Substitutionary versus anti-substitutionary theories: both lose, one more than the other

Read time: 8 minutes

Having critiqued Owen Strachan’s defence of the atonement doctrine, it seems only fair to examine a thesis from the anti-substitutionary camp. My friend Scott pointed me to Chuck Queen’s combative essay on the Baptist News site: “It’s time to end the hands-off attitude to substitionary atonement”. It will do nicely.

Queen bundles together a number of related motifs under the heading of substitutionary atonement: bearing the penalty for sin, paying the debt of sin, ransoming the sinner, bearing the wrath of God, propitiating God, and the imputation of humanity’s sin to Christ on the cross.

At the heart of all these concepts, he says, is “the idea that Jesus died in the sinner’s place (in the sinner’s stead or in the sinner’s behalf), as a sinless, innocent sacrifice, taking on the sinner’s punishment”.

Queen’s analysis

For many Christians this is simply gospel truth. It’s what scoring goals is to football/soccer—the whole point of the exercise, everything else is just tactics. Queen thinks it is simply wrong and levels two main criticisms at it.

First, he argues that substitutionary atonement as a theoretical explanation of the significance of Jesus’ death is “seriously flawed” because it “makes God the source of redemptive violence”.

God required/demanded a violent death for atonement to be made. God required the death of an innocent victim in order to satisfy God’s offended sense of honor or pay off a penalty that God imposed. What kind of justice or God is this? Would a loving parent make forgiveness for the child conditioned upon a violent act?

Queen thinks that if God is sovereign, this is completely unnecessary. God is not bound by some principle of justice external to himself that stipulates that an innocent victim must be violently killed before sinners can be forgiven. There is nothing to stop him simply forgiving people “the way a loving parent would forgive sin”.

The theory of substitutionary atonement, as Queen sees it, reflects a more “primitive view of God” than that taught by Jesus. In the ancient world it was widely assumed that sacrifice was required in order to placate an angry diety, but Jesus regarded God as Abba, a “loving, compassionate parent”. “The God of Jesus would have no need to save us from God’s self.”

Secondly, Queen maintains that the theory of substitutionary atonement “reduces salvation to a legal transaction that has nothing to do with the actual transformation of the individual”—what Dallas Willard called “bar-code faith”. If God looks at the sinner and only sees the righteousness of Christ, there is little incentive for believers to change their behaviour.

How to rid ourselves of this “terrible doctrine”

So what does Queen propose instead? How are we to dethrone the “terrible doctrine” of substitutionary atonement?

The first step, he suggests, is to recognise that the sacrificial language used in the New Testament is symbol and metaphor. Queen gives the example of Jesus’ statement that the Son of Man came to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). He argues that in the Septuagint lytron (“ransom”) has already lost the literal sense of “release by paying off the captor” and has come to mean “deliverance or liberation through an act of God’s power”.

In the context of the conversation with the disciples about what it will take to sit at Jesus’ right hand, the point is that their deliverance will be a “liberation from the need to pursue power, position and prestige by being a faithful servant to all people, regardless of station, class or rank”. Substitutionary atonement does not enter into it.

For all its ethical-religious superiority, I would argue that this anti-substitutionary theory simply mirrors the problems of the traditional view.

Then secondly, the positive argument about Jesus’ death is that it sums up the “redemptive meaning of the whole story of Jesus”. It is the culmination of a life of obedience as God’s “agent for mercy and justice in the world”. Jesus bore our sins on the cross in the sense that “as the Son of Man, as the representative human being”, he became the target for the intense opposition of the “powers” or the world to the doing of mercy and justice on behalf of God.

There is no propitiation of an angry God involved in this way of looking at it. “Jesus’ death was a necessity only in the sense that given his prophetic challenge to injustice, his proclamation of the kingdom of God, and his bold critique of his own religion, his death at the hands of the worldly powers was inevitable.” Unfortunately, this all went out of fashion with the upgrading of Christianity to state religion following Constantine.

