My earliest years of Christian life were spent as an Episcopalian. I was an acolyte and thus led the procession into the sanctuary carrying the cross. In the same role I assisted the priest at the Altar, as he prepared the bread and wine so that we might partake – symbolically – of the body and blood of Christ. I don’t remember “penal substitution atonement” being front and center during these early years, but later I was introduced to what seemed to be one of the seminal doctrines of the Christian faith. As the song put it “I owed a debt I could not pay, he paid a debt he did not owe.” For many of us who experienced spiritual new birth in an evangelical context, this made sense. We were sinners and that sin served as a barrier to fellowship with God. Fortunately for us, God took care of that by having his beloved son take our place on the cross.
Such a theology of the cross has long been a significant explanation for the coming of Christ in to the world. It actually makes great sense. It’s simple and easy to explain. Even if we don’t see ourselves as wretches or even sinners standing in the hand of an angry God, we recognize the possibility that we might not live up to God’s demands, and that something needs to be done to rectify the situation. But is penal substitution the right solution? Over time I’ve come to the conclusion that even if it has significant theological and even biblical pedigree it doesn’t fit with my understanding of the nature of God. Of course penal substitution isn’t the only theory of atonement. There are a number of others ranging from moral influence to ransom, and while each has merit, none of them of them completely satisfy.
Derek Flood, a writer, blogger, artist, and theologian (MA in systematic theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA), provides us with a brief but compelling examination of this question of atonement that provides a full-orbed answer to penal substitution. He does this first of all by linking it to the idea of retributive justice, which he defines as a legal understanding of justice – law and order! Such a vision of justice, he believes is insufficient and thus we need a different understanding of justice. Flood points us in chapter two of the book to the idea of restorative justice. Whereas retributive justice offers punishment as the answer to sin (legal wrongdoing), restorative justice, which he believes is the biblical vision, seeks to restore broken relationships. In fact, Flood turns upside down the traditional reading of Romans, where Paul is understood to be arguing for punishment for sins, and argues that Paul is in fact opposing this understanding. Thus, Paul’s theology of the cross is meant to overturn the myth of redemptive violence.
Rather than appealing to legal definitions of justice, Flood points us to a different understanding, one that is rooted in the medical imagery of healing. Flood picks up on the imagery of Jesus as healer – a ministry that involves healing the sick, freeing the demonically oppressed, forgiving sinners, and caring for the poor – we see Jesus “addressing the full scope of human brokenness. Sin isn’t breaking the law, it is spiritual sickness. In this vision the dual meaning of the Greek word sōzō is emphasized. Salvation is healing. Resistance to such a paradigm shift is often based on the assumption that such a vision doesn’t take sin seriously enough, but Flood disagrees, arguing that with this model, sin is dealt with in a more holistic way.
In the course of the book, Flood explores this idea of restorative justice in the context of several understandings of the atonement, including the idea of sacrifice, Christus Victor, deals with wrath, vicarious atonement as participation in the way of Christ, the imagery of the suffering servant, the theology of the cross, and living this theology the cross in the real world through loving one’s enemies. An appendix offers a more in-depth set of word studies for the words that are translated as justice and righteousness in Romans.
What makes Flood’s exposition so powerful is that it deals with our understanding of God and the purpose of God. It’s not that there’s no sense judgment or justice, or even wrath, but what is the purpose? If we’re asked to forgive without retribution, then why is God exempt? Flood writes that whereas retribution is instinctual, “compassion is learned.” He continues: “there is a huge emotional pull in us toward payback justice, but we need to realize that this is ultimately preschool morality.” We learn empathy and compassion by receiving compassion and empathy (p. 93). My take away from this book is simple – do we expect less of God than we expect of each other?
As I said, this book is brief, and yet its message is liberative. It takes scripture extremely seriously. It seeks to exposit the biblical story in a way that truthful, but also in a way that gives us a way forward. It offers us a word of grace and mercy, and an offer of restoration. Sin and evil are to be taken seriously, but God is no bully or tyrant. I do believe that you will gain a new appreciation for the idea of justice and atonement. You may find a greater appreciation for the cross of Jesus, which declares that God’s strength is revealed in the weakness of the cross. And in his death on the cross Jesus overturns the legal system of retribution and revenge. It also calls us to engage in a protest against suffering and human misery.
We are indebted to Derek Flood for offering us new insight into the justice and mercy of God as revealed in the cross of Jesus, the suffering servant of God. As Brian McLaren puts it in his foreword, “This fresh approach to the Bible not only heals our understanding of the gospel, but it also offers healing to us – because a distorted gospel will inevitably harm us. And through us, a distorted gospel harms the word at large” (p. xi).