A commentary on Owen Strachan’s less than biblical defence of the atonement

It appears that famous people like Michael Gungor and William Paul Young, author of The Shack, have been causing a stir by questioning the morality of the doctrine of atonement for sin. Owen Strachan, who is described on the Gospel Coalition website somewhat vaguely as a “systematic professor”, has offered a robust defence of the traditional view: Scandalized by the Substitute: A Response to Young and Gungor. I do not disagree with everything he says, but I think his approach illustrates very well how and why systematic theology is such a poor guide to the meaning of scripture. I offer a brief commentary on several of his statements.

Strachan: Without the satisfaction of God’s holy justice by Christ’s death, the only “justice” we sinners will get is the full fury of God’s holy wrath (Rev. 19:15).

Strachan has got the context completely wrong. Revelation 19 describes, from the perspective of John in the first century, what would happen in heaven following judgment on “Babylon the great”, which is Rome: 1) the celebration of the victory of the martyrs, whose faithful testimony achieved this historical outcome (19:6-10); 2) the establishment of Christ’s rule over the nations (19:11-19); and 3) the defeat of the satanic forces that inspired the hostility of the nations and of Rome against the God of Israel.

The statement about the wrath of God that Strachan highlights comes in the second of these sections:

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. (Rev. 19:15)

What John foresees is Christ’s judgment of the nations formerly ruled by Rome. The language comes from Old Testament passages that describe God’s judgment of his enemies and the rule of his king over the nations (cf. Ps. 2:7-9; 110:5-7; Is. 11:4; 63:3). This is not an absolute wrath of God against all humanity—“wrath” is never used in such terms in scripture—but the wrath of God directed against particular antagonists in order to rectify a particular historical situation.

Strachan: Without Christ’s atoning sacrifice, there is no basis for “true justice” in this world. An unjust, ineffectual God has left us in a realm where no sin is atoned for, no evil is answered, no satanic kingdom is overcome.

Strachan does not explain how he comes to this conclusion, but it seems to me to be back-to-front. It is because there is divine justice in the world that Jesus’ death was necessary. It was because there would be wrath against the Jew that God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. It was because YHWH was righteous and faithful to the promises made to the patriarchs that he put Jesus forward as a propitiation for the sins of Israel (Rom. 3:25). It is because the wages of sin is death that God gave the free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23). God has always been capable of answering evil.

Strachan: This theory also misses the fearsome end-time dimensions of Christ’s atonement. Vengeance yet awaits unrepenting sinners. Every evil thing will come untrue, as the saying goes—and it is cosmic recompense that will make it so. Soon King Jesus will crush his enemies beneath his feet, a violent denouement if there ever was one (Rom. 16:20).

The “theory” is Girard’s popular “scapegoat” argument about the crucifixion—that “Christ’s self-sacrifice overcomes and undoes the world’s system of violence and oppression”, as Strachan summarises it.

Strachan acknowledges that the cross “shows us a better way than the world’s method of violent self-advancement”. But he also seems to relish the prospect of a genuinely violent cosmic-level punishment of your unrepentant friends, family and colleagues.

Strachan’s case is sub-biblical because it deals with the cross of Jesus in isolation from the narrative-historical context which scripture works so hard to establish.

This is again the sort of misreading of New Testament apocalyptic language that we might expect from systematic professors. Paul’s “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” has in view the same victory that we have just read about in Revelation 19:11-21. It is an eschatological outcome in a foreseeable future: “soon” (en tachei) is not redundant. It is a victory achieved not by literal violence but by the “word of God”—by the proclamation of the good news of God’s coming overthrow of classical paganism (cf. Rev. 14:6-7), and by the patient testimony of the saints.

It is not the final judgment of humanity; it is God’s judgment against the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. John’s account of the final judgment of all the dead simply reaffirms the fundamental existential judgment on sinful humanity, which is death: (Rev. 20:15).

