Unpunishable: Part 2

In my last post, I made reference to the book Unpunishable: Ending Our Love Affair with Punishment by author Danny Silk but made little mention of it beyond this, because I had not actually read it. Having now read it (or truth: am well into reading it), I regret to say I find it a bit disappointing.

You might recall the topic we explored in our last post was the idea of God’s wrath. I shared that God’s wrath is not a topic I tend to dwell on, but explained there is a tendency in our modern era to divest the Gospel — and God — of all semblance of wrath, and the result is that the modern believer finds themselves alienated from the very Scripture upon which their faith is based. Unpunishable is a perfect example of this.

Unpunishable seeks to persuade us that the “punishment paradigm” — the idea, in a nutshell, that there is punishment for sin — is a thing we, humanity, have made up, and has never been a thing God has believed. In Silk’s own words:

In revealing the Father, Jesus systematically confronted and exposed humanity’s false views of God — in particular, the view of God as a punisher . . . “

“Jesus’ beliefs, motives, behavior, and goal countered the punishment paradigm in every aspect, because He, the Father, and the Spirit do not operate from this paradigm.”

“On the Cross, Jesus allowed Himself to enter our sin-distorted view of the Father, to feel our terror and shame, so that He could finally expose that nightmare for what it was — an utter lie.”

Just in case it is not clear, what Silk is suggesting here is that God does not punish sin. And the idea that He does has been one big misunderstanding from the beginning of time.

You may be inclined to agree with Silk for all the reasons we have discussed. After all, there has been a lot of emphasis on God’s goodness and little emphasis on judgment in many of today’s churches. Further, what is taught is how important believing in God’s goodness is. Under such teaching, we begin to think that God is not only good but our moral obligation is to believe He is. In such an environment, it becomes less important to believe or understand why He is. 

But there is a big difference between believing the privileged unpunishable state of grace in which we now stand is the result of the Cross and believing it is the result of clearing up a big misunderstanding. It is also important to understand that the war Silk is fighting is not really a war for God’s goodness. A classical view of the doctrine of grace brings us to the same destination. And it actually brings us there with far less casualties.

For example, Silk spends time exploring Jesus’ unpunishable nature, in particular discussing His treatment of the woman caught in adultery. Based on His exchange with the woman and her accusers, Silk concludes punishment is simply not in God’s nature. A classical view of grace on the other hand would explain that His treatment of the woman, as well as His healing of the sick and in fact His entire ministry on earth, was a foreshadow of the mercy He was to ultimately purchase for mankind at the Cross.

A classical view, furthermore, is even more astounding because it is not only a goodness unfathomable in its riches but also because it is a goodness we expressly did not deserve: We deserved punishment; we received grace. But if the idea our sins deserve punishment is just one big misunderstanding, the Cross becomes pretty unnecessary. Grace is just something inherent in God’s very nature that He has always wanted to express to mankind, but mankind has been too deceived to recognize. The salvation mankind ultimately needs then is not sacrificial death but understanding. Rather than fighting for God’s goodness, then, Silk is inadvertently fighting against the Cross.

So how did we get here? I mean, how on earth did we find ourselves fighting against the very foundation of Christian belief? I believe the reason is we have become so accustomed to God’s grace, we have taken it for granted. One of the things we explored in our last post is that if we are attempting to understand God in our privileged and arguably unpunishable state of grace, we will never come to understand His just and holy nature, particularly its response to sin, which is punishment. This is because at the Cross, God took these things upon Himself. And as we also explored, if we are not careful, we will begin to assume our privileged unpunishable state of grace is simply who God is, not what God has done for us.

But for Silk, I believe it is also because the foundation of his book is that punishment is the root of everything that is destructive in life, relationships and beyond. That true relationships in the Kingdom must be devoid of all punishment in order to create a place of safety. That also, however, is something a classic view of grace can agree with. But it is important to make the distinction that just because punishment is not conducive to relationship and the prosperous life overall does not mean it is not deserved. No criminal would consider their sentence conducive to relationship or life, either. But that does not mean the crime is not deserving of the sentence.

The real question then is: What do our sins deserve? See if our sins deserve punishment, not because we think they do but because they actually do, then the healing properties of God’s unfathomable grace coming into our lives (a great part of which is restoration of relationship with Him and as a result with others) makes the Cross that much more precious and beautiful. But if our sins do not deserve punishment, then that element of God’s nature becomes something that should have been all along. God’s grace is, from this perspective, not a gift paid at a high price but rather something we are entitled to.

One also gets the sense that Silk simply finds the idea of God punishing sin incompatible because of his lack of understanding of it. For example, in discussing the classic view of the Cross, he writes:

Many books have been written unpacking the significance of Christ’s suffering and death and how His sacrifice satisfied the wrath of God toward sin. This subject brings up age-old questions — Doesn’t the idea of the father punishing Jesus sound like divine child abuse?

But the classic view of the Cross is not a Father abusing a child — and secondly, this is not an age-old question; it is a relatively modern question in a movement that has spent little time understanding the context of the grace in which it now stands. And thirdly, it is a bit disingenuous to describe the exchange of the Cross as child abuse. For one, Jesus is not a child. For another, according to the classic view of the Cross, Jesus willingly offered up His own life, just as the Father willingly gave up His own Son. And lastly, unlike abuse, the act was not done senselessly: It was done because it was necessary in order to see us free.

