The Cross: The Symbol of Abuse

The Christian Cross: The Most Celebrated and Recognised Symbol of Child Abuse

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

One of the most adhesive theological conundrums that Christian soteriology constantly faces today is the idea that the Father’s action in giving up His son Jesus to His enemies to be flogged, stripped and nailed naked on the cross to finally die a most shameful death as the only possible way to grant everlasting bliss to the vilest offenders imaginable, conditioned upon the creature’s acceptance of that ghastly atoning sacrifice, is child abuse of the highest order of a magnitude that would shame even the the most nefarious of abusers, for the ridicule and the torture and the eventual demise that the Son, i.e., Jesus, had to endure on that ignominious cross was THE divine plan that was eternally hatched since before time existed (Revelation 13:8). The technical term for this salvific theory and its accompanying theological difficulty adumberated above is penal substitution, which is perhaps no more beautifully, yet disturbingly, depicted than in Domenico Beccafumi’s painting attached above– a lifelike illustration of our point from almost 500 years ago.

The philosophical problem that comes prepacked with the penal substitution theory has latched itself onto the Christian cross and remains stubbornly in place as Christian theologians continue to this very moment to piece together reconiliatory excuses but failing rather miserably to come up with a substantive and definitive formula that all Christians could rationally concur with and cling to. No excuse, as a matter of fact, can possibly ameliorate the difficulty in imputing God as the exemplar father figure for all time with the ultimate responsibility of planning and executing the abuse, torture and death of His son, since before He even created time, so that the least of sinners to the greatest of sinners could all be forgiven, saved and bestowed unimaginable everlasting pleasure by simply believing in that divine child abuse. And in Catholicism, it has taken the image of the crucifix and made into the official stamp of the religion.

No doubt, our Christian acquaintances and friends will find the above rather difficult to bear but is there any other way to describe the concept of salvation that they rigorously try to have us swallow? How would a person describe a father who says to his only son’s friends and enemies the following?

“I cannot allow any of you into my beautiful palace until and unless I personally see to it that my one and only son, whom I love with all my heart, is berated and emotionally scarred by his enemies, spat upon, physically tortured, stripped naked and nailed on a cross in my garden for all to gawk at until he breathes his last. And this is something that I have placed in the blueprint of existence since before time.”

If that is not textbook child abuse, what is? Indeed, it is child abuse of cosmic proportions.

Commenting on penal substitution as the underlying theme behind the cross, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Professor of Biblical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Dr. Thomas Schreiner writes:

“The wisdom of God displayed in the cross is rejected by the wise of this age. Penal substitution is an object of indignation and regularly pilloried by many of the educated class. For instance, many radical feminists claim that penal substitution sanctions domestic abuse of women and children. In a recent book Denny Weaver emphatically rejects penal substitution and advocates nonviolent atonement. Scholars regularly complain that penal substitution is abstract, legal and impersonal. They lament that it pits the Father against the Son, puts the law above God and places the emphasis on a wrathful God. Even in the evangelical camp there is the claim that penal substitution is “cosmic child abuse” and contrary to the love of God.” [1]

Professor emeritus of religion at Bluffton University Dr. J. Denny Weaver sees the underlying philosophical baggage of the penal substitution theory as justification for labelling the concept as “child abuse”. He writes:

“The idea of a “vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed” qualifies penal substitution for the label of divine child abuse.” [2]

Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Providence Seminary Dr. Patrick Franklin says that penal substitution makes the cross liable to “cosmic child abuse”:

“A third critical objection is that the penal substitution view celebrates and justifies redemptive violence as a solution to human problems. God the Father satisfies the demands of justice by inflicting upon the Son unthinkable, torturous violence–in fact, “the most horrible and contemptuous form of execution known to the ancient world.” Critics have referred to penal substitution as a theory of “cosmic child abuse” committed by a “sadistic and bloodthirsty”God.” [3]

Howard Paterson Professor of Theology and Public Issues, and Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago’s School of Theology Dr. David Tombs commends criticism of penal substitution and its underlying philosophy and readily identifies it as a promotion of “child abuse”:

“Penal substitution is the doctrine that Christ died in the place of men and women, and by taking punishment in their place he paid the penalty for them. This model of atonement with its strongly judicial and retributive emphasis has its roots back to Anselm in the medieval period, and was subsequently developed and revised by Calvin during the Reformation. For some Evangelical Protestant churches penal substitution is the only acceptable version of the church’s historical understanding of atonement, and any alternative is a concession and betrayal… However, the assumptions behind penal substitution have been strongly criticised on both ethical and theological grounds. Its starting point appears to be an uncritical affirmation of retributive justice; and its proposed resolution appears to support, and even to celebrate, the punishment of the innocent without good reason. Feminist theologians have also pointed out that the logic of penal substitution does little to challenge abusive power relations and punitive violence, and ultimately provides a divine archetype for child abuse.” [4]


[1] Schreiner, T. R. (2006). Penal Substitution View. In James Beilby & Paul R. Eddy (eds), The Nature of the Atonement. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic. p. 70

[2] Weaver, J. D. (2011). The Nonviolent Atonement. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 305.

[3] Franklin, P. (2007). Penal Substitution in Perspective: Re-Evaluating the Articulation and Application of the Doctrine. In Wendy Porter, ed.), McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry, Volume 10. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 33

[4] Tombs, D. (2017). Public Theology and Reconciliation. In Sebastian Kim & Katie Day (eds.), A Companion to Public Theology. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV. p. 141

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