Paul’s sacrificial metaphors took preference over Jesus’ life and teachings because Paul’s sacrificial metaphors could more easily be adapted to the interests of the empire. The Abba of Jesus, the loving, caring, merciful Father/Mother was replaced as the dominant image of God with a God of wrath who demanded the violent death of a sinless substitute as a ransom for sinners.

Stuck in the theological paradigm

Queen has put forward a clear and cogent argument. He has exposed the glaring moral contradiction at the heart of the traditional theory. He probably overstates the hindrance that atonement doctrine presents to discipleship, but there is some force to the argument. He does a good job of demythologising the language and bringing into the foreground Jesus’ death as a concrete ethical-political reality. He goes some way towards reconnecting the death of Jesus with the life of Jesus.

But for all its ethical-religious superiority, I would argue that this anti-substitutionary theory simply mirrors the problems of the traditional view. It is still stuck in the paradigm.

1. The approach is still theoretical and theological. The narrative context presupposed is the high-level one of God dealing with a world corrupted by sin. No account is taken of the significance of Jesus’ death within the historical narrative about Israel and the nations. So we have simply exchanged one decontextualized rationalisation of the data for another.

2. The eschatological framework, which I would regard as indispensable for interpreting Jesus’ death, is entirely ignored. Jesus died for the historical sins of Israel. His death anticipated the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which under the terms of the covenant must be seen as a final judgment of God against his people. The prospect of extreme violence is a central element in the Gospel narrative, and we cannot extricate Jesus from it without committing our own act of violence against the text.

3. In the context of the Old Testament narrative there is a sense in which Israel must be saved by God from God’s self, but the logic is covenantal rather than personal. The tension is between the the condemnation and punishment of Israel according to the Law and the faithfulness of YHWH to the promises made to the patriarchs. I guess you could say that Romans 9-11 is Paul wrestling with the question of how God would save Israel from God’s self.

4. The argument that substitution is a primitive notion risks dissociating Jesus from the story of Israel. It looks like classic, pre-Sanders liberalism.

5. In my narrative-historical reading of the New Testament “Abba” is not a general Christian name for God; it is the cry of believers, who, like Jesus in Gethsemane (Mk. 14:36), faced the agonising decision of whether to take the way of suffering put before them. The radical intimacy goes with the radical vocation.

In any case, it won’t do to reduce the God of the Gospels, who would send his troops to destroy the “murderers” who killed his servants and burn their city (Matt. 22:7), to a cosy, cosseting, compassionate parent. Jesus’ God is much more complex than that, much more engaged with the historical process.

6. The failure to factor in the eschatological context is apparent from Queen’s discussion of the “ransom for many” saying. He locates the saying in the conversation about status and servanthood. But he fails to locate this conversation in the argument about kingdom.

The sons of Zebedee want to sit at Jesus’ right hand in his kingdom. If they are to attain that elevated status, they must drink the cup that he is about to drink—and even then it’s not guaranteed (Matt. 20:21-24). In other words, those who will reign with Jesus are those who will die for the sake of Jesus. This backs up the argument I put forward recently about what it means to be conformed to the image of Jesus.

Whatever exactly, therefore, the phrase “ransom for many” means, it has to be interpreted within a narrative which culminates in the reign of Christ over the nations (cf. Phil. 2:6-11) and which includes the experience of the disciples, who would take up their own crosses in the expectation of being vindicated with him at the parousia.

It seems likely to me that the saying about “giving his soul as a ransom for many” echoes the description of the righteous “servant” whose soul was given over to death, who bore the sins of exiled Israel, who was given over because of Israel’s sins (Is. 53:11-12 LXX). This is not substitutionary atonement: it is the righteous suffering along with the unrighteous, because of the unrighteous. But it is also part of a story of the punishment and deliverance of Israel.

7. Queen wrongly, in my view, identifies Jesus as the Son of Man as the “representative human being” rather than as the representative of righteous Israel. Again, the cluttered scenery and props of the story of Israel and the nations, which has now taken on a vivid apocalyptic aspect, have been removed, leaving God, Jesus, the church and the world standing on an empty cosmic stage.

