Against Penal Substitutionary Theory, Round 2
In a continuation of my discussion on the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement (hereafter, PST), I would like to deal with some objections that were raised to my first post. In the initial post, I argued that the PST is unjust under any human concept of jurisprudence. Men universally agree that it is never just to punish an innocent in the place of the guilty.
May an innocent person pay the price for a guilty person?
One objection centered around the idea that we consider it okay for an innocent person to pay a fine that is owed by a guilty person. Reference was made to the essay by philosopher David Lewis (“Do We Believe in Penal Substitution." Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology: Volume 1: Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, edited by Michael Rea (Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 308-13).
It is true that Lewis states that sometimes we think it okay and even noble for an innocent to pay the fine owed by a guilty person, but he is not certain why this is.
Lewis argues that maybe we allow a substitute to pay a monetary fine "because we have no practical way to prevent it" (p. 312). Even if we required the criminal to pay the fine out of his own bank account, it would be practically impossible to prevent someone else from giving the criminal the money to deposit in his account. Lewis also clearly argues that all men seem to have a moral problem with a substitute being incarcerated in place of the guilty. He asks if a person guilty of a burglary could have his punishment paid by a substitute. He says:
Mostly we think not. It is unheard of that a burglar's devoted friend serves the burglar's prison sentence while the burglar himself goes free; or that a murderer's still-more-devoted friend serves the murderer's death sentence. Yet if ever such a thing happened, we surely would hear of it--for what a newsworthy story it would be! Such things do not happen. And not, I think, because a burglar or a murderer never has a sufficiently devoted friend. Rather, because the friend will know full well that, whatever he might wish, it would be futile to offer himself as a substitute for punishment. The offer would strike the authorities as senseless, and they would decline it out of hand (p. 308).Some will continue to defend the justness of the PST on the basis that Scripture presents man's sin in terms of a debt (compare Matt. 6:12 with Luke 11:4; see also Matt. 18:21-35). That is true but the debt that man owes is not a monetary one, as Paul makes clear in Romans 6:23a: "For the wages of sin is death" (English Standard Version.) According to the PST, man's sin incurred a debt and that debt demands the penalty of death. Sin in the Scripture is a major offense, in fact a capital offense, not a minor matter that can be settled by paying a monetary fine.
Only one theory of atonement
A second objection raised was that the PST is one of several theories of the atonement that have been held through the centuries and it is not a requirement of the Christian faith, having never been codified in a creed. That is correct but for the overwhelming number of evangelical Christians (and evangelicalism is my focus in this essay), the PST is not just a theory but is the clear teaching of the Scripture. Roger Nicole, of Reformed Theological Seminary, is representative of the majority when he says:Atonement is the central doctrine of the Christian faith, and penal substitution is the heart of this doctrine (Blurb for Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach (Inter-Varsity Press, 2007).
Our moral intuitions
A third objection centered around man's moral intuitions. I argued that it is counter to our moral intuitions that an innocent be punished in place of the guilty. Someone replied:
Our moral intuitions are reliable but not perfect. If we have the intuition that some moral proposition is true (false), then that is evidence that its true (false). But we have to allow for revisionism. Intuitions get first pass. They’re innocent until proven guilty. But they can be overridden by defeaters.It is true that our moral intuitions may not be perfect. However, when they are as universal as the notion that it is wrong to punish an innocent person, then the probability is that, in this particular case, our intuition is not wrong. If a universally agreed upon moral intuition is in fact erroneous, then how do we know that we can trust any of our moral intuitions? They would all become suspect, and therefore virtually worthless. Couple this with the evangelical teaching that our sense of right and wrong comes as a result of being made in the image of God and evangelicalism has a big problem.
But couldn't someone argue that the image of God has been marred by the fall and thus, our moral intuitions cannot be trusted? Yes, evangelicalism does teach that the imago dei has been damaged by the fall but Paul's statement in Romans 2:14-15 is in reference to man after the fall:
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.The judge is the victim?
A fourth objection was that I was failing to recognize that in the case of the PST, it was the judge himself who was the victim and that as the victim, the penalty owed was owed to him. Since he was both judge and victim, he could decide on the appropriate penalty and on who should pay it. The argument went like this:
A better analogy would be like a murder case wherein the victim’s family freely chooses to pay the punishment incurred by the murderer for the sake of showing their love and compassion for the murderer as well as providing an opportunity for the murderer’s reform. I have the intuition that this is the moral right of the family; we would obviously not demand it of them but I see no moral problem with their freely choosing to do this. In fact, it seems to be a praiseworthy thing; they have done something painful for the sake of helping some other person. You can make the punishment incurred as strong as you want – even death – [and] it does not change the fact that paying the punishment is a prerogative of the family as it is they who are owed the debt. With relation to God and the punishment due sin, God is owed the debt and thus has some say in how it is paid, including volunteering to do it himself. His choosing to take the punishment upon himself is not only morally neutral; it seems to be morally admirable.But what is the need for the punishment of a substitute in this case? If the family agrees to forgive the criminal, why must someone still die? In the case of the judge - God himself - paying the penalty, my question is: Why? Why is it necessary for God (or, in reality, His son) to pay the penalty? How does the punishment of an innocent satisfy the penalty? Unless the sin and guilt of the offender is somehow really transferred to the substitute so that the substitute is in a genuine sense guilty of the crime, then it still makes no moral sense.
