“Penal Substitutionary Atonement”

This interpretation of the Atonement, of how Jesus’ death deals with our sins, has been under fire recently , and I can see why, but I also think we still need it.

Before starting on ‘PSA’, I want to firmly register that although it has been a very prominent interpretation of the Atonement, it is not the only one by a long way, and I don’t regard it as the most important. In many ways the Atonement, and the way God has made it known to us, is a ‘one off’ thing – and the Bible uses all kinds of pictures from our more everyday world to describe it; none of those pictures fully describes it, and many of the pictures have subsidiary aspects that shouldn’t be pushed too far. For example, one picture is of Jesus ‘paying a ransom’ for us; especially in some of the things meant by the Greek word, it’s a good picture – until someone pushed it too far and saw it as a ransom paid to Satan, as if he were entitled to be paid to release us! For me, I think the most satisfactory picture of atonement, with fewest problems, is ‘debt’ and the forgiveness of debt. We should also remember, by the way, that the Atonement isn’t just about payments and satisfactions – it’s also about reconciliation, and an action on God’s side that challenges us to seek that reconciliation, that change in our relationship to God.

PSA can be caricatured. It can look as if God is like some human tyrant who has made rules and decided to enforce them with an arbitrary penalty of death – then the human idiots break the rule, and somebody has to die or God will lose face, so Jesus gets arbitrarily killed so we don’t have to be…. The version of PSA used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses can sound very much like this caricature, as by rejecting Jesus’ divinity they have also rejected many other possible views of the Atonement.

That is why I prefer the picture of ‘debt’; there is nothing arbitrary about the penalty of debt – it’s “You owe it – you should pay it”. And in the context of debt, there’s a very real cost to be met by whoever clears the debt, whether that is the debtor himself or a kind friend who pays in his stead, or whether the creditor forgives and by so doing, faces the cost of the debt himself.

If you have seriously considered the nature of sin (though I’ll pass over that discussion here) you will have realised that being a sinner does effectively mean that you owe God your very life. You’ll also have realised that ‘the wages of sin’ is death not in an arbitrary way but because sin kills/destroys in you the kind of life that lives in God’s way. It is ‘soul-destroying’.

In the Old Testament this was depicted in the practice of sacrifice, in which the sinner ‘paid for his sins’ by the sacrifice of an animal which ‘substituted’ for the sinner himself. In an era before money, and with sacrifice the ‘common currency’ of religions, making a sacrifice dramatically demonstrated the need for the sinner to pay his debts, and the idea that the debtor owed his life to God. Many probably didn’t fully realise it, but in the context of a creator of the universe as opposed to the more limited gods of paganism, God didn’t need the sacrifices, it wasn’t a case of for instance feeding a hungry god. As prophets reminded Israel, the animals were already God’s animals, so even in the Old Testament God in fact symbolically supplied the sacrifice as a generous act of forgiveness. We should by the way note that in most ancient cultures there wasn’t a sharp line between the religion and the justice system that we observe in a modern pluralist culture; for example, the Roman ‘throwing criminals to the beasts’ in the arena was considered a religious sacrifice as well as an act of justice.

Old style justice used ‘penal substitutes’ more than a modern justice system which thinks in much more individualist lines. Family members might be held accountable for each other, for example, or communities for members of the community – even in capital crimes. So through most of history before and since the time of Jesus’ earthly life, human justice systems contained many examples of ‘penal substitution’, voluntary and otherwise, which as examples of substitution seemed suitable pictures of Jesus’ substitutionary self-sacrifice for us . The point is that as with other parables and images in the Bible, the bit that illustrates our message may be accompanied by other aspects of that human activity which are less helpful, so you don’t say “It’s exactly like…” you say “It’s a bit like this aspect of an everyday human situation….”

To take a rather obvious example, when Jesus called fishermen among his first disciples, he told them that as they followed him they would become ‘fishers of men’ – but I’m pretty sure he never intended the metaphor to be pushed to the point that his followers would be catching men for food!

With such caveats, I think we might still use the ‘Penal Substitutionary Atonement’ imagery, simply to convey the idea of Jesus standing in our place to suffer what otherwise should legitimately have fallen on us, while ‘majoring’ on other imagery. Two examples from older criminal justice systems do survive in the modern world and may be useful imagery. One is from the notion of ‘bail’, when someone else ‘stands surety’ for you and will pay the penalty in your place if you default. Another is simply the notion that when you have done something criminal and a fine is declared an appropriate penalty, if you haven’t the means of payment a relative, friend or other generous person may of course pay the fine for you.

In many circles ‘PSA’ is regarded as not just ‘AN image’ but THE major theory of atonement. I think that is wrong, it would be better that we should use it only as one partial image of atonement. If taken as THE doctrine, it has problems, whence the recent challenges. But why did it come to seem so important? Having thought about it I’ve concluded that it has to do with the ‘state church/Christian country’ issue.

On the one hand, the state isn’t necessarily very concerned about God himself – to them the purpose of having a state religion is the way it provides support and motivation for the laws of the state, encouragement to be good citizens (indeed rulers would often be cynically exploiting a state religion they didn’t themselves take seriously). That’s why the state would punish religious deviance – it wasn’t just seen as a difference of opinion but as an attack on the state’s moral foundations. With Christianity being wrongly used as a state religion, the state’s concerns influence and unbalance the way atonement is presented.

