Greg Boyd Is Wrong About the Atonement

Greg Boyd is pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota. He’s a very smart, down-to-earth (or so he seems) guy who wrote an excellent book on why we can trust the integrity of the Scriptures: The Jesus Legend. He is also an open theist who has slowly been moving in the direction of Anabaptism.

Below is a video he posted on his ReKnew site a couple of days ago, taking down the idea of penal substitution. It’s an off-the-cuff series of remarks and not really a well-thought-through argument, which you can find in his contribution to The Nature of the Atonement. He prefers the Christus Victor view, which sees Jesus as the winner in a battle against demonic forces, against Evil. The penal substitution view, of course, does not deny this aspect of Christ’s victory on the cross. In fact, it is capacious enough to enclose many other benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection. One could spend the rest of a very busy life trying to detail all that was accomplished at Calvary. But you cannot avoid the nature of the sacrifice.

What’s missing from this, besides a ton of Scripture and, most important, Jesus’s undeniable self-identification with the Passover lamb?

What is the cup that Jesus repeatedly refers to in Luke? (See Isaiah 51:17 Jeremiah 25:15 for starters.)

For the best defense of penal substitution, please read, or re-read, John R. W. Stott’s The Cross of Christ.

I understand why Boyd would like to reconstrue the nature of the atonement. He hates the idea of redemptive violence. He believes it is this idea that has provided the motivation for all manner of religious violence through the ages. He thinks penal substitution reduces God to some kind of neurotic monarch who doesn’t know what to do with all his pent-up anger toward disobedient and disloyal subjects. He has to take his fury out on someone — so why not on Jesus, who would provide an especially inviting target. After all, according to the Scriptures, Jesus is the lamb without spot or blemish. He does not deserve to suffer the wages of sin. And because he is both God and man, the degradation, not only in his flesh but also in the depths of a fathomless and eternal essence, is incalculable. This is why the argument that Jesus cannot truly stand in for the sinner falls flat. That contention goes something like this: If the unrepentant sinner deserves not only death but hell, which is eternal, then Jesus did not make a perfect satisfaction, because he did not go to hell. A number of different answers have been given to this question of Jesus’s “descent into hell,” but I would like to throw out another one, just for speculative purposes.

When Jesus rises and shows himself to his apostles, does he still bear the scars of his crucifixion, or have they been healed by virtue of his rising in a “spiritual body”? We know the answer to that question.

Jesus lives to make intercession forever. He is forever the perfect sacrifice for sin. And so his death, his suffering, his separation from the Father (“Why hast thou forsaken me?”) also has a forever quality.

Jesus is always at the right side of the Father. But can it not also be argued that he is also, as an omnipresent being, and also the eternal High Priest who offers himself as an eternal sacrifice, always in hell too? And this — for you. After all, there is no “place” where God is not. (If there is, where, exactly, would that be?)

Again, just throwing that out there. Take it or leave it. (I’m not a theologian, I just play one on the TV that’s always on in my head.)

Now, if Christ is the last sacrifice, the end of redemptive violence, the apotheosis of redemptive suffering, there can be no rationale for going beyond Jesus’s finished work. There is nothing left for anyone to do either to satisfy the just penalty for sin or to reconcile oneself to a perfectly holy God. So any “rationalization” for another “sacrifice” or for violence in the name of Jesus can only ever be just that — a rationalization that serves to cover other motives — namely, greed, envy, self-righteousness.

Boyd and a lot of other emerging and anabaptist Christians are put off by all the blood in the Bible. I, too, wish the narrative read otherwise. And people of good faith can debate the meaning of all the wars in the Old Testament. (Boyd has a new book coming out for just that purpose, which I’m eager to read.) Let’s be brutally frank: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has an extremely high tolerance for human suffering. Whether you’re a five-point Calvinist whose notions of God’s sovereignty include his willing the Fall or an Arminian who believes that God only permits evil in order to secure man’s true moral culpability, there is no avoiding Ivan Karamazov’s question: Is the suffering of one child, whether permitted or foreordained, never mind the massacres of thousands and tens of thousands of Canaanites, worth creating at all? Is this the best God could do? Was there no other way than by swimming through rivers of blood?

The only answer one can fathom, whether or not we believe we could have done better in creating a world of intelligent and morally aware creatures, on one Friday afternoon, the second Adam, the Last Man, took up into his very being all human suffering, sin, evil, and brokenness on a Roman cross. On Easter Sunday, a new creation was born of that pain. Say what you want about all the biblical bloodshed. In the Christian construal of things, when the final chapter of human history is written, life is in the blood.

5 thoughts on “Greg Boyd Is Wrong About the Atonement

  1. One of my best old friends, raised Lutheran, recently informed me he’s become one of Boyd’s followers. It seems all my old friends are now either universalist liberals or off the rails in some other way.


  2. Thank you for the thought-provoking post on this Good Friday. Whiffs of Rene Girard (whom I have just started to explore and evaluate). Or not. And don’t sell yourself short. Unlike what too many pastors think, an MDiv from seminary is not what makes a theologian.


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