One day as I perused a bookstore’s religion section, within the literary mélange of orthodoxy, heresy, and inspirational moralism, one title caught my eye.
Lies We Believe About God by William Paul Young, author of the mega-bestselling novel The Shack, looked short and pithy, and it addressed a real need in the world: correcting misunderstandings about God.
The chapter subjects, each allegedly a lie about God, included things that could be obvious misconceptions—things such as “God is a magician” or “Death is more powerful than God.” But other subjects Young lists as lies most definitely aren’t.
The succession of chapters that most startled me in Lies We Believe About God are the ones about the atonement—that is, what Jesus spiritually accomplished in his death:
- Hell is separation from God.
- Sin separates us from God.
- The cross was God’s idea.
These are all lies, according to Young. For good measure, he includes a further chapter titled “God Requires Child Sacrifice,” a bald-faced attempt at stacking the deck against the idea of Jesus satisfying the wrath of God on the cross.
This is the caricature of penal substitutionary atonement Young clumsily props up that he might clumsily knock it down. Referring to a bloodthirsty god who needs to have his sense of righteous indignation appeased, Young wants readers to think he is distinguishing a merciful, gracious God from a pagan conception of a capricious deity. Instead, he diminishes God’s holiness, downplays sin’s seriousness, and dismisses biblical language about God’s ways with men.
Young represents a growing unease in evangelicalism with the concepts of a wrathful God and a propitiating cross. More and more believers are listening to authors and pastors who deny penal substitutionary atonement and refer to it with the worst language imaginable, saying things like, “To believe in penal substitutionary atonement is to be a worshiper of a bloodthirsty god who violates his own laws against child sacrifice in order to commit cosmic abuse and murder against his own son.”
Well, is that all?
A couple of years ago, after I had spoken on the cross at a Christian college, a young man approached me to inquire about my views about Christ’s sacrifice. I hadn’t delivered a lecture on penal substitution or the ins and outs of the doctrine of propitiation. I had merely articulated the good news that Jesus had taken the punishment for sin on the cross so that God’s disposition towards those who believe in him would be not condemnation but everlasting life. Until then it hadn’t occurred to me that this message would be controversial among professing Christians.
My new friend expressed distaste for the idea of a wrathful God. He used words like “bloodthirsty” and “child abuse.” For him there didn’t appear to be any room in the cruciform symphony for the “penal” part of penal substitution. “Christ was our substitute, sure,” many penal substitutionary atonement–deniers say. “But he did not receive the wrath of God.”
My response is typically, “Then who does?”
In pursuit of an atonement that is less bloody, less dark, less offensive, we may be stumbling on one that is less effectual, less powerful, less . . . well, atoning.
The cross is not only about wrath, of course, but if we lose this vital aspect of Christ’s atoning work, we lose the very heart of the good news.
The Devil loves this development, because if he can get us to stop thinking about God’s wrath at the cross, he can get us to stop thinking about how our sin is an offense to God, which means he can get us distracted from God’s holiness and, thus, our need for salvation. The cross isn’t only about wrath, of course, but if we lose this vital aspect of Christ’s atoning work, we lose the very heart of the good news.
Objectors to penal substitutionary atonement are running up against the abject horror of the cross. Jesus Christ really did die an anguished, bloody death on a Roman cross at the place called The Skull. We’re under no obligation to tidy this up and make it fit aspirational notions of human uplift and religious progress.
And this isn’t just academic quibbling over theological minutiae. All of this matters, because what the Bible teaches us about salvation matters. It matters so much that if we get far off on the Bible’s teaching about salvation, we jeopardize our own salvation.
This is ultimately where I took it with the college student challenging my view of penal substitutionary atonement. After walking him through the best biblical survey I could manage from memory and seeing he wasn’t buying it, I just asked him directly, “Are you a sinner?”
He thought for a second, then said, “Yes.”
I asked him, “How is it that your sins are forgiven?”
I could tell he was mulling the question over.
I wondered if he’d never thought of it. I wondered if he had become infatuated enough with academic debates on the cross and the rejection of the blunt doctrine of his upbringing if he’d forgotten to take the cross not just intellectually or academically or theoretically, but personally.
Let us be careful that our prioritizing any other view of the atonement over penal substitutionary atonement isn’t an attempt to keep the cross at arm’s length. Let us fear championing the effect of the cross on those people or those issues and not on us.
The blood of the Lamb is too precious not to be applied to our own doorposts.
The Devil loves a bloodless cross. He doesn’t mind a shiny trinket around your neck so long as it’s not a shining treasure in your heart.
Satan is afraid of the blood. He knows it washes sinners clean (Heb. 9:14; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 7:14). He knows that the bloody cross spells his doom (Col. 2:15). And he knows the blood of Christ pays the wrath owed sinners (Rom. 3:23; 1 John 4:10), thereby forever making his accusations against God’s people null and void.
Which is why Satan would love for you to keep your gospel nice and respectable.