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Monday, May 31, 2010

The Psychological Appeal of the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement

In yesterday's post, I mentioned my agreement with James McGrath that the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement has psychological appeal. I believe that is one of the reasons for the popularity of Christianity through the ages and especially the popularity of evangelical Christianity today.

Another author who discusses the psychology of atonement is Stephen Finlan. He is the author of Problems with Atonement (2005).

He writes:
[I]f we are going to question certain staples of Western atonement theology, we need to ask why atonement has been so compelling in religious thought . . . . The pervasiveness of atonement thinking only makes sense if it incorporates fundamental instincts about reality that are shared by most people (pp. 79-80).
Atonement theologies confirm two fundamental and universal instincts about life and about divinity: the belief that nothing is free, that there must be give-and-take in the spiritual economy as there is in the material; and secondly, the intuition that ritual establishes order. . . . There seems to be a universal belief or conclusion that the Divinity gives nothing for free; that "man always pays . . . [and] Death has a right to his victims", so deliverance from death must be matched by a payment or "compensation." There is a "compulsory feeling that somehow compensation should be given" (H.S. Versnel, "Self-Sacrifice, Compensation, and the Anonymous Gods," in Le Sacrifice dans l'Antiquite [1980], 178-79 cited in Finlan, p. 80).
Finlan sees two key components in the psychology of atonement: (1) the idea that forgiveness should cost something, and (2) the idea that "ritual establishes order." Regarding (1), it is clear that most people feel "bad" about themselves when they fail to live up to their particular standard of morality. This "feeling" is usually called "guilt." More precisely , it is "subjective guilt" as opposed to "objective guilt." "Objective guilt" involves other people finding one guilty; whereas, "subjective guilt" involves one finding one's self guilty. There may be cases where one is considered to be guilty by others and one does not consider one's self guilty. There may also be cases of the reverse: one considers one's self guitly while others do not. For our purposes in this post, I am dealing with "subjective guilt."

How does one remove one's bad feelings (i.e., subjective guilt) about an action or lack of action? Richard Swinburne's four components of atonement, I think, illustrate the process: 1) Repentance , 2) Apology, 3) Reparation, 4) Penance. Not all such are needed in every case. For some wrongs reparation is inappropriate--there is no reparation for an insult; for the less serious wrongs penance is not needed; but sincere apology must be accompanied by repentance of the kind described (Responsibility and Atonement [1989], p. 84). So, according to Swinburne, to remove guilt a person needs to (1) repent. This involves an internal recognition that what one did was wrong. (2) Apology involves an external recognition, to the parties harmed, that what one did was wrong and one is sorry for the action and the harm caused by the action. (3) Reparation involves "making amends." Here one attempts to restore the conditions that existed prior to the wrong act. (4) Penance involves punishing oneself or doing something meritorious to help offset the wrong action.

If the victim of the wrongdoing accepts these acts from the wrongdoer as adequate "payment" for the crime, then the victim forgives the wrongdoer. Then, the wrongdoer can usually forgive himself and subjective guilt is removed.

Why does the PST have special appeal? Because man realizes that he is not in a position to adequately "pay" God back for his wrongdoing. He can repent and apologize (confess) but what can he do to "make amends"? I think that the history of religion shows that men feel a need to make a sacrifice to their god(s). They offer up something valuable to God as evidence of their repentance and they usually make vows about not doing the action again. Even so, they often feel that their sacrifice is inadequate and they often fail to live up to their promise not to do the action again. Thus, they continue to offer more and more sacrifices. The beauty of the PST is that one full and completely satisfactory sacrifice has already been made and in addition, the merit of Jesus' perfect life is also imputed to the sinner, so that even though he cannot personally live a sinless life, his substitute has already done that for him. This allows him to move beyond his own inadequacy and trust in the actions of another, one who is supremely qualified to make atonement.

The idea of a substitute suffering the penalty in man's place is also more psychologically satisfying than if God simply pardoned man without anyone suffering the penalty. When a person is pardoned, the penalty is removed but the person's guilt remains. Pardon is defined as: the excusing of an offense without exacting a penalty. While some Christians argue against the PST by saying that it is more noble of God to forgive without exacting punishment, the fact is, such forgiveness would not remove the sinner's subjective guilt. It would remove his "objective guilt" but not his "subjective guilt."

