After I wrote The Compassionate Empathy Model of the Atonement, I started surfing around looking for other atonement theories that I hadn’t heard of yet and I came across a Christian blog article that reviewed a book on the atonement and where the penal-substitution theory fit into it. What got me really thinking were the three direct quotes from the book that the reviewer posted, especially the one about penal-substitution being a useful story to tell victims, people who have been wronged by others who have never received justice in mortality.
I thought, why would penal substitution theory be useful for victims? Here’s a sin scenario I dreamed up to test the penal-substitution theory:
Let’s say Harry raped Sarah and Sarah was too embarrassed to report him. Then their lives split up, Harry moving away to another city and Sarah staying put. But one day Sarah gets into a car accident and dies. Harry, though, finds Christ and fully repents of all his sins, even looking up Sarah to apologize and make whatever restitution he can. Unfortunately, Sarah is already dead and Harry learns that from the time of the rape to her death, Sarah lived with the emotional trauma of that occurrence and her life was really messed up.
Now, fast-forward to the day of judgment. Harry is there and so is Sarah. Harry is a fully repentant man and is destined to enter into the rest of his Lord. While he is going over his life, the incident with Sarah comes up and Sarah is called forth. Naturally, Sarah is still upset over what Harry did to her and demands that justice be exacted from Harry. “I don’t care about the good that he did later in life,” she says. “Look at the gross injustice this man did to me!”
Now, justice must be served, but how can you exact eye-for-an-eye justice from resurrected Harry? Can he go back into mortality and be raped just like Sarah was and live the guilt and emotional pain she experienced until the end of her life and even beyond? Eye-for-an-eye justice doesn’t work in this case. Besides, Harry is fully repentant and sorry for his actions and has received the Holy Ghost into his life and is a saint, so he must escape all punishments, including the specific punishment for this sin: the second death.
Supposedly, penal-substitution works because Sarah is then told that Jesus suffered in the place of Harry and has received the penalty that Harry would have received. Susan though, doesn’t call this justice, but a travesty. She doesn’t want Jesus, an innocent, to suffer, she wants Harry, the guilty party, to get his just deserts. She still demands that justice be served. She demands that Harry be denied entrance into the rest of his Lord.
Now, let’s assume that penal-substitution is a myth (which it is) and that the atonement works on the principle of compassionate empathy.
Harry is still on trial, or being judged, and this unfortunate incident of his life comes up for inspection, but he is repentant. Sarah is called to come forth because all accusers must have their accusations satisfied and their demands of justice must be met. Sarah demands justice and is told that Jesus has atoned for Harry’s sins. She doesn’t care and demands that justice be exacted from Harry, meaning that he receive the second death.
Jesus then says, “Let me show you what I suffered for Harry’s sake, and for yours,” and shows his atonement to Sarah, she perceiving it by the power of the Spirit. Sarah is instantly overcome by the infinite suffering she witnesses and is filled with compassion towards Jesus, empathizing with him. He then says, “You have seen my suffering. Spare Harry, who has repented of his sins and followed me and whom I have forgiven all his trespasses. Do you still demand that justice be served upon him?” Sarah weakly answers, “No, my Lord. It is enough. Let the suffering cease.”
What just happened? Sarah has forgiven Harry. The atonement of Jesus Christ is not penal-substitution; it is a way in which accusers stop making accusations. It is a way for people to forgive one another their trespasses. (Our weekly ritual of partaking of the sacrament while remembering the atonement of Christ comes to mind, constantly reminding us of the one thing that has the power to completely change our hearts.)
Everyone has the right to press charges, but everyone also has the right to drop the charges. When we are in the offended state, what we most want is justice and we demand it emphatically. But there are other states of human existence, including the state of compassion. The atonement gets us into that state of compassion where we no longer make any demands of justice, but we drop all charges, allowing forgiveness to manifest itself.
As a parent with multiple children, I know the number of offenses that can accumulate when children are left unsupervised for any length of time. If they haven’t killed each other by the time their parents enter their presence again, they utilize every moment to accuse the others of offenses and wrongdoing. It is unrealistic to think that the day of final judgment will be otherwise.
We are children of Father in heaven living here on Earth, unsupervised. Left to our own devices, the list of offenses throughout our lives will inevitably be long. In the day of judgment, we will have a perfect recollection of everything that has occurred in our lives, including all the offenses we have received at the hands of others. For all those claimed by Christ, something must be done about the accusations and demands of justice which will be made about their (forgiven) sinful acts. Undoubtedly, there will be many accusers. The atonement is the only thing that can get the penitent off the hook. It is the only thing that will cause the accusers to drop all the charges.
For the impenitent, though, Jesus doesn’t own them and delivers them to the Judge and the accusers, with no showing of the atonement and no empathy or compassion or forgiveness expressed. These poor souls must suffer the penalty and appease the demands of justice themselves, which require that they be expelled into outer darkness.
Thus, the victims of penitent sinners cease their demands for justice through the witnessing of Christ’s atonement and his plea for mercy, whereas the victims of impenitent sinners have their demands fulfilled by the penalty affixed to the law: the lake of fire and brimstone. In this way, God gets to be both a just God, and a merciful God, too.
Next Jesus Christ article: What did Jesus Christ look like?
Previous Jesus Christ article: The Compassionate Empathy Model of the Atonement