My current postmodern 21st century western mind struggles with the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. Here is a brief summary:
Let me be clear. I do not think it should be done away with and I think there are occasions where this is useful but I do not think it should be the dominant understanding of what Jesus did. The book, “Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross” (ed Mark Baker) offers some great contemporary images of the atonement that I feel work better in our culture.
My problem with it is that it characterises God the Father as an unstoppable ball of wrath that is only stopped because Jesus stands in the way. There are other issues I have but that is the key one. I feel that in some ways the Gods who are spoken of in “Cabin in the Woods” are similar to the God of penal substitution. They demand justice. They must be appeased by a blood sacrifice. Nothing else will do.
I think a similar connection to penal substitution is found in “The Hunger Games”. The President wants people to be reminded of their sins and that to be forgiven, a sacrifice must be made. David Lose, guest blogging on Tony Jones’ site argues that The President is the God of this atonement theory. I would not go as far as Lose does and I think there are significant criticisms to be made of his arguments but there are certain similarities that cannot be brushed over.
I used to really struggle with the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac in Genesis 22 for two reasons. Firstly that Abraham did not seem to find any difficulty in killing his son and secondly, that God asked him to do it in the first place. It seems that there is a parallel between this God and the president in “The Hunger Games”. To show his allegiance to God, Abraham had to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. In the same way, the President also asks this of the inhabitants of the twelve districts.
I said I used to struggle with this passage because once I learned about the culture and traditions of this period in human history, it made so much more sense to me. Abraham lived in a culture steeped in the narrative of sacrifice. Sacrificing your possessions to the gods demonstrated your allegiance to them. And what bigger demonstration of allegiance is there than offering up your own children. The followers of the pagan god Baal often sacrificed their children as a symbol of their devotion. It was common practice for your god to demand this kind of sacrifice. That is why Abraham would have gone along with it.
But the story does not end in the way that the culture would expect. God shows that he is different from the other gods. He provides a sacrifice for Abraham.
It is in this narrative that the penal substitution theory of atonement works best. God offers a sacrifice for us.
I am thankful that the sacrificial system of the Old Testament no longer exists because it doesn’t really work. The bible testifies to this and these two films testify to this. It is fitting that at the end of each movie, the sacrificial system is undermined.
The Atonement is not about appeasing an angry God or a way of oppressing us and keeping us in fear. The atonement is the complete outpouring of God. It is the exclamation mark of the life of Jesus. It liberates us from evil and reconciles us with God. It allows us to be reminded of our frail humanity and to encounter god in the unknown and in the pain. It reminds me to be present with people, to share in their life, their pain, their joys and their struggles. It challenges me to live out my beliefs even if it costs me everything. It causes me to go the extra mile, to love my neighbour, to speak for those who have no voice.
But most of all, it gives me hope.