Hans Boersma

The Disappearance of Punishment

Metaphors, models, and the meaning of the atonement.

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Finally, the fear is that an ahistorical and individualistic understanding of salvation allows for an abstract and harsh juridicizing where God's love and mercy and his desire to draw people into a relationship of love fade from view. Den Heyer rejects the notion of penal substitution in which "God cannot just let evil slip through his fingers. Forgiveness is possible only when the law has run its course. Sin must be punished." Similarly, Green and Baker argue that in the penal substitution model "God's ability to love and relate to humans is circumscribed by something outside of God—that is, an abstract concept of justice instructs God as to how God must behave."

There are points clearly worth heeding in these critiques of penal substitution. For example, Ray's retrieval of a Christus Victor model of the atonement draws on some significant biblical data. On the cross, Christ "disarmed the powers and authorities" and "made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col 1:15). Looking at the atonement from the perspective of God's battle against evil does render significant support for the human struggle against injustice. And to be sure, an individualistic legal framework may indeed be used to justify sinful human structures and perhaps even to glorify suffering and tolerate abuse. Ray's penetrating account of the misuse of atonement theology in Latin America—where one identified either with Christ the Conquering One (who sanctions power) or with Christ the Conquered One (the model of the powerless)—reminds us of Christendom's complicity in horrific forms of cultural and ethnic violence. Den Heyer is right to point out that Jesus' life and death should function as a model that we are to imitate and that Jesus gives the "poor a new perspective and shows the rich how they can live" (cf. Mark 10:43-45). Finally, Green and Baker are helpful when they draw attention to the notions of shame and honor that need to complement those of guilt and justice; and we do well to learn from their understanding of the different voices in the one New Testament choir that make up a delicate harmony of "wonderful hints of powerful melodies contending with countermelodies."

One group of voices, however, is consistently banned from choir practice: the legal metaphor, and in particular the notion of penal substitution, hardly gets to sing along. Perhaps the shrillness of these voices in the past is one of the reasons why people are tired of listening to them. A lack of historical awareness, individualism, and a legalistic attitude are not alien to the evangelical mindset. Neither would I dispute that to some extent these problems go back to certain emphases in the Reformation itself. Fear of tradition, distrust of the Church as an institution, and a focus on the individual's sin and forgiveness have certainly influenced the evangelical North American outlook in unhealthy ways. To the degree that an exclusive focus on penal substitution has contributed to such myopia, I welcome the return of the other traditional models of atonement theology.

But does this mean that penal substitution has no place at all in a proper understanding of the atonement? Aren't there virtues as well as liabilities to the individualizing emphasis of penal substitution? Ray's preoccupation with the question of power leads to a narrow definition of sin. She neglects both the vertical dimension of sin—human rebellion against God—and its personal dimension.

Moreover, the fundamental notion of substitution clearly comes with biblical warrant. In fact, both Den Heyer and Green and Baker acknowledge that substitution is part of the biblical picture. "Paul need no longer experience judgement," comments Den Heyer, "for Christ did that 'for him' on the cross. So the expression 'for us' or 'for him' can also take on the meaning 'in our/his/my place.'" Green and Baker maintain that the logic of Jesus' death as a sacrifice "introduces Christ's dual role in his death—his substitution for humanity before God and in the face of God's justice, but also his substitution for God in the face of human sin."

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