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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

More Problems with the Penal Substitutionary Theory

My fellow apostate, John Loftus (Th.M., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and owner of the blog, in his book: Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity, has a chapter (19) in which he critiques the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement (pp. 344-350). Even though it’s a brief treatment of the subject, I think he makes some excellent points.

He writes: To say that my sins are an infinite wrong because they are committed against an infinite God, and thus demand an infinite punishment, seems mistaken for several reasons.

In the first place, does justice really demand this must punishment? . . . What picture of God lays behind this view of justice—a caring father or an aloof vengeful medieval potentate? Jesus describes God as the former, a caring father” (Matth. 6:9-15; Luke 15:11-32) . Jesus himself said, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’” (Matt. 9:13). (p. 346)

I think this is a good point. The PST view seems to accentuate the differences between the Father and the Son. The OT God definitely comes across as an angry, vengeful, deity that constantly needs to be placated. He destroys the earth in Noah's day, he wipes out the innocent first-born children in Egypt, he orders the Caananites annihilated (including children), he orders the Amalekites annihilated (including children), he is jealous of any other god, even though supposedly he is the only true God, etc. He orders homosexuals, adulterers, and rebellious children to be executed. He seems to care about the Jews but not the other peoples of the world.

Now contrast that with the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospels. Jesus comes across as loving, peaceful, and concerned for all peoples--Samaritans, Jews, Gentiles. He shows compassion and love towards the sinners of his day--harlots, tax collectors, etc. He is against vengenance; he freely forgives without first demanding a sacrifice to placate himself; he is humble; he is gracious, all the things that the OT God is not. PST accentuates this view by making the Father an angry old deity that has to see blood before he is willing to forgive. Jesus being the gracious fellow that he is agrees to shed the blood that the Father demands.

Second, if God became incarnate to relate to us, then why can’t he also see what sin is from our perspective, as a finite offense from partly good and partly bad human beings? We intend no infinite wrong against God when we sin. God should know this, especially since it’s claimed that he related to us by being one of us. (Loftus, p. 346)

John is right. The NT teaches that Jesus became one of us. He shared in our humanity. He was, as the author to the Hebrews, says: This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same temptations we do, yet he did not sin. (Heb. 4:15)

According to evangelical theology, Jesus became fully man. He was a human being in the full sense of the word, only he never sinned. He was tempted though, and whether you believe in the peccability or the impeccablity of Christ, you must maintain that the temptations were real. He felt them in the same way we feel them. He therefore knows, as John said, that when we sin as human beings, we generally are not focused on deliberatley rebelling against God. We don't sin in order to strike out at God. We sin because we are weak at times. we give in to momentary pleasures that result in long term pain. We are proud and treat other people as inferior to us or we are greedy and manipulate ways and people to get more and more. All of these are sins but they are really the result of doing what we think at the time is best for ourselves. They are not deliberate rebellious acts focused against God. Jesus being fully human should have known this.

Third, did Jesus really suffer an infinite punishment for our sins? . . . if every person who ever lived deserved to be slapped in the face just one time, then the equivalent of sixty billion slaps would surely amount to more punishment than Jesus physically endured. . . . .if we were given a choice to suffer as Jesus did or else be cast in hell for eternity, we would all choose to suffer as Jesus did (Loftus, p. 346).

John is simply dealing with the physical portion of Jesus' suffering and not his spiritual suffering. From that standpoint, he is correct. PST teaches that Jesus suffered the exact amount of suffering or even more suffering than each individual sinner would in an eternal hell. As John points out, if you or I had the option to pay for our sins by being crucified and dying in a few hours (Jesus did not even suffer as much as most of the other folks who were crucified in his day) or suffering eternal hell, it would be a no-brainer. We would choose to be crucified.

John argues: In the fourth place, in order for someone to be forgiven, why must there be punishment at all? We know of victims who have forgiven their assailants even though they have never been punished . . . .If the cross was needed to pay the punishment for my sins, then how can God really be a forgiving God (pp. 346-347)?

I agree with this as shown by my earlier posts on PST Eliminating True Forgiveness. Forgiveness, which is a virtue, is letting go or dismissing a wrong done against you without exacting any payment or punishment. God apparently cannot do this. He can only "forgive" you if someone else makes the payment or takes the punishment in your place. Then he "forgives" you. In my opinion, that is not true forgiveness. It is getting even. It is getting reimbursed. It is getting recompensed.

Fifth, even if punishment is needed . . . . then how does punishing Jesus help God forgive us? This Christian theory says God himself bore our punishment on the cross in Jesus. This means the divine way to forgive us when we sin against him is to turn around and punish his Son? If you see me along the roadway and beat me to a pulp, the divine way to forgive you is to turn around and beat myself up all over again, or my son? . . . . It doesn’t make any rational sense at all (Loftus, p. 347).

I agree. The whole idea of God punishing his innocent Son in order to forgive guilty men makes no sense. If that is the model of "forgiveness" that man should imitate, then what a crazy, bizarre justice system we would have.