On the other hand, there would be a temptation to interpret the divine justice in terms of the human rather than the other way round, to use features of human justice to actually define God’s justice rather than merely to be an image. So you end up describing God’s dealings with the unsatisfactory aspects of the human imagery, portraying God as actually like the more tyrannical kind of human ruler, with somewhat savage and arbitrary penalties and with laws like ‘the laws of the Medes and Persians’ that he can’t set aside.

There’s more to be said about this, but I think it will be better in part 2 of my item about ‘Hell’….


The Curious Incident of the Woman Taken in Adultery

I’ve recently seen some very superficial interpretations of the text I discuss here, and thought it was time I put these thoughts out.  In the original essay of some 12+ pages I discussed a couple of other issues and left one of them a bit unfinished – I’ll probably come back to those later in the year….

John 8; 1-1

Early in the morning Jesus went (2) back to the Temple and as all the people came to Him, He sat down and taught them. 

(3)The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in the act of adultery and, placing her in the centre, (4) they said to Him – they were talking to test Him so that they might trump up a charge against Him – “ Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery.  (5) Now Moses ordered in the Law to stone such as she, so what do you say?” 

(6) But Jesus stooped down and wrote with his finger on the ground, (7) and as they kept on questioning Him, He raised Himself and told them, “Let the sinless one among you throw the first stone at her!” (8) Stooping down again, He wrote with His finger on the ground.  (9) But they on hearing it went away conscience-stricken, one after the other, beginning from the oldest to the last, until Jesus was left alone with the woman as she stood there. 

(10) Jesus raised Himself and asked her, “Woman, where are your accusers?  Has no one condemned you?”

She said (11) “No one, Lord!”  So Jesus told her, “Then I do not condemn you either.  Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

It’s certainly a striking story, and the broad outline of the meaning is clear.  But do we perhaps see it a bit superficially – even take it a bit for granted?  Let’s go through it looking a bit deeper ….

The first thing we may miss is that this is effectively a court scene.  We tend to think of rabbis as the equivalent of Christian ministers, conducting services, preaching, running the synagogue, and so on.  Today this is largely true, but even now there is some residue of a rabbinic function that was more important in New Testament times.  The rabbi was a judge with legal authority in the Jewish community.  We see a hint of this in an episode when a man came to Jesus with the request “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me!”  On that occasion Jesus refused jurisdiction, and made the incident the occasion for words about avoiding greed.  But in fact he really could have acted as a judge as requested; and in this case of adultery, a life-and-death case not serving personal greed, he takes a different attitude.

The point is that when the scribes and Pharisees put this woman in front of Jesus they weren’t just asking for an opinion; they really were in effect putting her in the dock.  Therefore when Jesus eventually said, “… I do not condemn you …” he was not expressing a mere personal opinion;  had he condemned the woman it would have been the equivalent of a judge passing sentence – and the unfortunate woman would have been stoned to death by her accusers.

The Motives of the Accusers

The woman’s accusers had, I think, two motives; one more-or-less good, the other very bad indeed.  The sort-of-good motive is simple – the woman had sinned, she had been caught in the act, they had a straightforward concern that justice be done according to divine law.  We’ll come back to that one in more detail later.  But somewhere along the way the accusers slipped into a far worse motivation – they realised Jesus was nearby, and that they could use the case to make trouble for him.  After that they may still have professed a concern for justice, but the reality was that they were using the woman for other ends altogether, which was an unjust and unfair thing to do.

How would this make trouble for Jesus?  I think they saw a neat ‘catch-22’ in the situation, whereby whatever Jesus did he would lose.  If he said the woman should be stoned, then stoned she would be; and Jesus, as the rabbi who gave that judgement, would be in trouble with the Romans who reserved death sentences to themselves.  (Remember we know that from Jesus’ own trials and death, when the Jewish leaders handed him over to the Romans).  A Jesus executed by the Romans over an illegal death sentence would – so they thought – be discredited as Messiah. As a bonus, if Jesus chose that way, he would appear harsh and unforgiving to the ‘tax collectors and other sinners’ who followed him.  I don’t think they particularly wanted that outcome, however; the other option probably looked both better and more likely.

In this second option, they thought that a Jesus who associated with ‘tax collectors and other sinners’ would let the woman off – and thus would discredit himself by flouting the law and denying justice to the aggrieved husband.  A Jesus who rejected God’s law would be as useless a Messiah as a Jesus executed for breaking Roman law ….  Note that if this was their preferred option, the scribes and Pharisees had little respect for the law themselves – they didn’t care that the guilty woman was likely to escape justice, so long as they hurt Jesus as a result.

They must have thought the scheme foolproof.  Jesus couldn’t wriggle out of this one – support divine law, he was in trouble with the Romans, and probably with the ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ among his supporters; reject divine law, or refuse to pass judgement on so clear a case, and he would lose all Jewish support.  Let’s see how Jesus deals with it ….

He writes on the ground!  All sorts of suggestions have been made about what he wrote – but we don’t know.   One plausible suggestion is that the word used here is not the simple Greek word for ‘write’, but a more specific word which could mean ‘set down a record against’, and that Jesus was writing down the sins of the accusers, or at least key words that would bring their sins to mind.  Whether or not that is true, in the short term, he seemed almost to be ignoring the situation, and we can see some of the effect of that on the accusers.  They press Jesus harder, and in the process commit themselves more deeply to their demand for an answer – whatever other purpose the writing on the ground has, it forces the accusers towards seriousness.

