God is required by his nature to punish sinners? Nowhere does it say that God is constrained by retributive justice. To the contrary, God says that he will have mercy and compassion on whoever he wants to (Romans 9:15).

Or where in the scriptures is it expressed that we all deserve to be punished by God? It is clear that punishment comes with sin, but only as a natural consequence, not something God inflicts.

If Jesus “paid the penalty for sin,” then it seems that God isn’t forgiving at all. If I pay off my student loans in full, did the loaning institution forgive my debt? Nope. Since I paid it all off, there is nothing left to forgive. On the other hand, Jesus taught unconditional forgiveness, regardless of what was “deserved.” Is God telling us to act more forgivingly than he himself does?

Jesus’ suffering was only temporary and finite. But if the punishment we deserve for sin is eternal suffering, then Jesus didn’t pay the full price.

Penal substitution pits the Father against Jesus in what looks like a schizophrenic deity. Our greatest ally is Jesus, and our greatest enemy is not the devil, but God and the wrath he brings against us. It makes God the author of death, dealing it out to sinful humanity because they deserve it according to his justice. Jesus bearing the cross brings not us but God to repentance, changing his mind about how he will treat us.

Sacrifices are made by an individual or a group to a different individual or group; it is nonsensical for someone to sacrifice something to themselves, because that is not a sacrifice at all, merely a killing of something.

Ironically, the picture of God as a retributively just judge dealing out punishment does not do justice to the biblical picture of what justice is. As the early church fathers emphasize, there was nothing just about the crucifixion of Jesus. God has zero interest in hurting people, no matter how much of a “right” he might have to do so. All he wants is reconciliation.

Other objections to penal substitution exist, but just because there are questions which we perhaps cannot find satisfactory answers to doesn’t disqualify a theory either. So I dug deeper.

Alternative Theories of the Atonement

Half way through my college years I came across a number of different understandings of the atonement for the first time in my life. (I won’t explain any of them in depth, but you can get a pretty good overview of them on Wikipedia.)

Christus Victor is a model in which Christ’s death is the means by which the powers of evil that held humanity in their grip were defeated. The moral influence model teaches that Jesus came to bring positive moral change to humanity. In the recapitulation model humanity is recreated by Christ becoming what we are so that we can become what he is.

Biblical justification can be given for each view with verses that, at least prema facie, seem to support them. The same is true of the penal substitution model. So there are various interpretations of the atonement, none of them are necessarily mutually exclusive, and it is difficult to quickly rule any of them out.

I decided I needed to go even further down the rabbit hole and take a look at the history of the idea of penal substitution as well as of the other theories of the atonement.

The Lack of Historicity

I won’t take an in depth look at the writings of the early church fathers here but only mention themes that were prevalent as well as lacking overall. (If you would like an in depth analysis of the writings of the early church fathers as they relate to penal substitution, I recommend Substitutionary Atonement and the Church Fathers and The Abolishment of Retribution in the Church Fathers).

Prevalent themes include healing, restoration, recreation, freedom, substitution, and the destruction of the curse and death. Lacking themes include appeasing a wrathful God and the need for punishment by God.

The problem that the atonement addresses is never presented by the early church fathers as an angry God but a sick and dying humanity.

I like how the Wikipedia article on penal substitution put it: “In scholarly literature it has been generally recognized for some time that the penal substitution theory was not taught in the Early Church” (and then gives 8 references, which is a lot for Wikipedia lol…they must pretty sure about this one). Incidentally, the three alternative views I mentioned above can be found in the writings of the early church fathers.

Let me clarify one particular element of the atonement, because many of us have only ever known one way of thinking about Christ being our substitute, and that is to view him as substitutionally taking our punishment.

The theme of substitution is frequently seen in the writings of the early church fathers and is clear within the scriptures as well. The question that must be asked, however, is how was Christ’s death substitutionary?

