As a theologian Easter is the hardest time of year for me. Poor theology is rampant from social media posts to good-willed pastors and praise and worship songs sung being belted out with no reserve. Most of people’s theological understanding likely comes from what they have been told or taught casually without really thinking about it for themselves. Most people truly desire to have good theology. In fact, I find well intentioned people that often think they are “theological” taking on some pretty “bad theology.” I truly believe most Christians are well intentioned in their fervor, they just haven’t been taught or presented with a better consideration in regard to Christ’s “work” on the cross and usually can’t identify the problems within what I would consider to be a poor theological framework. Unfortunately, some of the most respected pastors and Christian leaders have fallen into this snare.
Some of what I am going to share will be a surprise to many of you and some of these points are major issues in your understanding of who God is. They are things that people have wrongly attributed to “ALL OF CHRISTIANITY” and in some cases have been the responsible agent of people even leaving the faith.
Here is a brief non exhaustive survey of the main issues within “easter” theology. I think if you consider yourself a fervent follower of Christ you should care and desire to know better about how to understand the way your Jesus loved you and gave his life in a beautiful but gruesome plan for our redemption and why. Let’s focus on the resurrection!
Every year, Christians from around the world gather for worship on Pascha or Resurrection Sunday, in orthodoxy the Holy week is the final day of a weeklong commemoration of the story of Jesus’ final days in the city of Jerusalem leading up to his crucifixion and resurrection. I have a hard time even using the word Easter to describe this time, resurrection is better. Here is another article on why I feel that way.
Court Room Language & PSA
I think the main problem with most people’s Easter theology is that it is usually framed around a theological view of atonement called Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). Penal Substitution Atonement is one of the various views (7-12) of atonement theory that is held primarily by Reformed and Calvinist theologians and most Christians around Easter that don’t know any better. The early church and most of Christianity never thought this way. In fact, the legal view of the cross didn’t really come around until 1871 with Charles Hodge who built it off of unformulated ideas from John Calvin and other reformers. John Calvin was a lawyer, and saw the world through the court room. I truly believe in several hundred years Christians are going to look back at the last couple hundred years of “rampant reformed theology” being accepted as the norm and probably laugh.
However, at the same time, I don’t want to take those who believe in PSA lightly or come off with a condescending attitude for anyone who thinks this way. I have some very good friends that have been through Bible school and still hold these views. But I think most of them realize it is a “hard road” to plow. Some of them feel like they have 4 years or more invested at a “reformed” leaning college in learning how to try to reconcile or justify this way of thinking, how can they abandon it. Most people don’t know they are getting into this until they are already there. The Bible college I attended in my youth has nearly turned completely reformed since I attended, and you may remember has caused a huge shake up for them in the last 10 years. But those on the outside looking in don’t often know their hardships were caused by gravitating towards reformed theological notions causing nearly 80% of their professors to leave over the course of 20 years. I have always thought that way of holding onto to something must be hard for people. I know it may seem like a new or tough mountain to climb but experiencing truth is freeing, a true summit experience before the Lord. I also think it is worth pointing out that the great majority of Christian scholars and theologians don’t hold to reformed theology as I will point out, the top theologians in the world (and especially since the time of Christ) do not adhere to this kind of thinking. (Unfortunately, some of the most common household names of current Christianity to take on a good deal of these thoughts such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, Matthew Henry and more recently John Macarthur, Erwin Lutzer, R.C. Sproul, and James White to name likely the most prominent.)
A better framework for Jesus’ Atoning work on the cross sees the Bible through a covenant. Covenants are about relationships built on trust and always working towards restoration when broken. Laws and contracts are built on mistrust and result in retribution when broken. I will touch more on this at the end.
Unfortunately, too many people don’t realize that this way of thinking (PSA) is primarily Reformed, and I find a lot of non-reformed Christians and pastors framing atonement this way and it doesn’t really fit or agree with the rest of their theology and often even their denominations (particularly for a spirit led theology.) Over the details of this view, many may quibble, (for instance as I will get to, most reformed thinkers also believe in ECT but not all of them) but we are often told that Jesus died in order to save sinners from the wrath of God. In other words, he was a substitutionary sacrifice—he died in our place—to appease the Father’s justice, honor, and wrath. The story of how we get to such a place where we need such a sacrifice has been framed in this way:
God created humankind in his image and saw that it was good. Then, humanity sinned and experienced a “fall.” This created a huge problem, one that finite creatures simply could not make up for. Why? Because God’s justice and honor are such that only a payment of infinite proportions could make atonement. So, God, in his infinite wisdom, sent himself in the form of a Son—one truly human—in order to be sacrificed to himself so that his justice and honor could be upheld. Thus, he fills the conundrum of needing an infinite payment from finite humans. Now, those who accept the blood sacrifice could be forgiven their sins. The rest? The wrath of the infinite Father forever abides on them.
