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.