August 23, 2007

Cosmic Child Abuse?

A new catch-phrase has crept into theological lingo: Cosmic Child Abuse.* This is what some ‘evangelicals'  are calling the traditional, evangelical view of the death of our Lord Jesus. Cosmic child abuse! Why? The idea that Jesus died to appease the wrath of an angry God, it is claimed, portrays God as vicious, cruel, bloodthirsty, abusive…and unjust. The line of thinking goes something like this:
‘You want me to believe that God brutally killed His own Son in order to absorb
the penalty of someone else’s sins? Not only is that cruel, it is a
miscarriage of justice! It is not fair to punish anyone for the crime of
another—least of all God’s own Son. If this is what God were like, He
would be guilty of cosmic child abuse.’
Now it is important to note that those who think this way are not denying the reality of the death of Jesus. They are simply misplacing the emphasis—and doing so badly. But they affirm (with evangelicals), for example, that Jesus died as a perfect example of sacrificial love; and that His death demonstrated His triumph over the forces of Satan. They affirm these aspects of the death of Christ, however, without affirming the one accomplishment that the New Testament makes most central—namely that Christ’s died, absorbing the penalty of God’s wrath, as a substitute for sinners. Theologians call that aspect of the atonement penal substitution. And evangelical theologians have always understood penal substitution to be the central accomplishment of the cross.

I believe this misplaced emphasis leads to a final denial of the biblical gospel. And, I believe that it may represent one of the biggest theological challenges of our time. Why? Because it is so subtle. Most teachers who are uncomfortable with penal substitution aren’t brave enough to call it cosmic child abuse. What do they do instead? Simply de-emphasize the atonement. They talk about Jesus the Master; Jesus the Physician; Jesus the Counselor; Jesus the Leader; and Jesus the Friend…but never Jesus the dying Savior. And all of those things sound good (because they are true!). But the untrained ear may hear these several good things without realizing that the main thing—for Paul, the only thing (1 Corinthians 2.2)—is completely missing! It sounds good when someone portrays the Christian life as a great mountain expedition…with Jesus as the expert guide. But if that is all Jesus is, we are in deep trouble. Because the guide can only show the way. He cannot, however, carry us up the mountain. And that is what we weak, miserable sinners so desperately need—a Savior who can do for us what we could never do! And that is the point of the atonement! In His death, Christ was doing for us what we could never do—bridging the gap between us and God by paying the full price to cover our debt of sin.

Now, having said all that…what shall we do? Well, those of us who are in leadership need to make sure we teach, teach, teach about the cross of Christ and all its implications—especially penal substitution. This is the only message that can save.

But a church member recently asked me what a lay-person can do (and say) when conversing with someone who has bought into the cosmic child abuse theory (or something along the same lines, but maybe less in-your-face). How do we defend, as it were, penal substitution? The next couple or three days (probably over the course of three more posts)...I will try to provide some answers.
Stay tuned.

*The hotbed of the current discussion, and apparent source of the term "cosmic child abuse," is Steve Chalke's book, The Lost Message of Jesus.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.  Full disclosure: I have not read the book, and do not recommend it.  In these articles I am not interacting with Chalke's book, but with the idea that the teaching penal substitution is somehow cruel and unbiblical.

1 comment:

Pastor Bill said...


What a timely and important topic for you to take up. This denial of Christ's bearing the wrath of God for OUR sins is gaining momentum, as it is a more 'pleasing, gentler' gospel. Unfortunately as the apostle Paul reminds us, it is no gospel at all, or at best, a false gospel. If Jesus didn't bear God's wrath in my place, then God must have no wrath against my sin, or else there is something that I can do to appease Him, which is at the root of most religions...we're really not that bad, and we can make it up to God someway on our own.
God bless and keep it up.
Pastor Bill