I previously wrote on the topic of punishment in The Abolition of Sacrifice (particularly as it relates to sacrifice as hinted by the title). There turned out to be a bunch of people who gave me feedback that didn’t like it.
One concern was my claim that the cross was an accident (i.e. that it was humanity that murdered Jesus and that God did not cause it or bring it about, and yet that God brought about good through the evil plotted by people). This issue was addressed in an exchange in the comments section of that post.
Another concern was that by rejecting the notion that God is required to punish sinners and that the cross was not necessary for God to be able to forgive sinners, I was undermining God’s justice. (Let me repeat the clarification I made in What I Am Not Saying; Although I believe that the cross was unnecessary for God to be able to forgive us, I do maintain that it was necessary for our salvation.) In The Union of Justice and Mercy I explained how the scriptures describe justice as restorative, not retributive, and how mercy and justice are not in conflict with each other but rather are one and the same.
Something at the heart of this issue that I have not yet addressed is the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. This is the idea that Jesus took the just punishment we deserved as our substitute to save us from God’s wrath.
In this post I will deconstruct this idea and explain why I have become convinced of what I consider to be a much better and accurate conception of who God is.
My Experience with Believing Penal Substitution
I grew up being taught penal substitution. I was never told that alternatives existed, so I thought that it was the only possible and correct interpretation of the scriptures. Consequently, I read bibles through my interpretive lens of penal substitution. It wasn’t hard to find verses that seemed to support the beliefs I already held.
(Let me point out that just because we see the language used in penal substitution also used in the scriptures doesn’t mean that the scriptures are endorsing that way of thinking. There are plenty of false ideas that people invent that are formulated using biblical language but do not accurately reflect the truth.)
I also preached penal substitution when I shared with others what I considered to be the gospel. Yet I distinctly remember a sense of uneasiness whenever I did, because I could sense an uneasiness in the hearers. Really, who wants to get acquainted with an angry God, even if his wrath had been “satisfied”?
Of course, by no means does that automatically disqualify the theory. It did, however, plant the first seeds of doubt in me.
The Unreasonability of Penal Substitution
In college I started to question my long held belief.
Where in the scriptures does it say that God is required by his nature to punish sinners? Nowhere does it say that God is constrained by retributive justice. To the contrary, God says that he will have mercy and compassion on whoever he wants to (Romans 9:15).
Or where in the scriptures is it expressed that we all deserve to be punished by God? It is clear that punishment comes with sin, but only as a natural consequence, not something God inflicts.
If Jesus “paid the penalty for sin,” then it seems that God isn’t forgiving at all. If I pay off my student loans in full, did the loaning institution forgive my debt? Nope. Since I paid it all off, there is nothing left to forgive. On the other hand, Jesus taught unconditional forgiveness, regardless of what was “deserved.” Is God telling us to act more forgivingly than he himself does?
Jesus’ suffering was only temporary and finite. But if the punishment we deserve for sin is eternal suffering, then Jesus didn’t pay the full price.
Penal substitution pits the Father against Jesus in what looks like a schizophrenic deity. Our greatest ally is Jesus, and our greatest enemy is not the devil, but God and the wrath he brings against us. It makes God the author of death, dealing it out to sinful humanity because they deserve it according to his justice. Jesus bearing the cross brings not us but God to repentance, changing his mind about how he will treat us.
Sacrifices are made by an individual or a group to a different individual or group; it is nonsensical for someone to sacrifice something to themselves, because that is not a sacrifice at all, merely a killing of something.
Ironically, the picture of God as a retributively just judge dealing out punishment does not do justice to the biblical picture of what justice is. As the early church fathers emphasize, there was nothing just about the crucifixion of Jesus. God has zero interest in hurting people, no matter how much of a “right” he might have to do so. All he wants is reconciliation.
Other objections to penal substitution exist, but just because there are questions which we perhaps cannot find satisfactory answers to doesn’t disqualify a theory either. So I dug deeper.
Alternative Theories of the Atonement
Half way through my college years I came across a number of different understandings of the atonement for the first time in my life. (I won’t explain any of them in depth, but you can get a pretty good overview of them on Wikipedia.)
