What do you think of the “Penal Substitution” view of the atonement?

If asked what Jesus came to do and how he did it, most contemporary western Christians would automatically say something like, “Jesus took the punishment from God that I deserved.” This is what’s usually called “Penal Substitution” view of the atonement, for it emphasizes that Jesus was punished by God in our place. His sacrifice appeased the Father’s wrath towards us and thus allows us to be saved.

This view has been the dominant view in western Christianity since the Reformation period, and it captures a profoundly important biblical truth. Jesus did certainly die as our substitute. And the cross certainly expresses God’s judgment on sin. But I have a number of unsettling questions about the idea that God had to vent his wrath on Jesus in order to forgive us. Here’s a few of them:

*Does God really need to appease his wrath with a blood sacrifice in order to forgive us? If so, does this mean that the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the ultimate description of God’s character? And if this is true, what are we to make of Jesus’ teaching that this law is surpassed by the law of love? Not only this, but what are we to make of all the instances in the Bible where God forgives people without demanding a sacrifice (e.g. the prodigal son)?

*If God’s holiness requires that a sacrifice be made before he can fellowship with sinners, how did Jesus manage to hang out with sinners without a sacrifice, since he is as fully divine and as holy as God the Father?

*If Jesus’ death allows God the Father to accept us, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Jesus reconciles God to us than it is to say Jesus reconciles us to God? Yet the New Testament claims the latter and never the former (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:18-20). ). In fact, if God loves sinners and yet can’t accept sinners without a sacrifice, wouldn’t it be even more accurate to say that God reconciles God to himself than to say he reconciles us to God? But this is clearly an odd and unbiblical way of speaking.

*How are we to understand one member of the Trinity (the Father) being wrathful towards another member (the Son) of the Trinity, when they are, along with the Holy Spirit, one and the same God? Can God be truly angry with God? Can God actually punish God?

*If God the father needs someone to “pay the price” for sin, does the Father ever really forgive anyone? Think about it. If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? It seems not, especially since the very concept of forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.

*Are sin and guilt the sorts of things that can be literally transferred from one party to another? Related to this, how are we to conceive of the Father being angry towards Jesus and justly punishing him when he of course knew Jesus never did anything wrong?

*If the just punishment for sin is eternal hell (as most Christians have traditionally believed), how does Jesus’ several hours of suffering and his short time in the grave pay for it?

*If the main thing Jesus came to do was to appease the Father’s wrath by being slain by him for our sin, couldn’t this have been accomplished just as easily when (say) Jesus was a one-year-old boy as when he was a thirty-three year old man? Were Jesus’ life, teachings, healing and deliverance ministry merely a prelude to the one really important thing he did – namely, die? It doesn’t seem to me that the Gospels divide up and prioritize the various aspects of Jesus’ life in this way. (I maintain that everything Jesus did was about one thing – overcoming evil with love. Hence, every aspect of Jesus was centered on atonement — that is, reconciling us to God and freeing us from the devil’s oppression.)

* Not to be offensive, but if it’s true that God’s wrath must be appeased by sacrificing his own Son – or, if not that, sacrificing all other humans in eternal hell – then don’t we have to conclude that those pagans who have throughout history sacrificed their children to appease the gods’ wrath had the right intuition, even if they expressed it in the wrong way?

*What is the intrinsic connection between what Jesus did on the cross and how we actually live? The Penal Substitution view makes it seem like the real issue in need of resolution is a legal matter in the heavenly realms between God’s holy wrath and our sin. Christ’s death changes how God sees us, but this theory says nothing about how Christ’s death changes us. This is particularly concerning to me because every study done on the subject has demonstrated that for the majority of Americans who believe in Jesus, their belief makes little or no impact on their life. I wonder if the dominance of this legal-transaction view of the atonement might be partly responsible for this tragic state of affairs.

To me, these are all serious problems with the Penal Substitution view of the atonement. I do not deny that Jesus died as our substitute or even that it was God’s will to “crush and bruise” him (Isa 53:10). But we don’t need to imagine that the Father vented his wrath against sin on Jesus to make sense of these facts. One can (and I think should) rather see this as the Father offering up his Son to the principalities and powers to be bruised and crushed in our place, for this unsurpassable expression of self-sacrificial love is what was needed to destroy the devil and his works and to thus set humans free, reconciling them to the Father.

Further Reading

Bartlett, A. Cross Purposes (Trinity, 2001). This is a brilliant but challenging book, centered on Girard’s mimetic anthropology and scape goat theory.

Eddy, P. and Beilby, J., eds. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2006). Representatives from four major schools of thought debate the atonement. I espouse the “Christus Victor” model in this work.

Jersak, B. and Hardin, M. Stricken By God? (Eerdmans, 2007). An outstanding collection of essays advancing a non-violent (non-penal substitutionary) view of the atonement.

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