What’s Wrong With Penal Substitution? (From the Archives)

For many people, the title of this post may be meaningless. “What is penal substitution?” would seem to them a better question. But if I explain that it is the idea that there is a penalty for sin, and God punished Jesus instead of us, they will immediately recognize it and say “That’s what I believe!” So forgive the technical shorthand if it is unfamiliar to you.

I abandoned the penal substitutionary view of the atonement while I was an undergraduate student at an Evangelical Bible college in the UK, in spite of it being the view of the professor who taught Christian doctrines. I remember that I wrote an unsolicited essay for him, which I entitled “Salvation through Discipleship”, about how the New Testament teaching lay elsewhere. I think I managed to persuade the professor, although (like Bock and Wallace in theirinteraction with Borg and Crossan) he asked why and whether this meant we ought to abandon this historic model of the atonement. Perhaps I interpreted some parts of Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ in light of this. I usually am a big supporter of finding middle ground, and so I suspect that, in addition to my concern that what was being found wasn’t in fact the middle, I also may have been concerned that saying “We accept what you say, but we can keep what we already think alongside it” could lead to things remaining as they are, with no real creative rethinking of one’s beliefs being necessary.

Much early Christian literature is focused on the cross. It is worth noting, however, that very little that Jesus says, and certainly little or nothing that can confidently be regarded as authentically going back to Jesus himself, focuses on the cross. This is easily explicable: the earliest Christians in the post-Easter were persuaded that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and were persuaded that his death could not have been unforeseen but must have been foreordained. And so, beginning with Moses, they went back and made sense of what had happened with the help of Scripture. Probably even more helpful than “Moses” was 4 Maccabees 6, which presents a martyr praying “Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (4 Macc. 6:28-29). Clearly there were ideas that existed in the Judaism of the time that helped make sense of the death of the righteous in terms of atonement.

Yet the New Testament does not use the language of punishment and exchange in the way 4 Maccabees (which was written after the early Christians had already interpreted the death of Jesus in atoning, sacrificial terms) does. Paul can talk about sacrifice (and discussing what sacrifice meant in the Judaism of this time would be a subject of its own), but he prefers to use the language of participation. One died for all, so that all died (2 Corinthians 5:14). This is not only different from substitution, it is the opposite of it. Jesus is here understood not to prevent our death but to bring it about! This fits neatly within his understanding of there being two ages, with Christ having died to one and entered the resurrection age, and with Christians through their connection to him having already died to the present age and thus made able to live free from its dominion.

It would be a very long post if I were to try to discuss all references to Jesus’ death, the meaning of sacrifice, and all relevant topics, but if there is interest I will return to them. For those interested in the Letter to the Hebrews and the understanding of sacrifice in general, I strongly recommend Gordon Wenham’s fantastic commentary on Leviticus. It doesn’t just make these seemingly obscure laws clear, it makes them interesting.

Let me conclude by noting what are perhaps the biggest problems with penal substitution. One is Biblical, the other is moral. First, the Bible regularly depicts God as forgiving people. If there is anything that God does consistently throughout the Bible, it is forgive. To suggest that God cannot forgive because, having said that sin would be punished, he has no choice but to punish someone, makes sense only if one has never read the penitential psalms, nor the story of Jonah. The penal substitution view of atonement takes the metaphor of sin asdebt and literalizes it to the extent that one’s actions are viewed in terms of accounting rather than relationship. It is not surprising this is popular: in our time, debts are impersonal and most people have them, and it is easier to think of slates being wiped clean and books being balanced than a need for reconciliation. But the latter is the core element if one thinks of God in personal terms. And for God to forgive, all that the Bible suggests that God has to do isforgive.

The moral issue with penal substitution is closely connected with the points just mentioned. Despite the popularity of this image, to depict God as a judge who lets a criminal go free because he has punished someone else in their place is to depict God as unjust.

The heart of the matter is that there is a stream of Christianity that soothes the conscience of Christians about the misdeeds they do by claiming that (1) God is the only one whose forgiveness matters, and (2) this forgiveness is already available and can wipe away your debt through a miracle of divine bookkeeping. All sense that anyone is harmed by what one does (whether God or other human beings), and that that is what matters, disappears from view entirely (cp. Job 35). Again, I can understand the popularity of this view. But it isn’t popular because it is Biblical, neither is it popular because it is self-evidently true. It is popular because it makes people feel good about themselves in spite of their not following the challenging parts of the Bible that have to do with how we relate to others. I say this as someone who used to hold this view, and so my discussion of psychological motives for the popularity of this view, I am being first and foremost self-critical. Indeed, discovering that the Biblical view of sin and atonement is not that set forth in the penal substitutionary view was a key step in my ability to be self critical in precisely this way.

  • http://zetountes.blogspot.com Marcus

    If it is God himself (as most proponents of penal substitution hold Jesus is) who takes on the punishment is the substitution really unjust? I partially agree with the premise of your post. I don’t find penal substitution to be wholly satisfactory, but I think that we may be able to find room for it as one metaphor that describes the atonement in part (a la Scot McKnight).

  • http://zetountes.blogspot.com Marcus

    If it is God himself (as most proponents of penal substitution hold Jesus is) who takes on the punishment is the substitution really unjust? I partially agree with the premise of your post. I don’t find penal substitution to be wholly satisfactory, but I think that we may be able to find room for it as one metaphor that describes the atonement in part (a la Scot McKnight).

  • Paul D.

    Great post.

  • Paul D.

    Great post.

  • Gary

    I don’t buy penal substitution. But then I don’t place much emphasis on punishment, sacrifice, or atonement for sins. All a heavy guilt trip. Per James, “Much early Christian literature is focused on the cross”…Why? I go for the basics, as in human nature. Why are humans holding on to ANY religion? Human nature. They are afraid of death. The essence of what makes an individual, is either non-existent after 60 or so years, or continues on in some form. So the resurrection is the most important item. So for humans, what Jesus did is not punishment substitution, sacrifice for others, or atonement, as much as an “example” to humans, in that death can be faced, and it is not the end of the individual. For James, considering all the blog subjects on mythical Jesus, I’d like to see one question asked of the experts that support mythicism. I don’t care about historical or non-historical issues, probabilities, etc. Just “How do they consider death?” I assume they would say no resurrection, no continuation of the individual. Rather dismal outlook.

  • Gary

    I don’t buy penal substitution. But then I don’t place much emphasis on punishment, sacrifice, or atonement for sins. All a heavy guilt trip. Per James, “Much early Christian literature is focused on the cross”…Why? I go for the basics, as in human nature. Why are humans holding on to ANY religion? Human nature. They are afraid of death. The essence of what makes an individual, is either non-existent after 60 or so years, or continues on in some form. So the resurrection is the most important item. So for humans, what Jesus did is not punishment substitution, sacrifice for others, or atonement, as much as an “example” to humans, in that death can be faced, and it is not the end of the individual. For James, considering all the blog subjects on mythical Jesus, I’d like to see one question asked of the experts that support mythicism. I don’t care about historical or non-historical issues, probabilities, etc. Just “How do they consider death?” I assume they would say no resurrection, no continuation of the individual. Rather dismal outlook.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Gary, I think that the historical Jesus question and the amount of focus on the cross in early Christianity is in fact connected. When Jesus was crucified, it would have seemed to invalidate the hope that he was the Messiah. Whatever sort of experiences persuaded Christians that Jesus was nevertheless the Messiah still left a question that they would have needed to answer: if the Messiah was crucified, why would God have allowed, or more likely, foreordained such an occurrence. The crucifixion cried out for explanation, and the early Christians would have had to devote significant time and focus to addressing it. I think the fact that it needed so much attention, and stuck out as a surprising element nevertheless, is the reason why it in fact gets so much attention in early Christian literature.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Gary, I think that the historical Jesus question and the amount of focus on the cross in early Christianity is in fact connected. When Jesus was crucified, it would have seemed to invalidate the hope that he was the Messiah. Whatever sort of experiences persuaded Christians that Jesus was nevertheless the Messiah still left a question that they would have needed to answer: if the Messiah was crucified, why would God have allowed, or more likely, foreordained such an occurrence. The crucifixion cried out for explanation, and the early Christians would have had to devote significant time and focus to addressing it. I think the fact that it needed so much attention, and stuck out as a surprising element nevertheless, is the reason why it in fact gets so much attention in early Christian literature.