John concludes his chapter on PST by saying:

Even though I have not considered all of the atonement theories here, none of the ones we’ve considered actually makes sense of the supposed atonement offered to God on our behalf, in Jesus. And given nearly two millennia of theological discussions, I’d venture to say there never will be a cogent, well-argued theory that can ever pass muster in the future either. I think the whole idea of Jesus dying for my sins to restore me to God is built upon the beliefs of a superstitious ancient world, where gods and goddesses were pleased with sacrifices, whether they were human or animal ones. This ancient world is long gone now, and it’s time to give up believing in an incarnate God who offered a sacrifice for us on the cross to atone for our sins (Loftus, p. 349).

John is right. Theologians have had 2000 years to try to explain what happened when Jesus died on the cross. They have come up with a half-dozen or so theories, none of which is really adequate, as the continued intramural debate among Christians on this matter proves. If they haven't been able to figure it out in 2000 years, they probably never will.

I also agree (and I plan a series of posts on this in the future) that the whole concept of a sacrifice appeasing the wrath of gods was widespread in the ancient world, not only animal sacrifices but also human sacrifices. It was part of the superstitious mentality of that period in world history. It is rarely practiced in the civilized world today (with a few exceptions, see The overwhelming majority of people in today's world recognize that sacrificing animals, much less people, to stave off the wrath of a god is pure superstition. Yet many of these same people, without thinking it through, accept the human sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the means by which the wrath of their God (Jehovah) is appeased (propitiatied is the biblical word--1 John 2:2). Does anyone besides me see how inconsistent that is?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. If your reading John Loftus, then that explains why you don't understand the Bible.

    Simply eating a piece of fruit off a tree put the whole creation under a curse. The curse of God is something we all experience.

    John Loftus doesn't believe God is holy or that God even exists!

    God did demonstrate His love by sending His Son to die for John Loftus sins. John has been shown mercy by the author of the universe and this was not enough for John.

    Why a difference between the OT and the NT? God didn't change; rather, our situation changed. We now have the Holy Spirit dwelling within the believer. Why would God get angry with Himself who is at work within us? It is so silly.

    John doesn't understand that the wrath of God is only shown to those who have rejected love. When you reject love, you are saying to God that you want to live without his love for eternity.

    The chosen people of God carried the seed of the Messiah. They were the children of God and called to be holy. Even with this calling, many still acted like John Loftus rejecting His will.

    John for some reason wants to live without the love of God for eternity. It really is that simply.

    John went to Trinity dealing with doubts and desires and his desires won out over love. That is why he has spent his life trying to prove to himself that God does not exist...(He knows deep inside that it is true)

    The reason that sacrifice was widespread in the ancient world is that sacrifice goes right back to the beginning with an animal being killed for clothing in the story of Adam and Eve. Cain and Able also had an issue with sacrifices. The Bible is simply recording what man has required from the very beginning.

    It is very, very sad; however, it is also funny in a way that a man spends his whole life trying to disprove something that in his heart he knows is true. He simply can't shake it. It is a shadow that will follow him his whole life.

  3. Woohoo! In increasingly spectacular appearances, ZDENNY roundly defeats his opponents with such dazzling displays of sophisticated argumentation as…

    “…you obviously don't understand the Bible.”

    “…you are demonstrating your lack of knowledge of the NT.”

    “…he doesn't have a clue…”

    “He doesn't understand either the philosophy or the Scripture.”

    “…is so lacking in understanding of even the basic concepts behind the arguments…”

    “…simply another tired mind focused on the lust of the world.”

    “He must have been struggling with desires of the flesh that eventually won his heart.”

    “In his heart he knows it’s true.”

    “…a PHD in my experience oftentimes means they are phenomenally dumb.”

    Yes people! Disagreement implies degenerate motives! Higher education tends to greater imbecility! “It’s really that simply!” Wide-eyed, slack-jawed, dumb-founded, his opponents can only gape and stare in wonder at the argumentative magnificence that is ZDENNY!

  4. Ken, you’ve written a well-reasoned critique of this topic. I must take exception with your characterization of the OT God as one requiring sacrifice to appease him. I think this is the same kind of gross misrepresentation that many evangelicals are guilty of. As you know, there is not one verse in the entire OT which says (as Book of Hebrews asserts), there is no atonement without a sacrifice, and in fact many times we see that the key to atonement is repentance (Ezekiel 18, 33, Book of Jonah, I Kings 8, etc. etc.)

    So although that doesn’t change the core of your argument, it is worth mentioning that even in the OT, the lack of sacrifices does not mean there is no atonement (think Babylonian exile [no temple/no sacrifices/no Jesus], or even Karaites, who accept only the OT without any oral law, and yet recognize that sacrifices are only one means to gain atonement, and certainly not the only approach).

  5. I did refute the argument made by Ken. Ken does not recognize holiness. Loftus also does not believe in holiness. The refutation of the whole argument is simply to understand the Holiness of God.

