Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Why Jesus died: Penal substitution and the biblical narrative


I read with interest Tony Jones' online article Why Jesus died (there are some criticisms of the article here and here). The article ends with a negative, and unelaborated, comment about penal substitution:

Some people today may find it compelling that some Great Cosmic Transaction took place on that day 1,980 years ago, that God's wrath burned against his son instead of against me. I find that version of atonement theory neither intellectually compelling, spiritually compelling, nor in keeping with the biblical narrative.

Jones has qualified this comment in some later posts (here and here) by affirming his agreement with penal substitution. However, in the original post no particular reasons were given as to why this explanation of the cross is not compelling. I'm also struggling to figure out why he would want to say that he doesn't find penal substitution mentally and spiritually compelling and yet still want to affirm it. Why say that you don't find this "version of atonement theory...in keeping with the biblical narrative" and then say that it is Pauline?

Personally I cannot make sense of the cross without viewing it through the lens of a "transaction" between the Father and the Son, the benefits of which are applied, personally, by the Holy Spirit. I do not buy into the reasoning that would divorce the personal, or relational, from the legal (covenant theology combines both), and so cannot relate to the objections that penal substitution is mechanical, impersonal, cold, logical, mathematical (well you choose the appropriate pejorative term). I should add, to avoid confusion, that Tony Jones does not use any of those terms in his article. He simply states, but leaves unexplained, his conclusions.

That there was a divine agreement involving different roles for the Father and the Son seems to lie on the very surface of the words of Jesus in John 18:11, "shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?"

This is the cup that caused Jesus such anguish in the garden. Antecedent Scripture tells us why this is so. Consider the Old Testament background:

Isaiah 51:22 Thus says your Lord, the LORD, your God who pleads the cause of his people: "Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more."

Jeremiah 25:15-16, "Thus the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: "Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. They shall drink and stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them."

Psalm 75:8 For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.

The doctrine of penal substitution is not dependent on a few isolated proof-texts. It is indelibly woven into the very fabric of the account of the crucifixion, as recorded in the gospels, with numerous threads drawn from the Old Testament.

As a young Christian I instinctively looked to the gospels to provide the facts about the crucifixion of Jesus, and to the letters to supply the meaning of those facts. Of course there were exceptional verses (Mark 10:45), but on the whole I did not really think that the gospels gave the same kind of theological explanation of the cross that I found in Romans, Galatians, or 1 John. This was a mistake.

The factual details of the crucifixion of Jesus speak to us about the nature of his death. They are much more than a bare description of the events, merely "bare" facts that are open to different interpretations. Once we look below the surface, and in terms of the Old Testament background, we will see that the details of the narrative in Mark 15 testify that Jesus is dying under the wrath of God, and that he is doing so as a substitute for sinners.

Mark shows us six signs that Jesus dies under God's judgement.

1. He is handed over to the Gentiles

Six times in Mark 15 we are told that Jesus is the King of the Jews (2, 9, 12, 18, 26, and King of Israel in 32). This King of the Jews has been handed over to the Gentiles. At one level this is the fulfillment of what Jesus said would happen. Consider his words in Mark 10:33-34:

"See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise."

At another level being delivered over to the Gentiles is a traumatic sign of being under God's judgement. Psalm 106:40-41 speaks of God's people being handed over to the nations as a consequence of being under judgement:

Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people,
and he abhorred his heritage;
he gave them into the hand of the nations,
so that those who hated them ruled over them.

The same idea is expressed by Ezra as he acknowledges the guilt of the people of God that led to the exile (the ultimate OT expression of judgement). Ezra 9:7b reads:

And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today.

In the OT being handed over to the nations was a sign of God's anger. This is happening to Jesus in Mark 15.

2. He is silent before his accusers

We know that the charges brought against Jesus by the Jewish leaders were both unjust and incoherent (Mark 14:55-61). Before Pilate, as again Jesus is falsely accused, he remains silent. Why does Jesus not speak up in his own defense? Why does he not silence the lies of his enemies? Pilate is amazed at this (Mark 15:3-4). But the silence of Jesus is spoken of in the words of Isaiah 53:7:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.

The silence of Jesus before his accusers is a confirmatory sign that he is the suffering servant who will bear the penal consequences of the sins of others by substitutionary atonement (Isa. 53:4-6, 10).

3. He is hung on a tree

The very instrument of execution, the cross, spoke of the nature of Christ's death. In the words of Deuteronomy 21:22-23:

If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.

Jesus was not personally guilty of any crime that could issue in his death. His death therefore was as a substitute for clearly it was a death that showed him to have been "cursed by God" (this point is drawn out in Gal. 3:10-13).

4. He is mocked by his enemies

When Hollywood wants to draw attention to the death of Jesus it does so by focussing our attention on the physical details of his sufferings. The graphic nature of his beating and execution is brought to the forefront. Mark, however, places that in the background. Mark's directorship places minimal attention on the act of crucifixion; he simply says "and they crucified him" (15:24).

Mark draws our attention not to the wounds of Jesus but to the words of his enemies. He goes into great detail to record the taunts and verbal abuse that Jesus suffered (15:29-32, 35). Why does he do this? Why do we need to know about this mockery of Christ? Because this too is a sign that Jesus is dying under God's judgement. Consider Psalm 89:38-42 (in context this is about God's king from David's line):

You have cast off and rejected;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust.
You have breached all his walls;
you have laid his strongholds in ruins.
All who pass by plunder him;
he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
You have exalted the right hand of his foes;
you have made all his enemies rejoice.

In Psalm 89 being scorned by his enemies was a sign that God's king was under God's judgement for his sins. And here in Mark 15? King Jesus is scorned by his enemies. The King of the Jews is bearing God's judgement as a substitute for sinners. Carefully compare Mark 15:29 with Lamentations 2:15.

5. He dies in the darkness

We are surely meant to recall the darkness that fell upon Egypt during the plagues as we see Jesus plunged into the darkness in Mark 15:33. This too was what God threatened Israel with in Deut. 28:29 "and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness." Amos also warned of this sign of judgement (Amos 8:9):

And on that day," declares the Lord GOD,
"I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight."

As Jesus dies even the very elements speak of the presence of God's judgement at the cross.

6. He says that he has been forsaken

Here we come to the words that Jesus speaks in Mark 15:34:

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

This is not separation from God that can be measured in space, rather it is the separation felt by the Son as he endures the curse that should be borne by sinners. There is no voice from heaven to confirm that this is the Son of God's love (Mark 1:11; 9:7).

What is happening to Jesus on the cross? He is bearing sin, its full penalty, in the place of his people. Here is penal substitution. Here is hope for sinners, for here is a refuge from condemnation and free acceptance with God in Christ.