Penal Substitution Atonement theory has almost become synonymous with Christianity. So much so, in fact, that I suspect most Christians in the West are not even aware that there are alternative ways of understanding Jesus. I say “in the West” because the Eastern Orthodox churches do not (indeed, never have) understood the Passion of Christ in terms of penal substitution.
In essence, the penal substitution atonement theory posits that God, being perfectly holy and just, cannot allow sin in His presence (I use the masculine because the God picture adopted by most adherents of this theory constructs God as masculine), nor can He leave it unpunished. But God understands that the scale of human sinfulness is immeasurably vast and completely beyond the capacity of humans to atone for, and so God decides to become human, in the form of Jesus, to take the punishment for our sin in our place. As completely human, the sacrifice can be offered on behalf of all humanity; as completely divine, Jesus is able to remain sinless. In this way, through the sin offering of the completely innocent Jesus, God is able to satisfy the demands of both His perfect love and His perfect justice.
I certainly don’t look down on anyone who holds to this view. There are many very intelligent, very sincere seekers after God who believe this. In some ways it is impossible, growing up in the Christian West, not to become shaped by this thinking in some way – perhaps by embracing it by default, perhaps by violently rejecting it and defining oneself in opposition to it. It is a part of the cultural air that we breathe. Part of forging one’s identity in the West necessitates, to some degree, dealing with the question of penal substitution. So holding this view is perfectly understandable, just as it is understandable that letting go of it would feel scary. I am not alone in having walked a path with penal substitution theory. Nor am I, for that matter, alone in the conviction that I can no longer subscribe to it. And perhaps that is why I write these posts – partly because I use them to wrestle with my own thoughts, and partly because I want others, who are also wrestling, to know that they are not alone in it, even though I know it feels terribly lonely. So here are 10 of my reasons for rejecting penal substitution as a way of understanding Jesus, offered to you with the hope that they might help you clarify some of the doubts you have, and hopefully show you that it is not a choice between penal substitution or atheism. Jesus is bigger and more beautiful than an atonement theory.
1) Guilt is not transferable. If an innocent party pays the price for a crime, justice has not been served. Imagine that a friend of yours is brutally murdered. Your friend’s father volunteers to be executed in the place of the killer, who walks away free. Even if the killer changes his ways, was justice (in any model, even a retributive one) done? I would argue no. Does the real killer make compensation to the family? Are there mechanisms in place to ensure that the killer no longer experiences the urge to kill, so that other members of society are safe? Are there ways to speak to the complex psychological and socio-cultural factors that may have driven the person to become a killer? No? Then has justice done simply because the price has been paid? Absolutely not! For justice to be done, it is absolutely imperative that the perpetrator of the crime be dealt with in some way (note, I am not saying punished). The maintenance of a just society does not allow guilt to be ignored.
As an aside, those who claim that the Scriptures are the inerrant Word of God would need to explain how the concept of justice as expressed in, for example, Ezekiel 18:20 (“The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”), is compatible with the penal substitution model.
2) Penal substitution makes the assumption that “perfect justice” is retributive justice. I have discussed this at length elsewhere, if you want to understand my position better. I have no problem with accepting that God is just, but the understanding of justice that underpins penal substitution theory reduces justice to a punitive event rather than a social state of being to be preserved through the regulation of right relationships.
It is especially troubling to me that the whole transaction that takes place is designed to change God, not to change me. It is the attitude of the judge that penal substitution shifts, not the attitude of the accused. Allegedly, the process allows God to vent His wrath by punishing Jesus in our place, which magically allows God to “see Jesus when He looks at us”: God doesn’t see our sin because He sees the innocent Jesus in our place, the sinless one whom He has mangled and murdered instead of us. Justice is said to have been done, but the only thing that has really changed is that God isn’t angry anymore. There is no real obligation, in this model, for the sinner to restore relationships and make things right, because the punishment alone suffices to effect justice. The social dimension of justice is rendered irrelevant.
Put it this way: the killer in Point 1) still walks free in society because he “accepts the sacrifice” of the benefactor. The very essence of what makes his behaviour sinful has not been dealt with at all – neither he nor his relationship with society have been restored – but all the bureaucratic boxes about punishing somebody for the crime have been ticked. Society is in as much danger as it ever was, but that is okay because God’s wrath has been averted. This transaction between Father and Son leaves humanity unchanged. And that is a problem – there is no real justice there.
For me to accept penal substitution, there would need to be a logical explanation for why what amounts to vengeance ought to be construed as “perfect justice”. But I have read the explanations, heard them preached from multiple pulpits, and I am afraid they consistently fail to rise above the punitive.
3) If the punishment for sin is eternal separation from God (not that I believe it is, but it is a key assumption that believers in penal substitution make in explaining why Jesus died), then Jesus did not pay the price. He rose after three days and ascended to the Father. The price of eternal separation was not paid. In other words, the penal substitution theory of the atonement lacks internal cohesion.
