In what ways can we say that the sufferings of Jesus are substitutionary? Before I try to answer that question I want to quickly comment on why I think it is so important. In the stories from the first two posts of this series I tried to show how small theological variations can create massive differences in our understandings of what God is like, and at the same time create deep divisions between different groups of Christians. The purpose of these posts is, in part, to try and build a bridge between folks who affirm penal substitutionary atonement and those who firmly deny it. It is my hope that both groups will be able to see more clearly the perspective that each side is emphasizing, and in the process come to a richer and fuller vision of God’s love for humanity.
In Kenneth Bailey’s The Cross and the Prodigal, Bailey describes the shame that the father of the prodigal son takes on himself by running to meet his younger son on the road, and later on by leaving the banquet to speak with his older son. The shame that the father takes on himself through these actions of reconciliation prevents much of the shame each son would have to bear otherwise. Bailey sees a direct correlation between these actions of the father in the parable and the incarnation of the Son. It is through the Son by the power of the Spirit that God the Father enters into creation and reconciles the world to himself. Bailey goes on to highlight the difference between the suffering that a person experiences through forgiveness and a refusal to suffer oneself by taking revenge on the perpetrator or a “third party” substitute. The suffering that occurs as a result of forgiveness can be thought of as a type of figurative substitution.
A slightly different example of this can be seen in the many men and women who overcome drug and alcohol addiction through their decisions to follow Jesus. It is their faith in the suffering of Jesus that prevents them from making decisions that would have caused tremendous pain to themselves and others. I say this is figurative substitution because Jesus is not experiencing the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse, but he is taking on the punishments of humanity. In the last post I described how the transcendent nature of divine knowledge provides a key for understanding how Jesus suffering is punitive. If God’s knowledge has eternally included every actuality and possibility then the incarnation serves as proof that God shares our suffering, and when he shares our suffering it truly is the suffering associated with the punishments we experience as a result of our sins and the sins of others.
When we carry this thought forward we can begin to see how this suffering is punitive and substitutionary. If God knows the pain we might have experienced had we not come to faith, then through his act of creation and incarnation he simultaneously enacts the event that will save us from our suffering and he takes on the world’s actual and possible suffering. Imagine that a person struggling with drug addiction comes to faith and as a result of their decision they do not experience a drug overdose that would have happened the following week. If God’s knowledge exists in such a way that he fully knows the joy and sorrow of every decision we could possibly make, then his choice to create and bear our suffering is a substitutionary act in itself. Again, it is through the same act of creation and incarnation that he takes on suffering that we will not have to experience because he chose to take it on himself.
I want to close this post by reiterating that these thoughts are purely speculative. I think that Christians around the world can join together in confidently affirming that Jesus has died for our sins, while at the same time disagreeing and speculating as to how this is possible. It is my hope that the world will know that we are Christians by the love we show one another through spirited yet respectful disagreement and debate, and that through this love for one another we will be bound together in a unity that causes the world to believe that God the Father sent his Son, and was acting through his Son, reconciling the world to himself.