Recently I read an essay comparing the “Satisfaction Doctrine” and the “Christus Victor” doctrine, and I had a shocking insight into my attitude toward law.
I had come to Christ through a very rationalistic preacher who focused on extracting doctrines from specific biblical texts. This was very important for me, since I am very systematic and I tend to analyze language closely. Before hearing this guy, I had always assumed that Christians were really stupid because it seemed like they just did what they were told and milled around looking kind of like cows on dope. However, he showed me that reading the Bible carefully was actually useful and insightful.
While still an atheist, I read the New Testament for myself and I was delighted to find all the places where Jesus insults religious people and Paul’s doctrine contradicts “church dogma.” I put two and two together and decided that the New Testament was historically accurate, psychologically valid, and a rich source of important spiritual truth, with a rational system of doctrine to back it up (which of course entailed accepting the whole Bible). I accepted at face value the elements of biblical doctrine that I first learned, including the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.
Over the years I heard and read many atheists and Christians complaining about this doctrine. Basically it sounded like a lot of whining to me. I mean, why are atheists so upset about God condemning them to hell for their sin if they don’t believe in God, sin, or hell? And the Christians who complained about it seemed like they just wanted to avoid the whole idea of sin, and maybe they had unwisely fallen in with a bunch of judgmental legalistic Christians who made them feel bad as a method of manipulation.
I never really thought of there being two different biblical views of the meaning of the cross (I already knew about the humanist view that is typified by Thomas Jefferson). After reading the explanation of “Christus Victor,” however, I could see where legalism was inherent in the Satisfaction view of the cross. It inherently privileges Old Testament Law and Temple Judaism, as if either of those are supposed to matter to non-Jewish Christians. This parody of Satisfaction doctrine, intended to show how atheists see it, was striking:
You have broken the law because it is impossible to keep it, and so you must have broken it. And because you cannot keep this impossible to keep law you will be charged with death because “the penalty for sin is death” and those are just the rules. God must have blood because the law requires it; there must be a penalty paid. The only payment that would have been enough is sacrificing someone who was the “perfect law-keeper”, someone who could live a perfect life without sin. So God decided to kill his own Son on the cross to appease his legal need for blood. Now that Jesus has been sacrificed God is no longer mad at us for not doing what we can’t do anyway, so we can now come and live with him forever — as long as we are grateful to him for his “mercy” to us.
After reading that, my reaction would be, “Who cares about God’s Law? Let me suffer the consequences, since if God’s Law really determines reward and punishment in this world, I’ll be able to figure it out without the Bible.”
And that is precisely the point. With a legalistic relationship to God, you don’t need the Bible; you just need to know the reinforcement scheme and you need someone to tell when you’ve done enough penance.
Socrates says in The Republic that laws are useless for bad people because they will disobey them anyway, and useless for good people because they will do good without the laws. This is echoed in Paul’s writings, in which he makes clear that the Law was given only to the Jews and only places obligations on the Jews. The heathens will suffer because of not knowing right from wrong, unless they have the Law written on their hearts, in which case they will be blessed. Christians don’t need the Law because they have Christ.
That is why I never really cared about penal substitutionary atonement: it has nothing to do with sanctification, or life in Christ. However, now I can see that it presents a stumbling block for Christians and non-Christians because they get hung up on questions of guilt and penance, instead of focusing on sanctification.