The gist of the “wrong side” argument is that in past centuries, great evils were defended in the name of God and tradition […] There is some truth in this of course. Great wrongs were, and continue to be, defended under the guise of “God’s will” and the oppressive cloak of tradition. Yet the meme is hardly absolute. And in many cases, it is simply wrong.
Here’s [another] problem: If history’s moral judgments are the unjust product of the victors’ power plays, then why trust them? If history is written by “those who have hanged heroes,” then perhaps the “wrong” side is actually closer to being right! Perhaps, as some suggest, justice lies more on history’s underside.
If this is so, then Christians have yet one more reason to discard the moral shaming of the “wrong side” argument.
For in a bit of beautiful irony, we believe that history’s crucified victim is also its great victor. The Lamb who was slain is seated on the throne, and his word is weightier than the shifting sands of public opinion. His verdict (not that of “history”) matters most.
Move over Comedy Central, there’s now a sacred source for stinging satire:
The Babylon Bee.
Here’s a sampling of the latest faux headlines:
“Local High Schooler Pretty Sure Sixth Camp Rededication Did the Trick”
“Archaeologists Discover Prophet Daniel’s Weight Loss Diary”
“Redditor Takes Ten-Minute Break From Browsing Porn To Lecture Christians On Morality”
“Everything Local Man Feels Led To Do He Coincidentally Really Likes”
“Rescue Attempt Mounted For Couple Trapped In Post-Church Small Talk”
“Steven Furtick Cancels Book Tour After Getting Lost in his Mansion”
“Benny Hinn Miraculously Removes Lump From Woman’s Purse”
The Bee is the creation of 32-year-old Adam Ford, a dad from Detroit. According to The Washington Post—yeah, that’s right, The Washington Post did a story on this (here)—Ford launched the Bee in March, and it attracted more than 1 million visitors(!) within three weeks. Not bad. The stories are provided by unpaid freelancers (acceptable translation of the Greek phrase “Seminary Students”).
Prior to launching the site, Ford hoped to be a pastor. Then debilitating panic attacks and clinical depression caused him to turn away from crowds and toward writing. He found his niche:
“Most of the articles serve to hold up the truth and let it do the work,” he states. “I hope people leave the site with a spring in their step, or limping.” (Washington Post)
Both possibilities present themselves.
Take, for instance, the recent story about the time Joel Osteen’s happy thoughts made him able to fly (here).
As “Osteen” notes:
“I just decided one day I wasn’t going to let the enemy hold me back anymore, and I started boldly declaring before God each and every day that I was going to fly.”
The report ends with the smiley televangelist soaring high above the one-time NBA arena where his church meets.
And then there is the bulletin about a “Wild at Heart” Men’s Group that got hopelessly lost in a lightly wooded field behind their local church:
“Medics were immediately called to the scene to treat the brave, but traumatized, group of men.”
“After all this, [one member] says he’s not giving up on the Wild At Heart study. ‘There’s something primal, risky, and wild in God’s heart. While we may have come uncomfortably close to death in this harrowing experience, we’re that much closer to finding out what it means to be a real man of God.’”
A SERIOUS QUESTION
I find these stories hilarious.
And perhaps that’s unsurprising. I have been a longtime fan of Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and John Oliver.
But here’s a serious question: Can satire be a sanctifying agent for the church?
In other words, can it serve a purpose other than just making us smile? Or is it more likely to be detrimental as Christians make fun of each other, or the church at large?
As someone who loves satire, I must admit that it has pitfalls.
For some of us, cynicism lurks behind the laughs.
Such cynicism is negativity with a smirk. It is a pervasive pessimism marked by punch-lines rather than overt anger. If you’re really angry, you can slap a Trump sticker on your car and fantasize about a giant golden wall in ways that make even characters on the Walking Dead feel uncomfortable.
But if you’re prone to cynicism, perhaps you turn on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight.
Personally, I’m predisposed to the latter more than the former. But neither is good.
I’ve noticed this danger as I enjoy offerings like The Daily Show, and comedians like Jon Stewart. At their best, they shine the light of truth through humor, but for some of us (read: me), too much satire can reinforce the sense that everyone in politics and media is either a hypocrite, a moron, or both.
For me, cynicism is something I must guard against.
