Cosmic Child Abuse

I don’t judge you. I leave that to a wrathful, angry God to do.

— Ned Flanders to his wayward neighbor, Homer Simpson

“The Cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse — a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith.”

When I penned this statement, as part of the text of The Lost Message of Jesus, I had no idea of the debate that it would ignite or the controversy it would stir…. Though the sheer bluntness of my imagery shocked some, I contend that, in truth, it represents nothing more than a stark unmasking of what I understand to be the violent, pre-Christian thinking behind the popular theory of penal substitutionary atonement … [that] I readily concede, is currently regarded as orthodoxy within modern evangelicalism…. I believe it to be biblically, culturally and pastorally deficient and even dangerous. (Chalke 2008: 34-35)

(….) I grieve over the depth of the damage that has been, and is being, done through the distortion, misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the purpose of the cross under the label of “penal” substitution…. N.T. [Wright] states, for instance, “it … is deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical.” In my opinion, he is right once more…. I believe it is better to abandon the use of the term [“penal” substitution] altogether and restate the truth in fresh ways. (Chalke 2008: 35)

(….) Inadequate doctrines of atonement lead to distorted understandings of God and humanity and result in an immature engagement in community and wider society.

But if erroneous theology leads to dysfunctional missiology, is there any connection between the public’s almost universal perception of certain elements of the church as judgmental, guilt-inducing, censorious, finger-wagging, bigoted, and self-righteous and aspects of its theology of the cross? And if, as historian and scholar David Bebbington claims, one of the four pillars of evangelicalism (which together are known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral) is “crucicentrism”, or cross-centredness, why is it that our culture now views the death of Christ as no more than some kind of ancient myth or irrelevant religious event? Perhaps one factor is that our thinking about the cross has become distorted and thus our presentation of it is inadequate to engage the hearts and minds of our contemporaries both within and beyond the church. (Chalke 2008: 36)

(….) Though often represented as a much older formulation, penal substitutionary theory, as it is understood and taught in many evangelical churches today, rests largely on the work of the nineteenth-century American theologian Charles Hodge, who, building on the work of John Calvin’s legal mind, argued that a righteous God is angry with sinners and demands justice. God’s wrath can be appeased only through bringing about the violent death of his Son. Joel Green and Mark Baker demonstrate in their book, Rediscovering the Scandal of the Cross, that, whereas supporters of penal substitutionary theory tend to quote the writings of various church fathers and early Christian writers to bolster their claims, their conclusion is more easily understood as an anachronistic “reading back” of modern views onto ancient texts, particularly into the work of Anselm of Canterbury. (Chalke 2008: 37)

(….) However, the supposed orthodoxy of penal substitution is greatly misleading. Although as a theory it is not as old as many people assume, it is actually built on pre-Christian thought. This is a point pressed by Professor George Eldon Ladd in A Theology of the New Testament: “In pagan Greek thought the gods often became angry with men, but their anger could be placated and the good will of the gods obtained by some kind of propitiatory sacrifice. Even in the Old Testament, the idea of atonement as the propitiating of an angry deity and transmuting his anger into benevolence is not to be found.” The emphasis on Yahweh’s apparent appetite for continuous appeasement through blood sacrifice, present in some Pentateuchal texts is to be understood in the light of later prophetic writings as a reflection of the worship practices of the pagan cults of the nations that surrounded the people of Israel. However, the story of Israel’s salvation is the story of her journey away from these primal practices towards a new and more enlightened understanding by way of Yahweh’s self-revelation. (Chalke 2008: 38)

(….) Indeed, one of the challenging questions for those who hold a penal substitutionary view of the atonement is the fact that Jewish prophets of the eighth century BCE were clearly already moving beyond this concept. Thus, to defend the theory of penal substitution by arguing the meaning of this or that isolated biblical text ignores a deeper truth. The resonance of the scriptural witness, the overall flow of the narrative, and the unravelling story of salvation all speak with a different voice. So it is that, today, even the most orthodox Jewish teaching and practice has long since abandoned blood sacrifice. There is simply no Jewish scholar anywhere in the world who understands the sum content of the Old Testament text as an ongoing demand for propitiatory blood sacrifice. (Chalke 2008: 39)

The greatest theological problem with penal substitution is that it presents us with a God who is first and foremost concerned with retribution for sin that flows from his wrath against sinners. The only way for his anger to be placated is in receiving recompense from those who have wronged him, and although his great love motivates him to send his Son, his wrath remains the driving force behind the need for the cross. (Chalke 2008: 39)

If we follow Hodge’s understanding of the atonement, it is Jesus’ death alone that becomes our “good news”. This approach reduces the whole gospel to a single sentence: “God is no longer angry with us because Jesus died in our place.” Indeed, that is exactly why evangelistic presentations based on penal substitution often do not even bother to mention the resurrection: for them, it serves no direct purpose in the story of salvation. (Chalke 2008: 39)

