This is an excerpt from HEALING THE GOSPEL by Derek Flood Copyright © 2012 by Derek Flood. Reprinted by permission of Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf & Stock Publishers. All rights reserved.
Healing the Gospel
A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross
Brian D. McLaren
THE LIMITS OF LAW
AND THE FAILURE OF RETRIBUTIVE JUSTICE
WHEN I was a teenager I had the typical born again experience, complete with all the strong emotions and tears. Only it wasn’t typical at all for me. I had not been raised in church. I was an agnostic, and so had always assumed that God was just an idea in your head. So to feel God’s loving presence, to hear that still small voice telling me, over and over again, that I was loved, that I was not alone, was simply earth shattering for me. I can hardly express how profoundly it changed me to experience being loved by God like that. It turned my whole world around.
Naturally, I wanted to share this with everyone I met, so when they handed out tracts for us to distribute and told us how to “share the gospel” at my church, I was the first in line. Only, I quickly discovered that the message I was taught to share with others was very different from what I had actually experienced. It seemed more like bad news, and led to all sorts of awkward conversations like this:
Jesus died for you!
Why did Jesus have to die?
Because of our sin.
What if we haven’t sinned?
“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” No one can keep the law.
But if no one can keep it how can we be blamed for that?
Because “the wages of sin is death” and so justice requires that you be sent to be tormented in Hell for all eternity.
Yes, but there’s good news: God has provided a way out by sacrificing his Son.
God kills his own son?
Yes, that’s how much he loves you.
Why would that make anything better?
Because it satisfies God’s need for punishment. Sin must be paid for with blood because “without blood there is no forgiveness.”
I feel ill.
Can’t you see this is God’s mercy and love? Don’t you want to open your heart and let him into your life?
I think I have to go now.
The above dialog is of course overplayed in order to drive home this simple point: The way many of us have learned to present the “good news” can sound like anything but good news. I had experienced God’s overwhelming love and grace filling my life. Yet I was taught to tell people that they deserved to be punished by God forever. Taught that we should see ourselves as worthless, totally depraved, capable of nothing good apart from God. I was taught that the reason Jesus died was because God demanded that someone had to suffer the penalty of sin, someone had to be punished to appease God’s wrath. No wonder I got a cold shoulder when I tried to share this “good news” with people.
Countless people filling our pews have internalized this hurtful view of God and themselves. Bondi recalls the revival meetings at Pond Fork Baptist Church in Kentucky she attended each summer as a child:
The goal of a revival was to create or revive in everybody the threefold conviction that each of us was so rotten to the core that we deserved to die and roast in hell forever; that God was enraged at us enough to kill us; and finally, that, in spite of everything, God loved us enough to rescue us by sending his son as a sacrifice to die in our place.1
Bondi goes on to tell how this led her to internalize a sense of self-loathing that robbed her of joy. It is the kind of shame, she says, that “consumes you with anger, that renders you passive, that swallows you in depression, that keeps you from loving and knowing yourself to be loved.”2 Faith motivated by fear, threat, and feelings of worthlessness. Her story is, sadly, not uncommon.
This kind of religious self-loathing is often expressed as pious devotion: “I feel myself to be a lump of unworthiness, a mass of corruption, and a heap of sin, apart from His almighty love.”3 are the words of Charles Spurgeon, a preacher who genuinely intended these words to be understood as an expression of love and gratitude towards God. People offer such prayers thinking this is what the Bible says about them, and believing that it is what God wants to hear us say. But consider for a moment how you would feel if your own child said such things to you: It would devastate you to hear your own son or daughter speak of themselves this way, and all the more to know that this is what your child thought you wanted to hear. If we as parents would feel this way about our children, how much more would it break God’s heart to hear us say such things? Isn’t God the father who runs out to meet the prodigal son? Isn’t God the one who loved us even in our estranged state?
