Monday, October 09, 2006

Judging Judgement (1): Punishment

I'm curious about judgement and punishment. We cannot ignore their existence in the Bible, although some might like to do so in the name of cultural relevance. On the other hand, the search for cultural relevance has revealed a blase approach to the way terms like judgement and punishment are used.
At a recent (and for the most part very informative and inspiring), Willow Creek conference, I heard Bill Hybels issue a call for church leaders to re-centre their message, so the the "trumpet call" of the church is clear (1 Cor 14:8). This recentred message was - "Substitutionary Atonement" is the core of the gospel message. Actually I'm good with that. What I wasn't so OK with was the narrow definition of atonement, ie that atonement is the "punishment to pay the price of sin", or in tech-speak atonement = propitiation.
But Hybels then went on to give an excellent overview of the principle of Atonement through the Old Testament. In particular, did you know that, although Adam and Eve clothed themselves in fig leaves, when God dealt with them and revealed the curse of the fall, he then covered their nakedness in skins (of the animal kind presumably). The message of this was that sin gave birth to shame, and required a dead animal to cover its effect. Good for the humans, not so good for the animal. The message implied by Hybels was, the animal is punished in man's place to account for the shame. This I think is a stretch. Far easier to see is the principle of "atonement sets aside/covers sin and removes its effect", or atonement = expiation. The action that covers sin is more serious than a few fig leaves because it involves something being "poured out" in the same way that the correct response of humanity to God should have been complete outpouring of self into God to filled by him in return. We've lost the ability to pour out, and the sacrificed animal, be it for Adam's skin clothes or for Temple Offering is the substitute outpouring. Latterly Christ's sinless outpouring gave all people the opportunity to participate in the outpouring through faith in its efficacy to stand as their own outpouring.
Except we can't walk away from the fact that something dies, and death is the effect of sin on humans if atonement does not happen, so there is some consequence to sin. And so for humans, since the consequence is related to the action and choice of humans, and to punish is to implement the consequence of a wrong choice or action, then it is totally fitting to call the consequential action that deals with sin, punishment. God does not punish the substitute, rather the action which is a punishment to the one who deserves it, is received by the substitute as an act of atonement. Therefore Christ took the punishment that was due to us, in order to set aside our sin, but Christ was not punished, he atoned. Without a substitute the action is merely punishment, whereas it is only when a substitute is poured out/ pours themself out instead that the action can be called atonement. So to major on punishment loses the atonement imagery of "cover/setting aside" and "outpouring", and potentially implies subordination of the substitute (not a problem if its a dove, big problem when related to Christ). To avoid using punishment altogether loses sight of consequence as something God speaks of throughout scripture, consequences implemented and consequences set aside, but consequences all the same. I'm aware I've bypassed the whole question of whether God's love subordinates holiness/sovereignty or vice versa. That's because I think that the question is warped. It tries to make fallable human understandings of these attributes define God, when it is the Trinitarian being of God who defines the attributes. Ie we shouldn't be defining the attribute from human experience and setting it up as a standard to measure God against.


Nodrog said...

Woah! Some great thinking going on here, I can tell, unfortunately I'm not in a good state to interact with it sensibly; it did however give me a flashback or two to 'Meaning of Salvation'...

Yes it was me, I admit it. But apologies to Kristine that I disappeared at lunchtime - I had a Hebrew class (what a poor excuse). Hope she's looking forward to coming back next week, and not running a mile from ICC! :-)

Johnny said...

She left at lunch ... needed to get back for school pickup time. Day went well it seems.

I've never stopped musing on Meaning of Salvation, seems rather central, hence the number of posts that hark back to it.

Anonymous said...

I really like your understanding that atonement is NOT propitiation; rather, it is expiation. However, I would modify your following comment- 'God does not punish the substitute, rather the action which is a punishment to the one who deserves it, is received by the substitute as an act of atonement. Therefore Christ took the punishment that was due to us, in order to set aside our sin, but Christ was not punished, he atoned' - to say that atonement is properly a substitution for punishment. Nowhere does the Bible say that Jesus 'took' our punishment. The language still implies that he was punished, and I agree with you that he was not punished. Atonement in the Old Testament did not consist in punishment being executed on sheep. Rather, atonements taught the same lessons, served the same purpose for which penalties are designed. The answer is clearer when we ask what is the purpose of punishments or penalties? If something can better answer the reason for penalties, then they can be wisely and safely set aside. In other words, there is no need for retributive justice to be satisfied. The satisfaction of justice was never the intent of either punishments or atonements. The definition of justice cannot change; if a person is an evil-doer, justice must always and ONLY require the punishment of the evil-doer. It can never be just for a judge to sentence the innocent or for a governor to punish the innocent. That's my take on it. Peace, Doug Gibson