Progressive thoughts on why Jesus died on the cross and whether God’s justice is retributive or restorative

I remember some time ago, Derek Flood offered the Christus Victor view of the cross as a more plausible explanation of God’s nature and salvation plan compared to the penal substitution view. I agree God is non-violent and loving, instead of judgmental and vengeful. The penal substitution view of the cross has misrepresented the loving and non-violent nature of God. I agree with Derek Flood’s take that people have projected their worldly understanding of punitive justice onto the biblical text, as he revealed in his interview in this blog.

“At the same time, it has been deeply ingrained into our thinking that God demands retributive justice. For many Christians, this is inseparable from how they understand salvation. Consequently, in an effort to be true to the teachings of the Bible, many Christians struggle to believe it, even though it seems immoral and hurtful to them. They hate it, but think this is what God wants them to believe.

Healing the Gospel takes a deep look at the Bible and makes the case that this view is neither representative of Jesus and his teachings, nor is it reflective of the New Testament. Rather, it is the result of people projecting their worldly understanding of punitive justice onto the biblical text. Jesus was focused on confronting those cultural and religious assumptions. What we see in the New Testament is the gospel understood as God’s act of restorative justice. This is the master narrative of the New Testament, and entails a critique of the way of retribution and violence rather than a validation of it.”

(From “Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice and the Cross” ~ Derek Flood)

I think the idea of punitive justice or retributive justice is based on the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or the law mindset. But Jesus himself taught people to love their enemies, and not return an eye for an eye. So retributive justice and penal substitution are definitely not the reason for the cross. I would also see God’s justice in terms of restoration. To me, it is in terms of being restored in one’s consciousness that he/she is a beloved child of God and has always been one with God. I remember sharing the following thought in a blog some time ago, after reading about the trinitarian view of the cross.

So who did God judge at the cross? Not us. Not His Son. I believe God judged the devil, who is the accuser of the brethren, and he is none other than our guilty conscience, so that today, our conscience can no longer condemn us or make us think God is angry with us or out to punish us. God saves us from wrong thinking (which began in the garden of Eden), by sending His Son to open our eyes to the truth of the gospel – through His finished work at the cross, He has cleansed our conscience so that we can have the boldness and freedom to fellowship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who is all the while with us and for us. :) We can boldly and freely enjoy the warm fellowship and love with the triune God in our daily life.

(From “Reflections on a trinitarian view of the cross“)

Brian McLaren, a progressive Christian author, mentioned that muslims believe Jesus is a prophet, and yet even though christians believe Jesus is God’s son, many of them believe God punished and killed Jesus. This is a distorted gospel, as McLaren wrote in the foreword of the book “Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross” by Derek Flood, and this distorted gospel will inevitably harm us, and through us, “a distorted gospel harms the world at large”.

Derek Flood described in his book that this view of God sending his son to die in our place because “each of us was so rotten to the core that we deserved to die and roast in hell forever” has caused people to internalise a sense of self-loathing that robs them of joy, and yet “this kind of religious self-loathing is often expressed as pious devotion”. As he pointed out, no sane parent would want to hear any kind of self-loathing comment from their children – indeed, God the father was described in Jesus’ parable to be running out to meet the prodigal son in total love and acceptance because the father sees the son as altogether lovely, innocent, perfect and precious.

I also shared the following thoughts in another blog some time ago.

God’s version of justice would not involve hatred and retribution but rather love and reconciliation. When people experience love and reconciliation, they will be at peace with themselves, and then they will be at peace with others.

That is true justice as I understand it, that Jesus came to bring, to open the eyes of the blind (to see our true identity) and to set free those who are oppressed (by religion and illusion of separation), to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord – the good news of our acceptance, innocence and perfection. Now is the day of salvation, now is the time of favour.

(From “God’s justice is about love and reconciliation, not hatred and retribution“)

Joshua Tongol shared similar reflections on the non-violent and restorative nature of God’s justice.

“Jesus didn’t lay down His life so that an angry God could change His mind about you. No, the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ was a revelation of God’s love for you so that you could change your mind about Him.