How could things have gone so wrong? When did the good news become bad news? Behind all of this lies an image of God as a judge who is primarily concerned with satisfaction of punitive justice. This is the image of God that plagued 16th century Reformer Martin Luther with the horrible sense that he could never be good enough. The weight of this became so pronounced that at one point he confesses bitterly, “I did not love, and in fact I hated that righteous God who punished sinners . . . I was angry with God . . . I drove myself mad with a desperate disturbed conscience.”4
It is not insignificant that Luther’s own father and mother were both harsh disciplinarians, but regardless of the cause, Luther had clearly internalized a crippling image of God as judge that tormented him until he discovered grace. This message of grace and forgiveness has been a life-changing one to many people over the ages since Luther rediscovered it, but it has often been tragically accompanied by a message of fear and condemnation itself. Luther, for example, preached that one must face the horrors of wrath before one could come to grace. In other words, he believed that everyone needed to be forced to go through the horrible struggle he did before they could hear about grace.
Ever since then, there has been a long history of revival preachers who have proclaimed this “pre-gospel” of fear, threat, and condemnation―telling people the bad news so they could then receive the good news, wounding people first, so they could then heal those wounds. The philosophy behind this strategy is that people need to be shaken out of their complacency and made ready to respond to the gospel.
This may indeed be true for some, but for others it amounts to little more than abuse, and has resulted in a hurtful image of God being hammered into their heads that has estranged them from God, and driven them away from faith. For a person struggling with moral failure, facing up to their brokenness and realizing that God loves them and died for them despite it is a crucial step towards life. But to tell a person whose sin is self-hatred that they need to face how bad and worthless they are is like making them swallow the wrong prescription medicine―what was healing to the first person, is poison to the second.
For people like Luther, Bunyan, or Wesley (all of whom have deeply shaped the character of evangelicalism), I would suggest that their true struggle was not one of guilt at all. Their problem was not the petty infractions they would constantly accuse themselves of (Wesley, for example, after doing some good deed for the poor, would often condemn himself for feeling pleased about it5). No, their real struggle was with the devastation done to their souls through self-loathing masquerading as piety.
So they struggled with their feelings of shame and worthlessness, desperately longing for grace, longing for God’s assurance and love, yet continuing to assume that their broken view of an angry, condemning, punishing God was the correct view, the biblical view. What I want to propose is that this is not in fact what the New Testament teaches at all.
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
For centuries the assumption of punitive justice has saturated nearly every segment of our Western society―shaping how we approached child rearing, education, mental health, and of course our criminal justice system. It was common in the past for instance to think it was good to beat children at home and at school, or to beat one’s servants and workers.
Over the last century however, there have been major shifts in how we understand justice and its relation to punishment. Far from being good for a person’s soul, today we have increasingly come to realize that such violence instead can cause significant psychological damage that stunts a person’s healthy development. As I am writing this for example, the Twitter universe is exploding with the shocking story of school officials who put an autistic boy in a closed gym bag and left him in the hallway to discipline him. People across the country are understandably outraged, but this is exactly the kind of thing that we used to do to people all the time, believing that inflicting this kind of discipline would “make him come to his senses.” The outrage people express now reflects the broad shift throughout our society away from that punitive model.
One of the last places where we still embrace the idea of punitive justice today is in our prison systems. Yet even within the criminal justice system there is an increasing awareness that a strictly punitive approach rarely produces reform. Offenders who simply serve their time commonly go right back out and commit more crimes because the root factors have not been dealt with. In fact, the violent environment of our prison system becomes a breeding ground that turns petty offenders into hardened criminals. Rather than learning empathy and how to manage their impulses and emotions, the brutal culture of prison life teaches people that one must be brutally violent in order to survive. Because of these patterns learned in prison, the alarming repeat offense rate is sadly not at all surprising. Locking someone up in the hell of prison life naturally breeds violence, not reform or repentance.6
People do not learn empathy by being shamed and dehumanized. On the contrary, developing empathy has a lot to do with a healthy sense of self-worth. So while we may feel an impulse to want to punish and hurt those who have hurt us, this does not mend the hurt, it simply perpetuates it. In other words, punishment and shame are not the solution, they are a part of the problem. Punitive justice does not make things better, it makes them worse.
As a society we are increasingly coming the realize this. Across the broad fields of child rearing, education, and mental health (and slowly within the criminal justice system as well) there has been a major shift over the last half-century away from a punitive model, and towards a restorative one. Towards a model that fosters empathy, restoration, and healing.
