Search This Blog

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

PST is repugnant to many Christian Theologian's sense of Justice

While there can be no doubt that the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement is held by the vast majority of evangelical theologians, not every evangelical theologian holds it. Some find it repugnant to their sense of justice. Most non-evangelical Christian theologians also find it obnoxious. Here are some statements on the subject:

Evangelical Theologians

David Dilling, The Atonement and Human Sacrifice, Grace Theological Journal 12.2 (Spring, 1971,pp. 3-22) writes:

Vicarious punishment on our level would, of course, be a serious miscarriage of justice and indeed immoral. The death of Christ, however, is not strictly analogous to the case of a human judge punishing an innocent third party in the stead of a condemned criminal. At least the analogy dare not be pressed. In the case of Christ's sacrifice there is only one party beside the condemned. He is, "Judge, Wronged Party, King (or Law), and Substitute". The case is wholly unique and the same Bible which declares it so to be also declares the impossibility of any other substitutionary atonement apart from this.

So even though Dilling accepts PST because he thinks it biblical, he still admits that the punishment of the innocent in place of the guilty is a serious miscarriage of justice in the human mind. He argues that the death of Christ is really not analogous to an innocent person suffering in place of a guilty one in the human sphere; however, he says this is because in the divine sphere, He is Judge, Wronged Party, King (or Law) and Substitute."

I still maintain that PST violates man's innate sense of what is right and wrong. Allow me to give an analogy.

Imagine you live in on a desert island where one man is the absolute monarch. This king owns the island and he is the lawgiver, the judge, the jury and the executioner.

Lets say someone commits a murder on this island. The murder victim is actually the King's adopted child. The alleged is brought before the judge (king) and the judge hears the evidence including the confession of the murderer. The defendant is remorseful and sincerly apologizes to the King and begs his forgiveness. The King rules the murderer is guilty and says "my sentence will be announced tomorrow. "

At the sentencing, the judge says that "while this man is undoubtedly guilty and deserves to be executed for the crime, I still love him. I would prefer to set him free because he is remorseful. However, out of respect for the rule of Law and in accordance with my righteous nature, he must die." At that moment, the King's only biological son stands up and says: "I love the murderer too and I can see he is remorseful. I would like for him to go free. But since, punishment must be carried out, I volunteer to die in his place." The Father, who is also the King and the Judge smiles. He and his only son talked about it the night before. They agreed that this was a very noble thing to do and if the son was willing, the Father would allow it.

So the Judge strikes his gavel and announces his sentence. "While the convicted deserves to die for his crime, I have agreed to allow my son, my only true son, to die in his place." The King says: "I am by decree transferring the guilt of the murder to my son, and my son will be executed at daybreak in his place. In addition, I am transferring the righteousness of my son to the convicted murderer and from henceforth he will live in my palace and be treated as my son." He continues: "the convicted man will have his record completely expunged because the penalty for his crime will have been sufficiently paid."

The convicted murderer is overjoyed and promises to live the rest of his life in submission and absolute loyalty to the Father. He will never forget this act of mercy and grace and will even set up shrines to praise the acts of the Son.

The next day after the execution, the murderer's chains are removed and he is ushered into the King's palace and given a place of honor.

Many of the people of the island, though, are not happy, they cry out: "This is not fair. This is not right. You cannot allow the murderer to go free. He and he alone must pay for his crime. Its not right to transfer the punishment to someone else. This goes against everything you have taught us, Oh, King."

The King replies: "Well the punishment for the crime has been paid and the murderer is remorseful and repentant, so in my mind its fair." Since I am the Lawgiver and the Judge, I and I alone get to decide what is fair. Do you poor peasants, really think you are smarter than me? I am the absolute ruler of this island and you are my subjects--how dare you question my fairness!

The people reply: "Yes, King you are right. This is your island and you have the right to do as you please, even if it doesn't seem right to us." Some of the people though could never accept this transfer of guilt and punishment to an innocent person because intuitively they knew it was wrong.

While this is not a perfect analogy (none are), I think it illustrates my point. No matter who says it (even the Monarch), no matter who is willing to die (even the Monarch's son), its still strikes man (who is made in the image of God) as innately wrong.

Larry Shelton, in A Covenant Concept of Atonement, Wesleyan Theological Journal, Vol. 19 (Spring 1984), pp. 91-108, while not saying that PST is repugnant, he recognizes that it has serious problems.

He writes: Calvin saw the problem in part, but scarcely improved the situation. His strange doctrine of imputation [i.e., transferring of guilt to the innocent and righteousness to the sinner] led him to say that God's wrath does not really rest on Christ, but God treats Him as if He were angry. Thus, Christ does not bear God's anger, but merely something exactly like it! This negates any practical understanding of sanctification because the believer is not really righteous, but by a moral fiction is treated as if he were.

Steve Chalke in The Lost Message of Jesus, (pp.182-183) writes:

The fact is that the cross is not a form of cosmic child abuse, a vengeful father punishing his son for an offense he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement that God is love. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God toward human kind but borne by His Son, then that makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil.

Non-Evangelical Theologians

Peter Abelard writes: Indeed, how cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in anyway please him that an innocent man should be slain--still less that God should consider the death of his Son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world! (cited by William C. Placher in Why the cross? Christian Century, Dec. 12, 2006.

P. T. Forsyth: Does God's judgment mean exacting the utmost farthing or suffering? Does it mean that in the hour of his death Christ suffered, compressed into one brief moment, all the pains of hell that the human race deserved? We cannot think about things in that way. God does not work by such equivalents. Let us get rid of that materialistic idea of equivalents. What Christ gave to God was not an equivalent penalty, but an adequate confession of God's holiness, rising from amid extreme conditions of sin.(cited by Robert S. Paul in The Atonement and the Sacraments, p.236, in Dilling, p. 35.

Horace Bushnell, in The Vicarious Sacrifice, Grounded in Principles or Universal Obligation (1886 )argues:

On the whole this matter of contrived compensation to justice which so many take for a gospel, appears to contain about the worst reflexion upon God's justice that could be stated. . . The justice satisfied is satisfied with an injustice The penalties threatened, as against wrongdoers are not to be executed on them, because they have been executed on a right-doer! viz., Christ.

So PST although the dominant view among evangelicals is still seen by many Christian theologians(both evangelical and non-evangelical alike) as repulsive to man's innate sense of justice.


  1. elbogz, good video, and explains in simple terms what this whole ruse about Jesus sacrifice really is. I'm sure that I'm not the first to say this, but the sacrifice myth is to instill guilt on humans, to get them to believe. Personally, I am truly saddened that this sham of a myth is believed by millions. I question the sanity of my fellow humans.