Reading the Bible with the Damned: Part 3, Guilt and Forgiveness

Ah, the atonement wars!

If you've ever followed the conversations among deconstructing evangelicals, many of whom are now ex-evangelicals, you know that the atonement has been a site of debate and controversy. 

This debate has mostly focused on penal substitutionary atonement. I've written about these issues extensively on this blog, even recently. At the heart of the concern about penal substitutionary atonement is its focus upon sin, human guilt, and forgiveness.

Before spending time out at the prison, I shared these concerns without much nuance. Penal substitutionary atonement was just bad, across the board. But guess what? Guess what is a pressing spiritual and emotional concern inside a maximum-security prison?

If you guessed guilt and forgiveness, you win a prize.

Here's the thing, guilt is a problem. Shame is a curse. They really are. Consequently, forgiveness and grace are needed. Visions of atonement that address shame and guilt are dealing with deep and vital human concerns.

But it all comes down to location, location, location.

Should you, for example, use forensic metaphors with children and young people, cranking up the guilt to get a big emotional response from them at the end of your rally, retreat or camp experience? Probably not. But you might lean into forensic metaphors when working with people who have committed crimes that haunt them, who wonder if they can ever be forgiven for the horrible things they have done. Yeah, you might talk with these people about how their sins have been forgiven and their guilt washed away by the blood of the Lamb.

The prison taught me that forensic metaphors for atonement have their place. When you work in a space where guilt is the most pressing pastoral problem, you become thankful for the message of forgiveness, that our guilt and shame have been nailed to the cross. Before reading the Bible with the damned I never talked about much about these metaphors. But today, reading the Bible with the incarcerated, I talk about forgiveness quite often.

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