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Friday, May 7, 2010

Does the Penal Substitutionary Theory Make Sense?

My friend Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism has asked me to provide guest posts on his very popular site once or twice a month. On April 17, my first post was published entitled, Does Penal Substitutionary Theory Make Sense? The post generated a lot of comments and objections. My second post which will be published today on his site answers those objections. For those who may not have read the first post, here it is and after reading I invite you to go to CommonSenseAtheism to read my answers to the objections.

Here is the first post:

I am a former evangelical Christian Pastor and Bible college Professor. I deconverted from Christianity in 1996 because of inconsistencies within Christian doctrine.

One of those inconsistent doctrines lies at the core of Christian belief: namely, that Jesus Christ died for sinners. Typically, in evangelical circles this is understood in terms of Jesus bearing the punishment in place of the sinners who deserved it. This is called the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement, hereafter PST. This idea is succinctly stated by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

The PST states that Jesus, who was innocent of sin, took the punishment that was deserved by sinners, so that God could be just in forgiving sinners. Several points within this view are inconsistent with the rest of evangelical Christian doctrine.

One problem has to do with the injustice of punishing an innocent person in place of the guilty. Our moral intuitions tell us that it is never right to inflict punishment on an innocent individual. According to Christian theology, our moral intuitions come as a result of being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Paul says that even the heathen have a proper sense of what is right and wrong (Romans 2:14-15), presumably because of the imago Dei. Thus, it seems that there is a contradiction between the sense of right and wrong implanted in man via the imago Dei and the revealed teaching of Scripture that God was just in accepting the punishment of his innocent Son in the place of guilty sinners.

Evangelical theologians have attempted to explain this contradiction in several ways, none of which I find satisfying. One is to say that because Jesus volunteered to die as a substitute, then God is just in accepting his punishment in place of sinners. This explanation, however is a non sequitur. The conclusion that God was right in accepting the punishment does not follow from the premise that Jesus volunteered for the suffering. Yes, it is a noble thing if one lays down his life for the sake of others, as in a soldier falling on a grenade to protect his comrades, but that is not what we have in the atonement. In the PST, we have God accepting the voluntary death of Jesus as sufficient punishment deserved by sinners for their sin.

Another explanation offered by evangelicals is that it is permissible for a person to pay a fine that has been judicially imposed upon another person. If, for example, one incurs a fine of $200 for speeding, the court does not care if someone else pays the fine for the convicted. This explanation, however, is a red herring. It introduces a topic irrelevant to the problem at hand. It confuses a monetary debt with a moral debt. A pecuniary debt can be transferred but the penalty for a moral crime cannot. While a court would allow a substitute to pay the fine imposed on someone convicted of a crime, it would not allow a substitute to be incarcerated or executed for the crime. And even when paying a fine, the benefactor would have to give the money to the convicted and the convicted would still pay the fine. So you still have the fine being paid by the one who is guilty of the crime.

A third attempt to justify the PST is to say that God imputes the sin of man to Jesus so that he is viewed by God as in fact being guilty. This is the Christian doctrine of imputation. The doctrine is derived from the Greek word λογίζομαι (logidzomai), which occurs 49 times in the Greek New Testament. The KJV translates it: to reckon, to count, to impute. It is a term that was used in accounting to refer to placing something on one's account.

While the word is not used here, the idea is found in Philemon 1:18, where Paul tells Philemon in regard to Onesimus (a runaway slave): "But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account."

There are three elements to the Christian doctrine of imputation. (1) God put Adam's sin on his posterity's account; (2) God put man's sins on Jesus' account, and Jesus paid the debit on the cross, with the result that (3) God puts Christ's righteousness (as a credit) on the believer's account.

What is wrong with this explanation? Legally, imputation of guilt is only justified if the person to whom the imputation is made is in some way complicit in the crime. For example, as Norman McIlwain points out:
The owners of a company are responsible for actions that happen within the company rules and consent of management. Corporate manslaughter is a good example. However, the company would need to be involved in the action. One employee murdering another in a fit of temper, for example, would not make the owners of the company guilty for the crime. It would have happened without their consent and certainly against company rules. However, drugs manufactured that later are found to cause death would make the company and its owners liable. Guilt would rightly be imputed - because of the company's consent to the manufacture.

In the above example, the owners of the pharmaceutical company would be complicit in the crime because they either knew or should have known the dangers associated with the drugs they were manufacturing. Thus, they can legitimately be held culpable. But theologians do not believe Jesus was complicit in the crimes of humanity.

Another problem with the doctrine of imputation is that if the sins of mankind were somehow imputed to Jesus, then he in real terms became a sinner. Thus, he was not truly an innocent. So either way, there is a problem for Christian doctrine. You have a sinful Savior or an unjust Father.

