Substitutionary Atonement?

About ten years ago I had come to conclusion that the scriptures do not teach that Jesus died as my substitute or in my place. The scriptures describe the death of Jesus as done for me and done on my behalf, but not in my place. Further, Jesus’ death is illustrated as a ransom and redemption, not substitution. I wrote a series on the suffering servant in Isaiah earlier this year, showing that one does not see substitution in this prophecy unless it is forced into the text. None of the Hebrew words depict substitution. You can revisit the first article of that series here. In any case, I thought I was pretty alone in this thinking. Though I have taught on it, we have become so ingrained in the doctrine of substitution that it is hard to change the people’s minds. If you have always heard Jesus’ death described as vicarious, it is hard to see it a different way. I know, because I had to overcome the challenges to get to this position. So I was pleasantly surprised to see these words from N.T. Wright, arguing against substitutionary atonement:

“This is what happens when people present over-simple stories with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent.” You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’, and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’. I commend that alteration to those who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire. So we must readily acknowledge that, of course, there are caricatures of the biblical doctrine all around, within easy reach – just as there are of other doctrines, of course, such as that of God’s grace.” (The Cross and the Caricatures)

I am hopeful that many will decide to rethink the concept of penal substitution concerning Christ’s death. Even if you end up disagreeing, I hope that we can look at the scriptures again and see if that is really what God teaches. Perhaps we are seeing substitution because we have been conditioned to see it, rather than the scriptures actually teaching it.

Allow me to leave you some “rocks in your shoes.” These were things that I had to work out for a few years and helped me come to this conclusion.

How did Jesus die in my stead (place)? I was not destined to die on a cross for six hours, but to endure everlasting punishment.

How is Jesus my substitute? If he died in my place, he should have been condemned to eternal punishment and should continue to bear that punishment.

If my punishment was placed on him and six hours on the cross paid it, why can’t I hang on a cross for six hours to pay for my sins and then have eternal life? Therefore, God is unjust to punish me with eternal punishment when six hours on a cross is sufficient.

Consider that the scriptures never say that Jesus took your place, but that he was a ransom for us. I hope you will think about the difference between these two concepts.