Chapter 1 – The Need to Know

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

The fundamental question related to the topic of atonement is, “On what basis does a holy God offer forgiveness for our sins so we can have a right standing before Him?” The desire to be forgiven applies to all people, and a lack of feeling forgiven, or a misunderstanding of God’s forgiveness, can generate a guilt complex that is manifested in various forms. Throughout human history there have been many and varied teachings on how to obtain God’s forgiveness, and an erroneous method of obtaining it can lead to horrible consequences and extreme practices such as self-immolation and child sacrifices. For the last 500 to 1000 years (depending on how it is defined and by whom), Protestant Christianity has offered a version of how God forgives, through what is claimed to be a biblical teaching of atonement, called Penal Substitution. But this version requires that a thinking person accept some claims which on its face appear to be perverse, or at least inverse, to what we would expect from a loving God. Many people have rejected Christianity due to these atonement claims and the poor answers which are given to their inquiries. This problem has also led some people from within Christianity to have a crisis of belief to the point of rejecting Christianity.

Critics outside of Christianity, and increasingly within Christianity, question the penal substitution teaching regarding forgiveness and atonement; it claims that God would not, or could not, forgive our sins unless and until men tortured and murdered his innocent son, thereby somehow getting paid for humanity’s sin debt. Only after men committed this evil deed was God capable or willing to forgive. Furthermore, it has God declaring as righteous and innocent those individuals who claim to have a particular faith, yet with no condition of actually living righteously. Naturally, the doctrine is never taught in such a direct and blunt manner. Rather, it is taught as a loving God providing a substitute who would willingly take our place in punishment and death, which provides the means by which God can now accept sinful humanity.

This book is intended to examine the most common atonement teaching within Christianity called Penal Substitutionary Atonement (often abbreviated as PSA in this book), and will provide a biblical explanation of an alternative and more biblical view which the author calls Reconciliational Atonement.

It is important to state that not all churches within what is generically called “Christianity” teach Penal Substitutionary Atonement, as it is predominantly a Protestant doctrine. The Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches are examples of this exception, and their views will be mentioned in Chapter 2. The few Protestant churches which do not teach some form of PSA are the exception, as the prevailing view within most of Christianity is some form of PSA, with various nuances or emphasis in different groups.

This book will briefly examine the most common atonement teachings which have been proposed throughout the centuries of church history. Then the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) doctrine will be examined logically and biblically, as well as its resulting consequences. After an introduction, there will be an examination of various topics that factor into the atonement doctrine. Then, important scripture passages will be investigated and a more biblical model of atonement will (hopefully) be proposed. Lastly, possible objections and questions will be considered.

In summary, this book seeks to show biblically (exegetically) and logically why the Penal Substitution model is in error, and propose that the more accurate biblical model is Reconciliational Atonement, which results in ceasing from sin, living godly lives, and becoming reconciled to God. As William Lane Craig states in his book, Atonement and the Death of Christ, “[T]he work of contemporary Christian philosophers on the doctrine of the atonement has been largely uninformed by biblical exegesis.”

The goal of this author is to propose a coherent grasp of the biblical teaching of atonement that fits the Old Testament and New Testament texts within its original cultural, textual, historical, and linguistic context. This means reading the text with what today may be considered ancient Hebraic thought as well as the background cultural norms that existed as the normative milieu (a social environment of thought and behavior) of its time. Failure to do this historical and textual work leads to interpreting the biblical texts within foreign frameworks that are incongruent and thereby cause a mishmash of theological claims that are often slippery, contradictory, and even absurd.

A good example of interpreting the biblical texts with a foreign framework is demonstrated in a book that has been held up as one of the best scholarly works which purports to demonstrate a detailed linguistic analysis of the key words used in defense of PSA, words such as redemption, ransom, propitiation, reconciliation, and justification. This book is “The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross” by Leon Morris. In the book he directly states, “Everything depends on the way we approach the question. If we forget the intrinsic meaning of the word [redemption, in this case], and begin with one of the more metaphorical examples, we may be able to build up quite a case for believing that in the New Testament the word has been emasculated. But if we seek first to find out what the word means in Greek writers generally, and then approach the New Testament to see whether Christians used the term in the usual fashion…” (emphasis added). In this he shows that he appeals primarily to Greek literal uses of the terms “ransom” and “redemption” instead of the Jewish metaphoric uses commonly shown in scripture (and later shown in this book). In fact, the Jewish metaphoric uses of the words “redeem” and “ransom” as meaning “deliverance, release or freedom” are almost completely cast aside. Morris will at times admit that “The resemblances to the Jewish conception are striking…in all these points we have a resemblance to the Jewish idea…But before we conclude that this is just another example of the Jewish usage…”.Many other examples from the book can be given, but the point is that the scholars which PSA defenders have used as a foundation for their claims are extremely biased against the original Jewish perspectives, and this is in spite of the fact that Christianity arose from within first century Judaism, and the Bible specifically points to the Jews having an advantage, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God Romans 3:1-2 ESV.

Adding to the confusion is the same author, Leon Morris, who wrote another book about 20 years later and reversed the prior conclusion of his supposedly deep study into the linguistics of the word “redemption”. He states, “In the New Testament there is never any hint of a recipient of the ransom. In other words, we must understand redemption as a useful metaphor which enables us to see some aspects of Christ’s great saving work…”. The metaphors of ransom and redemption which were cast aside before are now to be the primary understanding with respect to Christ! While we should not totally disparage a man for changing his view after engaging in additional reflection, the point remains that even the best of scholars have struggled with the meaning of elements related to the topic of atonement. If men who are proficient in biblical languages and have spent years in topical research have this struggle, what hope is there for the rest of us to get it right? Perhaps a major part of the struggle is because these scholars are starting with the wrong presuppositions, leading to murky waters of illogical claims that can never be sorted out. What if their presuppositions are set aside for more simplistic presuppositions that made sense to the original Hebrew people, and we move on from there instead of front-loading the topic with predetermined conclusions?

This journey begins in the next chapter with a brief examination of various theories of atonement that have been proposed and endorsed since the early church.