I still believe in PENAL SUBSTITUTION

On my way to the college this morning, I read (I was not driving, but taking the bus) an article which defended (and critiqued) the atonement theory of penal substitution. I really appreciated the article because:

  1. The doctrine of penal substitution (that Jesus takes my penalty upon him with his death) has been under frequent criticism these days. For a summary of the penal substitution theory see p. 30-31.
  2. The author actually defends the doctrine of penal substitution.
  3. The author is a friend of mine who also did his PhD at McMaster.

Regarding #1- Some of the criticisms of penal substitution are made of caricatures of the doctrine and the criticisms are often made as though proponents of penal substitution have never responded to the criticisms. Patrick Franklin responds well to these, while also critiquing the theory. Let me mention a few key issues (but there is much more in the article):

1/ God is not thirsty for revenge. He is just. (p. 26)

2/ God satisfies God’s own wrath by removing our guilt (expiation leads to propitiation, p. 28).

3/ Penal substitution is not an impersonal arms-length transaction if the articulation of the doctrine includes our unity with Christ (p. 32-33).

4/ Penal substitution theory does not justify crimes of violence. There is a difference between punishment (by a legitimate authority) and crime. (p. 33-34)

5/ Every atonement theory somehow associates God with violence (p. 34, footnotes 45), not just the penal substitution theory.

6/ Even in the penal substitution theory (as properly understood) God is not changed from being a wrathful God to a loving God. Rather, the wrathful God is loving as he saves us (Jn 3:16, Rom 5:9-10).

7/ The penal substitutionary theory is not enough to communicate the gospel, in and of itself (p. 41-43).

8/ As with all atonement theories, the penal substitutionary theory is a metaphor. There are limits to metaphors, so none can be taken literally (p. 45).

*9/ Using the penal substitutionary theory alone can be problematic in evangelism (p. 45-49).

Thank God that we are “saved from God’s wrath through” Jesus Christ (Rom 5:9) because of the love of God himself (Jn 3:16)!

On another note, here is an interesting article from Christianity Today that is concerned with using the Christus Victor theory apart from other atonement theories.

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7 thoughts on “I still believe in PENAL SUBSTITUTION

  1. Hi Andrew,

    You may be interested in reading Scot Mcknight’s book entitled “A Community called Atonement” in which he calls for the use of all the metaphors of the atonement as they each share an important facet of Christ’s work. I believe Rob Bell mentions Scot’s book in Love Wins.

  2. Patrick Franklin does a great job interacting with the theory of Penal Substitution. I enjoy his critiques of the Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement in relation to methodology and meta-narrative. I believe that in this article Franklin wishes to rescue this theory of atonement from caricatures of a ‘bloodthirsty God out for vengeance’. I am however skeptical of the given assumptions of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

    “Firstly, God is supremely holy and cannot maintain fellowship with unholy, sinful creatures…Second, God cannot simply pardon sin without a satisfaction of justice… Third, man cannot satisfy the justice of God for himself, nor any creature for him . . .” (Pg. 23)

    Does God’s holiness really keep him from sinners? What about Enoch or Melchizedek? What about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What about Joseph and his brothers? Where was the sacrifice required in order for God to call out to Abram and establish him as a great nation? Didn’t all these people exist before the sacrificial system, which was a yearly requirement?

    How did Jesus manage to hang out with sinners without a sacrifice, since he is as fully divine and as holy as God the Father? In the Gospels, when Jesus says, “your sins are forgiven” where was the sacrifice? Was Jesus just kidding? What do we do with the accounts of God forgiving sin without demanding a sacrifice?

    If God punishes Jesus for our sin, does God really forgive anybody? If you owe me a hundred dollars and I won’t let you off the hook till someone pays me, did I really forgive your debt?

    “Therefore, for Hodge, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation precisely because Christ’s work satisfies the demands of God’s justice.” (pg. 24)

    Doesn’t this view assume that God changes as a result of a sacrifice? How then is Yahweh different than other pagan god’s who demanded sacrifice for appeasement? Who really changes when a sacrifice is presented? Does command a sacrificial system for His benefit or the benefit of the people of Israel? I would also agree with Schmiechen when he writes, “Sacrifice was directed toward sin to effect purification, not toward God to effect appeasement.” (pg. 38) Was God changed by sin or was humanity affected? Penal Substitution would imply that it is God is who is primarily affected by the fall. If Jesus’ death allows God the Father to accept us, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Jesus reconciles God to us than it is to say Jesus reconciles us to God? Yet the New Testament claims the latter and never the former (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:18-20). ). In fact, if God loves sinners and yet can’t accept sinners without a sacrifice, wouldn’t it be even more accurate to say that God reconciles God to himself than to say he reconciles us to God? But this is clearly an odd and unbiblical way of speaking.

