I've noticed that many proponents of Penal Substitution see it not simply as one theory of the Atonement, but as the Gospel, meaning that to deny it is the same as saying that there is no problem of sin or separation from God. I've noticed the exact same assumption from people who call themselves Universalists: they talk of Christ's work meaning that everyone is automatically saved already.
Now I am all for the thought of God making everything right in the world and "wiping away every tear", but I have seen too much injustice and misery in the world to believe that sin is not real and everything is fine. I don't believe in an imaginary problem where God is angry from some unknown trivial legal transgression that we did. I'm sure you've heard this before: God is holy, and so if you have lied to your mom or cheated on a test ever then you are condemned to eternal Hell, and even if you didn't Adam did so you're literally damned if you do and damned if you don't. In this scenario the Gospel becomes telling a person this "bad news" of how they are condemned to the severest of penalties imaginable (eternal torture) for a petty infraction, but that this same God who made this judgment wants have a loving trusting relationship with them(!)
This is an "imaginary problem" because it is not based on real human need or lostness, but on some transaction in heaven that we would never be aware of if someone did not tell us the news. The problem of sin is real. It is not detached from our experience but dominates it. My wife is a social worker and works with the homeless and the addicted. She sees people at their lowest and most broken. People who are dying alone, people who are enslaved to a life of drugs and degradation. This is the most obvious manifestation of lostness, but if you dig a little deeper you will find suffering and brokenness right next you. That person siting across from you in the pew struggles with thoughts of worthlessness and suicide. The nice woman you see at the supermarket is going through a messy divorce. One you really get to know the people around you, you will find stories of pain, injustice, brokenness, and regret everywhere.
The reason I object to a legal understanding of the Atonement is not because I think sin is not real, but precisely because I do. Because it is real, a mere legal acquittal will not solve the problem, it will not break people out of their bondage and cycles of being hurt and hurting others, it will not restore what has been lost and broken. That is what we need. If being a universalist means trusting that despite our helplessness, sinfulness, and stupidness that God can overcome all of that and find a way to really heal our real problems of sin, suffering, and lostness... yes I place my hope in that and work towards that by fighting injustice, caring for the broken, and showing the same compassion and mercy to others that I so desperately need. What I object to is the kind of universalism that leads to a "don't worry be happy" inaction in the face of human need.
It seems people have a need to think that they are fine, and so God loved them and they have worth. But we know that we are not fine. The "good news" is that God loves us even though we are not fine, and in fact tells us that he has a heart for those who are not "ok". That means that we can be real, and it gives us a basis for compassion.
Labels: theology of the cross