If atonement ain’t penal, why the cross?

The theory of penal substitutionary atonement provides a clear, simple-to-understand explanation of the events of Holy Week. On the cross the eternal Son endures the wrath of God for the sins of the world. He stands in our place; he suffers the punishment due our iniquities, pays the debt we could not pay ourselves. There’s only one problem—if taken literally, the theory severely distorts the gospel. It introduces retribution directly into the heart of the Father, thus requiring the invention of a device by which to reconcile the warring principles of justice and mercy. The result is the barbaric PSA-sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth. The propitiatory sacrifice becomes the principal focus of preaching: “You are sinners living under the judgment of the cross. Believe on the Savior who has paid for your sins, lest you be eternally damned.” We have heard this message from our pastors on Sunday mornings, from television and camp meeting evangelists, from Sunday school teachers and youth ministers. Here in America it has shaped our religious and cultural identities since the First Great Awakening in the 18th century.

But does this notion of penal substitutionary atonement make sense? Fr Herbert McCabe thinks not:

So God the Son became man so that by his suffering and death he could pay the price of sin. This seems to be based on an idea of punishment as a kind of payment, a repayment; the criminal undergoing punishment ‘pays his debt to society’, as we say. It takes a divine man, however, to pay our debt to divine justice.

Now, I can make no literal sense of this idea, whether you apply it to criminals or to Christ. I cannot see how a man in prison is paying a debt to society or paying anything else at all to society. On the contrary, it is rather expensive to keep him there. I can see the point in the criminal being bound to make restitution to anyone he has injured, when that is possible; but that is not the same as punishment. I can see the point in punishment as something painful that people will want to avoid and (we may reasonably hope) something to encourage them to avoid committing crimes; but this is not paying a debt. It is impossible to see Christ on the cross as literally engaged either in making restitution or in serving as a warning to others. If God will not forgive us until his son has been tortured to death for us then God is a lot less forgiving than ever we are sometimes. If a society feels itself somehow compensated for its loss by the satisfaction of watching the sufferings of a criminal, then society is being vengeful in a pretty infantile way. And if God is satisfied and compensated for sin by the suffering of mankind in Christ, he must be even more infantile. (“Good Friday,” God Matters, pp. 91-92)

The Christian tradition has long juggled various metaphors by which to speak of our Lord’s atoning death on the cross–satisfaction, ransom, debt, expiation, liberation, victory. But of course these are metaphors drawn from our daily lives. We should not think of them as literally applying to the divine work of atonement, and we distort that divine work if we so interpret them. Every metaphor includes a denial, a not. This is a good thing, as it allows the Church to draw on a wide range of figurative expressions by which to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. The metaphorical not saves us from a great deal of nonsense. “No theory and no metaphor is going to exhaust the mystery of the cross,” writes McCabe, “and by the same token the most peculiar theories and models may have some light to shed on it provided we do not taken them too literally” (p. 92).

So if the atonement ain’t penal, why the cross? It hardly suffices to think of Calvary as mere happenstance, accidental to the dominical life. Jesus certainly did not think so: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day” (Matt 20:18-19). Our Lord both anticipated his death and understood it as the inevitable culmination of his work. He knew that the priestly authorities would reject his messianic mission, and he knew that the Roman authorities would deem him a threat to the social order. Thus one answer to the question “Why did Christ die on the cross?” would be: “He died because those who held power did not recognize in him the saviour they awaited and so found him merely a subversive nuisance, which was quite enough for the colonial power to have him crucified” (p. 91). But McCabe finds this historical explanation ultimately inadequate. It does not explain why the cross became the central symbol of Christian identity and evangelistic mission.

Why did Christ die on the cross? Because of his faithfulness to his divine mission, and his divine mission was this—to be human, truly and fully human:

Well, then, did the Father want Jesus to be crucified? And, if so, why? The answer as I see it is again: No. The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wishes is that Jesus should be human … And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human. This is his obedience, an expression of his love for the Father; the fact that to be human means to be crucified is not something that the Father has directly planned but what we have arranged. We have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not involve suffering.

Jesus accepted the cross in love and obedience, and his obedience was to the command to be human. Let me explain what I mean. As I see it, not Adam but Jesus was the first human being, the first member of the human race in whom humanity came to fulfilment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love—for this is what human beings are for. The aim of human life is to live in friendship—a friendship amongst ourselves which in fact depends on a friendship, or covenant, that God has established between ourselves and him. (p. 93)

To be human, suggests McCabe, is to love freely, spontaneously, courageously, generously, not holding back from self-giving for fear of being hurt or impoverished or enslaved or killed. To love is to live beyond ourselves, to abandon ourselves to God and to others. “We need to lose our selves in love,” comments McCabe; “this is what we fear.” We fear the loss of control. We fear the risk of adventure. We fear that if we make ourselves available to life, we will find only death. And so we deny “the summons into life” and withdraw into our self-made, but ultimately futile, securities. That we do so is our sin, our death, our hell:

