Non-Violent Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Yes, you read that title right.

Penal substitutionary atonement continues to be debated. As I've mentioned before, the belief that Jesus' death on the cross was substitutionary is increasingly recognized. The debate tends to focus on the word penal, upon a crime/punishment framework for the atonement.

The problems with the penal framework come from how it implicates God in violence. The punishment for sin in this view is a death-sentence, and that involves God requiring the killing of Jesus.

And yet, my title says that there's such a thing as non-violent penal substitutionary atonement. What might that be?

To be sure, there are people who preach and teach a violent penal substitutionary atonement, the vision many of us find so problematic. However, punishment doesn't always have to involve violence and killing.

For example, God's punishment can be divine withdrawal. Greg Boyd uses this notion of punishment-as-divine-withdrawal extensively in his recent opus on God and non-violence Crucifixion of the Warrior God.

Behavioral psychologists are also very familiar with the distinction between positive punishment (adding something negative, like a spanking, to punish behavior) and negative punishment (removing something positive to punish behavior, like in a timeout).

All that to say, there is a version of penal substitutionary atonement that is non-violent. If the just punishment of sin by a holy God is divine withdrawal, then what happened on the cross wasn't God killing Jesus but God abandoning Jesus. And Jesus cries out in that moment, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The framework here is still penal, this is still a punishment for sin. But the punishment is non-violent.

What, then, about all the violence associated with Jesus' torture and crucifixion?

Here's where a Christus Victor frame is helpful. On the cross God surrenders Jesus to the forces of chaos and evil. Separated from God, Jesus descends into the nightmare of violence, into the hellscape governed by demonic, destructive forces. But again, Jesus is surrendered to those demonic powers, God isn't the one being violent. And still, there is a penal framework here, where the punishment of sin is being abandoned by God, handed over to chaos and the demonic forces.

To be clear, I'm not defending penal substitutionary atonement. I don't defend any doctrine of the atonement. That's sort of like defending poetry.

My point is simply that the contested word penal doesn't necessarily imply violence. There can be a non-violent punishment for a crime.

Thus, in these debates we might start needing to distinguish between violent penal substitutionary atonement and non-violent penal substitutionary atonement.

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