Is the Atonement Divine Child Abuse?
A Response to Non-Violent Atonement Theories
The one-sided and distorted emphasis on the Cross as the appeasement of the Father’s violent wrath toward humanity has come under fire. We need to address this genuine distortion.
By Frank D. Macchia
I stood during song service, enjoying being led into worship when the chorus entitled, “Jesus, Thank You” appeared on the screen
The mystery of the Cross I cannot comprehend,
The agonies of Calvary.
You, the perfect Holy One, crushed Your Son,Who drank the bitter cup reserved for me.
Your blood has washed away my sin,
Jesus, thank You.
The Father’s wrath completely satisfied,
Jesus, thank You.
Once Your enemy, now seated at Your table,
Jesus, thank You.1
I pondered the negative role reserved for the Heavenly Father. Though Jesus is thanked for graciously drinking our bitter cup and inviting us to His table, the role reserved for the Heavenly Father is entirely negative. The Father crushes Jesus, who serves to satisfy the Father’s wrath.
We could easily overlook the lack of a positive role for the Father if it were not symptomatic of a larger problem. Neglecting a positive role for the Father has historically been a problem in atonement theology. One recalls as an extreme example the famous sermon by the 18th-century theologian, Jonathan Edwards, entitled, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. His sermon speaks of God’s sovereignty and holiness but not of His divine love. He describes God: “The God who holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: His wrath toward you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.”2 Edwards then introduced Jesus as the One who came to change this by taking the Father’s wrath for us so the Father could look differently on us.
Does the God of the Cross really see humanity as a nest of loathsome insects? Do we need Jesus to stop the Father from yearning to feed disgusting humans to the flames? We need to address this genuine distortion.
The lack of attention to the positive role of the Father in the Atonement goes back in part to the medieval theologian, Anselm. He highlighted Jesus’ role on the Cross as satisfying God’s honor by providing an offering through His death that would restore the honor to God that our sin had injured. Anselm thought this act would also restore moral rectitude to the cosmos. He advocated his “satisfaction” theory of the Atonement to criticize the earlier idea that Jesus paid a ransom to the devil to gain our release from sin and death. Anselm rightly saw that the devil had no right to an offering. So Anselm replaced this terrible idea with a better alternative: Jesus offered himself on the Cross to the Father to restore divine honor. In this way, the Father could turn favorably to humanity. But is the Father not positively involved in the Atonement from the beginning, not simply waiting for Jesus to restore His honor before showing mercy, but rather upholding divine honor by showing mercy?
Anselm states briefly that the Father sent Jesus to the Cross, but Anselm does not elaborate positively on this important insight. Subsequent theologians added to Anselm’s theory by emphasizing Jesus’ role in appeasing the Father’s wrath, which we call the “penal” theory of atonement. The tendency then existed to stress the Father’s role as one of wrath and Jesus’ as one of vicarious suffering and grace. But this contrast seems to place the Father and Jesus in opposition to each other. We need to explain the penal doctrine of the Atonement in a way that avoids this opposition.
The need for such explanation is urgent, for the one-sided and distorted emphasis on the Cross as the appeasement of the Father’s violent wrath toward humanity has come under fire from a number of sources. Nonviolent atonement advocates maintain that the Father in penal theories of atonement comes off looking like an oppressive and violent patriarchal figure who abuses His Son out of a desire to crush humanity. Jesus appears like a passive victim who submits to the Father’s violent wrath so others can avoid it.
Dorothee Soelle is the key voice originally behind these criticisms. She calls the God of the penal atonement theory “sadistic” and the Christ of this theory “masochistic.”3 Others followed Soelle in calling the penal atonement theory divine or cosmic “child abuse.” Rather than encourage oppressed people to affirm their God-given dignity and resist abuse, this theory of atonement seemed to support violence and passive submission to it. Joan Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker write, “The image of God the Father demanding and carrying out the suffering and death of His own Son has sustained a culture of abuse and led to the abandonment of victims of abuse and oppression.”4
To avoid any implication that the Father willed the violence of the Cross, J. Denny Weaver suggests that the Cross was not God’s will for Jesus’ mission. Weaver’s basic assumption is that Jesus’ nonviolent ethic demands a nonviolent Father as well. The Father’s will for Jesus was not in Jesus’ suffering and death but rather through His establishing God’s kingdom of peace on the earth. The Cross is sort of an occupational hazard that Jesus had to risk in seeking to bring the Kingdom to a violent world. God turned the Cross into a victory, but the Cross was not God’s intention in sending Jesus.5 Weaver’s book has become a major statement of the so-called nonviolent atonement theory.
Biblical View of the Atonement
The relationship between God and violence in Scripture is a complex issue, but in response we need to be careful not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. It is important to talk about the Cross as the place where Christ bears divine wrath for us; we must not simply dismiss the penal doctrine of the Atonement. But we must be careful in how we describe the penal doctrine of the Atonement so we avoid misunderstanding. A valuable step toward doing so needs to involve the following points.
First, it is important to note that the Father sent Jesus to the Cross primarily out of love for humanity. The New Testament makes this point abundantly clear: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16,17). John elsewhere notes, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9; cf. Romans 5:8). The Father loved the Son from before the creation of the world (John 17:24) and sent Jesus to the Cross to draw all of creation by the Spirit into the embrace of this love.