Our greatest talents and creative powers turn against us in destruction unless they are in the service of love, unless they are used in obedience to this mysterious call to transcend ourselves. We cannot live without love and yet we are afraid of the destructive creative power of love. We need and deeply want to be loved and to love, yet when that happens it seems a threat, because we are asked to give ourselves up, to abandon our selves; and so when we meet love we kill it. (p. 95)

Now extrapolate this deep fear of life into the economic and political structures, the structures our fear has created and into which we are born. We have made a world in which anyone who ventures into generosity and charity must be destroyed. Such it has always been, as far back as we can see; such it will always be, as far forward as we can see. We pass this world of sin and death to our children, unto the third and fourth generations. The Church calls this original sin.

Jesus was the first human, McCabe asserts, who had no fear of love and therefore had no fear of being human:

Jesus had no fear of being human because he saw his humanity simply as gift from him whom he called ‘the Father’. You might say that as he lived and gradually explored into himself, asking not just the question ‘Who do men say that I am?’ but ‘Who do I say that I am?’ he found nothing but the Father’s love. This is what gave all the meaning to his life—the love which is the ultimate basis and meaning of the universe. However he would have put it to himself (and of this we know nothing), he saw himself as simply an expression of the love which is the Father and in which the Father delights. His whole life and death was a response in love and obedience to the gift of being human, an act of gratitude and appreciation of the gift of being human. (p. 95)

Jesus knew God as the absolute love who had brought him into being and thus knew him as his Father; and in knowing him as Father, he knew himself as the Son of the Father, come into the world to faithfully communicate to mankind the love of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. For this reason, and ultimately for no other reason, the world found it necessary to nail him to the cross:

So my thesis is that Jesus died of being human. His very humanity meant that he put up no barriers, no defences against those he loved who hated him. He refused to evade the consequences of being human in our inhuman world. So the cross shows up our world for what it really is, what we have made it. It is a world in which it is dangerous, even fatal, to be human; a world structured by violence and fear. The cross shows that whatever may be remedied by this or that political or economic change, there is a basic wrong, persistent through history and through all progress: the rejection of the love that casts out fear, the fear that without the backing of terror, at least in the last resort, human society and thus human life cannot exist. The cross, then, unmasks or reveals the sin of the world. (p. 97)

Why did we nail Jesus to the cross?
Because we needed to be rid of him.

Why did Jesus accept the cross?
Because of love.

What did the cross accomplish?

(Go to “Paschal Mystery”)

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8 Responses to If atonement ain’t penal, why the cross?

  1. Roger McDermott says:

    Thank you, Fr Kimel, for your welcome meditation. Could you point me to any reading in the writings of the Church Fathers that also cover this ground.
    Many thanks and Happy Easter.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, Roger. It’s difficult to direct you to single primary works, as the reflections of the Fathers on the cross are occasional, unsystematic, and scattered throughout their writings. The classic work is St Athanasius, On the Incarnation. Also read St Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 45, found in Festal Orations.

      Among secondary works, a good place to begin is Fr Patrick Reardon, Reclaiming the Atonement.


  2. “He died of being human….” What a stunning way to put it. As Metropolitan Anthony said, in solidarity with us. This article will give me a lot to meditate on during Holy Week. Thank you, Father.


  3. Garreth ashe says:

    Father, what you are really endorsed is recapulation or what kierkegaard meant by repetition is that the human form is giving back to us anew because Christ makes all things new. Amen to that.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Quite right. McCabe focuses on Christ’s humanization when speaking of atonement, but elsewhere he speaks of our divinization in Christ–two sides of the same coin.


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Questions over at FB have been raised by St Anselm’s and St Nicholas Cabasilas’s substitutionary formulations of the atonement. It may be noted that their formulations lack the penal dimension of retributive justice, as noted by Fr Patrick Reardon.


  5. Ben says:

    Wow! I notice you did not use a single scripture reference to substantiate your “thesis.” Reads like a fluffy, friend of the world, pooh-bear god. Explain the 38 uses of the word “wrath” in the NT and how that wrath is avoided. Here’s a few verses to chew on:

    “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:36)

    “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” (John 12:27-28)
    “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:22)
    “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. (Isa 53:10)
    “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (John 3:16-19)


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You’re absolutely right, Ben. I did not cite specific Bible verses, firstly, because the article is largely a summary of McCabe’s reflections on the topic, secondly, because I assume that my readers are already to some degree acquainted with the the biblical witness, and thirdly, because I do not read Greek, I lack the competence to do sound exegesis. Hence I must decline your challenge to explain the 38 uses of “wrath” in the New Testament. But more crucially, I have found that when people lack a grasp of the absolute love of God and the scandalous unconditionality of his grace, they inevitably read the Bible wrongly. Citing specific Bible verses usually proves unfruitful, therefore.

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