If you grew up as a conservative Christian, you grew up with penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). If you were like me, you didn’t realize it, because you only knew it as salvation, and it didn’t occur to you that there could be more than one way of understanding it, because a core feature of conservative Christianity is that there is only one way of understanding most things. Or, at least that is what conservative Christianity says about itself, even as it makes room for all kinds of questionable theology in pursuit of greater political power.
Above, Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (15th century). As in many depictions of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb that God requires to atone for human sin, the lamb is shown bleeding into a chalice such as the one used in communion services.
For me, unlearning penal substitutionary atonement was a multi-step process. In college, I first encountered the feminist and womanist description of penal substitutionary atonement as divine child abuse, a criticism that has been around in some form since at least the time Anselm laid out the satisfaction theory of atonement in Cur Deus Homos in the late 11th century. But even when I found voices who articulated my life-long unease with a soteriology–a doctrine of salvation–based on metaphors of domestic violence, I didn’t see any options. If Christianity demanded a belief in Christ’s death in order to satisfy God’s offended honor (Anselm’s theory) or to bear a punishment that was due to humans (the theology of Calvin and many others, including all the evangelicals I knew)–well, what if I didn’t? Was that the end of Christianity for me?
I never really actually wrestled with that question. For me, it was easy enough to trust that bad theology didn’t have the power to end my faith–even though it did do real harm to me and people I love (but that is a story for another day!).
Above, Matthias Grünewald’s John the Baptist (1510-1515) shows John pointing forward, at his feet a lamb (representing Jesus) carrying a small cross and with a cup (for the wine at the Last Supper, where Jesus explicitly predicts his death and indicates to his friends that he will be betrayed). This detail is from a larger altarpiece that once adorned a monastary of the Order of St. Anthony at Isenheim.
But I know many others for whom lousy theology–and the theology of penal substitutionary atonement in particular–became giant obstacles to faith. Some of them wrote to me around Good Friday in response to a story I shared on social media:
My eleven-year-old daughter is relatively well-churched, so it didn’t occur to me that Holy Week would throw her for a theological loop. (I’m not sure why, since I’m the primary caretaker of her spiritual development, so I should have been more aware.) We’d gone to Maundy Thursday services and then to a Good Friday service, both at churches were we don’t typically attend and, it turns out, are a lot more theologically conservative (which is to say, they are pretty typical of American Protestantism) than where we do usually go. Unsurprisingly, the sermon was about Jesus’ death, and the message was so familiar to me that it didn’t even register as troubling: Jesus was both God and man, fully perfect and fully human and thus able to bridge the gap between God and us. Since people are innately depraved, we are both undeserving and unable to bridge the gap of sin that divides us, because of our original sin, from a holy God. God, in his absolute holiness, cannot tolerate that sin. Graciously, God provides a sacrifice that, because he is both human and God, can create a bridge between our sinfulness and his holiness: Jesus. In accepting this in our hearts, we enter into a transaction in which Jesus’ death is a substitution for the punishment that each of us individually deserves. Pretty basic stuff, if you grew up in a PSA-preaching church. As part of the Good Friday service, we were invited to write our individual sins on a square of red paper, then bring them forward to nail them to a wooden cross at the front of the church –a theologically troubling idea, even for a PSA-church, given that it’s not just our individual mistakes (sometimes called sins with a lower-case “s”) but our very nature (sin with an upper-case S) that divides us from God, but since I don’t adhere to PSA theology anyway, I’m not too bothered by seeing it done poorly.
On the other hand, this entire episode wrenched my daughter’s heart. She was first, horrified at the theology, which I realized in the midst of this scene that I’d never even introduced her to. Then she was saddened by the thought of so many people believing it, then even sadder since she knew this meant that they didn’t understand something kinder. For me growing up, salvation WAS penal substitutionary atonement; I didn’t know it could be otherwise; for her, she didn’t even know that PSA existed–and then wondered how salvation could be that at all.
When I shared this story on social media, several people asked me what in the world I meant that PSA wasn’t the only option for understanding salvation or Jesus’ death. Some asked with relief, hoping that they would discover an understanding of Jesus’ death that didn’t rely on the violence of PSA. Others asked with worry–wondering just how far away from traditional Christianity I had wandered. (Good news! It’s totally within the Christian tradition to hold other views on Jesus’ death and resurrection.)
Because the answer is long–there are many, many ways of understanding that are part of the Christian tradition–I will lay out some of the most significant ones in Christian history in a post devoted to just that topic.
For me, though, it was the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective that pointed the way. Though the progressives in the Mennonite tradition have a somewhat contentious relationship with this document, which has been used, rather than as the guiding tool as which it was created, as a cudgel, I have a lot of love for it. Mostly because of Footnote 1 to Article 8 (“Salvation”). The footnote begins: “In the history of Christian thought, there have been three major views of the atonement.”
Well, there are a lot more than three, as I’ll share next time, but, for me, what was so important was that a document that declared itself to be guidance to my faith allowed space for multiple ways in and forward. That recognition broke open my faith, and it’s one of my favorite parts about being Mennonite–that, at our best, we respect others’ consciences and encourage each other to think deeply about our theological choices rather than to just assume them. Of course, not all of us do, and none of us do it perfectly, but that this would be valued enough to be written into the Confession made me feel welcome in the Mennonite faith in a way that a church that demanded loyalty to PSA couldn’t do; I would always have been a liar in such a church, and it’s far nicer to be in a place where I’m not.