Religious Dogma / Rethinking Christianity

Thoughts on the Doctrine of Penal Substitution

Most Christians that I know pledge their faith within the doctrine of penal substitution. It basically teaches that Jesus willingly received Gods punishment for sin so that sinners could be saved by the virtue of Christ taking their place on the cross. This doctrine implies that God is so wrathful that he demands satisfaction before offering forgiveness, even if he has to accept the sacrifice of his only begotten son.  It negates scriptures that speak to God’s willing forgiveness toward mankind, and stands in opposition to scriptures which contradict its premise.

When I was a follower of Christianity I accepted this part of the doctrine as a God-given truth. Looking back on it now I see how absurd a doctrine it is. How did I ever buy into it? The answer is because I did not read the bible critically and accepted the pastoral interpretation offered from the pulpit. I was taught to accept that the pastor is God-ordained, and I lacked the conviction to discern for myself any other interpretation.  That was my shortcoming back in the day. The unwillingness to read the bible for myself and the willingness to just accept it based on the authority claimed by another. It wasn’t until the bible was translated into versions with modern language that I began to read the bible critically and when I started grappling with the teachings of Christianity that no longer made any sense to me.

English: Titian's Ancona Crucifiction, 1558.

English: Titian’s Ancona Crucifiction, 1558. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jesus being sacrificed to death as atonement for the sins of mankind was part of the doctrine that did not make sense. It squarely contradicts the claim that God is a god of love. The claim that God as Jesus sacrificed himself is even more absurd to me. The idea that an omnipotent and omniscient being is an equivalent sacrifice for a fragile and mortal being is ludicrous to me. It is like saying you can make an apple pie from oranges. If mortal man incurred the sin, then mortal man must atone the sin. It does nothing to redeem mankind from sin if he is incapable of redeeming himself through his own will to change his nature.

Jesus died because he was considered an anarchist stirring opposition to Rome. That is the simple “why” behind Jesus’ crucifixion. The spiritual “why” is a deeper matter. Jesus died because of the sins of man, but not as a sacrifice to appease an unyielding God demanding a blood satisfaction. Jesus died at the hand of man because man chooses sin by yielding to his own ego. He wants his preferences met, and when his preferences have no disposition toward mercy  and tolerance toward others in lieu of his own desires, then those who stand in opposition can be harmed even unto death. If the message that Jesus was teaching to love one another and treat others as themselves would have been the moral conviction of those around him then he would not have been executed. But there was no disposition to see the good in another and forgive his perceived transgression. From Pilate to the Jewish priests, and even the crowd in attendance calling for his execution, there was no disposition toward grace, mercy or compassion, and Jesus died.

There is a fateful contradiction in the message that Jesus taught and his subsequent death for teaching it and perhaps it served as a catalyst for causing people to think deeper about their own inequities and enact change. His death did not have a small impact upon the world. His life, and equally his death, has inspired people to become better stewards of humanity. I personally think that is the truer message of salvation, to overcome the destructive nature that we possess and become the lover of love in the image of God.

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7 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Doctrine of Penal Substitution

  1. An alternative explanation is one more in line with the Gnostic interpretation of the God of the scriptures – that He too is an ego-bound, revenge driven despot akin to the Norse, Greek and Roman gods and that man is indeed ‘created in his image’. It’s certainly consistent with his behaviour in the OT.

    Then by becoming incarnate and suffering under the same unaccountable, unbridled power He displays in the OT he gains a bit of empathy for the human condition that would not have been possible to an immortal, omnipotent being.

    Maybe our gods grow and develop with us – or at least the maya gods of the phenomenological universe – because they are really conditional upon ourselves. Not so much our creations or emanations as our reflections – and we theirs.

    Maybe the Gnostics and Hindus are right and that behind the phenomenological universe and the petty egos of ourselves and our gods is something indescribable, without name, form or attributes – a truth, unity and freedom that completely transcends personality or personal gods.

  2. It is always interesting to me how vast and varying the portrayals, perceptions and questions about God can be. I went through a Gnostic phase when I first began reading the gnostic texts. I still count them as my favorite texts. Your last sentence is comparable to my own thoughts.

  3. Very nice and reasoned view of Jesus’ death – one that allows a skeptic such as myself to view it in a positive light. I had always viewed the crucifixion as just one more example of humanity’s cruel stupidity. But perhaps if Jesus had not died, no one would have paid attention to his message over the long run. Interesting.
    Of course, I don’t buy the Jesus=God equation, unless we go further and view everything and everybody as a manifestation of God (“My mother and my brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.”), which could then make sense.

  4. “If mortal man incurred the sin, then mortal man must atone the sin. It does nothing to redeem mankind from sin if he is incapable of redeeming himself through his own will to change his nature.”

    Very well said. The doctrines of Grace and salvation are at odds with mankind’s supposed fallen, irredeemable state. How can Jesus’s sacrifice mean anything if we have no ability to accept or learn from it?

    Excellent little piece you’ve written here, I’ll be back for more 🙂

      • I have to agree, with grace, it seems as though it can be interpreted that you can do whatever you want and get away with it as long as you ask God for forgiveness afterwards. It can take accepting one’s responsibility for their actions out of the equation. Of course, that can come back to haunt those who utilize it like that, but having that loophole there opens up opportunities to explore selfishness in a way that can seem in-line with Biblical teachings. It is an aspect of Christianity that concerns me.

      • During some research I discovered that grace when used in the times of the OT represented showing favor. I think this would have been how Jesus related to acts of grace and when looking at it that way started to realize that was what his actions represented, showing favor to others. The statement by James that faith without works is dead makes sense to me when correlated back to the commandment to love one another. I see salvation of the spirit not as the result of the grace of God shown to us, but rather our grace shown to others.

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