4) The theory requires that God is violent. If Jesus is, as he claims, the full revelation of God, and if Jesus maintained a demonstrably non-violent ethic throughout his ministry, then the notion of a violent God – one who is willing to express that violence on an innocent party, what’s more – is incompatible with the God revealed in Jesus. Either God is schizophrenic or penal substitution is a misunderstanding of the cross.
And Jesus’ commitment to non-violence is not a contentious point, as some would claim. For the first three centuries of its existence, up until Constantine brings Christianity into the political realm, an explicit commitment to non-violence is the defining characteristic of the church. It is clear from the writings of the period that there is an active belief that Jesus expressly forbade violence. Non-violence is the value that underpins the ethics of early believers – there is no avoiding that fact. If we are to accept penal substitution as a valid model, then the issue of its incompatibility with Jesus’ non-violence needs to be satisfactorily addressed.
5) The early church did not believe in penal substitution. Penal substitution has its origins in the 11th Century writings of Anselm of Canterbury and finds its refinement in the work of the Protestant Reformation theologians, primarily Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. The early church most likely held to a Christus Victor atonement model, as is evident in the atonement theologies held by the Eastern Orthodox churches, which are the only churches that can trace a direct line back to the early church. In this model, Jesus – by his death – ransomed humanity from “the powers and principalities” that held us captive. What constitutes “powers and principalities” is open to debate, but the gaoler from which Jesus ransoms us is certainly not God.
There is an onus on adherents of a penal substitution understanding of the atonement to explain why we should believe this comparatively recent atonement theory over the substantially older ones held by the Eastern Orthodox church and, most likely, by the early church. Certainly, the Christus Victor way of thinking is more explicitly identifiable in the gospel accounts and the other New Testament writings than penal substitution – which can only be read inferentially from select passages – is.
6) Penal Substitution does not demonstrate the grace and mercy of God that the gospels testify to. Instead, the debt must be paid in full before there can be any forgiveness. Where is the room for grace if there has to be full payment?
What’s more, this payment requires human sacrifice. I have heard many proponents of penal substitution argue that the very reason God’s violence in the Old Testament is justified is because the cultures God wanted exterminated promoted human sacrifice, especially child sacrifice. In that case, the God of penal substitution is eerily similar to the detested Molech of the Canaanites. Can you say “cognitive dissonance”?
7) Penal substitution places God under the Law. If God cannot simply forgive sin, but is obliged to punish, then God is a slave to the Law. I would contend that God does not need the cross in order to forgive sin. God, as Sovereign, has the choice to forgive sin regardless of whether any cost is paid.
I like the way that Thomas Aquinas, the 13th Century theologian and philosopher puts it in the third part of Summa Theologicae, Question 46 and Article 2:
“But if He had willed to free man from sin without any satisfaction, He would not have acted against justice. For a judge, while preserving justice, cannot pardon fault without penalty, if he must visit fault committed against another—for instance, against another man, or against the State, or any Prince in higher authority. But God has no one higher than Himself, for He is the sovereign and common good of the whole universe. Consequently, if He forgive sin, which has the formality of fault in that it is committed against Himself, He wrongs no one: just as anyone else, overlooking a personal trespass, without satisfaction, acts mercifully and not unjustly. And so David exclaimed when he sought mercy: “To Thee only have I sinned” (Psalm 50:6), as if to say: “Thou canst pardon me without injustice.”
The dilemma for proponents of penal substitution is this: if God needs the cross in order to be able to forgive sin, then God is beholden to a Law and is not sovereign. If, instead, God does not need the cross but chooses it as a means for punishing sin, then God is choosing to use an unjust process to bring about justice. Either way, there is a problem.
8) Penal Substitution is premised on flawed definitions of certain key concepts:
Laws do not exist to set standards: they exist to uphold principles. “Sin”, as is the case with the transgression of any law, is not problematic because of the act of transgression itself, it is problematic because of the state of affairs brought about by that act. It is not the sinful action itself that is problematic, but the fact that the action violates the principle that the law was designed to protect. By defining sin as individual actions that fall short of a divine standard, penal substitution both misunderstands the nature of sin, and severely underestimates the danger of it.
Sin is not a thing in and of itself; like darkness, sin is an absence. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the gospels equate sin with a darkness that disappears when the light shines on it. Darkness is the absence of light; sin is the absence of love. Jesus – repeatedly – uses the metaphor of sin as a disease to be cured. One does not spank sickness out of a child. Sin is a disease – a sort of a malnutrition – an absence. And it is not restricted to the personal. Sin always finds its most terrible expression socially: dysfunctional people create dysfunctional relationships, and so to address sin, people need to be made whole and functional. They need to unlearn their dysfunctional behavioural patterns and learn to relate differently, from a position of wholeness and not brokenness. This strategy for dealing with sin is manifestly obvious throughout Jesus’ ministry: sin is cured by addressing what is missing: love, acceptance, forgiveness, repentance. Not moral purity.
