A Deeper Magic: Love Demands No Punishment

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Atonement theories like Penal Substitution and Christus Victor are not exactly the most straightforward concepts to grasp. Many of you are probably still wondering why I’m making such a fuss.

So instead of wrestling with more complex Biblical analyses or adding more points to my argument, grab your fur coat and join me on a magical adventure into Narnia.

I’ll tell a REALLY brief version of the story, explaining the Christian symbolism as we go, to set us up for the important bit at the end.

(Even after hearing the story countless times, this realisation blew my mind a little bit.)


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis – The Story and the Symbolism

Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy stumble across a wardrobe which takes them to the magical land of Narnia. They soon discover that Narnia is being ruled by an evil queen, the White Witch, who is keeping the land in a perpetual winter.

A bit like the idea that the world and everything in it is under the power of “sin” and needs rescuing.

It as been foretold that she will lose her power when four humans become kings and queens of Narnia, so as soon as she hears of the children’s presence in Narnia, she does all she can to capture them. The great lion Aslan, the rightful ruler of Narnia, has not been seen for many years but is now rumoured to be “on the move” again.

Aslan is the Jesus figure. (Stating the obvious I know, stay with me…)

Edmund meets the White Witch, who tempts him with enchanted Turkish Delight and tricks him into betraying his brother and sisters. But when he fails to bring them to her, she is furious and threatens to kill him. The other children go to find Aslan, who orders a rescue mission and brings Edmund back safely to his camp.

The White Witch comes to Aslan’s camp, claiming that according to “the deep magic from the dawn of time”, laws placed at the creation of Narnia by the “Emperor-beyond-the-Sea”,  a traitor in Narnia is her rightful kill.

The Emperor-beyond-the-Sea is the Creator, Father God figure. The “deep magic” is like the laws of divine justice and retribution that Christians talk about, when they say God has no choice but to punish sin – that He doesn’t want to but it’s just the way things are.

Aslan snarls, “Do not cite the Deep Magic to me, Witch. I was there when it was written.”

That has to be one of the coolest lines in any book ever.

Aslan secretly does a deal with the Witch where he offers his own life in Edmund’s place. That night Aslan sneaks off to the Stone Table where the Witch and her evil creatures humiliate, torture and kill him.

Aslan gives his life for Edmund, like Jesus giving his life for us on the cross…

The next day as Lucy and Susan are about to leave his dead body, the Stone Table cracks and Aslan miraculously comes back to life.

…and then rising from the dead on the third day.

And here’s the really interesting bit. 

When Lucy and Susan ask Aslan the meaning of what has happened, he explains:

“Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

So here’s the thing.

If C.S. Lewis had believed in the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement, there would have been no “deeper magic”, and it would have been the ‘Emperor-over-the-Sea’ demanding the sacrifice, not the White Witch.

The Emperor, Aslan’s father and the Creator of Narnia, would have been bound by the laws of retribution and vengeance – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – so would have had no choice but to kill either Edmund or Aslan, even though he loved them both.

But in this story it is the White Witch, the embodiment of evil, demanding the kill. She gets her kill but is tricked…

“Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know.”

So what is this deeper magic?

Love. Sacrificial, self-denying love. It is this that cracks the stone table and causes Death itself to start working backwards.

Love is more powerful than retribution.

Love demands no punishment.

Love is not bound by the law.

Love sets us free, no strings attached.

Love brings us life.

Love is the deepest and most powerful force in the universe.

Love is at the centre of Reality, and is the fundamental characteristic of the Divine.

And Penal Substitutionary Atonement, still the dominant interpretation of the meaning of Christianity, fiercely defended by many, would disagree.


