The Myth of Redemptive Violence: On Substitutionary Atonement, Christian Faith, and The Cross

I was recently listening to an interview with sex witch Jamie Lee Finch on The Liturgists podcast, and one of the things she found problematic with evangelical fundamentalism stood out as something much in need of addressing.

Finch, like many others, had heard the climax of the gospel presented as thus: Jesus is betrayed, handed over to the authorities and crucified. On the cross, he dies for the sins of all eliminating the need for sacrifice through his own sacrifice, appeasing God’s wrath through the death of the Son, and being raised to eternal life as reward for this. Thus, Christians throughout history owe everything to Jesus taking God’s wrath on to himself, and we must always and forever be as good as can be in order to benefit from that sacrifice.

Christian theology has a name for this: substitutionary atonement. Basically, this means that since we’re all such sinners, and sin is in our nature, the only just thing in God’s eyes is for all of us to die for our sins. Yet instead, Jesus, God Incarnate, comes and pays the price instead. Thus the death of the Son appeases the Father, and we get a chance at eternal life.

Finch has another name for this: the myth of redemptive violence. Basically, this means the idea that violence can be good, and can lead to redemption. In this case, I humbly submit that Finch is quite right, and many Christians through the centuries are quite wrong–the myth of redemptive violence is, just that, a myth.

Here’s the thing: substitutionary atonement was a later codified theology, added several centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus. There ARE verses in Paul that suggest a preliminary version of that later theology–but if history shows us anything, it’s that verses in Paul can be used and abused in a lot of ways that we should be very wary about.

Allow me to present another reading that I find much more compelling: Jesus is betrayed, handed over to the authorities, and crucified. His followers are scattered and broken–all hope seems lost. Then, they slowly discover, that he has been resurrected. He appears to them, in bodily form, several times before finally ascending to heaven, and forty days later, sends forth the Holy Spirit to be their Advocate and living guide. In light of this astonishing series of events, the early followers of the Way realize that Jesus fulfilled many prophecies and promises of God and the Messiah. They thus declare him Jesus the Messiah or Jesus the Christ. Jesus, in life, often identifies with the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, or the Son of Man.

In reflecting on these events, then, they realize things could easily have gone different. Jesus, as God Incarnate, could have come in power and glory, and re-ordered the world to His will. With his power he could have overthrown all who opposed Him, and ruled the world through force and might. This indeed, is what many expected of the Messiah, and it would have been perfectly in line with empires and kingdoms of the time, except that it would have literally been the “war to end all wars” and after a period of extreme violence, only the worthy would live and peace would reign forever more. Yet when Jesus, who we must keep in mind is now understood as God Incarnate comes, he does it in a completely radical way.

Rather than ruling over all others, he is a humble, poor, itinerant preacher, dependent on powerful businesswomen funding his ministry and arranging places for him and followers to stay. Rather than hanging out with only the holy and clean (by God’s own law!), and rather than following the law strictly and scrupulously, he hangs out with all sorts, and preaches radical forgiveness, unending mercy, and selfless, unconditional love as the way to overthrow the world and to enter the kingdom of heaven. At every opportunity, he challenges the status quo, arguing for compassion and justice for the marginalized, the oppressed, the vulnerable, and arguing for vulnerability and authenticity, and God’s care for all.

During the climax of His time among us, Jesus is betrayed, handed over to the authorities and crucified. And then He rises again, showing that death and sin are not the final word, and that love and life are far, far stronger.

Paul, in his epistles, argues that the Spirit is sent forth to help us walk the road Jesus walked. Jesus himself, said to follow him, to do as he does. What did Jesus do: he lived authentically, vulnerably. He practiced unceasing selfless love, he stood up to the powers of his day, he forgave over and over, and he relied on community. He argued for the breaking of many boxes and barriers and boundaries, across social class, economic status, and even gender and sexuality! Most of all, rather than using force and power and might to save himself, he instead allowed himself to be humbled, crucified as a criminal and a cursed one, to show that death and sin were not the final word many had thought them to be.

Jesus, God the Son, did not die as a way to appease God the Father. We do all sin–but that is not a damning indictment. Sin is falling short of an ideal, it can be and often is banal and ordinary, though there are of course times where is grand and malevolent. But God did not demand one final sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

What Jesus did on the cross was provide an example, a lens to see by. He died as he lived–modeling a selfless unconditional love, a humble and hopeful faith, and a firm resolve live life in a new and radical way that flew in the face of the wisdom and accepted way of things at the time. The resurrection recast his life, vindicating him and showing that we were to pay attention to this man who would otherwise be a footnote in history, killed like so many other failed Messiahs.

When we buy into substitutionary atonement, a myth of redemptive violence, we are, in fact, being antithetical to the message of the cross. We fail to see that violence begets violence, that violence is the way of the world not the way of God, and that we must instead practice selfless unconditional love, unceasing forgiveness, and welcome, acceptance and celebration of the marginalized, the oppressed, the vulnerable, the outcast. We must make friends with our enemies, and with the people who annoy us the most. That is the Way of the cross, the Way of Jesus, the Way of God–and the practice we are called to as kingdom people.

Amen.

Published by Devin Hogg

My name is Devin Hogg. I was born and raised in Carnarvon, Ontario, Canada. I moved to Guelph, Ontario, Canada in 2009 for university and lived here ever since. In my free time, I enjoy reading, watching TV and movies, going on long walks, swimming, and practicing Chen style Tai Chi. I love to write poetry and blog regularly about topics such as mental health, sci-fi/fantasy series, faith, sexuality, and politics.

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