Shack’s author stokes debate over the cross

The taking of Christ

The taking of Christ

Controversy surrounding William P. Young’s The Shack has drawn attention to a major theological debate that many readers of the popular novel may not be aware of.

The debate concerns how Christians understand the significance of Christ’s death on the cross. Questions are being raised about one of the traditional concepts of the atonement.

The controversy came to light in a popular forum recently, when Baptist pastor Kendall Adams interviewed Young on radio station KAYP in Iowa. Adams pressed Young on why he had God assert in the book: “I don’t punish sin. Sin is its own punishment.”

Young stated: “The cross is the plan of God … to redeem us back from being lost, living in the grip of our sin … There’s no hope for any human being … apart from the cross.”

However, Young also stated that God is always motivated by love, and the wrath of God is always directed against sin, not against sinners. Therefore, God the Father did not punish Jesus on the cross as the penalty for human sin.

Young also raised the possibility of “ultimate reconciliation,” that all people will be saved, reconciled to God in the end.

Adams replied that Young was denying “penal substitutionary atonement” — that Jesus paid the penalty for human sins on the cross — which Adams stated was “the heart of the gospel.”

Young agreed that he did not fully accept the penal substitutionary view of the atonement.

In the interview, Young defended his position by stating that there is “a huge debate that’s going on in theology right now within the evangelical community” concerning the doctrine of the atonement.

Battle of the books

As evidence of this, he cited the recent book, Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ, edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin.

Adams in turn cited another recent book, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey and Andrew Sach.

The crowning of thorns

The crowning of thorns

These are only a few of numerous recent books on the subject of the atonement. Others include In my Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement, by J.I. Packer and Mark Dever; and The Future of the Atonement: A Response to N.T. Wright, by John Piper. These books contain endorsements by a variety of Christian leaders, and lists of other books on the subject.

Theologians from Canada, and BC in particular, are very involved in this broad-based theological debate. Young himself is the son of Canadian missionaries.

Jersak is a leader with Fresh Wind Christian Fellowship and Fresh Wind Press, based in Abbotsford. The contributors to his volume include Wayne Northey, co-director of M2/W2, a prison ministry based in the Lower Mainland; and Ron Dart, who teaches religious studies and political science at the University of the Fraser Valley.

Another of the contributors to Jersak’s book is N.T Wright, Bishop of Durham in England, who frequently lectures at Regent College in Vancouver — which is where J.I. Packer is the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology.

Three approaches

To help sort through this issue, consulted Hans Boersma, who is the J.I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College. He has not read The Shack, but has written his own book on the atonement: Violence, Hospitality and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition.

The first thing Boersma said is that the current debate is not new. From the beginning of the church, Christians have struggled to understand the meaning and implications of Christ’s death on the cross.

Christians have, in general, taken three main approaches.

1. Christus Victor

The first is the ‘Christus Victor‘ approach, which sees Christ as coming to conquer death. Jesus became human and died on the cross so that human beings could be ‘deified‘ and enter into the eternal life of God.

This view was common in the early church and remains the dominant view in the Eastern churches, such as the Orthodox denominations.

2. Substitution

The entombment

The entombment

The second approach is the substitutionary theory, which comes in various forms: Jesus came to earth and died on the cross as the representative of human beings, so their sins could be forgiven.

It is sometimes suggested that this view was developed by the 11th century theologian Anselm of Canterbury in his book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man).

It was later accepted by the Protestant Reformation — it still finds many of its staunchest defenders among Reformed theologians — and by many evangelicals. However, while Anselm formulated this position very clearly, it was also present in many earlier theologians as well, said Boersma.