THE BLOG
04/06/2012 08:47 am ET | Updated Jun 06, 2012

Is God Angry At You? A Good Friday Reflection

Is God angry at you? You'd think so, given the interpretation of the cross that dominates popular American Christianity these days. Called the "penal-substitution theory of atonement," this understanding of the cross pictures God as a cosmic king who demands and deserves perfect obedience from God's servants, i.e., humanity. When humanity sins, they -- make that we -- deserve punishment. Which puts God in a bind, because God isn't just any king, God is a loving king and doesn't desire the death of God's subjects. So while God would like to forgive us out of love, God simply can't, because to do so would be to violate God's own justice.

The way out of this bind is, to borrow terminology popularized by the 11th century theologian Anselm of Canterbury, the "god-man," Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is human, he can serve as a substitute for humanity. Because Jesus is also God, he is perfect, sinless, satisfies God's demands, and his substitution has cosmic significance. So Jesus the God-man saves us by voluntarily substituting himself for guilty humanity and receives the punishment for sin we deserve. We, in turn, having had our debt paid, can again receive God's love and salvation by acknowledging Jesus' sacrifice for us.

This understanding of the cross is so popular, I believe, because it is so terribly rational. You can understand it in legal terms -- justice must be served and the just punishment for the offense is death; hence, Jesus "dies for us." Or you can approach it in accounting terms -- sinful humanity has amassed such a deficit that only a major sacrifice can ever pay the debt owed God. Either way, all the pieces fit.

Despite its popularity, however, it also begs several huge questions. First, and as Andrew Sullivan recently asked, why should one person's punishment -- even if that person is the Son of God -- count for all others? Doesn't that essentially negate the idea of personal responsibility? And if it's true that Jesus has endured punishment for all sins that have been or ever will be committed, why wouldn't we be motivated to sin all the more knowing that the penalty has already been paid?

Second, can you really call it forgiveness if someone else had to pay? If I fall behind on my mortgage payments and the bank wants to foreclose, but someone else steps forward to pay my balance, the bank hasn't actually forgiven me anything; it just found someone else to pay. Forgiveness is releasing someone's debt, not distributing it to another.

Third, what kind of picture of God does the penal-substitution theory construct? Anslem's original theory, developed around the beginning of the second millenium, revolved around a feudal sense of honor and cosmic balance. The death of the innocent Son satisfies the divine right to recompense for the offense against God's honor caused by human sin and restores balance to the moral universe. During the later middle ages the concern shifted from honor to justice and punishment, Jesus serving as something of a divine whipping boy. Later still, and now on North American soil, the theory has developed further to emphasize God's wrath as motivation for repentance. Baptist preacher John Piper has a whole collection of sermons on God's wrath available on his website, while Evangelical enfant terrible Mark Driscoll goes even further, telling congregants:

Some of you, God hates you. Some of you, God is sick of you. God is frustrated with you. God is wearied by you. God has suffered long enough with you. He doesn't think you're cute. He doesn't think it's funny. He doesn't think your excuse is "meritous" [sic]. He doesn't care if you compare yourself to someone worse than you, He hates them too. God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates some of you.

God, from this point of you, is just plain pissed at humans and the only thing that will appease God's anger is punishment. While advocates of the penal-substitution theory emphasize that God sends the Son to take the beating we deserve out of love, the fact remains that God can't act toward humanity in a loving way until blood has been shed. (And, in fact, precisely because God punishes God's own Son, some progressive critics name penal-substitution cosmic child abuse.)

In addition to these questions, the major problem with this understanding of God and the cross is that it enjoys relatively little support from the biblical witness. In particular, note that Jesus doesn't wait until after his sacrifice on the cross to offer God's forgiveness; in fact, it's the very fact that Jesus goes all over the place announcing God's forgiveness that riles up his opponents in the first place. Again and again, people take exception to Jesus' declaration that "your sins are forgiven," at various points questioning his authority or accusing him of blasphemy (Mark 2:1-12)

In a book I wrote recently called Making Sense of the Cross, I suggest that Jesus didn't come to make God loving but because God is loving. Jesus didn't die, that is, to appease a pissed-off deity. Rather, threatened by the wild, uncontrollable, and unconditional love and forgiveness of God Jesus proclaimed, the political and religious authorities put Jesus to death to quash the hope he created and retain their power. Forgiveness, you see, presumes guilt, and rather than admit their guilt they executed the one offering forgiveness. But God vindicated Jesus' message by raising him from the dead (something notoriously under-emphasized by substitution theologians), demonstrating that such self-giving love is more powerful than hate and that God's promise of life is stronger than death. From this point of view, God in Jesus joins us in absolute solidarity by taking on our lot and our life, even to the point of death, and at the same time promises that death does not have the last word; that, in the end, life and love win. No wrath, no anger, no horrendous punishment or logic-bending substitution schemes necessary.

So, given an alternative, why such devotion to penal-substitution? First, it appeals to a crude sense of justice achieved through retributive violence. Theologians defending penal substitution almost always invite us to imagine that if our house were broken into, or if someone we loved were murdered, we'd want justice -- that is, that the offender would be punished. But this argument assumes God can't transcend our own moral limitations. Just because we may cry for justice and vengeance when we are wronged doesn't mean God will. Further, groups like the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa have modeled the possibility and power of forgiveness in the face of even horrific violence. So my question to those advocating penal substitution would be this: is a God with as limited moral vision as I may have in the heat of rage and grief really worth worshiping?

What evangelical preachers don't suggest is that we live this way: recording each and every slight, demanding recompense for every offense against us. Why? Because it would drive you crazy in a day. Can you imagine treating your children, parents, spouse, or friends this way? Justice should always be a concern in our social interactions, of course, but there is more than one way to imagine just relationships than retributive violence and, ultimately, relationships that flourish are characterized even more by forgiveness and grace.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the penal-substitution theory of atonement reduces the mystery of salvation to a formula. The wild and uncontrollable love of God becomes not just understandable, but manageable, even predictable. Evangelical pastor and blogger Tim Challies is typical in asserting recently that God must punish sin. As if the God who created light out of darkness and raises the dead to life isn't free to forgive or, for that matter, can't manage what every one of us does on a fairly regular basis -- forgive those who have hurt us.

What's at stake in this second concern, I think, is that the penal-substitution theory promotes the seductive illusion that we know just how God works and can therefore determine who enjoys God's favor. The tricky thing about the God Jesus proclaimed, however, is that pretty much whenever you draw a line between who's in and who's out, you'll find this God on the other side of the line. When Jesus came preaching and teaching that God's love was boundless and then demonstrated it by socializing with those people the religious and political authorities knew were despised by God, they crucified him for daring to declare the unlovable beloved and the God-forsaken saved. Two thousand years later, advocates of penal-substitution risk doing it all over again, this time hanging him on a theology of wrath, punishment, and a barbaric sense of justice.