The last couple of months I’ve visited a few churches and been struck by how central the idea that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins is in their worship. It’s there in the songs they sing, in the prayers they pray, in the words of the worship leader, and inevitably makes an appearance in the sermon preached. It is the central and defining message.
Yet, as I’ve argued in an earlier post, it’s not, to my reading, the way the New Testament articulates the good news. And it matters. Substitionary, penal atonement makes sin, guilt and retribution the central themes of faith. It gives us an anthropology that focuses on what’s wrong with us, which issues in language declaring we are unlovable (but phew, God who is love, loves us despite our unloveliness), culpable (you struggle to find any sense that our problem might be the power of sin, or the systems in which we live), incapable (but we can do things in Christ’s strength, whatever that means – I have never been able to figure that one out) and is so firmly fixed on the individual – Christ died to save sinners – that the collective is easily ignored.
Substitutionary, penal atonement gives us a God who can only effect the salvation of sinners through an act of violent retribution. Holiness, understood as an implacable opposition to sin, becomes the central characteristic of God and retribution becomes the central theme in God’s dealing with humankind, opening up visions of a hard God who punishes unconfessed sin and an eternity in which the bulk of humankind suffer the most bitter torments for eternity.
But what if we made resurrection the centre of the gospel? What if at the centre of the universe lay not an act of retribution but God’s declaration that he will break the cycle of violence and retribution by absorbing whatever evil we throw at him, forgiving and creating new life and a renewed world? Would it not change the way we frame faith, the way we speak of ourselves, the way we relate to God and engage with the world?