Last saturday I was attending a bible study from our youth grou, and at a certain moment we were discussing a part of psalm 51, which was projected unto a screen. Seeing the last part I had some thoughts that may have brought the discussion totally off-topic, and it already was lost in escalation so I kept silent. But somehow I do regret that now, so I will write down my thoughts now for the readers of this blog…
I will start with the bible verses from psalm 51 (for some reason the verse numbers are different from the dutch version but that isn’t important here):
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God.Renew a right spirit within me. 11 Don’t throw me from your presence, And don’t take your holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation. Uphold me with a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways. Sinners shall be converted to you. 14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation.My tongue shall sing aloud of your righteousness. 15 Lord, open my lips. My mouth shall declare your praise. 16 For you don’t delight in sacrifice, or else I would give it. You have no pleasure in burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
The first verses are very familiar to me since we do sing a Keith Green song based on them in our church… But that’s not the point now. This psalm is said to be written by King David after he committed one of the worst crimes of his carreer: He had seen a beautiful woman bathing so he sent her man who was an officer in his army on a mission that would kill him, so he could take his wife… So David here is both a murderer and an adulterer. But eventually he comes to see what he has done (with help of the prophet Nathan) and he repents, and that is the moment this psalm is composed. So the context of these words is clear: the whole psalm is about salvation from the point of a serious sinner who has repented and wants restauration. It’s about how God forgives (and remember, this is long before Christ and the cross)
Now those words were on a screen, and I thought about the ‘basic evangelical story’ of atonement that I have heard so much, about the cross of Jesus: Man is a sinner, and God cannot just forgive him, sin is to serious for that, and someone needs to get punished. So God needs bloodshed and to punish someone to be able to forgive humans. Hence all those sacrifices in the old testament, in which the animal is a substitute for the sinful man that suffers death it his place. But those offerings were not good enough in the end so Jesus had to come to give His blood, and take the punishment in our place, so once and for all with this one sacrifice God would be able to forgive us…
I’ve always found it a very strange idea that God would demand blood to be able to forgive us, but for long it was just a mystery that I did not question much… Even though I had philosophical and theological questions about it and did I also know some bible verses that seemed to say something totally different about God needing blood and sacrifices to be able to saveus, like Hosea 6:6 For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. Atonement seemed to me more like a restored relationship than the payment of a punishment to God before He would be able to forgive us. The penal substitution atonement theory is unquestioned and seen as the basis for Christianity by much evangelical and (neo-) reformed Christians…
Later when I read more, I found out that it is not the ‘one and only biblical truth’, but just one of the many stories that tries to explain how Jesus’ cross saves us. There are different theories of atonement, but that’s something I think most evangelicals are not aware of, unles they have studied serious theology. But still most of us are familiar with another version of the atonement story, and I still have objections against that particular version I am affraid. It sounds too pagan to me, and it makes God a bit weak in my eyes… It is very strange that an all-powerful God would not be able to forgive us without punishing and killing something. But even though the bible is clear that Jesus’ cross brings us salvation, it is not that clear how exactly this happens, and in the long history of the church there have been different versions and explanations of the atonements story, and different methaphors have been used to explain it.
Even if they may be not aware of it, there is another version that most people in evangelical circles do know: the powerful picture used in C.S. Lewis’ narnia story: Edmund the traitor is a sinner, who has become rightful property of the witch (evil) and then the Lion Aslan (Jesus) gives himself in Edmunds place to the Witch to be killed. And then death gets reversed and evil is defeated… 2 older atonement views can be explained from the narnia story, which is not exactly a coincidence: Lewis was a professor in medieval literature, and he did not hold to the penal view of substitutionary atonement himself… What is needed in the story is not that someone is punished, but that the sinner is saved from his bondage to evil, and rescued from the destruction that comes with being enslaved to evil.
The first theory is the so-called ransom theory: Jesus gives himself as a ransom in our place, to be taken by the ‘other side’ (satan, death, evil,…) So what’s the difference now? We still have the same sacrifice idea, and Jesus who takes our place, but something is reversed: it is not God who wants to see the sinners blood, but who loves us sinners and sacrifices Himself to the evil from which we have to be saved that does not want to let go of us. Jesus gives Himself over as a ransom to that evil (in our place!) to release us. Another related theory from the early church, looking from a slichtly different angle is what is now called the Christus Victor theory, in which the emphasis lies on Jesus who could not be taken by death, and who reverses death, and so has victory over evil in which we all can share… So here we have a very strong resurrection theme, which is not unimportant: Christianity has no meaning without the resurrection, in which we share!
Other theories of atonement have been proposed in the church history. The aforementioned penal substitution story, which is favored by much evangelicals and (neo-)reformed originates from the ‘satisfaction theory’ from Anselm in the eleventh century. Another theory is the moral influence theory, that says that Christs sacrifice was needed to give an example of faith and obedience to inspire man to be obedient to God. So here the sacrifice of Jesus is important as the culmination of obedience to the law of love, in which Jesus gives His life… (No greater love than he who gives his life for his friends…)
But like I said, all of these theories, and various others, are just theories to explain how Jesus saves us. Not all of them are focussed on the cross and resurrection: the orthodox church says that the incarnation already has saving power, and the anabaptists tell us that following Jesus’ words and living as his disciples will save us. And some pentecostelism will learn us that it is the Spirit who came with pentecost who saves us here and now in a lot of situations.
Most of these views date from long after the time of the first church and the New testament writers, so none of those can be seen as ‘biblical’ (Calling the penal substitution ‘the only biblical version’ because it can be illustrated with some bijble verses is poor theology, and denies a lot of church history). I like to see them as different windows looking on something that is too big to comprehend with our human mind… The important point is that Jesus has saved us from destruction by taking our place, and has conquered death, so we can share in the resurrection..
And even more: it makes no sense to be saved jsut in theory. If we are saved from the bondage of sin and destruction, and reconciled with God, we have to embrace life and step out of what is destructing us… We have to live a life that is again living in harmony with Life, and the world arounds us needs that too…