This story fits with the ‘ransom’ theory of the atonement, and still contains the idea of God paying a price, substituting himself for us. The main difference between this and Penal Substitution is that it is not God who is being paid. This is a VERY significant distinction, not least because it repaints the character of God. This is closely related to the ‘Christus Victor’ theory – currently growing in popularity, which suggests that Jesus died to break the power of sin and death, and ultimately defeat it. They are still just theories attempting to explain an inexplicable mystery, but arguably far more healthy, reasonable and Biblically accurate theories than Penal Substitution, and much closer in meaning to what the first Christians would have understood.


Read my entire Atonement Series here.

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Photo by (C)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) (Own work (Own Picture)) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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A Thoroughly Biblical Argument Against Penal Substitutionary Atonement

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A common criticism of people like me who openly oppose Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory is that we are picking and choosing the bits of the Bible we like, whilst ignoring some of the trickier bits.

I intend now to try and make it super clear that this is not what we are doing.


Invisible Goggles

The thing is, we all read things into the Bible that may or may not be there, based on our own understanding, cultural background and personal opinions.

It’s really, really difficult to read the Bible objectively (impossible, actually) – we all emphasise some bits over others, reject some bits as irrelevant and project our own frameworks of understanding onto the text to help us make sense of it. This is not a bad thing – it just helps to be aware that we’re doing it.

Most Christians who believe in Penal Substitutionary Atonement claim that the Bible clearly supports it, and that there is no other way of interpreting certain texts. What they don’t realise is that they are reading the Bible through invisible lenses. Let’s call them PSA goggles.

PSA goggles have been the height of fashion in the protestant, particularly evangelical church for a good many centuries now. Long enough that they’ve become so much a part of our identity, we don’t even realise we are wearing them. They provide a logical explanation of the core meaning of Christianity based on a handful of verses, through which we then view the rest of the Bible.

PSA goggles also seem to have the unfortunate effect of obscuring the wearer’s view, so that many parts of the Bible which don’t fit with PSA theory are overlooked or ignored.


Before we jump right into dealing with the specific passages that appear to support PSA, we need to look at six broader Biblical themes that will help to put them into context.


1. Sin and Salvation

In the Bible, sin is about more than just our own personal wrongdoings. It is the whole devastating human condition which separates us from our Source and will eventually lead to our destruction. The salvation that God offers is not just forgiveness from our transgressions, although that is a major part of it. It’s also not just just about an afterlife. Where salvation is mentioned in the Old Testament it refers to liberation from bondage (Exodus 14:30, 15:2, Psalm 106:21), return from exile (Isaiah 45:17) and rescue from danger (Psalms 27:1, 51:12, 65:5, 69:2). The Gospels are full of Jesus offering salvation from illness, death, blindness, fear, violence…if it is all about God forgiving our personal wrongdoings so that we can avoid hell, then life and teachings of Jesus don’t make a lot of sense.

(I wrote this article on this very topic a few months back.)


2. God’s Wrath

I think there has been some confusion here. I’m not saying that God is never angry and just lets everything slide. I think he is very angry at ‘sin’ – at that which separates his children from him and threatens to destroy them. I think the full extent of his fury will be unleashed upon the powers of darkness that oppress people and bring destruction to God’s good creation.

Penal substitution claims that God actively punishes his children for disobeying him; that in contrast to his holiness, every single human being is so filthy that we deserve not just to die, but to be tortured for all eternity. That although God loves us, he must balance out the cosmic weighing scales by unleashing his wrath and punishment on anyone who has not accepted Jesus as their Personal Saviour.

So a young boy is born into a war zone, experiences a life full of fear and pain, and drowns at three years old when the boat carrying him to safety sinks. Death for him doesn’t bring relief, but eternal conscious torment in a lake of fire. Or even “an eternity separate from God” (a phrase people like to use to make hell sound more palatable).

And we are supposed to love this God.

Seriously, WTF?

This twisted interpretation continues to repulse and offend me.

God is angry at sin because it threatens to destroy his beloved children. He unleashes his wrath at that which causes us harm, because he loves us more than we can know. (John 3:16)

Like a mother fiercely protecting her young, willing to sacrifice her own life to save her children. (Matthew 23:37).

