Search This Blog

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How Does Man Know that the Innocent suffering in place of the Guilty is Wrong?

One of the main objections that I have raised against the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement is the fact that man knows its wrong for an innocent person to suffer the penalty that the guilty person deserves.

I have maintained that this is a universal belief among mankind as is demonstrated by human courts around the world. No one has produced even one example of a human court allowing the innocent to take the place of the guilty in punishment. Someone asked me if they came up with an example, would I admit I was wrong about this whole matter. My response was: "No, because one example would obviously be the exception. The rule is only confirmed by one or two examples of the innocent taking the place of the guilty." But as of yet, no one has produced even one example of this kind of substitution.

Now, the question becomes how do we know that substitutionary suffering is wrong? I will answer this from two perspectives.

First, from the Christian perspective, if I were to assume that the Bible is the Word of God then I would have to believe that a) man is made in the image of God and b)the Bible is my compass for what is right and what is wrong.

What it means to be made in the image of God has been widely discussed by Christian theologians. The conservative evangelical, Charles Feinberg, says:

The image of God constitutes all that differentiates man from the lower creation. It does not refer to corporeality or immortality. It has in mind the will, freedom of choice, self-consciousness, self-transcendence, self-determination, rationality, morality, and spirituality of man. (The Image of God, Bibliotheca Sacra 129 (1972) 235-46).

Two of the elements that Feinberg lists are rationality and morality. Man reflects God in his ability to reason and in his ability to distinguish between right and wrong.

Paul confirms this "implanted morality" in the Epistle to the Romans (2:14-15) when he writes: Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them. .

So, if I were to believe that man was made in the image of God, as Christians do, then I would have to believe that my innate sense of right and wrong was implanted in me by God.

In addition, if I were a Christian, I would believe the Bible when it says that an innocent person should not suffer the penalty that a guilty person deserves. The whole chapter of Ezekiel 18 discusses this matter. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." (v. 4). The son will not and should not be punished for the sins of his father and vice versa. The position is summarized in v. 20: The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him. (New International Version)

So, as a Christian, I would have to believe its wrong for the innocent to suffer in the place of the guilty on the basis of 1) my implanted sense of right and wrong; 2) the clear teaching of the Bible.

Therefore, as a Christian, I would have to look for another theory of the atonement that does not include substitutionary death. The problem I would face is that the Bible also clearly teaches that Jesus did suffer in the place of sinners. So I would have to either admit the Bible has some contradictory teachings or else try to explain how its okay for God to do what he tells man not to do.

Now, some Christians would argue that I, as a non-believer, have no basis on which to say that punishing the innocent in place of the guilty is wrong. They would maintain that unless I accept their God and their Bible, then I have no authority for saying anything is just or unjust.

I obviously reject this argument. Without going into detail, I believe that morality and ethics can be explained in a purely naturalistic way without resorting to a belief in the supernatural. I think when you study history, you can see the evolution of man's thinking about morality. For example, in the OT, no one seemed to have a problem with genocide. Many of the ANE cultures practiced it and so did the Hebrews. In ancient times, people did not have a problem with slavery. It was practiced by most of the cultures and the Hebrews also practiced it. Today, most men would say that genocide is wrong and that slavery is wrong.

I think man's sense of morality has evolved over his existence. His decisions on what constituted right and wrong were based largely on what was needed for his group or tribe to survive. See Michael Shermer's book, The Science of Good and Evil.

No one has to be taught the basics of what is right and wrong. Children seem to know this intuitively. Any parent would have to agree. If, as a parent, you punish one of your children for what his/her sibling did, what will happen? The child will cry out: "But thats not fair." Where did the child get that notion from? Did they go to law school? Did they study moral ethics in college? Did they read the Bible? No. It is an innate sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice.

So, I maintain that we all know or should know that punishing an innocent in the place of a guilty is a miscarriage of justice. Somehow, Christians have a "blind spot" here because they have heard "Jesus died for their sins" so often that they no longer question it.


