For most of my life I have understood the good news to be that on the cross Jesus paid the penalty for my sins. Like the rest of humanity, I was a sinner and deserved to be punished with eternal torment in hell. But to save me Jesus, who was not a sinner and didn’t deserve to die, took my place. On the cross he experienced the penalty I deserve and I received the reward he deserved.
This no longer seems like good news to me. It pictures a God whom it is difficult to admire. This God is unable to forgive without first punishing. Mercy and grace are but an illusion for the principle of an eye for an eye, of strict retribution, ultimately reigns supreme. But it gets worse, for in exacting punishment God punishes the innocent. It seems it doesn’t matter who God punishes, just that he punishes someone. God becomes a bully worked up in a rage looking for someone to hit “because someone’s gotta pay.”
Not only does the doctrine of Christ as substitute portray an angry God who is incapable of genuine grace, it is filled with tortured logic. If the penalty for my sin is eternal torment Christ didn’t pay it, for he rose on the third day. If the penalty is an eternal ceasing to be, he didn’t pay that either. And if the penalty for the sin of humankind has been paid, there can be no future judgement, for the judgement has already taken place. To judge in the future, God would be exacting punishment for something for which the penalty has already been paid.
To the moral and logical difficulties we must add a third: it is unbiblical. The New Testament doesn’t speak of Christ dying instead of me, but of dying with me, or more correctly, of me dying with him. This suggests the language that Christ died “for” me does not indicate “instead of”/”in my place” but “for the benefit of”.
When I first began to raise these questions about the nature of the good news I wondered if I was losing my faith. Then I discovered that the idea of Christ’s death as paying the penalty for my sin was just one of a number of theories about how God saves that has been held throughout the church’s history. It had its origins in the writings of the twelfth century leader Anselm and didn’t reach the form we have it today until the Reformation. What’s more, many Christian thinkers reject the “penal substitution” theory.
So what did Christ’s death achieve? I think that it must be held together with the resurrection. In Christ God identified fully and completely with humankind. The wages of sin is death, so Christ underwent this also. But the resurrection represented a new reality, a new possibility. The logic of sin and death was burst apart. Sin might inevitably lead to death, to the end of human existence, but it is not the last word in God’s universe. Resurrection is. On that Roman cross, a symbol of the depths of human cruelty and the raw use of power, as Christ was humiliated and mocked, God declared that he could take whatever we can throw at him and he will meet it with forgiveness and suffering love. And on the third day he declared that not only would he refuse to meet violence with violence, but he was opening up a new way, a fresh possibility for us all, that resurrection rather than death can be the end point of our lives and our universe.
Now that, to me, is a good God who brings good news.