Of course our own destructive habits are a major part of sin, but on the cross we were set free from the power of sin, so we are no longer slaves to it (Romans 6:6-7). We have been separated from sin, so it no longer has to control us and be part of our identity. But we still have to choose to turn away from our lives of sin.

Do you see what a difference this slight shift in understanding makes?

(Read more of my musings on hell here).


3. Transformation

The meaning of the cross is not a transaction – a legal deal where Jesus gets us off the hook by standing in front of us and taking our punishment. This widespread understanding implies that ultimately, what we do in this life doesn’t matter as long as we’ve completed the transaction and secured our insurance policy against hell.

The meaning of the cross is transformation. When we choose to follow Jesus, we metaphorically die with him and rise to a new life. We are changed from the inside out. Sin is still a part of our lives but we are no longer defined by it, but by grace and love (Romans 6). We become agents of God’s Kingdom, which starts now and one day will come in full (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Choosing to ‘believe in Jesus’ doesn’t mean simply intellectually asserting that certain historical events took place and have eternal implications.

‘Believing in Jesus’ means choosing to follow in the Way he showed us, choosing to love him, putting our trust in him as we would a close friend.


4. Justice

We usually think of justice today as meaning criminals getting the punishment they deserve. Punitive or retributive justice. So we read the Bible with this in mind, and deduce that the ‘justice of God’ is about God punishing wrongdoers.

A better understanding is distributive justice. God wants everyone to be treated fairly, to have enough food and equal rights to a full life. Throughout the Bible God favours those who are oppressed and challenges those who abuse power. This is a major theme – from God liberating the Israelites from slavery in Egypt right through to Jesus befriending prostitutes and challenging those religious leaders who sought to control people…

God always backs the underdog.

God is passionate about the poor, the weak, the outcasts from society, and he desires justice, equality, freedom and fair treatment for everyone.


5. Crucifixion

The fact that Jesus died on a Roman cross was hugely significant. Rome was the ultimate symbol of worldly power – they maintained their control by any means necessary, crushing anyone who stood in their way. Crucifixion was the slowest, most painful form of torture and execution, reserved for people who challenged authority. To the New Testament writers, this would have been central.

Penal substitution tends to completely ignore the political significance of how Jesus died. If God killed Jesus, then the Romans were simply pawns in God’s greater plan of violently punishing sin and venting his wrath.

No, men killed Jesus. “Father, forgive them…” (Luke 23:34). The powers of this world and the dark spiritual forces behind them did their absolute worst to him, and thought they had won.

The resurrection was God declaring once and for all that the dark and oppressive powers of this world, represented by Rome but echoing to the ends of the earth, will not have the last word.


6. Sacrifice

Sacrifice is everywhere in the Old Testament. People sacrificed animals (usually) as a means of communicating with the gods/God, to ask for something or to show gratitude. The sacrificed animal was ‘made sacred’, and it would then be eaten (often by a Priest – see Leviticus 2) to symbolise communion with God. The animal would not have been seen as a substitute, taking the punishment that humans deserved.

Where sacrifice is mentioned in reference to Jesus’ death, through our PSA goggles we have traditionally seen this as implying substitution – Jesus took the punishment we deserved.

But sacrifice doesn’t mean substitution. Think about it.

If someone sacrifices their life to save someone – a father dies in saving his child or a soldier takes a bullet to save a friend, their deaths are not in any way settling a debt owed by that person.

Equally someone can sacrifice their life for a cause – there is no implication that they were a substitute.


So, time to get down to the nitty gritty.


Here are the main Bible passages that are used to support Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and why I am convinced that is not what they mean.


Genesis 22: God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son

Abraham doesn’t bat an eyelid when God tells him to provide Isaac as a burnt offering. In the ancient world, that’s what the pagan gods did. People believed they had to do this to keep the gods happy and ensure the survival of their tribe.