The fourth explanation is the one that evangelicals use when everything fails; they say it is a mystery. As the argument goes, God's ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9) and one cannot expect to be able to explain the ways of God in human terms. Besides the fact that this is really not an answer, it also has other problems. First, if we can't trust our moral intuitions when it comes to punishing an innocent, then how do we know that we can trust any of our moral intuitions? Second, if God's ways are beyond our comprehension, how can we say anything definitively about God? It seems that one has just thrown out the whole enterprise of Christian theology.

In conclusion, therefore, the central doctrine of evangelical theology - that Jesus died in the place of sinners - is fatally flawed and must be rejected. It is true that a minority of evangelicals have offered alternative theories of the atonement but they have been roundly criticized as unbiblical by the overwhelming majority of the movement.


  1. It is true that a minority of evangelicals have offered alternative theories of the atonement but they have been roundly criticized as unbiblical by the overwhelming majority of the movement.

    Maybe that's the problem. The seeds of penal substitution theory (that Christ died to satisfy the demands of God's justice; Luther, Calvin) are in the bible, but you can make a stronger case for either satisfaction theory (that Christ died to satisfy the demands of God's honor; Anselm) or ransom redemption theory (that God tricked the devil by offering Jesus as a payment, and Satan was foiled by the resurrection). I'm not a Christian, mind you, so I don't have much at stake here. I'm only pointing out that it's not terribly hard to shoot down the theory based strictly on justice.

    But even more importantly: I don't know that any of these three atonement theories must be seen as prerequisites for Christian belief. Stephen Finlan, for instance, rejects all of them, believing that the Incarnation is the central doctrine of Christianity, while atonement is something Christianity can (and should) do without. In place of atonement, he suggests the principle of theosis, whereby "the Word became man so that you might learn from man how man may become God" (See his Problems with Atonement, p 121). He's not advocating gnosticism; in his opinion, "those who teach that every person is as divine as Christ is (such as the gnostic gospel of Philip) lose sight of the Incarnation, and cannot really be called Christian" (ibid, p 4). He's simply advocating what orthodox thinkers like Athanasius and Clement of Alexandria maintained, that people may be deified on account of the "the Word becoming man". Finlan writes:

    "Theosis has a biblical basis, and this should not be forgotten. There is the promise that 'you may become participants of the divine nature' (II Pet 1:4); there is the command to become perfect, Godlike (Mt 5:48); there are the prophecies of doing greater things than Jesus did (Jn 14:12) and of revelations yet to be seen (Jn 1:51). Theosis means each person incarnating divinity in his or her small way, inspired by the direct Incarnation of divinity that took place in Galilee and Judea." (pp 121-122)

    So perhaps, ironically, the bible carries within itself the seeds for transcending/rejecting atonement theories.

  2. It's a question of authority. God, who made you and gave you your conscience, has clarified what justice is, and how it is satisfied in the atonement by imputation.

    To reject His clarification as found in Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24 and 3:18, Hebrews 9:14, Romans 5, etc., is to place one's own opinion over the testimony of one's Creator and thus to insure that one's understanding of justice fails on this point.

  3. Proverbs 28:5 (ESV) Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely.

  4. I am confused. If God is Jesus (the three in one, Holy Trinity) why would he want to punish himself? Is God a masochist?
    This discussion is a good example of how Christians tie themselves in knots to try and justify their beliefs- that often do not make much sense.If the Romans did crucify Jesus- ant that is a big IF- then it was because he was a disruptive influence on their regime at the time.

  5. In an effort to not reinvent the wheel, might I recommend "Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution" by theologians in the UK Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach.

  6. David,

    Its actually that book that got me started blogging. My first few posts discussed it. Beginning here

  7. Ex N1hilo said, "t's a question of authority. ... To reject His clarification as found in Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24 and 3:18, Hebrews 9:14, Romans 5, etc., is to place one's own opinion over the testimony of one's Creator ..."

    It may be self-evident to you that every declaration found in the 66 canonical books is coming straight from the mouth of God. But it's certainly not self-evident to everyone.

    Just take the Hebrews text. Why is everything in the Epistle to the Hebrews automatically assumed to be God's words? Why do you think so? You don't have any idea who wrote it. The book never claims to be a divine oracle.

    It comes down to this: The church voted to include that letter in the canon (against some objection). Pastors routinely claim it's the word of God. It's in everyone's Bible. So you buy what you're told by fallible men ... based mostly (if not wholly) on tradition.

    You're right: It is a "question of authority."

  8. Loren,

    The PST is not a prerequisite to be considered a Christian but it is a prerequsite to be considered an evangelical Christian in America and I believe also now in the UK Evangelical Alliance.

    The idea that man can become God will never be accepted by evangelical Christianity. It smacks of Mormonism and is considered to be the original lie of Satan in the garden.

    One thing that both Judaism and Christianity have historically held is a sharp demarcation between the Creator and the Creation. God is "wholly other". He is separate and distinct from his creation, according to these traditions.

    So, I don't think that you will ever see widespread acceptance of theosis in Christianity.

    In addition, my focus on my blog is towards American evangelical Christianity. Its what I used to be and what I know. It is also arguably the largest group of Christians in the US and certainly one of the most vocal.