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Monday, August 2, 2010

George MacDonald on Penal Substitution

George MacDonald (1824–1905) was a Scottish author and minister.
[He] inspired many authors, such as W. H. Auden, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, E. Nesbit and Madeleine L'Engle. It was C.S. Lewis who wrote that he regarded MacDonald as his "master": "Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later," said Lewis, "I knew that I had crossed a great frontier." G. K. Chesterton cited The Princess and the Goblin as a book that had "made a difference to my whole existence."

MacDonald was reared in Calvinism but came to reject the doctrines. He writes:

[T]he notion that a creature born imperfect, nay, born with impulses to evil not of his own generating, and which he could not help having, a creature to whom the true face of God was never presented, and by whom it never could have been seen, should be thus condemned, is as loathsome a lie against God as could find place in heart too undeveloped to understand what justice is, and too low to look up into the face of Jesus. It never in truth found place in any heart, though in many a pettifogging brain. There is but one thing lower than deliberately to believe such a lie, and that is to worship the God of whom it is believed ("Justice," in Unspoken Sermons, Part 3).

In the sermon "Justice," cited above, MacDonald lays out his objections to the penal substitutionary theory (PST) of the atonement. He describes the doctrine:
Their system is briefly this: God is bound to punish sin, and to punish it to the uttermost. His justice requires that sin be punished. But he loves man, and does not want to punish him if he can help it. Jesus Christ says, ‘I will take his punishment upon me.’ God accepts his offer, and lets man go unpunished—upon a condition. His justice is more than satisfied by the punishment of an infinite being instead of a world of worthless creatures. The suffering of Jesus is of greater value than that of all the generations, through endless ages, because he is infinite, pure, perfect in love and truth, being God’s own everlasting son. God’s condition with man is, that he believe in Christ’s atonement thus explained. A man must say, ‘I have sinned, and deserve to be tortured to all eternity. But Christ has paid my debts, by being punished instead of me. Therefore he is my Saviour. I am now bound by gratitude to him to turn away from evil.’

MacDonald rejects this theory of the atonement for the following reasons:

1. It is incompatible with man's sense of justice which sense of justice is derived from God.

He writes: [T]he justice of God; for his justice is the live, active justice, giving existence to the idea of justice in our minds and hearts. Because he is just, we are capable of knowing justice; it is because he is just, that we have the idea of justice so deeply imbedded in us.

This is similar to the conclusion I came to when I was a Christian. Man's sense of justice, I believed, was derived from being made in the image of God. God's justice might be better and more perfect than man's but it certainly can't be the opposite of man's. To punish an innocent in place of the guilty is contrary to man's sense of justice and, in fact, it would be an act of injustice and would certainly be unworthy of a perfectly holy God.

2. Only the one who commits the offense can atone for it.

Suppose my watch has been taken from my pocket; I lay hold of the thief; he is dragged before the magistrate, proved guilty, and sentenced to a just imprisonment: must I walk home satisfied with the result? Have I had justice done me? The thief may have had justice done him—but where is my watch? That is gone, and I remain a man wronged. Who has done me the wrong? The thief. Who can set right the wrong? The thief, and only the thief; nobody but the man that did the wrong. God may be able to move the man to right the wrong, but God himself cannot right it without the man. Suppose my watch found and restored, is the account settled between me and the thief? I may forgive him, but is the wrong removed? By no means. But suppose the thief to bethink himself, to repent. He has, we shall say, put it out of his power to return the watch, but he comes to me and says he is sorry he stole it and begs me to accept for the present what little he is able to bring, as a beginning of atonement: how should I then regard the matter? Should I not feel that he had gone far to make atonement—done more to make up for the injury he had inflicted upon me, than the mere restoration of the watch, even by himself, could reach to? Would there not lie, in the thief’s confession and submission and initial restoration, an appeal to the divinest in me—to the eternal brotherhood? Would it not indeed amount to a sufficing atonement as between man and man? If he offered to bear what I chose to lay upon him, should I feel it necessary, for the sake of justice, to inflict some certain suffering as demanded by righteousness? I should still have a claim upon him for my watch, but should I not be apt to forget it? He who commits the offence can make up for it—and he alone.

