Substitutionary Atonement Distorts the Good News (the second saying from the cross)
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus makes three statements from the cross. The first we considered in the last blog: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” The second word above is also a word of lavish grace uttered to a criminal hanging on the cross next to Jesus.
Only Luke has this promise of Jesus to the criminal. In Mark and Matthew both criminals ridicule Jesus. It’s possible that Luke’s version was part of the oral tradition passed down to him, though I think it is more likely that Luke intentionally altered Mark’s account to give us a snapshot of the gospel as he understood it.
According to Luke this criminal exonerates Jesus: “We are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Three times in Luke’s passion narrative Jesus is exonerated. First by Pilate, then by this criminal hanging with Jesus, and finally by the centurion at the end of the crucifixion scene who says, “Certainly this man was innocent” (23:47). This is Luke’s way of saying that Jesus was blameless of the charges leveled against him.
In Luke’s telling Jesus became a scapegoat to put an end to all scapegoating; he became a sacrifice to put an end to that whole system of sacrificing the innocent victim. Spiritually, socially, and psychologically, humans have always needed to find some way to deal with sin and guilt. Historically, humanity has employed sacrificial systems to that end. In ancient systems of religion, human sacrifices were offered to placate the deity (such as the firstborn, the virgin, the only child, etc., but rarely the adult man; these were mostly, if not all, patriarchal cultures). In the evolution of religious consciousness, animals took the place of humans.
The scapegoat mechanism was incorporated into Christianity when Christians adopted an interpretation of Jesus’s death that made Jesus a victim of a stern, punitive magistrate who required redemptive violence. This was primitive religion, more or less Christianized. This type of Christianity is by its very nature dualistic, leading to exclusion and often violence, because adherents think they have to destroy the evil element. Rarely do they see the evil in their own hearts; it is generally projected onto the other. This makes the God of Christians appear violent, vindictive, and petty.
What does Jesus do on the cross? According to Luke, he forgives. He bears the wrath and the hostility of the worldly powers—without returning evil for evil, without projecting fear or hate or evil back onto his persecutors and killers. Jesus exposed the folly and evil of scapegoat religion.
According to Luke’s version of the good news God has no need for cosmic, judicial retribution. If God can forgive sin, then God can forgive sin. There is no need for a divine payoff, or satisfaction of divine honor, or appeasement of divine wrath. Jesus’s death is not the solution to a problem residing in God; it’s the solution to the problem of evil residing in us. It is the ultimate, prototypical symbol of the nature and reality of God. Its redemptive power lies in its capacity to lure us into the mystery and miracle of unconditional forgiveness, reconciling grace, and healing love.
Radical grace means that there are no winners and losers. No one is beyond the pale and without hope. There is no first place or second place or third place, no pecking order or hierarchy of special people. So if you have worked all your life trying to be better than everyone else, it can be a real letdown. It means that life is not a competition for places and positions in the kingdom, like James and John had imagined when they asked Jesus for seats on his left and right. For some folks, that’s hard to take. If you are aspiring for greatness, then radical grace is not what you covet. Radical grace levels the playing field; it gathers us all into the same boat. If you are accustomed to going first class that could be a problem.
Both criminals on the cross were children of God. They both had made choices that brought them to this moment. In Luke’s version one died in bitterness, cursing God and mocking Jesus. The other died in peace, hopeful all was not lost.
(The reflections above were adapted from chapter 3, “The Gospel in a Snapshot” ofWhy Call Friday Good? Spiritual reflections for Lent and Holy Week.)