At the heart of the critique of the traditional doctrine of (penal) substitutionary atonement is a moral revulsion against the idea that a good God would think it necessary to use violence to bring about the redemption of humanity. Chuck Queen, for example, whose argument against substitutionary atonement I reviewed last week, asks what kind of God would require the “death of an innocent victim” in order to satisfy his “offended sense of honor” or pay off a penalty that he himself had imposed in the first place. “Would a loving parent make forgiveness for the child conditioned upon a violent act?”
The problem with this line of thought is that in the Gospels Jesus appears, on the one hand, to predict future violent events which he regarded as direct, concrete expressions of the will of God, and on the other, to have thought of his own death as being entailed in them. In other words, he is not quite the out-and-out pacifist that we would like him to be.
Here is the evidence…
Parables of violence
Matthew has Jesus deliver two parables to the chief priests and elders, back-to-back, in which the enemies of God are violently destroyed.
First, the owner of the vineyard of Israel will put the wicked tenants to a “miserable death” when he comes (Matt. 21:41). In Mark and Luke the language is more prosaic, but the effect is the same: “He will come and destroy the tenants…” (Mk. 12:9; cf. Lk. 20:16).
Secondly, when a king is snubbed by those invited to wedding feast for his son, he sends his troops to destroy “those murderers” and burn their city (Matt. 22:7).
Luke doesn’t have the violent punishment of the guests who excused themselves—they are merely excluded from the banquet. But his version of the parable of the talents culminates in the brutal punishment of the citizens who hated the nobleman and refused to accept his rule over them: “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me” (Lk. 19:27).
The vineyard story is based on Isaiah 5:1-7, which is a prophecy of the violent Babylonian invasion as punishment for the sins of Israel. Having failed to find the fruit of righteousness (“he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed”), the owner of the vineyard removes the protective wall, and the vineyard is trampled over and becomes waste ground. It seems reasonable to assume that Jesus’ parables envisage a similarly catastrophic judgment on first century Jerusalem. Matthew’s development of the parable of the wedding guests certainly has the fate of Jerusalem in view—“the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Matt. 23:37).
A den of robbers
Jesus explains his actions in the temple (Matt. 21:12-13; Mk. 11:15-17; Lk. 19:45-46) by citing Jeremiah 7:11: “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.” What follows makes it clear that the violent destruction of the temple would be an act of God: “Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel” (Jer. 7:11–12). In effect, Jesus has spoken a word of judgment over the temple; he has declared its coming destruction.
The apocalyptic vision
In the Olivet discourse Jesus predicts a time—before the current generation of Jews has passed away—when nation will rise against nation, Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies, there will be great distress upon the land, people will fall by the sword and will be led into captivity, the temple will be thrown down, and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles (Matt. 24:7, 15-22; Mk. 13:8, 14-20; Lk. 21:10, 20-24).
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel he wept over the city because they did not know the time of their “visitation”: “your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you” (Lk. 19:43–44).
Not peace but a sword
Jesus knew that his mission would cause violent divisions within Israel, with members of the same family handing each other over to violence. He had not come to bring peace to the land—he does not mean the whole earth here—but the sword (Matt. 10:34-36; cf. Lk. 12:51-53).
Jesus is deliberately evoking Micah’s description of the day when God would strike his rebellious people “with a grievous blow, making you desolate because of your sins” (Mic. 6:13). The godly have perished from the land. No one can be trusted, “for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house” (Mic. 7:6).
Jesus has in mind the breakdown of Jewish society in the period leading up to the day when God would strike his rebellious people.
Jesus’ death and the violent end of the age
Since all this happened more or less as predicted, there is no need to regard it as figurative language. The only question is whether Jesus thought of it as divine judgment. I don’t see how we can escape the conclusion that he did. It is the owner of the vineyard, the king who puts on a feast for his son, who is directly and explicitly responsible for the extreme violence that will be done to Jerusalem, its leadership and its inhabitants. If the nobleman who receives a kingdom is Jesus, then it appears that Jesus thought of himself as the one who would execute judgment on rebellious Israel in this fashion.
Unless Jesus was an extremely inattentive reader of the Jewish scriptures, we must also conclude that he drew on the prophets precisely to make the point that his Father in heaven—not some remote Old Testament demiurge—would again punish his people in the same catastrophic fashion as he had done in the sixth century.
He is presented to us as the spokesperson for a God who will use large-scale, indiscriminate violence—delivered by the armies of Rome—in order to punish rebellious Israel.
But if that’s the case, I think we also have to conclude that these prophecies of the coming violence of God provide the eschatological context for interpreting the significance of Jesus’ death for Israel.
Jesus’ crucifixion by Rome anticipated the crucifixion of thousands of Jews a generation later by the armies of Vespasian and Titus. Rome routinely crucified Jewish insurrectionists. Josephus describes the wretched fate of a certain Jew “who, by Titus’s orders, was crucified before the wall, to see whether the rest of them would be affrighted, and abate of their obstinacy (Jos. War 5:289). During the siege the starving residents of the city—ordinary people—had no choice but to go outside the walls to scavenge for food. We are told that hundreds were caught each day by the Romans and crucified within sight of the walls.
So the soldiers out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest; when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies. (War 5:451)
This was the punishment of rebellious Israel—or to put it more pragmatically, the punishment that Israel would bring upon its own head by refusing to acknowledge “the things that make for peace” (Lk. 19:42).
Jesus simply drank the cup of God’s wrath, so to speak, in advance. The cup put before him in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:39; Lk. 22:42) was the cup of God’s wrath, the “cup of staggering”, that Jerusalem would soon be given to drink (cf. Is. 51:17, 22; Ezek. 23:31-33).
There is a substitutionary element to this narrative. Jesus suffered so that God’s people might have a future. He opened up a narrow path leading to life. He gave his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45). He was destroyed so that not all of Israel would be destroyed.
But this cannot be read as a general theory of atonement. His followers would have to drink the same cup, undergo the same baptism, and carry their own crosses (Matt. 16:24; 20:22-23; Mk. 8:34; 10:38-39; Lk. 9:23). Their deaths would be substitutionary in more or less the same way.
Drawing the line
So the whole story is premised on the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, interpreted according to the terms of the covenant as God’s final punishment of his rebellious people. Jesus suffered this punishment in anticipation, innocently, and others would suffer with him—including Paul.
It was the disastrous revolt against Rome and the overwhelming imperial backlash, therefore, that finally brought the old covenant to an end. Redemption entailed divine violence because it was part of that end-game.
The overthrow of pagan imperialism, which was also foreseen in the Old Testament—the victory of YHWH over the nations—would be achieved not by violence but by the word of God, the testimony of the saints, the faithful witness of the martyrs.