The only wrath that was appeased at the cross was man’s, not God’s. Man’s “justice” is violent and retributive. God’s justice is non-violent and restorative (look at the life of Jesus).

Man unleashed violence at the cross. Jesus absorbed it.


– Joshua Tongol

I agree that man’s justice is violent and retributive (hence projecting the idea of penal justice onto God, thereby misrepresenting his nature), whereas God’s justice is non-violent and restorative as shown in the life of Jesus, as noted by Joshua. Yes, the gospel is not about changing God’s mind about us because he (our highest self) has already made up his mind to love us and accept us wholly and unconditionally. The gospel is about changing our mind (metanoia) about God, and know that God is love and that perfect love casts out fear. Jesus’ work on the cross is to demonstrate that love always wins.

Last but not least, I have read through Andre Rabe’s recent article “Glimpses into a mystery“, and I appreciate his explanation on the history behind the traditional ideas of sacrifice and atonement, which I understand are man’s ideas, not God’s. Even the Jewish idea of sacrifice is man’s idea, and so in this sense, in order for Jesus to transform the Jewish mindset about sacrifice and angry god and sin consciousness, he probably chose to speak their language by becoming the perfect sacrifice himself, not because God required it but because the Jews required it in order to find peace for their guilty conscience. (After all, the book of Hebrews was written to the Hebrews/Jews.)

“The cross does not satisfy the anger of God, it satisfies His most holy love. The self-sacrifice of Jesus reveals that God is not the bloodthirsty deity we imagined. It was humanity that murdered him. We were the angry deities that needed to be satisfied. Humanities violence is exposed by the cross. In this act, in which He allows evil to do its worst to Him, He exposes and thereby destroys evil.

God is not bound to the limitations of our narrow ideas of strict justice. He is not interested in getting even; He is interested in saving and bringing healing – a restorative justice that far outweighs a retributive justice. His justice is served not by forcefully subjecting us to himself, but by exposing himself willingly and in the most vulnerable state, to the greatest injustice. And when evil and injustice did their worst to him, he responded with forgiveness and salvation.”

(From “Glimpses into a mystery” by Andre Rabe)

The bible recorded that God himself thinks the idea of sacrificing children is abominable. Hence, the cross could be part of God’s wisdom in seeking to transform people’s mindset about sacrifice by demonstrating to the Jews that the cross is never about so-called retributive justice but about restorative love to reconcile people to God (their highest self) and to one another. I understand the cross in terms of co-identification too – that Jesus identified himself with man who thought he was separated from the father and died to this old Adamic mindset and was raised to new life in realisation that we are always one with the father and there is no separation. Through our co-identification with Jesus in his death, burial and resurrection, we realise that we are all along innocent and beloved in Him.

“In the resurrection Jesus is vindicated by God as being blameless. As such He reveals the innocence of all our scapegoats … and in so doing exposes the real source of our evils! The source of our conflict, our problems, our evils, is not our conveniently chosen scapegoats, neither is it an angry god. In the violence of the crucifixion, we are faced with our own violence, our own evil, a blameless scapegoat and consequently, no one else to blame. But in the same act of atonement, He also reveals our forgiveness and consequently, our innocence.”

(From “Glimpses into a mystery” by Andre Rabe)

I think that the more people delve into progressive christianity, so to speak, the more they will find themselves questioning traditional, fear-based doctrines such as penal substitution theory. It is good of Andre Rabe to touch on this subject in his latest article, and seek to clarify that the cross is about restoration, not retribution, as the heart of God is all about love and reconciliation and non-violence, and his love conquers all and embraces all.

Related posts

Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice and the Cross ~ Derek Flood

Glimpses into a mystery” by Andre Rabe

Reflections on a Trinitarian View of the Cross

Will the Real Gospel Please Stand Up? | Joshua Tongol

Was Jesus PUNISHED by the Father? | Challenging Penal Substitution | Joshua Tongol

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Anzaholyman says:

    Reblogged this on Anzaholyman's Blog and commented:
    interesting thoughts

  2. See the website: “Girardian Relections on the Lectionary”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s