So the point here is that this God doesn’t do that. They are entering a new understanding of their relationship with the divine, and learning that He doesn’t demand child sacrifice.

Thank goodness for that.


Exodus 12: The Passover, referenced in John 1:29, 1 Peter 1:19, Revelation 5 – ‘the Lamb of God’

It’s pretty clear that the New Testament writers saw a parallel between the story of the Passover, and Jesus’ death.

Passover is a Jewish celebration of the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt. The story goes that God told them to sacrifice a lamb and mark their door frames with its blood, so that when God came to strike down all the firstborn sons in Egypt, He would pass over the houses marked with blood and their sons would be spared.

The Passover lamb wasn’t in any way a substitute for sin. The blood wasn’t payment, it was a sign of faith, an indication of loyalty and identity. They were instructed to eat the lamb after it was slain – if it symbolically represented their sin, eating it would not make sense.

So when John the Baptist declares “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), he is referencing the sacrificial lamb which brought the Israelites liberation from Egypt.

No sign of substitution.


Leviticus 4-7: Sin offerings

This is a detailed and pretty gory set of instructions regarding making animal sacrifices to atone for sin. These sacrifices were intended to be a peace offering, to restore the people’s broken relationship with God. There is no sense of the animal dying in place of the person, or of sin being placed upon the animal. It is a gift to make up for wrongdoing.


Leviticus 16:10: Scapegoat

But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.”

So the one time sins are symbolically placed onto an animal, that animal is not killed.

Interesting.


Isaiah 53:4-5 (NIV)

This is the most commonly quoted Old Testament passage used to defend Penal Substitution. I’ll write my little commentary in italics

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
(the suffering that is the result of sin)

yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
(WE considered him – I suspect when Jesus hung on the cross it looked a lot like he was being punished by God. Doesn’t mean he literally was…)

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
(Yes! He took the full force of sin upon himself and broke its power – sin punished him, not God!)


Matthew 27:46 (NIV)

“About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lemasabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)”

I don’t even know how this has become a “proof text” for penal substitution.

God allowed Jesus to be killed? Yes. He sacrificed his Son to save us.
Jesus felt abandoned by his Father? Whilst suffering the most painful form of execution known to man? I reckon so. 

So God killed Jesus? NO! WHAT?? Why would you even say such a thing??


Mark 10:45 (NIV)

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Yes, a ransom paid to the powers of darkness and death…they demanded blood, not God!


Romans 3:23-26, 8:32 (The Voice translation)

You see, all have sinned, and all their futile attempts to reach God in His glory fail. Yet they are now saved and set right by His free gift of grace through the redemption available only in Jesus the Anointed. When God set Him up to be the sacrifice—the seat of mercy where sins are atoned through faith—His blood became the demonstration of God’s own restorative justice. All of this confirms His faithfulness to the promise, for over the course of human history God patiently held back as He dealt with the sins being committed. This expression of God’s restorative justice displays in the present that He is just and righteous and that He makes right those who trust and commit themselves to Jesus.”

“If He did not spare His own Son, but handed Him over on our account, then don’t you think that He will graciously give us all things with Him?”

Speaks for itself! Not even a flicker of God pouring out wrath on Jesus.

Gave him up as a sacrifice? Definitely.

Punished him in our place? What?? No!


2 Corinthians 5:21, Galatians 3:13 (NIV)

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.””

So Jesus took the full force of sin upon himself, was cursed by sin… doesn’t mean God was punishing him.


1 Peter 3:18, 2:24 (NIV)

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”

“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed”.

Yes indeed. Still no mention of God punishing Jesus.


1 John 4:10 (NIV)

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Yep. Atonement, at-one-ment, making things right between us.

Sacrifice – still doesn’t mean substitution.


I’ve probably missed some out but hopefully by now you get the picture.


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Is being a Christian just about being a good person?

