Atonement: Wrath or Rescue?

by, Cynthia A. Quarles

Hello Everyone! I am so happy to connect with you through this blog.

What I am sharing with you all is a passion of my heart. It is a message I believe is rapidly replacing one of the most entrenched and widely held beliefs in evangelical Christianity. In my estimation this long held belief is also one of the most damaging falsehoods we have believed about God. Many thinking people flee from it into the shelter of atheism. Christians find they cannot fully trust God as a loving Father, but are unable to pin-point the reason. The horrors of every kind of abuse stem from it. Its tentacles reach into all aspects of society in the form of violence and justified war. Once I saw it for the lie it is, most of what I thought I knew about basic Christianity was shaken to the point of deconstruction. Once I began to grasp the truth I am about to share, the rebuild began – beautiful, restorative and victorious!

As I look back on the rubble and rebuild, I would not trade it for anything. I recognize it as the beginning of the great turn-around that radically transformed how I see and relate to God. I am forever grateful to Dr. C. Baxter Kruger, Dr. Jonathan Welton, Bertie Brits, Dr. Gregory Boyd, Brad Jersak, N.T. Wright, and many others there is not room enough here to name. These men have had great influence and played a major role in my private (most of the time) revolution. Thank you. We experience and live what we believe at a heart level. My heart is at rest, able now to more fully trust a God who is better than I think any of us know.

Early on I determined to begin this blog by describing a dream I had a few years ago. It is a dream I recognized as a “God dream,” that it contained a profound message for me personally and possibly for many others. Sitting down to write this blog in June 2016, I pulled out the journal where I had recorded the dream, just to refresh my memory of its details. Lo and behold the date of the dream: June 24, 2013. Almost three years to the day of the writing of this blog! God does have a keen sense of timing, doesn’t he?

Before I get to the main content of this message, please allow me to share the dream. Later I will share its interpretation, and how it relates to the subject of this blog.

Dream: That Thing is Coming Down

I was driving a car I had owned years before. It was my old red ‘65 Chevy Impala Sport Coupe, with the original 283 engine. I was attempting to park this long, wide, heavy vehicle straight into a parking space. The space seemed too short so I was easing the car up bit by bit to get it as close to the building as possible. As I did, the front bumper tapped (and I emphasize very gently tapped) one of several poles holding up a tall structure. With that one easy tap, the entire thing began to fall. It was coming down and people were running out to escape the falling structure. It just kept coming down and coming down.

Suddenly the scene changed and I was now across the lot a short distance, staring in amazement at the damage and continuing fall of this building. All this from a single little tap of my car to one pole of the building! Just then a woman came up very close beside me, put her mouth right at my ear and said in an accusing tone, “You know you weren’t supposed to park there.” Fear rose up. I imagined being taken to court, sued, made to pay for damages – all the bad stuff that could come to mind in this situation. But then there arose in me an answer to the accusation: When they take you to court, this is what you say, “It was the weakness of the structure that brought it down.”

Atonement: The Pole Holding Up the Building

Evangelical Christianity’s widely held doctrine of atonement typically goes like this:

• God is Holy and cannot look on sin.
• God is Just. Justice demands payment for a wrong. For God to forgive sin, punishment is required because His justice demands it.
• But, God is also love. In order to honor His holiness and satisfy His justice, God, in His love, sent Jesus.
• Jesus was our substitute. God’s wrath was poured out as punishment on Jesus instead of us, satisfying God’s justice that demands payment.
• A blood sacrifice was made, appeasing God’s anger for sin.
• God can now offer forgiveness for sin because Jesus, as our substitute, met the demands of a Holy and Just God.

Sound familiar? This, my brothers and sisters, is what is referred to in theological terms as “The Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement” – penal, having to do with penalty or punishment; substitution, having to do with “instead of.” It is the theory of atonement held firmly by most western evangelicalism, from mainline denominations to independent non-denominational churches – including many so-called “grace” believing and teaching churches and ministries.

A Brief Historical Tracing

Although there is more history leading up to it than I want to take space for here, the bulk of this doctrine of atonement came to us from none other than John Calvin. Yes, the same John Calvin who unleashed his system of 5-Point Calvinism into the earth, paralyzing much of the church and holding captive multitudes of good people in its tormenting bondage. I don’t think I know of a more demonically inspired system than Calvinism. It is truly hellish.

To make a long story short, Calvin, being a lawyer in criminal law, took Anselm’s feudal Lord concept of “God has been dishonored, his honor must be restored and the debt satisfied” theory, and altered it into “God’s legal requirements for justice demand punishment by death for wrong-doing.” Thus, the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, as I have described above, perpetrated and perpetuated from the pulpits of evangelicalism week in and week out.