A second danger in satire is a kind of self-righteous meanness (or at least pride) that emerges as we tear down others in the name of comedy .
Sometimes this is done by those who have few accomplishments of their own, as highlighted in this story from the Bee: “First-Year Seminarian Ready To Take Over For Senior Pastor If Necessary.”
DES PLAINES, IL—First-year seminarian, George Turner, 23, confirmed Friday that—if necessary—he could easily step in to take over Rev. Gary Price as Senior Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian. […]
Gesturing to his pack of Greek flashcards, Turner added, “And I suppose it’s time to talk to him about that Bible translation we’re using. Ugh.”
Out on a hospital visit, Rev. Price was unavailable for comment.
If you have ears to hear, then hear.
In sum, there are pitfalls to reveling in too much satire or cultural critique. But as I will argue now, I hardly see such dangers as damning to all satire.
Personally, few (if any) Babylon Bee stories strike me as either mean-spirited or cynical.
They’re funny. And in most cases, there appears to be a light-hearted twinkle in the author’s unseen eye.
As contributor Michael Coughlin remarks in the story from the Washington Post:
“You can be satirical without being cruel.”
And as Jon Acuff states:
“Sometimes the best satire is tempered by love.”
In fact, the Bible itself employs examples of humor, satire, irony, and even sarcasm (see 1 Cor. 4.8-13; Isa. 40.19-20; Jer. 46.11; 1 Kgs. 18.27; Mt. 7.5).
As Walter Kaiser, one of my old Seminary Profs, once said: Humor can help the message go down, like a parent who makes faces at a child in a high chair as a way of getting them to smile, open their mouth, and insert the food or medicine.
Along these lines, Terry Lindvall, author of God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert, claims that satirists often act like prophets, helping believers see where they’ve gone astray.
You can be a prophet with solemn pronouncement. Or you can be prophet with comic pronouncements.
This is true. But I also think that “speaking prophetically” can be a euphemism–at least as I have used it–for “being a self-righteous jerk.”
Real prophets are more likely to be sawn in two than retweeted.
So what’s the big idea?
By my judgment, satire cannot sanctify us. Only God can. And he does it by his word and Spirit.
Yet perhaps God sometimes uses well-placed satire as a way of opening our eyes to realities that need attention. Or perhaps he uses it to keep us from taking ourselves too seriously. As Martin Luther liked to say:
“Mock the devil, and he will flee from you.”
There are dangers, of course, like cynicism and self-righteous meanness. But in my view, such problems need not be inherent.
Indeed, the Gospels may even imply this when noting that soldiers cast lots for Christ’s clothing. Still, the thought of a naked Jesus splayed out before the world is uncomfortable to us. And rightly so. You will not find this painting in your Christian bookstore.
Along these lines, I recall (years ago) a fellow student asking a professor about the possibility that Christ hung naked on the cross. The teacher was incensed. “Of course not! To even think so is offensive!”
While I appreciated the concern for modesty, I remember thinking that the whole nailing-an-innocent-man-to-a-cross part was pretty offensive too. Yet it happened.
To reflect on this nakedness, however, does seem crass, unless there is some insight to be gained. And I think there is.
It has to do with bodies, shame, and those who have been made to feel less than human.
According to psychologists, we feel guilt for wrongs we have done. Yet we feel shame for who we are at some deep level. The concepts are related, but distinct.
Unfortunately, while guilt can be atoned for by punishment or making amends, shame clings to us more tenaciously. It lodges in our minds and in our marrow. It is the difference between “I have done wrong” and “I am wrong.”
For Gershen Kaufman:
To feel shame is to feel seen in a painfully diminished sense. The self feels exposed both to itself and to anyone present. [It] is the piercing awareness of ourselves as fundamentally deficient in some vital way as a human being.
While certain forms of shame may be warranted, this pervasive kind is deadly.
SHAME AND NAKEDNESS
In the Bible, shame is linked to nakedness. It didn’t start this way (Gen. 2.25), but when Adam eats the fruit he feels exposed. He was never clothed, of course, but now he feels it. So he seeks to cover himself. Enter fig leaves. In fact, the stated fear is not punishment, but being seen undressed.
“I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Gen. 3.10).
The problem is shame, but the feeling is a body that we want to hide.