Then he stands up to deliver his verdict.  And it isn’t quite as usually represented; by implication, he agrees with the woman’s accusers, and with the law – she is guilty, she is to be stoned.  But he doesn’t say it that way; instead he takes the guilty verdict for granted and goes straight to an instruction which challenges the accusers’ own righteousness – “Let the sinless one among you throw the first stone at her!”   I’m not sure if, having been effectively appointed judge, Jesus had a positive authority to give orders about how the execution was carried out.  It would I think be appropriate;  a stoning was meant to be solemn and orderly, not just a vicious mob throwing stones any old how;  for example, Deuteronomy 13; 9ff gives the duty to the prosecution witnesses to cast the first stone in cases where someone tempted people to idolatry in ancient Israel.

But in any case, this instruction really put them on the spot.  Having pressed Jesus so insistently for his judgement, they can’t now ignore it – that would be to defy the law they had themselves invoked, the rabbinic judgement on which they had been so insistent.  And he has given them no way of making trouble for him, as they intended, but has put them in a catch-22 of their own!  Whoever picks up that first stone to execute the judgement is claiming to be ‘without sin’.

Now with our stereotypical ideas of ‘scribes and Pharisees’ we might think that they would find it easy to claim to be without sin.  Surely they were the very people who thought themselves above ordinary ‘sinners’?  Well they were, but by that very fact they were unusually sensitive about sin.  On an everyday basis, they might be snooty about their goodness compared to others – but internally they were picky about their own standing as well, constantly watching themselves.  They would be punctilious in making sacrifices for their sins, and so would be well aware of their sinfulness.  Even the modern equivalent of Pharisees will rarely claim actual sinlessness – unless they’re insane….

Furthermore, these were ‘scribes and Pharisees’ – the experts on the scriptures.  They would have known what Paul knew, that ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God’.  And like the former Pharisee Paul, they could have quoted the scriptures that prove it, texts like …

They have corrupted their behaviour and made it abominable.  There is none who does right. 

The Lord looked down from heaven upon the descendants of man to see if any were acting wisely, seeking after God. 

All have turned aside; together they have become corrupt. 

There is none who does good, not even one.

(Psalm 14, repeated almost exactly in Psalm 53)

If the scripture says all are sinners, then to claim to be sinless would put them in defiance of God and his word – just like the charge they had hoped to bring against Jesus by their trap!  They could not dare make that claim.

As we saw earlier, possibly Jesus’ writing in the dust may have been a further reminder of their sins.  Whatever, they were conscience-stricken and one after another they backed off.  The text tells us the oldest backed off first.  They of course had longer experience and basically more sin.  Younger members of the group might have been more hot-headed, but they couldn’t act ahead of their elders in such a matter.  Again, the legalism of the Pharisees trapped them.  And seeing those elders conscience-stricken would have forced the younger ones to think hard – if these revered experts could not claim to be sinless, who could?

And of course, having backed off, they weren’t in any position to make trouble for Jesus – they had received their chosen rabbi’s judgement and failed to carry it out!  But what of Jesus who gave the judgement?

The Injustice of Jesus’ Forgiveness?

When they’ve all gone Jesus looks up again; he is alone with the woman.  “Where are they?  Is nobody accusing you?”  She responds, “No one, Sir”.  And Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and do not sin again.”

And here is actually a problem; he clearly knows she has sinned, he is the rabbi called upon to judge the matter, he has actually just given a guilty verdict and authorised a stoning – how can he now ‘not condemn’?  True, on a technicality there are now no accusers – but there is something profoundly unsatisfactory in the idea of Jesus, the arch-anti-legalist, opposer of mere verbal technicalities, and the exponent instead of serious morality, deciding such a matter on what looks very like a technicality.  Has he no respect for God’s law either?  At the time the woman is probably too grateful to even really think about that side of it – but when she reflects later, with the heightened sense of her sinfulness which this encounter must have brought, surely it’s going to occur to her that she didn’t deserve to be forgiven, and how can any rabbi legitimately do what Jesus did?  Consider this also, though of course it would not have been obvious to the people at the time – there was one person present who was not hindered by Jesus’ judgement that a person without sin should cast the first stone – Jesus himself.  He could himself have carried out the verdict that the sinless one present should throw the first stone.

We should perhaps look at her sin.  Adultery is no longer a crime in our society and is often even portrayed favourably in films and books.  Many in our culture tend to regard it as a minor infraction.  Even in Christian circles we have I think lost some understanding of how bad it can be, because it can seem to be only about a brief pleasure with no longer-term consequences.  Of course we see the element of deceit and betrayal, but also, thanks to Jesus’ generous attitude to ‘tax collectors and other sinners’ we at least understand that sexual sins are not as terrible as the spiritual pride of the Pharisees.

In biblical times it was serious at a practical level too, because there wasn’t the kind of efficient contraception now available.  The adulterer was all too likely to father a child.  Think about that – in addition to the deceiving of the husband this is also fraud, it is theft.  The adulterer who gets away with it gets his child raised at another man’s expense.  In many cases, the betrayed husband’s family inheritance could go to the adulterer’s child, and not to the husband’s true children or other blood relatives – again effectively a theft.  And the adulterous woman is an accomplice to that theft and fraud, that possible hijacking of her husband’s family property for her lover’s child.  This isn’t only about a brief pleasure or the devilish deceit; it’s also potentially a serious criminal infringement of the rights of the husband and his family.  How can Jesus let her off on a technicality?  He has escaped the trouble his enemies had planned for him – but has he done so at the expense of righteousness and justice?