Problems with Penal Substitutionary Atonement

If we take off Calvin’s legal lens and look at atonement again, we can begin to see the weakness of Penal Substitution.

God is Holy and cannot look on sin.
• I do not see this in the way God dealt with fallen Adam. Did God throw His arms up over His face and scream, “Ooohhh! I can’t go down there! There is sin there! They have sinned!!!”? Or, do we see God, knowing what has occurred and the seriousness of it, walking through the Garden as usual to meet with his friends, calling their name, and when He finds them hiding in fear, tenderly cares for and clothes them?
• Abraham. Lied twice, both times putting his wife in dicey situations in order to save himself. God brought him out smelling like a rose, continued to talk and have relationship with him, and called Abraham his friend.
• Jesus, God incarnate, the one who said “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father,” must have forgotten that thing about God not being able to tolerate sin. The entire earth and all of mankind was full of it! Yet, Jesus came smack dab into the middle of our darkness, eating and drinking with us.
• And what about the Father? John says over and over “the Father sent the Son.” What was He thinking, sending the second person of the Godhead into the midst of all this sin that He can’t look upon?

God is Just. Justice demands payment for a wrong. For God to forgive sin, punishment is required because His justice demands it.
• Again, we must remove the legal lens and look again. Many times in the Old Testament, God’s righteousness and justice are in the context of raising up those who are bowed down, delivering the oppressed, validating widows and orphans, taking care of the poor, feeding the hungry, etc. It is restorative. It is “making it right.”

But, God also is love. In order to honor His holiness and satisfy His justice, God, in His love, sent Jesus.
• Does God have conflict within Himself?
• Can the very essence of His being be altered by something outside Himself?

Jesus was our substitute. God’s wrath was poured out as punishment on Jesus instead of us, satisfying God’s justice that demands payment.
• The most dysfunctional family on earth you can imagine, where a parent will inflict torture and death on one of their children so he can feel better about the other ones who have misbehaved – this is Jesus’ Abba???

A blood sacrifice was made, appeasing God’s anger for sin.
• God takes no pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices (stated twice in scripture). They were not his preference in how he related to Israel.
• It is important to note that the Passover lamb was not a sacrifice for sin, but a covenant celebration of rescue from bondage and slavery. That is important for later.

God can now offer forgiveness for sin because Jesus, as our substitute, met the demands of a Holy and Just God.
• If this is our stance, then we have concluded that the Law is central, has always been the point and is the overarching message of the Bible. The Law was never the point. It was not God’s choice. It was added. He worked with what He had in order to fulfill His covenant with Abraham that through him and his Seed (Jesus), all the nations of the earth would be blessed!

(For further study and insight into this, I recommend “Understanding the Whole Bible”, by Dr. Jonathan Welton for a clearer understanding of God’s covenants with Abraham and Israel.)

• Even working from the legal context of penal substitution I fail to see any logic in payment and forgiveness. If I were to pay a large debt you owed, can the lender then say to you, “I have forgiven your debt?” No! Payment negates forgiveness, and vice versa.

This one point alone hinders Christians, at a heart level, from trusting God. Our very definition of forgiveness is distorted because we are working within a legal paradigm. But even in that paradigm, its own definition of forgiveness makes no sense. No wonder the confusion in so many hearts!

 

Another View of Atonement

Let the Reconstruction Begin!

To restate a previous point: IF WE HAVE DETERMINED GOD IS WORKING FROM A LEGAL STANDPOINT IN THE ATONEMENT, THEN WE HAVE CONCLUDED THAT THE LAW IS CENTRAL AND IS THE OVERARCHING MESSAGE OF THE BIBLE.

However, if we think and reason from the platform of God as Father, the One from whom every family in heaven and earth is named (Ephesians 3:14,15); We are his image and likeness. We are His offspring. If we see Him as the Father who so loved the world that He gave Jesus (John 3:16) in order to satisfy the great and wonderful and intense love He has for us (Ephesians 2:4 AMP), then we will see atonement for what it really is.

Punishment or Rescue?

Paul gives poignant descriptions in Galatians and Romans of the whole world in bondage to sin and death. God’s man was stolen, kidnapped in a sense, taken into slavery and held captive. Isaiah’s suffering servant passages provide a type and shadow of this for us. The story of Israel in captivity, the servant’s identification with them in their suffering, and embedded in it God’s plan for their ultimate rescue.

Sacrifice and the Death of Sin

By taking the sin of the world upon Himself, Jesus freed us from sin by dying with it. What held us in bondage died. What we were enslaved to died. What a beautiful, self-giving, self-sacrificing love!

Was Jesus a sacrifice? Yes, but in what sense? In the sense of a blood sacrifice to appease an angry God? Or in the sense of self-sacrificing love, willing to give himself for the rescue of all mankind? And the Father, willing to offer his son in order to rescue their beloved. This was an occurrence within God Himself. It was God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (II Cor. 5:19). [Note it was not Christ reconciling God to the world].