Today, the trend continues. In our culture, a common cause of shame is the body itself, especially as it fails to conform to rigid standards of perfection: models, magazines, ubiquitous pornography, and the crucible of comparison. These days, not even the perfect people are perfect enough, as evidenced by the need to airbrush them.
So while the apostle Paul once assumed that “no one ever hated his own body” (Eph. 5.29), our culture shouts back: “Speak for yourself!”
It is unsurprising then that so many of our shame words relate to the body.
and many racial slurs I will not write.
Whatever postmodernity is, it is definitely post-Eden.
Then there is the realm of sexual shame.
The statistics are staggering: Twenty-five percent of girls will be sexually abused before they turn eighteen. One in five women will be raped, and 325,000 children will be victims of sex trafficking this year.
For many of us, the numbers include faces that we recognize. Indeed, the pain becomes more personal when listening, as I have, to a student say the following: “I was raped by my first boyfriend. We met at church. No one believed me.”
Increasingly, the “Hunting Ground” for sexual assaults are college campuses (see here), where a mix of alcohol, partying, and attempts to hush or blame the victims often combine to add one shame upon another. Over such campuses, the question tolls like a funeral bell: “Where can I go to be rid of my disgrace?”
And that is not to mention the myriad of consensual encounters that leave one or both persons feeling objectified, used, and cast aside.
It is not called the “walk of shame” for nothing.
But what does this have to do with the shameful nudity of Christ upon the cross?
As one scholar writes:
The whole point of Roman crucifixion was to reduce the victim to the status of a thing, stripping him of every vestige of human dignity, in order to discourage any challenging of the might of Rome.
The key idea is this: We do not have a Jesus who merely bears our guilt and sin. Nor merely one who conquers death and devils. Nor merely one who loves without exceptions.
In addition to all this, Christ also enters into our deepest experience of shame and nakedness. He was mocked and laid bare not only before tormenters, but before his weeping mother! It does not get more shameful.
So hear this: To the bullied teen who cowers in the bathroom stall, to the victim of sexual assault who feels blamed for someone else’s crime, and to all others made to feel the weight of heaped-on shame, Christ says: “I KNOW.” I have been there.
I am Christus nudus (“the naked Christ”), not merely Christus victor (“Christ the victor”).
The cross is “God’s shame-bearing symbol for the world.”
Upon it, the second Adam assumed the nakedness of the first, for as Gregory of Nazianzen wrote: “The unassumed is the unhealed.” We need a God who bears our shame. And we have one in the naked Christ.
CLOTHED WITH CHRIST
But it does not end there.
After the resurrection, the New Testament pictures salvation as being clothed. Yet the clothing is not of earthly garments, but “with Christ” (Rom. 13.14). Paul saw this as taking place at baptism (Gal. 3.27).
Thus the early church even began what may seem like a strange practice.
Converts were baptized naked in imitation of a Christ who hung naked on the cross. In response to this, Saint Jerome’s (347–420 AD) oft-repeated motto for the Christian lifestyle read as follows:
“nudus nudum Jesum Sequi” (naked to follow a naked Christ).
Because of Jesus, the metaphor of nakedness was transformed from a mark of shame to a metaphor of purity, innocence, and life-giving vulnerability (on that last bit, see here).
This is so because, on the cross, Christ not only bore our shame, he “scorned” it (Heb. 12.2).
This is indeed good news.
Christus nudus; Christus victor.
 For a mountain of research on this topic, see the published doctoral dissertation of Dan Lé, The Naked Christ: An Atonement Model for a Body Obsessed Culture (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012).
 See T. Mark McConnell, “From ‘I Have Done Wrong’ to ‘I am Wrong’,” in Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics, eds. Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015).
 Gershen Kaufman, Shame: The Power of Caring (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1985), ix–x.
 Philip Cunningham, Jesus and the Evangelists (New York: Paulist, 1988), 187.
 Robert Albers, “The Shame Factor: Theological and Pastoral Reflections Relating to Forgiveness,” Word & World 16:3 (June 1, 1996), 352.
Tucked away on page 1,351 of N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, there is this gem of statement:
“To believe in providence often means saying ‘perhaps’.”
