In Christianity there is an idea, that is going around like a virus! Here is one formulation of this theological pandemic.

“What kind of Father lets his beloved son be tortured and killed? If the crucifixion happened, then it was divine child-abuse” - Bishop John Shelby Spong.

Some modern theologians don’t like judicial or penal theories of atonement. They make the Father look like an oppressive and violent parental figure who abuses His Son out of a desire to crush humanity. Jesus appears like a passive victim who submits to the Father’s violent wrath so others can avoid it.

One of the first voices behind this criticisms was Dorothee Soelle. She calls the God of the penal atonement theory “sadistic” and the Christ of this theory “masochistic.”[1] Others followed, calling the cross divine “child abuse.” It was claimed that the theory molded an authoritative approval of violence and passive submission to it. Joan Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker write, “The image of God the Father demanding and carrying out the suffering and death of His own Son has sustained a culture of abuse and led to the abandonment of victims of abuse and oppression.”[2]

Given are cultural moment, stories of church abuse are in the headlines. It is no wonder this perspective had gained traction. Behind all this rhetoric is a deeply theological and fundamental questions. Was atonement necessary for salvation? In what way was the atonement necessary? behind those questions is the heart of the issue. Questions like, How did God decree his will? the debate centers on the relation of God's character and Divine Will (choice) in God's divine decrees.

There have been two main answers to this question in protestant theology.

View 1: Hypothetical Necessity View

The first answer to this question takes the position that, given that God decreed to save his elect, he could have done so in any way he chose. However, once he determined to do so by means of the atoning death of Christ, the death of the cross was a necessity. It is a necessity consequent not only to the decree to save but also to the decree to save by atonement, following it and dependent on it. It is hypothetical, since its necessity is not absolute but contingent on the decree that chose this means to redeem us. God, having decreed to save us, could have chosen some other means to do so. However, having chosen this means, it was necessary for our salvation. God’s choice makes it necessary. In short, He chose the way he wanted to forgive. His will to forgive is not dependent on the constraints of His Character.

Many significant theologians adopted the position but it was only a footnote in their theology. Until the 20th century, most adherents follow through with the rest of biblical teaching. Once the Bible was called into question such a theological ordering (will before character) began to mutate into a bloodless formulation of the atonement. Most of the theological activism about this divine child abuse talk comes from those assume an extreme form of the first view.

Two notable adherence are John Owen and Thomas Goodwin. Early in his career, John Owen, (1647), argued in The Death of Death that it was

“false and erroneous . . . that God could not have mercy on mankind unless satisfaction were made by his Son” and that “to assert positively, that absolutely and antecedently to his constitution he could not have done it, is to me an unwritten tradition, the Scripture affirming no such thing, neither can it be gathered from thence in any good consequence.” [3]

Owen thought God chose this way because it was the most convenient. But by 1653 he had changed his position on the matter, in response to the rising threat of Socinianism.[4]

In the rest of the work, Owen goes on to masterfully defend Penal substitution same can be said of Goodwin. (See Below)

Thomas Goodwin argued that God’s purpose was to save people according to “his depths of wisdom.” God could have done so by pardoning the rebels.

[But] to punish sin being an act of his will . . . may therefore be suspended as he himself pleaseth. To hate sin is his nature; and that sin deserves death is also the natural and inseparable property, consequent, and demerit of it; but the expression of this hatred, and of what sin deserves by actual punishment, is an act of his will, and so might be suspended. [5]

To pardon sin without punishing it would not have produced the best results or shown “such depths of love.” Goodwin sees the atonement as contingent on the will of God. The decree was not dependent on his nature, for he could have chosen some other means.

Even from these classical examples, the error of this view is clear. To say, God can just forgive if he so wills. Makes God’s omnipotence the attribute all other attributes are defined by. Ironically, God looks more like the Muslim God than the God of the Bible. Given God could have chosen some other means, this assumes God’s will is not dependent on God’s nature. Simply put, this view assumes, God did not think like God when he decided how he would redeem humanity.

If God could have freely chosen another way, other than the cross then the cross is an arbitrary choice. The cross becomes a choice that does not mater. Jesus death is a significant death that means little in the grand scheme of things because God could have done it another way. If God could have chosen another way, why should he have chosen this way, one that led the Son to the intense suffering of the cross? From this perspective, God decrees are Arbitrary, for the decree of His will are not dependent on his nature. I would aslo add that the freedom of God's choice in this view detaches the work of Christ from the nature of God.

Ideas have consequences
The idea that God can just forgive humanity without any consideration of the constraints of his character has consequences. Especially when the Bible is undermined. If God can just forgive and I don’t have bible to bring me back to the Cross. I am left with a gospel that is in line with H. Richard Niebuhr description of liberal theology on his day. A message that teaches, “[a] God without wrath, brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgment, through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” [6] We should not remove from the gospel the necessity of the Cross as the place where sin is dealt with and grace extended to humanity.