True Forgiveness

Was sin forgiven? YES! In its true sense, sin was forgiven!

Let’s take a look…

• Vines expository dictionary defines forgive as, “to send away, set free.”
• Vines defines the word forgiveness this way, “a release, from bondage, imprisonment, etc.”

Jesus carried sin into death and set us free! Sin was sent away. We are released from the bondage and imprisonment of it!

John 1:29
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said,
“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

This is forgiveness in God’s vocabulary!

This is a good place to say it again: The first Passover lamb and the yearly celebration thereafter was not a sacrifice for sin. It was a covenant meal and celebration of rescue from bondage and slavery.

THE CROSS WAS NOT PUNISHMENT. THE CROSS WAS A RESCUE!

Substitution or Identification?

Jesus identified with us in every way. Jesus, who was in the beginning with God, was God, and by whom all things consist – this Jesus became flesh and pitched His tent among us. He became our tent mate. He had friends, family, went to parties, ate, drank, got hot, cold, hungry, tired. Jesus wept. He became us. He lived our life. He died our death. And in dying He took with Him our sin. Sin died when Jesus died.

That is good news, but there is more! God raised Him from the dead! It was a human that was resurrected from death. Jesus conquered death as a man.

There is more! It was a human who ascended into heaven! The incarnation (God become flesh) did not end with Jesus’ death. I love the way Gerrit Scott Dawson expresses it in his book, Jesus Ascended, “The Godhead is not stripped of humanity, but adorned with it.” That sounds like the heart of an adoring Father! Continuing in his divinity and retaining His humanity, Jesus, the firstborn from among the dead, is seated at the Father’s right hand!

Just when we think it can’t get any better, it does! We can now identify with Jesus in every way, in all that He is, realizing union with the God-Man seated at the Father’s right hand.

Paul the Apostle understood identification and union like no other. They are central to his gospel.

Galatians 2:20
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Romans 6:1 – 8
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.

Ephesians 2:4 – 6
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus

Do you see how Christ’s full identification with us in life, death, resurrection and ascension allows you and I to fully identify with him in it all, experiencing all that He is, in the here and now?

Identification and union are a far cry from substitution. Jesus was our substitute only in the sense that He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. To say that he experienced anything “instead” of us, and not “as” us, eliminates completely the power of identification and union.

JESUS DID NOT SUFFER AND DIE AS OUR SUBSTITUTE. HE DIED, RESURRECTED AND ASCENDED AS US!

Back to the Dream

The Interpretation

The ’65 Impala (a classic car) represents the classic Gospel. The building is Evangelical Christianity in its current form. The pole that was bumped, I believe, is Penal Substitution. Once that thing is tapped everything that hinges on it, is connected to it, or supported by it will come tumbling down with it. The entire system is acutely unstable and is coming down under the weight of its own profound weakness. The collapse has already begun and continues. Many have escaped the falling rubble, left the premise altogether and begun to build anew.

Conclusion and Afterword

At the beginning of this post, I made the statement about a falsehood we have believed that has permeated western evangelicalism to its detriment, and consequently the world’s. That falsehood is the theory of atonement we have put forth since Calvin. The countering view I have presented is not new. It has been around since the early church fathers and, from my understanding, the only one supported in scripture. It is the same view held by Eastern Orthodoxy (one-third of the Christian church). It is, in my humble but steadfast opinion, the classic gospel. This is the good news to proclaim to the world. They are hungry for it.

I do hope I have given you things that you will contemplate. I must tell you it was a journey for me. I did not come to these conclusions overnight. I had a lot of questions and “what abouts.” I had to rely on the Holy Spirit to lead and guide me into all truth, as Jesus promised He would. I do not have all the answers and do not pretend to. I can only encourage you not to reject anything out of hand just because “that is not what we believe,” or because you don’t understand it currently. If you are open, you will find answers and understanding will come.


Books I can recommend that helped me:

• Jesus and the Undoing of Adam, by C. Baxter Kruger, PhD.
• Understanding the Whole Bible, by Dr. Jonathan Welton
• Christus Victor, by Gustaf Aulen
• Stricken by God?, a compilation of essays by theologians of various traditions, edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin

Other resources:

• Anything by Bertie Brits at www.dynamicministries.com (Bertie has an understanding of God as Father and family and sees the bigger picture of resurrection and immortality, better than anyone on the planet today! His messages have changed my life.)
• Anything (particularly this subject) by Dr. Gregory Boyd on YouTube or his church website www.whchurch.org
• I highly recommend Welton Academy, an online Bible School. www.weltonacademy.com

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