Some Questions About Penal Substitution

The Church just finished celebrating Good Friday, a day all about remembering the crucifixion and sacrifice of Christ. This is a topic that has been on my mind a lot the last year or so. I have spent much of my time rethinking and attempting to understand just what the crucifixion was all about. This journey has lead me to many thoughts, places, and emotions that I never would have expected.If you’re like most modern western Christians your understanding of the cross goes something like this:

  1. God is holy, righteous, and just.
  2. Because of this, God must punish sin.
  3. All have sinned and are therefore deserving of punishment (hell).
  4. God is also loving and merciful, and therefore desires to spare us.
  5. To maintain both His justice as well as His love for us, God punishes Jesus for our sin on the cross (satisfying His justice) and therefore allows Him to offer us forgiveness (satisfying His mercy).
  6. If we accept Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf then God imputes (transfers) Jesus’ moral righteousness to us, therefore allowing an all-holy God to embrace us because we are no longer tainted by sin.

This understanding of Christ’s work on the cross most commonly goes by the name of “Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory” or just “penal substitution.” This view is, more or less, how I have understood the cross for the vast majority of my Christian life. However, I recently have come to see some flaws with this way of understanding the cross, and that has lead me to look for other ways that the Church has understood the cross. Now before I go any further I want to make sure I say something very clearly. The penal substitution theory of the atonement is absolutely acceptable. Why do I want to say this? I want to make clear that I am not claiming this view isn’t “Christian” or isn’t okay to believe. It absolutely is. This view is in line with what is essential to be a Christian. However, there are also other views that are acceptable (and I believe are better).

Now if this is how you have always understood the cross, then to think of the crucifixion in any other way may be difficult, painful, or scary. It was for me. Especially since many people take how they understand the cross and make it the gospel message (I’ve written a little bit about why that isn’t the best idea here). So when we leave this way of understanding we feel like we are leaving the gospel. But I would ask you to keep reading and have an open mind to rethinking the cross, or at least accepting that there are other great views to embrace.

Now all of that is a process. Moving from the penal understanding to different views happened for me over a long span of time. I don’t expect to have people just make a 180 when it comes to the cross after reading this one post. I also don’t plan to have this post answer all the questions that one might have. Rather I want to take the remainder of this post and cover a few issues that I find with the penal method that ultimately lead me to search for other understandings. Let’s get started.

1) In the Penal Model God Doesn’t Actually Forgive.

Think about it. What is forgiveness? Forgiveness is the release of a debt. If you have a friend that does something wrong against you then forgiveness would be saying, “It’s okay. I’m not going to do anything in return. We are fine. I forgive you.” The Penal Substitution model doesn’t have this. In that model God doesn’t release the debt. He gets paid. He makes sure He gets retribution. Now this doesn’t mean that the Penal Substitution model is wrong, it just means that forgiveness (as typically understood) does’t fit well with it.

In the story of the prodigal son, when the son returns to the father he is greeted with a hug and the father tells him that all is forgiven. Nothing is needed to restore them to right relationship. If this parable kept more in line with the penal way of thinking the father would say, “It’s okay I will take you back but someone has to pay for what you have done. This debt must be met so I’m going to go beat my servant for this sin and then we can be reconciled.” Now we shouldn’t stake all of our theology on a parable, but it is something to think about.

(Also, as the penal understanding of the atonement asserts, then Jesus should not have rejected the “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” way of thinking (Matt. 5:38–39). For if the penal model is correct, then it is the exact way that God works.)

2) In the Penal Model the Cross Changes God, Not Us.

Was the cross something that primarily changes and acts on us (humanity) or on God? The Bible seems to paint Christ’s work as reconciling us to God, not God to us (2 Cor. 5:19) The cross seems to be about doing something to humanity, not doing something to God so that He can now embrace us (Col. 1:13). The penal model has the cross overcoming an issue God has (embracing sinners and still being just) not overcoming the issue we have (being enslaved to sin).

