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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5 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Penal Substitution Atonement?

  1. Actually the Reformed have always affirmed the pactun salutis thereby affirming the free acceptance of the Word to be the Mediator of the World before all time. You first two paragraphs are old unfounded objections.

    Name a modern scholar who wholly denies the substitutionary implications of the Levitical cult? There are none. We tried this a century ago and have come round about once more to the penal nature of the entire New Testament. This was ao flagrantly obvious it was presupposed and understood by the NT authors. All off the best themes from the atonement theories are worked into PSA if done properly including Christus Victor, moral influence, etc when you use PSA as the head. Christ gave himself up as a ransom λυτρον for many; incorporate all the data into the mix and you can’t avoid the substitutionary character of the cross. Read Bavinck on substitution in Vol. III in the Dogmatics. Still highly relevant.

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    • Thanks for your comment. I appreciate dialogue that engages the subject matter. How did you find my blog?

      I completely agree that the substitutionary character of the cross is essential and undeniable. Jesus as our covenant representative, fulfilled the covenant requirements and defeated the power of the enemy, thereby ransoming us from bondage. A big amen to that!

      Is it your assumption that ‘substitutionary’ and ‘penal’ are the same? And do you mean to say that, ‘we’ Reformed theologians or ‘we’ Christian theologians, came back around to the penal nature of the NT?

      It is my view as well as that of many theologians and writers that Christ’s substitution was not penal or forensic in nature, but covenantal. I agree that the new testament pictures a number of metaphors or models of what atonement means, but again many reputable scholars reject that the NT is “penal in nature”. In fact, the penal/forensic theme is ironically built upon an assumption of merit/demerit that protestants resoundingly rejected in the reformation … that what God decides on in salvation is whether one has “earned” forgiveness or damnation, whether on their own or on Jesus’ “merit”.

      I may have over-spoke when I said that PSA disregards other aspects of the atonement such as spiritual warfare and covenantal dimensions, but I believe it often under-emphasizes other elements of the atonement. Where you and i appear to disagree, is that you make Penal, the interpretive key for everything. Where as I see covenantal substitution and kingdom warfare as the keys.

      There is much more I can address if you’d like. I love respectful and curious dialogue. Let me know your thoughts!

      Shalom,

      Josiah

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      • Sorry for my mis-spellings, I was typing from my phone (still am).

        Those scholars who tried to explain away the substitutionary character of the OT cult is who I was referring to. Rischtl tried, von Harnack followed, and an exponential number of theologians continued but modern scholarship has done a round about. OT and near east scholars are actually in harmony when they are interpreting the cult sacrifices of the Israelites, the day of atonement, the scapegoat, and more. It is true that earlier reformed theologians swayed too far by neglecting other aspects of the atonement but the best have done an excellent job as PSA is the only method that adequately incorporates the best of all into one method. Again, the lense is PSA but also Union with Christ, Christus Victor, Moral Influence, etc. Contra Lutheranism. Reformed have always done due justice to both Christ’s active and passive obedience in both respective natures of one subject which the mere forensic justification of Luther could not do.

        Again, Bavinck is wonderful on this in Vol III of his Dogmatics. I’d encourage you to go through Hans Boersma also, his “Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition.”

        You ground salvation ultimately in the Covenant but this implies a substitution. Adam as a federal head failed and Christ regained what Adam lost and also gained further what would have been granted. Adam and Christ are both heads of covenants, the latter of grace is just infinitely superior. Only substitution gets you here and all the rest follows.

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  2. I have no argument with you about the centrality of the concept of substitution, both in the Old Testament Levitical laws as well as in the New Testament in the cross and the atonement. Where we differ is that you seem to think that substitution is inherently penal. In other words, a representative had to be punished in our place. Where as I see substitution covenantally, meaning a representative had to perfectly fulfill the covenant and defeat Satan in our place.

    Your intuitions about substitution are totally correct, but do not necessitate a penal or forensic dimension.

    I will look into Bavinck eventually. I am currently swamped with a lot of other books I need to read at the moment. I have two or three books I would like to read about Atonement theories, I’m curious to learn more about this subject matter.

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