Rethinking the doctrine of atonement

“Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross” by Derek Flood (Cascade Books, 108 pages, $17)

Is God an angry God who requires sacrificial appeasement, or is that idea not only in error but ultimately destructive of people’s well-being?

In “Healing the Gospel,” Derek Flood, artist and theologian, contends that “restorative justice” – restoring humanity to a right relationship with God through the cross of Christ – is not only the correct and main thrust of the New Testament doctrine of atonement but a refutation of the penal substitution belief that God demands his pound of flesh for the sins of humankind, and Jesus’ death settles the account. (Atonement simply defined is the state of being “at one” or reconciled with God.)

In little more than 100 pages, Flood lays out a theological and therapeutic case that the ancient belief in punitive justice (penal substitution) is not only wrong but has infected all aspects of Western society – from child-rearing to mental health treatment to our criminal justice system. One example: “Spare the rod and spoil the child” can lead to child abuse, he asserts, and contributes to a wider belief that violence is a solution rather than the problem itself.

“The New Testament, in contrast, is actually a critique of punitive justice,” he writes. “It presents it as a problem to be solved, not as the means to the solution.” Instead, restorative justice “is how God in Christ acts to heal the problem of punitive justice.”

Flood, who describes himself as a born-again, spirit-filled Christian with sympathies neither for the religious right nor religious left, gives no slack to those who see validity in various teachings about the atonement that have been promulgated over 2,000 years. His assertion that restorative justice is the primary teaching is bolstered by a detailed analysis of Scriptural references and terminology. Words such as “justice,” “salvation,” “sacrifice,” “wrath,” and “suffering” are examined in their original usage and context in Hebrew and Greek – languages of the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament, respectively – to see how they were understood by the people to whom they were addressed.

Even defining sin simply as a crime, he writes, can sabotage its deeper meaning and significance with the error of penal substitution. Those who defend such a definition, rather than sin as a sickness and separation from God, are “out of touch with contemporary understandings in both the fields of mental and physical health.” If legal acquittal is what is needed, according to penal substitution, then “nothing changes in us, nothing is restored for the one who was hurt. All that happens is that someone is punished, and with that it is declared that the demands of justice have been satisfied.”

Flood maintains that a restorative justice model of atonement is clearly the teaching of Jesus himself. “We really only learn what the atonement means when we learn to walk as Jesus did. We are called away from the way of retribution and towards the superior way of grace and enemy love, following God’s example in Christ.” By doing so, we live as those who bear unjust suffering “for the sake of love.”

Although various theories of atonement have influenced Christian thinking over the centuries, no single teaching has completely supplanted the others. What Flood provides is a reasoned argument for one clearly biblical idea about the way God reacts with humanity and how those who respond in faith are called to live.

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