Problems with Substitutionary Atonement

"Put a circle around it, underline it, or put a star by it... I really want you to remember this one."

Our pastor was discussing the message of the cross, the gospel message. He was giving a summary, of sorts, of what accepting Jesus is all about. He was giving us an outline of what we could share with our friends in order to get them to cross the line, and so on and so forth. As usual I found myself disagreeing with most of what he said. I was doing fine, thinking "ok, that's legitimate," to each point except for one. "put a circle around it..." he said, "He [Jesus] died as our substitute." Oh no, of all of them, he wants me to circle this one. Too bad this one, substitutionary atonement, is the only one I really have a problem with. I guess it's a legit view if accompanied by some other perspectives but on its own it's at least misleading.

If Jesus was our "substitution," if he "took our place," if he went to the cross so that we wouldn't have to then what do you do with "take up your cross and follow me?" Is it just about some superficial self denial? What do you do with "as the father sent me so I am sending you?"

I guess this is why the crucifix no longer makes sense to us. When we look at the cross we only see Jesus there in our place. Why should we focus on this? It's all about the resurrection right? We don't see ourselves on the cross, we don't see Jesus' sacrifice as a call for us to do the same, to lay down our life for our friends (Jn. 15:13). Jesus' crucifixion is a call to suffer, to lay down our lives so that we may truly live, not just a substitution. Substitution on its own no longer makes sense if we understand that Jesus has called us to sacrifice, the same sort of sacrifice he himself performed. Substitutionary atonement downplays the call of the Church and could easily lead us to believe that the cross is all about what Jesus did for me and has nothing to do with what I am now free to do as his follower. We could revert to the sort of Christianity which only involves my personal benefits.


Anonymous said…
I really like your thoughts, but how do we teach this to the average Christians without offending their sensibilities?
Mystical Seeker said…
I agree. It seems like substitutionary atonement pretty much ignores everything about Jesus's life except insofar as it points to his death and resurrection. It's like his entire 30 or so years of life were all irrelevant, except as a prelude to his death. But if instead we see his death as a consequence of a life lived fully on behalf of God's Kingdom (in contradistinction to the Roman Empire), then his life suddenly has meaning in and of itself, not the least of which as a model for us to emulate (including taking up the cross, as you mention.)
wellis68 said…
I don't know how to teach this. I guess it might start with a cup of coffee... we need to begin by sitting down and talking about it in a way that is open. After that I think it's about asking serious questions. Does this make sense? What do you do with the call to die, to take up a cross? We should point out the problems and come to a conclusion together. I hope this answers your question. I might not full understand what you mean by "average Christians."

Mystical seeker,
great thoughts. I really appreciate your point and I think you have captured a huge part of what i am trying to get across. We have to see the whole life of Jesus in the same picture as his death and his surprising resurrection. His life had everything to do with his death. Substitutionary atonement talks of Jesus death as though it had no flesh and blood context--as though it could have happened on a deserted island.
Thanks for your thoughts.
Anonymous said…
Really good teaching there.

You got a good blog here with some good posts.

Gen. 9:5 NIV ended the theory of substitutionary before it ever stated. There is no case of any man's life taken by bloodshed which does not produce the result of having to give God a direct account relative to the prior act. There is not a direct benefit relative to Jesus' crucifixion. But God's requirement does not exclude an indirect benefit associated to Jesus' crucifixion. And there is one, but it's only one.