Is the cross simply the way to solve (as theologian Greg Boyd puts it) God’s “divine schizophrenia?” He wants to forgive us because He is merciful, but He wants to damn us because He is just. So He needs a way to get these two halves of Himself to coexist. That doesn’t seem to fit the biblical portrait of what the cross is doing.

3) In the Penal Model Pagans Had the Right Inclination.

This may seem a bit harsh to some people. I am not saying that by embracing the Penal Substitution model you are worshipping a pagan god. That is definitely taking it too far. I do, however, want to make a point that the penal substitution model means that the pagans were at least on the right track. They felt the need to sacrifice something unblemished (like a child) to appease the wrath of the gods. Is that not what is going on in the cross? Something unblemished (Jesus) is being sacrificed to appease the God? Is the cross a form of divine child abuse?

Now this doesn’t mean the penal model is wrong, it just brings it (in my opinion) uncomfortably close to the pagan line of thinking.

4) How Did Jesus’ Three Days of Death Pay the Price Required?

If the punishment that is required for God to be just (as the penal model asserts) is eternal damnation then how does Jesus’ three days in the grave satisfy this payment? Even taking into account Jesus’ separation from the Father on the cross as He is forsaken by the Father, Jesus still doesn’t come close to taking on the eternal condemnation demanded by the penal model.

It’s not “just” in the Penal Substitution sense to only take three dollars of a one-million dollar debt. Otherwise, couldn’t sinners just take separation from God for three days and be squared away with God’s need for “justice?”

5) The Penal Model Reduces the Importance of Jesus’ Life.

If the sole purpose of the cross was for Jesus to bear the wrath of the Father against humanity’s sin then what Jesus did, taught, and embodied in His life is just a side-note. Healing sicknesses and casting out demons is just a bonus. His teachings were good for us, but Jesus’ real mission was to be a perfect sacrifice to appease God’s wrath.

With this line of thinking, Jesus’ ministry loses a lot of its purpose. Couldn’t Jesus have simply lived in cave and then died some other way? Couldn’t Jesus have just been killed by Herod as a baby? (Matt. 2:16) Why the ministry of Christ proclaiming the “good news of God” and that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God had come near?” (Mark 1:14–15)

6) The Penal Model Only Deals With Sin in a Cosmetic Way.

The Penal Substitution model only seems to deal with sin in a surface level fashion. It separates justification (being declared right before God) from sanctification (growing in righteousness). The penal model says that your sin has been “dealt with” or “paid” but it doesn’t seem to really do anything for the blackness of our sin-tainted hearts. It doesn’t give me open heart surgery, it just says the bill was paid.

Put another way, the cross doesn’t help me stop going into debt it just takes care of my current balance. I need something that will change me from the inside out, not just clean up the mess I’ve made. I need to stop making the mess!

7) The Penal Model Seems Unjust.

If the penal model helps to uphold God’s justice then why does the punishment of an innocent man feel so unjust? How does punishing someone who didn’t commit the crime qualify as justice? Some will say that the guilt was literally transferred (or imputed) to Jesus, but then I would ask if guilt is really something that is transferrable. Is sin something that can just be passed from one account to the other?

8) Jesus Doesn’t Seem Too “Holy” to Be Around Sinners.

One of the main assertions of the Penal Substitution model is that there is a great divide between God and man because of our sin. Now I believe this is true, but I think the divide is because we don’t want to be with God, whereas the penal model says the divide is there because God is all-holy and can’t be in the midst of sin. There is a divide because God cannot be in the presence of sin.

I have one major issue with this: Jesus, who is fully God seemed to have no issue being near sinful people. In fact He dined with those who were considered by society to be especially sinful! Jesus walks, talks, eats, and lives among sinners without blowing anyone up. I don’t think the divide between God and man has to do with His “holiness” not allowing Him to embrace us.

9) What Do We Make of Jesus’ Cry to “Forgive Them For They Know Not What They Do?”

Does Jesus desire something contrary to the nature of the Father? Does Jesus cry, “Forgive them they just don’t know what they’re doing” while the Father says, “The piper must be paid”? Does Jesus request the Father to do something contrary to His nature or does Jesus reveal the true nature of the Father? I believe that Jesus and the Father are one and that Jesus perfectly reveals the Father, so the idea of the Father having a different mindset toward sin and sinners doesn’t fit well with me.

