Is Substitutionary Atonement Just a Type of "Cosmic Child Abuse" That Christians Came Up With in the Middle Ages?
Did you ever think you'd be living in a day when believing in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus' blood would be controversial among Christians? Welcome to 2018, when saying "Jesus died for my sins" is considered at best a pagan idea (1) and at worst "psychologically damaging" to children.
What did Jesus accomplish on the cross? This is possibly the most important question a Christian can ask. Did He go to the cross in order to take the punishment of our sins upon Himself? To bring us into an adoptive relationship with God the Father? To ransom us to God? To set a moral example for us to follow? To victoriously defeat sin and death?
The answer? Yes! To all of the above. Scripture uses all kinds of different language and metaphors to describe the atoning work of Jesus, and a complete picture of the cross will only be found in considering all of them.
For example, prior to the 1800’s, when theologians talked about the cross, they generally didn't narrow it down to just one thing. Dallas Theological Seminary Professor Glenn Kreider noted that they were "like poets unpacking how beautiful an event this is." However, in more modern times, one atonement theory in particular is under attack.
First, let's define some terms.
What is atonement?
Theologian Wayne Grudem defines the atonement as "the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation."(2) The word itself breaks down into three parts: at-one-ment. Put simply, atonement is how we are brought into "oneness" with God through Jesus.
The primary understanding of the atonement throughout Scripture and church history is what is called substitutionary atonement, sometimes referred to as vicarious atonement. This is the idea that when Jesus died on the cross, He took our place—that He died instead of us....as a substitute. But the Bible doesn't talk about Jesus only as substitute—it also talks about Him paying the penalty for our sin. This is what is referred to as penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).
Many Christians, including myself, would consider the doctrine of PSA to be central to the gospel. Although this isn't the only way to understand the atonement, it is one way that is fundamental to salvation, and essential to the historic Christian faith.
But isn't PSA something that was first thought up in the Middle Ages?
Often when discussing the atonement, someone will bring up the challenge that PSA was not something the earliest Christians believed...that it was a later invention of Anselm of Canterbury in the Middle Ages.
What Anselm introduced in his work, Cur Deus Homo, was not the classic understanding of PSA, even though the two are often conflated and/or confused. While PSA states that Jesus paid the penalty for sin by dying in the place of sinners, Anselm's theory had more to do with God's offended honor and dignity being satisfied in the sacrifice of Jesus—that is referred to as penal satisfaction. They go together, but they aren't the same thing.
The doctrine of PSA is all overboth Old and New Testaments, as well as the early church fathers. It is decidedly the very essence of Christianity.
Cosmic child abuse?
Recent efforts by several Progressive Christian writers have sought to vilify the idea of substitutionary atonement, characterizing it as a misunderstanding of the cross. Even though he doesn’t deny a broader definition of substitutionary atonement, Steve Chalke describes the “cosmic child abuse” of PSA in his book The Lost Messsage of Jesus as:
There are a couple of problems with this view. First, to portray Jesus as some sort of helpless "victim" of the Father is to misunderstand the nature of the Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are One. Jesus wasn't a defenseless casualty of divine wrath...He IS God. He, as God, became flesh and laid His life down of His own will (John 10:18). It's actually the reason He came to earth.
Secondly, PSA involves God's wrath, and to modern readers, this idea can seem terribly intolerant. But it is entirely biblical, and is actually very good news when we understand His love, justice, and holiness, and mercy.
I once met a woman who had been horribly abused by her father when she was a child. He was mean, vindictive, and seemed to even take pleasure in her pain. Understandably, whenever she heard language referencing God’s wrath or anger, she winced—all she could think of was the senseless and petty “wrath” of her earthly father. We humans have the tendency to confuse the sinful abuse of some of our earthly fathers with the perfect justice and mercy of a God who is, by His very essence, love.
God’s wrath is not petty or spiteful—it is just, holy, and loving. In the words of Derek Rishmawy:
The wrath of God does not contradict His love—He has wrath because of His love. Theologian Miroslav Volf realized this after witnessing the horrors of the Bosnian war:
In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul said, "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." The message of the cross is "foolishness" to unbelievers. It was true then, and it is still true now. The Penal Substitutionary Atonement of Jesus was not a late invention, nor is it some type of cosmic child abuse. It is the heart of the gospel—and that is indeed "Good News!"
(1) Rob Bell wrote about this in his book, Love Wins, and jokingly referred to atonement theory as "God is less grumpy because of Jesus" in this lecture.
(2) Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 1994) p. 568
(3) Chalke, Steve and Mann, Alan, The Lost Message of Jesus, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), pp. 182-183
(4) Volf, Miroslav, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, (Zondervan 2005) pp. 138-139
3/20/2018 02:41:22 pm
If a soldier throws himself onto a grenade to save his comrades he is, rightly, labeled a hero. He is not called a vengeful, bloodthirsty child abuser.
3/21/2018 03:27:58 pm
You knocked it out off the park again sister! Keep on fighting the good fight and exposing the Christian Kool-aid drinkers!
9/20/2019 10:36:00 am
Yes, but in this case - God is both the one throwing the grenade and then throwing himself on the grenade. I wouldn’t call that heroic, more like stupidity. Also, considering the fact that the punishment for our sins is supposedly eternal damnation, how could Jesus have paid the full price for all of our sins when he only suffered for a day and then was raised to life again a few days later? Seems like he got off pretty easy. Not only that, but if Jesus is God, how could he have ever truly died? The body that henincarnated into could die but Christ himself could not die if he has always existed from beginning to end.
