cross

10 Problems with 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 the “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:

  1. 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)?
  1. 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?
  1. 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.
  1. How are we to understand one member of the Trinity (the Father) being wrathful towards another member of the Trinity (the Son), 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?
  1. 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.
  1. 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?
  1. 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?
  1. 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.)
  1. To raise a more controversial question, if it’s true that God’s wrath must be appeased by sacrificing his own Son, then don’t we have to conclude that 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?
  1. 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.

Photo Credit: Marcia Erickson

Related Reading

Cruciform Theology in Four Steps

The culmination of the biblical narrative of the cross reframes everything about who God is, what it means to have faith in God, and how we read the Bible! The entire Old Testament leading up to the crucified Christ must be interpreted with a view toward discerning how it anticipates and points toward this definitive…

The Hope of the Cross & Resurrection

In a real sense, God has already “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms” (Eph 2:6). And while “we do not see everything subject to [us],” the truth of the matter is that, in Christ, we have already been restored to our rightful place as co-rulers with Christ.…

What Happened on the Cross?

Since the time of Anselm (11th century), and especially since the Reformation in the 16th century, the tendency of the Western church has been to focus almost all of its attention on the anthropological dimension of the atonement, usually to the neglect of the cosmic dimension that is central to the NT. In the standard…

The Sine Qua Non of the Kingdom

In contrast to the habit of judgment which I challenged in the previous post, God calls his people to love the way that God loves. But what exactly does this mean? People have a lot of screwy ideas about “love” today. We use the word “love” to mean a lot of different things, from sexual…

It’s All About the Crucified Christ

The world was created by Christ and for Christ (Col 1:16). At the center of God’s purpose for creation is his plan to unite himself to us in Christ, reveal himself to us through Christ, and share his life with us by incorporating us into Christ. We don’t know what this might have looked like…

Transported

What did Jesus do on the cross that we couldn’t do for ourselves? Jesus stood in our place. God stepped in to bear the consequences of our sin. And in doing so, Christ defeated the powers, in principle, ending the cosmic war. If we will yield to God, he transports us from the kingdom of darkness into the…