Home » What is “Divine Abuse” Model of Atonement?

What is “Divine Abuse” Model of Atonement?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
7 minutes read

Ok, you got me. There is no theory of atonement called “Divine Abuse,” not officially, at least. It’s an expansion pack on top of the Penal Substitution theory. I put it at the bottom of the list of theories because I don’t think it deserves to be taken seriously. In fact, I believe Divine Abuse is a heresy. Some would say that maybe a tiny hint of it can be found in Calvin’s writings, but that is arguable.[1] Otherwise, it is a modern development of this and the previous century, spreading like wildfire in the church, primarily via books and social media. Divine Abuse is an expansion (or a twisted version) of the “penal” aspect of the Penal Substitution model of atonement. It includes elements of hate, anger, wrath, torture, abuse, and violence. In addition, it holds the view that God the Son and God the Father were disconnected from one another in some cosmic fashion. Strong motifs of violence are frequently used by preachers promoting this view. Some popular names promoting it are David Platt, John Piper, Paul Washer, C.J. Mahaney, Voddie Baucham, Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur, and others, most of whom are reformed Baptists.[2] Reformed Baptists are Calvinists who are Baptists. Their soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) is Calvinist, and their ecclesiology is Baptist.

I do not know of any church father who ever believed or promoted any of the motifs that Divine Abuse theology promotes. We can probably say that while Penal Substitution was developed in Europe, the “Divine Abuse” expansion was added in the United States.

The logic of “Divine Abuse” can be summarized in this way:

God hates sin, and because he’s holy, he cannot come near sinners unless he punishes them. Therefore, since humanity is sinful, it is separated from God, unable to experience him or his love. Since God’s wrath against humanity was stored from the beginning of time, God had to satisfy his wrath against sinners. However, only a cosmic-level punishment may satisfy the fullness of God’s wrath against humanity. So, instead of punishing and killing humanity, God the Father had to brutalize, torture, punish, and kill his own innocent Son instead. This resulted in a temporary separation within the Trinity between the Father and the Son, whereby the Son was banned from the Trinity (because he turned to sin, and the Father cannot be near sin).

These statements and logic will be backed up with quotes throughout the book, mainly in the following two parts. And, as you will see, the preachers of Divine Abuse are not a bit apologetic about it. In fact, for many of them, unless you accept this extension pack of Divine Abuse, you do not truly believe in the Gospel. Anything else means you believe in a “satanic doctrine.”[3]

The pillars of Divine Abuse

Two main pillars hold the doctrine of Divine Abuse together: the first is that God punished, brutalized, tortured, crushed, abused, and killed Jesus with his accumulated anger and wrath, which had to be satisfied in some cosmic act of violence. In other words, it was not enough that Jesus paid the debt of our penalty by dying (at the hands of sinners) in our place. He also had to satisfy God’s wrath by allowing his father to abuse him severely and violently. I reject this notion and even argue that the distance from this view to reasoning for domestic violence is dangerously close. Later in the book, I will expand further on this.

The second pillar of Divine Abuse is a cosmic separation within the Godhead whereby the link between God the Father and God the Son was broken. The logic is that God the Father cannot bear to be near sinners. So, when Jesus carried our sins (2nd Corinthians 5:21), he and the Father had to be separated from one another. I also reject this notion and argue that it’s first-degree heresy. Later, I will expand further on this as well.

I spent endless hours reviewing books, articles, sermons, videos, and other publications made available by preachers of Divine Abuse. The remainder of this book is dedicated to defining and refuting Divine Abuse in the hope of rescuing and redeeming the gospel from the hands of an abusive god. I will be doing so despite my enormous affection and fondness for many of those who adhere to it, some of which I served with and consider friends, and I have no doubt how sincere their faith is.

Important to notice that for those who adhere to Divine Abuse, this view is not an expansion but a legitimate and inseparable part of (what they understand to be) the Penal Substitution model of atonement. They might not realize it, but they have created a fusion between “Divine Abuse” and “Penal Substitution,” which they call only by the name “Penal Substitution.” For obvious reasons, this confuses and prevents believers from appreciating the “mere” version of Penal Substitution as it is being misrepresented.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about:

The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment, and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin. This understanding of the cross of Christ stands at the very heart of the gospel. There is a captivating beauty in the sacrificial love of a God who gave himself for his people. It is this that first draws many believers to the Lord Jesus Christ, and this that which will draw us to him when he returns on the last day to vindicate his name and welcome his people into his eternal kingdom. That the Lord Jesus Christ died for us––a shameful death, bearing our curse, enduring our pain, suffering the wrath of his own Father in our place.[500]

