Atonement: Substitution or Participation?
It is probably fair to say that "substitutionary atonement" is the only way that many of even most contemporary Christians understand faith in the sacrificial and salvific death of Jesus. That theological interpretation asserts that: (1) God has been deeply offended and dishonored by human sin; but (2) no amount of finite human punishment can atone for the infinite divine offense; so (3) God sent his own Divine Son to accept death as punishment for our sins in our place; and therefore (4) God's forgiveness is now freely available for all repentant sinners.
It is not just that Jesus offered his life in atonement for sin, but that God demanded it as a condition for our forgiveness.
The basic and controlling metaphor for that understanding of God's design is our own experience of a responsible human judge who, no matter how loving, cannot legitimately or validly walk into her courtroom and clear the docket of all offenders by anticipatory forgiveness.
The doctrine of vicarious, or substitutionary, atonement begs, of course, the question of whether God must or should be seen as a human judge writ large and absolute. That is surely not the only and maybe not the best metaphor for God. What about the metaphor, for example, in which God is fundamentally Parent (Father, if you prefer) rather than Judge? As such, and indeed as the Bible repeatedly asserts, God's unpunishing forgiveness has always been, is now, and ever will be freely available to any repentant sinner at any place at any time.
But how then do you move beyond forgiveness to establish a positive union with God as loving Parent? Since Jesus is for Christians the revelation, the image, and the best vision possible of that God, it is only by participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that such a salvific "at-one-ment" is possible.
Go back now and read once again those three prophecies, reactions, and responses in Mark 8:31-91, 9:31-37, and 10:33-45 in light of that choice between God as Judge or as Parent, that choice between "substitution by Jesus" for us or "participation by us in Jesus". Notice, above all, how repeatedly Mark has Jesus insist that Peter, James and John, the Twelve, and all his followers on the way from Caeserea Philippi to Jerusalem must pass with him through death to a resurrected life whose content and style was spelled out relentlessly against their refusals to accept it.
For Mark, it is about "participation with" Jesus and not "substitution by" Jesus. Lent asks us to repent, change, and participate in that transition with Jesus. But to do so, as we know, would be to negate the normalcy of civilization's lust for domination and to deny the legitimacy of what lords and kings have always been and what nations and empires have always done.
- excerpted the book, The Last Week, by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan