What’s wrong with Penal Substitution Atonement?

I’m tired of the Christian theology that states that ‘Jesus got what we deserve’ and that Jesus bore the wrath of God that God would’ve otherwise unleashed on us. Jesus saved us from the death! Jesus defeated death! Jesus saved us from what we do to ourselves, not from what God was going to/or had to do to us. Penal Substitution Atonement paints a picture of a vengeful, grotesque and retributive God entirely contrary to the nature of Jesus. PSA essentially says that God requires a sacrifice to not only satisfy his wrath/justice but to pay the debt of our sin. I see Jesus’ death as God’s willingness to absorb sin, violence, injustice and retribution as the only and final way to defeat all of these things.

The penal substitution view under emphasizes the true nature of God’s agape love and also ignores the themes of spiritual warfare and covenant faithfulness, both of which permeate the entire Biblical narrative. The PSA view presupposes that the cross was not about defeating Satan and death, thus ignoring what the Bible implicitly states in 1 John 3:8, that, ‘the Son of God came to destroy the works of the Devil.‘ This is reiterated in Hebrews 2:14. ‘For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who has/had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.’ 

Colossians 2:13-15 ‘You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed (or stripped off) the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross.’

This verse exactly explains the point that Jesus was not paying a debt but cancelling it … to “forgive” is to release someone from a debt and to absorb the debt yourself, to not make anyone pay but to accept the loss.  To make someone else pay a debt would not only NOT be forgiveness but would also not be “cancelling” the debt, but instead merely transferring it. (Erasing debts is also another theme found in various instances throughout the Bible, but I’ll save that discussion for another time)

By not making anyone pay for injustice but instead absorbing it, Jesus defeats the endless cycle of “crime and punishment”, of “infraction and retribution” that is itself a central aspect of the fallen world and of Satan’s kingdom:  rules and revenge.  Jesus destroys this, breaks the cycle, shows a completely different way … one where he himself accepts injustice without revenge or retribution in order to forgive and then reconcile.

In Ephesians 2:14-22 we see an emphasis on peace, one of the major themes of Christ’s kingdom. It emphasizes the reconciliation BY discarding the laws/rules system. I see Penal Substitution Atonement as not only archaic, but pagan, because God needs no sacrifice to pay for our sin. To say so assumes that God is either unable or refuses to forgive our sins without payment.

We see in the New Testament, the use of the word, ‘free gift,’ in regards to the new life that can be found in Jesus. It would not be called  both ‘free,’ and a ‘gift,’ if Jesus was some kind of sacrificial lamb meant to quench God’s justice. I agree with Baptist Minister Steve Chalke when he said, “The cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—A vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed.”

Some would argue that PSA can be supported because of the use of sacrifices to cleanse people of their sins in the Old Testament. Some scholars question whether the whole system of animal sacrifice was ever God’s idea in the first place, or whether it was a fallen human system to which God accommodated to as he clearly does with many other fallen human practices (polygamy for instance).  Whereas with pagan animal sacrifice, the gods fed on the blood or spirits of the murdered animal (or human in extreme cases), the meat of the animals sacrificed in all but one of the Levitical sacrifices were shared in a meal, representing restored covenant and reconciled relationship. To support the argument that God never had in mind animal sacrifices as a payment for sins, one need look no further than such Old Testament passages as Psalm 51:16, Hosea 6:6 and Micah 6:6-8 just to name a few.  Animal sacrifice had occurred throughout all of history. All cultures practiced it and the Israelites were likely already practicing it as slaves in Egypt. God constantly temporarily accommodates to cultural norms and does this for the purpose of moving the culture into another direction. Paul even says in 1 Corinthians 10:19-20, that ‘..these sacrifices are offered to demons, not to God.’ 

In Hebrews Chapter 10, the sacrifices are described as pieces of the old system of the law under Moses. In this system, sacrifices occurred over and over, but never gave perfect cleansing and in fact actually reminded the people of their sins rather then purifying and cleansing the people of their guilt. Then it quotes Jesus, where he says that,

  • “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings. But you have given me a body to offer. You were not pleased with burnt offerings or other offerings for sin…” The importance and emphasis on this next verse cannot be stressed enough. “Then I said, ‘Look, I have come to do your will, O God-‘ As is written about me in the Scriptures.”

Jesus was not needed as a sacrifice to appease God’s anger or satisfy some need for punishment. No, what was needed, was for Satan’s rulership of Earth to be defeated and given back to humanity, and for this to happen a human had to be fully obedient to God unto the point of death, thus fulfilling covenant faithfulness with God which was broken by Adam and Eve. The Trinity conspired together to achieve all this, to fulfill God’s ultimate plan. It was not to feed God’s hunger for some revenge, but to free humanity from evil and restore us to adoption as children through sinless, self-sacrificial obedience to God’s will to the point of death.  Perfect obedience defeats Satanic rebellion; mercy triumphs over judgment.

God is like Jesus. Jesus is God in the flesh. So what are you going to believe in?

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Brave New World by Amanda Cook

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Amanda Cook’s music is drenched in the Holy Spirit. Her words reach down in the depths of my soul and utterly destroy any walls I’ve attempted to put up. A couple of her songs have been speaking to me lately, bringing me the closest to God that I’ve felt in my life. Her debut album Brave New World is truly a glimpse at the heart of who God is. The tracks Mercy and Pieces are perhaps the two most radiant and glorious works of art I’ve experienced in my life. Another song on the album, The Voyage, has also captivated my heart. The Voyage is just pure beauty, pure worship. I’ve listened to this song over and over and each time I am overwhelmed by the sense of purpose, of peace and of joy that it gives me. There aren’t enough words to describe the euphoric serenity that comes from the place that these songs take me to. Knowing that the core of her music is grounded in Jesus-centered theology is not just refreshing, but rare. When Amanda sings, “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” it’s not just another tired line of worship, but an incredible reality that many of us still fail to understand fully. Mercy triumphs over judgment! God is making ALL things beautiful, even the things we believe can’t be reconciled. All I can say is that God is continually pushing the boundaries of my understanding of who he is and it is breathtaking.

-Josiah