The early church fathers for the most part did not ascribe to substitutionary atonement. For sure, some scriptures do very heavily lean that direction. Yet, other scriptures end up throwing a pretty massive wrench in that direction. Whats perhaps the most troubling, is it appears some contemporary preachers go so far as to nearly equate the Gospel to penal substitutionary atonement.
I’ve often found it interesting that the early church fathers did not hold so such. Origen (185-254 CE) presented the ransom theory
He suggested that, as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, Satan had acquired a formal dominion over, and ownership of, all of humanity and the rest of the world. In order to free people from the grip of Satan, God agreed to arrange the death of Yeshua, his son, as a ransom price to be paid to the devil. This would formally compensate for Adam and Eve’s sin, and would release humanity from Satan’s grip. Origen wrote: “The payment could not be [made] to God [be]cause God was not holding sinners in captivity for a ransom, so the payment had to be to the devil.” Origen believed that Satan accepted the offer because he assumed that he would end up with ownership of Yeshua. The devil didn’t realize that Yeshua would escape his clutches. God deceitfully pulled a “bait and switch” operation by resurrecting Yeshua a day and a half after his death on the cross. This left Satan without any reward. Yeshua had escaped Satan’s grasp and was reunited with God. Origen concluded that humans can then be reconciled with God if they trust Yeshua as Lord and Savior.
A couple disturbing things I’ve come across over the years are the following.
1. Folks who have seemingly walked away from Christ, often see God’s actions in PSA as cruel and barbaric.
A blogger over at arewomenhuman stated the following:
I couldn’t stomach the thought of standing in church and singing hymns thanking God for killing someone “for” me.
Another good discussion of this is presented in “The cross is an Insult to Forgiveness”
I’ve often wondered if the doors to trinitarian heresies are opened by PSA. For many in the pew, its almost as if the focus shifts to God torturing Jesus. Its as if Jesus was not God, and as such, it seemingly pretty much throws the trinity by the wayside. Anselm’s (1033 to 1109 CE) satisfaction theory (which predated PSA), in his Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) presents the following:
Chapter 6 “…the price paid to God for the sin of man [must] be something greater than all the universe besides God….Moreover, it is necessary that he who can give God anything of his own which is more valuable than all things in the possession of God, must be greater than all else but God himself….Therefore none but God can make this satisfaction.”
Chapter 9 “…God, he will possess omnipotence….He can, then, if he chooses, lay down his life and take it again….Therefore is he able to avoid death if he chooses, and also to die and rise again….the gift which he presents to God, not of debt but freely, ought to be something greater than anything in the possession of God….Now this can neither be found beneath him nor above him….In himself, therefore, must it be found….nothing can be more severe or difficult for man to do for God’s honor, than to suffer death voluntarily when not bound by obligation; and man cannot give himself to God in any way more truly than by surrendering himself to death for God’s honor. Therefore, he who wishes to make atonement for man’s sin should be one who can die if he chooses.”
2. It is possible that PSA may open doors for spiritual abuse and/or the replacement of God’s love and grace with toxic soteriology, even more so without the solid grounding of the trinity. Arewomenhuman presents the following:
Substitutionary atonement requires us to accept that it’s alright for God to behave in ways that would be considered cruel and capricious from anyone else. It requires that we claim God is “good” in a way that doesn’t resemble what we would call “good” in any other context. It preaches a patriarchal God who brooks no defiance and demands perfection from others that “he” doesn’t live up to, and doesn’t have to live up to. In so doing it provides a script and model for authoritarian, hierarchical, abusive relationships between human beings that mirror the authoritarian, hierarchical, abusive relationship between God and humans.
While I’d be in error to attribute causality, my experience with multitudes of de-churched folks over the years, has often indicated that when PSA leans towards or replaces the Gospel, spiritual abuse is often right around the corner.
I wonder if perhaps the early church fathers anticipated this danger, and thus shied away from PSA? They had the same scriptures we do today, and its not as if there were not historical discussions seemingly pointing to PSA… but it was left by the wayside.