    The Holiness of God is seen in the fall of mankind. The first sin that resulted in man's separation from God was simply one sin of disobedience.

    One sin of eating one piece of fruit resulted in the whole creation beginning a death spiral. Science has confirmed the death spiral in the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

    All the other propositions offered by Ken don't deal with God's Holiness. The Bible is internally consistent and the fact that John and Ken don't understand Holiness tells us a whole lot about what is taking place in the heart of these men.

  6. Ugh. YEC. You win, ZDENNY. All of the wit, rigor and might in the world cannot reach the dizzying heights that your will to belief in lies ascends.

  7. Reuben - Christianity has overwhelming evidence to support itself. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was empirically verified.

    Atheism does not have any evidence having a blind belief that Nature created and designed itself. Atheism is similar to Islam as a result because Islam has a prophet that never did miracles and did not claim to be the Son of God. A person can say anything they want without providing evidence for their beliefs.

    Atheism and Islam are really the same belief system since they both believe by faith that they are right.

    Science belongs to Christianity alone. Christianity was the birth canal of modern day science and requires a Theistic God in order to be rational.

  8. Thanks for an excellent article, Ken!

  9. Thank you, ZDENNY. Now I see the error in my thinking. I am converted.

  10. Reuben - I don't try to convert people. I simply am a rational person who recognizes a superior argument when I see it.

    God is the one who will speak to your heart. Even though the evidence is overwhelming rationally for Christianity, God is the source of faith.

    Faith becomes certain when you become a part of the reality of love which is found in Christ Jesus.

    I can't wait for Ken's next posting. A true intellectual enjoys thinking for thinking sake.

  11. Ken - enjoying your blog very much. You fit in a nice line of well educated former pastors such as Wheless, Templeton, Till, Barker, Loftus, Price, et al, whose intense and thoughtful scrutiny of scripture freed them from dogma and who were/are willing to share their liberating insights. Thank you for creating this blog and for the high level of discourse you are maintaining.

  12. RobWalker:

    Maybe the OT never says explicitly that atonement is impossible without a sacrifice. But it certainly DOES connect blood and atonement:

    "For the life of a creature is in its blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life." (Lev. 17:11)

    The later prophets, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, appear to have shifted from that idea. But it is rooted deeply in the Law of Moses, obviously.

  13. Once again Steve demonstrates that he doesn't know the Bible.

    Jeremiah and Ezekiel did not shift; however, Ezekiel did predict the future atonement of Jesus Christ several hundreds of years before Christ was born:

    Ezekiel 16:62-63 So I will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the LORD. Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign LORD

  14. Looks like a shift to me:

    " 'This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in all the ways I command you, that it may go well with you."

  15. BTW, that was from Jeremiah 7. Quite a stark contrast to Leviticus 17, isn't it?

  16. There is no shift based on Ezekiel 16:62-63

    So I will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the LORD. Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign LORD

    The shift is moving from a temporal covering of sins to the permanent covering of sins. This was predicted in Gen 3. There is no shift, it is the plan of God in Genesis that is being carried out.

  17. Reuben and exrelayman,

    Thanks for your comments. Once again I would suggest everyone ignore ZDenny as he is a troll.

  18. Ken, I am just waiting for you to make a good argument. I haven't seen one yet. I really can't believe your rejection of Christ is based on PST, your arguments are very silly.

  19. SteveJ, I don't think there's a shift- for the following reasons. The Hebrew prophets constantly reminded the Jews to keep things in perspective and not to get overdone with sacrifices (see Isaiah 1, or Jeremiah, as you quoted). Lev. ch. 17 is not a chapter about sacrifices. Read Lev. 17- it’s discussing dietary laws and one is forbidden to consume blood because that is the lifeblood of an animal. Lev 4-5 are about sacrifices. This chapter is discussing dietary laws, and this statement is a ‘backgrounder’ on why blood is forbidden (because it's the lifeblood).

    As I said, nowhere in the Hebrew Bible (not once) is atonement impossible without blood. Not in Lev. 17:11 or anywhere else. That is why the Hebrew prophets constantly reprimanded the people not to get carried away with sacrifices, and to understand they’re only a SYMBOL of one’s inner repentance. I.e. When you see an innocent sheep killed because you sinned, that’s going to have a powerful impact on you.

    Now, yes, blood certainly DOES atone. So does flour. And charity. And repentance. However, it’s a HUGE jump to go from saying that blood helps atone to saying blood is the ONLY way to atone. Follow me?

    Analogy: just as I get can get to NYC by car, it doesn’t mean I can’t also get there by train or plane.

    That is a consistent scriptural theme, in the Pentateuch and the later prophets.

    Hope I've helped!

  20. Ken,
    Could you point us to specific writers that offer doctrines or a catalogue of doctrines different that the Penal Substitutionary Theory?

    We just discovered this man's excellent 42 page summary of the Eastern view of the atonement. His videos are on youtube as well. His name is Hany Mina Mikhail. Be blessed!