In fact this raises a question other opponents of Jesus had raised; look at Mark 2, the story of the paralysed man whose friends dropped him through the roof to Jesus …

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”  Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak thus?  It is blasphemy!  Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

And that is the point – Jesus is God and can forgive sins; he doesn’t just let the adulteress off on a technicality, he forgives.  Only God can forgive sins against himself, and only God can possibly forgive us when someone else we’ve offended can’t or won’t (in this case the husband), because only God is so far above us yet also so intimately involved in his world and responsible for it that He can do that justly.

So I think, as what scientists call a ‘thought-experiment’, we can rightly imagine the following;

At some time down the line this woman would hear that the strange rabbi who saved her from stoning had been crucified.  At first this may have worried her – did this mean that he’d been sinful and that now God’s judgement had shown Jesus’ judgement to be invalid?  But then she would have heard of the resurrection which vindicated him, showed him to have been right; and she would have heard that his death was a sacrifice through which sins were forgiven, and she would have realised that on that basis her sins had been paid for, and that was the basis on which Jesus had been able to speak those words of acquittal.  She hadn’t been let off on a questionable technicality; she had received, directly from God, a truly loving and costly, but also just, forgiveness ….

Jesus’ forgiveness is not a mere ‘letting-off’ which is indifferent to the harm resulting from sin.  It is a costly forgiveness.  Consider for the moment an example of how forgiveness works among men.  If somebody throws a brick through your window, they owe you a window; if you fully forgive them, they won’t pay for the replacement window – you will bear that cost.  God’s forgiveness of us is similarly costly – the price was the death of Christ on the cross.  God became ‘incarnate’ as a man in order to accomplish that forgiveness; though the Bible also makes clear that the price was more than just the crucifixion of one man for a few hours.  A passage in Hebrews, for example, implies that the earthly crucifixion was merely the visible ‘tip of the iceberg’ of a virtually infinite sacrifice made in a ‘heavenly Temple’ of which the earthly building in Jerusalem was but a shadow or analogy

[*  For fluency here I had relegated some aspects of the ‘Atonement’ to a ‘Part Two’ not posted here but hopefully coming later]

When Jesus said “I do not condemn you” to the woman, he basically meant “Although you won’t understand it straight away, I will pay the price of your sins.  I will suffer the equivalent of your deserved stoning, so that you can not only go free in this world but also be reconciled to God now and forever”.  And he also makes that offer to us today, calling us to repent of our own sins and trust in his sacrifice for forgiveness and reconciliation to God.  Further he calls on us, having been reconciled to God ourselves, to take that message of forgiveness to others.

But as we know, all too often that message has been preached in a way more reminiscent of those Pharisees – or of the Harry Potter character Argus-“I-want-to-see-some-punishment”-Filch.  Christians have preached about sin harshly and self-righteously, giving an impression of thinking themselves wonderful good guys condemning terrible sinners. How do we preach about sin and not be like the Pharisees?  Again, that’s in the rest of the essay, hopefully ‘coming soon….’

“God Doesn’t Believe in Hell ….”??

I was a bit tired in church that morning, but when that came up in the dramatic sketch I definitely paid attention, and to the follow-up comment which implied that if there was a hell God would be some kind of sadistic torturer.  Did the pastor really believe that?   And if so, had he really thought it through?

Now look, ‘Hell’ is a pretty emotive subject – and easy to make fun of.  Please understand that in defending the idea of Hell I’m not defending any and every version or representation of the concept.  To start with, I’m only concerned with the version in the Christian Bible.  I’m not going to defend the beliefs of other religions; that’s up to their adherents. 

Nor do I necessarily defend every version of Hell that purports to be Christian or derived from Christian beliefs.  Hollywood and comic-book Hells may be great fun – or sadly just excuses for porn and sadism – but need not be taken seriously.  The same applies to many of the great paintings of Hell – even by masters like Michelangelo or Bosch.  At a more literary level, Dante’s Inferno is a brilliant flight of fantasy, but is perhaps more a satire of Florentine politics than a useful guide to infernal geography.  I’m a great admirer of CS Lewis, but his portrayal of Hell in the opening of ‘The Great Divorce’, though an original one that will give you serious food for thought, is merely a literary device or extended metaphor and Lewis himself didn’t pretend otherwise.  

I certainly reject any idea of Hell which portrays it as needless torture for the sake of it, or of God sadistically enjoying such torture.  I don’t believe God either causes or allows needless suffering;  if God tells us there is a hell, then I trust him that it is fair and just and necessary that it is so, and that when all is clear to us in the next life we will understand it as perhaps we can’t from our present perspective. 

Furthermore, we should always remember that both Heaven and Hell are outside our everyday experience, so accounts of them in human language are likely to be metaphors, similes or analogies based on our everyday experience.  For Heaven we get images of banquets, of pleasant fertile lands – and the infamous harps could quite properly be translated into modern terms as “Heaven is like the best ever rock festival”! 

