Why evangelicals give pride of place to penal substitutionary understandings of the Cross.
I was sitting outside the library at the University of California at Santa Cruz when two other students walked by complaining about Christian faith in the crucifixion of Jesus. As a young Christian with an interest in working with my cohorts to evangelize the campus, I turned my head to hear more. I don’t remember much of what they said except the exclamation of one of the women: “Dying on a cross—it’s just so disgusting.”
To this day I think this young woman grasped better than many Christians the horrific nature of Jesus’ death. We sometimes try to drive this point home by comparing the cross to death by electrocution, wondering if we’d wear necklaces or sport T-shirts with electric chair symbols. But as gruesome as electrocution is, crucifixion is far worse—a long, drawn-out affair, sometimes preceded by bloody scourging, with hands and feet pierced with thick nails, the entire weight of the body suspended at three agonizing points. After hours of agony, you slowly suffocated when your legs could no longer support you and your lungs were smothered with the weight of your body. All this etched in blood dripping mercilessly from head and hands and feet.
This young woman had it right. A bloody and violent event stands at the very center of our faith. And it’s not just the event, but its meaning, especially as evangelical Christians see it, that prompts many to recoil in disgust. Evangelicals more than most are deeply moved by the notion that Christ died for us on a cross, that he was a substitute who suffered in our stead, that he endured a punishment we deserved.
This idea—summarily called the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement—has fallen from grace …