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So I’ve had a good go at butchering Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory – the idea that Jesus died to take the punishment for our sins.


The logical questions that follow are:

  • If Jesus didn’t pay our debt so we could be forgiven and go to heaven, what was the point of the resurrection?
  • What’s the ‘good news’?
  • What’s the point in being a Christian if it’s not about getting to heaven?
  • Are you saying that being a Christian is basically just about being a good person?

Honestly? Yes, that’s pretty much the gist of it.

But hear me out – there is a lot more to it than that. 

I’m not in anyway belittling the radical, vital and life-giving transformation that takes place when we become followers of Jesus.

I am suggesting that it is more to do with transformation in this life and less to do with a transaction to secure our ticket to heaven in the next life.

Since I started seeing things this way, Christianity has become more outrageous, vibrant, true, life-giving and challenging to me than ever.


What is the ‘good news’ then?

Jesus lived and died to reconcile us to God. The death and resurrection of Jesus marked the ultimate defeat of darkness, death, violence, oppression, injustice, pain, suffering, hatred and inhumanity. However powerful and all-consuming they are now, they will not have the last word.

Every bit of light, goodness, hope and love we see in the world is real, not a cruel illusion, and is in some mysterious way a foresight of what is to come.

God created us in his image, and we all have infinite value and worth. Our lives matter to God, more than we can imagine.

With the wind of God’s Spirit in our sails we are called to participate in the transforming, liberating, healing, creative, restoring, life-giving work of God on this Earth.

With the breath of God’s Spirit in our lungs we are compelled to stand against evil, injustice, oppression, inhumanity and destruction in all its many forms.


But then what makes us different from anyone else?

We are followers of Jesus, guided by his Spirit in walking the Way he showed us. That is the Way of compassion, non-violence, forgiveness and sacrificial love. That is choosing not to be a slave to the powers of this world – greed, selfishness, fear, oppression… and instead choosing to live in the Way he showed us. With every loving step we take, every compassionate act, we let in a little more of the light of the Kingdom of God.


So what about good people who aren’t Christians? Are they going to heaven?

It’s not about going to heaven. That’s a massive misconception that we’ve cobbled together with bits from the Bible and bits from Greek philosophy (Plato has a lot to answer for).

It’s about heaven coming to Earth. Starting now, the heavenly dimension breaking through into this one. And we are promised that one day God’s Kingdom will come in full and everything will be made new.

So can people who aren’t Christians be working for the Kingdom of God?
Yeah, you bet they can.

If they’re living in the way of Jesus, they are working for his Kingdom.


So what does being a Christian even mean then?

Well, quite. This is something I ask myself a lot these days.

You see, Jesus spent his life breaking down social barriers, getting rid of labels, messing with people’s ideas of who was in, who was out. Who was good enough, who definitely wasn’t. Again and again, he would turn people’s assumptions on their heads, shaming those thought they were sorted, and raising up those who were cast out, downtrodden, unworthy.

So what is this whole ‘Christians and non-Christians’ thing about?

From the radically inclusive life and message of Jesus we have constructed yet another exclusive club. You get you’re ticket and you’re in. If not, let’s be honest – you burn.

In or out. Saved or damned. Christian or non-Christian.


Surely we have something different to offer. What about the Holy Spirit? What about our personal and life-giving relationship with Jesus himself?

Yes, absolutely we can have those things, and can bring them to people who are desperately in need of them.

But I don’t think the Spirit of Jesus is owned by Christians. I think the Spirit is stirring people up and moving them towards God…in all cultures, traditions, and yes – religions.

I don’t think the Bird of Heaven can be caged…even in the cage of Christianity.

How does that work? I have no idea. The mystery continues to grow…the more learn, the less I know. But I’m learning that I’m not God – I don’t need to understand everything.


What’s the point of the ‘Christian’ label then?

Good question. I still call myself a Christian but there are many followers of Jesus who no longer feel they can be a part of ‘Christianity’.

