February 7, 2014 by jmar198013
They snuck it on me, those church folk, about four years back.
Services had been cancelled because of a nasty winter storm. People’s cars were literally fozen to their driveways. I had walked over to the local Chinese restaurant, which was miraculously open, with my now-wife. We saw some of our friends eating the lunch buffet, and they informed us that they would be holding a small service in their home. We went, and just before homemeade communion, someone requested that we sing, “In Christ Alone.”
I had never heard that song, but I know how to pick up a tune and fake it (that’s one of the gifts of being born into the a capella Churches of Christ). I was really into it–they just don’t write luxurious hymns like that anymore–until the line came that made me feel a bit queasy. It was sort of like finding a gristle in the middle of a wedding cake:
‘Til on that Cross/ as Jesus died/ the wrath of God/ was satisifed . . .
I couldn’t sing any longer. I mean, I had grown up with church songs just riddled with bad theology. Promises of “a mansion just over the hilltop.” “Sing and be happy” as advice for dealing with depression. I had heard a lot of ridiculous things in hymns. And some of them wander straight into spiritually abusive territory. Case in point:
Can he still feel the nails/ every time I fail?
Incidentally, the composer of “Feel the Nails” is Ray Boltz. Boltz was a popular Christian entertainer of the 80s and 90s who has since come out as gay. That puts a whole new spin on this already morbid song. Listening to and singing along with it becomes less of a nudge toward the anxious bench, and more a glorification of self-loathing.
But back to “In Christ Alone.” That stuff about the wrath of God being spent on Jesus is problematic, and worse–it’s not biblical. It trades in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement–a relative latecomer as far as atonement theories go, but pretty much the go-to raison d’etre for the cross in popular Christianity. And according to its defenders in the broader evangelical/fundamentalist world, it is the only biblical way of speaking about atonement.
It goes like this: God loves us, but he is angry at our sin (and us as sinners), and because he is holy cannot even stand to be around our sin-stinking selves. So this puts God in a bind–he wants to love us and forgive us, but his sense of justice stands in the way. A penalty must be paid for our misdeeds. He can’t just forgive us (although does ask that we forgive others freely)–somebody has to pay! But none of us are capable of paying that penalty, because any one discreet sin is an instant death penalty–so we all have a debt on our life. On the other hand, the debt is somehow negotiable–someone else can pay it. Thus God sends Jesus–who lives free of sin–to bear God’s wrath on the Cross. In other words, God kills his own innocent Son to avoid killing everyone else.
I understand that God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform, but I guarantee you that if the preachers and hymnists who uphold this view were to act so mysteriously in their day-to-day ministries, they’d be fired.
Aside from simply being bizarre–which oughtn’t automatically disqualify it from being legitimate; after all, what religion doesn’t contain some bizarre elements?–the core problem with the penal substitutionary atonement theory is that the Bible doesn’t teach it anywhere. It’s more or less woven from a patchwork of various shreds of Scripture, often ripped from their contexts and interpreted in ways that are at best debateable. Usually, when it is being explained, it’s literally like this: start with some Genesis 3, jump to Isaiah 53, draw a line to Paul here and there, wrap it up with some references to the Gospel and First Epistle of John: and there it is. Instant atonement theory!
Here’s the deal: I’m not skittish about affirming the wrath of God (though my concept of it and the concept of it inherent in the sort of theology that underwrites penal substitution are probably world apart). For instance, in Rom. 5.9, Paul states that “we can be . . . certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through [Jesus].” But what Paul did not even come close to saying there–or anywhere–is that we are saved from God’s wrath because God’s wrath has already been spent on Jesus.
Furthermore, penal substitution emphasizes Jesus’ life of obedience as a legal formality (God needed the perfect victim), and therefore de-emphasizes (however unwittingly) discipleship. It does not have any mechanism built into it that would conect Jesus’ form of life to our own, and in fact, many articulations of it–when combined with a strong grace vs. works bent–might actually work to discourage the imitation of Christ. On the other hand, other, older theories of atonement–such as the ransom theory, the moral exemplary theory, and Christus victor–do, in fact have a compelling account of discipleship built into them. We are ransomed to follow Jesus; we respond to God’s call for our reconciliation. Generally, with penal substitution, you get moved into the non-hell category of God’s gradebook, and then you are told–essentially–to try and be nice.
Most of all, the penal substiutionary theory of atonement turns the biblical account of what God was doing the the Cross upside down, in that it makes God the object of reconciliation with humans, rather than its agent. Read carefully these passages from Paul, and see what you notice:
All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus. Through his faithfulness, God displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood. (Rom. 3.23-25)
But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Rom. 5.8)
All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5.18-19)
Penal substitution does violence to the biblical language of God being the agent of reconciliation by transforming God into an offended party requiring vengeance. In short, it turns the language of our needing to be reconciled to God on its head, and makes it God who needs to be reconciled to us.
A God whose wrath must be appeased to stop terrible things from happening might make a fine pagan deity in some circles–but he is not the God of the Bible. That sort of God is little different from those who demand that virgins be thrown into volcanoes. Likewise, a God who would deem that one innocent person should die so that he can avoid killing everyone else is right close to the ethics of a Caiphas or a Pilate. A God who can be distracted by seeing his crucified Son in our place is too myopic to be of much good in a violent and unjust world.
And so I won’t sing “In Christ Alone.” The God the song renders is not the God who speaks to us through the Cross–and certainly not the God made flesh in the Crucified.
A quarter of a century ago, Thomas C. Oden noted that, “Christianity proclaims not merely that Christ died, but that his death had significance for the otherwise absurd course of human history.” With that in mind, the apostle Peter’s word during his first preaching gig at Pentecost was: You, with the help of wicked men, had Jesus killed by nailing him to a cross. God raised him up! (Acts 2.23-24). I have said it before, and I shall continue to say it: the gospel is not that Jesus dealt with the problem of sinners in the hand of an angry God; the gospel is how God dealt with the problem of Jesus in the hands of angry sinners.
Now that’s something to sing about.