A friend asked me to comment on this passage from a recent blog post of Brian Zahnd's, How Does "Dying For Our Sins" Work?:
The Bible is clear, God did not kill Jesus. Jesus was offered as a sacrifice in that the Father was willing to send his Son into our sinful system in order to expose it as utterly sinful and provide us with another way. The death of Jesus was a sacrifice in that sense. But it was not a sacrifice to appease a wrathful deity or to provide payment for a penultimate god subordinate to Justice.
I have both agreements and disagreements with Zahnd here.
I agree that the teaching of the Bible is not that God kills Jesus. In general I think this common but mistaken element of penal substitution theory can be done away with, however. It is one thing to say that the Father punishes the Son for our sins; it is another to say that the Son undergoes the punishment for our sins at the Father's sending.
Consider the analogy of a football player who arrives late to practice, and his coach commands him to run a mile as a sort of punishment. Suppose the captain of the football team offers to run the mile in his place, so that the late-comer can practice, and he can enforce team unity, etc. In this case, if the coach agrees, it would certainly be true to say that the captain undergoes the punishment to which the tardy player had been condemned, but it would be a mistake to suppose that the coach is punishing the captain. The "ill will" of the coach is not aimed at the captain at all, and so he cannot plausibly be interpreted as punishing him.
So also with the Father and the Son. There is never a moment of ill will, or hatred, or resentment, or wrath, or anything of the sort between the Father and the Son; such a thing would radically rupture trinitarian relations. Rather the Son undergoes the punishment, and the Father allows it. This is how Athanasius conceptualizes penal substitution in his On the Incarnation of the Word. Proponents of penal substitution grant that Athanasius' teaching counts as a version of this doctrine (e.g., Jeffrey, Sach, and Ovey of Pierced for Our Transgressions), but he doesn't ever affirm that the Father punishes the Son -- only that the Son undergoes the punishment to which humanity had been condemned. Once this distinction is allowed and made in the context of penal substitution, much of Brian Zahnd's argumentation seems just to be irrelevant.
I tend to disagree with his characterization of Christ as sacrifice. I think that kind of educative theory of atonement is really atonement lite. By "educative theory," I mean a theory of atonement which posits a mechanism of atonement which works merely by the realization of certain truths about the reality of divine-human relations. I am interpreting Zahnd as suggesting that atonement works like this: Jesus' life and death reveal to us certain truths about ourselves, our condition, our relations to God and to others, and upon the realization of these truths, we can effect reconciliation, forgiveness, etc. Spoken in the abstract, that much is certainly true but also inadequate and incomplete.
There is also an ontological element of atonement, as the Fathers appreciated and as Torrance describes in his Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church. Atonement also includes Christ's sanctification, deification, and reconciliation of his own human nature with God. He assumes a fallen human nature such as mine, cursed and estranged from God, and he raises it up to the level of the communion of the Holy Trinity. He atones through reconciling his own humanity with God's own will for it, and I get to participate in this fantastic process through union with him -- through faith, through baptism, through the Eucharist, through prayer, through reading about him in the scriptures, etc. This ontological element is necessary precisely because human nature is deeply corrupted and broken, something which educative theories of atonement such as the one I am attributing to Zahnd have a hard time dealing with.
Moreover there are juridical or judicial elements in the atonement, and we know this because of the biblical narrative and common sense. The biblical narrative includes a covenant with Israel and with the creation itself (cf. Karl Barth, CD IV/1), a covenant which involves death as a punishment for sin (cf. Gen 2.15-7, Rom 6.23). Because God cannot go back on his word, as Athanasius appreciates (On the Incarnation 6), he cannot deal with humanity and save it without resolving these problems as well. Therefore when Christ dies for our sins (1 Cor 15.3), whatever else it may mean, it should at least mean this as well.
This should make sense, too, when we look at the extent and gravity of evil in the world: precisely because sin is a real force in humanity-in-the-flesh, that is, humanity apart from communion with the Holy Trinity, there must be death as a consequence. What great evil would result if a Hitler or Stalin were allowed to live indefinitely? There must be death because evil must be put to an end. This is what we feel deep in our hearts, too, when we think over the direst cases of perversion and injustice -- e.g., the case of the soldiers who would kill children in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, or Raskolnikov who commits a brutal, senseless murder in Crime and Punishment. If sin is something deeply present in human nature, then it follows that human nature cannot be saved apart from death -- death of the cancer of sin which infects it.
But even though I posit the judicial as an essential component of atonement theology, it doesn't follow that I think that Christ's sacrifice was to appease a wrathful deity or to provide payment for a penultimate god subordinate to Justice, as Zahnd says. The Bible is more than clear that the performance of atonement shows us how much God loves us, rather than winning God's love for us or anything of the sort (e.g., Rom 6.23, 1 John 4.8-10). I happen to think that the atonement is a kind of clever deconstruction of justice, it is simultaneously an affirmation and undermining of justice.
Humanity was condemned to die, and Israel had failed its covenantal calling to be a light and blessing to the nations; they too had found themselves condemned to death (Deut 28). Seeing that it is humanity that is condemned, however, and Israel which had failed in its calling to be a blessing, God consequently incarnates as a human and an Israelite. But importantly, he is God, and so fulfills the calling of both humanity to be an image of God (cf. Col 1.15) and Israel to be a light and blessing to the nations (Luke 2.29-32; Gal 3.16). More so, he is the Son who offers himself to the Father in place of the others (cf. Mark 10.45; Eph 5.2), and the Father of course is happy to accept the offering. I see in all this a clever satisfaction of the necessary conditions of justice precisely so that justice will not be served. It seems to me we find these elements of justice in the atonement because justice stood as an obstacle to God's fellowship with humanity, which was and remains his goal from the beginning.
In brief, then, I think Zahnd's comments are to some extent accurate but also misguided. He is right that the Father does not kill the Son, and that atonement is not primarily an act of worship at the altar of Justice. But his merely educative theory of atonement does not do justice to the biblical language, and in general it is a bit anemic when taken solely by itself. The essential component of justice in the atonement can be interpreted in a way which does not amount to an apotheosis of retribution or anything of the sort.