Atonement and Divine Justice


The current issue of The Fourth R, published by the Westar Institute, contains an article by Stephen Finlan, which is titled Christian Atonement: From Metaphor to Ideology. Finlan writes:

Popular doctrines of atonement say that Jesus was a substitute victim who took on the punishment deserved by humanity, that we need Jesus to intercede for us with God, and that the anger of God awaits all who dare question this doctrine. These doctrines were foreign to the historical Jesus...However, the major problem with them is not that they do not come from Jesus but rather what they imply about God. Why would God require such extreme intercession as torture and death? Is God so implacable that he demands a victim and so unjust that he does not mind that the victim is innocent? These doctrines also picture a God who is less than all powerful, who is compelled to prosecute offenders and able to rescue them only through a legal fiction in which the innocent is punished in place of the guilty.
I think that what it implies about God is even worse than that. It implies that God's justice is so draconian that he exacts the same, extreme penalty for all offenses, no matter how great or small. It implies that this draconian concept of justice is an absolute standard, untempered by mercy or love (except through a sacrifice). It implies that God cannot be deterred from this course because of his inherent, unchanging attributes, which he must adhere to because this definition of "justice" is inherent to God's very nature. It implies that God is so arbitrary that the barbaric method of atonement that God concocted--the crucifixion of Jesus--will only actually atone for the sins of those who managed to have the right theological beliefs at the moment of death.

Why would anyone want to worship such a God?

The funny thing is that many of the same people who advance this argument about God's absolute and unchanging justice--which demands the ultimate penalty for the slightest offense, and which cannot be tempered by mercy alone because God's "just" nature is absolute--will also defend the Biblical claims of divinely ordered genocide in the book of Joshua on the grounds that God can be as capricious as he wants and does not need to be bound by standards of morality that we might want to assign to him. So on the one hand, God's justice is an absolute standard that he has no choice but to adhere to, and on the other hand God's morality is fickle and it defies any attempt by us to apply an absolute standard to it.

Uh, okay.

The doctrine of atonement depends on a perverse doctrine of God's "justice". But divine justice cannot be separated from divine love, and it is absurd to apply a human word like "justice" to a God who is clearly unjust and unloving by any standard of either term that we might choose to use.


Heather said...

Atonement theories! Those are fun. I just ordered two books that highlight all the atonement theories and their creation.

From what I've learned, this particular atonment theory has only been around since the 16th century, and was derived from the Satisfation theory, developed in the 11th century. Fun, isn't it. That seems to mean that before the 11th century, the church would've found this theory a little off.

Mystical Seeker said...

Heather, I think you are right about that.