    I am convinced that humanity is ultimately the one affected by the powers of sin. Humanity traded the truth for a lie, and the Good News is Jesus rescuing us from the fall. What do we do with passages of God wrath being poured out on Jesus? Well the first question I ask is what is meant by wrath? “God’s wrath against sin was expressed by him delivering Christ up to the Powers in our place. Sin was judged and Christ was our substitute” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics). This version of Penal Substitution espoused by Barth is not only compatible with the Christus Victor view of the atonement (the view that the main thing Jesus did on Calvary was defeat the devil and free us from his oppression): it actually presupposes it.

    What about Romans 3:25? “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement” Paul says God put forth Christ to be “the propitiation for our sins.” (NASB) Penal Substitution theorists argue that “propitiation” means something like “appeasement.” They hold that Jesus appeased (or “satisfied”) the Father’s wrath against sin. The whole debate centers on the following Greek words:

    “Hilaskomia” (occurs twice: Luke 18:13, Hebrews 2:17)
    Hilasmos (noun) (1 John 2:2, 1 John 4:10)
    Hilasterion (adjective) Romans. 3:25-26; Hebrews 9:5 )
    – Taken from my Theology II notes

    This word was primarily used in pagan worship to bribe the gods, and sometime during the middle ages was directed toward Christian worship. Those that object to violent atonement would argue that the word for “propitiation” (hilastarion) actually means “a place for atonement” – referencing the mercy seat in the ark of the Old Testament. So Paul is simply saying God presented Jesus to be the place where we receive mercy. The newest version of the NIV supports this translation of ‘hilastarion’ by footnoting what they believe is the correct translation of the word.

    “So it is not the case that the propitiation changed a wrathful God into a loving God. Rather, the wrathful God is loving.” (Pg. 35)

    I am not sure if we agree on the definition of God’s wrath. Erickson, Luther, and Franklin would all advocate that the Wrath of God is a direct punitive force. Interesting enough Franklin cites Boersma who “likens the penal dimension of the cross to God’s use of exile to punish Israel.” (pg.35) Isn’t this the perfect example of God’s wrath as an indirect force? Isn’t this an example of Putative withdrawal, in which is God withdrawing his protective presence and allowing the worse to occur? The narrative of the Babylonian exile can demonstrate this point. There are passages where God claims to directly inflict destruction. “I will smash them one against the other, fathers and sons alike, declares the LORD. I will allow no pity or mercy or compassion to keep me from destroying them.’ (Jeremiah 13:14) Within the greater account of the scriptures we see that it is not God directly destroying them, but rather it is God withdrawing his protection and allowing the worse to occur. “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Go to Zedekiah king of Judah and tell him, ‘This is what the LORD says: I am about to hand this city over to the king of Babylon, and he will burn it down.” (Jer 34:2) God is not the direct destroying agent in the case of the Exile. He is merely withdrawing his protection and allowing free will agents like Babylon to succeed in their destructive initiatives. Couldn’t we say the same of the Wrath of God in the New Testament? Can we express God’s wrath as ‘delivering Christ up to the Powers in our place?’ (Christus Victor) Notice that Paul never delivers people over to the ‘wrath of God’ in hopes that they would repent. Paul does however deliver people over to Satan, who inflicts ‘destruction of flesh’. (1 Cor 5:5; 1 Tim 1:20)

    “The tendency in popular portrayals of penal substitution to separate God’s justice and mercy, or even to valorize the former over the latter.” (pg 39)

    Doesn’t Jesus do this when says, “I desire mercy not sacrifice”?

    Nonviolent atonement does not deny that Jesus “died in our place” and “as our substitute.” Nor does it deny that we’re reconciled to God only “through the blood of Jesus” or that Jesus died as our “atoning sacrifice.” It just has serious doubts about the penal substitutionary view of God pouring his wrath on Jesus. If the main thing Jesus came to do was to appease the Father’s wrath by being slain by him for our sin, couldn’t this have been accomplished just as easily when (say) Jesus was a one-year-old boy as when he was a thirty-three year old man? Were Jesus’ life, teachings, healing and deliverance ministry merely a prelude to the one really important thing he did – namely, die? It doesn’t seem to me that the Gospels divide up and prioritize the various aspects of Jesus’ life in this way. (I maintain that everything Jesus did was about one thing – overcoming evil with love. Hence, every aspect of Jesus was centered on atonement — that is, reconciling us to God and freeing us from the devil’s oppression.)