8. The “kingdom of God” is likewise given an a-historical, humanistic spin. The coming of the kingdom of God in the New Testament is the foreseen intervention of YHWH to judge his own people and establish his rule over the nations through his Son. This does not mean that the church today should not bear resolute, faithful and constructive witness against injustice, only that we should not confuse that with the New Testament’s interest in the imminent intervention of God to judge Israel and the pagan nations.

Andrew -

Thanks for writing this post. I think it may be worth differentiating between substitutionary atonement and PENAL substitutionary atonement. I believe the former is biblical, but the latter (at least in the systematic, theological sense of the modern-day evangelical) is not biblical.

I appreciate how you continue to imbibe the NT with the historical narrative perspective. It is much more refreshing than the typical systematic approach. And, as you note, Queen perpetuates that method by combining plenty of theological perspectives (and Bible passages) in a pot, stirs them together, and produces a finished system.

My question would still be, in our own “progressed narrative,” can we re-envision the Bible’s teachings into our own setting? I know that’s what you are looking to do, but I mean it a bit differently from your own historical narrative perspective. For example, if we are drawn toward a more systematic approach in our world, can we develop our own theological system separate alongside Scripture that helps make sense of God being active our own narrative, a narrative VERY DIFFERENT from a first-century Jewish one. I suppose it’s akin to some kind of trajectory hermeneutics in thinking through the abolition of slavery, full inclusion of women in ministry, etc, etc. We know what the narrative of the NT may or may not teach (slavery is ok; it’s still somewhat patriarchal), so how do we re-envision things now?

So, in this case, the NT still envisions God as using violence to accomplish his redemptive purposes. Is it possible to re-envision our understanding of God that he is not a violent, retributive One, using such to bring about redemption? Otherwise, we may be able to say that the Crusades or colonial expansion were acts of God — and folk have done that plenty over history.

It’s a very good question. I have a couple of quick thoughts by way of an inadequate response response.

1. I would push the argument that the historical understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death for the sins of Israel (with the somewhat unforeseen consequence that Gentiles would be included in the new covenant people on the basis of their belief that God had raised his Son from the dead) is sufficient for the church today. If we feel the need to bring redemption into our own setting in some way or other, then perhaps we have not grasped the force of the historical event. Our we just hedging our bets?

2. I’m all in favour of keeping violence out of our own story, but history does that for us. AD 70 brought the old covenant arrangement to an end—the “final” destruction and scattering of a rebellious people. Rome was conquered not by violence but by faithful testimony.

Violence was part of the Christendom narrative not because it was integral to the new covenant life of the church but because the church felt that it had no choice but to serve an empire that was willing to confess Jesus as Lord.

That’s all history, now, so our situation is a little easier. The task of the church today as a priestly people is to serve the interests of the creator God in the world. We make far too much of redemption. People become part of the programme if they renounce their old life, take concrete steps to be included in a people that was saved by Jesus’ faithfulness two thousand years ago, confess him as Lord, and serve God in righteousness through the power of the indwelling Spirit. We can say, secondarily, that such people are saved, but the main point is that they have been chosen to serve the living God. So let’s get on with it.

Have you read any David Brondos? I found his Paul on the Cross well done and effective. Here is the Amazon teaser:

Even as theologians and others have become more critical of classic theories of atonement, Brondos maintains, biblical scholars have continued to understand Paul’s soteriology based on the language and categories of a thousand years later. In this vital volume he draws the theological consequences of the “new perspective” on Paul for our understanding of the meaning and efficacy of Jesus” death.

Paul, says Brondos, understood Jesus’ death primarily as the consequence of his mission of serving as God’s instrument to bring about the awaited redemption of Israel, in which Gentiles throughout the world would also be included. For Paul, Jesus’ death is salvific, not because it satisfies some necessary condition for human salvation as most doctrines of the atonement have traditionally maintained, nor because it effects some change in the situation of human beings or the world in general, but because God responded to Jesus’ faithfulness unto death by raising him, ensuring that all the divine promises of salvation would be fulfilled through him.