Essays and books have been written on the problems associated with this way of thinking, and X44 has several videos that address these in detail, so let me try to keep this brief. There are several things that need to be considered in this view that will influence the rest of your theology that you likely haven’t given a lot of time to. I pray today is the day for you. You may have even thought this type of thinking was good theology or maybe even the only theology of the cross. Nether is true in our opinion.
Let’s start with the idea is that God is a debt collector. This way of thinking would suggest that a debt was accrued, and payment has to be made in order for the father’s forgiveness and mercy to flow forth into the world. This idea doesn’t agree with Jesus’ definition of forgiveness. The two ideas can’t coexist. It also doesn’t make sense. Who is the debt owed to? Does Jesus owe God? Does God owe something to Satan to buy us? Do we owe God something? Isn’t the salvation that Jesus offers a “FREE GIFT?” If it is truly free nothing needs to be paid off or purchased. When Moses took the Israelites out of Egypt, he wasn’t buying them or purchasing them, he wasn’t negotiating with a terrorist, HE FREED THE SLAVES… they weren’t in turn made slaves again, that wouldn’t make any sense, the plan was for total freedom. To frame the gift Jesus gives as something owed and needing to be bought or purchased back nullifies the free gift given.
The second issue is the way in which original sin gets interpreted by folks in the PSA camp. Indeed, their understanding of humanity’s fall exposes God as a retributive punisher. This is framed as the punishment that Jesus goes through is the punishment that all mind kind should have gotten. This is far reaching into your theology affecting many different areas. (I don’t believe that little Suzy who gets killed by a car at 8 years old and never prayed to accept the plan of salvation will burn – or be tortured in hell forever.) In the reformed camps that is how PSA continues to or develops further into the idea of Eternal Conscious Torment; that we are all damned to hell to be eternally forever tormented for essentially Adam’s sin. To that end, the punishment Jesus took was the punishment we deserve. The lashings, the flogging, the mocking, all of it –something God would do to us or have done to us if Jesus hadn’t taken the beating for us. Those of us who accept the transaction are spared. This view is terrible in my opinion. It is so far away from the story of God’s infinite love, grace, and mercy for us. It is so far off the complete story of God’s unending, unstoppable, un-relenting, pursuing love to reclaim us despite all of our shortcomings and failures. Jesus has no desire to torture you. If that is your church’s view of what God wants to do to you, my advice is to run to a better church with a better view of God’s beautiful plan for your life. Some would assert that the PSA view essentially presents God as an utter monster.
PSA also puts (or pits) the trinity against each other. In one corner, you have the wrath of God (going by a more modern definition), which needs the shedding of blood in order to forgive sins (Hebrews 9:22). In the other corner, you have Jesus, who forgave freely (Matthew 9:2; 18:22; Luke 23:34; John 8:11; 20:19–23). In other words, Jesus forgave even though blood hadn’t been spilled. One major issue with this is that the New Testament is fairly clear that both the Father and the Son are, in nature, eternally the same (Matthew 11:27; John 1:18; 4:34; 5:19–20; 6:38, 46; 10:29; 12:49; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 13:8). That is essentially the doctrine of the trinity. Most of PSA also views God departing from Jesus at the cross, Jesus clearly wasn’t separated from God which would be a major trinitarian problem. If you need more on this, here is a video.
The last PSA (major) problem is wrath, or their more modern definition of what that means. We believe in the wrath of God but the biblical definition of wrath is God handing people over to their own device. When God handed Israel over to reap what they sowed they were conquered and enslaved. God didn’t torture them through their aggressors, He simply removed his hand of providence and protection from them. PSA has redefined wrath into a modern version of torture making God a wrath monster and a slave master. God as a sovereign all powerful entity essentially become not only the author of good but also the author of Evil.
