“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer?”

In this month’s Christian Century, Anglican theologian Charles Hefling offers a take on the Atonement that’s very close to where I find myself on this nowadays. He rehearses the well-known points that the church has never dogmatically codified a particular theory of the Atonement but has cultivated a variety of models. He also gives a fair hearing to the penal substitution theory, acknowledging that it not only offers a fairly straightforward explanation but also has great emotional and imaginative power. Nonetheless, he thinks it’s fatally flawed, due to its reliance on a retributive understanding of justice:

Recall the beginning of the argument summarized above: God is just. That sets the context for everything else, and the sequel makes it clear that by justice is meant, more specifically, retributive justice, which consists in attaching rewards to merit and penalties to fault. Now justice, so defined, is an attribute of the God described all through the Bible. There can be no objection on that score. The problem, rather, is that penal substitution cannot be squeezed inside the same definition. To punish the guilty is just. They deserve it. The innocent do not. To punish them is not just; it is just outrageous. But Christ was innocent, tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). Nobody would deny that Pilate, Caiaphas and the rest acted unjustly; but if by doing what they did they were executing a divine plan—if God intended to punish his Son by their hands—then evidently God is not just after all.

From this internal contradiction there are two escape routes, one incredible, the other reprehensible. The first introduces the remarkable claim that Jesus was guilty, but only because the guilt of others was transferred from them to him. This expedient so undermines the very idea of moral responsibility that it would be better not to speak of justice at all. Guilt in the relevant sense is not the sort of thing that can be siphoned out of one person and into another. Nor is it any better to argue that punishing the innocent, though admittedly wrong as a rule, can in exceptional cases be just, provided it serves to “send a message” that dramatizes the heinousness of disobedience in order to deter those who might be inclined to disobey. There is a name for that: terrorism.

Hefling goes on to emphasize is that this is a sub-personal way of understanding atonement–one based on a model of impersonal justice instead of reconciliation between persons. Forgiveness isn’t just letting someone off from a penalty; it consists of mending a personal relationship, which requires “a change in both the forgiver and the forgiven.” And a willingness to accept suffering “is intrinsic to what forgiveness, in the personal sense, is.”

Why so? Because, in the first place, evil is like the good it undoes in that it is infectious. It propagates itself. Suppose, then, that I have injured you. As a person, you are free to choose your response. If you choose to retaliate, you perpetuate the evil by causing a new injury. The choice may be wholly justifiable, but it is no less injurious for that. If instead you choose to hold a grudge, to brood on your injury and cultivate your dudgeon, you will still perpetuate the evil, internally, by diminishing yourself, souring your character and becoming your own victim as well as mine. On the other hand, if you choose to forgive, you are choosing to absorb the infection, as it were; to contain its self-diffusion, to forgo the gratifications of revenge, resentment, self-vindication and righteous indignation. Furthermore, you are choosing to make your willingness known to me, to offer me your friendship, to accord me a status and value no less than yours, all without denying my offense or ceasing to be my victim. At the same time, conversely, until I have chosen to acknowledge you as such, to own the injury, ask for your benevolence and reciprocate your offer, the forgiveness that we must both choose if it is to occur has yet to be fully chosen.

In this regard, Hefling calls forgiveness “an instance, perhaps the defining instance, of a more general, more inclusive pattern” exhibited in the teaching of Jesus.

Also, and most important here, it is enacted in the way he is reported to have met the final surge of hostility to that teaching and to himself. The hostility was probably inevitable; in that sense it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer” (Luke 24:26). But the necessity was not absolute. Things could have gone otherwise, to judge by the Gospels. Jesus could have chosen to flee, to fight arrest, to summon 12 legions of angels. All these he chose to refuse.

By so doing he chose to bear the cross, and his choice gave the bearing of it a meaning it would not otherwise have. Among thousands of Roman executions, this one is meaningful—not in the way a quantum of suffering might be meaningful, weighed in the scales of retributive justice, but meaningful as a communication, a word, an expression of willingness consistent with what Jesus had until then been expressing in deed and speech.

Has all this got anything to do with atonement? No. Not in the sense that because Christ accepted his suffering we do not have to suffer. It is the other way around. He accepted it because we do have to. His was a cross that had always been ours, the one way open to us, in a skewed world, for putting a stop to the consequences of our own malice without adding to them. Accepting that way, the way of the cross, was an act of solidarity with us and an offer of solidarity with him—an appeal for us to follow him by willingly taking up whatever crosses the world imposes, by making them occasions for joy, by forgiving.

