Cosmic Child Abuse?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/21/2013

Speaking of dads on this Father’s Day, I want to talk about the Heavenly Father for a moment and transition here into a theological issue dealing with fathers and sons; this would be the Father God, and His Son, Jesus Christ.

We’ve talked a lot over the last few years about our concern over the emerging culture and the church that is emerging from that culture. I have actually isolated four particular concerns since, if you make a critique of a broad, diversified group it’s easy for people to say, “Well, that’s not what I believe.” Instead of doing that, we’ve isolated four different ideas that many people in the emerging culture who call themselves Christians are embracing.

Those four areas are kind of watershed issues for me. One is the area of truth and knowledge. The second one is the authority of the Scriptures. The third one is the cross of Jesus Christ. And the fourth one is the Great Commission.

I want to talk for a few minutes here about the third item, which is somewhat more theological than the kind of issues that I think many Christians talk about. Yeah, we talk about truth, and the authority of the Bible and inerrancy, and the Great Commission. But not much has been said about the cross in general, except that Jesus died for your sins. We don’t work hard to cash that out in most churches, and most Christians haven’t thought much about what that entails. I think if you did think more about it, it would benefit your spiritual life. You would be deepened and drawn closer to your Savior when you understand more of what’s involved on that transaction on the cross.

Now I’ve written a Solid Ground piece that describes this called “The Christ of the Passion: What the Movie Couldn’t Show.” In this piece, I characterize a classic notion, and I would say a strongly Biblical notion—Pauline in particular—though Jesus made reference to this as well, the idea that Jesus died in our place. We deserved to die. He died for us. Such was God’s love that He “gave His only Son, that whosoever would believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.” And those who believe are rescued from the wrath of God, while those who don’t believe, the wrath of God continues to abide on them.

Now this is classically also understood as the “stumbling block of the cross.” Why would the cross rescue anyone? Why do we need to believe in the weakness of the cross, the curse of the cross. “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.” “Jesus took the curse for us.” This is weird to non-believers. Paul mentions that. He talks about the cross being a stumbling block, “to the Greeks’ foolishness.”

However, the cross understood that way is also a stumbling block to a lot of believers nowadays. In fact, it is characterized by some as “divine child abuse” of a father on his son. The idea that Jesus would die for my sins, i.e., that the Father would punish Jesus for what I did instead of just forgiving me outright. It seems barbaric that He requires a blood sacrifice.

Yet, it is a cornerstone of Christianity. A leader in the emergent church asked me, “What does the cross get me? What does the substitutionary atonement get me, this view of the cross that Jesus died in my place?” I said, “It gets me saved. It gets me rescued. It gets me forgiven. Jesus did something for me. He paid my debt.”

This idea that God must get his “ounce of flesh,” as it were, is odious to non-believers and now, more and more, to believers of one stripe at least. God tells us to forgive, but He won’t do the same Himself without drawing blood. This concept has been played with by a number of different authors. One of them is Brian McLaren who quoted the term, coined by Steve Chalke of the UK, “cosmic child abuse” to describe this understanding of the cross. McLaren puts that on the lips of one of his most attractive characters in one of his books. From what I understand, recently in a podcast, he affirmed that this was his notion, that he thought that the notion that Jesus died for my sins, that God punished Jesus, was an example of cosmic child abuse.

Let me quote from author Steve Chalke,

“The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement: ‘God is love.’ If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil” (Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus, [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003], pp. 182-183).

Let me try to answer the charge that this is not becoming of a God who is love, the charge that this is just another example of God repaying evil with evil, which He tells us not to do, that this is just cosmic child abuse.

The first question is why won’t God do what He tells us to do. The answer is that He does. He tells us to forgive. What are the grounds upon which we are to forgive? It is God’s forgiveness of us. If we read in Ephesians 4, it says that just as you have been forgiven, you forgive others. Jesus prayed in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive others.” So we are enjoined to forgive whatever people have committed against us. And the reason we are able to forgive is that God has extended forgiveness to us. Now there are grounds upon which God can extend forgiveness, and that is that His Son has paid the penalty. His Son has made it possible for God the Father to extend forgiveness to us, and therefore we should forgive others.

Why is it we don’t take our own revenge? The answer is because it is not up to us to punish crimes against us—that is God’s province. You see God doesn’t say to not take your own revenge because it’s wrong for anybody to expect punishment for harm that’s done, and it’s wrong for any sovereign to extend punishment for harm that is done. No. He says that it isn’t our job to punish sin. It is His job to do that.