Jesus’ death forms part of an overarching story culminating in the redemption of Israel and the world; it is this story, and in particular what precedes and follows Jesus’ death on the cross, which makes that death redemptive for Paul.

Still theoretical in some sense but much more historically connected and focused on the story of Israel.

Per Kevin’s mention, I bought the book and, according to my Kindle, I’m almost 30% done.

It appears that what he means by “the world” is that the redemption that God is moved to accomplish includes the Gentiles. So far, I’ve found the book could have come straight off this website (except not as witty and no diagrams). I don’t know if the trend will hold; I feel like I’m being set up for an explanation as to how we are supposed to interpret the “delay” between Jesus’ first and second coming.

But the part of the book I’ve read goes over the popular theological theories of the atonement and demonstrates they have very little connection to the Jewish narrative, which it then goes on to explain very well. In the center of all this is the idea that Jesus’ death doesn’t -do- anything. The significance is in what it motivates God to do.

Brandos seems to think Jesus recognized his mission was much bigger than Israel; it was the redemption of the world. And it wasn’t until after Jesus’ death that his disciples realized this and saw that this mystery was woven throughout the OT.

The argument seems a bit weak to me.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 03/31/2017 - 15:50 | Permalink

I’m drawn to Queen’s approach. Matthew 22:7 is part of a story, which operates like all stories on conventions, not point by point by point comparisons with God’s character and actions. Matthew notably uses conventions of violence more than the other gospels. That doesn’t make them literal.

I’m particularly interested in the phrase “ransom for many”, and appreciate your hesitation to be dogmatic about its meaning, and understand your location of the phrase in your particular eschatology.

Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28 locate the phrase first of all within a discourse on authority and servanthood. The word lutron used in Matthew and Mark for “ransom” is not in the Greek text of Isaiah 53. It does have Paschal associations however with the redeeming or ransoming of Israel from Egypt by God in Exodus and Deuteronomy. (This would fit within your eschatological framework).

Another part of the same discourse has Jesus say ”drink the cup from which I am going to drink”/”drink from my cup”.  “Cup” denotes both judgment and salvation in the OT, but more particularly here the cup of suffering Jesus was about to experience. “Cup”  then also anticipates the cup bearing the wine representing the blood of the (new) covenant drunk by Jesus and the disciples at the last supper. The association of “cup” with the Passover/Exodus meaning of the last supper may also suggest that “ransom for many” might have a Passover/Exodus significance.

There is yet another layer of meaning suggested by lutron however. This is the dark meaning of YHWH’s claim to the firstborn of Israel as his reward for the slaughter of the firstborn of Egypt, subsequently exchanged for the Levites, but on a strict person for person basis — Numbers 3:12-13, 45-46. The idea of a “ransom” of one life for another is developed in Psalm 49:7 and 1 Peter 1:18 — “knowing that you were not redeemed (lutroō)with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot”.

So there is a movement in the meaning of lutron from the redemption or ransoming of a nation, to a person for person ransoming/redemption of the firstborn, to Christ the firstborn’s redemption by his blood.

I’m suggesting that “the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many” has layers of meaning beyond Isaiah 53. (See also Hooker ‘Jesus and the servant’ SPCK 1959). The connection of “ransom” with “many” and the thought of Isaiah 53 may also link Isaiah 53 with the Passover/Exodus in the thought of Matthew and Mark. Somewhat suggestively, Luke refers to Isaiah 53 in his last supper/Passover narrative. (Maybe Daniel 7:13 is there also with “Son of Man”).

Does this suggest a penal substitutionary atonement in “ransom for many? I think it suggests substitution, but not necessary penal. I think we need to be alerted first to the echoes and layering which deceptively simple passages like this may contain.