George MacDonald (who greatly influenced C.S. Lewis) opposed what is referred to as the “penal substitution” theory of the atonement, something with which I’ve struggled myself. This common evangelical doctrine depicts God as so full of wrath that he just has to punish someone for sin, so he takes it out on Jesus. This view, I believe, derives mainly from Augustine’s view of original sin and the total depravity of man (not to mention Augustine’s view of a primarily wrathful God). This view was rather unique to Augustine at the time; while it was eventually adopted by the Roman Catholic Church as well as Calvin, the Eastern church has always disagreed with penal substitution.
One aspect of this issue is the tension between God as wrathful judge and God as merciful father. MacDonald argues that God is not in conflict with himself, full of wrath one day and merciful the next. Rather, there is no contradiction between mercy and judgment, when understood properly. If God is merciful, he must always be merciful, even when punishing and forgiving sin. God’s forgiveness and mercy, it seems, is simply too good to be true.
In discussing this issue, MacDonald wrote:
Truth is indeed too good for men to believe; they must dilute it before they can take it; they must dilute it before they dare give it. They must make it less true before they can believe it enough to get any good of it…Unable to believe in the forgivingness of their father in heaven, they invented a way to be forgiven that should not demand of him so much; which might make it right for him to forgive; which should save them from having to believe downright in the tenderness of his fatherheart, for that they found impossible.
I am still up in the air on the issue of penal substitutionary atonement—I don’t currently understand enough of the nuances of various theories to form a solid opinion. However, I do lean toward what is known as the Christus Victor theory, the view held by the Orthodox as well as folks like N.T. Wright, Gregory Boyd and hinted at by Martin Luther. Christus victor simply means “Christ the victor,” taking the position that Christ’s death was not punishment for sin, but victory over sin.
In any event, I do agree with MacDonald that the truth of God’s great forgiveness indeed seems too good to be true.
For more on MacDonald’s thoughts, visit Richard Beck’s post at Experimental Theology.