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Justice on Trial

By October 1, 2012 No Comments

by Johnathan Kana

Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church
Darrin W. Snyder Belousek
Eerdmans, 2012.
$55.00. 684 pages.

Penal substitution apologists, beware: this weighty tome is not for the doctrinally faint of heart.

Darrin Belousek critiques the common evangelical understanding of Jesus’ death with keen philosophical insight and exegetical rigor sufficient to unsettle even the most studied proponent of evangelicalism’s standard soteriology. He forces readers to scrutinize their unexamined presuppositions about the significance of the incarnation and the necessity of the cross in God’s plan of salvation. If for no other reason than that, Belousek’s case deserves a broad hearing among evangelicals.Cover Moreover, he fairly and lucidly treats penal substitution’s strongest advocates, devoting almost as much space toclarifying the claims of the soteriology in question as he does to deconstructing them—something that makes this volume uniquely edifying among works of its kind.

The cumulative force of Belousek’s case (and it is an exceptionally strong case) depends, however, upon readers’ agreement with him on one crucial matter of definition: how did we get this idea that justice essentially means “rendering each their due”—what he terms the “retributive paradigm”?

Belousek locates the human retaliatory instinct in the sin nature. Retribution is a divine “prerogative,” something God may periodically exercise, but not something fundamental to God’s nature as a just and holy deity. Our expectation that the justice of God will conform to the retributive paradigm—a tenet presupposed by both the classical problem of evil and the evangelical doctrine of penal substitution—is therefore premised on fundamentally carnal logic. Instead of viewing the cross through a retributive lens (per penal substitution), Belousek asks us to view the whole notion of retribution through a cruciform lens. If we start with the cross, he argues, we discover that God’s justice is about costly covenant fidelity, not balancing some cosmic moral account book. Viewing the necessity of the cross in retributive terms—that is, God had to punish sin or else fail to be God—is to commit the egregious error of placing God in submission to an external principle which he is not free to abrogate. Retribution in effect displaces God as the ultimate law of the universe.

A persuasive argument, but I still have some reservations. What if we were to locate the human retaliatory instinct in the imago Dei instead of in the sin nature? What if our inclination to understand justice in retributive terms derives from the stamp of God’s own nature upon us—albeit marred by the effects of sin? If we approach the question from this angle, the cross remains scandalous, but the stumbling block is not a fundamentally flawed concept of justice; it is humanity’s prideful aversion to dependence. What the cross reveals (and what we are carnally reluctant to accept) is the bare fact that God will not—indeed cannot—be reconciled to us on our own merits. What offends us, in other words, is that God’s means of satisfying his justice provides no opportunity for us to be accomplices in our own salvation. And that, of course, is what we naturally desire: to be our own saviors, or at least to be in some measure deserving of our heavenly reward.

It seems to me that this is the central issue Belousek’s readers must resolve. Many fine evangelical scholars who do not share Belousek’s skepticism about the retributive instinct have ably defended penal substitution as a strong explanatory fit for the overall scriptural evidence. Now earnest students of the Bible have a persuasive alternative to consider, if they are prepared to accept Belousek’s premise concerning the carnality of retribution. For my part, I am not prepared to render an exegetical verdict.

I would observe, however, that even those who disagree with Belousek concerning the “objective aspect” of his atonement theology may nevertheless embrace the restorative implications he draws out from it. This is because retributive soteriology does not necessarily prompt destructive human behavior; penal substitution leaves plenty of room at the table for those who honor Jesus’ commission for his followers to voluntarily lay aside “just” retributive claims and to sacrificially bear the cost of being reconciled to their enemies. This, after all, is what God did on our behalf: God mysteriously effected the restoration of sinners by satisfying justice against sinners within God’s own triune Self. In other words, even if we as God’s image-bearers insist upon the legitimacy of retribution in the cosmic order of God’s creation, we must also recognize, as recipients of God’s unmerited favor in Christ, that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). At Calvary the “eye for an eye” of the Old Testament has justly become the “turn the other cheek” of the New.

Ex-prisoner and restorative justice advocate Johnathan Kana holds advanced degrees in biblical studies from Liberty Bible College and Seminary in Homosassa, Florida. He lives with his wife in central Texas.