In context, Wright is speaking of the fact that for Paul, moments of unambiguous divine revelation were rarer than we might guess. They happened, but not constantly. Whereas pagans believed in divination, consulting the entrails of animals, and any number of other techniques for receiving certitude, for Paul it was different:
“As often as not, Paul sees the divine hand only in retrospect. For the present, the attempt to discern divine intent carries a ‘maybe’ about with it. Maybe, he writes to Philemon about Onesimus, this is the reason he was separated from you. To believe in providence often means saying ‘perhaps’.”
For me, “perhaps” is intriguing for a slightly different reason.
It seems to occupy a kind of sacred middle ground between the two extremes of doubt and false certainty.
On one extreme, we face the arrogant temptation of claiming to know more than we do. This can lead to dogmatic pronouncements on things that should probably held more tentatively. After all, in theology especially, we are talking about a mysterious and unseen God, not plotting the schematics for a circuit breaker. As Neil Plantinga writes, “besides reliability, God’s other name is Surprise.” And as Paul proclaimed, “we see now as through a glass, darkly” – we know “in part” (1 Cor. 13.12).
Yet the opposite extreme is equally unsavory. Across from false certainty is the sinkhole of pervasive skepticism. After the Enlightenment, empiricism demanded quantifiable data for every aspect of one’s worldview, and many were swallowed in an ocean of unbelief. In my view, this is not appealing either. Nor does it succeed in meeting its own criteria for verifiability. Here, the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet still have force: “There are more things in heaven and earth [O Richard Dawkins] than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
But the irony is this: Both certainty and skepticism have something in common: both bow before the idol of “proof” and make their sacrifices.
And in the middle, sitting quietly, is “perhaps.”
What exactly do I mean by this? In truth, one could easily locate faith or trust as the midpoint between doubt and certainty. This makes sense. Yet for my purposes, I take trust to be an act of the will (or heart), whereas perhaps is more an exercise of the imagination. Faith says “yes” to core convictions of the creed, while perhaps stands upon this platform in order to peer into more uncharted territory: the blank spaces on our maps.
In doing so, it offers a hopeful, humble, and biblically-informed “what if?” Yet unlike the proof-obsessed alternatives of doubt and dogmatism, perhaps does so with the proviso that “this could very well be wrong.”
It is a kind of sacred speculation, on the basis of more firm convictions.
In fairness, there are times when perhaps is not a helpful word. It can be used to indulge absurdity or unbridled speculation. “Perhaps, as some say, the earth actually sits on the back of a giant (unseen) turtle,” and if asked what this turtle stands on, the answer is straightforward: “it’s turtles man, all the way down.” Yeah… I doubt it.
Likewise, as a Christian, I choose not to endlessly mull over the “perhaps” of questions that have already been decided in my own mind. Thus I do not agonize continually over the possibility that “Perhaps God is not Love,” “Perhaps Christ did not conquer death,” or “Perhaps ‘morality’ is just an evolutionary adaptation.” While such questions are quite real for many, the anchor of my own faith keeps me from endlessly rehearsing them.
WHY IT MATTERS
Yet in other instances, the ability to entertain unlikely possibilities can be crucial.
Imagine, for instance, that you are a first century Jew who has been taught (from the Bible) that Yahweh is “One” (Deut. 6), that only God can forgive sins, and that no human should be worshipped. Then a traveling Rabbi visits your town, and starts saying things that seem to rub against all this.
“Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn. 8.58);
“I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10.30); and
“[I have] authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mk. 2.10).
What do you do?
Apart from God’s Spirit, and a profound ability to say “perhaps,” the answer is clear: You reject the strange Rabbi, you join the throng of confident doubters, and you cite Bible verses to show that it is justified.
Simply put, none of the earliest Christ-followers could hold on to both monotheism and the worship of the risen Jesus without the ability to do some fairly thorough reimagining. At some point, they had to say something like the following: “Well…this doesn’t seem to fit at all with what we’ve been taught, but perhaps God is doing something we had not expected. Perhaps we shouldn’t just reject it.”
For my own part, this thought experiment is particularly convicting. I am a theology professor, which means that if I had lived in the first century, I might have been one of the “teachers of the Law” who frequently interrogated Jesus. Given this, I sometimes wonder what my response would have been to this strange Rabbi saying strange things.
I know myself. I am not optimistic.
I too have trouble remembering that God’s other name is “Surprise.”
So while sacred speculation is not without pitfalls, there is justification for Wright’s pregnant sentence:
Sometimes, to believe in providence, means learning how to say “perhaps.”