As C. S. Lewis pointed out in an essay entitled “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”:
The Humanitarian theory removes from Punishment the concept of Desert. But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice (emphasis mine). It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question ‘Is it deserved?’ is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice (God in the Dock [The Trustees of the Estate of C. S. Lewis, 1970],p. 288).A noble act?
A fifth objection was:
Isn't it a great act of nobility and love for a person to voluntarily take the punishment due someone else?
Absolutely it is. But that is not the question. No one is saying that the willingness of Jesus to die in man's place was ignoble. What I am saying is that it is unjust for the Father to be willing to accept that sacrifice as the legitimate penalty owed by the sinner.
Someone drew an analogy here with regard to the story of Saint Maximilian Kolbe:
When he was in a concentration camp, the Nazis were going to execute a prisoner by starvation. Kolbe voluntarily asked to take the man’s place and the Nazis agreed. Can there be any doubt that Kolbe performed a supreme act of love and kindness towards his fellow man? But he also suffered injustice at the same time. The injustice was not on Kolbe’s part, but on the part of the Nazis. So the question is: Is God more like Kolbe or the Nazis? I think it’s obvious that God was more like Kolbe (or perhaps I should say that Kolbe’s action was godly). Jesus’ willing death on the cross was a profound act of kindness, even though he also suffered injustice. The Romans and the Jewish leaders did commit wrong in condemning an innocent person. But how is God blameworthy for that injustice? That would be like saying that Saint Maximilian Kolbe was blameworthy, because he allowed himself to be unjustly punished by the Nazis.I would argue that God, the Father, was more like the Nazis in that he accepted the punishment of an innocent in place of the guilty. Yes, the Romans and the Jewish leaders were the human instruments that God allowed to accomplish the "dirty work," but the Scripture makes it clear that it was God's plan. Acts 2:23 states: This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.
Not a payment?
A sixth objection was that the punishment for sin was not something inflicted by God as payment for sin but rather just a natural consequence of sin. In other words, one of the ramifications of sin is that it brings death. Someone wrote:
One could take an Augustinian (On Free Choice of the Will) perspective and see punishment for sin as not something that’s necessarily inflicted by God but which is inflicted by the act of sin itself. Sin just, by its nature, brings just punishment to the sinner... There is no extrinsic punishment needed for immorality (although it is not excluded); immorality is its own punishment in that it is a breaking down of what it means to be human. If sin is viewed this way we see humans stuck in a sin-filled world, mastered by sin and thus full of intrinsic punishment already – needing to be rescued. Jesus is able to take the compulsiveness of sin away through his suffering the punishment. This is still PST as Jesus is paying the penalty of sin as a substitute for another even though it’s not necessarily as [an] appeasement to the Father.The problem with this view is that the NT makes it clear that the death of Jesus was an appeasement (propitiation) to the Father and on that basis alone is the Father justified in forgiving man's sin. Romans 3:24-26:
...and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.Similarly, 1 John 2:2 says: He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
Jesus as representative for humanity
A seventh objection was that the penalty for sin was owed by the entire human race corporately and Jesus, as the representative of the entire human race, could pay the penalty for the whole. This is the reason why God had to assume humanity so that he could identify with us.
The problem with this view is that it fails to recognize that within evangelical Christianity, Jesus assumes human nature as it was before the fall. In other words, Jesus possessed a sinless humanity. Therefore, he could not identify with man as a sinner and could not be a representative for fallen humanity. Interestingly enough, the traditional Seventh Day Adventists hold that Jesus assumed a fallen human nature, and so, within their scenario, it would be possible for Jesus to die as a representative for fallen humanity. This view, however, is rejected by most contemporary Seventh Day Adventists and by all of evangelicalism as well as by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
But even if one held that somehow Jesus was legitimately the representative of the human race, there would still be a problem. The problem relates to "collective culpability." There is little doubt that Paul and many of the ancients held to collective culpability. It is evident in Paul holding all men somehow responsible for Adam's sin (Rom. 5). It is evident in the OT, for example, in the case of Achan (Josh. 7). I think that is why the author of Joshua saw no ethical problem with executing all of Achan’s family for the individual sin of Achan or why the author of Samuel saw no problem with executing all of the Amalekites for what their ancestors did 400 years prior (1 Sam. 15). To the ancient man, this made sense.
To modern man, however, it does not. I have read some of the philosophical literature on this that sprang up after WWII when the question was raised as to whether the whole German nation should be held culpable for the holocaust and other atrocities of the war. The consensus seems to be that it would be unjust to hold every person within a group responsible for what some or even the majority within the group did (See Collective Responsibility: Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics, edited by Larry May and Stacey Hoffman [Rowman and Littlefield, 1991].
Jesus a real sinner?
The eighth and final objection was: Why think it problematic for the Christian to say that Jesus became “in real terms” a sinner? After all isn't that what 2 Corinthians 5:21 teaches?
There are two legitimate ways to translate the verse. It could be rendered "became sin" or "became a sin offering." There are good arguments on both sides so the verse itself is not going to be determinative here. I think most evangelicals are going to be reticent to say that Jesus in any real sense became a sinner because of the problems that would create not only for the fact that he would not be a perfect sacrifice but also for the fact that the God-man would be a sinner. If there is one thing that all evangelicals are agreed upon, it is that God is absolutely holy. To imagine that sin was somehow really imputed to Jesus in the sense that he literally became sin is to destroy the holiness of God.
I appreciate the feedback and criticisms that I received from this first post. I would like to address another internal inconsistency for evangelical theology with the PST in my next post, namely, problems related to the doctrine of the Trinity if the PST is true.