The gospel writers, coming from Jewish backgrounds, did not understand the “Kingdom of God” to mean an otherworldy paradise accessible only by the virtuous. The problem that the gospel writers see Jesus as addressing is not personal access to paradise. It is about the restoration of a society (Israel) under God’s rule. And they believed that to be an earthly kingdom, very much tied up in the politics of Israel as a nation. When Jesus speaks to repentance and forgiveness and loving one another as prerequisites, he is not saying that these are the tickets to get you through the door to heaven, he is saying that if there is to be a new Israel, a people under the kingship of God, then we have to change the way we relate to one another, because that kingdom is not comprised only of people we like and agree with, but also includes Gentiles – enemies, in other words. In other words, the questions around the “Kingdom of God” are to do with social cohesion, not with access.
I can go on about what “resurrection”, and “repentance” and “salvation” would have meant to 1st Century Jews, but you can do that homework for yourself. Suffice it to say that the Reformation and post-modern interpretations of these terms that we have imposed on them change how we understand the cross, and therefore how we understand God and ourselves. And they change it for the worse.
9) Penal substitution justifies scapegoating. Scapegoating, from a sociological perspective, is when a group finds cohesion through projecting its own failures onto an innocent third party and then violently lynching that ‘scapegoat’, which provides a sort of catharsis. Throughout the Bible, whenever this occurs, the Bible sides with the victim – from Joseph, to Job, to Daniel, to Stephen. Scapegoating is consistently portrayed as unjust in the Bible. The lynching of Jesus in the gospels is no exception. The writers go out of their way to convey Jesus’ innocence and the injustice of his execution. Jesus himself, when he predicts his death, emphasises that it will be at the hands of men (not once does he even insinuate that God is behind it all).
Penal substitution, as an atonement theory, interprets the scapegoating process in a way that is not consistent with the ways in which the Scriptures at large deal with it. The Scriptures always side with the victims of injustice; penal substitution asks us, instead, to side with the lynch mob, and has God the Father orchestrating the lynching.
That is why it is so significant that Jesus rose. By raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicates him, affirms the injustice of the lynching, and then pronounces peace. The resurrection exposes this way of manufacturing peace for what it is: brutal and unjust. We cannot find any lasting peace by blaming others for the way things are, by constructing ‘them’ as bad and ‘us’ as good and maintaining that illusion by destroying ‘them’. We cannot hold others responsible for the dysfunction of the world by piling all of our “sins” onto them and driving them out. To paraphrase Brian Zahnd, Jesus accepts the blame so that we can stop blaming. Jesus says, “Fine. Heap it all on me. I accept all of your blame, which means that nobody else can be blamed in future. Now let’s find a better way of relating”.
10) Penal substitution does not tie in with how Jesus views his mission. I offer two insights:
In John 12:24, with his death looming, Jesus tells his disciples: “ Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds”. Clearly Jesus saw his death as the catalyst for a much larger process of growth and rejuvenation, involving other people – not as a decisive and isolated one-off event. I am not suggesting that God does not, in some way, deal decisively with sin through the cross, but I am suggesting that this comment by Jesus makes little sense through the lens of penal substitution, and suggests that maybe we need to look at the cross differently: as a part of God’s plan rather than the plan in its entirety.
My second offering is from Luke 4: when Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61 to effectively introduce himself as the awaited Messiah, there is no mention of crime and punishment. In fact, his ending the quote where he does actively dissociates God from violence (in brackets I have included what Jesus leaves out, electing to end mid-sentence); instead, Jesus defines his mission as primarily restorative:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
[and the day of vengeance of our God]
As I said at the beginning, I do not look down on anyone who holds to penal substitution. In the end, I would like to think that all of us – whatever accident of birth led to our enculturation and whatever experiences shaped our becoming – are, to quote Tennyson in In Memoriam: “like infants crying in the night, infants crying for the light, and with no language but a cry”. We do our best with what we have got, trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t. So I am not suggesting for a moment that believing in penal substitution makes you ignorant or foolish, or that it somehow denies you access into God’s Kingdom. But I do think that it is a position that needs to be carefully considered. It has – I think – the potential to shift the expression of that seeking after God onto a path that threatens the gospel message of peace and reconciliation. After all, if God is violent and vindictive, that has profound ramifications for how a society functioning in the way God intended ought to organise itself. Violence – as it always has – begets violence. Once you can carry out violence on another human being – in any form – you have ceased to respect them in some measure. And that does not bode well for any society.