A case against “Atonement”

On the Cross, God punished Jesus for our sin”?? – NO WAY!

The gospel of Evangelical Protestantism proclaims that Jesus delivered us from God’s retribution – dying on a Roman cross, taking our punishment for sin – but, in my view, this is absolute rot!  The Bible nowhere says that on the Cross of Christ, God punished our sin..!!  In fact, so little Scripture can be recruited to support this 11th century Divine-retribution idea (which has usurped the true Gospel) that it has to be built up piece meal from scattered texts…

The basis of ‘Evangelicalism’

Here is a reasonably complete list of the major sentences, and fragments of sentences, which upon what I call ‘Evangelicalism’ rests:

Matt 1:21 – He will save His people from their sins

Rom 3:23 – all have sinned

Rom 3:25 – God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of His blood

Rom 5:9 – now justified by his blood… we will be saved from God’s wrath

Rom 6:23 – the wages of sin is death

Mark 10:45 – Jesus gave Himself as a ransom

1 Pet 1:18,19 – redeemed with… the blood of Christ

Heb 9:22 – without blood no forgiveness

Matt 26:28 – my blood…poured out for forgiveness

2 Cor 5:21 – God made Him… to be sin.. so that we might become righteousness

Is 53:5 – pierced for our transgressions

Is 53:5 – the punishment that brought us peace was on Him

Is 53:6 – the Lord laid on Him everyone’s iniquity

Is 53:10 – it was the Lord’s will to crush Him

Is 53:10 – the Lord makes His life an offering for sin

Is 53:11 – My Righteous Servant…will bear their iniquities

Is 53:12 – He bore the sin of many

Let me say, first of all, that I understand that anyone raised in normal human society who wants to amalgamate or harmonise these fragments, would conclude 99+% of the time that the only way these verses could make consistent sense is to conclude that “God was punishing sin on the Cross”  or “On the Cross, God was punishing Jesus for our sin.”  I believed this myself for my first 30 years (starting from age 16) as a Christian!

Cultural blindness about Justice

The reason why these texts seem to point to Divine retribution on sin is, I believe, our fallen understanding of “justice” (which Jesus corrected but, so far, only for a brief century or three).   The foundational assumptions of both ancient and modern societies (before and after Jesus) around justice are foolishness in God’s reality, precisely because they are formulated from a position of doubting God’s immanence and goodness – doubting His Kingdom.  In particular, participation in the presumption that justice must involve punishment results in Christians currently not knowing the Scriptures or the power of God.  Or put another way, the Biblical view of justice is very different to the secular view of justice – and almost all Christians for the last 1000 years (and more) have held the secular view, with which they cannot make proper sense of the truth in the Scriptures.  Let me explain.

Human justice

Human legal/criminal “justice” always operates on the basis that the State (government or individual ruler) assures the whole population than anyone who breaks the State’s law, will be caught and punished by the State to a degree commensurate with the damage their offense occasioned.  This arrangement has a general calming and civilising effect on the population, who, grateful for the peace, teach their children to internalise (and suitably respect) this arrangement as the right and fair thing, i.e. as “justice” (and as an important, if dreary, warning to not transgress).

However, this arrangement is really only a pragmatic arrangement to keep people from violent anarchy.  No where in the Bible is this taught as God’s truth about the nature of “justice”, Divine or human justice.  It is a pragmatic arrangement found in every nation, and specifically endorsed by God both after the Great Flood (Gen 9:6) and via the Law of Moses to the Israel.  It is probably the best possible arrangement for sinful human beings.  But what God considers real human justice has strong components of compassion and fairness; and what is Divine Justice had to wait for Jesus to be revealed and is essentially about His justification of us – Rom 3:21-27 (more on that later).

I believe that what people call (human criminal) justice is a part of what the Bible calls “Law”.  Law is a code of rules for behaviour with associated punishments for infractions.  Law is a fundamental means of ordering society in less-violent ways, as per the phrase “law and order.”  But the Law doesn’t transform individual sinners into saints, that is, into holy lovers of truth and kindness – that is, Law cannot heal us from being sinners (i.e. Law does not ‘save us from sin’) – and this is the great human need. Law cannot forgive us or cleanse us.  But, in the absence of Christ’s power to change human beings from the inside out, Law, by it’s clear behavioural standards and threatened punishments for transgressors, can greatly reduce the overall amount of crime in a society.  Hence, every tribe and nation has a Law and, as for Israel, so for all of us – Law is a good guardian until the Christ comes (to each individual); Gal 3:23-25.

Should we equate Law with ultimate Justice?