Christus Victor is a model in which Christ’s death is the means by which the powers of evil that held humanity in their grip were defeated. The moral influence model teaches that Jesus came to bring positive moral change to humanity. In the recapitulation model humanity is recreated by Christ becoming what we are so that we can become what he is.
Biblical justification can be given for each view with verses that, at least prema facie, seem to support them. The same is true of the penal substitution model. So there are various interpretations of the atonement, none of them are necessarily mutually exclusive, and it is difficult to quickly rule any of them out.
I decided I needed to go even further down the rabbit hole and take a look at the history of the idea of penal substitution as well as of the other theories of the atonement.
The Lack of Historicity
I won’t take an in depth look at the writings of the early church fathers here but only mention themes that were prevalent as well as lacking overall. (If you would like an in depth analysis of the writings of the early church fathers as they relate to penal substitution, I recommend Substitutionary Atonement and the Church Fathers and The Abolishment of Retribution in the Church Fathers).
Prevalent themes include healing, restoration, recreation, freedom, substitution, and the destruction of the curse and death. Lacking themes include appeasing a wrathful God and the need for punishment by God.
The problem that the atonement addresses is never presented by the early church fathers as an angry God but a sick and dying humanity.
I like how the Wikipedia article on penal substitution put it: “In scholarly literature it has been generally recognized for some time that the penal substitution theory was not taught in the Early Church” (and then gives 8 references, which is a lot for Wikipedia lol…they must pretty sure about this one). Incidentally, the three alternative views I mentioned above can be found in the writings of the early church fathers.
Let me clarify one particular element of the atonement, because many of us have only ever known one way of thinking about Christ being our substitute, and that is to view him as substitutionally taking our punishment.
The theme of substitution is frequently seen in the writings of the early church fathers and is clear within the scriptures as well. The question that must be asked, however, is how was Christ’s death substitutionary?
When the early church fathers spoke of substitution, they didn’t mean Jesus took our punishment from God (although some said that Jesus took our punishment that sin brings with it through natural consequence). They meant that Jesus became the substitute for all humanity on the cross, taking our curse, sin, corruption, condemnation, death, etc. upon himself in order to destroy them.
Even those who are popularly cited as proponents of penal substitution, such as Augustine (354-430), Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), and Aquinas (1225-1274), deny the idea of condemning the innocent to free the guilty that is central to penal substitution. They did develop their own theories of the atonement that departed from what was taught before them, but even in their own theories they did not teach penal substitution.
Penal substitution as we know it today did not arise until the time of John Calvin (1509-1564). Did Calvin uncover a truth that had been missed by all who had gone before him? Methinks not.
(Some might claim that Calvin only reached a destination on the trajectory of progressive revelation that was set by those who had gone before him (like Calvinists tend to do for other doctrines developed by Calvin such as predestination and limited atonement). In other words, that penal substitution is simply a development in theology. I disagree, but that’s a whole nutha topic that I don’t want to get into here.)
The lack of historicity of the doctrine of penal substitution pretty much settled the issue for me. I can’t view penal substitution as anything other than a human invention that emerged hundreds of years after Jesus’ time. (I’ve also considered the issue from a biblical perspective and have found it to be wanting.)
There are, of course, plenty of arguments in favor of penal substitution. This has been a topic of hot debate for centuries, and I am aware that this post does not conclusively put the theory to sleep. I wrote this post for those who, like myself previously, don’t know that there are good reasons to doubt penal substitution and that viable alternatives exist.
What I’ve written above is highly intellectual and analytical, but taking a step back from all that, I want to take a moment to point out that, if what I am claiming is true, it’s really good news! It makes the gospel a message of a ridiculously forgiving God. He forgives people even before they ask, never requiring anything from them for or in return for his forgiveness. Wow! That’s forgiveness like the world has never known.
Some people might say that I am making God out to be a big fluffy marshmallow. I would have to agree. I would add that the marshmallow is perfectly roasted and is sandwiched between chocolate and biscuits. God is way better than any of us can imagine, and his goodness cannot be exaggerated.
The Penal Substitution Atonement – Greg Boyd
Punished “for” or “by” our sins – The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 – Santo Calarco
Penal substitutionary atonement – Steve McVey
Sin and punishment – Steve McVey
An illustrative story about punishment – Steve McVey
Propitiation for sin – Steve McVey