THINKING MORE CLEARLY: Matt and I (and nearly every theologian we quote) typically lean towards a Christus Victor view of atonement (but also see some value in other theories such as McKnight would say) partially because it deals a blow to the principals, powers, and authorities of the fallen world as being defeated by Christ’s atoning work (a Deuteronomy 32 view). PSA leaves the powers still reigning as it is focused on simply the individual and their failures. That’s a problem. We know at the cross Christ is victorious, reclaims the power of life over death, sets the captives free, and shackles the fallen spiritual beings. We think that’s pretty important!
To be clear, Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Substitutionary Atonement should be handled separately or as different theological perspectives. Most theologians don’t believe in PSA but do adhere to a basic understanding of substitution. As we have no place for PSA, we do have a slight consideration that Jesus serves as a simple substitute on the cross for us. Most scholars are going to give credence to some form of Jesus being a substitute for us. However, I would contend that we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on any thoughts of substitutionary kind of thinking. Many of the problems of “PSA” are also going to be an issue for simple substitutional thinking as well. For instance, you might notice that NT Wright certainly will not give much or any credence to PSA, but also is hesitant to affirm or oppose the simple idea of substitution. I think Scot McKnight does the best job here by framing the atonement theories as each possibly having some merit but not necessarily putting too much value in completely adhering to any of them as a complete doctrine. In this way, I can agree that in a basic sense Christ gave fully of himself on our behalf to accomplish somethings -life- that we can’t accomplish on our own. But is that really substitution? That is my hesitancy in using the word to describe what Jesus does for us. The word itself isn’t really found anywhere in the Bible and there certainly aren’t any passages that simply frame Christs work that way. If it was meant to have been communicated clearly this way the scripture would have described it significantly better in that way and certainly would have used that exact word. I think in a better lens of theology there are more proper terms to describe what God does such as kippur in a more sacrificial sense of the atonement of Jesus. We shy away from using the term substitute or “in my place” because it opens the door for PSA and doesn’t really seem to adequately fit what Jesus does on the cross as well as other biblical words do.
Debt and Ransom Language
Much of the above PSA conversation is also connected or overflows into debt or ransom language, here are some further bullet points of consideration:
-God doesn’t need to appease his wrath with a blood sacrifice. God regularly forgives people without demanding a sacrifice. In the Old Testament he did ask for “atonement” as a stop gap to until the Messiah came to keep Israel on a holy trajectory relationally with God. It is what was asked but not what was/is necessarily needed. What was/is needed is Jesus and nothing else could actually suffice.
-“If God the father needs someone to “pay the price” for sin, does the Father ever really forgive anyone? Think about it. If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? It seems not, especially since the very concept of forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.” (Greg Boyd)
-There is no Biblical framework theologically to say that sin and guilt can be literally transferred from one party to another. Which is a problem with “Adam” in regard to the way Calvinism handles its pillars of beliefs (TULIP) – Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. Someone being punished in the place of another is against the Torah (Deut. 24:16; Ex. 32:30-34; Ezek. 18:18-22).
-If the just punishment for sin is eternal conscious torment hell (as most Christians have traditionally and tragically believed), how does Jesus’ several hours of suffering and his short time in the grave pay for it? Instead of a Great sacrifice, wouldn’t the idea of one person dying and being enough for every person throughout all of time actually be a really “weak” or cheap sacrifice? If Satan and God are making a deal, then God really got a great deal there. I mean if you asked me to go through what Jesus did so three or 4 people (especially my own family) wouldn’t have to -I would, OFF COURSE, anyone would – not just Jesus. But saying that Christ’s life can be traded for everyone’s lives actually doesn’t really make sense in framing it as an adequate payment or debt (if that is what you’re trying to prove). In fact, that way of thinking makes zero sense. It makes what Christ did actually really undervalued or cheap. (“Have I got a deal for you!” kind of stuff.) If one human person (completely underserving) suffers immensely for a day and dies in severe punishment is that enough to “BUY” eternal life for everyone? If you think that way you have missed the major message of the cross.
–Furthermore, if Christ is actually taking what should be coming to us according to PSA (being tormented in unending hell) wouldn’t that mean He would or should be damned to eternity in hell according in the trade? Yet He isn’t, He rises in 3 days. He didn’t get what we were to have said to deserve -so the trade didn’t really work. Again, this kind of thinking doesn’t logically hold up.