Unfortunately, the morally superior tend to picture God’s true justice as a simple extension of human legal punishment – except, they say, God has much higher moral expectations of us, a 100% detection and conviction rates around sin and much more severe punishments.  This projection onto God of an essentially secular/human institution is, in my observation, always unexamined.  What I mean is that the idea (that “justice” requires punishment of offenders/the guilty) is considered axiomatic – meaning ‘beyond proof or reasoning’ and therefore it is accepted by blind faith and in simple conformity to society.  In such cases, typically, the desire to see justice as punishment (of those who are bad over against one’s own goodness) and/or the desire to be theologically orthodox will likely lead to a refusal to even consider an alternative, rational analysis (like this one).

Indeed, I wonder whether it is possible for a reader to accept my analysis here and remain ‘orthodox’ because the Atonement at the heart of Evangelicalism’s gospel is itself a legal transaction, in which a ‘guilty’ case against sinners is resolved with a (supposedly) just punishment.  This supposed legal aspect of the Cross, contradicts not just my views here but also, so it seems to me, Paul’s teaching in Romans that:

  • God accomplished through Christ “that which the Law could not, and
  • God’s righteousness is revealed “apart from the law” and
  • our righteousness is gained not through or according Law but through Faith.

Jesus – the Bringer of God’s Perfect Justice

In the N.T., Jesus repeatedly challenged the legalistic thinking of the national rulers (esp Sabbath observance) that prevented people from receiving mercy and deliverance from their slavery to sin.   When He told some individuals that their sins were forgiven, it was without any reference to Divine punishment or His impending Cross.   He preached that the Kingdom of God, full of peace and joy (c.f. Rom 14:17), saying it is ‘at hand’ for anyone who believes it.  Then, in the context of enormous hatred of, and abuse of power against, Him, He demonstrated via that cruel Cross, both the Love of God and the faith of a liberated human being (i.e. absolute trust in the God of Love).  By this demonstration, understood through the lens of His teaching, He showed the way for believers to be filled with the same faith (trust) in the Father and Holy Spirit and to live in the world as He lived, ushering the Kingdom of God into their own hearts and lives and thence into the physical world around.  This is God’s plan for the whole world and how He intends to show His perfect love and justice, whereby He justifies us all, meaning we are all transformed into Christlikeness  and are no longer sinners! Consider Rom 3:21-27, where God’s perfect justice is about “justification” (Gk. dikaiosis) – by such faith.  It is God making human beings righteousness (Gk. dikaiosune ) as God’s great answer to the sin problem.  By this He is shown to be just Himself;  and we see that God was forbearing of sin in former times because He was anticipating the time when Jesus could come (Rom 3:25,26).   (See more on the believer’s real goodness here)

God has predestined us to be made like His son, according to Rom 8:29!  What a MIGHTY promise!  It is astounding – miraculous in its impact!  And it will all be achieved by His grace released by the faith He gives us (as we open ourselves to receive faith by listening to His Word)!   This is why grace through faith is so much a better promise than the Old Covenant & curse of the Law!    This is how deliverance out of being sinners becomes possible for even the worst of sinners!   My friend, it is just not possible that so great a salvation as God’s transformation of us into Christlikeness  could be achieved via Law!  Hence Paul teaches about the inadequacies of Mosaic Law – saying that what could not be achieved by Law God achieved through Jesus, including the condemnation of sin (Rom 8:3,4) and a revelation (actualisation) of righteousness by faith (Rom 3:20,21).  But this transformation of a believer doesn’t happen much under the Constantinian gospel because it needs true faith – where people know and believe the truth that sets us free.  [I think “faith” in the Bible means “(true) faith” and “truth” in the Bible means “(believed) truth.”]  (At its extremity, true faith exceeds one’s priority on physical survival!  Such is the pacifism through which God is best known!)

At the present time, faith of the kind Jesus constantly seeks in the four Gospel narratives, is still in very short supply.  Thus there is a general consensus across in every society the world over to keep the principle and practice of Law and Punishment – even though it is deadening to the human spirit (Rom 7:5-9).  But for those with real faith in the Triune God, the principle of Life (i.e. the astounding miracle of the good creation of God who is light and not darkness at all) both fulfills and transcends the Law (Rom 8:2).   Thus God’s true justice is restorative and transformative.  Jesus restores relationships through forgiveness (the rejection by those who feel themselves to be victims of the impulse to seek revenge) and He transforms those who once victimized others into saints.  Altogether He makes disintegrated personalities whole and ‘destroyed’ lives blessed.  And as I’ve said elsewhere I’d love for many real theologians to explore this perspective with me!

The Historical Loss of the Meaning of Divine Justice

After Jesus’ ascension, the Christian Church grew for three centuries under alternating opposition versus passive tolerance of the Roman empire. Whereas once the social justice of the Early Church was such that they held all property in common (Acts 2:44) legalism gradually returned and the Church debated punishing those who had denied the Lord under persecution.   Then, under Constantine, an unholy alliance between the Church and secular rulers began.  Under Constantine, came the Nicene Creed, which was used to exile those preaching non-standard ideas (“heresy”);  beginning in 385 AD the Church engaged in lethal punishment for heresy, even burning saints alive.  And there were earnest men and women of God who sought to call the Church to enlightment, repentance and true faith – and these were the one’s most likely to be accused of heresy and executed.  Paul wrote about the very real temptation to legalism and self-righteousness in his Letter to the Galatians.   Paul exhorts the Galatians who started by faith not to resume a preoccupation and orientation with Law and supposed self-righteousness.  He tells them that  the latter will preclude their being recipients of the grace that depends on faith.

But despite the warnings, Christian leaders of the orthodox Church began to prefer mere survival on Earth than to go to be with the Father, which is “gain”, “far better” and “eternal life.”    And because truth is more an ethical project than an intellectual one, as ethical faith declined so did their grasp of the truth of God, including of Jesus’ saving work.   Later theologians – Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, etc – merely justified the Church backsliding, offering superficially Scriptural justifications for essentially secular perspectives.  In the essay Why God Became Man Anselm finally in 1097 AD found words to articulate the projection of the secular concept of criminal justice onto God.  That this projection had already been there for centuries, is supported I suspect, by the immediate promulgation of the essay throughout western Christendom.  Anselm’s contribution is still the centre-piece of the gospel of Evangelicalism with arguably only minor adjustments during the Protestant Reformation.  That it is a legalistic formulae is further highlighted by the explanation that Anselm’s inspiration was the introduction of the English criminal justice system a short time before in 1066 AD by William the Conqueror.  The changes to that gospel during the Reformation (a focus on God’s holiness rather than His honour) mirror the changes to the English criminal system in the Enlightenment (a focus on the wrongness of an action rather than on the degree of dishonour to the victim).


Hopefully, in what I have written, the reader sees that the secular definition of justice has no metaphysical logic or necessity – rather it is a purely pragmatic philosophy and arrangement in order to control human violence and criminality.   Hopefully, too, the reader sees that this secular definition of justice is now the centre plank of the modern gospel thanks to important theologians of a Church who had betrayed Her pacifist Lord through partnering with secular powers.

The reader who accepts this, is invited to go looking for some other Biblical reason for the doctrine that God must punish sin in order to “forgive” sin, to transform sinners or to make the universe ‘morally clean’.  I have not been able to find any myself.  Rather I have found that God is free to talk gently to sinners both in the OT (Adam, Cain, Job, Jonah) and in the NT (Jesus – numerous examples) just as He is free to discipline sinners severely where in His wisdom, He deems that best.

My point at the top of the page was that there is not a single place in the Bible where God is said to have punished Jesus on the Cross as a just penalty for sin.  If it were true, why would neither Jesus and the Apostles would have set it out clearly for sincere disciples to understand?  Why scramble the message by embedding small pieces in widely disparate contexts, across the whole cannon?  Why is there not a word for ‘Atonement’ in Scripture such that the word had to be invented at the time of the Reformation?  Why, until Anselm, was the official doctrine of the Church that Jesus’ death paid a ransom to deliver us from Satan?  

Furthermore, look at each of the proof texts for Evangelicalism above and elsewhere (the above list is not exhaustive) ask yourself if any of them say that

  1. that true Justice requires retribution? (and/or…)
  2. that retribution has the power to heal and make right?
  3. that Jesus on the Cross was bearing a just penalty for sin? (and/or…)
  4. that the punishment of Jesus on the Cross was from God?

My answer:  no none of them say 1.-4. (above).  None of them!  In other words, about the key parts and linkages within the doctrine of Atonement, the Scripture says nothing!  Draw your own conclusions!

Much of this essay has tried to challenging the notion that justice pertains to retribution as per point 1 above.  Now, briefly, regarding points 2-4:

Retribution does not have power to heal and make right.

There is nothing in the verses listed above – or I believe anywhere in the whole Bible – that asserts, let alone explains how, the intentional imposition of suffering on a sinner can or does in any way improve the overall moral condition of the universe in time and space.  By way of familiar example, we know that the execution of a convicted serial rapist and killer neither brings back the dead, nor soothes the grief of the bereaved; rather society killing the one they consider solely to blame is both a sad indication of all those people and systems who hurt the offender and of the scapegoating that goes on at the highest levels of society.  Instead of trying for real transformation of the pressures on traumatised children, we focus on severest penalties to prevent victims seeking revenge. Let’s not project such limited and desperate efforts to prevent violent anarchy to how God operates when He transforms sinners to saints and “work all things together for good”!

Jesus did not bear a just penalty for sin on the Cross!

There’s no suggestion, let alone a systematic discussion, from Jesus, Paul or any other Biblical writer that asserts Jesus paid a just penalty for our sin.  (Please recognise that a “ransom” is never a “just penalty.”) Some writers (e.g. P.T. Forsythe) seem to distance themselves from the idea of a penalty, instead saying that Jesus experienced death and resurrection for us, because He had all humanity onboard with Him, so that “in Him” all of humanity actually died on the Cross and were raised to life. Thus, otherwise intelligent people delude themselves with magical thinking.

The punishment of Jesus on the Cross was not from God !

One of the few Bible passages to discuss more than one facet at a time about a supposed atonement (appeasement of Gods’s wrath) at the Cross is actually an O.T. passage – Isaiah 53.  But I argue here that Isaiah is  not at all saying what the Reformers tried to make it say.  Besides, if Isaiah 53 is  about ‘Atonement’ why don’t any of the NT writers use Isaiah 53 in a doctrinal letters to explain the Cross and Reconciliation/ Salvation?   The NIV translators have bought into Atonement when they translate “hilasterion” as “atoning sacrifice” in Rom 3:26 and  “wrath” in Rom 5:9 as “God’s wrath.”


The Early Church held that Jesus ransomed us from Satan by His submission to unjust execution. This seems to have been officially superseded by “atonement” after Anselm’ wrote his paper.  The word “atonement” itself was only introduced to he English language in the centuries after Anselm. The central theme of appeasement of God’s wrath has obvious parallel’s with pagan sacrifices.  In summary, Atonement theory is dependent on the following for its existence:

  • proponents whose orientation is anti-pacifist,
  • the confusion of human legal punishment with “justice”
  • the presumption that Divine justice is accomplished via punishment, an
  • a disparate collection of phrases, each taken out of their Biblical context and assembled in a way not found in the Bible itself.

And, the main reason Christians believe Jesus was paying a price for sin is…not because that is what the Early Church believed, not because it is what the Scripture actually says… But because of a (universal?) cultural bias in our understanding of the nature of true justice:  Each generation of Christians for a millenium have  approached Scripture with the same bias as their teachers – believing that “justice” occurs when criminals are punished and they project this misconception of true justice onto God!

What’s the alternative?

The alternative, in my view, is much more wonderful than Evangelicalism, Catholicism or any modern ‘Orthodoxy’! It is the perception that Divine justice is about putting everything to rights – including not destroying or torturiing sinners but turning them (all) into saints –  using all our wondering as a pathway to eventual trust in God, transforming victims into ‘victors’ with “the power of an indestructible life” – able to forgive and love all!  The true Gospel is a power that can propitiate (quench) Humanity’s wrath.

Recall what a problem Humanity’s wrath is.  It is because of Humanity’s wrath that we need criminal justice systems shaped as they are – not to most efficiently decrease the crime rate nor to most effectively rehabilitate offenders – but because, aside from the Gospel, the state-mediated partial-revenge is the most effective way to stop people taking revenge into their own hands, which we know results in violent anarchy!  It really is humanity – not God! – that has a problem with wrath, revenge & retribution.  It is we who are attached to mere survival, our egos that reassure us that we are invulnerable, able to be independent of God and proud of it.  It is violence, victimization and violation that strips these illusions away – and revenge that partially (only ever partially) restores these illusions.

Jesus shows us how different God is from us in the question of vengeance versus forgiveness!  The Good News is about the wonderful reality that God is merciful and kind, able to transform us and the world simply as we, by faith in Him, are enabled to transcend our attachment to mere survival and to vengeance that sustains our illusions of personal transcendence & power.  All societies on Earth absolutely rely on its members killing others.  How can we understand Jesus’ solution until we accept His judgement?:

“Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

(John 8:43-44 NIV) (emphasis added)


Jub, edited 7/1/17

P.S. One last thing, all those proof texts for Evangelicalism have, I believe, powerful, liberating and more contextually-sensible meanings when understood aright.  I think you will find better exegesis of many of these texts on this website – with more on the way when I can get to it.  (Please feel free to comment or email me about particular interests or concerns.)