Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Why I can’t agree with Substitutionary Atonement

The argument for Substitutionary atonement is rarely ever made; it is generally assumed and has been since the Reformation. So it is instructive to actually see it written out in a simple way. That is what recently happened in the Adventist review. Norman R. Gulley from Southern Adventist University wrote the Cry of Anguish Why did Jesus Suffer? And what is it to you?

I will quote some paragraphs and respond because there are a lot of assumptions made in the article, common Christian assumptions which are not terribly logical and as such they don’t work that well when people actually critically think about the subject. In this case the cry of anguish is a reference to Christ’s cry on the cross, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me”. The first thing I noticed when reading the article is that the most obvious explanation for the cry is not addressed. That is the article makes no reference at all to Psalm 22 which begins with those very words. For more on that topic read my article Psalm on the Cross.

The article begins with the agony of Christ in Gethsemane. It is possible to speculate on what caused Christ’s agony, was it human fear of pain and rejection of the very people He came to save or was it fear of being separated from God? The idea that the article presents:

Some from His own nation had given Christ over to the Romans. Judas betrayed Him. Peter denied Him. His disciples all forsook Him when He needed them most. All of that He could take. But when God also seemed to abandon Him, His heart broke. Jesus cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

It was an anguished cry, wrung from quivering lips and a breaking heart, as He hung on the cross. This was the terrible price for our redemption, a cost we could never pay and will never fathom, even throughout eternity.

This hints at the common idea that Jesus died of a broken heart. In fact Ellen White who the author references later in the article actually says that Jesus died of a broken heart. As if the customary death caused by crucifixion was not able to kill Jesus. But the Bible says nothing of Jesus dying of a broken heart, what would that even mean? No doubt the rejection was painful but did that kill him or was that just an added agony to the physical torture of the beating and the cross? There is really little doubt that the act of crucifixion was the cause of Jesus death. The wonder is that he allowed people to murder him not that crucifixion resulted in death. As Peter in his sermon in Acts says:

(Acts 3:15 NIV) You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.

The article states:

The word “cried” (Greek: anaboao) is used only here in the New Testament. It’s a strong verb and indicates a powerful emotion or appeal to God. It suggests a cry of agony out of a deep sense of alienation as Jesus suffered as a “ransom” for humanity (see Matt. 20:28). In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) this is the only time Jesus addresses God without calling him “Father.”3

This little tidbit of information makes the My God, My God statement appear to be used as a quote of Psalm 22 then to address that Jesus is thinking He was abandoned. But as I said Psalm 22 is not mentioned because it does not fit with the Substitutionary dogma of the Adventist church. I was an adult who first heard the idea from Dr. Walter Martin, yet I grew up in the Adventist church.

The article continues:

Nothing can separate a person from God (Rom. 8:35-39), except sin (Isa. 59:2); which means that Christ felt a separation to the depths of His soul as He bore “the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2b). “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6b). As an eternal member of the Trinity, Christ had always been enfolded by the wondrous love of the Father and the Spirit. How awful His separation from them now! His loneliness was intense. From the heights of eternal love He had plunged into abandonment to save humanity, whatever the price to Himself, knowing most would reject Him. There’s no greater love than this!

Notice the above logical fallacy. He quotes nothing can separate a person from God and follows that by giving something that separates from God. But that was not what Romans said. It did not include an exception.

(Rom 8:38-9 NIV) For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Isa 59:1-2 NIV) Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.

We can tell by the context of Isaiah that the author has improperly used that text also. If it were true that our iniquities have separated you from God then we would be in a hopeless condition. But that is not the way Isaiah uses it. This is a type of proof texting which does not stand up to scrutiny. Clearly we have numerous Old Testament stories where sinners pleaded with God and God intervened for them.

The main text that Substitutionary proponents use is also found in Isaiah:

(Isa 53:5 -7 NIV) But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

I quoted the surrounding verses so we can see that while Isaiah says the iniquity of us all was placed on him Peter quotes this section of Isaiah but not with the idea that sins were transferred to Christ. Rather that Christ suffered our sins by the things we as humans did to Him.

(1 Pet 2:22-25 NIV) "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth."

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

He bore our sins by suffering at the hands of sinners, it is the undeniable consequence of sin, we hurt people, how can we not be moved to understand the terrible consequences of sin when we take and kill an innocent man, a man who committed no sin, a man who as Peter says in Acts is the author of life. Peter even explains how we are healed, because we return to the shepherd of our souls. This is the new life the end of the old man who lives to sin and the second birth, the birth from above.

Was Jesus who is one with the Father, who is God, separated from God as the article suggests? God abandoned God, yet He is God, it makes no sense. What would it prove if God abandoned God? That God is confused perhaps but not much else and how does one arrive at such a conclusion from the simple quotation of a few words; “My God, My God why have you forsaken me”. Apparently for Christ even if there was a feeling of being forsaken it did not last long as Christ concluded by commending His spirit to God. No the words do not show God abandoning Christ but rather the tragedy to triumph that is revealed in Psalm 22. Even if one does not buy the idea that Christ is referring those listening to Psalm 22 is it reasonable to assume from those few words which are more of a question than a statement of fact that God separated from God. That Jesus Christ ceased being God?