Put it this way – I know a lot of ‘non-Christians’ who follow the teachings of Jesus (knowingly or not) more closely than many ‘Christians’.

So for me the whole thing is pretty scrambled. But there is so much I love about Christianity and church, I’m staying put for now.


We are still so tribal. That instinct has never left us.

But I’m convinced that Jesus wanted people to move on from that way of seeing the world. To love the enemy, to embrace the other. 

What if we stopped always trying to be in, trying to prove that we’re right…

… but instead sought to follow Jesus and learn how to be truly good – trusting that we’re somehow part of a bigger story that is much wider, greater and all-encompassing than any of us will ever realise?

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Why Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory makes me want to throw up a little bit in my mouth

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Sorry about the title – I had to get your attention somehow.

Seriously – if you go to church and you’re not sure what I’m talking about, listen up.

This is the ‘good news’ I suspect you were taught at church:

We are all sinners who deserve to be punished for eternity. God wants to forgive us and save us from hell, but as he is a holy and just God, he must punish sin. So in his great love, he sent his own Son to be punished in our place. He killed Jesus, pouring out his anger and wrath on him so that we wouldn’t have to be punished. Jesus died as payment for our sins. Our debt is paid, so we can go to heaven. Good news! Unless you don’t believe it in which case you still get punished for all eternity.

Wait, what?

This is very familiar, right? It is still today the most common understanding of what Christianity is all about.

And yet a rapidly growing number of evangelical Christians are rejecting this interpretation of the Gospel as a grotesque and dangerous misunderstanding.

(You’ll notice from my colourful use of inflammatory language this is something I feel pretty strongly about).


Having grown up accepting this version of Christianity without question, I now see it as a hideous and sickening misrepresentation of God and the meaning of Jesus.

The specific doctrine I (and many others) have rejected is known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (penal=penalty, punishment). It is one theory of the meaning of the cross which is now largely held as the only correct interpretation, and a (if not the) core doctrine of the faith.

It is currently my absolute least favourite thing about church. It’s everywhere… lurking in well-meaning sermon illustrations, in ‘easy’ answers in house group discussions, and sneaking into even the most popular worship songs.


Let me be absolutely clear about this.

I believe that Jesus, who was God, sacrificed his life to save us from sin. I believe that sin separates us from God, and God longs to restore his relationship with us. I believe that Jesus’ death was an act of atonement (at-one-ment), making us at one with God again.

I do not believe that God killed Jesus to satisfy his anger at our sin.

That’s the bit that makes me want to throw up in my mouth.

Before you write me off as nuts, please let me explain why…


Some of the problems with Penal Substitutionary Atonement:

1. God is angry, vengeful and violent, and ultimately our biggest threat. 

I get that God is meant to have taken the punishment upon himself. Sacrificed himself so we could be free. I get that.

But ultimately it is still God demanding a blood sacrifice as payment for sin. God wanting, needing to kill (and then continuing to torture) us because of our sin, but being satisfied to kill Jesus instead.

Whatever you think about the great mysteries of the Trinity, Penal Substitutionary Atonement makes God out to be vengeful, petty, violent and very angry at humans.

It makes the message of Christianity first and foremost one of fear… God is out to get you, you’d better hide behind Jesus before the smiting begins.

2. God doesn’t actually forgive us.

If Jesus settled our debt for us and God received payment in full, then God didn’t forgive anything. He got his blood payment!

Jesus teaches that we should forgive each other, but God doesn’t play by those rules.

So basically we are expected to be more loving than God.

3. The Gospel is at its core a legal deal or a transaction.

Once we’ve cashed in on the deal and made sure we’re in, the rest is basically irrelevant.

The whole of Jesus’ life and teachings are optional extras…if God had killed Jesus while he was a child the result would have been the same.