Hefling anticipates that this could be seen as a “merely” exemplarist theory–that Jesus’ passion provides nothing more than an example for us to imitate. But this objection overlook the fact that taking up our crosses is not something that comes naturally to us.  We depend on grace to be conformed to the pattern established by Christ. This is why we need to recover the teaching that God effects reconciliation not just through the Son, but through both the Son and the Spirit (the two “hands of God” as Irenaeus put it).

One of the peculiarities of Western Christianity has been a tendency to speak of God’s initiative in reconciling his human creatures as though it were entirely a matter of sending his Son into the world. But God’s Spirit too has been sent—and continues to be. On the well-founded assumption that this second divine initiative complements the incarnation, there is reason to suppose that part of the indwelling Spirit’s job description is to be the “drawing” that attracts self-sufficient persons to the self-emptying person of Christ. In other words, the motivation for choosing this exemplar is itself a gift, “the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us” (Rom. 5:5). It would follow that reconciliation—atonement, if you like—can be understood as the action of a tri-personal God, rather than a transaction between the Father and the Son.

The reconciliation effected by the tri-personal God exhibits a form of justice that is more restorative than retributive. God brings good from the evil of the cross not in the sense of exacting punishment but in breaking the cycle of tit-for-tat violence to make reconciliation possible.

Presumably God has always been able to purge the world of its evils with an apocalyptic blast of power. Instead he has chosen to conform to the same justice he requires of his human creatures, to submit to the conditions of at-one-ment with them, to become all they are and are to be. And that is good news.

Hefling’s account has some obvious affinities with J. Denny Weaver’s non-violent Christus Victor motif as well as the more nuanced “exemplarist” theories I discussed here. A common thread is the rejection of a retributive understanding of justice on either biblical or more general moral-philosophical grounds. Although one can certainly cite biblical texts on both sides of this issue, I think Weaver, Hefling, and others have a strong case that a non-retributive understanding of atonement is more consistent with the teachings and practice of Jesus himself.


15 thoughts on ““Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer?”

  1. Pingback: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer?” | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. I’m unconvinced that penal substitution relies on a retributive understanding of justice. Retributive theory just gives one possible account of why punishment might be just; but penal substitution, itself, does not depend on taking any particular account of why punishment might be just in the particular case, although it sits better with some than others; and it actually is easier to get the substitution part if one’s theory of punishment is non-retributive — traditionally the major objection to penal substitution is that it doesn’t sit well with a strictly retributive account, which would require that everyone get their own punishment and no one get anyone else’s. This is in fact exactly the argument Hefling gives in other words: another way to state his argument is simply that punishment in penal substitution can’t be purely retributive in justification. But that’s rather obvious; penal substitution allows for vicarious punishment, which by its nature is not retributive, or at least can only be loosely so. I suppose one could just mean the ‘penal’ part, i.e., punishment, but there are lots of theories of punishment that are not retributive; including, I should point out, restorative theories of punishment.

  3. Good points, though I think it’d be more accurate to say that Hefling thinks penal substitution both does and doesn’t rely on retribution, and that’s where it gets into trouble. I.e., it relies on intuitions about retribution to argue for the need. for punishment, but then violates those same intuitions in allowing for the innocent to be punished in place of the guilty.

    And of course I agree that other theories of justice can allow for punishment, though I’m not sure whether any of them could underwrite a penal substitution account of the atonement. That is, most of them that I’m familiar with think of punishment in some sort of corrective or educative terms–it’s even harder (or so it seems to me) to think of Jesus as taking our punishment in this sense. (I’m of course open to correction on this!)

    1. The mere need for punishment wouldn’t of itself require retributivism — all theories of punishment hold that there is sometimes need for punishment. Penal substition requires that:

      (1) our atonement directly involve divine justice
      (2) because human sin violates God’s law in ways requiring serious punishment
      (3) which is vicariously accepted by Christ on the cross
      (4) in such a way that justice is perfectly satisfied.

      That’s pretty flexible scheme. To be sure, most people who have accepted the theory accepted that justice had to be primarily retributive, but so did everyone — hence the fact that the standard traditional argument against it is that it isn’t properly retributive. If you accepted penal substition to begin with, and changed your account of how punishment relates to justice, do you thereby cease to accept penal substition? I don’t think so. Add something about punishment and education and its being required by divine justice to Hefling’s account as presented in your post and it would automatically become penal substitution based on an educative theory of punishment (e.g., that Christ accepted our educative punishment so that, while we would still receive the benefit of it, we would in doing so being educated in even a greater way). Others are no doubt possible. Thus I don’t really think focus on retributive justice particularly affects penal substitution itself.