The article states:

Christ “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). “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 tree’” (Gal. 3:13). Christ felt abandoned, wrenched from the Father, as if no longer the Son of God. The terrible load of sin so abhorrent to the Father and the Spirit, and so horrendous to Christ, cursed Him, crushing out His life. Sin-bearing separated Jesus from the fellowship He longed to have and desperately needed with the Father and the Spirit.

Again the author takes some verses which don’t say that Christ was abandoned , wrenched from the Father or no longer the Son of God. In fact how can anyone even suggest such a thing when Jesus Christ on the cross promised one of the thieves that he would be with Christ in paradise? (Luke 23:43 NIV) Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." That whole paragraph is based upon the faulty assumption that God crushed out the life of Christ by abandonment of God from God. When you look at what these people say you really see how poorly thought out their reasoning is.

Again the article states:

Calvary was judgment first on Satan, the originator of sin (Heb. 2:14b), and second on the Savior as substitute for sinners (2 Cor. 5:21; cf. Isa. 53:10, 11). Christ took the place of every human and suffered God’s judgment on their sin. O wondrous exchange!

Again the article plays lose with the verses:

(Heb 2:14-15 NIV) Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil-- and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

Jesus had actually much earlier condemned Satan and judged him as a liar and a murder from the beginning actually speaking specifically of the judgment:

(John 16:11 NIV) and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

What about as a substitute? The author uses the concluding paradoxical statement of the chapter which really does not equal Substitutionary atonement.

(2 Cor 5:21 NIV) God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

The method is to separate the verse from the context. We can sum up the context however simply a little earlier in the chapter:

(2 Cor 5:14-17 NIV) For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

Christ died and His love compels us to accept the gift of God in being a new creation. The old therefore dies because the new has come. Therefore all who accept the new therefore die to the old. But when people disregard the context they make a pretext whereby God appears to punish the innocent so that He can forgive the guilty. Of course there is no reason for God to punish in order to forgive. That makes no sense to the meaning of forgiveness. The righteousness of God is that He does forgive that he restores and reconciles. We see this demonstration in the way human being chose to treat Christ, God in human flesh as if He were just some sinner because in our blindness because of sin we could not see God when He lived among us. It is the demonstration of that love that compels us to be reconciled with God. That He would come down to live in our sinful world and accept the consequences of sin upon his very body, to be tortured and killed by the very ones He created and offers them a chance to live just as He ever lives and demonstrated again by His resurrection, that even death is not an obstacle to God. That is what 2 Corinthians 5 is about, the article continues:

All through His life on earth Christ had clung to God alone, a power outside of Himself. He depended solely on God (Father and Spirit) in a union that knew no separation, and sometimes required whole nights in prayer (Luke 6:12). Fellowship with God was heaven to Him in a world so unlike His first home. Christ found escape from the depravity all around Him by communing with God. He sensed the Father so close that He could say: “The Father is in me, and I in the Father” (John 10:38b).

Where is the logic there? Christ clung to God a power outside of Himself, yet He said I and the Father are one, If you have seen me you have seen the Father, before Abraham was I AM. There is no verse that tells us Jesus in the incarnation depended upon God as an outside force. Why would that matter? Whether Jesus lived as a man and God or as a man depending on God? You can see how it matters. One sees Jesus as God and man the other as a man. Jesus’ statements make little sense as a man dependent upon an outside force. It tears the heart out of the meaning of incarnation. What we do see is the unity of God, Jesus does nothing on His own, His actions are one and the same as that of God.

(Col 1:19-20 NIV) For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Here is the section taken from Ellen White without a shred of Biblical support:

…during those awful hours on the cross He could not see through the darkness to the resurrection and the Second Advent. He felt that the “separation [from God and the Spirit] was to be eternal.”4 Christ was willing to perish in order to save humanity.

I have already pointed out that Christ conversation with the thief on the other cross shows that Christ did see past His death not to mention the numerous references such as where speaking of His body, He said destroy this temple and in three days I will build it again, or saying that He was going to lay down His life and pick it up again. Gulley is a professor in systematic Theology, but he would be hard pressed to back up his statement above from the Bible, it frankly is contradicted by the Bible. As you can tell he does not even try, not even with a verse taken out of context which we have seen is a technique he uses quite often.

Nearing the end of the article it says:

Each member of the Trinity suffered at the cross. And it wrenched the heart of Deity to hear the Man of sorrows cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). The “payment” for human guilt meant that Christ bore the punishment for all sin. He experienced what would have been our total abandonment by God. There was no other way.

The Bible is pretty clear saying that men killed Christ 5 times in the New Testament never once saying that His death was the punishment He paid for our sins. Never saying that the wrath of God was poured out on Christ. These are common Christian statements, but they have no New Testament support. Neither does the Bible say that Christ suffered the abandonment of God or that Christ suffered the payment for human guilt. To say that something that the Bible does not even say…that there is no other way is simply false. But it is the common practice for many Christians, mainly evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who think that no other possible atonement theory is acceptable, only substitutionary theory is acceptable. It is a plea to tradition which has far too many problems to be accepted today.

Which I why I can’t accept their tradition of Penal/Substitutionary theory.


Anonymous said...

Next thing you know you'll be questing the trinity!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for expanding my objections to the theology expressed in the article. You did a very thoughtful and persuasive defense of your position and mine.

Andy Hanson said...

I hit the wrong keys. I did not intend to leave an anonymous comment. The preceding words are mine.