Putting this in proper context then, what happened at the Cross is like a son of a king willingly taking our place in the hands of captors so we might be free, and the king willingly consenting. Or the son willingly taking our place and being sentenced to death for the crimes we committed, and once again the king consenting. These things might be many things: A bold miscarriage of justice perhaps (if the condemned should pay for their own crimes), or the most profound act of selfless love. But the one thing it certainly is not is child abuse. 

So what exactly makes the difference between these two scenarios? Selfless love, or child abuse? The answer hinges on whether the punishment was deserved — and necessary. A father allowing a son to die when it is not necessary raises all sorts of questions. But a father who gives up his own son — and a son who gives up his own life — for the death I deserved: This is what makes the difference.

So once again we return to the real question: What do our sins deserve? If they do not deserve punishment, then truly the Cross was the worst atrocity in history. And it was committed not only by an abusive Father, but by a sadistic God. But if our sins deserve death, the Cross was the greatest act of love and mercy heaven and earth has ever witnessed.

The problem with denying the classic view of the Cross — that Jesus took our place and satisfied God’s punishment that our sins deserved — is that we end up creating the very thing we are trying to avoid: A God who allowed His own Son to die a senseless death.

Silk attempts to build a new understanding of the Cross that I found hard to follow but goes something like this: 1) God did not cause His Son to suffer at the Cross: We did 2) Jesus’ death was not really about paying the penalty for our sins as it was to show us how terrible we were (bring our rebellion “to a head”), 3) This is because God is not into punishment and therefore the idea that God would allow His own son to die as a punishment for sin on the Cross is absurd, 4) Nonetheless, at the Cross God absorbed both our sin and its punishment and “bore it away from us.”

If I may, allow me to re-order this in the way I am guessing it logically follows for Silk:

  1. God is not into punishment.
  2. Therefore, the idea God sent His own Son to die to suffer the punishment we deserved at the Cross is absurd.
  3. Therefore, God did not punish His Own Son at the Cross: We did.
  4. But Jesus allowed this to happen to show us how bad we actually were.
  5. Somehow that event removed both our sin and its punishment.

This raises all kinds of problems in my mind. The first is: Why did God the Father, who is all-powerful and reigns supreme over His creation, allow Jesus to suffer at our hands? Jesus makes clear before His death that He could summon a legion of angels to rescue Him but does not so that all would be fulfilled. He also pleads with the Father to take this cup from him, but not His will but the Father’s be done. So clearly it was the Father’s will that Jesus suffer at our hands. Why? Silk provides no answer.

Second, what purpose was serve by Jesus allowing our rebellion to come to a head? Was it necessary for us to see how bad we were? Silk is also silent on this point, and the Bible is, also. Because this is an idea not supported by Scripture.

Lastly, how exactly did Jesus’ death remove both our sin and its punishment, when God apparently believes in neither? Here, Silk offers an explanation which I again found hard to follow, but I will try to sum it up: Since punishment for sin is all in our head, Jesus’ death and resurrection simply demonstrated to us how totally unnecessary punishment for sin is.

But Silk’s line of reasoning is not as clear. On one hand, he makes clear his contention that our separation from God due to sin is based purely on our misconception of God and therefore not real. And that the truth is “nothing can separate us from the love of God,” something that apparently has been true from the very beginning. On the other, he contends the result of Jesus’ death and resurrection allows us to enter into relationship with God by us “believing He was the offering for sin and punishment once and for all” and also “enabling God to extend free and full forgiveness and bring us back into life-giving connection with Him.” So it would seem that Jesus’ death and resurrection acted as a way of convincing us of what was already true: That our sins did not separate us from God, nor was punishment ever necessary. I do not want to assume too much here, but if that is true, that would mean when Silk says God “bore away our sin and its punishment” he means God simply found a way to convince us of what was already true and break the spell of misconception we were under. But if this is so, the idea of Jesus becoming a perfect sin offering for us pretty much loses all meaning. 

And none of this explains how this enabled God “to extend free and full forgiveness and bring us back into life-giving connection.” I mean, was God also under a misconception? Did He too believe sin had caused separation? It just doesn’t make sense.

I am going to go out on a limb and say I believe what is really happening here is Silk is doing his best to follow his premise “God is not into punishment” to its logical conclusion but is running into trouble and is doing his best to navigate his way through it while keeping the Biblical evidence intact. The truth is, the most logical conclusion to his premise — that God is not into punishment, nor ever has been — is to do away with the Cross altogether. If God’s history with humanity has been based on a terrible misunderstanding, certainly no one needs to die. All we need is understanding. Of course, that would have the effect of leaving most of the Bible, and the Christian message, in shambles.

All of this seems regrettable, because none of it is necessary. Silk has a beautiful message about the power and beauty of us understanding, and conducting our relationships in a way, that we are unpunishable. And none of this really requires a theological over-reach. All that is necessary is for us to take one step back, rethink our premise and acknowledge that God is into punishment — not because He is bad but because our sins are deserving of it before a holy and just God. It is here and only here that we come to understand the depth of mercy and love God expressed at the Cross, one that ushered us into unfathomable riches of His grace through a forgiveness that was not imaginary but very real, a grace which truly and eternally makes us unpunishable.

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