  • Scott__F

    Indeed.  If atonement is viewed in terms of relationships then there exists a responsibility to avoid the forgiven behavior in the future.  To borrow from self-help language, you have to “work on the relationship”.  

    In the accounting view atonement, you can skip away Scot-free.  There is no seven year hit to your credit-rating.  While most theologians would hold that other doctrines impose the responsibility to amend your wicked behavior and that supernatural help is available/necessary, I would hold that in practice the decoupling of forgiveness and relationship erects a barrier to addressing the Christian’s role in that relationship head-on.

  • Anonymous

    Indeed.  If atonement is viewed in terms of relationships then there exists a responsibility to avoid the forgiven behavior in the future.  To borrow from self-help language, you have to “work on the relationship”.  

    In the accounting view atonement, you can skip away Scot-free.  There is no seven year hit to your credit-rating.  While most theologians would hold that other doctrines impose the responsibility to amend your wicked behavior and that supernatural help is available/necessary, I would hold that in practice the decoupling of forgiveness and relationship erects a barrier to addressing the Christian’s role in that relationship head-on.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    I see the crucification as a symbol of the redeeming power of self sacrifice for humanity. Not just Jesus’ but every one who follows his example and sacrifices themselves for the good of others, even the worst of the worst. Wasn’t that how Piccard demonstrated to Q the the value of humanity?

    On a related side note, I wonder if the tradition that Jesus thought he would die in Jerusalem may be based in fact. He had recently heard John died, and he knew about other people with popular movements. Mark portrays Jesus as rather dour after John dies. I also think of the line in John, where jesus’ enemies talk about it being better for one man to die than the nation. I wonder if that could have been JesusJesus thinking?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    I see the crucification as a symbol of the redeeming power of self sacrifice for humanity. Not just Jesus’ but every one who follows his example and sacrifices themselves for the good of others, even the worst of the worst. Wasn’t that how Piccard demonstrated to Q the the value of humanity?

    On a related side note, I wonder if the tradition that Jesus thought he would die in Jerusalem may be based in fact. He had recently heard John died, and he knew about other people with popular movements. Mark portrays Jesus as rather dour after John dies. I also think of the line in John, where jesus’ enemies talk about it being better for one man to die than the nation. I wonder if that could have been JesusJesus thinking?

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @jamesfmcgrath:disqus The problem is that you do not seem to have a full grasp of what the atonement means. God can forgive our sins without a sacrifice, we read about it in the Bible that we are to ask for forgiveness when we sin and God will forgive us, 1 John 1:9. So why did we need Christ to die for us? Because the sins God forgives, are our personal sins that we ourselves committed. It is the sin that we carry with us that we did not commit, Adam’s sin is the reason Christ had to died. (Romans 5:12-14) Also, Jesus death was not a punishment for sin exactly, it was a deliberate decision of a perfect and sinless man to die a sinners death to buy back or redeem Adam’s descendants. By his actions, he has freed us from Adamic sin only, we are still responsible for our own actions and sins. So when all is said and done, Jesus will be our eternal father instead of Adam. – Isaiah 9:6

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @jamesfmcgrath:disqus The problem is that you do not seem to have a full grasp of what the atonement means. God can forgive our sins without a sacrifice, we read about it in the Bible that we are to ask for forgiveness when we sin and God will forgive us, 1 John 1:9. So why did we need Christ to die for us? Because the sins God forgives, are our personal sins that we ourselves committed. It is the sin that we carry with us that we did not commit, Adam’s sin is the reason Christ had to died. (Romans 5:12-14) Also, Jesus death was not a punishment for sin exactly, it was a deliberate decision of a perfect and sinless man to die a sinners death to buy back or redeem Adam’s descendants. By his actions, he has freed us from Adamic sin only, we are still responsible for our own actions and sins. So when all is said and done, Jesus will be our eternal father instead of Adam. – Isaiah 9:6

  • Geoff Hudson

    So James, are you going to say what the biblical view is?