TWO KINDS OF JUSTICE
While our understanding of justice has shifted as a society away from a punitive model and towards a restorative one, most of us continue to think that punitive justice is what the Bible teaches. As a result, many Christians defend a punitive model, even when it conflicts with their own values. As the painful testimonies of Bondi and so many others illustrate: We struggle to believe it, even though it seems wrong and hurtful to us.We hate it, but think this is what God wants us to believe.
More specifically, we think that the gospel is rooted in the idea that had to die to fulfill the “demands” of (punitive) justice. This is an understanding of the atonement known as penal substitution, “penal” meaning punish, and “substitution” meaning that Jesus is punished instead of us. It is the most common understanding of the atonement today.
Penal substitution classically sees a conflict between God’s desire for mercy (which in this legal framework refers to God’s desire to be lenient and not punish), and the demand for justice (which it sees as focused on punishment). In this view, love is viewed as sentimental, weak, and opposed to justice. It represents leniency and inaction. God wants to be lenient, but justice requires punishment. So Jesus is punished in our place, fulfilling the demands of justice and appeasing God’s anger.
What I want to propose is that the above is not at all what the Bible teaches, and instead is the result of people projecting their worldly understanding of punitive justice onto the biblical text. The New Testament, in contrast, is actually a critique of punitive justice. It presents it as a problem to be solved, not as the means to the solution. The problem of wrath (that is, punitive justice) is overcome through the cross, which is an act of restoration―restoring humanity to a right relationship with God. In other words, restorative justice is how God in Christ acts to heal the problem of punitive justice.
Love is not in conflict with justice, love is how justice comes about because the New Testament understanding of justice is ultimately not about punishment, but about making things right again. After his book length study of biblical justice, Chris Marshall concludes, “The justice of God is not primarily or normatively a retributive justice or a distributive justice but a restorative or reconstructive justice, a saving action by God that recreates shalom and makes things right.”7
This is not simply one theme found in Scripture, it is the core narrative of the gospel―the master story of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). It is the story of restoration, redemption―at-one-ment. This meta-narrative of redemption is rooted, as Marshall says, in the idea of restorative justice. That is, justice understood in terms of God in Christ restoring and making things right again.
Restorative justice comes through mercy because it has to do with acting to make things right. In contrast, the model of punitive justice―which penal substitution is based on―reflects an understanding of both justice and mercy that is in conflict with the vision of the New Testament. In the following chart we can see the two contrasting models of justice side by side:
New Testament Model
Justice = punishing
Justice = making things right
Mercy = leniency and inaction
Mercy = the act of making things right
Mercy and justice are in conflict
Acts of mercy are the means to justice
Biblical mercy means active compassion, not inactive leniency. It is not about closing our eyes to sin and suffering, but just the opposite: Jesus had compassion for sinners not because he was denying their sin but precisely because he did see, and their estranged plight agonized Jesus. Because of that compassion Jesus longed to bring them justice, to release the oppressed, heal the afflicted, and forgive the condemned. Restorative justice likewise is rooted in compassion and reflects a desire to see things made right, to see relationships restored, to see broken lives mended, to see hurtful and hurting people come to their knees in repentance and be made new.
As we have seen, punitive justice has had devastating effects on many people’s lives, leading to all sorts of hurt over the centuries (beating children, torturing prisoners and heretics, etc.) and producing a deeply hurtful understandings of who we are and who God is. In contrast, I have argued for adopting a restorative understanding of justice. This restorative model not only reflects a major shift in how our society as a whole has come to think, but is also the core narrative of the New Testament.
However, centuries of projecting our cultural assumptions of punitive justice onto the Bible are not easy to shake off. It has become so ingrained, so indoctrinated, into our religious imagination that it seems self-evident. Therefore, we will need to take a fresh look at Scripture in order to recognize this model of restorative justice at the heart of the biblical narrative. This will be the focus of the next chapter.
1. Bondi, Memories of God, 116.
2. Bondi, 144.
3. Spurgeon, All of Grace, 6.
4. Quoted in McGrath, Luther's Theology of the Cross, 97.
5. An example is Wesley's sermon Nr. 14, “Repentance of Believers” I.12–13, “When they are comforting the afflicted, or provoking one another to love and to good works, do they never perceive any inward self-commendation: ‘Now you have spoken well?’ . . . So that they are now more ashamed of their best duties, than they were once of their worst sins.”
6. See Zehr, Changing Lenses.
7. Marshall, Beyond Retribution, 53.