Strachan: Some will respond by noting that the cross of Christ has numerous biblical facets. This is gloriously true. Christ’s death secures victory over sin, death, Satan, and hell, a victory realized by his resurrection.

This is ironic. The one “biblical facet” that is persistently, brazenly and inexcusably ignored throughout such “systematic” defences of the atonement is the historical narrative that frames and alone makes sense of Jesus’ death for the sins of Israel. Strachan’s case is sub-biblical because it deals with the cross of Jesus in isolation from the narrative-historical context which scripture works so hard to establish.

Strachan: Like the bull on the Day of Atonement, Christ is slain so his efficacious blood—the life that flows through him—may cover unrighteous law-haters and law-breakers.

This is correct, though not in the way that Strachan intends. As a way of speaking about the significance of Jesus’ death for Israel, it makes good sense. Jesus’ death could be regarded as equivalent or comparable to the Day of Atonement ritual for that people which repeatedly failed to keep the commandments, the Law of Moses (cf. Heb. 9:15). It does not explain the significance of Jesus’ death for Gentiles who were not subject to the covenant made with Moses.

Strachan: What’s truly offends human nature about the atonement is the greatness of the God who forgives through it, the lavish nature of the mercy that flows from it, the salvation for the wicked accomplished by it.

I need somewhere to hang a thought. Here is not perfect, but it will have to do. Modern people certainly find the idea that salvation depends on an act of “cosmic” violence offensive—that’s why Michael Gungor calls the doctrine of atonement for sin “evil” and “horrific”.

I would argue, however, that one of the problems with theoretical or systematic accounts of the atonement is that they don’t take the violence seriously enough.

Biblical violence is not cosmic, it’s historical; it’s not a metaphysical abstraction, it’s real. Jesus’ horrific death on the cross anticipated the horrific suffering that the inhabitants of Judea and Jerusalem would endure during the war against Rome. This was their “hell”, their “judgment of Gehenna”. It was not an accident of history. It was God’s final judgment against his people in accordance with the terms of the covenant. Violence is part of the historical logic of the covenant and must be part of our understanding of the cross.

Strachan: “People think a Christian is one who follows Christ’s teaching and example, but Jesus is not primarily a teacher. He’s a rescuer.”

This is a quote from Tim Keller, which Strachan uses to round off his argument about the atonement—that it’s not an optional extra; it’s central to our doctrine of God. Keller’s statement reflects a modern apologetic concern: in the post-Christian West people are generally happy to think of Jesus as a great moral and spiritual teacher; evangelicalism has made it its mission to show up the inadequacy of this view by insisting on the centrality of the atonement.

I can understand why. But again, it’s less than biblical. What primarily needed to be said about Jesus in the New Testament context was not that he was saviour but that he was Lord—which meant, in properly historical terms, that he would be judge and ruler both of Israel and of the nations of the Greek-Roman world.

Hey Andrew,

Thanks for writing this article. I think your hermeneutic makes a lot of sense. It’s too bad that the narrative historical perspective is such a minority viewpoint in evangelicalism. Progressives and conservatives would have a lot to learn from it.

Thanks again for the emphasis on narrative. I am just over half way through reading the TNK in Hebrew and writing it in English. So far I have not used atonement, or soul, or repent as glosses. They are so far down the dogmatic rabbit-hole I can’t reach them. I haven’t missed Tyndale’s coinage. I find cover-price as a gloss a perfect substitution and easier to grasp in a local context. I find mercy-seat a perfect idea of approach and entry into holiness without having to imagine violence accomplishing love. (But I am not finished yet.)

I like your image of finding a place to hang a thought. Theology as laundry! :)

What is true about this dogma is that it got me going about 45 or 50 years ago to realize that I myself don’t measure up to the so called good thoughts that I consider should be my basis for behaviour. Now I find in Scripture a call to actually behave as a responsible creature. That is enough. I was called. I am responding. I am still full of compromise. But I have a call into kindness that I may achieve … I cannot prejudge the end, but at the bottom of the box is hope.