Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

If Jesus Had To Die Before We Could Be Forgiven, I Have A Few More Questions

Today we wrap up the deconstruction portion of my atonement series (you can find the rest, here) which thus far has looked at problems I see with the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement. In this final deconstruction post, I present the lingering questions Penal Substitution brings up in my mind. In our next post, I will begin to offer some ideas I think will help us rebuild a healthier and more biblical view of the atonement.

So, if Penal Substitution is correct, I have a few final questions:

Why did God prevent Herod from killing baby Jesus?

Think about this for a moment. Under the Penal Substitution version of the atonement, we are able to be reconciled to God because a sinless person (Jesus) was sacrificed to God in our place. If we reduce the atonement to such a primitive, isolated transaction (as I believe PS does), there is no reason why the atonement would not “work” had Jesus died death by another means.

Had Jesus died falling off a roof, in an unfortunate mule accident, or in any other scenario, it still would have technically “worked” because all that was needed is the death of an sinless human. Since Jesus never sinned and was not facing the natural consequence of sin (death) he did not owe his death– thus, any death would have worked.

So why the cross? Why not just let Herod slaughter Jesus as a baby? If God just needed the death of someone who didn’t owe him death, than there’s no reason to stop the death of baby Jesus.

None of this makes sense unless Jesus going to the cross had another function, purpose, or reason.

What about all those peeps in the Old Testament?

The argument of Penal Substitution posits that God needed the blood of the cross in order to forgive and be reconciled with us. But what about the folks in the Old Testament? Were not the OT believers reconciled to God and considered his people?

Strangely enough, in the OT we actually see what exists in the NT: the people of God are those who believe God, who trust in God, and who follow God. Those people are justified by their faith alone– we see this as early as Genesis 15:6 where it says that Abraham was considered righteous simply because he believed God (had faith).

Thus, the people of God in the Old Testament were reconciled to God without the cross, and they were reconciled the same way we are: by faith, and evidenced by lives of repentance. (And no, please don’t say they were reconciled because of animal sacrifice– we’ve already demonstrated that the Bible teaches this never worked and did not please God.)

Why was Jesus able to be in the presence of sinners?

Another primary foundation behind Penal Substitution is the idea that God cannot stand to be in the presence of sin. We’re told that because of the cross he can finally look at us, because when he does he sees the blood of Christ instead of sinful natures.

Now, I agree that sin is horrible, that sin results in death, and that we need to be freed from sin– but the idea that God needed a blood sacrifice to be in the presence of sinners is demonstrably untrue.

Why? Because Jesus was God in the flesh— and he not only hung out in the presence of sinners (which is everyone), but he actually preferred being with the sinners that everyone else thought were the worst of the worst. In fact, he did it so much that Jesus had the public reputation of being a glutton and an alcoholic.

If God absolutely, positively, cannot bear to be in the presence of sin without the blood of Jesus to cover his eyes, than God revealed in Jesus makes no sense. God in heaven cannot be in the presence of sin, but God in the flesh rushes to be in the presence of sin? God in heaven keeps his distance until sin is violently punished, but God in the flesh comes alongside sinners and lovingly invites them to return home?

Why was Jesus able to just freely forgive?

Finally, my last question along these lines is: Why was Jesus able to freely forgive people?

If his shed blood on the cross was a prerequisite of our forgiveness, and if God is unable to forgive us without a blood sacrifice to cover our sin, it once again makes no sense that Jesus freely forgave people on the basis of faith alone.

Were these people truly and completely forgiven for their sins? If they were, than we see (once again) that it’s possible to be totally forgiven from sin on the basis of faith alone, and that a blood sacrifice is not a perquisite.

These are the final questions/issues that come up for me when looking at the cross through the eyes of Penal Substitution.

As we turn to the next part of the series, we will look at the specific word Jesus used to describe what he was going to do on the cross. I believe that when we reexamine this word Jesus uses, it changes everything.

Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

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24 Responses

  1. Sure, you can use theological systems for rhetorical advantage, but what if those post-biblical, probably not-quite biblical doctrinal developments aren’t particularly significant in relation to actual spiritual reality in relation to the historical Jesus? Are you, Benjamin, certain of the doctrinal basis of your argument, or are you just using it to make a point along the way to some more substantial argument? Hope to see you there soon.

  2. The only problem I see that needs corrected is your claim that jesus was god in the flesh. you have mistaken hebrew agency language to mean jesus is the father.

