Learning To Live With Penal Substitutionary Atonement

I've long been a critic of penal substitutionary atonement. It's a hugely problematic doctrine.

But in my post yesterday about fragile worshipers in the comments Mike asked me about how I've come to be more grace-filled when I bump into penal substitutionary atonement at church.

Because you're going to bump into it. In songs, prayers, sermons. You can't avoid penal substitutionary atonement. And if you bristle and become unglued every time you bump into penal substitutionary atonement you're regularly going to be miserable and upset at church.

So, how do you cope with it? That was Mike's question. Here was my answer from yesterday's post:
What helped me is seeing how something I found problematic was helpful to others.

For example, I'm with you about penal substitutionary atonement. But I've grown more tolerant of it because of how I've experienced it out at the prison. The men in the prison have done horrible, terrible things. Murder. Rape. Child abuse. Consequently, they feel damned. They feel an acute sense of God's wrath and judgment. Understandably so.

So the notion that God absorbed the damnation, wrath and judgment that was rightly and deservedly falling upon them is hugely impactful and transformative.

The notion that God wants to damn you for your sins doesn't preach well in American suburbs. But it preaches with murderers and rapists. They get it.

Basically, if you're burdened by a deep sense of guilt and shame--and a lot of people are--penal substitutionary atonement makes a lot of sense. I still have some deep theological problems with the notion, but I get the emotional resonance and I've seen the doctrine change lives for the better. Is that worth the costs, the negative effects the doctrine has had? I can't say. I'm just describing how I've come to check my knee-jerk reactions to get to a more reflective place.

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