Ironically, what Hodge most neglected was to let Jesus speak for himself. It is difficult to see how penal substitution fits with the words or attitudes of Jesus. For instance, if the whole gospel centres on Jesus’ death, what was the good news he told his followers to preach (Luke 9:6) before the crucifixion? And if God needed to a sacrifice to placate his anger, how could Jesus forgive sins before his sacrifice had been made? In fact, why did Jesus preach at all? The rest of his ministry was ultimately unnecessary if it is only his death that makes things new. Surely we cannot embrace a theology in which Jesus’ entire thirty-three-year incarnation could be reduced to a long weekend’s activity. (Chalke 2008: 39)

It is interesting to note that in Jesus’ own explanations of his Father’s relationship with mankind, the story of the prodigal son, the father is not presented as angry or vengeful or as seeking justice and retribution; instead, he simply runs to greet his wayward child, showers him with gifts and welcomes him home (Luke 15:11-32). The father in the parable is wronged, but he chooses to forgive in order to restore a broken relationship there is no theme of retribution. Instead, the story is one of outstanding grace, of scandalous love and mercy. How different it would read if penal substitution were the model of atonement offered. (Chalke 2008: 39-40)

In addition, we can note Jesus’ teaching on anger (Matt. 5:22) and retaliation (Matt. 5:38-42). Is it not strange for Jesus (God incarnate) on the one hand to teach “do not return evil for evil” while still looking for retribution himself? Similarly, would it not be inconsistent for God to warn us not to be angry with each other and yet burn with wrath himself, or tell us to love our enemies when he obviously could not quite bring himself to do the same without demanding massive appeasement? If these things are true, what does it mean to “be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48)? If it is true that Jesus is “the Word of God”, then how can his message be inconsistent with his nature? If the cross has anything to do with penal substitution, then Jesus’ teaching becomes a divine case of “do as I say, not as I do.” I, for one, believe that God practices what he preaches. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil. (Chalke 2008: 40)

So, what of God’s anger? The most profound theological truth expressed in the whole of canon of Scripture is that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The Bible never defines God as anger, power or judgment; in fact, it never defines him as anything other than love. Love is not a quality that God possess but rather is his divine essence itself his essential being. And more than that, the Bible never makes assertions about God’s anger, power or judgment independently of his love. God’s anger is an aspect of his love, and to understand it any differently is to misunderstand it. (Chalke 2008: 40)

Every father will be wronged by his children; it is a simple fact. All of us who know the joy of raising children also know the pain of their rebelliousness and yet no parent who loves their child ever seeks retribution for wrongs done to them. Parental anger, when it is motivated by genuine love, cannot be violent or destructive. Though in Scripture we read about God’s various attributes, in truth, they are never more than repetitions and amplifications of the one statement that God loves. The reality of God’s wrath is never in dispute. But only in light of our understanding of God as the perfect father can we begin to see that the objects of his burning anger are not his beloved children but the evils, attitudes and behaviours that ensnare and seek to destroy them. (Chalke 2008: 40)

(….) Penal substitutionary theory betrays Jesus’ attempt to root out the tendency of religion to lead to violence by inventing a theology of his death that is in direct opposition to his teaching. If the church could rediscover a deeper understanding of the cross, we could once again speak with prophetic power to a global society caught in the grip of the lie that violence can be redemptive. The church’s inability to shake off the great distortion of God contained in the theory of penal substitution, with its inbuilt belief in retribution and the redemptive power of violence, has cost us dearly. As the world struggles to find a way out of the chaos resulting from the doctrine of “might is right” and “he who has the biggest guns wins,” there is now an opportunity for the church to live out its commitment to the ethic of non-violence or “assertive meekness” demonstrated by Christ throughout his life and ultimately authenticated by his cross and resurrection. Jews, Muslims and Christians alike have to face up to the truth that their holy texts can be interpreted violently. Will our Christ-centered faith be part of the world’s answer or part of its problem? (Chalke 2008: 41)

But a commitment to penal substitution also raises other ethical concerns. Indeed, it is open to the charge that it does little more than reflect the nineteenth- and twentieth-century culturally dominant values of individualism, autonomy and consumerism. Thus, the primary purpose for the cross becomes its instant “cash value” for the individual. by “praying the prayer”, I am immediately moved from the wrong side of God’s legal ledger to the right side. The great transaction is done. And what is more, not only am I no longer guilty but I can also cling to the belief that “once saved, always saved”. My eternal destiny is guaranteed. Penal substitution offers instant forgiveness without challenging basic day-to-day moral behavior. It separates salvation from discipleship by disconnecting the way that Jesus lived his life from his saving work. (Chalke 2008: 41-42)