– If it’s true that God’s wrath must be appeased by sacrificing his own Son to settle a debt of some sort, then don’t we have to conclude that pagans who have throughout history sacrificed their children to appease the gods’ wrath had the right intuition. I don’t think God sold His son to pay a debt. God didn’t crucify Jesus in some bad deal, humanity and the systems and powers of a fallen earth put Jesus on the cross. Some would call that way of thinking cosmic child abuse.
Isaiah 53 references & language
We often read that Jesus died as our substitute or even that it was God’s will to “crush and bruise” him (Isa 53:10), I actually don’t disagree with this, but again, I think there are better words to describe what is taking place Biblically. (For instance, I have no problem saying by his stripes we are healed.) Isaiah 53 has sparked debate amongst Jewish and evangelical Christians for many years. Most scholars would admit that they don’t know exactly who the passage refers to in its original context. There are too many references that DO NOT equate to Jesus in Isa 53 making it problematic, yet some of it seems to point to the Messiah. According to basic rules of hermeneutical textures of interpretation the primary context of the passage would not have been Jesus. Can we theologically in hindsight make these prophetic connections to Jesus? I think the answer is yes, but I think we need to be more careful with how we use them. Modern Rabbis of Judaism and evangelical theologians alike, believe that the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53 refers perhaps to Israel, or to Isaiah himself, or even Moses or another of the Jewish prophets. (Jesus does embody the story of Israel, so there is a bit of a connection worth mentioning here.) In theology we say there is someone that the text speaks of primarily, but that person also serves as a foreshadow of what is to come. In backwards view the passage is nearly undeniably Messianic, but at the time of its writing I doubt anyone would have been reading that into it though. With New Testament eyes we may be afforded to read that back into the texts prophetically, but again I caution about getting too comfortable with that sort of exegesis. It is better to dwell on the primary interpretive message in most cases of theology.
Most scholars also recognize the identification of two voices in Isa 53. The crowd is viewing the scene as if God is punishing the servant as if God was pleased to crush him (“We considered Him”); but the voice of reality shows them that their own actions (transgressions actually) are against the servant (not God.) God heals the servant (LXX) and brings healing to others through Him. This is the same message that we hear over and over in the gospel presentations in Acts, “you killed the Messiah, but God raised Him up.”
Dwell on the Victory – for a better Theology
So what is a better view of the atonement and resurrection? It is actually pretty simple. (I usually find simple truth is freeing) -The victory of the cross is framed by primarily 3 things:
Sin- not as a legal status but as a disease that has infected humanity. It is OT kippur or purity sacred language- Atonement purged sacred space of the forces and stain of death (Blood [force of life] covered over death). At its root sin is idolatry, and our immortal acts are the symptoms of the disease. You can’t punish a disease out of someone, the need to be completely healed. That is what Jesus offers and makes available through the cross and resurrection for us.
Death- death is the consequence of living by our own wisdom (trying to be like God without God). It is the results of being separated from the tree of Life- God’s own life. This was a consequence of a loving father that should be framed by not wanting his children to live forever in a state of sin rather than a legal consequence. We are being reclaimed and made new so that we may reenter into the deep relational communion that was lost and the entire Bible is the story of how it is being pursued and reclaimed.
The Principalities and Powers– these are the systems and rulers (spiritual) of the fallen world that held humanity captive. The cross is framed by the exodus and is a rescue and victory from slavery. We are delivered and now can live free here and now for Jesus to build a culture of “all in” intimacy through discipleship with our father to covenant with those that follow the way of the cross, resurrection, and ascension into new life, community, and Kingdom.
The Cross is not a transaction but a transformation!
The cross and resurrection of Jesus was a victory over the world that we might be empowered by Him to become the recreated spiritual beings returning to the Edenic plan of walking with the Father bringing order from chaos and being His representatives or ambassadors of light to a dark world as we seek to reclaim the lost into light introducing God to the people and the people to God. Eventually as a royal priesthood of believers we will reinhabit a new heaven and earth in the unending presence of God’s holiness. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross gives life to us here and now and throughout the ages, reaching both forward and backwards in His kingdom.
- written by Dr. Ryan and Matt