  3. Ephesians 2:8-9. You are saved by grace through faith. You try to put your thoughts higher than God’s Word. “For your thoughts are not my thoughts and your ways are not my ways declares the Lord. For as high are the heavens above the earth, my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55;8-9. God is the only power that can forgive. In the OT it was atonement through the blood of animals and the scapegoat once a year. Then in the NT it was the same until the Lamb of God shed his blood on the cross. He was the one sacrifice that covers all our sins now. If you can’t see that God’s way had to be fulfilled, you don’t know scripture.

  4. I am a former Christian; was very devout, and was married to a pastor. Our church was Eastern Orthodox, so our theology was formed centuries before the idea of penal atonement came along, and the whole idea is actually offensive to most Orthodox.

    My faith ended for many other reasons, but I had been a Protestant for the first half of my life and I never could comprehend penal atonement.

    My question would be this: why does God, with all his power, require the step of Jesus’ atonement to forgive? Christians are told to forgive to seventy times seven, and are commanded to do so even if the other party is not sorry.

    So a woman who has been beaten and raped and left for dead, who has to deal with the physical and emotional pain, which may never go away, perhaps a disease, or complications of an unwanted pregnancy, perhaps goes bankrupt as a result of medical bills, is expected to forgive her attacker — who may not be sorry — directly.

    But God, who does not suffer such consequences when wronged — and that wrong may simply be a Buddhist growing up to be a Buddhist because of the way he was raised — requires an apology and the step of atonement. And if he does not get these, the person suffers in eternal hellfire.

    I am sorry, but that does not qualify as love by any definition I am aware. If God’s anger is that trivial and if hell is forever, then he should never have made humans.

    1. Yeah, I get where you’re coming from. It really doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. I have been a Christian my whole life but I now consider myself a progressive Christian and I believe that you can still access God through different religions. You see this happening all the time. I do not find it loving for God to send an 80-year old Buddhist man to Hell because he grew up in Tibet and lived there his whole live. Fundamentalist Christians will say “You can only get to Heaven through Jesus Christ” and “Scripture is pretty clear!”, but the more you actually see it played out in the real world (and the more you get to know God), you realize that it’s not as literal as it seems.

    2. I agree, Tee and Ben. The idea that God needs the blood of his child to accept humankind only blasphemes the unfathomably loving true God.

  5. I’ve asked these questions many times myself. If the purpose of the incarnation was atonement through the sacrifice of a perfect lamb, why not let the Incarnation die quickly at the sword of Herod’s henchmen? Frankly, I think the concept of atonement appeals to those who would rather not confront the challenging message of Jesus to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.

  6. I speak here with a measure of humility. I do not myself have a clear and concise understanding of the atonement. But having said that, the gospel narratives do seem to suggest that Jesus, in his suffering and death on the Cross, was taking upon himself the punishment that rightly belonged to Israel, and by extension, the whole world. One of the things that Jesus was trying to do was to dissuade his fellow Jews away from a nationalistic military confrontation with Rome. Jesus was calling the people of his day to repent (turn around) and follow his way into the Kingdom, the way of self giving love, instead of the way of violence that was being advocated by at least some (zealots). All of the gospel narratives have Jesus being able to foresee that a military confrontation with Rome would end in disaster (i.e.Mark 13). It was a disaster that finally presented itself during the Roman/Jewish war of 70AD. The gospel writers suggest that Jesus, who was innocent of violent rebellion against Rome, was willfully taking upon himself the punishment for the violent religious and nationalistic responses to Roman occupation that would eventuate 40 years after his death and resurrection. I’m not sure how this plays out in the larger schemes of atonement theory, but that seems to be the story that the gospel writers are telling.

  7. Jesus did say in John 12:31, “Now is the time for judgement on this world.” The cross was the Day of Judgement. When Jesus died, the heavens were darkened and the earth shaken. In Jesus, the end has occurred. Jesus bore our future judgement.

  8. Penal Substitution is a tragic misunderstanding. It makes God out to be a legalistic sadist. Here is the traditional understanding of Jesus and the who, what, and why… Listen/read the link; it addresses all your questions.

    “And in Biblical language, He does and pays the price and gives the
    cost and suffers what is necessary to make everything right and set
    everything right again. But He doesn’t set everything right because He
    gets punished enough. No, He sets everything right by being righteous.
    He sets everything right by not sinning. He sets everything right by
    keeping all the commandments of God His Father, as a man.

    He sets everything right by loving God with all His mind, soul, heart
    and strength. He sets everything right because He loves His neighbor
    and even His worst enemy as His very own self. He sets everything right
    because being the totally, righteous, sinless man in the world, the
    evildoers and the sinners hate Him. And they mock Him. They spit on Him.
    They beat Him. They scourge Him. They kill Him. They crucify Him. And
    yet, He’s right. He is true. He is good.