(….) “I don’t judge you. I leave that to a wrathful, angry God to do,” thunders Bible-thumping, churchgoing Ned Flanders to his wayward neighbor, Homer Simpson. Of course, many Christians learn to live with the dichotomy caused by an uncritical acceptance of penal substitutionary theory. On the one hand, they believe in God’s grace and goodness, but on the other, they believe that one of the central acts of their faith is bound upon in his vengeance and wrath. The only way they cope with this tension is to dismiss it as “a divine paradox”. However, for their friends and the rest of the world, it is simply a massive contradiction, the “elephant in the room”. (Chalke 2008: 42)

Since my book was published, and in the serious theological debate that has followed it, some have sought to readdress their definition of penal substitution. I have witnessed various attempts to redraw, redefine, recast, remodel and rehabilitate the theory as “not really as violent and retributive a concept as The Lost Message of Jesus suggested”…. [I]n my view, what we need is not a reworking [“penal substitution theory lite”] but a renunciation. Why? Because even the most sophisticated and gracious attempts to nuance penal substitution have, in the end, failed to communicate anything other than a distorted view of God at a popular level. (Chalke 2008: 42)

(….) On the cross, Jesus does not placate God’s anger in taking the punishment for sin but rather absorbs its consequences and, as three days later he is raised, defeats death. It is the resurrection God which finally puts the Victor in Christus Victor! So it is that in and through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection God confronts and dethrones the powers of evil. (Chalke 2008: 44)

(….) The cross is not a form of cosmic child abuse a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offense he did not commit. Rather than a symbol of vengeance or retribution, the cross of Christ is the greatest symbol of love and a demonstration of just how far God the Father and Jesus his Son are prepared to go to prove that love and to bring redemption to their creation. (Chalke 2008: 44)

~ ~ ~

MEANING OF THE DEATH ON THE CROSS

Although Jesus did not die this death on the cross to atone for the racial guilt of mortal man nor to provide some sort of effective approach to an otherwise offended and unforgiving God; even though the Son of Man did not offer himself as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of God and to open the way for sinful man to obtain salvation; notwithstanding that these ideas of atonement and propitiation are erroneous, nonetheless, there are significances attached to this death of Jesus on the cross which should not be overlooked. (Urantia Book 188:4.1)

(….) When once you grasp the idea of God as a true and loving Father, the only concept which Jesus ever taught, you must forthwith, in all consistency, utterly abandon all those primitive notions about God as an offended monarch, a stern and all-powerful ruler whose chief delight is to detect his subjects in wrongdoing and to see that they are adequately punished, unless some being almost equal to himself should volunteer to suffer for them, to die as a substitute and in their stead. The whole idea of ransom and atonement is incompatible with the concept of God as it was taught and exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth. The infinite love of God is not secondary to anything in the divine nature. (Urantia Book 188:4.8)

(….) This entire idea of the ransom of the atonement places salvation upon a plane of unreality; such a concept is purely philosophic. Human salvation is real; it is based on two realities which may be grasped by the creature’s faith and thereby become incorporated into individual human experience: the fact of the fatherhood of God and its correlated truth, the brotherhood of man. It is true, after all, that you are to be “forgiven your debts, even as you forgive your debtors.” (Urantia Book 188:4.13)

(….) The cross of Jesus portrays the full measure of the supreme devotion of the true shepherd for even the unworthy members of his flock. It forever places all relations between God and man upon the family basis. God is the Father; man is his son. Love, the love of a father for his son, becomes the central truth in the universe relations of Creator and creature—not the justice of a king which seeks satisfaction in the sufferings and punishment of the evil-doing subject. (Urantia Book 188:5.1)

LESSONS FROM THE CROSS

(….) The cross makes a supreme appeal to the best in man because it discloses one who was willing to lay down his life in the service of his fellow men. Greater love no man can have than this: that he would be willing to lay down his life for his friends—and Jesus had such a love that he was willing to lay down his life for his enemies, a love greater than any which had hitherto been known on earth. (188:5.7)

(….) Make sure, then, that when you view the cross as a revelation of God, you do not look with the eyes of the primitive man nor with the viewpoint of the later barbarian, both of whom regarded God as a relentless Sovereign of stern justice and rigid law-enforcement. Rather, make sure that you see in the cross the final manifestation of the love and devotion of Jesus to his life mission of bestowal upon the mortal races of his vast universe. See in the death of the Son of Man the climax of the unfolding of the Father’s divine love for his sons of the mortal spheres. The cross thus portrays the devotion of willing affection and the bestowal of voluntary salvation upon those who are willing to receive such gifts and devotion. There was nothing in the cross which the Father required—only that which Jesus so willingly gave, and which he refused to avoid. (188:5.11)

We know that the death on the cross was not to effect man’s reconciliation to God but to stimulate man’s realization of the Father’s eternal love and his Son’s unending mercy, and to broadcast these universal truths to a whole universe. (188:5.12)

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