Atonement and Sexual Assault: Redemption for the Sinned Against

The spate of recent headlines about sexual abuse and victimization in the Church have made clear the prevalence of these crimes. The revelation of decades of abuse by Southern Baptist pastors and complicity by denominational leaders is only the most recent example. Willow Creek Community Church is still addressing the reverberations of trauma surrounding accusations of harassment against women. Sexual abuse is rampant outside the church as well. According to statistics compiled by the Rape, Assault, and Incest National Network (RAINN), one in six women in the United States “has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted).”[1]Much-needed discussion surrounding prevention and accountability in leadership is beginning to take place. Churches must also address how they treat women who have been sexually abused, both within and without the church.

In addition to these needed reforms, Christians must examine how our underlying theology may continue to damage victims rather than offer redemption. If what is preached from the pulpit, embodied in song and worship, and internalized by the congregation does not offer a message of hope and healing for those who have been abused, it is not the good news of Jesus Christ. In particular, our understanding of atonement—how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus brings us into reconciliation with God—must be examined carefully.

Elaine Heath details how women who have suffered sexual abuse have been unable to find their churches’ conceptions of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) salvific. According to the presentation of PSA that I and many other Pentecostals and evangelicals in North America were raised with, Jesus takes on the punishment that we rightfully deserve as sinners by dying on the cross, thereby appeasing God’s wrath toward us. In voicing the pain this view of God causes toward women who are sexually abused, Heath vulnerably names herself as a survivor:

“Many of us survivors have been steeped in the theory of penal substitutionary atonement…. Yet the logic never rang true or trustworthy or acceptable to us. Even when we sang the hymns and taught Sunday school and said the penal substitutionary formula about salvation, we were appalled. We knew that with all our human faults we would never subject our children to torture and murder in order to pay off someone’s offense. Could we be more loving and forgiving than God?… We had to leave the church because we could not stay in a religion that was built on punishment, wrath, and abuse. The God of that religion was exactly like our offenders, and we had to get away.”[2]

Clearly this understanding of the cross has not been “good news” for these victimized women. Those abused by clergy are doubly damaged. Not only is their connection to self and God broken by a trusted spiritual leader, but they are robbed of a saving message in Christ to heal the brokenness. PSA is not only rooted in wrath and punishment; it is one-sided as well. There is freedom for the sinner. But what about the sinned against?

No council has ever declared PSA or any other atonement theory the sole explanation for the mystery of how Jesus’ death reconciles us toward God. Throughout Christian history, theologians have offered models that speak in life-giving ways to those from differing times and places. Those who have been abused can live more fully into the promise of new life in Christ when they can embody visions that heal rather than exacerbate their pain. Andrew Sung Park offers one such model.

Park, a Korean-American theologian, incorporates the concept of han into his understanding of atonement. Sin against a person results in “frozen energy,” a sense of helplessness. The states of sin and han are not mutually exclusive; sinners and the sinned against may experience both and perpetuate them in a vicious cycle.

According to Matthew 8:17, in his ministry of healing Jesus “took our infirmities and bore our diseases,” rather than our sin or iniquity. To Park, this represents his bearing of our han.[4] In Park’s soteriology, the Holy Spirit who had been present with Jesus throughout his life was also crucified and resurrected with him. This “wounded and resurrected Holy Spirit”[5] is the Paraclete who is now with us. Because the Holy Spirit underwent the crucifixion and resurrection with Jesus, she understands the depths of unjust suffering. Through the resurrection, the Paraclete becomes a “wounded healer,” tasked “to comfort the comfortless, to advocate for the rights of victims, to uplift the discouraged, to help the helpless, and to teach people about Jesus’ instruction.”[6] Because she underwent victimhood with Jesus on the cross, the Paraclete “knows our own unknowable and indescribable hurts of han, and heals them in us as we open ourselves to the Paraclete.”[7]She “makes victims well by empowering them also to become wounded healers.”[8] In their healing, victims move from a state of frozen immobility to regenerated beings, trusting in God and awakened to Jesus’ redemption for them.

This vision is also robustly Pentecostal. Rather than a model that makes atonement solely an exchange between Father and Son, the Holy Spirit plays a pivotal role. She both participates in the death and resurrection of Jesus and brings his healing into our lives as we open ourselves to him. In this view, sexual assault victims find not pain but healing through the cross. They are freed in the life of the Spirit to share the healing they have experienced outward, to all creation.

Faith Van Horne is a student in the Master of Divinity program at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

ska%cc%88rmavbild-2017-01-06-kl-21-17-02Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice is a multicultural, gender inclusive, and ecumenical organization that promotes peace, justice, and reconciliation work among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world. If you like what we do, please become a member!

[1] Rape, Assault, and Incest National Network, “Scope of the Problem: Statistics,” Data from National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey (1998).

[2] Elaine A. Heath, We Were the Least of These: Reading the Bible with Survivors of Sexual Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011), 130.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[4] Andrew Sung Park, Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 43.

[5] Ibid., 62.

[6] Ibid., 67.

[7] Ibid., 68.

[8] Ibid., 67.

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