Substitutionary Atonement and Human Resistance to Indebtedness

(I’m working through something, so bear with me while I hash this out…)

My 6-year-old daughter, Rory, has a little bestie. I’ll call her Emma. 

A little while ago, Emma gave Rory a toy that Rory was totally stoked about. And then, a couple of hours later, she changed her mind and took it back. 

As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with Rory. We had a long discussion about what happens when you make promises you can’t keep, yadda, yadda, yadda. 

But this little betrayal stuck with Rory. 

A couple of weeks ago, Emma gave Rory another toy - a bigger one! This time, there were no strings attached. Even Emma’s mom signed off on the deal. 

Since then, it’s been Rory’s favorite toy. She carries it everywhere - even sleeps with it. 

But she has this lingering worry that Emma is going to want it back. This suspicion got so intense that she’s been obsessing about it. 

Her solution has been to dig through her toys and find one that would be a suitable substitution for said fuzzy unicorn that she can give to Emma to even things out. To make it an even exchange so she doesn’t feel indebted to Emma.

I can’t help but think of this ontologically/theologically...

The latest toy from Emma was a gift (grace). But we humans (as shown in Rory’s anxiety) have a VERY hard time accepting gifts. ESPECIALLY when we feel we’re in the wrong or haven’t given enough in return. 

I used to have such a hard time with the penal substitutionary atonement theory (Jesus died to atone for our sins) and still do. However, it’s starting to make more sense the more I examine the human condition (though I do think it’s better if we take out the ‘penal’ part). 

In the following statement, Martin Luther is talking about Christ as being a kind of "collective person," or, as he puts it, the "greatest person" (maxima persona), in whom the persons of all human beings are really united:

“This is the most joyous of all doctrines and the one that contains the most comfort. It teaches that we have the indescribable and inestimable mercy and love of God. When the merciful Father saw that we were being oppressed through the Law, that we were being held under a curse, and that we could not be liberated from it by anything, He sent His Son into the world, heaped all the sins of all [people] upon Him, and said to Him: "Be Peter the denier; Paul the persecutor, blasphemer, and assaulter; David the adulterer; the sinner who ate the apple in paradise; the thief on the cross." In short, be the person of all men, the one who has committed the sins of all men.”

Like Rory, humans are “being oppressed through this curse” and have a very hard time accepting God’s love/grace (or anyone’s, really) - an undeserved gift that’s not expected to be paid back. Thanks to this curse (sin), grace looks to us a whole lot like ‘law’ (obligation/expectation). Like something is now expected of us to pay (atone) for this imagined debt. 

Being in this state of indebtedness, the human soul does all sorts of ridiculous/hurtful things to feel like it’s properly settling the score. We size ourselves up with others to show we’re ‘better’ and ‘more deserving’ than they are. We end up scapegoating others so that we can project our guilt/shame onto THEM.

There we go... Even Steven...

Substitutionary atonement (at least in the Girardian sense - and I think Luther took this to a whole other level) says that God saw this and hopped down the escalator into human flesh and upon the cross to end this nonsense so as to say, “Snap out of it, you guys. Here, allow my blood to settle the imagined debt that you all think you have and are killing each other over to ‘pay’ for my love. Your version of ‘paying for my love’ looks a whole lot like evil. My love comes free of charge and it always has. But if you need a visceral score-settling event to end all scapegoating once and for all - here I am, hanging on a cross. It is done. All your imagined debts are forgiven if you can just trust this promise.”

Like Luther says, this notion does bring a sense of ontological ease to the human soul. Especially when I feel like I’m not living up to the standards that I think God/the world is holding me to (or that I’m holding others to). 

Maybe we need this. Maybe we need a visceral sign to know that there is no debt to be paid. That our (imagined) debt has been forgiven once and for all. If it helps us accept that the (imagined) score has been settled and that God’s love is a free, undeserved, and unexpected GIFT of grace because of Christ’s substitutionary event, then I guess that’s what it takes. 

(And yes, Rory gave Emma one of her toys and feels way more secure with her little unicorn toy now.)

Grace & Godspeed,
Jonas