Substitutionary atonement is not forgiveness

Unreasonable Faith has a good post by Sola Ratione on how little sense it makes to claim Jesus’s crucifixion is some kind of “forgiveness” for sins. It reminded me of this video by NonStampCollector:

It also reminded me of a realization I had the Easter before I finally accepted that I was agnostic. I still felt a bit of an obligation to observe it in some way. I think I was also still holding out hope that I could be a Christmas and Easter Christian, if nothing else. So I tried to come up with reasons to attend Easter services, tried to dredge up some tiny remnant of personal meaning or positive feeling for what used to be my favorite season in the church calendar. I tried to find some meaning in the Resurrection. Something about hope or renewal? But you can’t have the Resurrection without the crucifixion, which, I soon realized, was a big problem for me.

I couldn’t find anything to celebrate about Easter because I found the event at the heart of it senseless and barbaric. If God wanted to forgive everyone, why not just do it? Why require  violence, death, and a blood sacrifice for forgiveness? How could deliberately slaughtering an innocent human being (divine or not) ever be a good thing for God to do, much less a necessary one? I couldn’t stomach the thought of standing in church and singing hymns thanking God for killing someone “for” me.

There are a lot of theologies of the cross out there. One that makes some sort of sense to me (as someone who, to be clear, does not at all believe Jesus is/was God) is that the crucifixion is God identifying with the poor and outcast and suffering, and being in solidarity with them. Which, you know, still seems a strange and futile gesture to me, but at least it’s not one that claims that the violent death of another human being was (part of) God’s gift to me or anyone else.

Substitutionary atonement – the doctrine that Jesus literally took the sins of every human dead, living, or not yet in existence on himself, and that he literally took on the infinite punishment that every human being deserves for their sins – is not forgiveness. True forgiveness is freely given, it doesn’t come with strings attached. It doesn’t demand retribution, not on the person who did wrong, and certainly not on someone who had nothing to do with the wrong. Substitutionary atonement is both an irrational and abusive theology. A couple comments at Unreasonable Faith encapsulate why that is.

Kodle [after pointing out that it would make no sense for a regular person to withhold forgiveness until someone other than the offender is punished for the offense]:

And notice the unequal relationship. God never asks forgiveness for abandoning you in times of need, or killing your mom with cancer, or taking up all the parking spots so you have to drive to the far end of the lot, or making your presentation at work a disaster so you don’t win the account, or your child getting bullied at school, or your boyfriend moving out. He had a very good and secret reason for doing all this and the only way you can move on, rather than forgiveness, is excuses for god’s very good and secret reasons for making terrible things happen.

Michael, responding to that comment:

This point you are making about the unequal relationship is exactly what pissed off Job. In the end of the book, God came down to answer him–not to apologize, but to be a jackass and ask pompous rhetorical questions. On a larger scale, this relationship is what the entire OT is about, or perhaps the entire Bible. It establishes God as a patriarch who is above question and even above his own law.

Substitutionary atonement requires us to accept that it’s alright for God to behave in ways that would be considered cruel and capricious from anyone else. It requires that we claim God is “good” in a way that doesn’t resemble what we would call “good” in any other context. It preaches a patriarchal God who brooks no defiance and demands perfection from others that “he” doesn’t live up to, and doesn’t have to live up to. In so doing it provides a script and model for authoritarian, hierarchical, abusive relationships between human beings that mirror the authoritarian, hierarchical, abusive relationship between God and humans.

Let’s be real. This is a god who simultaneously expects absolutely perfection from humans (and “graciously” provides it in the form of Jesus) and rationalization of his considerable flaws. He takes his anger out on undeserving people, becomes angry at the drop of a hat, requires that everything be done just so, demands constant praise and attention, thinks the entire world has has wronged him and holds eternal grudges, and thinks everyone should be grateful just to be around him, grateful for whatever they get from him, no matter how meager. In any other context, we’d call that narcissistic, and we’d certainly call it abusive.


5 Comments on “Substitutionary atonement is not forgiveness”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Grace, Vyckie D. Garrison. Vyckie D. Garrison said: Are Women Human? Substitutionary atonement is not forgiveness: Unreasonable Faith has a good p… via @graceishuman […]

  2. Indeed. I’ve always been perplexed how anyone could equate a debt that must be paid with forgiveness. If it has to be paid, no matter who pays it, then by definition it’s not forgiven. I wrote a post a while back on penal substitutionary atonement, but it’s not something I write much about because it seems like such a ridiculous idea to me. If our fundamental problem had ever been that we needed forgiveness from God, he would have just forgiven us. End of story. Of course, that’s the wrong problem … but that’s another subject. ;)

  3. dsholland says:


    I laughed out loud at the Red Shoes (’cause it is funny especially the ultimatum to sign up) and followed the link to “good post” for context ( but that’s a pooh storm).

    You’ve been there so I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know. What I can tell you (that you also probably already know) is that there are those of us who have experienced the same disillusionment as you, but need a reason for the “good” we believe to be preferable to the selfish alternative. I remember reading (part) of Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell. I could not get past the idea that even though there was no real reason to be giving or self sacrificing it was just the “better choice”. This is a consistent theme in Western Atheist philosophy (with the exception of Machiavelli and Nietzsche who were honest enough to say damn the torpedoes).

    That is what I find illogical. For me, in a universe without the Primary Reason (God, who I know through Christ) there is no reason not to swallow a gun. Existence is not self justified, it just isn’t big enough. The Hindu understands that given enough lifetimes no soul is satisfied with self, that is what they count on.

    From that point it becomes a matter of finding the representation of that Divinity that has the most comprehensive answer. Again all religions understand that getting past the self is the only way to enlightenment. This is true for Jew/Christian/Muslim (one genealogy), Hindu/Buddhist (another) Confucian and even Australian Aborigine (Religions of Man – Huston Smith). Of these the Christian transcends the transcendence of self with Resurrection through atonement. For me the most comprehensive answer is this remaking of the self preserving the identity and richness of the individual without the selfish nature common to all men.

    Do I understand that atonement? Not perfectly, and I thank God I don’t have to. But I know that if I limit my explanation to a mechanistic human perspective I’m left looking for that gun.

  4. Theodore A. Jones says:

    The only thing the crucifixion of Jesus has made an atonement of is a change to the law of God.
    “For the priesthood being changed it also became necessary to make a change to the law.” Heb. 7:12
    Therefore: “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    An individual’s “transcendence” is predicated upon hearing what this addition to God’s law is and how it must be obeyed. There are no exceptions.

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