The serious flaws in the charge that penal substitionary atonement represents divine child abuse

As I jogged this morning, I listened to an interview in which Denny Weaver spoke about the point of his second edition of The Nonviolent Atonement. I understand his desire to take that approach, given his pacifist stance generally, and perhaps I would find the approach more attractive if I were a pacifist too. But the key grounds for my disagreement are that I think all denials that Christ bore the penalty of sin on the cross are deficient in representing the teaching of Scripture. He argues for a form of the Christus Victor theory and I have some sympathy for that, because I too have identified Christ’s victory as the overarching model of the atonement, but I see penal substitution as the fundamental means by which that victory was accomplished, nullifying the very grounds upon which Satan held us in bondage.

Thankfully, I did not hear Weaver suggesting in support of his nonviolent understanding of the atonement that penal substitution is fatally flawed because it entails divine child abuse. That view, sadly, continues to be stated by critics of the penal substitutionary function of Christ’s death. So I am thankful that Scot McKnight has summarized the fatal flaws of the divine child abuse accusation, drawing on points made by Jeffrey Burton Russell, in his book Exposing Myths About Christianity and supplementing them with my own. He writes:

Scot McKnightFirst, this accusation fails to represent the best thinking about how the Father and Son are related in the Bible and Christian theology. Inevitably, it turns the Father against the Son, bifurcates God, turns the Father into a torturer and someone who can’t be nice until he exacts some blood, and ends up destroying what the perichoresis of Trinitarian thinking is about. Both Western and Eastern thinking have no place for this perception of the Trinity’s relations at the cross. In Christian theology the cross is an act of Father, Son and Spirit.

Second, this accusation fails to see that the Son gave his life, that the Father gave the Son’s life, and the point here is that the cross in the Bible and theology is the freely-chosen, gracious choice and act of the Father, Son and Spirit. In other words, there is something entirely redemptive about the act that reveals the divine child abuse theory for what it is: a mockery of the way Christian theology describes what God is doing. The cross is an act of love by the Father (and Son, and Spirit) for humans and sketching it as act of revenge on the Son fails the larger context of grace.

Third, this accusation fails to comprehend that entering into death, willingly and out of love, is the act of God entering into the fullness of the human condition, including death. Once again, this is out of love: the Son entered into the suffering and death of humans because Father, Son and Spirit love each one of us and want to go down into the depths with us in order to lift us from death into life. The God who does not suffer with us doesn’t know us and becomes the remote God of deism.

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