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Abuser or Sufferer

God Gave Himself

A controversy broke out, a while ago, concerning the nature and interpretation of Jesus’ means of destroying and removing sin, through his death on the cross. It centred on the doctrine known as “penal substitution”, understood as the idea that Jesus was required to undergo suffering, by his divine Father, as a substitute for the sins of humans.

Various people object to penal substitution, and often on the grounds that involved, here, is a gross act of sadism on the part of God the Father, who required hideous suffering from his Son, in order that his demand for punishment be met.

At the centre of the controversy, initially, was Steve Chalke, of the Oasis Trust, and his book, The Lost Message of Jesus (2003, written with Alan Mann), following which Chalke was arraigned, by fellow Evangelicals, with having rejected a doctrine that is basic to their belief, as it is to that of other Christians.

The book described penal substitution as being like “… a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed”. (p. 182ff). This phrase – now notorious – was surely unfortunate, partly because it draws upon one of present-day society’s darkest anxieties (evil, abusive parents, and perhaps paedophilia) in order to blacken traditional Christian ideas, in a way that we might expect from one of today’s many anti-theists.

Also, the rejection of penal substitution (because of supposed ethical objections) appeals to those who would cull Christianity of all those features (sin, suffering, and God’s punishment of evil) which they consider stand against the Church’s claim to possess a message of love, peace, hope and forgiveness. But worse, this image, and the thinking behind it, reveals a woeful misunderstanding of the Christian conception of God (and, thus, perpetuation of it among those who mistakenly think this way in the first place).

God, as understood by Christians, is not a family of the sort we humans know of (and certainly not a dysfunctional one). God the Father is not a father as I am, or any other human male; neither is God the Son a younger, smaller, less-experienced God.

God the Father is not God proper (the real one), and God the Son a sort of lesser God, a God in waiting for a future sovereign role (like a sort of divine Prince Charles), but who meanwhile has to be licked into shape. God the Father is not the big boss man, whose apprentice, God the Son, has to clear up all the mess.

Of course, the idea of Jesus being in some sense separate from the other part of god – the “father”, who had definitely “sent him” – is an indigenous part of his self-understanding, as evidenced again and again in the Gospels, but so is his claim that the “the Father and I are one”; as so often in Christianity, we are presented with a paradox, the acceptance of which is (in reality) enriching, not confounding. Jesus (the man/god) and “the Father” (the creative principle existing outside of time) are simply different modes of existence of the same one.

The Holy Spirit, likewise, is god at work in the world now, within our time, but beyond our direct experience, “sent” to us only after the risen man/god has departed; the “father” is the hidden god, knowable only by (historic) self-revelation. God, this one god, himself (itself, but disclosing itself, in revelation, as “him”) is the one who created and redeemed, “sent” himself in order to correct the mistakes, gave all of himself in order to draw out the poison of Satan’s deceptions; bear, himself, the cleansing pain.

To be real, of course, it had to be done through flesh, in our mode of existence, as one of us. To see the expiatory act in any lesser terms is to stunt and shorten that vision which we now have – and that, in this present poor form, is already small enough.