      • Paul,

        I appreciate many of your concerns and questions and share many of them myself. And you are certainly right that the Christus Victor theory is helpful for explaining much about Jesus’ significance. I really have no desire to defend the theory of penal substitution theory further, but here are a few notes.

        Your questions concerning p. 23 particularly relate to Franklin’s exposition of Hodge’s explanation of penal substitution and, therefore, many of your concerns are particularly questions for Hodge. Hence, the potential answers may lead you to reject Hodge’s articulation of penal substitution, but they do not have to lead you (or anyone) to reject the penal substitution view of the atonement in and of itself.

        Further, it seems to me that part of your problem with the metaphor of penal substitution is that you are not evaluating it at a metaphor, but rather as though it is an attempt to provide a literal explanation of what happened at the cross. All metaphors of the atonement are metaphors. Similarly, the Bible uses the metaphor of ransom (e.g., Matt 20:28, 1 Cor 6:20): Christ paid the ransom for me. However, as soon as we start asking questions like, “Who did he pay the ransom to?” (the Father?, Satan?), the metaphor becomes problematic. Similarly, many questions we can ask of the penal substitution theory might make it metaphor problematic. Nevertheless, we do not have to reject either metaphors altogether simply because the metaphors have their problems.

        Also, another part of your problem with the metaphor of penal substitution is that you are treating it as though it is an attempt to explain the whole significance of all that Jesus did (for example, your final thoughts about why Jesus wasn’t just killed as a boy). In contrast to how you are treating the penal substitution theory, many people who hold to the theory (like Franklin) readily state that the theory should not be taken by itself and that it is incomplete.

        Finally, I do see texts in the NT where God’s wrath is directed toward people, not just toward ‘sin’ (e.g. Jn 3:36, Rom 2:5). If I don’t have to undergo that wrath because of Jesus, then this is one reason the penal substitution theory makes some sense (for other reasons as well).

        Okay, one more “final” thought, although only a bit of a tangent. I have no problem with translating “hilasmos” as propitiation (even though I have read much about the biblical debate in the past). It seems odd to me to suggest that the “pagans” used the word to mean one thing and that the biblical authors would use the word to mean something completely different (especially given that they could have chosen to use a different word). Regardless, what I find fascinating is that, in contrast to pagan worship, God is the one who propitiates himself on our behalf–“God . . . loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10, ESV).


  3. Hey Dr. Gabriel,

    Thanks for taking the time out to respond to me!

    Firstly, given that the Penal Substitutionary view is the dominant view in Western Christianity, I find that Hodge (and Franklin’s interpretation of Hodge) is still espousing a view that deeply concerning to myself and many others.

    Secondly, I agree that we can run into a problem when we over extend the biblical metaphors. This certainly could be applied to the biblical examples of ransom and redemption regarding the issue of payment. I find it interesting however that penal substitutionary atonement is often taught as THE literal account of how Jesus saves us. Do you think Anslem,(and later Calvin the reformers) was out to create a metaphor/image or a working theory of the atonement? It seems to me that satisfaction/ penal substitutionary views are asserting way too many theological ‘truths’ regarding the nature of God/forgiveness to be simply viewed as a metaphor.

    (As a side note, could you not say that a Christus Victor view of the atonement is not a metaphor but a rather a literal account of how Jesus saves us? )

    My counter-question however is: Does not the penal substitutionary view of the atonement massively overplay the metaphor of sacrifice to render the Cross virtually the opposite of what the New Testament describes? (i.e. the end of condemnation, the end of the law, the end of wrath—not because God’s bloodlust was finally satiated, but because when the sin of mankind reached its climax, God answered Christ’s prayer to forgive rather than punish.) 

Thirdly, I find that I am not rejecting penal substitution/ satisfaction because they are incomplete, but rather because they are incompatible with an all encompassing view of the atonement. They subvert the intended meaning of the Gospels on the most foundational truths of forgiveness, hospitality, and nonviolence. Here are few reasons why: (taken from:Stricken by God?)