3. Punishment of the wrong doer makes no atonement for the wrong done.

One thing must surely be plain—that the punishment of the wrong-doer makes no atonement for the wrong done. How could it make up to me for the stealing of my watch that the man was punished? The wrong would be there all the same. I am not saying the man ought not to be punished—far from it; I am only saying that the punishment nowise makes up to the man wronged. Suppose the man, with the watch in his pocket, were to inflict the severest flagellation on himself: would that lessen my sense of injury? Would it set anything right? Would it anyway atone? Would it give him a right to the watch? Punishment may do good to the man who does the wrong, but that is a thing as different as important.

4. Suffering for sin cannot make atonement for the sin.

MacDonald makes the point that we often desire to see a wrong-doer suffer but that it is out of vengeance or hate not out of love and not because it brings forth justice. He writes:
I am saying that justice is not, never can be, satisfied by suffering—nay, cannot have any satisfaction in or from suffering. Human resentment, human revenge, human hate may . . . The notion of suffering as an offset for sin, the foolish idea that a man by suffering borne may get out from under the hostile claim to which his wrong-doing has subjected him, comes first of all, I think, from the satisfaction we feel when wrong comes to grief. Why do we feel this satisfaction? Because we hate wrong, but, not being righteous ourselves, more or less hate the wronger as well as his wrong, hence are not only righteously pleased to behold the law’s disapproval proclaimed in his punishment, but unrighteously pleased with his suffering, because of the impact upon us of his wrong. In this way the inborn justice of our nature passes over to evil. It is no pleasure to God, as it so often is to us, to see the wicked suffer.

5. If the suffering of the wrong-doer does not satisfy justice, then even less so does the punishment of the innocent.

If there be no satisfaction to justice in the mere punishment of the wrong-doer, what shall we say of the notion of satisfying justice by causing one to suffer who is not the wrong-doer? And what, moreover, shall we say to the notion that, just because he is not the person who deserves to be punished, but is absolutely innocent, his suffering gives perfect satisfaction to the perfect justice? That the injustice be done with the consent of the person maltreated makes no difference: it makes it even worse, seeing, as they say, that justice requires the punishment of the sinner, and here is one far more than innocent. They have shifted their ground; it is no more punishment, but mere suffering the law requires! The thing gets worse and worse. I declare my utter and absolute repudiation of the idea in any form whatever. Rather than believe in a justice—that is, a God—to whose righteousness, abstract or concrete, it could be any satisfaction for the wrong-doing of a man that a man who did no wrong should suffer, I would be driven from among men, and dwell with the wild beasts that have not reason enough to be unreasonable. What! God, the father of Jesus Christ, like that! His justice contented with direst injustice!

... It is the merest, poorest, most shameless fiction, invented without the perception that it was an invention—fit to satisfy the intellect, doubtless, of the inventor, else he could not have invented it. It has seemed to satisfy also many a humble soul, content to take what was given, and not think; content that another should think for him, and tell him what was the mind of his Father in heaven

6. In saying that the suffering of an innocent makes satisfaction to God's justice, one is saying that God's justice requires that someone suffer. It then becomes the suffering itself that somehow satisfies God.

But what shall we say adequate to confront the base representation that it is not punishment, not the suffering of the sinner that is required, but suffering! nay, as if this were not depth enough of baseness to crown all heathenish representation of the ways of God, that the suffering of the innocent is unspeakably preferable in his eyes to that of the wicked, as a make-up for wrong done! nay, again, ‘in the lowest deep a lower deep,’ that the suffering of the holy, the suffering of the loving, the suffering of the eternally and perfectly good, is supremely satisfactory to the pure justice of the Father of spirits! Not all the suffering that could be heaped upon the wicked could buy them a moment’s respite, so little is their suffering a counterpoise to their wrong; in the working of this law of equivalents, this lex talionis, the suffering of millions of years could not equal the sin of a moment, could not pay off one farthing of the deep debt. But so much more valuable, precious, and dear, is the suffering of the innocent, so much more of a satisfaction—observe—to the justice of God, that in return for that suffering another wrong is done: the sinners who deserve and ought to be punished are set free.

