Hans Boersma

The Disappearance of Punishment

Metaphors, models, and the meaning of the atonement.

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Our late modern culture has become increasingly sensitive to the dangers of abusive structures and institutions that foster self-interest, domination, exploitation, and other forms of violence. Atonement theologies have followed this trend with an increasingly apprehensive stance toward traditional notions of covenant curse, divine justice and wrath, and penal substitution.

Of the many recent examples of atonement theology that illustrate this trend, three books published in the last five years are representative. Joel Green and Mark Baker, in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, argue that we need to do justice to the "diversity of voices" in the Bible and that we must recognize that not all the New Testament models and metaphors are equally suitable for our situation today. In particular, they are troubled by the uncritical acceptance of penal substitution among North American evangelicals. C.J. den Heyer, a Dutch New Testament theologian with a Reformed background, strikes a more radical chord in Jesus and the Doctrine of the Atonement: Biblical Notes on a Controversial Topic. He states that he can no longer identify with the "old confessions and dogmas": "I know the old and familiar truths of faith, but they no longer move or inspire me. The words and images have lost their significance. The excitement has slowly ebbed away." Finally, from a feminist perspective, Darby Kathleen Ray harks back to the patristic ransom model of the atonement in her book Deceiving the Devil: Atonement, Abuse, and Ransom. She believes that the other models of the atonement tend toward individualism, the idolizing of power, and and the valorizing of suffering.

Indeed, Ray has little use for atonement theologies that encourage us to imitate the suffering of Jesus. She criticizes the moral influence theory of the atonement that originated in the 12th century with Peter Abelard and that looks at the atonement as an expression of God's love, inspiring in believers the desire to show the same sacrificial love to others. Den Heyer, on the other hand, stands squarely within this Abelardian tradition, and in certain ways his book is in line with the "lives of Jesus" that the liberal theologians of the 19th century used to write. Green and Baker's approach is more broadly based. They want to do justice to each of the biblical constellations of images connected with the theme of atonement: those of law, commerce, personal relationships, worship, and battleground.

Despite these differences, the three books share a common opponent: the theory of penal substitution. Much of this opposition is driven by fears that penal substitution leads to violence and oppression. Richard Mouw's article beginning this series in Books & Culture offers a helpful discussion of these issues.1 What I want to do here is to tease out some of the other underlying theological concerns with penal substitution and to present some ways in which penal substitution may be of assistance in presenting a fuller picture of the significance of the cross.

Penal substitution runs up against a number of theological objections. The first problem is that of dehistoricizing the gospel. Ray argues that by "depicting sin as an a-historical quality, traditional notions make it into an abstract state separate from the particular relationships that shape human beings." Den Heyer is a "historical Jesus" scholar whose emphasis on the historical Jesus makes him uncomfortable with the classical christological dogmas. Den Heyer's description of Jesus does not go beyond that of "a special person, inspired and creative, in search of people in need, a man after God's heart who provoked opposition and ultimately died a violent death on the cross." From an evangelical perspective that is in some ways sharply distinct, Green and Baker nonetheless share this emphasis on the historical particularity of Jesus' death. When he explained his death, they say, "Jesus pushed backward into Israel's history and embraced Israel's expectations for deliverance." Clearly, the authors of all three books share an interest in the historical particularity of atonement theology, an interest that they feel penal substitution does not sufficiently uphold.

The second concern is that of individualizing the gospel. Penal substitution, argue Green and Baker, is tied in with an "autobiographical notion of justice" that operates on the basis of an atomistic understanding of people and leads to an individualistic understanding of justification. Concerned that the emphasis has so long been on the individual and his or her personal sin, Ray argues that "the emphasis now should be on the social," so that atonement theology can address not only individual sin, but also the evil of structures and institutions. Sin should not be defined as disobedience, because this "defuses rage, resentment, and other catalytic emotions, entrapping abused women and children in cycles of violence buttressed by cultural and religious assumptions of male authority and prerogative." Ray's steps are clear: she first wants to broaden sin and evil to include a communal and institutional element, and she then argues that this sin or evil is not a matter of disobedience but should be defined as "the abuse of power."

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