1. It pits Father against Son—or the Father’s wrath against the Son’s forgiveness, even though behind this there is a pact rooted in love’s search for a solution that honours justice (so that God can both justify and be just—Romans 3:26).

2.It makes God beholden—to his own sense of honour (Anselm), law and/or justice (the Reformers), anger and wrath. In effect, God is under the law. To be more charitable, we might say that he must act consistently with his perfectly just character, which cannot minimize the seriousness of sin by letting it go unpunished.

    3. It requires the debt of sin to be paid back—there is no free gift. This type of God must be reimbursed—even if by proxy and with consent—before he can forgive or show mercy. Technically, the debt of sin must be paid back in full rather than cancelled or forgiven.

    4. It says sin must be paid back by punishment—the torment of the sinner satisfies God’s need for wrath. The justice he requires is specifically retributive. Since no one can ever satisfy such wrath or repay the eternal debt for themselves—let alone for third parties—the punishment for mankind’s collective sin-debt could only be extracted by someone of eternal nature and divine purity. Hence, the incarnation.

    5.It paints God as retributive—the picture of God derived from penal substitution looks vindictive and untrustworthy, repulsed by sinners and rather different than the Father’s heart as portrayed perfectly by Jesus. For some, it reflects an angry and unbending facet of God’s character that is inconsistent with the compassionate Father of the prodigal son who exacts no fee for re-entry into the family. 

    6. It distorts divine justice—such a God shows us a form of justice that requires an eye for an eye and spawns a retributive penal system, incites domestic violence, and failed experiments in parental “tough love” (nothing like the prodigal father). 

    It creates atheists—authors like Steve Chalke see in penal substitution a caricature of God who would be guilty of “cosmic child abuse.”(9) Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo explains: “A god who demands the child-sacrifice of his own son to satiate his own wrath? That is not Jehovah; that is Molech. God was not punishing Christ on the Cross; he was IN Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.”

    Fourthly, I think what I was trying to say at the time (but failed) is two things:
    Jesus humbly endured the wrath of mankind a free agent, instead of invoking the wrath of God upon us. He says as much to Pilate.
    Appealing to a patristic thought on propitiation. (i.e. Irenaeus) (I generally think that it is better to appeal to a patristic thought pattern on propitiation rather than a middle age feudal view of satisfaction) This is to view justice holistically and ontologically as appeasing God by destroying death and restoring to him all of creation. Justice is thus restorative rather than retributive. God is appeased since his creation is transformed into that which he desires it to be.

    Also your references (e.g. Jn 3:36, Rom 2:5) are both implying judgement within the eschaton. This is to say sin, death, the enemy are still being judged, including those who are yoked with them. I would think that a NT view is that humanity is not the enemy of God (God loves the cosmos) but rather victims of the enemy. (i.e. Romans 5:10) 

    Finally, I would only hope that a patristic understanding of atonement would inform our use of “hilasmos”. 

Paul Walker

    • Hi Paul,

      I find it very interesting that you stated “They subvert the intended meaning of the Gospels on the most foundational truths of forgiveness, hospitality, and nonviolence.” This sounds to me like you are rejecting the penal substitution theory primarily because of your commitment to pacifism (although that commitment is, of course, coming out of your reading of the NT).

      I really have no great desire to defend the penal substitution theory further, but more importantly there are better people to read on this topic than me. I am well aware of the concerns you have raised. And I appreciate that you have done some reading on this. You might also consider reading more by people who actually support the penal substitution view rather than focusing on reading those who critique the view. I think if you did so, you would find satisfactory answers to at least some of the concerns you have raised.

      A few good places to start are:

      “The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views” (http://www.amazon.com/Nature-Atonement-Four-Views/dp/0830825703/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1325514409&sr=8-1). Here you will find both critiques and responses by authors who hold to a number of different views. I think just reading the chapter and responses (to the other views) by Thomas Shreiner would be helpful to you. Green’s chapter is beneficial too because he doesn’t reject the penal substitution theory completely.

      “The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of the Atonement” (http://www.amazon.com/Atonement-Debate-Papers-Symposium-Theology/dp/0310273390/ref=sr_1_15?ie=UTF8&qid=1325514409&sr=8-15). This book includes some people who are specifically defending the penal substitution theory.

      For a more in-depth articulation and defense of penal substitution see:
      “Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution”

      Best wishes for your study and ministry.