If someone were to ask you to articulate the gospel message, could you? I would imagine that some of us would falter, stumbling over our words trying to recall the bits and pieces we’ve picked up from the occasional youth group lesson or Easter Sunday sermon. Others of us might be able to rattle off a quick and easy formula. Perhaps you would draw a picture of a chasm with God on one side and us on the other. Or maybe you would show them a Propaganda video on YouTube. However, no matter what you did to explain the gospel to that person, I can almost guarantee that most of us, without even knowing it, would espouse a particular view of the Atonement (Jesus’ saving work) known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement.
While I use to believe in the Penal Substitution view, over the past few years I have come to adopt an alternative view of the atonement, which I will talk about in a later post. But before I explain why I think this alternative works, I’d like to first explain why I think the Penal Substitution view doesn’t.
But first, what exactly is Penal Substitutionary Atonement!?
Penal Substitution understands the gospel message as a simple formula, which I have reduced to three bullet points (for the sake of clarity).
The idea is that God’s sense of justice forced Him to face a difficult dilemma in which He was obligated to inflict nightmarish punishment on His beloved creation, us. As a way of getting around this, God sent Jesus to broker a deal that frees us from the blood-debt that we owed Him. It’s as if God were a judge who was about to sentence mankind to hell, and Jesus steps in and says, “Please, punish me in their place!”
The beauty of this view of the atonement is that it is easy to communicate. It seems to make logical sense. On top of all this, it fits well with the beliefs of many evangelical Christians who hold a Calvinistic/Reformed theology … which makes sense because this view of the Atonement didn’t come to prominence among Christianity until the 16th century during the Protestant Reformation. While the relative newness of this view in Christian history doesn’t immediately negate its validity, it is certainly worth taking into consideration.
There are, however, some difficulties that I have with Penal Substitutionary Atonement. And while none of these contentions are an instant death note for this view, the combination of all of them have led me to disregard Penal Substitution as a coherent and biblical understanding of Jesus’ atoning work.
But, just for starters, I wanted to set up this series by trying to present a simple and fair presentation of the Penal Substitution view. If you still don’t quite understand how it works, watch this cool video.
Next time, I’ll explain some of my reasons for not holding this view. In the mean time…