Substitutionary atonement is the beating heart of conservative evangelicalism. At its crux is the cross. (Clever sentence eh?) This theory takes the Old Testament seriously and sees Christ as the one true sacrifice who atones for (pays for, makes up for) human sinfulness in a way that all those dead lambs and pigeons could never do.
Evangelical thinkers and preachers (stand up Steve Chalke) who go near it to question get a rough ride.
I read this in The Guardian on Wednesday from Giles Fraser (not an evangelical but a respected liberal theologian and philosopher who always makes me think):
'...penal substitution ... is, among other things, the reason so many conservative Christians ... support the death penalty - wickedness must be paid for with blood. And it's precisely this equation that has come to rot the Christian moral conscience from within. For this theology is intrinsically vindictive, bloodthirsty and vengeful. Though many evangelicals and conservative Catholics think it the beating heart of the good news, it's a much later medieval interpretation that refuses the gospel's insistence upon forgiveness and non-violence.
'Jesus put it pretty clearly when he quoted his favourite passage of the Hebrew scriptures: "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." The retributive logic that sin can be cancelled by pain is just what Christ resisted. And it was a stand taken by the Hebrew prophets before him.'
Read the whole article, a review of Mel Gibson's latest movie, here.
So don't panic. I'm not going to say Christ didn't die in our place. And don't over criticise Fraser for daring to suggest he knows what Jesus' favourite Scripture was - that way lies gnat straining and camel swallowing. I just want to hear and understand the challenge that those of us who see Jesus' death as putting an end to the ridiculous cycle of violence need to fully understand that it puts an end to all violent responses to sin wherever we find it. Punishment and revenge should turn into healing and reconciliation. I still find too many of my brothers and sisters in Christ baying for blood. Please stop. It's meant to have been stopped.