Such images if taken too literally can seem contradictory.  Hell, for example, can’t be literally both everlasting flames of fire and outer darkness.  We need to think about the images a bit and take the main point without being too distracted by the details from this world. (Images can even differ with culture; in another context we Mancunians can find it difficult to understand how the Bible treats rain as a blessing – but then Manchester isn’t exactly an arid land as Israel can be!  And while I said I wouldn’t bother much with other faiths, it’s interesting to note that in the Germanic mythology which gave us the English word ‘Hell’, Hell was always thought of as frozen over!  But make the cultural adjustment and you get the same underlying point made.) 

For example, the image of Hell as ‘outer darkness’ is generally in contrast to the banquet image of Heaven – all bright lights and feasting and celebration inside, while outside are people who have been excluded (and through their own stupid fault at that, not because anyone else wanted to be nasty to them) who can only look on from the ‘outer darkness’.  

The ‘Fire’ images for Hell come from various sources.  One is the usual Jewish word of the time for Hell, ‘Gehenna’ in Greek, in Aramaic/ Hebrew ‘Ge Hinnom’ the Valley of the Hinnom Brook.  Having become ritually defiled in the past by human sacrifices, in New Testament times Gehenna was basically the Jerusalem rubbish tip, an eco-disaster of bonfires and maggots ‘where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched’.  I’d suggest that as an image or analogy of Hell, the fire bit is secondary to the notion of disposing of rubbish in an appropriate place, where the fire is about cleansing rather than torture.  Probably the best known of other fire images is the ‘lake of fire’ in Revelation;  best guess is that this refers to some volcanic phenomenon which John came across in his exile;  again, John’s actual use of the image is about destructive cleansing rather than torment.  Other fire references bear similar interpretations. 

But there is another point to make; just because something is portrayed by figure of speech and analogy doesn’t mean that it can be disregarded as trivial.  The point of an analogy is that in important ways it is like the thing it describes.  If a concert is described as a ‘musical banquet’, you’d be unhappy to get just one brief tune on a penny whistle for your money!  The fire and maggots of Gehenna may not be literal descriptions of Hell; but anyone who uses such imagery should be describing a reality at least that awful, not something just trivial.  And we aren’t talking about just anyone here; this is the Word of God. 

So OK, I’m not defending the pictures of hell as literal; but I am saying the pictures are nevertheless meaningful and serious.  Whatever dishonest games humans may get up to[i], surely God doesn’t do the equivalent of warning us with images of a ravenous tiger if in reality what he ‘believes in’ is more like a fluffy toy bunny! 

I’ll come back to ideas about Hell later;  but first I want to make a slightly different point, following from that last paragraph,  In effect, if God ‘doesn’t believe in Hell’, why does he tell us so much about it in the Bible?  Also, contrary to what many people think, the Bible doesn’t present a ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ who wouldn’t even mention Hell, preaching a gentle message later distorted by disciples.  What we actually get is a Jesus who uses the words for Hell more than anyone else. Of the two words Hades and Gehenna, nearly half the uses of Hades in the NT, and almost all the uses of Gehenna, come from the mouth of Jesus.  And it is also Jesus who uses many of the other images which we would use in relation to Hell, images of loss of the soul, outer darkness, exclusion from God and payment of debt. If language means anything at all, Jesus certainly ‘believes in Hell’! 

So what do we make of this?  If God the Father doesn’t believe in Hell, how could God the Son, who was with the Father even before the creation of the world, manage to miss this crucial information?  Or is it that God the Son, Jesus, also doesn’t believe in Hell, but chose to threaten us with it as a kind of ‘bogeyman’ even though he knew this would be lying?  Did God the Father actually tell the Son to lie in this way?  Or are we perhaps actually saying that we don’t believe Jesus is God anyway and that he was just making a human error on so important a matter (on which we lesser beings somehow know better???!!)?  The first few of those options are nonsensical enough; the fourth basically destroys the whole gospel, because atonement through Jesus’ sacrificial death just doesn’t make sense except in terms of a divine Jesus.  A God who forgives us not at his own expense but at the expense of an innocent and uninvolved third party is a total travesty.  All of these options are destructive of the credibility of the Christian faith because they depict a God unworthy of faith and trust. 

The trouble is that this crosses the line that really must not be crossed; not a merely academic line or a trivial human ‘party line’, but the line beyond which everything unravels despite the best intentions.  On one side of that line is the simple proposition of taking the Bible seriously; on the other side of that line, the Bible is not taken seriously and instead people substitute their own opinions, what they prefer to believe.  

You’ll note I say taking the Bible ‘seriously’ rather than ‘literally’; that’s deliberate, because in the wake of modern hyper-fundamentalism[ii] the word ‘literal’ is open to misunderstanding.  What I mean by ‘seriously’ is something like the following quote from William Tyndale, which shows pretty clearly what the Reformers meant by the technical term ‘in the literal sense’, which was a long way from dumb wooden stupid literalism. Quoting it from Tyndale also shows how it is a traditional view – it can’t, for example, be accused of being a modern interpretation devised to get round Darwin!   Anyway, here is Tyndale …. 

