Two days ago, International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City, USA hosted a debate titled “Monster God or Monster Man”. On one side, Dr Michael Brown ably explained and defended the widely accepted penal substitution theory of the atonement; on the other hand, Pastor Brian Zahnd skilfully refuted this theory and put forward an alternative view of what happened at the cross and why.
Having watched the video of the debate earlier today, I’d like to offer some thoughts.
First, I commend IHOP and its leaders for their courage in hosting a public debate on such a central and potentially controversial topic, and their willingness in making the audio and video publicly available free of charge. (To go to the full audio and video, just click on the screenshot above.)
Second, if you believe that the penal substitution view (on which more below) is the only viable view of what happened at the cross, or if you are desperately seeking a meaningful, biblically concordant alternative to penal substitution, I urge you very strongly to watch the video from the debate. In it, you will see and hear a crystal clear presentation and defence of penal substitutionary atonement (which I will henceforth call PSA), together with what I believe is a far more compelling view of Christ’s work on the cross that is far more honouring and glorifying of the true nature of God.
Before I share some reflections on the debate, let’s briefly recap on what the penal substitution theory of the atonement is. Simply put, it’s the belief that at the cross, Jesus took upon himself the active outpouring of the wrath of God that is the due punishment for our sins, and that God is therefore able to forgive our sins because payment has been made for them on the basis of “life for life”.
Now, on to my thoughts, which I jotted down as I watched the debate (in no particular order):
– In his defence of PSA, Dr Brown relentlessly returns again and again to the fact that God “has to” be both just and merciful. He cannot comprehend or entertain the notion of God forgiving sin simply because this is what God does. He alludes a number of times to God freely forgiving sin, yet almost in the same breath speaks of the need for blood to be shed, for a price to be paid, for life to be given for life. Someone please tell me I’m not the only one who sees the glaring contradiction here. If a price has been paid, it’s not free, okay?
– Dr Brown explains the mechanics of PSA with great passion and enthusiasm. He extols it, marvels at it and sings its praises. Yet I am left with the impression of a man who enthusiastically describes the existence and logic of a scheme, as if its very existence and logic proves its truth.
– Dr Brown’s presentation, and his subsequent rebuttals to Pastor Zahnd and responses to questions from the floor, rely heavily on the belief in a future outpouring of God’s wrath against sinful men. He speaks very candidly of the fact that Jesus will one day return “in flaming fire” to wreak vengeance on unrepentant humanity. When asked if violence is an attribute of God, he is happy to concede that God can and will use retributive violence to accomplish his justice. When asked why it’s okay for God to use violence in response to sin but it’s not okay for us to do so, his answer is basically “because God says so” (he appeals to isolated scriptures stating that vengeance belongs to God). Thus, Dr Brown does a really excellent job of unwittingly exposing his belief in the myth of redemptive violence — the idea that my violence is good but your violence is bad, and that violence can be overcome by more and greater violence – for all to see.
– Thus, it is very clear from Dr Brown’s presentation and answers that the theology of PSA is a theology that is fed and underpinned by fear. He is noticeably the only one of the two speakers to use words like “danger” and “fear”. Funnily enough, I’m pretty sure it says in my Bible that “God is love”, and that “there is no fear in love, for perfect love drives out fear”.
– It’s very clear that the two speakers use scripture in vastly different ways. Dr Brown is clearly hugely knowledgeable when it comes to the Bible; his speech is positively littered with references from the Old and New Testaments alike. Pastor Zahnd, on the other hand, makes careful use of a few verses but mostly steps back to explore the overall trajectory of scripture and to situate the events of the cross and the scriptures written about it within their overall context. And he very wittily points out that if you use scripture the way Dr Brown does, you can make it stand up and dance a jig if you want to!
– It seems clear to me that Dr Brown espouses a “flat” view of scripture wherein all scripture is equally authoritative and the notion of progressive revelation culminating in Jesus and the cross has little if any place. When it comes to the notion of sacrifice, he gives no answer to the challenge that the Hebrew psalmists, the prophets and finally Jesus himself brought when they claimed that God had never desired sacrifice. For him, it’s in the Bible and that’s good enough. I came away with the strong impression that his understanding of PSA is utterly dependent on a rigorous view of the absolute inerrancy of scripture, and that he will not consider any argument viable unless it has one or more specific scripture verses to back it up.
– Of the two speakers, only Dr Brown made a point of saying he was “personally offended” (his words) by the critique of his view that was presented (even though that critique was presented very thoughtfully, politely and respectfully). I felt that all this achieved was to reveal the extent of the fear and insecurity which often, deep down, underpin belief in PSA and all its implications. (Edited to add: It’s true that, after Dr Brown expressed his offence, Pastor Zahnd in turn expressed his own offence. I have to admit to being slightly disappointed that he fell for the temptation to do so. But the fact remains that he only did so in response to Dr Brown’s expression of offence; I felt that Pastor Zahnd’s expression of offence was, in some way, a defence against Dr Brown’s prior expression of offence. I certainly don’t imagine Pastor Zahnd would have expressed offence had not his opponent done so first.)
– As Pastor Zahnd very clearly points out, Dr Brown misrepresents the gospel by explicitly stating that PSA is the very heart of the gospel. If this is so, we can only conclude that none of the Apostles preached the gospel in the Book of Acts, for they made no mention of Jesus being punished for men’s sins. Rather, the gospel is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord and the invitation to participate in the new arrangement of the world that he inaugurated by his death and resurrection (otherwise known as the kingdom of God).
In conclusion, let me repeat what I said earlier: I urge you to watch this video, for it is a startlingly clear exposé of the deep problems with the penal substitution theory of the atonement and the inability of even its most able defenders to adequately account for its deficiencies. I believe PSA has such a strong and enduring hold on Christians precisely because it appeals to something that is etched very deeply into our human psyche: the belief that a price must be paid for sin, that blood must be shed for blood, that all wrongdoing should and must be met with retribution. I am thankful that Jesus, when he rose from the grave after being murdered as an innocent victim, came announcing not vengeance but the greeting “Peace be with you”.
Thank God, the days of the monster god are numbered. In fact, there is no monster god. There is only the all-merciful, all-forgiving, recklessly and indiscriminately loving Abba of Jesus.