10) The Penal Model Causes a Disunity Within the Trinity.

If the Father, Son, and Spirit are one then how are we to understand the Father actively punishing the Son? Can God truly be angry with God? Can God punish God?

11) If a Sacrifice for Forgiveness is Required, What do we Make of All the Times God Seems to Forgive Without Them?

God is shown many times to be forgiving sins freely without the requirement of a sacrifice (John 8:11, Mark 2:5, 2 Chron. 7:14, Ezekiel 18, Ezekiel 33:14–19, Psalm 32:1–2,5) And those are just a few of the accounts that portray God as freely offering forgiveness. The Penal Substitution model has to say that God applies the foreknown sacrifice of Christ to their accounts when they seek forgiveness. I don’t feel that this is necessary.

12) The Bible Paints God as Handing Over Jesus, but Paints Man as The One Who Killed Jesus, Not God.

Looking at the words of Peter in Acts 2 we see that he says Jesus was brought to this world and delivered over according to the plan of God, but that it was indeed man who kills Jesus, not God. God is not the one who is said to have killed Jesus or needed it, but rather man. God simply handed His son over to a fallen humanity knowing what they would do.

“‘Men of Israel, listen to these words: This Jesus the Nazarene was a man pointed out to you by God with miracles, wonders, and signs that God did among you through Him, just as you yourselves know. Though He was delivered up according to God’s determined plan and foreknowledge, you used lawless people to nail Him to a cross and kill Him. God raised Him up, ending the pains of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it.’” (Acts 2:22–24 emphasis added)

“‘God has resurrected this Jesus. We are all witnesses of this. 33 Therefore, since He has been exalted to the right hand of God and has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, He has poured out what you both see and hear.’” (Acts 2:32–33 emphasis added)

Man is attributed with the killing of Christ while God is attributed with the resurrection.

13) The Penal Model is Mostly “Cross” With Little “Resurrection.”

The Bible places a heavy importance on the resurrection of Christ, but the penal model seems to have it as little more than a footnote compared to the cross. While embracing the penal model I looked at the resurrection as little more than an assurance that the check cleared. The resurrection told me that God was satisfied with this payment. I don’t believe this to be congruent with how the New Testament speaks of the resurrection of Christ.

14) The Penal Model is Rather Recent in Church History.

Most scholars attribute the penal model to John Calvin. However, the school of thought the penal model falls under is something called the “satisfaction” view of the atonement, and that can be traced back to Anselm of Canterbury. He died in the early 1100’s which means that this view didn’t appear until about 1000 years after Christ’s death. So for over half of the existence of the church the penal or satisfaction way of understanding the atonement wasn’t around.

So the teachings about the cross closest to the time of Jesus were not in line with the penal view. This doesn’t mean that the emergence of the penal view wasn’t correct, or at least a step in the right direction, it is just something to think about when looking to understand the cross.

Okay, I think 14 gives a good enough idea of the issues I have found when looking at this view more closely. I am well aware of some of the responses scholars have to the problems I’ve raised. Some of them are more satisfactory than others. Regardless, looking at all of this was definitely enough to have me at least look into other ways the church fathers and modern scholars seek to understand the cross.

It’s my hope that this post will have you begin to do the same. Again, I don’t think that the penal view is “unchristian.” If you find it compelling and correct then that is fine. I honestly just think much is to be gained from looking at other perspectives. I think that looking at other ways the cross works can be beneficial and maybe even in some ways freeing.

The cross is a rich and deep well from which we can gaze and and find many things. Don’t settle with staying in the shallow end. Dive in and see what else you might discover. You may find yourself on the crazy beautiful journey I did.

Image by Danny Plas via flickr


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Curtis Snell

I am first and foremost someone who is trying to follow the example and teachings of Jesus. I serve on the pastoral staff of a church in Iowa and I love writing, reading, and my dog Pepper.

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