Second, we should not remove from the gospel the necessity of the Cross as the place where God overcomes wrath to extend grace to humanity. H. Richard Niebuhr complains that liberal theology advocates “[a] God without wrath, who brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgment, through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”6 This complaint is still relevant today.
The wrath of which I speak is the alienation and condemnation to which God delivers the unjust — but only because they have chosen this path in their willful fleeing from God. Jesus bears this human condition on the Cross for us. The Heavenly Father laid it on Him, so He could give us life anew. Read Isaiah 53:6 in this light: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Though Isaiah said the Lord God “crushed” the suffering servant (Isaiah 53:10), verse 6 indicates that God did so by laying on Him the full weight of our sinful flight from God. John 3:19 notes as well that divine judgment comes in the form of the darkness that people choose for themselves: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”
Paul also describes the wrath of God revealed from heaven (Romans 1:18) as God delivering sinners over to the deviant desires of their own hearts (1:24–32). But notice that in Romans the Father “delivers Christ over” to the same alienation and condemnation (“for our transgressions”) to save these sinners (4:25; 8:32).7 This act is descriptive of how the one God bears up under the wrath that we have brought on ourselves to draw us into the divine embrace. As Karl Barth noted, in Christ, the Judge becomes the judged so we could know God’s justice. In a more literary vein, C.S. Lewis said poetically of Christ’s death: “When a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the table would crack and death would start working backwards.”8
Third, Jesus is not only human, He is also divine. Since the Father and Jesus are eternally distinct persons of the one indivisible Godhead, they are not opposed to each other in the event of the Cross. They act in concert with each other and the Holy Spirit as the one triune God in providing atonement for sinful humanity. In the Cross, Jesus did not simply reconcile us to a wrathful God; from a Trinitarian perspective it is more accurate to say that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19) (i.e., saving the world through Him, John 3:17). Likewise, the Atonement was not simply Jesus’ act of taking God’s wrath for us; from a Trinitarian view it is more accurate to say that God was overcoming God’s own wrath in the Cross to extend grace to us.
In extending love to humanity, God had to overcome divine alienation and wrath and did so through the faithful journey of the divine Son to the Cross. The divine love poured out for sinful humanity on the Cross is a love wounded by human rejection and willing to bear the sins and punishment that humanity caused. In Jesus, God partook of our alienation to bring us into union with the divine life.
Fourth, in sending Jesus to the Cross, the Father did not will violence and suffering; the Father wills instead to seek out the lost down the twisted paths they travel in their flight from God. This path involved suffering and violence to be sure. God willed from before the creation of the world to bear it for us in the Cross (Revelation 13:8).
Nothing is virtuous in this story about violence or suffering in itself. The gospel glorifies neither of these. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), the father allows his son to squander his inheritance and to plunge himself into despair. The spurned father rejoices at his return. But the elder brother resists this gracious acceptance of the outcast younger son.
In telling this story, however, Jesus does not resist the acceptance of the outcasts and sinners. He is not like the elder son in the parable. In fact, Jesus is the faithful Son of the Heavenly Father who goes into the far country to find us and to bring us home.
There is no possibility of finding in the Parable of the Prodigal Son a sadistic father or a masochistic son. The father in the story does not will to inflict harm. Jesus as the faithful Son does not covet suffering. He desires the return of the outcasts and is willing to bear their shame to bring them home. It is thus possible to note that Jesus had to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die to save humanity while still holding that He did this to liberate people from the debilitating effects of sin and oppression.
Courage is available in the way of the Cross for resisting destructive and manipulative forces and for affirming the fulfillment of God’s calling on our lives. A willingness to forgive our offenders in the spirit of the Cross breaks the cycle of violence and resists allowing the offender to exercise an enduring influence on us. Those facing unavoidable suffering can turn their path into a witness to the power of God’s transforming grace. It is not the suffering that brings grace, however; grace comes from the Lord.
Affirming a loving God does not require that we eliminate the valuable truth that Jesus in His divinely ordained mission had to suffer the violent results of human rejection and condemnation (Matthew 16:21). The two ideas go beautifully together. The loving God sent the Son down the path of violence, suffering, and condemnation because this was required to save us. It is true that the Cross implies judgment for those determined to persist in their paths of sin and rejection. But the Cross is primarily an enduring symbol of the fact God wills something very different for the world and was willing to suffer much to redeem it. The Cross is not an act of divine child abuse or violence. It is rather an act of radical love and liberation, a suffering love that is grieved and wounded by sin but still reaches out in grace to the offenders. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
1. Pat Sczebel,Jesus, Thank You, (Colorado Springs: Hosanna Music/Sovereign Grace Worship, 2003).
2. Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/library/edwards_sinners.htm. Accessed October 18, 2011.
3. Dorothee Soelle, Suffering (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 9–32.
4. Joan Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, “For God So Loved the World?” in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, ed. Joan Carlson Brown and Carol R. Bohn (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1989), 8,9.
5. J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
6. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1953), 193.
7. This connection between Romans 1:24–28; 4:25; and 8:32 is especially clear in the Greek where Paul uses the same term: paredoken (paredothe) (“delivering up” or “handing over”).
8. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Macmillan, 1950), 160.