When the early church fathers spoke of substitution, they didn’t mean Jesus took our punishment from God (although some said that Jesus took our punishment that sin brings with it through natural consequence). They meant that Jesus became the substitute for all humanity on the cross, taking our curse, sin, corruption, condemnation, death, etc. upon himself in order to destroy them.

Even those who are popularly cited as proponents of penal substitution, such as Augustine (354-430), Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), and Aquinas (1225-1274), deny the idea of condemning the innocent to free the guilty that is central to penal substitution. They did develop their own theories of the atonement that departed from what was taught before them, but even in their own theories they did not teach penal substitution.

Penal substitution as we know it today did not arise until the time of John Calvin (1509-1564). Did Calvin uncover a truth that had been missed by all who had gone before him? Methinks not.

(Some might claim that Calvin only reached a destination on the trajectory of progressive revelation that was set by those who had gone before him (like Calvinists tend to do for other doctrines developed by Calvin such as predestination and limited atonement). In other words, that penal substitution is simply a development in theology. I disagree, but that’s a whole nutha topic that I don’t want to get into here.)

Concluding Thoughts

The lack of historicity of the doctrine of penal substitution pretty much settled the issue for me. I can’t view penal substitution as anything other than a human invention that emerged hundreds of years after Jesus’ time. (I’ve also considered the issue from a biblical perspective and have found it to be wanting.)

There are, of course, plenty of arguments in favor of penal substitution. This has been a topic of hot debate for centuries, and I am aware that this post does not conclusively put the theory to sleep. I wrote this post for those who, like myself previously, don’t know that there are good reasons to doubt penal substitution and that viable alternatives exist.

What I’ve written above is highly intellectual and analytical, but taking a step back from all that, I want to take a moment to point out that, if what I am claiming is true, it’s really good news! It makes the gospel a message of a ridiculously forgiving God. He forgives people even before they ask, never requiring anything from them for or in return for his forgiveness. Wow! That’s forgiveness like the world has never known.

Some people might say that I am making God out to be a big fluffy marshmallow. I would have to agree. I would add that the marshmallow is perfectly roasted and is sandwiched between chocolate and biscuits. God is way better than any of us can imagine, and his goodness cannot be exaggerated.


Also see:

The Penal Substitution Atonement – Greg Boyd

Punished “for” or “by” our sins – The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 – Santo Calarco

Penal substitutionary atonement – Steve McVey

Sin and punishment – Steve McVey

An illustrative story about punishment – Steve McVey

Propitiation for sin – Steve McVey

The Abolition of Sacrifice


Some people view sacrifice as an inherently good thing because God instituted animal sacrifices in the Law or because of the sacrificial death of Jesus. The general concept is carried over into the New Covenant by claiming that we are to live sacrificial lives for God, giving up the things of this world for the things of God (Romans 12:1 is cited often to make this point).

Methinks this is a misconception.

Let’s take a look at the role of sacrifice in human history.

The concepts of sacrifice (or scapegoating) existed in every known culture and society. A historical study (see the works of René Girard) reveals that there were generally two reasons why communities practiced sacrifice – because the gods required it and to keep social order. People viewed sacrifice as necessary because otherwise the gods would unleash their anger on them, and also because it was an outlet for their (the people’s) violence. People didn’t know how to deal with their anger and frustration, so they decided to systematically take it out on something else. Thus, social order is maintained because instead of civil war breaking out, one person (the scapegoat) died for the rest. This mindset can even be seen in the scriptures, where the high priest Caiaphas advises the Pharisees that it is better for one man to die for the people (referring to Jesus) than for the whole nation to be destroyed (John 11:50). Of course, this never gets to the root problem, which is losing sight of who God really is, and thus losing sight of every person’s true desire, which is God himself (Haggai 2:7). Sacrifice emerged from not understanding God’s heart toward people.

The question, then, is why did God command animal sacrifices to be performed under the Law?