For those who are interested in theology, here is another atonement post with a question to consider:
In the Bible, God is a forgiver.
As Psalm 130 states:
If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness (vss. 3-4a).
Dozens of passages could be added to this, but as Alexander Pope wrote: “To err is human; to forgive is divine.”
So here is what may seem like a strange question:
Can we really say that God “forgave” sins if Jesus paid the price for them?
For many Christians, one meaning of the cross is that Christ willingly bore the penalty that we deserved. Therefore, there is “no condemnation” for us (Rom. 8.1), because Jesus was condemned in our place. This is referred to as “penal substitution,” and it sometimes focuses on the idea that sin’s price was paid in full.
Yet for the contemporary theologian Greg Boyd, this runs counter to the Bible’s claim that God “forgives.”
As Boyd argues, forgiveness is “the release of a debt.” Yet:
“If God must always get what is coming to him in order to forgive (namely, “a kill”), does God ever really forgive?”
Boyd thinks not. And for him, this is yet another reason to abandon penal substitution for more coherent understandings of atonement (see more here ). As he explains:
“If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone or other pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? Yes, you got off the hook. But forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”
So what do you think? Does Boyd’s point resonate with you? Why or why not?
While I would not claim that penal substitution is somehow the “most important” model of atonement, I am currently looking at some objections to it for a chapter in a larger book. Hence the repetition of the penal substitution questions.
This question builds on two previous posts (here and here), which examined a related objection involving the parable of the Prodigal Son. If you are new, see those prior posts for further context.
 Gregory Boyd, “Christus Victor Response,” in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, eds. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 104.
This week, my wife and I got a touching note from a former student. Amongst other things, it said this:
“I feel beyond thankful for your loyal friendship… I think my faith took a ‘piggyback ride’ on yours for awhile there, and it made all the difference.”
As a dad, I am something of an expert on piggyback rides.
But that line has me thinking of the concept in the realm of friendship.
Can tired faith climb aboard the shoulders of another person?
I hope so.
In opposition to this notion, some think of faith as a completely individual possession.
It’s like underwear and toothbrushes. You don’t share.
After all, you can’t believe for someone else. Thus, preachers often (and rightly) emphasize the importance of each person deciding what they will do with Christ. And I don’t disagree with that. Yet the Scriptures also say things that call into question our culture’s rampant individualism, even when it comes to faith.
I could cite lots of examples, but I’ll stick with one.
Consider this passage about a paralyzed man who is “piggybacked” (er… carried) to a house where Jesus is. After his friends dig a massive whole in the building’s roof, the lame man is then lowered down to be with Jesus.
Mark’s version, says it this way:
“When Jesus saw their faith [that is, the faith of the men who had just ripped open the roof and lowered down the mat], he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’” (Mk. 2.5).
Reread that. When Jesus saw the faith of the man’s friends—the ones who had carried him to Jesus—he forgave (and healed) the paralytic. The commentators are unanimous.
Now, I don’t doubt that the lame man also believed in Christ. Especially when he started walking.
But the passage doesn’t emphasize that. The passage emphasizes the faith of the man’s friends.
So what’s the takeaway?
I don’t know the exact distance or extent that faith can be “piggybacked.”
I’ll leave that to God.
But I do know this:
I’m grateful to have some friends who would–beyond a shadow of a doubt–rip off the roof, risk felony charges, and rain down drywall on the Son of God if they thought that it would help me.
“Greater love has no one than this,that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15.13).
And to be honest, it seems almost profane to dissect the organs of atonement on this day. “We murder to dissect.” And Good Friday is about a different murder.
As Steve Holmes puts it:
“Christians have always been more concerned to stand under the cross than to understand it. And rightly so.”
Yet perhaps it is possible to think critically about atonement doctrine in a way that is worshipful, and even honoring to those of different views.
That’s my goal.
In the last post, I asked whether the parable of the prodigal son discredits penal substitution given that the father does not require retributive justice in order to forgive. In support of this notion were scholars like Paul Fiddes, as well as others.
What I Appreciate about this Claim
I’ll begin with what I appreciate about this argument. I love the idea that the Gospels—and (gasp!) even the words of Jesus himself—might inform the way we understand atonement. That may sound rather obvious, but you’d be surprised how little the Gospels sometimes play into our interpretations of the cross.