He paid the price, we get our ticket outa here. Then we get busy perfecting our sales pitch to convince our friends to get their tickets so they can be outa here too.

*Bangs head repeatedly on table*

4. If God killed Jesus, then violence is clearly the best way to solve problems.

People have actually used this to justify wars.

On a smaller scale, what kind of parenting model is that?

The whole point of Jesus was that he was demonstrating the path of non-violence and ultimately defeating violence.

Do you see the tragic irony in that?


A short but very very important history of Penal Subsitutionary Atonement:

(please keep reading, I’ve not got to the good bit yet…)

For the first thousand years of Christianity, Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory did not exist. You’d have gotten some very funny looks if you’d walked into an early church meeting and started talking about God punishing Jesus to pay for our sins.

In the 11th Century, a fellow named Anselm of Canterbury came up with the Satisfaction Theory, which was developed into the Penal Substitution Theory by the 16th Century reformers.

In the last 500 years, Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory has become so dominant that the vast majority of Christians don’t realise that’s all it is – a theory. A theory that the early Christians, indeed the people who wrote the Bible, didn’t know anything about.

In the last ten years or so people have started questioning this theory, and unsurprisingly those who have pushed for change have encountered strong resistance. This 500-year-old doctrine is so ingrained, moving away from it is no small task. Steve Chalke is the most public figure to have challenged Penal Substitutionary Atonement (calling it “cosmic child abuse”). It caused a bit of a hoo-ha to say the least, and the debate is still raging on.

It seems to me to be rather like trying to get an elderly parent to leave the house they have lived in since 1948. It’s the best thing for them, but they kick, scream and hurl abuse using words you never knew they knew.


“Well if not that, then what??”

So glad you asked.

God loves us and wants us to be whole, healed, brought home, free to reconnect with our Source. So God came to Earth as a man and endured the most humiliating and excruciating death possible at the hands of men in order to expose the ugliness of humanity at its worst, gripped by darkness and trapped in its own filth… and then to set us free.

The threat is not that God wants to punish us, it’s that our own destructive nature will tear us apart.

Jesus doesn’t save us from God. He saves us from darkness, disease, poverty, injustice, oppression, hunger, violence, our own destructive behaviour… everything that cuts us off from our Source and gets in the way of us being fully and gloriously human.

Which means God doesn’t begrudgingly accept us because we are ‘covered by the blood of Jesus’ and so he can’t actually see us… God actually quite likes us as us. So much so that he sacrificed his Son to save us from spiralling into destruction, setting us free to be fully ourselves.

I’ve just put into my own words a theory known as Christus Victor. It is believed to have been the dominant atonement theory for the first thousand years of church history. Again just a theory – humans trying to explain an inexplicable mystery – and there are other variations, but this fits most comfortably with the themes of the Bible and the concept of a loving God.


If this makes you feel like your faith is under attack, I’m sorry – please feel free to share your thoughts in a comment or email.

But let me first anticipate some common counter-arguments and give my response:

1. “You’re ignoring bits of the Bible to make the story sound nicer”

Nope, look… A Thoroughly Biblical Argument Against Penal Substitutionary Atonement

2. “I believe in Penal Substitution, but the picture of God you paint is a ridiculous caricature!”

Yes – I am exaggerating and using extreme examples to make a point. But if you logically follow through the arguments of Penal Substitution, can you really reconcile an all-loving God with one who demands blood payment as punishment for sin (and then still tortures people for eternity if they don’t believe the right things)? If a human parent acted that way what would we think??

3. “I believe in Penal Substitution, but I don’t think violence solves problems”

Neither did I when I believed in Penal Substitution – that’s because we are intelligent, reasonable human beings. So then God can use violence to solve problems, but we can’t? It’s starting to sound like we are more “good” than God…

4. It’s a central doctrine of Christianity – you can’t just throw it out.

Actually it’s not (as I explained above) – and yes, we can. We’ve thrown lots of other things out, it’s how we grow.

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