“Thou shalt understand, therefore, that the scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, and the anchor that never faileth, whereunto if thou cleave, thou canst never err or go out of the way.  And if thou leave the literal sense, thou canst not but go out of the way.  Nevertheless the scripture uses proverbs, similitudes, riddles or allegories, as all other speeches do; but that which the proverb, similitude, riddle or allegory signifieth, is ever the literal sense, which thou must seek out diligently.”  (my boldening … SL

What Tyndale is getting at is that the Bible isn’t just a flat boring statement of the truth; rather it is ‘truth in 3-D’ stated dynamically through historical events and through figures of speech and other literary devices, enhanced by divine (and human) artistry.  And as he says, in that phrase ‘as all other speeches do’, this isn’t something unusual – in our own small way, we humans (‘sub-creators’ as Tolkien would say) do the same thing in our merely human words, enriching them with metaphor, poetry, etc.  This is what human language is about.  We generally don’t have great problems in working out such figures of speech etc. in human works – it’s the same with God’s Word.  OK, as with human works in other languages, of different cultures, of long ago times, we here and now need to be a bit cautious in interpreting the Bible; but we can still work out the key underlying ideas with considerable confidence.  

The trouble is, sometimes we don’t like what the Bible tells us – the plain ‘literal sense’ in Tyndale’s terms that remains even when we have unpacked the metaphors and so on.  There is then the temptation to substitute something we find ‘more reasonable’ – or just more comfortable, more congenial to our selfish wishes.  At that point, we have stopped taking the Bible seriously, and we are letting our opinions govern the Bible rather than the other way round.  

I have no real problem with the guy who aims to take the Bible seriously; he may be more literal in interpretation than me, or less, but we’re both concerned with serving the word and the God who gave it.  I have considerable problems with anything that amounts to “We know better than God” – and in light of the biblical evidence for what God does believe (or rather, know), and how strongly he warns us of the danger we are in, saying that “God doesn’t believe in Hell” is a serious case of (supposedly) “knowing better than God”. 

The trouble is, if we don’t take the Bible seriously when dealing with issues about Hell, the cure is worse than the disease.  At first it seems great, it’s certainly cosy and comfortable and the kind of answer people prefer.  But in the end, it just destroys Christianity itself.  

What the Bible actually teaches….

Well, an outline anyway!  I’ve already hinted at quite a bit of this in the explanations given above of biblical imagery, and we should be prepared to use that flexibility in explaining the teaching.  Not only is this better interpretation to begin with, it will make us think harder about the meaning and honour God’s Word more.   We will also care more about our hearers, and that includes demonstrating that care.  All too often our preaching of Hell can indeed sound sadistic, with the crabby viciousness of Harry Potter’s Argus-“I-want-to-see-some-punishment”-Filch, as if we were gloating about people frying for their sins; we need to know and do better than that.  There is a reason why ‘hellfire preaching’ has a bad reputation…. 

One of the first things we need to do is to teach people in the church; explain the old meanings, the contexts from which the original imagery came.  Put ‘hellfire’ in its proper place for church people to understand before we do too much preaching to the general public.  That will include widening our scope; we should not only deal with the passages that actually mention Hades or Gehenna, or the well-known images of fire and darkness, we must take in other passages about the consequences of sin and give them full weight

In seeking what we might call a positive image of Hell there are three ideas we will keep coming back to – love, justice, and choice.  

The key issue about Hell is not the fire, but the justice; 


In Paradise Lost, Milton depicts Hell as a place with locks on its gates; but the locks are not locks placed there by God to keep the devils and sinners in, they are locks and bars applied by the devils to keep God out.  OK, it’s really a hopeless attempt – if God wanted to break into Hell, could the devils really stop him?  But it makes the point that there is a tradition in which Hell is chosen by sinners, they actually prefer Hell.  CS Lewis also hints at such ideas in various places in his writings; even points out that for the unrepentant sinner, Heaven would effectively be Hell – the very things that make Heaven enjoyable are distasteful to the sinner.   Is there scriptural backing for such a notion?  

Yes, there is; we find the idea in John’s Gospel.  As is often the case in John, it’s not absolutely clear whether these are the words of Jesus himself, or John’s meditations upon the meaning of Jesus.  In chapter 1, John talks of Jesus as the Light, the true Light coming into the World – and of course Jesus said of himself “I am the Light of the World”.  But then in John chapter 3, look what follows one of the best-loved verses in all of scripture

For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.  For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world but to have the world saved through him. 

He who believes in him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is already condemned, because he has disbelieved the only-begotten Son of God.  And this is the sentence, that the Light has come into the world, and people have loved the darkness more than the Light: because their deeds were wicked.  For everyone who practices evil hates the light and keeps away from the light; else his activities would be exposed; while one who practices the truth, wants light on it, so that it will be perfectly clear that he is working in union with God. 

Though the word is not used, this is as much a passage about Hell as any dealing with Hades, Gehenna, or fire and brimstone.  God is light; Jesus is light:  if a person rejects the light, what is left for them?  The whole Creation is God’s; Jesus is the Word through whom it was created; every purpose and meaning of the world goes back to God, all the value of the world is from Him.  What is there if a person attempts to live without God, against the grain of the whole creation?  Well, whatever there is, darkness would seem to be a good image for it, if perhaps a bit too positive, with a bit too much actual somethingness about it….  Existence in that darkness cannot be good or happy; just preferable, from the sinner’s self-centred viewpoint, to giving up rebellion and admitting the truth of God. 

