A certain blogger, in an attempt to defend the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement, has sought to justify God's punishment of the innocent with the following two arguments:
1. Punishing an innocent is the same as making an innocent suffer and since innocent people often suffer in accordance with God's will and justice, then on the same principle it is just for God to punish the innocent. In both cases the victim is receiving treatment that he or she does not deserve.
What is wrong with this argument? There is a logical distinction between suffering as a consequence (or "collateral damage") and being singled out specifically for "punishment." The reason for the distinction is that "punishment" is a legal term. It is used in regard to the execution of justice. According to Merriam-Webster, it signifies "suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution." Punishment is the application of retributive justice. According to one source, retribution "is a theory of justice that considers that punishment, if proportionate, is a morally acceptable response to crime, with an eye to the satisfaction and psychological benefits it can bestow to the aggrieved party, its intimates and society." There are two necessary requirements for just punishment according to retributive justice: 1) the person be guilty of the crime; 2) the punishment be proportionate to the crime committed. Without these two components, there is no retributive justice. Obviously the most important element is the establishment of guilt and that is why we have judges and courtrooms.
As moral philosopher Kurt Baier writes:
For 'punishment' is the name of a method, or system, of inflicting hardship, the aim of which is to hurt all and only those who are guilty of an offence. For this reason, a system of punishment requires a more or less elaborate apparatus for detecting those who are guilty and for allotting to them the hardship prescribed by the system.
... If, after the jury has found the accused 'not guilty', the judge says 'I sentence you to three years' hard labour', this is not just an unusual case of punishing the man who is innocent, but not a case of punishment at all. And here it would not only not be pedantic, let alone wrong, but perfectly right to say that this case was not a case of punishment ("Is Punishment Retributive?", reprinted in in Philosophical Perspectives on Punishment, ed. Gertrude Ezorsky, pp. 18, 20).
Punishment, therefore, as a judicial sentence, is only justified by guilt. If the person is not guilty of the crime but is punished anyway for it, the act of punishment is itself an unjust act. The Romans phrased it this way nulla poena sine crimen ("no punishments except for a crime").
2. Punishment of innocents is forbidden in "the human administration of justice" but not in "the divine administration of justice."
This argument fails to understand the relation of "justice" to the holiness of God. Christians believe that God is perfectly holy. Thus, he cannot do anything that it is unrighteous or unjust. Deuteronomy 32:4 states concerning God that "his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he"(NIV).
God's justice, according to Christian theologians, flows from his holiness and perfection. His ways have to be in accordance with what is right and just in order for him to continue to be holy. John Owen, the 17th century Puritan and defender par excellence of the PST, argued that God must punish sin because of his holy nature. He would violate his justice (and thus his holiness) if he did not (see A Dissertation on Divine Justice). Just as it would violate God's holiness not to punish sin, it would also violate his holiness to punish sin where it does not exist. In other words, to punish an innocent is a form of lying because it is saying the person is guilty when he is not. Just as "God cannot lie" (Titus 1:2) because it would violate his holy and perfect nature, neither can he do that which is unjust without violating his holy and perfect nature.
Furthermore, man's moral code, according to Christians, is based on the absolute of God's nature (thus morality according to them is absolute). Laws that reflect the moral nature of God are just laws and those that do not are unjust. God's nature is the standard by which man is supposed to measure his conduct. Thus, if it is wrong for man to punish an innocent, then it must be because somehow the punishment of an innocent contradicts or violates the perfectly just nature of God.
So, for these and other reasons, I maintain that the PST of the atonement is internally inconsistent with historic Christian theology.