I know the root of all that can be said on the subject; the notion is imbedded in the gray matter of my Scotch brains; and if I reject it, I know what I reject. For the love of God my heart rose early against the low invention. Strange that in a Christian land it should need to be said, that to punish the innocent and let the guilty go free is unjust! It wrongs the innocent, the guilty, and God himself. It would be the worst of all wrongs to the guilty to treat them as innocent. The whole device is a piece of spiritual charlatanry—fit only for a fraudulent jail—delivery. If the wicked ought to be punished, it were the worst possible perversion of justice to take a righteous being however strong, and punish him instead of the sinner however weak. To the poorest idea of justice in punishment, it is essential that the sinner, and no other than the sinner, should receive the punishment. The strong being that was willing to bear such punishment might well be regarded as worshipful, but what of the God whose so-called justice he thus defeats? If you say it is justice, not God that demands the suffering, I say justice cannot demand that which is unjust, and the whole thing is unjust. God is absolutely just, and there is no deliverance from his justice, which is one with his mercy. The device is an absurdity—a grotesquely deformed absurdity.

Wow--he doesn't mince words does he? MacDonald was a Universalist. He believed that all men would eventually be saved. Punishment was never an end in itself but a means to bring about repentance and contrition in the heart of the wrong-doer. Many may repent without any punishment but others will have to be punished before they repent. Either way all do finally repent and all are saved. He says that anything less than this represents a defeat for God.


  1. I must be a Universalist.

    The Torah supports George MacDonald's ideas. Yom Kippur is about the forgiveness of all sins. If you truly repent, then you are forgiven your sins between you and the Almighty. If you have sinned and harmed another person, you must go to that person and ask for their forgiveness and correct your mistake. Otherwise Yom Kippur did nothing for you.

    All of the offerings are only for unintentional sins. Intentional sins require you to do teshuva, a process of repentance.

    The Almighty says to Cain, surely if you improve yourself you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. It's desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it." Genesis 4:7.

    Is there a group of Universalists out there?

  2. Emet,

    Yes. There is the Unitarian Universalist Church.

    I am curious what you think happened to those non-Jews who knew nothing of Yom Kippur? And what about the Jews who went through the motions but did not internally repent? Did they just die and cease to exist in your opinion?

  3. Emet,

    BTW, Joseph Priestly was instrumental in founding the Unitarian Church. The Unitarians merged with the Universalists in the 20th century to found the Unitarian Universalist Congregations.

  4. Who is this DM idiot, and what's he got against Lady Gaga?

    McDonald certainly had his stuff in one bag; I could never see the 'justice' in an everlasting Auschwitz either. But most Christians I know just don't like the idea that God will finally save all, even though to deny that is to also deny his supposed power to do anything.

  5. Fascinating post, Ken! I didn't know much at all about McDonald, or his influence on C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, etc. Lewis is generally considered a Universalist also, is he not? What about Chesterton and the others? (But, of course, Evangelicals love Lewis, Chesterton and L'Engle.)

    I liked McDonald's line about the concept being invented "without the perception of it being an invention." That fits perfectly with the tracing of the mythological/philosophical development of Christian theology that has been the focus of a few interdisciplinary scholars for mainly just 3 decades or so... much more to come! (Bultmann and earlier "de-mythologizers" weren't there yet.)

    So it raised the question to me that I wonder if you or another reader has insight on: can that "invention" be pinned on any particular canonical author...? If so probably either Paul or John. Right off, I can't recall how much Paul developed the sacrificial lamb/substitutionary atonement concept, if at all, vs. just savior from heaven and imputing of his righteousness, through faith, etc.

    Regardless, if one works just from within the NT/OT canon, it can easily be shown that the concept was NOT clearly revealed to all the apostles, whether by Jesus or the Holy Spirit later. This all is one key part of the critical foundation flaws in orthodoxy that have YET to be clearly, fully delineated in any readable, popular book that I'm aware of. I.e., the invention of PST, of predestination (clearly Paul here) and the "soon return of Jesus," (etc.) supported by the invention also of "apostolic authority," when in reality, no such thing existed with Jesus, or until after Jerusalem's fall (70).

  6. His first objection reminded me strongly of Thomas Paine decrying the deprecation of "human reason" in The Age of Reason, so I was guessing that MacDonald was a Quaker before I reached the end of the post.

