A common criticism of people like me who openly oppose Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory is that we are picking and choosing the bits of the Bible we like, whilst ignoring some of the trickier bits.
I intend now to try and make it super clear that this is not what we are doing.
The thing is, we all read things into the Bible that may or may not be there, based on our own understanding, cultural background and personal opinions.
It’s really, really difficult to read the Bible objectively (impossible, actually) – we all emphasise some bits over others, reject some bits as irrelevant and project our own frameworks of understanding onto the text to help us make sense of it. This is not a bad thing – it just helps to be aware that we’re doing it.
Most Christians who believe in Penal Substitutionary Atonement claim that the Bible clearly supports it, and that there is no other way of interpreting certain texts. What they don’t realise is that they are reading the Bible through invisible lenses. Let’s call them PSA goggles.
PSA goggles have been the height of fashion in the protestant, particularly evangelical church for a good many centuries now. Long enough that they’ve become so much a part of our identity, we don’t even realise we are wearing them. They provide a logical explanation of the core meaning of Christianity based on a handful of verses, through which we then view the rest of the Bible.
PSA goggles also seem to have the unfortunate effect of obscuring the wearer’s view, so that many parts of the Bible which don’t fit with PSA theory are overlooked or ignored.
Before we jump right into dealing with the specific passages that appear to support PSA, we need to look at six broader Biblical themes that will help to put them into context.
1. Sin and Salvation
In the Bible, sin is about more than just our own personal wrongdoings. It is the whole devastating human condition which separates us from our Source and will eventually lead to our destruction. The salvation that God offers is not just forgiveness from our transgressions, although that is a major part of it. It’s also not just just about an afterlife. Where salvation is mentioned in the Old Testament it refers to liberation from bondage (Exodus 14:30, 15:2, Psalm 106:21), return from exile (Isaiah 45:17) and rescue from danger (Psalms 27:1, 51:12, 65:5, 69:2). The Gospels are full of Jesus offering salvation from illness, death, blindness, fear, violence…if it is all about God forgiving our personal wrongdoings so that we can avoid hell, then life and teachings of Jesus don’t make a lot of sense.
(I wrote this article on this very topic a few months back.)
2. God’s Wrath
I think there has been some confusion here. I’m not saying that God is never angry and just lets everything slide. I think he is very angry at ‘sin’ – at that which separates his children from him and threatens to destroy them. I think the full extent of his fury will be unleashed upon the powers of darkness that oppress people and bring destruction to God’s good creation.
Penal substitution claims that God actively punishes his children for disobeying him; that in contrast to his holiness, every single human being is so filthy that we deserve not just to die, but to be tortured for all eternity. That although God loves us, he must balance out the cosmic weighing scales by unleashing his wrath and punishment on anyone who has not accepted Jesus as their Personal Saviour.
So a young boy is born into a war zone, experiences a life full of fear and pain, and drowns at three years old when the boat carrying him to safety sinks. Death for him doesn’t bring relief, but eternal conscious torment in a lake of fire. Or even “an eternity separate from God” (a phrase people like to use to make hell sound more palatable).
And we are supposed to love this God.
This twisted interpretation continues to repulse and offend me.
God is angry at sin because it threatens to destroy his beloved children. He unleashes his wrath at that which causes us harm, because he loves us more than we can know. (John 3:16)
Like a mother fiercely protecting her young, willing to sacrifice her own life to save her children. (Matthew 23:37).
Of course our own destructive habits are a major part of sin, but on the cross we were set free from the power of sin, so we are no longer slaves to it (Romans 6:6-7). We have been separated from sin, so it no longer has to control us and be part of our identity. But we still have to choose to turn away from our lives of sin.
Do you see what a difference this slight shift in understanding makes?
(Read more of my musings on hell here).
The meaning of the cross is not a transaction – a legal deal where Jesus gets us off the hook by standing in front of us and taking our punishment. This widespread understanding implies that ultimately, what we do in this life doesn’t matter as long as we’ve completed the transaction and secured our insurance policy against hell.
The meaning of the cross is transformation. When we choose to follow Jesus, we metaphorically die with him and rise to a new life. We are changed from the inside out. Sin is still a part of our lives but we are no longer defined by it, but by grace and love (Romans 6). We become agents of God’s Kingdom, which starts now and one day will come in full (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Choosing to ‘believe in Jesus’ doesn’t mean simply intellectually asserting that certain historical events took place and have eternal implications.
‘Believing in Jesus’ means choosing to follow in the Way he showed us, choosing to love him, putting our trust in him as we would a close friend.
We usually think of justice today as meaning criminals getting the punishment they deserve. Punitive or retributive justice. So we read the Bible with this in mind, and deduce that the ‘justice of God’ is about God punishing wrongdoers.
A better understanding is distributive justice. God wants everyone to be treated fairly, to have enough food and equal rights to a full life. Throughout the Bible God favours those who are oppressed and challenges those who abuse power. This is a major theme – from God liberating the Israelites from slavery in Egypt right through to Jesus befriending prostitutes and challenging those religious leaders who sought to control people…
God always backs the underdog.
God is passionate about the poor, the weak, the outcasts from society, and he desires justice, equality, freedom and fair treatment for everyone.
The fact that Jesus died on a Roman cross was hugely significant. Rome was the ultimate symbol of worldly power – they maintained their control by any means necessary, crushing anyone who stood in their way. Crucifixion was the slowest, most painful form of torture and execution, reserved for people who challenged authority. To the New Testament writers, this would have been central.
Penal substitution tends to completely ignore the political significance of how Jesus died. If God killed Jesus, then the Romans were simply pawns in God’s greater plan of violently punishing sin and venting his wrath.
No, men killed Jesus. “Father, forgive them…” (Luke 23:34). The powers of this world and the dark spiritual forces behind them did their absolute worst to him, and thought they had won.
The resurrection was God declaring once and for all that the dark and oppressive powers of this world, represented by Rome but echoing to the ends of the earth, will not have the last word.
Sacrifice is everywhere in the Old Testament. People sacrificed animals (usually) as a means of communicating with the gods/God, to ask for something or to show gratitude. The sacrificed animal was ‘made sacred’, and it would then be eaten (often by a Priest – see Leviticus 2) to symbolise communion with God. The animal would not have been seen as a substitute, taking the punishment that humans deserved.
But sacrifice doesn’t mean substitution. Think about it.
If someone sacrifices their life to save someone – a father dies in saving his child or a soldier takes a bullet to save a friend, their deaths are not in any way settling a debt owed by that person.
Equally someone can sacrifice their life for a cause – there is no implication that they were a substitute.
So, time to get down to the nitty gritty.
Here are the main Bible passages that are used to support Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and why I am convinced that is not what they mean.
Genesis 22: God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son
Abraham doesn’t bat an eyelid when God tells him to provide Isaac as a burnt offering. In the ancient world, that’s what the pagan gods did. People believed they had to do this to keep the gods happy and ensure the survival of their tribe.
So the point here is that this God doesn’t do that. They are entering a new understanding of their relationship with the divine, and learning that He doesn’t demand child sacrifice.
Thank goodness for that.
Exodus 12: The Passover, referenced in John 1:29, 1 Peter 1:19, Revelation 5 – ‘the Lamb of God’
It’s pretty clear that the New Testament writers saw a parallel between the story of the Passover, and Jesus’ death.
Passover is a Jewish celebration of the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt. The story goes that God told them to sacrifice a lamb and mark their door frames with its blood, so that when God came to strike down all the firstborn sons in Egypt, He would pass over the houses marked with blood and their sons would be spared.
The Passover lamb wasn’t in any way a substitute for sin. The blood wasn’t payment, it was a sign of faith, an indication of loyalty and identity. They were instructed to eat the lamb after it was slain – if it symbolically represented their sin, eating it would not make sense.
So when John the Baptist declares “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), he is referencing the sacrificial lamb which brought the Israelites liberation from Egypt.
No sign of substitution.
Leviticus 4-7: Sin offerings
This is a detailed and pretty gory set of instructions regarding making animal sacrifices to atone for sin. These sacrifices were intended to be a peace offering, to restore the people’s broken relationship with God. There is no sense of the animal dying in place of the person, or of sin being placed upon the animal. It is a gift to make up for wrongdoing.
Leviticus 16:10: Scapegoat
“But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.”
So the one time sins are symbolically placed onto an animal, that animal is not killed.
Isaiah 53:4-5 (NIV)
This is the most commonly quoted Old Testament passage used to defend Penal Substitution. I’ll write my little commentary in italics…
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
(the suffering that is the result of sin)
yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
(WE considered him – I suspect when Jesus hung on the cross it looked a lot like he was being punished by God. Doesn’t mean he literally was…)
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
(Yes! He took the full force of sin upon himself and broke its power – sin punished him, not God!)
Matthew 27:46 (NIV)
“About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lemasabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)”
I don’t even know how this has become a “proof text” for penal substitution.
God allowed Jesus to be killed? Yes. He sacrificed his Son to save us.
Jesus felt abandoned by his Father? Whilst suffering the most painful form of execution known to man? I reckon so.
So God killed Jesus? NO! WHAT?? Why would you even say such a thing??
Mark 10:45 (NIV)
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Yes, a ransom paid to the powers of darkness and death…they demanded blood, not God!
Romans 3:23-26, 8:32 (The Voice translation)
“You see, all have sinned, and all their futile attempts to reach God in His glory fail. Yet they are now saved and set right by His free gift of grace through the redemption available only in Jesus the Anointed. When God set Him up to be the sacrifice—the seat of mercy where sins are atoned through faith—His blood became the demonstration of God’s own restorative justice. All of this confirms His faithfulness to the promise, for over the course of human history God patiently held back as He dealt with the sins being committed. This expression of God’s restorative justice displays in the present that He is just and righteous and that He makes right those who trust and commit themselves to Jesus.”
“If He did not spare His own Son, but handed Him over on our account, then don’t you think that He will graciously give us all things with Him?”
Speaks for itself! Not even a flicker of God pouring out wrath on Jesus.
Gave him up as a sacrifice? Definitely.
Punished him in our place? What?? No!
2 Corinthians 5:21, Galatians 3:13 (NIV)
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.””
So Jesus took the full force of sin upon himself, was cursed by sin… doesn’t mean God was punishing him.
1 Peter 3:18, 2:24 (NIV)
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”
“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed”.
Yes indeed. Still no mention of God punishing Jesus.
1 John 4:10 (NIV)
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Yep. Atonement, at-one-ment, making things right between us.
Sacrifice – still doesn’t mean substitution.
I’ve probably missed some out but hopefully by now you get the picture.
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