    And it’s so beautiful. And He says, “Father forgive them.” And He
    says, into your hands, God Father, I give my life. I really did not want
    to go through this humanly as I prayed in the garden, but I must. Your
    will be done Father, to re-create the world. And so the death of Jesus
    on the cross is a ransom. We are bought by His blood. He does pay the
    price. He does what is necessary. But that paying the price, to quote
    St. Leo the Great in that famous 28th Letter:

    Being divine, He became human. And in His suffering, He
    endured everything and paid every price and did all that was necessary
    for the sake of our condition, to heal us and redeem us from our sinful,
    cursed, dead condition.

    St. Basil the Great, in the anaphora of his Divine Liturgy, his actual words were, “And He gave Himself as a ransom unto death, into which we were held captive sold under sin.” What that means is that the only way He could free us from death was by being perfectly, totally righteous. And then showing that righteousness and love by dying for those who were sinners.”
    http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/great_and_holy_friday

  9. Corey proposes a hypothetical. But surely we have to start with the fact that Jesus did die on the cross. Diid he HAVE to? Anything we can say about that is speculation. Certainly he did have to die before he could rise from the dead and it is that that tells us that we too can rise again.

  10. It absolutely astonishes me to think that here in the 21st Century we still discuss the finer points of a god who clearly doesn’t exist, and a man who lived 20 centuries ago whose existence is problematic at best. Logic dictates that for something to be known then there must be some kind of evidence for its existence, otherwise belief in someone or something is delusional at best and insanity at worst. I was born 62 years ago, and in all that time I have been taught all about the faith I belonged to (Roman Catholicism), have seen with my own eyes what effect religion has on people and the world, have kidded myself into believing that the evidence for any god’s existence was all around us, have seen all manner of rituals and exhortations to a deity, yet I never knew happiness until I let go of myth and superstitions and embraced logic and reason. To think that a man had to die before the great nonexistent deity could forgive our sins is completely delusional and illogical.

  11. Hey, Ben! I definitely see what you are saying. Logically, what you say makes total sense. I did receive an A in my logic class ; ) And again, I’m glad you are raising these questions. For too long, most people have just not thought this through or for that matter Calvinism either. Bad theology results in bad practice as we see in people like Franklin Graham and John MacArthur. But how would you respond to Romans 3: 21-26? Frankly, the blood sacrifice has never made sense to me either. But the apostle Paul–even before the Damascus Road event– did have faith in God like those in the Old Testament. But Paul said even for himself that faith in Jesus was necessary to inherit eternal life. So to me logically, that’s why Romans 3: 21-26 is crucial in this discussion. And in the verses it does talk about HIs blood.
    Since I was three, I had always believed Jesus was the Son of God. But it wasn’t until I was 30 that I realized the Jesus I had put my faith in was not the Jesus portrayed in the Bible. I , like so many others on here, believed the Bible to be written by men who were trying to deny us our freedoms, including sexual ones : ) I had always believed that the Jewish people had killed Jesus and was very anti-Semitic. It never even crossed my mind that He died for MY sins. I had no concept prior to my first night at Calvary that sin was primarily against God. But that night at Calvary Chapel I read in the Bible with my own eyes about the real Jesus. And my life hasn’t been the same since. Unfortunately, also like many on here, I then believed everything the pastors–especially Chuck Smith–said. I also believed everything John MacArthur said. And because of it, I suffered what I consider religious malpractice and try to do everything I can to expose it and the dangers of it.

  12. If I have to have faith to be saved, then how can I be saved without ever have heard about a Christ to have faith in? As a hopeful universalist, I can somehow believe that whatever Jesus did on the cross was credited to every human being not just those who were fortunate to hear and believe.

  13. Thanks for this Benjamin. My recent Anabaptist studies are what basically got me more interested in this topic. It´s been interesting learning.

    That said, what´s even more interesting and exciting is, thankfully, that no one has to believe a particular view of the antonement in order to be saved. No one has to even be able to articulate a viewpoint for that matter. Atonement was apparently not even a major issue for the church councils nor the ecumenical creeds. I do admit, though, that a healthy understanding of God is also important — thus understanding the atonement for this reason is a worthy undertaking.

    What´s the most important for all of us to understand?:

    Acts 16:30,31

  14. Great questions. Was talking with my wife about how important it is to reevaluate our understanding of atonement. Having grown up in the fundamentalist bubble, I grew up thinking anything other than penal substitution is heretical. It led to such a distorted view of God.

  15. You have put the questions out in great detail, but I’m ready to hear the reason! Great job of the bait, I’m hooked, but I finish each of these posts with the “But…come on….” God Bless.

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