Does the Doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement Promote Torture?

Not for the first time have I been perplexed by the Church’s long affair with torture. Is this just a case in which  flawed and sinful men, having taken control of the Church, used brutal and violent means to achieve their own ends? Or is there some warped thread woven into the very fabric of Christian doctrine that twists the Church’s understanding of the Gospel?

Heather Kirk-Davidoff,  pastor and writer, raises this question in her blog article entitled “Why Do Christians Love Torture” :

Rosa and I were in the car yesterday when the top-of-the-hour news came on with clips from President Obama and Vice President Cheney’s speeches about torture.  Rosa started paying attention when Cheney’s said:

“I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work…”

At which point Rosa broke in and said with total incredulity, “Who said THAT??”  At ten, Rosa still has a sense of how ridiculous it is to say that anyone would be proud of torturing anyone else.  I know that some would argue that torture could be justified, but to say that it’s praiseworthy?  How have we come to that?

Rosa’s comment stayed on my mind because, like her, there is part of our nation’s conversation about torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques” as Cheney likes to call them) which I just don’t get.  It’s not just that I disagree–I simply can’t figure out how anyone could agree with the use of torture.  I can’t empathize with the proponents of torture which makes me pretty useless in public conversation on the topic.  My opposition to torture is based on two things that are utterly essential to my morality:  the importance of the rule of law and the sacredness of human life.  (Plus, everything I’ve read leads me to be opposed on pragmatic grounds as well.  I just am not convinced that torture leads to any useful information.)

But a couple of weeks ago, a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life came out that really disturbed me.  You can go to the link to see the actual survey results, but in summary, the more often a person goes to church, the more likely they are to support the use of torture (and they used that word–not “enhanced interrogation techniques”).  The Americans most likely to support torture are white evangelicals (62%) and those unaffiliated with a religious group are the least likely to support torture.

As I was ranting to Dan about this, he pointed out that the study showed that party affiliation is a MUCH stronger determinant of support of torture than religious affiliation is.  Basically, Republicans are likely to support torture, and the survey just showed where the Republicans are.  And while his point is correct, I don’t think it’s the whole story.

Here’s the thing:  Jesus was tortured.  This is one of the reasons while it blows my mind that any Christian could support torture since we all know that at least one innocent person has been tortured under false accusations by the state.  But what if our religious teachings tell us that while it was unfortunate that Jesus was tortured, it did, in fact, serve a good purpose.  It had a good outcome because (in the words of Isaiah 53:5):

…he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

Could it be that by talking so much about what we’ve gained by way of Jesus’ torture we’ve actually taught ourselves that torture can actually be a good thing?  A useful and important thing?

This is serious, people.  Obama and his people have their work to do rooting torture out from the practice of our government.  But I think Christian churches and Christian leaders have our work to do too.  We need a better theology of suffering, a better understanding of Jesus’ suffering, if we’re ever going to clearly oppose it’s use by our government.

-by Heather Kirk-Davidoff, “Grounded and Rooted in Love”


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  1. #1 by Alex on June 7, 2009 - 5:53 pm


    Here we go again!

    If Christ is the image of the Father, and Christians are to follow Him, then the blasphemy of penal substitution basically says that we are to be bloodthirsty easily offended barbarians who do not forgive others until blood has been spilled (punishment and forgiveness are exclusive, btw).

    Here’s a question for all the fundies out there – is God humble?

    • #2 by Christian Beyer on June 7, 2009 - 8:48 pm

      Here’s a question for all the fundies out there – is God humble?

      Good question. Does God have an ego? Can we ‘offend’ God?

  2. #3 by Alex on June 7, 2009 - 5:54 pm

    And if we are to follow such a deity, then how can we not justify torture? After all, have not our enemies done countless things to offend us?

  3. #4 by Alex on June 7, 2009 - 5:55 pm

    One last thing though –

    The Church has never taught penal substitution. That is the tradition of men – not of Christ and His Apostles.

  4. #6 by Alex on June 8, 2009 - 10:29 pm

    When is yall’s next meeting over at the brewery?

    • #7 by Christian Beyer on June 9, 2009 - 12:41 pm

      Ah, I’m the one who dropped the ball on that. Never met at the Brewery but I was supposed to organize the next event (over a year a go). You make plans and life happens.

      You want we should give it a shot?

      • #8 by alex on June 10, 2009 - 12:35 pm


  5. #9 by alex on June 9, 2009 - 12:12 pm

    “A man who is wrathful with us is a sick man; we must apply a plaster to his heart – love; we must treat him kindly, speak to him gently, lovingly. And if there is not deeply-rooted malice against us within him, but only a temporary fit of anger, you will see how his heart, or his malice, will melt away through your kindness and love – how good will conquer evil. A Christian must always be kind, gracious, and wise in order to conquer evil by good.”

    —St. John of Kronstadt, “My Life in Christ”

  6. #10 by Alex on July 19, 2009 - 10:47 pm

    o which Saint Isaac speaks:

    “Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good’, He says ‘to the evil and to the impious.’ How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? … How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us!”

    — St. Isaac of Syria, Ascetical Homilies, 51

  1. But if you’re a Christian, then what am I? « Sharp Iron

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