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The Monster-God of Penal Substitution | Righting America

by Frederick W. Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and academic. He is the author or editor of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination, and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004),  What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005),  Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and The Dave Test (Abingdon Press, 2013).

Picture of Satan jumping gleefully in front of a red inferno with two souls in hell screaming in agony and anger.
Satan in the Middle Ages: Image via Paul Williams/Getty Images

Penal substitutionary atonement is not a phrase that is widely known beyond the academic and theological world.  But the storyline that goes along with that theology is, and – although it is older in some respects than the movement itself – it is at home in many fundamentalist circles.  Significantly, it has also made inroads into the popular imagination.

The result is that people far beyond fundamentalist circles are convinced that penal substitution is the only way in which atonement in the Christian tradition can be understood.  At the heart of this narrative is the conviction that God, the Father, was so deeply angered by the sin of humanity that we were justly deserving of punishment, but instead the Father inflicted that price on Jesus, the Son, who played the role of innocent victim and – in so  doing – secured our redemption.

The popularity of this line of reasoning illustrates one of the challenges posed by fundamentalist theology that might otherwise be easily dismissed.  Conceptually, there are considerable problems with the theology of fundamentalism, which can be easily identified, if conscious attention is given to equipping non-specialists to analyze the implications of a doctrine of this kind.  But more often than not, it is the storied nature of fundamentalism that possesses a meme-like character that can be replicated and spread without ever attracting serious scrutiny.

The resulting distortions alter the way in which large numbers of people think about a dizzying array of subjects, changing not just what people think about those topics, but the ways in which their lives are shaped by them.  In the case of the penal substitution meme, for example, the narrative that fundamentalism promotes touches on doctrines of God, the Trinity, atonement, redemption, sacrifice, suffering, sin, and the nature of the Christian journey itself.  As a theological educator who is as interested in the formative power of such ideas as I am in their theological credibility, the power of this meme and others like is of no small concern.

The only available corrective in that regard, however, seems to be a two-fold, educational and formative process that (1) identifies the problems with a meme like penal substitution and (2) offers a credible alternative.  

In attempting the first half of the task it is important to alert people to the weaknesses of a  meme of this kind. In the case of penal substitution, there are two major problems.

One, it purports to be a (the?) theory of Atonement, when – in fact – the multiple biblical and traditional pictures of atonement are better described as windows into atonement or as metaphors that attempt to explain a religious and spiritual reality that is beyond our grasp. The gambit of appealing to the “theoretical” nature of a view like penal substitution suggests that it has a quasi-scientific underpinning that lays greater claim to credibility than it might otherwise have.  But, of course, the language of theory also does violence to the language that was originally used. Metaphors work selectively and allusively to a reality that, by definition, cannot be completely understood. By contrast, theories – in popular parlance, at any rate – suggests that the subject of atonement can be accounted for in categories that master the reality to which they refer.

A second problem with penal substitution is that it expands on a point of comparison with Temple practice, committing the same error that people often make in reading parables, moving without justification from a single point of comparison to an allegory that tries to make the case for multiple points of comparison.  In the case of the penal substitution meme, this approach yields the storied character of a doctrinal position which gives the meme its attractive power. But when interpreters do this, they are almost always wrong; in this case, penal substitution produces a picture of God, the Gospel narrative, and the character of the spiritual journey that is problematic to say the least.

From the first and second problems flow a variety of other difficulties of a more specific, theological nature.  Penal substitution offers a Monster-God whose both character and motives are at odds with the Christian tradition, and a picture of Jesus as a passive actor and victim.  From a Trinitarian point of view the notion that God the Father and God the Son work in such disparate ways is, in the technical sense of the word, nonsensical. And the meme also fosters a picture of the Christian journey which is tied all but exclusively to a notion of positional righteousness that is entirely transactional in nature, emphasizing the act of moving one’s name from the column labeled “damned and going to hell” to “saved and going to heaven.”

Offering a credible alternative that competes with the storied character of penal substitution is the larger challenge, but it can be done.  Irenaeus of Lyons (b. 130 AD), for example, sketches a powerful picture of God’s redemptive effort in terms of “recapitulation.”  

The word itself lacks attractive power, but the storied companion to it is one of a triune God of love: 

  • who – in the incarnation – unites the life of God with the life of humanity. 
  • who – living among us – risks the perils of our existence, offering a lived alternative to the not-God lives that we live. 
  • who—in his dying — confronts our final enemy. 
  • who – in his Resurrection – creates a way out of the peril that we find ourselves. 
  • who – in his Ascension – reunites our humanity with the God who made us in God’s image.  

In an effort to give that narrative even more attractive power for a modern audience, I have used the metaphor of the triune God as “the ultimate first responder”: 

  • who launches a one-of-a-kind rescue mission with Jesus on the frontlines.
  • who accomplishes that mission by confronting the enemy who has us under his control.
  • who — with skin on — goes back into our burning houses, suffers the same death that threatens to consume our lives, and brings us back from the dead.

In a liturgical tradition, this meme has considerably greater power, since it is also distilled from the creeds of the church, and it is the story that we tell every year, from Advent through to the Feast of the Ascension:  

  • Advent: The ultimate first responder is on his way.  
  • Christmas: He shows up with skin on.  
  • Epiphany through Lent: He is with us in the burning house, pointing the way out.  
  • Good Friday: He confronts the enemy that enslaves us and meets death, face to face.
  • Easter: By the power of the Resurrection he comes back from the dead, bearing both his divinity and our humanity in the harmony that was always meant to be ours. 

This approach suggests a very different understanding of the Christian journey as well, which is anything but transactional. What Scripture and our part of the Christian tradition teaches is that God the First Responder entered our lives, ran the risks, experienced losses, and emerged to lead us out of death into life.  When we were baptized, we were drawn into that life-giving rescue mission – and now, hour by hour, day by day, we ask God to help us to live into that death-free existence.  

And the good news is, God hasn’t just seen the movie, God has lived our lives and comes alongside us in love, compassion, and understanding: 

  • Ready to pick us up when we fall. 
  • Ready to forgive us when we fail. 
  • Ready to help us see what is not-God, and anxious for us to join the rescue mission – doing our own best to bring people out of their own burning houses, where people struggle with loneliness, despair, abandonment, abuse, poverty, and all those other things both big and small that are not a part of God’s will for us.

There are undoubtedly other ways to offer a credible alternative to the Monster-God of penal substitution. But in this connected world, formed as it is by an ever-wider array of memes, those engaged in theological and spiritual formation can ill-afford to neglect the task I have outlined above.