  4. Okay, yeah, I can see how the scheme as you’ve outlined represents penal substitution without necessarily presupposing a particular account of punishment. Though I’m still having trouble understanding how an alternative understanding of punishment could play the same kind of role that retribution would. For instance, on an “educational” understanding of punishment, who’s being “educated”–Jesus? That doesn’t seem right. Us? In that case, I’m not sure it would really be a case of vicarious punishment. It would instead seem to be a case of Jesus suffering to teach us some kind of moral lesson, which is different from him being punished in our stead. This isn’t to say that such an alternative couldn’t be worked out, but I do think common presentations of P.S.A.–particularly at the popular level–rely on a “common-sense” retributive understanding of the purposes of punishment.

    (Have you written on this–or atonement more generally–on your blog? I’d be very interested in reading it if so.)

    1. I agree that common presentations of PSA rely on common-sense retributive understanding; but, again, I think that this is mostly because the common sense of the overwhelming majority of people for the past five hundred years has seen justice as retributive — and still is. (And it’s worth keeping in mind that there are good reasons for this: to take just one example, C. S. Lewis’s famous essay on the ‘Humanitarian Theory of Punishment’ is an attack on most restorative theories of punishment for being ill-defined, passive-aggressively abusive, and totalitarian — and it at least shows how the whole idea can go wrong, since the most stringent advocates in his day for restorative justice were Stalinists.)

      I’m not a penal substitutionist myself, although I think a lot of criticisms are weaker than they are let out to be; and I don’t think I’ve ever really discussed the atonement at length on my blog.

      1. It’s been a while since I’ve read Lewis’s essay, but it seems to me many of the criticisms he makes wouldn’t necessarily hold against divine restorative justice (though I may be mis-remembering what they were).

      2. Well, yes, but this is true of most of the criticisms against the retributive account of punishment used in common versions of penal substitution; which is why I think a lot of the criticisms of it are weaker than they are often treated as being.

  5. Camassia

    I suppose if you’re being creative about it you could argue that penal substitution is restorative if you view the Father as the victim of human sin; Jesus’ submission to his punishment unto death restored his rightful place as master of the human race (as opposed to “the prince of this world”). Personally I’m not too keen on theories that cast the Supreme Being as a victim, but there is certainly precedent for that.

  6. @ Camassia–intriguing thought. Though I’m not sure how the “offender” is being “restored” on this scenario?
    @ Brandon–fair point. Also–care to elaborate on (or even hint at) what kind of atonement theory you do favor, if any? 😉

    1. I think the atonement is a mystery, by which I mean not that it is uknown, obviously, but that no single atonement theory can adequately characterize it — all will fall short in some way if taken even as capturing all the important things involved in it. But I tend to stick fairly closely in practice to an Anselmian satisfaction theory (although that’s misleading to say, because I think Anselm’s account of the atonement is usually misread as saying that God’s honor must be restored when what Anselm actually says is that our ability to honor God appropriately must be restored, which is why his digressions about angel choirs and the like are not digressions.)

      1. Lee

        Yes–that’s how I read Anselm too. “Honor” has more to do with creatures fulfilling their proper end than God being “offended.” Which makes sense since for Anselm God is self-existent and impassible, so how could his “honor” be diminished?

        I admit I vacillate somewhat between an Anselmian view and a more exemplarist type of view. Though as you suggest, they may be more complementary than mutually exclusive.

      2. My own view is that moral exemplarism, at least of some kind, is right as far as it goes; the problem with it is not that it is wrong, nor that it leaves anything important out (since they all do, in one way or another), but that if you rely on it too exclusively you really don’t have much. It’s a good supplement, since when you combine it with something else, you get something more than the sum of the two — it doesn’t just add to other theories, it interacts with them in interesting ways. But if it’s not supplementing something else, there’s not much to it.

    2. Camassia

      Yeah, the death penalty is not considered restorative because it’s irreversible … except in this case it wasn’t. That does point to the fact that even in classical PSA, the retribution occurs within a restorative project.

      1. Lee

        That’s a good point and one worth keeping in mind.

        Earlier I came across this article by British evangelical Steve Holmes. He defends a nuanced version of PSA (with an assist from Anselm) that has good responses to the more common objections. He also argues that there are mutually complementary images or models, and that PSA preserves some important facets of the Atonement that other models might leave out.

        Click to access Holmes2005ScottishJnlTheology58-CanPunishmentBringPeace.pdf

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