Sometimes, it seems to be assumed that Paul, or maybe the Torah, gives us our understanding of atonement, while Jesus is the engine that makes it all work. Yet to presume this is demeaning to both the Gospel writers as theologians, and (worse yet!) to the person of Christ.
To lay my cards on the table, I do affirm a nuanced version of penal substitution (even if the label itself is somewhat clunky). Yet I do so, in part, because of statements from the Gospels. One is the accidental prophecy of Caiaphas, that “it would be better for one man to die on behalf of the people than for the whole nation to perish” (Jn. 11.50). A second is Jesus’ own understanding of the “cup” that he must drink (Lk. 22), which in the Scriptures is the cup of divine wrath or judgment.
When combined, these passages as well as others begin (in my view) to form a picture of penal substitution. But it would be easy to skip over them in a rush toward Paul or the sacrificial system.
I want to commend Fiddes and the rest for considering that Jesus himself might have some crucial insights on the nature of atonement.
Why I Disagree
The problem, in my view, resides in an attempt to make this particular parable address something that it was never intended to—namely, how (specifically) atonement does or does not work.
In my judgment, it’s just not about that.
In Luke’s account, the story comes as the third in a series of parables (the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son), which all illustrate that God delights in restoring lost people. This, after all, is why Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Lk. 15.2). In this way, his love is a perfect reflection of the heavenly Father, who “so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son” (Jn. 3.16).
No account of penal substitution would deny such basic truths. Thus, to make a charge against the necessity of Christ’s vicarious sacrifice on the grounds that the parable doesn’t specifically mention it is both an argument from silence and a rather obvious example of decontexualization.
The tendency to over-read the parables has always been there, as evidenced by the early Christian slant toward hyper-allegory. Still, just as the purpose of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk. 16) is not to provide a map of hell—complete with a broad chasm and the ability to send out unfilled drink orders (vs. 24)—so too, the purpose of the Prodigal Son is likely not to give a detailed map of atonement doctrine.
The story is about a more basic reality: God delights in welcoming repentant sinners, and he calls the “elder brothers” of the world to join the celebration.
A Possible Objection
Yet perhaps we must say more. As one might object, in the parable, forgiveness comes apart from any obvious penalty imposed. Thus, if one were to press the story to account for this—a move that I have already acknowledged as highly suspect—the question still remains: How does a penal substitutionary model account for this?
Option #1: There is a Penalty of Sorts Within the Story
One option might be to acknowledge that there is a penalty (of sorts) within the story. As I have been reminded, the father himself absorbs a massive loss of property and honor, and especially in his choice to welcome the son with no public shaming or retribution. In an honor and shame culture, this is literally unfathomable. It costs the father greatly.
Indeed, such forgiveness is always costly. Just ask the parents who (somehow) choose to forgive their child’s murderer, and then to advocate against the death penalty. There is a sense in which such acts always take the evil within themselves and absorb a kind of penalty.
So too in Christ’s story. Here, it is the God character who chooses to absorb the blow. And penal substitution says something similar.
Option #2: The Cross Looks Backwards
A second possible answer to the objection would be to acknowledge that the cross is retroactive in its scope. In this way, its redemptive shadow spreads backwards over human history, as well as forwards. If this is true, then any reconciliation with the heavenly Father is made possible by the atoning work of Jesus. This is why the elder brother need not be (ridiculously) punished in order to forgive the other.
We see something like this in the way Paul deals with the forgiven sins of past times. How, for instance, was David pardoned for his horrific crimes? In the Old Testament, there is no mention of God needing to take a pound of flesh in order to forgive the murderous king. So how does this forgiveness (e.g., Ps. 51) come?
The best answer is the blood of Jesus.
As Paul hints in Romans, “in his forbearance [God] had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” Yet now, his “righteousness,” which includes the promised covenantal curse, has been demonstrated in the sacrificial shedding of Christ’s blood (Rom. 3.25). If this is true, then one reason that the Father freely and justly welcomes repentant sinners in any age is that the covenantal curse for sin has already been borne in Jesus. Indeed, in one sense, it happened from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13.8).
The cross looks backwards as well as forward. And if this is true, then the (fictitious) younger brother is forgiven freely, as we all are—by the blood of Christ.