View 2: Actual Necessity View

So How does God choose? How does God will his decrees? The same way God commands don’t get caught on the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma. Because God’s choices are dependent on His nature/character. God choice for human morality as well as human redemption are grounded in God’s character. So Redemption like morality expresses the character of God, for the choice of both were dependent on the character of the one making the choice.

This position asserts that, given that God decreed to save his elect, there was no other way he could do this in a manner compatible with his nature than by the death of his Son. Since God is righteous and just, he must bring about salvation in a form that is righteous and just. Of paramount importance is that the disobedience of Adam be overcome in a just way, by the obedience of a second Adam, the eternal Son (Rom. 3:25–26).

The necessity of the atonement under this line of thought is consequent upon God’s determining to save his people. Once he had decreed that, it was necessary that it be achieved by the atoning death of Christ on the cross. The atonement was necessary in an absolute sense, contingent on the decree to save. The necessity rests on God’s nature, a free and sovereign outflow of who he is. This is no limitation on God, for he is not constrained by external necessity.

J. H. Thornwell wrote:

The two great principles on which the doctrine of atonement rests are—the inseparable connection between punishment and guilt, and the admissibility under proper restrictions of a surety to endure the curse of the law. The unpardonable nature of sin, the practicability of legal substitution, these are the pillars of the Christian fabric. [7]

The necessity of the atonement is as a means to an end. The end itself is not necessary apart from the free purpose of God’s grace.[8] It is mercy that gives rise to atonement, not the reverse.[9] The purpose of the atonement was not to make God merciful but to render the exercise of mercy consistent with righteousness. [10].

The pleasure of the Cross
In Isiah 53:10 it states that the the Lord was pleased to crush Him [Jesus] and cause him to suffer. A question arises, does this verse teach that God is a sadist? Does He gets pleasure from inflicting pain? Not at all for the rest of the verse speaks to the intention of this crushing. “though [the cross] the Lord makes his life an offering for sin”. God’s pleasure was in the fact that the redeemed would not have to bear the burden of Judgment. It even gives an understanding that the crushing of the cross had the victory of the resurrection in view. The Father will “prolong his days”. Jesus would be vindicated in his resurrection. This makes doubly clear that God did not take pleasure in crushing Christ for its own sake. God is not a sadist.

Well, Is Jesus a masochist? Does he get pleasure from pain? Hebrew 12:2 teaches that Jesus joyfully and willingly gave himself up to a death on the cross. Yet His joy was not masochistic. As the verse states, He despised the shame of the cross. His joy was one with the Father, the joy that we would not have bear the burden. Jesus’ joy is not in his pain for its own sake but for the sake of others.

The joy of the Father and the Son is a burden lifting joy. They wanted to give and be given so that we will not bear the burden of our sin. They were moved by the idea of substation for the Father giving over and the sons voluntary giving up is found in the joy of believers not receiving the punishment they deserve. Paul also describes the wrath of God revealed from heaven (Romans 1:18) as God delivering sinners over to the deviant desires of their own hearts (1:24–32). But notice that in Romans the Father “delivers Christ over” to the same alienation and condemnation (“for our transgressions”) to save these sinners (4:25; 8:32). This connection between Romans 1:24–28; 4:25; and 8:32 is especially clear in the Greek where Paul uses the same term: paredoken (paredothe), “delivering up” or “handing over”. The phrase of “delivering up” (paredoken) is descriptive of how the one God bears up under the wrath that we have brought on ourselves to draw us into his redemptive heart through an act of penal substitutional. So that, in Christ, the Judge becomes the judged so we could know God’s justice.



    1.  Dorothee Soelle, Suffering (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 9–32.
    2.  Joan Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, “For God So Loved the World?” in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, ed. Joan Carlson Brown and Carol R. Bohn (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1989), 8,9.
    3.  John Owen, “Salus Electorum, Sanguis Jesu; or The Death of Death in the Death of Christ: A Treatise of the Redemption and Reconciliation That Is in the Blood of Christ,” vol. 10 in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (1647; repr., London: Banner of Truth, 1967), 205.
    4.  Carl R. Trueman, John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 42. In many ways those espousing the abuse idea hold to similar assumptions as held in Socinianism.
    5.  Thomas Goodwin, Christ Our Mediator (1692; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Sovereign Grace, 1971), 14–15.
    6.  H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1953), 193.
    7.  James Henley Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell (1875; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 2:209
    8.  Thornwell, Collected Writings, 2:210.
    9.  Thornwell, Collected Writings, 2:210.
    10.  Thornwell, Collected Writings, 2:211


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