The Cross: Divine Child Abuse, or Astounding Love?

by Ron Sider

Holy week is a good time to ponder recent challenges to the traditional understanding of the cross.

In the last couple of decades, a growing number of theologies have rejected the traditional understanding of substitutionary atonement—i.e., that at the cross Jesus Christ became our substitute, bearing our sin in a way that resulted in our Holy God (who rightly punishes sin) offering unconditional forgiveness to those who trust in Christ. Denny Weaver's The Nonviolent Atonement is one striking example of this rejection. Weaver charges that this view (a) involves divine child abuse, as some feminist theologians have charged and (b) undermines ethics because (allegedly) one can have one's sins forgiven and thus be saved and on the way to heaven without any ethical transformation.

Weaver denies that God willed Jesus' death and rejects any role or importance for the cross in our salvation. The only acceptable view of the atonement is what he calls a "narrative Christus Victor" understanding.

This widespread recent rejection of substitutionary atonement profoundly affects our understanding of Holy Week—indeed of the whole Christian life.

Four issues are important. First, biblical authority is at stake in this debate. For more than 1,500 years, all branches of the Christian Church (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) have taught that the whole Bible is God's special revelation and is our reliable norm for faith and practice. To deny that God willed Jesus' death or to claim that the cross has no significance for our salvation flatly contradicts clear and numerous New Testament passages.

Second, the New Testament presents several models or images to help us understand the cross. The moral view associated with Peter Abelard rightly captures NT texts that say the cross revealed God's love to us (e.g., 1 John 3:16). The Christus Victor model (associated with Gustav Aulen) reflects many passages that say Christ came to conquer evil (e.g.,. John 3:8; Heb. 2:14-15). And the substitutionary model (often associated with Anselm, Luther, and Calvin) expresses texts that say that all who sin stand under God's wrath but at the cross Christ died as our substitute (e.g., Gal. 3:10-13; 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 3:21-26).

If one reduces an understanding of the cross exclusively to the model of substitutionary atonement, then one does cut the link between the atonement and our life of ethical obedience. If justification by faith alone through Christ's substitutionary death for us is the total meaning of salvation, then that is a one-way ticket to heaven and we can live like hell until we get there. But to understand the atonement and salvation so narrowly and individualistically is to ignore important parts of NT teaching. It ignores the fact that Jesus came to show us how to live and reveal God's love. It ignores the passages about Christ coming to conquer evil with his life and resurrection. And the gospel Jesus preached was the fantastic news that the long-awaited Kingdom of God was breaking into history, and now by the power of the Holy Spirit Christians can increasingly live the life of ethical obedience Jesus modeled and taught. The substitutionary atonement model is just one of several important NT models of the atonement. Instead of picking and choosing according to modern whim, we should embrace everything the NT tells us about the cross.

Third, many modern views of the atonement ignore half of what the Bible says about God. Yes, God is astounding love and mercy. But God is also searing holiness. Our holy God rightly punishes sin (e.g., Rom. 1-3; Acts 17:30-31; Rom. 5:9; Matt. 25:41).

Finally, to speak of divine child abuse at the cross is to ignore the Trinity. The cross is not an angry God bludgeoning an innocent man. We should reject as totally mistaken and dreadfully wrong any view that sees three independent actions of the guilty party, an angry judge, and an innocent victim at the cross.

No! The Trinity is present at the cross. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit suffer equally at the cross. The One hanging limp on the middle cross is the Eternal Son of the Father. Somehow, in a way that we will never fully understand, God chooses to substitute Godself for us on the cross.

We should never claim to fully understand this mystery. But the Bible tells us that a God who is both holiness and love, who both rightly punishes sinners and loves sinful persons, chooses to bring together God's holiness and love, God's justice and mercy, by substituting Godself at the cross.

That is not to say God of necessity had to bring together his wrath and mercy in this way. We simply know from biblical revelation that this is what God did. Such an action underlines in an awesome way how serious our sin is. It also reveals in an utterly astonishing fashion how overwhelming is God's love. For at the cross, divine love for disobedient sinners prevailed. As John Stott has said, "Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice."

One can only fall to one's knees in awe and gratitude. Because of what the Trinity did at the cross, we can now stand before our Holy God in confident trust that we are forgiven. That is only one (wonderful!) part of the atonement. Every part of Christ's life, death, and resurrection is essential for a fully biblical understanding of the atonement. The incarnate Christ has taught us how to live. He has and is conquering evil. In the power of the Resurrected One, we can and must now live like Jesus, working against every evil, oppression, and injustice.

This Holy Week, let's embrace the full biblical Christ. Hallelujah, what a Savior!

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3 Responses

  1. Atonement theology profoundly affects Christian ethics and Christian influence out into the world. Most likely the predominant form of atonement theology among Evangelicals is not only Substitutionary, but the particular form called "Penal" Substitutionary Atonement. Analogous to many pagan cults throughout history, an angry god must appeased with sacrificial blood, ie. death. It plays out in Christianity this way. The Holy Father God is incensed at human sin and demands our death. Jesus the Son steps in and takes our place, thus appeasing God and letting us humans off the hook who accept The Son's place for us. However, this in itself divides the Trinity into the Angry Father and the Compassionate Son.

    Second, penal substitution eviscerates the teachings of Jesus on forgiveness and mercy. If the Angry Father is our model, then I cannot forgive anyone, ever, without his or her paying me in full for their debt. I can demand retribution. Which does not square with Jesus who consistently teaches us to pray that the Father forgive us our debts as we forgive others their debts to us. The well-loved parable of the Prodigal Son is clearly that of God the Father freely forgiving his sinful people without retribution.

    Third, and importantly for Christian ethics, Penal Substitutionary Atonement is based upon violent retribution. A god who is vengeful is a god who endorses war against our enemies. For example, when the World Trade Towers and Pentagon were attacked on September 11, 2001, the nation was quickly whipped up into a frenzy of vengeance that resulted in two devastating and unproductive wars. In the United States, evangelical Christians lead the charge for the death penalty, but of course, with penal substitutionary atonement theory hardwired in their theology, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" and a murder for a murder, makes sense. All this makes understandable why Evangelical Christians tend to avoid "the Red Letters" in the gospels except for the passion narratives. Jesus saves us from hell, but our ethics are derived elsewhere, as noted in the Preface to the excellent book, "Kingdom Ethics" by Glen Stassen and David Gushee. Jesus' teaching to "love our enemies" makes little sense when The Father does not love enemies unless he has blood.

    Dr. Sider mentions "Substitutionary Atonement" as one facet in understanding the meaning and efficacy of The Cross. Yes, Jesus did take our place. I would point to the extraordinary work of Rene Girard to say that Jesus took our place as The Scapegoat, so that our sins individually and collectively are piled upon Him, and our eyes are opened to our sinful state. (ie. Acts 2:37). But Substitutionary Atonement in this context and PENAL Substitionary Atonement differ substantially, and I say, critically insofar as the Gospel message is concerned. While proof texts can be offered for Penal Substitution, the overall New Testament corpus and especially the life and teachings of Jesus emphatically repudiate it. At the heart of our faith is to know what kind of God we believe? Is it who Augustine tells us? Bishop Anselm? John Calvin? (each who put us on the trail to penal substitution). Or is God revealed in Jesus, attested to by the authority of the Holy Scriptures, and witnessed by the martyrs and those who follow his teachings and life? Jesus says to know him is to know the Father (John 14:6-14). Jesus did not do works of retribution and violence. Neither does His (and now, our) Father. But Our Father is not coercive. We can walk away from His embrace, and reap the wrath of our own doing (ie. Prodigal Son story). But The Father welcomes us back into His embrace without blood retribution.

    I would encourage people to read the 20 essays compiled in "Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ," edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin.

    Thank you for permitting me to share. –Allen Johnson, Dunmore, WV

  2. Bill Samuel says:

    I believe this shows the weakness of the traditional evangelical putting the Bible first. I think this is blasphemy. Christ must be first. The Gospel of John says Christ is the Word of God. Evangelicals seem to want to dismiss the importance of that statement.

    We are not to worship a book. The book was written by humans. It is all useful, as 2 Timothy 3:16, but even though the writers may have been inspired, they were fallible. And one can not read the Bible honestly without noticing that there are sharply different views represented. We get torn in knots like on the atonement when we take the Bible as Truth, which again is blasphemy since Christ said He was the Truth.

    For more on my problems with Evangelical understanding, see my blog piece on Why I am evangelical but not an Evangelical at

  3. Dear Mr. Johnson:

    Substitutionary Atonement (whether the economic justice model (Anselm) or legal justice model (Reformers)) is not meant to satisfy the wrath of an Angry Father, as you and others put it. Rather, it is satisfy the requirements of a Just Sovereign of the Universe in scrupulous detail and degree. For, in it is in the inherent status and worth of Christ, and not in some inscrutable measure of His suffering, that the justice of God is satisfied in the Cross.

    Otherwise, grace, mercy and forgiveness are based on capricious favoritism, crony Grace and lawlessness, which the adversaries of God could justifiably point as rancid injustice. For evils, done in past, against not only God but fellow neighbours, are not remediated. For instance, an act of yours, which might have put another against God and thereby contributed to the 'victim' choosing eternal separation, has no true accountability in scrupulous and exacting justice, under the 'scapegoat' model.

    God declares that "righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne" (Psalm 97:2). Without a God scrupulously committed to his own righteousness and justice, even if only to extend grace and mercy, is not one in which humanity, who is at such disadvantage in terms of relative power, can logically maintain material and psychological security. If God violates His justice in order to do good as He sees it, how do I know that He will not do the same in eons to come, whenever the mood comes over Him.

    Your God is ultimately a god of power, and not One of moral authority.

    In Christ

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