  1. Absolutely, Ken! Both arguments are good but I think your strongest was when you used the Bible and a “consistency comb” to show that our “moral seeking natures” are inherent in all humans – even the filthy unsaved of us! I see our “moral seeking natures” as one of God’s gifts to mankind and Romans (2:14-15) is one of my favorite verses. I wonder WHO or WHAT does the “writing” of the Law (or moralistic ideas and concepts) on the “hearts” of the Gentiles? But this question probably belongs in an “Anti-Evangelism Thread” somewhere.

    I do have one, hopefully on-topic, question. There are many examples in the Bible of the ostensibly innocent being killed because of the sin of another. Of course, I don’t believe these accounts for one minute, but what do think their purpose is? On the surface they clearly show “god” to be unjust, but they also support the idea that, at least, “innocents die BECAUSE of sin”. Is it too much of a stretch to move this thought to “innocents die to appease sin” ie: PST? Are these stories a setup to ultimately support PST? Note that when David sinned, someone else (innocent) died!?

    I hope I’m not hi-jacking this topic. If I am and you care to respond, you can just email me directly at and we can discuss it. Thanks, Ken!

    Grace & Peace, John

  2. Than you vor your very helpful series debunking PST.

    I've tried to do a similar thing on my blog, with many posts on this and related subjects (God's justice, for example.)

    In particular, you may find interestig a series I did entitled, "Why Did Jesus Die?" setting for the Orthodox Christian point of view, in contradistinction to PST. The first of that series is at

    The reason I write this is, it seems to me it would be a pity for you to give up Christianity altogether o account of this one pernicious doctrine. (No, Orthodox Christians do NOT believe St. Paul ever taught Pen-Sub! Or any of the related errors.)


  3. I never understood that, either. That one person could die and save the world from an eternity in hell, but he got to go to heaven! It is such an archaic concept that has mostly disappeared from our modern culture with the exception of religion. Of course, when people express doubt in the logic of this idea, they are told to have faith!

  4. John,

    Some good questions. 1)on the law being written on the hearts of the Gentiles--here is what I think. I think that people do have an innate sense of whats right and wrong that has evolved over the centuries. Its not "implanted" by God in my opinion but explainable on the basis of human evolution.

    2) Yes there are some cases in the OT where the innocent seem to be dying along with the guilty. For example the case of Achan's family and the case of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah. Of course some would argue that even though the text doesn't say it, Achan's family probably knew about his sin and attempted to help him hide it. On Sodom and Gomorrah, some would argue that God looked for "one righteous" man there and couldn't find him. I would argue though that there must have been small children as well as even infants that perished at Sodom (if the story is true).
    You mention the case of David's child dying as a result of his sin with Bathsheba. That is an interesting point. I am not sure how a Christian would try to get around that one. It seems clearly that the innocent child is made to die because of his father's sin. My personal view is that this is just another case of the Bible contradicting itself. What I would fully expect if the Bible is a human product.

  5. Anastasia,

    thanks for your comments. Some of the best arguments against PST that I have ever read are from Greek Orthodox theologians. I realize that PST is not the ONLY view of the atonement out there.

    However, I did not de-convert from evangelicalism ONLY because of their theory of the atonement. There were many other reasons which I will share on this blog as time goes forward. These other reasons would prevent me from converting to Greek Orthodoxy or any other type of organized Christianity.

    I will check out your blog and I appreciate you stopping by here.

  6. Redhead,

    Yes you are right. Someone told me recently that I just "thinnk too much." They said you will never figure out God's ways--just have faith.

    I am sorry but I can't do that and if there is a god who created me, he knows that I am made in such a way that I can't do that.

  7. Loved your comment above re thinking too much. I, too, am a thinker. I fully acknowledge thinking can lead to confusion, and that just having faith can lead to being "happier." But, like you, that's not the way I'm built. I finally got tired of feeling bad about being myself and decided to just "go with it." Self-acceptance is a wonderful thing. At least we thinkers learn alot and get good insights into ourselves and others along the way. And I don't think that "faith" people are less intelligent-they just have different personalities.

  8. Ditto on the "thinking too much" comment. I always was told the same thing.

    (Sorry about the weirdness in the name on my last post. I don't know how my site came up as my name. Not intentional.)

  9. Laura,

    I am glad it did because I went over to your site and read your story. Very interesting. I also see that you do a column in the Little Rock Examiner. Excellent. How did that come about?