A Cause for Worship
Even here, however, it is not that God must vent sadistic wrath in order to forgive.
This is not what penal substitution means. The actual model centers on a covenant.
In this covenant, God binds himself to humans. There are blessings in this union and curses for disunion. Yet at the moment when our fate seemed hopeless–while we were in a “far off country,” smelling of pigs, and squandering our wealth on empty trinkets–God took the penalty upon himself, absorbing far more than a loss of property and honor.
This is an act of truly “prodigal” grace.
And so we stand under the cross today, knowing we will never understand it.
For the past year or so, I’ve been working on a book on the atonement. And since that’s where my research has been, I thought that Holy Week would be a good time to start an ongoing series on the subject. Toward that end, this first installment (part 1 of 2) involves a parable and penal substitution.
Without question, the parable of the prodigal son, or the two sons (Luke 15), is one of the most compelling stories in the Bible.
It is the gospel itself. And even leaving aside questions of meaning and application, the arrangement of the narrative is simply brilliant.
This is true right down to the open-ended final scene. Here, the screen fades to black just as the father invites the elder brother to join the party, and the hearers are left wondering which path he’ll choose: the way of nature, or the way of grace (Cue that beautiful scene from the movie “Tree of Life”). The question is made all the more pointed when we realize that Jesus is telling the story to a room that is literally divided between the elder and younger brothers (Pharisees and tax collectors). For this reason, it was likely a rather tense transition to whatever came next that day.
So here’s what may seem like a strange question: Does this parable really discredit the idea that our forgiveness hinges upon Christ bearing the divine penalty for human sin?
Since the query may seem unrelated to Jesus’ story, I begin with some context.
The above understanding of the cross—in which Jesus freely takes the punishment that we deserved—is often referred to as penal substitution.
Amongst modern evangelicals, it is arguably the most common model of atonement, and it is also highly controversial. As stated above, it centers on the idea that Jesus suffered a divinely sanctioned penalty (whether damnation, divine wrath, god-forsakenness, etc.) “in our place,” and “instead of us.” For this reason, God’s justice is seen to be maintained in that he punishes sin, even while divine mercy is displayed in that God forgives repentant sinners.
As one might expect, there is a mountain of scholarly literature surrounding penal substitution. Whole rives of ink have been spilled and entire forests slain.
Thankfully, almost none of that concerns us here.
For now, the only question I am interested in is the one above: Does the story of prodigal son discredit penal substitution?
Interestingly, several scholars think so.
Take, for instance, the Oxford theologian, Paul Fiddes.
As Fiddes argues, penal substitution wrongfully places a law of necessary punishment above the character of God. In so doing, it wrongfully claims that God could not forgive apart from Christ bearing our punishment. Fiddes, rejects this notion, and he finds support for this rejection in the story of prodigal son.
In the parable, the father freely forgives his repentant son without the need to punish anyone. This, after all, is what forgiveness is. And if this is how it works with the father in the story, then why not with our heavenly Father? Why must Christ be punished in order for God to forgive his wayward children? Clearly the parable does not depict forgiveness like this.
In recent years, evangelical scholars like Mark Baker and Joel Green have made similar statements about the implications of the parable.
To add some color to such claims, Robin Collins even offers a creative reworking of the story to show how it might have gone if the presuppositions of penal substitution were in place.
Think of this as a an alternative history, Reformation re-mix:
Here, the father “cannot simply forgive” the returning son, for “it would be against the moral order of the entire universe.” As he states:
“Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid. My wrath—my avenging justice—must be placated.”
In a twist, the elder brother then speaks up, as the Christ figure, with an offer to endure the father’s wrath on behalf of his guilty sibling (as you can see, this brother is quite different from the one in Jesus’ story). As he states:
Father, I will pay the debt that he owes and endure your just punishment for him. Let me work extra in the field on his behalf and thereby placate your wrath.” … And finally, when the elder brother died of exhaustion, the father’s wrath was placated against his younger son and they lived happily for the remainder of their days.
The retelling is ingenious, but does it really show that the actual parable invalidates belief in penal substitution?
While this post (part 1) has merely sought to introduce the charge, the next one (part 2) will provide my own thoughts on this question.
In the meantime, I’m interested in your thoughts. What say you?
 Paul Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 101–103 esp.
 Mark Baker and Joel Green, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 174.