In the churches I attended growing up, I was told that Jesus died so my sins could be forgiven. My teachers said that my sins deserved the ultimate penalty. But since Jesus had endured the punishment that I deserved, I could receive God’s forgiveness by accepting what Jesus had done for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but the teaching I received was a version of the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, derived mostly from the writings of John Calvin in the sixteenth century. In other words, this way of understanding the Christian message was a relatively late historical development. Calvin was systematizing what he thought the New Testament taught, but the New Testament itself uses a range of metaphors in relation to Jesus’s death. Theories such as Calvin’s take particular metaphors, in this case legal and judicial metaphors, as foundational and try to use them to elaborate a more specific account than can be found in biblical texts themselves.
If you are not immersed in the way of thinking the penal substitutionary theory articulates, you may be able to detect something strange about the idea that punishment of an innocent person can enable God to forgive. To think of Jesus as accepting punishment on our behalf, we have to imagine God as somehow requiring that punishment be given to someone and being satisfied with the punishment of someone who is not guilty. But thinking of God as demanding that blood be shed before forgiveness can be offered suggests something closer to a pagan deity than a God of love. It doesn’t fit easily with Jesus’s portrayal of God as like a father who is eager to forgive and throws a party when his rebellious son returns home.
A few years ago, I heard a preacher at an evangelical church claim that Jesus was born in order to die. My immediate reaction was that there was something wrongheaded about this way of thinking. Accepting this claim meant that dying was the really important thing Jesus did; the rest of his life was like a preliminary to the main event. I knew where the preacher was coming from. He assumed the same teaching about Jesus’s death that I had received as a child: that through the death of Jesus the penalty for sin had been paid so that God could turn from wrath to forgiveness. But it now seems to me that seeing dying as Jesus’s main accomplishment gets things backwards. His death was a consequence of his faithfulness to his mission of announcing and initiating the kingdom of God. Whatever meaning is to be found in that death is not something that can be understood apart from its connection to that mission.
The New Testament portrays Jesus as coming to deal with a failure of humans to achieve the way of life God intended for them. But the focus of the rescue mission he undertakes isn’t on making sure that just punishment is given. It is about liberating human beings from a kind of bondage that leads to their self-destructive behavior. New Testament writers thought that Jesus inaugurated a new kind of reality through which God’s presence could radically transform human life. Conceiving of Jesus as the model for what human life is supposed to be, they envisioned a new kind of community in which the life-giving spirit through which Jesus lived could be shared.
Of course, they also talked about the suffering and death Jesus endured. But we don’t have to take their claims that he died for our sins or that he suffered for us as meaning that his suffering and death were a kind of payment to God. Instead, we can think of his suffering as the cost of faithfulness to the mission he undertook on our behalf. It was predictable that what Jesus was doing would arouse the kind of opposition he faced. He was willing to do what was needed to fulfill his mission even when the costs included a painful and humiliating execution. This way of thinking about Jesus’s death makes it not just an isolated event, but a culmination of all that he said and did.
When you have been taught a particular way of reading biblical texts, it is often difficult to recognize other ways of understanding them. The penal substitutionary theory sometimes functions as a template through which people read New Testament texts and find confirmations of what they expected. But this particular template blocks us from seeing alternative ways of understanding what these texts mean. When we become aware of alternatives, many of which are rooted in better contextual explanations of what a biblical writer was doing, it becomes clear that the idea of penal substitution is not an obvious meaning of the texts and that trying to fit these texts into this kind of mold often results in misreading them.
Not only is the idea of penal substitution questionable as a way of interpreting particular texts; it distorts the New Testament message as a whole. Accepting the penal substitutionary theory tends to lead to a form of Christianity in which the focus is on individual benefits of being forgiven and escaping punishment. What is obscured here is that a central feature of Jesus’s mission was to bring into being a new kind of community in which the kind of identification with God’s purposes shown in his own life could become a motivating force for transforming life on earth. The ideal in Hebrew Scriptures was for God’s presence to find a proper dwelling place. The Christian vision is for that dwelling place to be in a community that carries on Jesus’s own work of healing and restoration. Being a Christian is centrally about being a part of that community.
For a fuller discussion of this issue, see chapter 9 of Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith (The Death of Jesus).