Most of this quote, which appears in the introduction of a book about Penal Substitution, represents the theory adequately. However, its end (emphasized in bold by me) represents the additional element of “Divine Abuse.” What this little addon does, is like pouring a bottle of tabasco sauce over ice cream. Most will never want to touch the ice cream (Penal Substitution or even Christianity as a whole) if they taste tabasco sauce (Divine Abuse) on it. But much better than my sweet and spicy metaphor is how the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright explained it:

As somebody said to me years ago, “If you take a half-truth and make it into the whole truth, it becomes an untruth.” And that’s a very serious thing because then the vision of God that people have is distorted, and so many people are actually put off the gospel––they just say, “No, that sounds like a bullying God. If there is a God, he can’t really be like that.” When some people talk about the gospel, you’d think that John 3:16 said: “God so hated the world that he killed his only Son.” Sometimes people say: “That picture is important—wrath and sin and hell and all the rest of it, and it’s because God loves us.” But simply adding the word “love” onto the end of that story can actually be actually even worse. It is like what abusers do when they say, “I love you so much”—it’s hideous..[501]

N.T. Wright is correct. Anyone can “prove” almost anything by cherry-picking Bible verses out of context to promote their agenda. With Divine Abuse, this happens when Old Testament verses about wrath are mixed with New Testament verses about love. Thereby, the godhead of Divine Abuse seems to play “good cop, bad cop” with us. One, the Father, is angry with us. He can’t even look at us and wants to kill us. The other, his Son, likes us sinners and tries to rescue us from his furious Father. This is why many non-Christians say, “Jesus was a great guy, but I can’t believe in God.” To them, the godhead of Divine Abuse seems schizophrenic.

But the logic of Divine Abuse is flawed as well. Let’s say all of my friends turned on me. They destroyed my car and sprayed profanities all over my house. Now, I’m very upset, but I still love them. So, how did I manage to reconcile my love for them with being angry with them? There was only one way. I poured my wrath on my son (who did nothing wrong). I tied him to a tree and killed him by burning the tree. Then, standing before a judge, I pleaded, “You don’t understand! I love everyone, but I had to display justice! This was the only way!” The judge would likely send me to a closed psychiatric institution for life.

If this imaginary storyline makes no sense in real life, why would it make sense in the heavenly realm? If it’s a gruesome and unjust concept to you, it is even more loathsome to God. While I agree that Christian (and Jewish) theology has always affirmed substitutionary atonement,[502] whereby a penalty paid is legal and just, I reject any idea suggesting that a triune God abused and murdered itself.

In summary, Divine Abuse’s belief that God abused, tortured and killed Christ is not biblical, nor is it a part of the mere Penal Substitution model of atonement. It is a modern heresy that twists the gospel from a message about a loving Father to one about a hateful and abusive god, and I will spend the rest of this book proving it.

This article is a copy-paste from my new book, ‘The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse,’ available on this Amazon page.
free sample is available here.

[1] John Calvin used “appease his wrath” as part of his explanation on his view of the atonement. However, this is an English translation to writings that were published in Latin in 1536 and what exactly did Calvin meant can be debated. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.10).

[2] To make sure I am not generalizing, and while Divine Abuse does come mostly from the reformed (Calvinist) Baptist denomination, it is important to stress that not all Baptists necessarily believe that way and also not all Calvinists. For example, Roger E. Olson an American Baptist theologian and Professor of Christian Theology of Ethics at the Baylor University, wrote the following: “Images that portray Jesus as a victim of God the Father who takes his wrath out on his innocent Son turn people off to the penal substitution theory. They picture the atonement as primarily motivated by wrath, not love, and they pit the Father against the Son thus messing with the Trinity….Men committed the violence against Jesus, not God the Father…God did not kill Jesus (at least in my version of penal substitution); people did.” (Roger E. Olson, “Did God kill Jesus?“, patheos.com, Nov 2, 2011)

[3]Jared Wilson of The Gospel Coalition (a popular reformed website) said that “a Wrathless Cross” is a “Satanic Doctrine”. (“The Satanic Doctrine of a Wrathless Cross“, Feb. 2020). A “wrathless cross” is a message of the cross whereby God is not angry with Jesus and doesn’t beat him up and kick him out of the trinity.

[500] Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 21. Bold was added by me.

[501]Tom Wright’s Cross Centred Revolution,” Premier Christianity, February 2017. See also N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (New York: HarperCollins, 2016).

[502] See J. I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve,” Tyndale Bulletin 25 (1974): 3–46, and John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986, 2006).

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist