Problems with Penal Substitution Theory

I’ve circled around the topic before, but I thought it valuable to do a brief overview of what I see as problems with the penal substitution theory of the atonement. Some of these will also apply to the closely-related satisfaction theory dating to Anselm in the 12th century, but I am primarily dealing with the popular version of penal substitution theory common particularly in conservative evangelical churches. If you need a refresher, this understanding of the impact of the cross goes like this:

God created us perfect, but we sinned. For one or more of three reasons, depending on whose version you’re listening to, this damns us to Hell (spiritual separation from God for eternity):

  • God cannot relate to sin because he is holy. Therefore if we have ever sinned, we are separated for eternity.
  • God is just, and by that they mean retributively just (bad guys get punished, good guys get rewarded). All sin is equal so the retributive justice requirements are the same for everyone: spiritual death for eternity.
  • Wrath is a key component of God’s character, and when it is built up in response to our sin, it must be used.

However, God is also love and desires to end this separation/punishment. Therefore, to solve the conflicting natures of God’s own character (holiness/retributive justice/wrath vs love/mercy), God puts the penalty on one of the persons of the Trinity, Jesus. His holiness/retributive justice/wrath is therefore satisfied because he still got to pour it out on somebody, and his love is satisfied because now he can be in relationship with humanity again.

A lot of these are going to similar from one to the next but there are sometimes slightly different ways of saying the same thing so I still included them.

Little to No Biblical Evidence

There are a few biblical passages that refer to Jesus being a ransom on the cross, but it doesn’t say that it is God’s justice who we are being ransomed from. There are passages about Jesus becoming sin or taking sin upon him, but again it doesn’t say what this accomplishes (any way in which this satisfies the Father). There is nothing about the conflict in God’s character that is essential to the need for penal substitution. There is nothing that says God must express wrath as a core aspect of his character. There may not be passages explicitly rejecting it, except by extension of some of the issues discussed below, so this on its own could be a valid theory, but please don’t assume that it is clearly gospel truth.* By contrast, there are a lot of passages about God defeating Satan on the cross (hello Christus Victor theory).

*Side note: even if you accept penal substitution, please don’t consider it the Gospel. It is one thing to say that the good news is salvation in Christ, but quite another to say that the good news is a specific legal framework by which salvation occurred, and when that didn’t even exist until the 1500 years into the church’s history.

God’s Inherent Separation from Sin

One of the presuppositions inherited from Greek philosophy is that God being holy/just/wrathful can’t have anything to do with sinful people. But repeatedly throughout the Bible, God chases after sinners, often before they’ve even repented, both before and after Jesus. To me, this is clearly a Greek thing, not a Hebrew/biblical thing. John Wesley taught the idea of prevenient grace, which is that the Holy Spirit woos us before we are Christians, but this would not be possible if God can’t have anything to do with us.

Most importantly, the whole Jesus story wouldn’t work if God couldn’t relate to sinners: he ate with sinners, healed sinners, and according to this theory, even took sin upon him. But if Jesus is God and God can’t handle sin, how exactly did one of the Trinity become sin? You have to divide the Trinity to make any sense of that, so that Jesus is able to handle our sin but the Father is still allergic to it.

Of course I wouldn’t say that God is ok with our sin, as some pushback will likely say. All I’m saying is that God is not afraid of you because you aren’t perfect. I think God loves you. Case closed. Not that God loves us if you’ve become a Christian and therefore had Jesus remove the separation (although John Calvin did believe that God hates non-Christians).

A God of Retributive Justice

We have to ask the question, what do we mean when we say that God is just? I fundamentally believe that the message of Jesus is contrary to the assumption of Penal Substitution Theory that God’s justice is a retributive justice. I believe God’s justice is a restorative justice, one that seeks the well-being of both the victim and the perpetrator, not one of simple cause and effect. I think genuine biblical analysis leads to this conclusion, and the fact that we claim God is love and merciful.

No Such Thing as Forgiveness; God Bound by Rules of Retributive Justice

There really is no such thing as actual forgiveness in this model, just redirection. It is kinda like if my fiancée apologized for something and I really wanted to forgive her, but I already had so much anger built up that I had to physically abuse myself or our (hypothetical future) son instead. And we praise that because I am merciful? If anything, that is less just because I would punishing the good and letting the wrongdoer get off the hook – the exact opposite of retributive justice. This isn’t quite as big of an issue in the wrath version of the problem since it is just about releasing a storage of anger and the target doesn’t really matter, but if we as Christians think God is love, then why can’t God simply forgive? The prodigal son didn’t even get as far as repenting before he was welcome back, let alone as far as having the father kill somebody else instead. In this framework, God wants to forgive but can’t because he is bound by some external laws of retributive justice.

Dividing the Trinity

Not always, but often this theory becomes presented as Jesus vs the Father, largely because of assumptions above. If Jesus took on sin and God can’t relate to sin, the Trinity was briefly divided. Or if Jesus and the Father are one, and the Father poured out his wrath on Jesus, was God simultaneously the victim and the aggressor performing some extreme self-mutilation/suicide? This messes with understandings of the Trinity going all the way back to the earliest creeds. It is often explained as that it was because of Jesus’ humanity that he could take on the sin and the Father hated that human part that was bearing the sin, but does that essentially mean that the God-part of Jesus just stood aside for a bit?

The Conflict of God’s Character

Much of what I’ve said already says this one way or another. This theory relies on the conflict being within God’s self. We really believe that the ultimate being has these tortured character issues he needs to solve within himself?

Equating God with Satan

This is the way in which this theory most bothers me: the legalistic framework is attributed as a high value of God. Yet Satan literally means Accuser. If Satan is the Accuser, and God is contrary to Satan, why do we say that God’s primary characteristic (retributive justice/wrath/separation) is the same as the defining characteristic of Satan? It isn’t a coincidence that this theory arose with John Calvin who is also famous for his theology of God’s being the only will who has anything to say about anything. Calvin, and those who adopted his theology, had no problem attributing even evil things to God, including the legalism (notice Calvin was also a lawyer) which even gave Satan his name. The lines between good and evil have largely been blurred by penal substitution theorists and Reformed theologians ever since.

Colossians 1:22 says that because of Christ’s death we are “free from accusation.” Notice it does not say that we are still accused by God and just found innocent now. It says that the accusation is gone. Penal substitution theorists often give a courtroom analogy where you are found guilty but then somebody else steps in and takes the penalty for you. Instead, this verse is saying that God is not even the one interested in taking you to court in the first place – the entire accusation is gone, not just the penalty. I think when we use penal substitution we’re settling on our understanding of God to essentially make him equal to Satan on this core value, then we throw in that he also has some secondary values to make him less-judgemental again.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.