The doctrine of atonement for sin is—or at least has been—at the center of Christian faith and practice since Jesus’s earthly ministry. But in recent days, various voices have raised objections to the cross. Musician Michael Gungor called the atonement “evil” and “horrific” on Twitter, decrying a God who would mandate blood sacrifice for sin. William Paul Young, author of the 20-million-copy-selling The Shack, concurs. In his new Lies We Believe About God, Young says of Christ’s death:
Who originated the Cross? . . . If God did, then we worship a cosmic abuser, who in Divine Wisdom created a means to torture human beings in the most painful and abhorrent manner. Frankly, it is often this very cruel and monstrous god that the atheist refuses to acknowledge or grant credibility in any sense. And rightly so. Better no god at all, than this one.
Don’t miss this: The most popular Christian writer in our time labels the biblical God a “cosmic abuser.” Ancient false teaching returns.
Young’s scorching anti-God, anti-cross formulation comes in a chapter titled “The Cross Was God’s Idea.” According to Young, it’s a lie we believe about God that our Father sent his Son to die for us. We cannot miss how strong an attack this is on biblical theology. Young guts the cross of its sacrificial nature, though he maintains it’s a display of justice: “[W]hile evil is never justified, it is redeemed and rescued from its intent, thus becoming a statement of true justice.”
To lose sight of God’s righteous justice is to lose our grasp of God’s fathomless love.
But Young’s formulation of the cross loses the very reality it promotes. Without the satisfaction of God’s holy justice by Christ’s death, the only “justice” we sinners will get is the full fury of God’s holy wrath (Rev. 19:15). Without Christ’s atoning sacrifice, there is no basis for “true justice” in this world. An unjust, ineffectual God has left us in a realm where no sin is atoned for, no evil is answered, no satanic kingdom is overcome. How tragically ironic: To lose sight of God’s righteous justice is to lose our grasp of God’s fathomless love.
We find a similar reworking of the cross in the anti-violence theories of French intellectual René Girard (1923–2015). Girard’s “scapegoat” view of the crucifixion has gained a growing audience. For Girard, Christ’s self-sacrifice overcomes and undoes the world’s system of violence and oppression. Our chief need in this system is solidarity, not forgiveness, as our fundamental problem is violence, not sin.
Again, such an “anti-violence” view of the cross brazenly edits out the atoning nature of Christ’s death. The thick solidarity of historic Christology—Christ taking flesh “for us and our salvation,” as Nicea frames it—is lost.
This theory also misses the fearsome end-time dimensions of Christ’s atonement. Vengeance yet awaits unrepenting sinners. Every evil thing will come untrue, as the saying goes—and it is cosmic recompense that will make it so. Soon King Jesus will crush his enemies beneath his feet, a violent denouement if there ever was one (Rom. 16:20).
Some will respond by noting that the cross of Christ has numerous biblical facets. This is gloriously true. Christ’s death secures victory over sin, death, Satan, and hell, a victory realized by his resurrection. His death gives us a moral example. It shows us a better way than the world’s method of violent self-advancement. It effects reconciliation between peoples naturally “hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). It liberates and frees a people under bondage. As the ultimate act of obedience, a Son fully submitted to his Father’s good and holy will, it empowers God’s children to obey (John 15:10). The cross gives spiritual orphans a Father, an eternal home, and a loving family—the church.
This accomplishment and all it entails flows from Christ fulfilling his central mission: to make atonement for sinners (Isa. 53:1–12). Atonement for sin is not a part of the crucifixion; it is the crucifixion (Mark 10:45; John 10:11; Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2). Like the bull on the Day of Atonement, Christ is slain so his efficacious blood—the life that flows through him—may cover unrighteous law-haters and law-breakers. There is no mercy without it: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). Like the goat on the Day of Atonement, Christ is sent into the wilderness of death, bearing all our sins so the guilty may go free (Lev. 16:11–22). In his magnificent grace, God doesn’t just make salvation possible for miserable sinners; he makes it certain. Forgiveness, the need of every human heart, is in the blood—the “precious blood” of Christ (1 Pet. 1:19).
Michael Gungor calls substitutionary atonement “horrific” for a reason. William Paul Young labels Christ’s sin-killing sacrifice a “lie” to modern applause. Girardian scapegoat theology has caught on among many. Each case boils down to this: These voices promote the cross, but not the atonement. Such thinking matches fallen humanity’s pride. We don’t naturally want the cross to save us. We want solidarity, not salvation; the undoing of violence, not the overcoming of our sin; the enactment of human justice, but not the satisfaction of divine justice.
To promote the cross without the atonement is to not promote the cross at all.
What truly horrifies sinful humanity is not, in the end, Scripture’s stubborn reliance upon blood atonement. The problem is much deeper. What’s truly offends human nature about the atonement is the greatness of the God who forgives through it, the lavish nature of the mercy that flows from it, the salvation for the wicked accomplished by it. It is precisely this salvation our fallen hearts reject. It is exactly this forgiving God we defy, and even dare to correct. We must take care here: to promote the cross without the atonement means we do not promote the cross at all.
But here we unlock the true mystery of Christian faith: our God is so great he saves even wretches like us, who oppose him and his good Word.
Stand with Stott
The atoning work of Christ is not an optional add-on to our doctrine of God. The cross displays the very heart of the divine. It shows us the burning center of God’s character, what David Wells calls his “holy-love.” Our Lord is revealed in the cross, uniquely, as a warrior-savior, the God who solves the terrible problem of his justice by the depths of his love. Tim Keller has said it well:
People think a Christian is one who follows Christ’s teaching and example, but Jesus is not primarily a teacher. He’s a rescuer.
Strange as it is, such Christology is a stumbling block and an offense. Modern voices like Gungor, Young, and Girard tell us, effectively, “Your blood-sacrifice theology is horrific. I could never believe in a God who would accomplish salvation through a cross.”
But we will stand with John Stott, who said it so simply and beautifully in The Cross of Christ:
I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross.
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