The Israelites wanted to be like the nations around them. They wanted laws, not relationship. They wanted human kings, not a heavenly Father. And they wanted sacrificial systems, not unmerited forgiveness. They couldn’t conceive of any other way of dealing with guilt and violence, and, in their minds, that was the only way to satisfy their angry God, Jehovah. But God isn’t like every other ancient god that required sacrifice in order to be nice to people.The truth, the mystery that had been kept hidden for ages, was that God was never angry with them and had forgiven them even before they had asked to be forgiven!

God never wanted our sacrifices, even under the Old Covenant. “Sacrifice and meal offering You have not desired…Burnt offering and sin offering You have not required” (Psalm 40:6). “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; And the knowledge of God, more than burnt offering” (Hosea 6:6). (Also see Micah 6:6-8, Isaiah 1:11-14, and Jeremiah 7:21-23.)

morphiusGod instituted the Old Covenant sacrificial system for people, not for himself. It is no different than how Jesus explained that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Its introduction in the Law wasn’t to alleviate God’s anger or satisfy a need to punish sin, both of which God has no need for. Rather, it was a concession to man’s guilt and bloodlust (in fact, the entire system of Law was a concession to Israel since it refused to relate intimately with God; see Exodus 20:18-21). Sacrifice under the Old Covenant was to provide an outlet for human violence and to fulfill the human need to feel free of guilt and have a clear conscience (although according to Hebrews 10:4 it never permanently fixed anything – “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”).

God never wanted to use violence, but mankind did; so God worked within mankind’s violence to achieve His purposes, and to slowly wean His people off of the need for blood punishment. – Christian Erickson

This is why even though the Law contained retributive ordinances with concepts such as equal retaliation (someone who causes harm is repaid with the same harm to themselves), Jesus pointed to a better way. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:38-39). Indeed, Jesus demonstrated this principle himself as he did not retaliate against his accusers and executioners.

The Law is good (Romans 7:12), but it is not good in the sense that it would be good for us to try and follow it. It is good because it served its purpose, which was to reveal our sinfulness and bring us to our senses (Romans 7:7). When we try our best to follow the Law, we find that our efforts are futile. Thus God administrates his grace to us through the Law because it reveals our need for a savior. God imposed an impossibility on us to make evident the insufficiency of our independent selves (which is only an illusion, because we are never separated from God). It sheds light on the fundamental error made at the fall – thinking that we could do life alone if only we had the knowledge of good and evil.

Thus, just because something is in the Law doesn’t automatically make it good. Sacrifice is a case in point.

The cross didn’t deal with God’s sin consciousness, as if he was hindered from relating with us because of sin. It dealt with our sin consciousness (Hebrews 10:1-3). It doesn’t free God from a need to punish; it frees us from a guilty conscience.

The cross reveals that even when humanity is at its worst, united against God to murder him, God’s love for humanity and how he relates to them does not change. Even when God seems most justified in violently retaliating against humanity (and had the power to do so), he chooses not to. The heart of the Father is revealed.

The cross unmasks the practice of sacrifice (and more generally the concept of retributive punishment) for what it is and rescues humanity from its insanity.

It is simply human violence.

Let me get back to how this relates to sacrifice in our New Covenant lives.

God doesn’t want sacrifice unless he’s providing the sacrifice (think Abraham and Isaac). But from our perspective this isn’t sacrifice at all! Jesus meant it when he said it is more blessed (happy) to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), and he applies it in his dealings with us. God’s not looking for us to do something for him; God derives the greatest pleasure from continually providing for us all that we need. He doesn’t need our help. His joy is rooted in our enjoyment of his provision, not our provision for his non-existent needs.

Missionary to China Hudson Taylor, at the end of a life full of suffering and trial, said, “I never made a sacrifice.” When the motivating factor of service to Christ is love, it doesn’t feel like you’re working at all. It is effortless. There is no sacrifice.

And that’s just the kind of life that Jesus has made available to all.


Also see:

Glimpses Into a Mystery (Andre Rabe)