You can read part one of this post here.
As mentioned previously, I think the accusation of divine child abuse is a bit unfair when it comes to the penal-substitutionary atonement (PSA), however aside from that accusation, I do have a few theological issues with the theory.
First, I think the PSA is pretty intertwined with a literal reading of the Genesis creation account, which I now think is outdated in light of an evolutionary understanding of our origins. In many ways the early chapters of Genesis are absolutely central to the PSA because they contain the “why” behind the “what.” How many time have we heard a gospel presentation that begins with an explanation of how we’re fallen and separated from God? Theologically that’s Genesis 1-3 language. Of course, even without a literal reading of those stories you can still talk about sin, the wrath of God, and how Jesus took our place, but without a literal reading of that narrative undergirding it, it simply lacks the biblical “punch” it once did. This is especially true as it pertains to very specific doctrines that come straight out of those chapters – like Original Sin – which is also pretty central to the PSA theory.
The second issue is that the understanding of God embedded within this atonement theory is still quite violent – even without claims of divine child abuse. In the PSA narrative someone has to pay… with blood. God can’t just forgive because He’s bound by some sort of cosmic justice that requires a blood sacrifice be offered to atone for the sins of the people. Just let that sentence sink in. God is somehow “bound” to the need for a bloody sacrifice in order to forgive? What the hell is going on here? How did we go from a non-violent Jesus preaching Abba intimacy with a God who forgives before we even ask (parable of the Prodigal’s Son), to an understanding of the cross as a cosmic economic “transaction” where God requires a payment in order to justify his forgiveness. Technically that’s not even forgiveness. It’s also not the God I see revealed in Jesus.
Finally, as I mentioned in pt.1, I think our understanding of the atonement bleeds over into other parts of our theology, which means that a view of God as a vindictive patriarchal deity who needs a blood sacrifice in order to forgive, whether we’re conscious of it or not, ends up casting a shadow over our entire understanding of the Christian faith. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I believe this shadow (often disguised in language about God’s “justice”) becomes the theological justification for things like a downright sadistic doctrine of a literal/eternal/conscious hell where people are tortured with fire, an eschatology that looks forward to the day when Jesus comes back as a horsed bandit complete with a sword dripping in the blood of his enemies, and a supposedly “Christian” nation that believes in God ordained pre-emptive war which is alo rooted in Old Testament genocidal passages that should embarrass anyone who identifies themselves with the Judeo-Christian tradition. But rather than embarrassment at these passages we actually defend them because we honestly think this is who God is. On the contrary, I think we should take Jesus at his word when he says that if we’ve seen him then we’ve seen the Father, rather than backpedaling on the forgiveness and love of God we’ve come to see in Jesus with comments about how we have to “balance” the love of God’s with his “justice” (which again is normally our code word for violence).
Obviously, I think this atonement theory was a mistake in the history of our tradition. However, what’s strange is that some people feel that by questioning it, I’m questioning an “essential truth’ of the Bible. My problem with this is that fact that the PSA theory was barely mentioned for the first 1,000 years of church history, so anyone who claims that you can’t be a Christian without holding to this supposed “crown jewel” of atonement theories simply doesn’t have church history on their side.
For those who are curious in years past I resonated with the moral influence theory and more recently with Rene Girard’s scapegoat theory of the atonement. I’m reading two of his books now: Violence of the Sacred and Deceit, Desire, and the Novel so there may be a post coming up on those in the weeks to come.