You see, the rules for God are different from the rules for us, just like the rules for parents are different than the rules for kids. God has privileges we don’t because He is God, our Creator. He does appropriately as an act of justice. Chalke says we shouldn’t be returning evil for evil. It is not evil when God punishes crimes committed against Him, as all sin is. That isn’t a response with evil, that’s a response with good. It’s God’s job to judge. It’s our job to forgive. We forgive because we have been forgiven, and we’ve been forgiven because God has arranged for a method of forgiveness through His Son.

God judges and punishes out of justice. And He tells us to be like Him, just, in that regard, especially since it’s not our job to punish.

The second question has to do with the nature of the cross itself, and this is where I recommend that you go back to our website at and look up the piece that I wrote called “The Christ of the Passion: What the Movie Couldn’t Show.” There I go into detail on what the Bible teaches about what Jesus of Nazareth accomplished on the cross. My point there was that the biggest suffering on the cross was not at the hands of men, but at the hand of God during those three hours when darkness shrouded the cross, the greatest agony was when the Father poured out His wrath on His son.

I want you to see that the Bible actually teaches that there was an exchange that took place on the cross, that the Father poured out His anger on the Son, as if guilty of our sins. The Scriptures speak of this in a number of places. II Corinthians 5:22 makes this very clear: “He made Him who knew no sin, to become sin on our behalf that we could become the righteousness of God in Him.” Paul talks about a certificate of debt, i.e. decrees against us. We owe God perfect obedience. We violate that. Now we stand in His debt and He must be paid. That’s just another way of saying justice is due. He took the certificate of debt that amounted to decrees against us of those crimes that describe the rebellion against the Father, and He took that and nailed that to Jesus’ cross.

Jesus took the punishment for the world such that, as Paul says in Ephesians 2, “We were dead in our trespasses and sins, in which we formerly walked according to the course of this world.” That’s accomplished by what Jesus did. We were lost. Now we’re rescued because of what Jesus paid. Redemption is the rescue or the ransom of someone in slavery by the payment of a price. Peter says that the price was the blood of Jesus.

The Bible says unequivocally that Jesus paid for our crimes. This is not only not cosmic child abuse, but it is not contrary to the concept of “God is love.” The cross is not just an example of Jesus’ love, because Jesus was the one who suffered, but an example of God’s love. If you understand how this is the case, you will see that the cross could never be an example of cosmic child abuse, but the greatest act of self-sacrifice and mercy that the world has ever known.

I always ask people who struggle with the justice of the cross if they are a parent and if they love their children. Yes. Do you ever punish your children? Now there’s a pause because they know the answer to that is yes, but they also see where I’m going. They have just said to punish is inconsistent with love, and since God is love then God shouldn’t punish. He should just forgive.

If you carry this objection to its logical conclusion, then Hell is out of the picture. There can’t be any Hell because that would be inconsistent with love. But God punishes throughout the Bible, from the beginning to the end. In fact, the end is one big, massive punishment. In the beginning, it’s one big punishment being tossed out of the Garden. I don’t know where people get the idea that punishment is inconsistent with love.

Now here’s the question I have for you: Is it an act of love that Jesus died on the cross for man’s sin? The correct answer is yes—John 3:16. So this is an act of God, the Father’s love, that Jesus would paid for sins of mankind.

Here’s the second question: Why is it an act of love for God the Father to punish His Son? How is it the Father’s love? I could see it being an act of love for Jesus if he chose to do it, but how is it an act of love by the Father that Jesus would lay down His life? How is it loving that the Father would punish a third party?

If you did something bad to me, and I grabbed Joe Blow over there and said to you that I was going to forgive you because I’m going to punch this guy out, you would wonder how it’s an act of love for me to forgive you by punching him out? It might be his love if he said to punch him out on your behalf, but hardly an act of my love. Unless—in the case of God the Father, and the Son, Jesus, that the Son is also God. That is, it is not just another man that the Father is punishing for our sins, but God who became a man Himself and took upon Himself His own just punishment.

This is why it’s so important to approach this challenge with an understanding of the Trinity, and understanding of the nature of God Jesus is God; He isn’t just an innocent third party. He is the Judge Himself suffering, the One who determines the punishment takes it, the One who passes judgment receives it. It is Jesus, the incarnate God. That is how it’s an example of the love of God.

It is precisely because God is love that He has made a way for sinful men to be forgiven and His holy quality of justice to be upheld at the same time so that, as Paul writes, He can be both the just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

The idea that the cross is an example of cosmic child abuse just mistaken. This objection gets the cross wrong, Christology wrong, and theology proper wrong. Mr. Chalke and Mr. McLaren are deeply confused on this point, to the harm of the Christians that follow them.