It is a terrible Hell of ultimate deprivation; but note that it is not at all an issue of divine sadism or similar.  This Hell is self-inflicted and not at all what God wants for people.  But how is this Hell to be avoided if, in effect, God can only offer light and light is the one thing the sinner cannot stand, cannot accept, and indeed absolutely runs from?  How can it be unjust if, in effect, God gives the sinner what he so insistently wants?  Those who cavil against God are inconsistent here; they complain at being ‘cast into Hell’, yet they also complain at any idea that they should be forced to change, that they should be refused their selfish will; the will, ironically, to run from and reject Heaven, the will to choose the darkness and deprivation which is hell.  They do their best to put God in a no-win situation, but in the process they condemn themselves.  They are like drowning men who fight against the only rescuer. 


Love – well, ‘love’ is what people plead against hell; how can a loving God ‘send sinners to hell’?  But those who use that argument are often conceiving of ‘love’ as a vague sentimentality.  The Bible doesn’t say that God is gushing fuzzy sloppy sentiment – it says in Greek that “God is agape” which is certainly the ultimate in unselfish and undeserved love – but it is also the ultimate in caring love; GOD CARES!  A God who doesn’t care would be a real problem. 


From the mid-1800s, as humanity seemed to be in a state of inevitable progress, it could seem harsh that God should punish sin.  Hell became unpopular, ‘enlightened’ people dismissed the idea.  But after a century that has seen two World Wars, the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Moors Murders and other serial killers, and recent terrorism and wars, I’m detecting a change, a hardening.  This isn’t old-style fundamentalists wanting to bring back old-style hell; this is ordinary people expressing a concern for justice, with a mix of motives – not always ideal, but I think ultimately well-founded.  

Perhaps the clearest current issue arises from the ‘Moors Murders’; in these crimes one Ian Brady and his lover Myra Hindley abducted, mistreated, and killed several children, burying the bodies up on Saddleworth Moor in Lancashire; sadly one boy’s body remains unfound, and is now likely to remain so, since time has changed things so that Brady, who concealed the body, can no longer identify the site.  

Later Lord Longford took an interest in Hindley, who could be regarded as less guilty than Brady because she was clearly under his influence and arguably led astray by him.  Eventually Longford claimed that Hindley had repented of her crimes and converted to Christianity.  He campaigned to have her released; and as might be expected, failed – there was little likelihood of a person so notorious being released precisely because of the notoriety (sadly less deserving but less notorious people may well have been released since.  Also if released she would clearly have been in danger of murder by vigilantes; and giving her a protected identity could have put others at risk of being attacked due to mistaken identity).  What is interesting to us is the public reaction …. 

The unwillingness to see her released is I think understandable; and there were reasons for it besides questions of forgiveness.  But I meet a lot of people who can’t believe that God himself could forgive Hindley; and believe that any ‘conversion’ was just a pretence in hopes of release.  On that latter point they may of course be right; Hindley wouldn’t be the first to put on finding religion to try to fool a parole board.  But could it be real?  Could Hindley be truly converted and could God forgive her despite her crimes?  I have to say yes, that truly is possible.  The hymn sums it up well – “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives”.  Jesus himself said that all sins can be forgiven except ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’, and the context shows that sin to be a sin of the self-righteous religious such as the Pharisees, a sin where the guilty wouldn’t even want to be forgiven because they don’t think it is a sin; very different matter to even the worst murders of more earthly motivation.  Hindley could certainly potentially be forgiven; and we can’t easily judge if that forgiveness actually occurred.  

But of course such forgiveness would not be just a glib ‘letting-off’; God’s forgiveness comes only with true repentance and faith, and therefore a true change in the person forgiven.  The Hindley who we hope we may meet in heaven will not be the evil woman who committed the crimes, or the weak woman overborne by her infatuation with Brady.  She will be a changed person who has truly faced up to what she did, is truly sorry for it, and truly wants to be a different person, and with God’s help will have changed day after day following her conversion into that different person.  Further, she will appreciate the cost of her forgiveness; she will know that this is no simple let off, but a costly sacrifice…. 

I have seen Richard Dawkins a few times now on television, and read in his books, asking the question “Why can’t God just forgive?  Why did it need the death of Jesus?”  And the short answer, of course, is that there is no such thing as ‘just forgiving’, and to speak of it that way devalues both human and divine forgiveness.  

The essential of forgiveness is simple – if someone does harm, then in justice he should bear the cost of righting that wrong.  If instead the wronged person chooses to forgive, then the person who did the harm will not pay that cost, the cost will be borne by the wronged person.  Put it in more concrete terms –suppose some yob chucks a brick through your window.  That yob should pay for the harm he has done, not only the price of the glass but also the cost of all the inconvenience he will have caused.  If you choose to forgive him, he won’t foot that bill – you will!  And as you contemplate the bill, you won’t be regarding it as ‘just forgiving’ in the glib way that Dawkins suggests.  For you, forgiving will be costly.  That is the need of the death of Jesus – that it is, essentially, God forgiving at His own cost, and revealing it to us in our history. 

If God has forgiven Myra Hindley, it has cost the sacrifice of Jesus; and in turn, that sacrifice will not have been made for a Hindley who remains evil afterwards.  But the converse is true; for the person who refuses to repent of their sin, justice means they should pay the price of their deeds.  It can’t be just that anyone else should pay while the sinner remains determinedly sinful.  The sinner’s choice of the dark is also a choice to pay the price of sin. 

