Atonement and the nature of God’s Justice

As long as our thinking remains shaped by the scheme of this age… our understanding of the cross will inevitably be conformed to the world’s ideas of justice and peace

Darrin W. Snyder Belousek has written a book that anyone and everyone who holds to the Penal Substitution view of the Atonement should read. Deftly and carefully he examines our presuppositions against the biblical text.

Early on, as he sets out the purpose of writing this book, he quotes J. Lawrence Burkholder:

“…the Bible is seldom, if ever, approached without presuppositions. They change from age to age. Frequently they reflect quite unconsciously a framework of meaning and habits of thought that are supplied by the prevailing world view.”

Belousek’s argument is that the prevailing worldview that has framed the theology of the cross within evangelical Protestant Christianity, especially in the Western tradition, is the “retributive paradigm”.

Belousek observes how we have not only understood and interpreted “justice” within this paradigm, but this retributive paradigm has also framed our reading of all of Scripture. We can’t help but agree. From the sacrificial system to the cross, evangelical theology is rife with the assumption that God’s justice is all about retribution. “God’s justice demands that sin be punished” is boldly claimed, ignoring the fact that, in God’s economy, justice goes hand in hand with mercy (Micah 6:8).

Of course what should be so clear to us (but we are blinded) is that a distinctive feature of God’s upside-down kingdom, as proclaimed and enacted by Jesus himself, is the renunciation of retribution as the founding principle of the justice-doing and peacemaking of God.

Belousek states:

“Instead of returning harm for harm, injury for injury, evil for evil, “tit for tat”, the way of God’s Kingdom renounces retaliatory resistance to evil and returns right for wrong, good for evil, seeking to overcome evil with good (Matt 5:38-48; Luke 6:27-38). Jesus sums up the renunciation of retribution in the kingdom of God by the formula known as the Golden Rule (Matt 7:12a): “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you“. This kingdom imperative directly inverts the principle of retribution which commands us to pay back others in kind (“like for like”):”do unto others as they have done to you“.

“…because the cross of Christ is the definitive revelation of the kingdom of God, and because renouncing retribution is essential to Jesus’ proclaiming and enacting God’s kingdom, any theology that interprets the cross of Jesus as the ultimate satisfaction of retribution obscures rather than reveals God’s kingdom of justice and peace” (bold mine)

Belousek’s purpose in this book is to examine Scripture free from our assumed Western paradigms, and to let it speak for itself..

“…we must wait and see what Jesus Christ will reveal to know fully the character of God’s justice and peace… we cannot assume beforehand that the life-ministry and cross of Jesus Christ will conform to our prior, natural human thinking about justice and peace. So in seeking to answer the question of how the cross reveals “the justice of God” and “the things that make for peace” we should bracket out the expectation that we will see in the cross the confirmation of our common conceptions of justice and peace.

The latter point is crucial. We should not suppose that, because we are “Christian” rather than “Jew” or “Greek”, the cross of Christ is no longer a “stumbling block” (skandalon) for us.”

“..when the cross makes us comfortable because it confirms our prior political views, then we know that the cross has ceased to be a scandal, that it has ceased to speak to us the unsettling Word of God.

As long as our thinking remains shaped by the scheme of this age… our understanding of the cross will inevitably be conformed to the world’s ideas of justice and peace (Rom 12:2).”

Belousek writes that the cross is revelation precisely because it discloses God’s ways in a manner beyond human comprehension. The key is to let ourselves be surprised by it, to let it become a stumbling block, a scandal to us. And, of course, that requires us to remain open to the possibility that the cross, as the revelation of God’s upside-down kingdom, might just upset some of our assumptions.

This is just the beginning. There are so very many rich pickings in this book, so that we hope to bring more highlights in coming days.

(p.s. It is, by necessity, critical of the claims of Jeffrey, Ovey et al (Pierced For Our Transgressions) but in a gracious, constructive and insightful way. In fact, we would say you should not read Jeffrey et al without reading this to ‘balance the scales’. There can be no excuse for wilfully ignoring Belousek’s counter argument. This book is both a breath of fresh air and a challenge to our presuppositions about “knowing God”).