3/20/2018 05:17:36 pm
I think many could consider it Cosmic Child Abuse IF Jesus were a mere man, but you rightly make the point, considering the divinity of Christ and equality within the Godhead, people really miss the idea of God Himself bearing our sins and our punishment. We are the children saved by our heroic heavenly Father. Now thats good parenting.
ERIC D NELSON
3/20/2018 09:19:11 pm
I will be pondering this. I appreciate your work and this post raises alot of questions for me. I just can't find a way to ask any right now without sounding contrary.
3/20/2018 11:09:14 pm
I would ask anyway.
ERIC D NELSON
3/21/2018 08:49:06 pm
Thanks Dan, your comment made me laugh and encouraged me.
ERIC D NELSON
3/21/2018 08:44:54 pm
'Cosmic child abuse' is a strawman used by uninformed atheists. I can't imagine any even moderately biblicly literate Christian using the phrase. Jesus is not God's child. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the exact representation of his being and all the fullness of the Godhead dwelt in him bodily.
3/21/2018 09:48:59 pm
These are good questions, Eric. The first thought I have is regarding this: "Jesus was not violent, so if he and the father are one, then the father is not violent."
3/22/2018 10:31:44 am
Ben, the Bible constantly uses images, parables, and analogies taken from the finite world to describe the infinite. Hence, they cannot always be pressed too literally. You may say well then how can we know how literally we should take an image or not? We know it from Scripture because it always gives us more than enough information to come to a full doctrine regarding any given image. The same is true when the second person of the Trinity is called "Son." We have more than enough information to conclude that this is not meant literally. You may ask, then why use the image at all? The reason is because it tells us a great deal about the second person of the Trinity. For example, it tells us that He shares the same nature with the first person of the Trinity as do biological human sons with their biological fathers. Humans beget humans and God beget God. So your statement, "what is a son, if not a male child?" is completely vacuous.
10/24/2018 11:45:32 pm
God did not punish Jesus! Jesus as part of God chose to lay down his life to make us right with the Father. Jesus even says no one takes my life from me I lay it down. He chose to lay down his earthly life. He chose to leave heaven so that we could be brought in!
3/22/2018 09:21:32 am
You are so welcome Eric, that was its intent! I won't say too much about your questions and comments since Alisa did such a great job of addressing them. The only thing I would say is that I agree that no true Christian would ever call the biblical doctrine of the atonement cosmic child abuse. But believe me when I say that countless professing Christians call it this very thing and this is terribly troubling. Thanks!
ERIC D NELSON
3/22/2018 09:17:40 pm
3/22/2018 10:48:20 pm
Hey Eric, I do accept you as my brother in Christ, but I would be being disingenuous if I said that your doctrine of the atonement as articulated in that last paragraph does not make me nervous. You are a very humble person and so I want to be extremely sensitive to that and extremely respectful, but it is my honest assessment that what you articulated is not orthodox. That doesn't mean I think you are not saved, it only means that I believe the Spirit is working to bring you into a fuller understanding of His word.
3/22/2018 10:39:29 pm
With all due respect Ben, I don't buy it. I am not at all trying to attack you as a person. You might be an awesome person outside of this blog and I would have no problem being your friend or having a beer with you. I am not in any way saying that I'm better than you, we all have our sins and I have plenty. And as a Christian I would absolutely want you to point out to me where I was acting in an unethical manner. I'm not attacking you as an atheist either. My brother is an atheist and I have the utmost respect for him. He is extremely knowledgeable and thinks through his arguments very carefully, but in the end I find them terribly unconvincing. He was in Special Forces for years and fought his butt off and is a war hero. So I know firsthand that atheists can be great people.
3/24/2018 12:21:55 am
I wish you the best Ben, but I don’t have too much more to say to you here. I will be writing an article about our exchange on my blog next week if you or anyone else is interested. The blog is on my website which is linked to all my comments. It will post on Mon.
ERIC D NELSON
3/24/2018 05:45:06 pm
3/26/2018 02:47:30 am
Um, that's really weird Eric. When you first go to my website there are a number of options at the top and one of them is blog. Is it just not letting you open it when you click on blog or something? If so, I have your email now and so I can just send you the direct link to the article once it posts if you are still having trouble. Just let me know. Thanks!
3/25/2018 01:22:27 pm
If you think about it, the crucifixion was actually far worse that any child abuse. Not only did Jesus suffer lengthy and excruciating torture (along with fatigue, thirst, hunger, cold, and humiliation), but He suffered in two other significant ways as well.
2/21/2019 07:43:04 pm
The "at-one-ment" part of this article is flawed. According to Strongs, the Hebrew word means to cover over, pacify and make propitiation. You can't break down an english word and apply it to a Hebrew word literally thousands of years old. Bad hermeneutics.
2/22/2019 12:36:12 am
You mentioned that PSA was witnessed even in the early church. As a student of the early church, and having read all the material from pre-190AD and a fair amount beyond that, I would be interested in seeing citations from pre-500AD or even pre-Anselm demonstrating PSA and not merely substitutionary atonement.
2/22/2019 06:36:46 am
Hi Micah, in the post where I make that statement, there is a link to quotes. Here it is again:
Game of Discernment
5/5/2021 02:33:04 pm
The biggest reason Satisfaction-Substitution theory works better than Penal Substitution is that Jesus is not taking the punishment we take. Otherwise he would indeed be in hell forever, since that's our punishment for sinning.
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