The most common understanding of how Jesus’ death achieved our salvation goes something like this:
– Because of God’s holiness (which we narrowly interpret as his moral purity), our sin separated us from God.
– Because God is just, sin needs to be punished.
– Rather than allow the just punishment of death to fall on us, God arranged for Jesus to take this punishment in our place.
– Because Jesus paid the price for our sin, we are thus no longer separated from God.
(I should also mention that, within most evangelical paradigms, this reconciliation with God only actually takes effect if we accept Jesus as our personal saviour.)
In theological terms, this framework for how Jesus’ death bought us life is most often referred to as penal substitutionary atonement (PSA for short): penal because it involves punishment for sin; substitutionary because Jesus is our substitute, taking our punishment in our place; and atonement because the result is that we are no longer separated from God (think at-one-ment). I no longer find it a helpful framework; in fact, I find it positively unhelpful, mainly because I think it perpetuates a picture of God as a cosmic tyrant obsessed with balancing the scales of justice and needing blood in order to do so.
My purpose today, however, is not to delve into all the details of why I find PSA problematic. Rather, I’d like to focus in on one particular consequence of believing that salvation hinges on this type of arrangement.
Specifically, I’d like to talk about shame.
I’ve written before at some length about how sin, fear and shame are intimately connected. (In particular, I wrote a three-part series a few months ago called On the origins and consequences of fear – you can read part 1 here.) I don’t wish to go over that same ground again. I’d simply like to observe that shame is a big problem for us humans. How do I know this? I know because it’s a big problem for me.
Shame is something I’ve lived with for a long time. The reasons don’t matter for our purposes here today; what matters is that I know from personal experience – and there’s a good chance you do too – what it is to feel deeply unworthy and undeserving of love and acceptance. Shame is doubly problematic because it creates barriers not only between us and God (since we feel we don’t measure up to his standards) but also between us and other people (since we feel equally unworthy of their love and acceptance).
And here’s the interesting thing: believing in penal substitutionary atonement, as I did for most of the thirty or so years I’ve been a Christian, did little or nothing to help me overcome that sense of shame.
With the benefit of a different perspective, it now seems fairly obvious to me that believing in what has become the standard view of the atonement not only perpetuates but indeed potentially feeds our sense of shame.
Let me try to explain.
Shame is essentially the belief that there’s something fundamentally wrong with us. While guilt attaches to specific acts, shame attaches to our very selves. Through various circumstances, we subconsciously come to believe not only that we sometimes do wrong, but that we inherently are wrong.
Now, the penal substitutionary view of the atonement hinges around the fact that my sin deserves (and, in fact, requires) severe punishment. Luckily for me, Jesus steps in and takes my death sentence in my place. I am meant to feel grateful, and I suppose I do. But here’s the problem: I’m also left feeling that, if God had to sacrifice his own son before he could forgive me, I must be very, very bad indeed.
You might point out that it was my sin that was being punished on the cross, not me myself. In theory, that seems to make sense. But let’s be honest: our sin is so intimately connected with us that it’s like a part of us. Even the Apostle Paul acknowledged that (see Romans 7:15-24). So while I might be able to try to conceptualise away my shame, in practice it doesn’t work. I’m still left with the very real sense that I am bad through and through and that Jesus had to take a mighty beating on my behalf before God was able to forgive me.
This leads to a situation in which I believe with my mind that I’m forgiven (because I understand and assent to the mechanics of PSA and do my part by telling God how sorry I am and accepting Jesus’ death in my place); but my lived reality is that I’m still anything but free, because I’m still plagued by a deep sense of unworthiness, aka shame. So I’m doomed to exist in a cycle in which I alternate between feelings of gratitude and shame.
What is the antidote to shame? In simple terms, it is love, of the unconditional kind. It is the open arms of acceptance that say, “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or even who you’ve tried to be: you are loved and accepted as you are”. The problem with the penal substitutionary model of the atonement is that it doesn’t say this. In effect, what it says instead is, “You have to believe that God loves you because the Bible says so, but the only way you can experience that love in practice is for a heavy price to be paid for all your nastiness”. That, if you ask me, is anything but unconditional.
Thankfully, as I intimated above, I have come to a much better place. I’ve come to believe that Jesus died not to be the recipient of God’s wrath in response to our inherent badness, but to show us that even when we are the very worst we can be – even when we kill God – God still loves us and freely forgives us. From this vantage point, the statement that God is love is no longer a detached piece of logic that I have to convince myself to believe in spite of what I feel in my heart; I know that God is perfect love because he refuses to put conditions on his love, even when to love us in that way means laying down his own life.
Penal substitutionary atonement brought me no freedom from shame; in fact, it validated my belief that, deep down, there was something very wrong with me. By God’s grace, I’ve thrown off the chains of such a narrow and problematic understanding of the atonement, and come to see instead that God loves and forgives me freely. And in so doing, I’ve found that my shame has begun to be pulled up by its roots. Some of those roots go deep and might well take a long time to fully remove, so I know I still have a long way to journey. But the scenery now looks very different from how it looked a few months ago. And there’s no way I’m ever going back.
[ Image: Royal Constantine ]