Another important element, in addition to sacrifice, that Finlan believes plays an important role in the elimination of guilt is ritual.  He says: There is a nearly universal belief that properly constructed ritual has a conserving and restorative function (p. 81). In Christian circles, baptism is normally the ritual that signfies forgiveness. Whether one takes baptism as literally removing sin or symbolically removing sin, the formal ritual allows for external, visible confirmation that forgiveness has been accomplished. If at some future time, one doubts whether one has been forgiven, one can look back at the ritual for assurance. In evangelical circles, where baptism is usually seen as symbolic, a person may look back at another ritual such as "walking an aisle," or "saying a prayer" for confirmation that he has been forgiven. Our sense that the ritual deals with our guilt and inadequacy is instinctive (Francis Young, Sacrifice and the Death of Christ [1975], p. 109 cited in Finlan, p. 82).

The evangelical doctrine has advantages over other religious belief systems that teach that one must actually "do" something in order to be forgiven. In these other systems, People learn to develop strategies of barganing, appeasement, diversion, and payment through self-punishment and pain--each of which is manipulative. These strategies were played out in great detail in the Middle Ages in penances, self-flagellations, promises of building chapels, and other attempts at negotiation with God (Finlan, p. 82). But in evangelical teaching, Jesus has already "done" everything that needs to be done in order for God to forgive, all the sinner must do is to "accept" it. This retains the idea that forgiveness ought to "cost something," but it removes the requirement from man to pay what he cannot pay. In other systems, man never seems to have assurance that his sin is forgiven and thus, he is never finally released from subjective guilt. The genius of the PST, and I think one of the reasons for its widespread appeal, is that it does allow one, who accepts its teaching, to experience immediate and full release from the sense of guilt. The joy and elation that this removal of subjective guilt brings is indeed very appealing.


  1. Maybe PST has a psychological payoff for some people, but I can't relate to it. I never got anything out of all these vicarious things supposedly going on invisibly behind the scenes: my sin transferred to Jesus, his righteousness transferred to me, my identity obtaining "in Christ" status. Not only did it seem so unreal, it also had a sterile, legal quality to it. Protestant Christianity always felt like such a "lawyered up" faith to me.

    I guess I didn't have enough faith.

  2. Steve,

    That is because you were never a "true" Christian my friend.

  3. Bob George who wrote "Classic Christianity" believes that once a person has prayed the sinner's prayer he/she is forgiven and no longer has to ask for forgiveness again. He believes that the bible teaches this and that christians should live like they have received atonement. There is a positive psychological feeling when you believe that you are a guiltless person and can no longer sin in the eyes of god.

  4. Ken,

    Good to see you exploring this aspect some. I think it's a critical issue to address in helping people who are confused, doubting, etc., and looking for better "answers." The area of "positive psychology" within the broader discipline, and people from various angles, are producing some powerful, helpful things these days, as to forgiving oneself and others. I think the key point for Christians is this: "You've been mislead to think that only via the 'sacrifice of Christ' is true, complete forgiveness possible.... Actually, non-Christians can give and receive forgiveness also, and a great many of them do so, as deeply and fully as do Christians." (Whether or not God "requires" a perfect sacrifice to extend forgiveness for supposed offenses against "him" is another question, which you've been dealing with.)

    I do believe it is important and helpful for us who challenge traditional Christian theology to regularly point out what "works" and is "true" in key areas like dealing with guilt (both "objective" and "subjective").

    One reason PST and forgiveness concepts tied to it in Evangelical theology do NOT work adequately for many is the faith element of "accepting" the "atoning work of Christ." There is no clear way to dependably tell (nor can there be) if one has had or continues to have the type or level of "faith" that is "saving." E.g., just what is the content of such faith? And does it change as a new believer begins to hear more details of things like Christ's god-man nature, sinless life, bodily resurrection, etc.?

    In other words what is psychologically freeing for one person may be a source of anxiety for another (and often is). Or what may be freeing for a person at one stage becomes anxiety-producing at another.