    He hits all of my major objections to Penal Substitution. Mine follow from the following steps:

    1. Vicarious redemption requires transmission of responsibility without transmission of the corresponding transgression itself.

    For in this model, Jesus takes responsibility without committing any sin.

    2. Given the transfer of responsibility and subsequent atonement delivered through punishment (Macdonald gives problems with the latter in his third objection), it is necessarily the case that punishment of transgression is independent of transgression by (1).

    This implies the necessity of something like substance dualism for sin. In this case, all of the objections to substance dualism apply, particularly the objection from incoherence.

    This substance dualism is needed to undermine MacDonald's second objection, but only in the sense that atonement generally is made independent of any actor. It actually strengthens his second objection, given (2), in that atonement for sin can not be achieved by any agent, much less the original transgressor. In this model, responsibility for sin is generated in some nonphysical plane through physical actions and thoughts. But this gives us our next step:

    3. Given that sin-responsibility is independent of the natural world and human beings (themselves dualistic or not), an event in the natural world (including the crucifixion) does not atone for sin-responsibility, even if we assume that punishment is sufficient for atonement. Also, Jesus having any part of human nature can not affect atonement.

    So, a God made flesh sacrificed vicariously does nothing for atonement, even if we grant that punishment of sin-responsibility is sufficient for atonement. But of course, we don't have to grant that, but I think that MacDonald has all of the objections along these lines fairly covered.

    I have one final objection to vicarious redemption. For most forms of Christianity, it is not automatic, that is, one has to accept Jesus in order to transfer one's sin-responsibility. Here, we have a contractual model that implies that sin-responsibility is time-independent, as modern sins can be atoned for through a punishment that occurred in the past. (This again shows that a form of substance dualism is necessary for this model).

    So, if Penal Substitution is correct, there already exists sufficient satisfaction to atone for all sin-responsibility. Given this, there is no reason to require the repentance of sinners in order to grant them salvation. In order to maintain the contrary, one must require the contractual transmission of sin-responsibility from the sinner to the act of atonement through something other than God's nature. This means that something else is required for the necessary condition of atonement other than punishing a vicar. At best, Penal Substitution is incomplete.

    Of course, all of this is separate from any sensible notion of human justice, playing into MacDonald's first objection. This one appears to be the most important, as it undermines the entire project of attempting to make sense of the atonement via some theory like Penal Substitution.

  7. One thing to point out about the "contradicts man's sense of justice part": MacDonald in one of his fiction works (the Baron's Apprentice, in the Michael Phillips editions) points to when Jesus tells people to judge for themselves what is right. Jesus there works with man's sense of justice.

  8. James,

    I think that one could circumvent that support for MacDonald's first objection by arguing that man's judgment is nevertheless corrupted and can only be applied within the (properly understood, whatever that is supposed to mean) confines of scripture (and there is at least prima facie scriptural support for this view within the relevant verses credited to Jesus). And if we further grant the "everything God does/says = good and just" equivalence, it then follows that our notion of justice conflicting with vicarious redemption only means that our sense of justice is misguided.

    The problem with this view, up to scripture, seems to be confined with any interpretation of "image of God" as imparting some moral sense in man which is consistent with God. One who holds this view would have trouble making a moral argument for the existence of God, for example. There are also theodicy problems, such as why God would create a moral sense contrary to scripture on any matter similar to the theodicy problem questioning why God would inspire verses in at least apparent contradiction to science. In my experience, this is usually explained away as `corrupted moral sense' and `corrupted reason', respectively, as consequences of The Fall, but this does not erase all of the difficulties.

    Another and more disturbing thing I hear is that anybody who feels that a scripture conflicts with their moral sense is not properly a Christian, for if one truly believes and submits her/his will to God's, then one should feel no qualms about any of God's actions.

    Now, none of this properly answers the objection in terms of a rebuttal; rather, it means that many believers will be able to accept the objection within their worldview. Still, it does force the following implication: if one considers Penal Substitution to be doctrine, one is forced to disparage human reason. This is not a comfortable position for those concerned with a convincingly intellectual and/or humanistic side of faith, and I think that those who dwell upon these theories like Penal Substitution would be genuinely concerned about these problems (though I would ask Ken to validate or falsify my conjecture before attaching any certainty to it).