[And with this now just over five pages long, I’m calling a halt and posting it; I hope to come back to this issue and complete some of the thoughts involved.  Feedback welcome on ‘as far as it goes’, but also remember it’s incomplete….]

[i] In model railway exhibitions we sometimes avoid the stern ‘Do not touch’ by using humorous notices like ‘Danger 12,000 Millivolts’ – which sounds drastic but of course is simply another way to express the perfectly safe “12 Volts”.  In such a hobby context, this is fine; but I seriously doubt if descriptions of Hell in the Word of God should be regarded as similar triviality!

[ii] In case this description seems confusing, I should point out that I have actually read quite a few of the original ‘Fundamentals’ – I even have one of the volumes on my own bookshelves.  They are mostly not dumb wooden literalism but serious scholarship taking a view similar to that of Tyndale below.  The kind of people we think of as ‘Fundamentalists’ would actually find much of ‘The Fundamentals’ to be too liberal for them!

Why Can’t God Just Forgive?


Richard Dawkins asked that question – why, he said, does God need to act as a cosmic sadist and make Jesus suffer the agonies of crucifixion before he can forgive our sins?  As is often the case, Dawkins has misunderstood both Christian teaching and some of the realities of the world as well.

There is no such thing as ‘just forgiving’.  To phrase it like seminar discussion topics when I was doing my law degree, the essence of the forgiveness situation is that Smith has done harm of some kind to Jones – and Jones of course is entitled to compensation for the harm.  Either a debt must be repaid, or a stolen item returned, or some recompense made for hurt or insult; and the person who in fairness and justice should pay is Smith who did the harm.  For Smith to be forgiven by Jones, it means that Smith will not have to pay because Jones, as an act of undeserved kindness to Smith, will bear the cost himself and suffer the loss himself.  Forgiveness is by definition costly to the forgiver, not an easy and painless ‘just forgiving’, and must never be taken for granted.  For God to forgive our sins means that He bears the cost of the harm we have done, so that we don’t pay as we deserve. 

And this need for a real cost to be borne is why Jesus has to suffer.  Now in human life it sometimes happens that Smith cannot afford to pay for the harm he has done, and his debt is cleared by a third party; Uncle Tom Cobley, perhaps.  This is an act of great kindness by Uncle Tom, but it is not forgiveness by Jones because in that situation Jones hasn’t footed the bill himself, he has received payment for his loss.  Dawkins appears to be construing Jesus’ suffering in a similar light, as if Jesus were taking the role of Uncle Tom Cobley and a vengeful and unforgiving God were cheerfully taking it out on this separate and innocent third party – and if Christianity were teaching that, Dawkins would be quite right in saying that it’s a very unsatisfactory situation and doesn’t portray God in a very good light!

However, that is not what Christianity actually teaches.  Christianity actually teaches that it was God himself who entered into human history taking the form of a man, Jesus.  At a suitable carefully prepared time and in a prepared context when it could have maximum impact and understanding, Jesus sacrificed his life.  There are texts in the Bible which suggest that the earthly crucifixion, drastic event though it was, was only part of the God’s total act of forgiveness.  What was seen on earth happened in a way that not only reveals God’s forgiveness in general but makes a personal challenge to every person who hears of it to understand their need of forgiveness and actively seek reconciliation with God; the crucifixion makes it personal and real, not cold and abstract, it seeks a response of personal faith that fully realises the cost and does not take it for granted.

Because of this understanding of forgiveness the ‘doctrine of the Trinity’ is not just abstract theological wordplay; part of its meaning is recognising that Jesus bearing our sins as a separate third party just doesn’t work.    

I understand that for Dawkins and his allies these ideas will raise a whole raft of other questions – some of which I admit I may not be fully able to answer.  But the understanding that God manifested himself in Jesus to effect our forgiveness shows clearly a loving God who in forgiving does not inflict payment on an innocent third party.  Instead we can I think rightly challenge Dawkins as having an inadequate view of the costliness of forgiveness in general.

In a recent controversy Baptist Minister Steve Chalke made, I think, a similar mistake to Dawkins when he suggested that the idea of Jesus dying in ‘penal substitution’ for men would be ‘cosmic child abuse’ by God the Father.  But in the concept of the Trinity, Jesus is not separate from God in the same way as a human child is a separate person from his human father.  The ‘Son’ may become incarnate and be crucified, but basically the whole of God is involved in the costly act of forgiveness; to suggest that the aspect of God through whom the forgiveness was accomplished in our world and revealed to us was ‘abused’ by, as it were, ‘the rest of God’ is a gross misunderstanding[i].

Part of Steve’s misunderstanding arises because, in much of the last century, many evangelicals have ‘majored’ on the ‘penal substitution’ theory of the atonement which can all too easily carry the kind of implications he worries about.  My take is that ‘penal substitution’ is only one of many images the Bible uses to explain the atonement; it is valid as far as it goes, indeed it enriches our understanding of atonement, but it is neither the only nor the primary image. Taken alone it can seem arbitrary and legalistic and, like another biblical image, of ‘ransom’, can create misunderstanding if pushed too far.  For me, ‘forgiveness of debt/remission of compensation for harm’, and the love of God in costly forgiveness seems to be the major and defining image. 

[i] Yes, I am aware that that explanation is technically faulty in all kinds of ways to professional theologians; but I think that it adequately – and importantly briefly – conveys the basic idea for those of us who are not living in academic ivory towers!