    So, the objection is worth putting forward, but we can not expect it to be a persuasive objection for many Christians. And more specifically to the teachings of Jesus, I think that scripture can be cited in support of this accommodation, so quoting Jesus will most likely be unsuccessful in persuading a believer to abandon this or any similar doctrine contrary to `human reason/moral sense'. It's a pessimistic position on my part, perhaps, but in my experience it has held true.

    (Forgive me for rambling through the details, James, as I suppose that most of the above isn't particular as a response to your comment, but I'm interested in hearing other thoughts on this in any case.)

  9. Ken,

    Great stuff. I am a big fan of Christian Universalism. Whether it is true or not, it is a beautiful idea and rings true at a deep level.

    It combines the best of determinism (all will be saved) with freewill (it is the individual's choice as to how long and difficult the process is).

    No loving God would forever close the door on His child. Then God could never be "all in all".

    But it's a side point on your great series of posts on PST. Thanks for them!

  10. Zachary Voch said, "For in this model, Jesus takes responsibility without committing any sin."

    Not necessarily...

    (Pardon me, I'm going to venture fairly far afield, and everything in the post will be speculative rather than canonical. My brain has a habit of wandering off in funny directions, just to see where they go.)

    The crucifiction *could* be understood, not as Jesus dying to redeem humanity's sins, but as a (possibly symbolic) sacrifice made by God in atonement to humanity - something like what Emet L. called teshuva. The scenario is that, basically, God realizes that He has made some serious mistakes in the Creation, including some critical design flaws in Humanity. In an attempt to correct this, He manifests a part of Himself (either an avatar, or a demi-god; take your pick, but an avatar makes more sense) to live on Earth and make suggestions about better ways to live. This Earthly existence culminates in the sacrifice of the avatar, completing the process of atonement.

    This requires a deity who is powerful but not omnipotent (or omniscient, if you can really separate the two). And it doesn't really fit the model of teshuva, I guess, since teshuva doesn't actually *require* a sacrifice - and, more importantly, since God never makes an apology in the gospels. (Easy enough to picture that part getting left out, though.)

    Pardon me. I feel a short story coming on...

  11. MacDonald is a hero of mine, so I appreciate his rants against Calvinism. As always, great post, Ken!

  12. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Judaism states that every soul has been made in the image of God. The Jewish people are not chosen to the exclusion of others but are chosen for added responsibility. Gentiles are not required to keep Yom Kippur, Passover nor the Sabbath. There is a set of laws that all people are judged by which include believing in the Almighty and no other. Prohibitions on murder, theft and adultery to name a few. Judaism does not have a concept of burning in hell for eternity, that is a Christian invention. Your "sin" is a time limited and it makes no sense to punish someone for eternity.

    There is no concept of "being saved" or needing "blood for atonement". Again this is a Christian invention.

    There is very little written about what happens to souls, when the body dies. The focus is on your life here, and having a relationship with the Almighty. Christianity is a depressing religion which says that man is worthless and sinful, and only goes to heaven if he believes in Jesus. Judaism says that man has a soul, a pure spark of Godliness, covered by some junk. The purpose of life is to be an active participant and clean off the junk. People make mistakes and learn from them and improve themselves. Just as King David was told by the prophet Nathan that he had sinned in the matter of Bathsheba, King David admitted his sin, and was forgiven. No blood sacrifice needed. In fact part of teshuva, returning to the Almighty, is being tested in the area that you sin. King David is tested at the end of his life with the strange story of the female "bed warmer". 1 Kings 1:1-4

  13. Thank you, Ken, for your post regarding MacDonald's view of atonement. I'm in the midst of recording and annotating MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons and found your thoughts very helpful in digesting 'Justice'. If you're interested (shameless plug), I've posted a pdf of the annotation at as well as the audio recording at Regards - David

  14. Loved this post. But,'Atheist/agnostic', and quoting MacDonald! Kinda like Billy Graham quoting Hitler to make a point for his alter call. Makes no sense; and this post is all about sense. But I'll read on- maybe it's me!