  • Geoff Hudson

    So James, are you going to say what the biblical view is?

  • Luke

    “It would be a very long post if I were to try to discuss all references to Jesus’ death, the meaning of sacrifice, and all relevant topics, but if there is interest I will return to them.”
    Yes, please!

  • Luke

    “It would be a very long post if I were to try to discuss all references to Jesus’ death, the meaning of sacrifice, and all relevant topics, but if there is interest I will return to them.”
    Yes, please!

  • David Schneider

    I’m not sure if The Philokalia would be considered representative of all Eastern Christian theology but the volumes do represent Eastern theologians/mystics from a span of several centuries. In their discussion of salvation, grace, etc. the concept of penal substitution earns little attention.

    They seem to have a completely different understanding of how salvation worked, yet I don’t recall this being a point of contention between the Roman and the Greek-speaking churches.

    Perhaps the issue is not whether penal substitution is Biblical, but whether it was the only necessary interpretative approach.

  • David Schneider

    I’m not sure if The Philokalia would be considered representative of all Eastern Christian theology but the volumes do represent Eastern theologians/mystics from a span of several centuries. In their discussion of salvation, grace, etc. the concept of penal substitution earns little attention.

    They seem to have a completely different understanding of how salvation worked, yet I don’t recall this being a point of contention between the Roman and the Greek-speaking churches.

    Perhaps the issue is not whether penal substitution is Biblical, but whether it was the only necessary interpretative approach.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    I’ll be posting some further thoughts on this subject soon, in response to Mike Bird’s post as well as in response to your comments.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    I’ll be posting some further thoughts on this subject soon, in response to Mike Bird’s post as well as in response to your comments.

  • Nick

    Hello James,

    One of the main failures of PSub theory is that it truly fails to consider the relevant Biblical data, namely a simple Lexical analysis of the Hebrew term “Atonement” as it’s actually used.

    I have done such an analysis in This Article, and I’d like to get your thoughts on it.

  • Nick

    Hello James,

    One of the main failures of PSub theory is that it truly fails to consider the relevant Biblical data, namely a simple Lexical analysis of the Hebrew term “Atonement” as it’s actually used.

    I have done such an analysis in This Article, and I’d like to get your thoughts on it.

  • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

    “The penal substitution view of atonement takes the metaphor of sin as debt and literalizes it to the extent that one’s actions are viewed in terms of accounting rather than relationship.” It does? I don’t think so. Certainly it does not do so when grounded in union with Christ as it most often is. But as to your dichotomy, I wonder if you think the king in Matt 18:21-33 treats the unforgiving servant in “terms of accounting” or in terms of “relationship”? When the unforgiving servant is “delivered to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt,” is that accounting or relationship?

  • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

    “The penal substitution view of atonement takes the metaphor of sin as debt and literalizes it to the extent that one’s actions are viewed in terms of accounting rather than relationship.” It does? I don’t think so. Certainly it does not do so when grounded in union with Christ as it most often is. But as to your dichotomy, I wonder if you think the king in Matt 18:21-33 treats the unforgiving servant in “terms of accounting” or in terms of “relationship”? When the unforgiving servant is “delivered to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt,” is that accounting or relationship?

  • Luke

    Hi Mr McGrath,

    At your recommendation, I’ve visited the library to have a look at G. J. Wenham’s commentary on Leviticus (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1979). Admittedly, I’ve only read a little (part of the introduction and the section on the burnt offering), but it seems to be rather in favour of penal substitution (from a recommendation in a post against penal substitution, I was hoping it would offer a non-penal substitution interpretation of the sacrifices). For example, he says: ‘One may regard the animal either as dying in the worshipper’s place as his substitute, or receiving the death penalty because of the sin transferred to it by the laying on of hands’ (p. 62); and applying the OT principles to Christ, he says: ‘Christians therefore have no need to offer burnt offerings for the atonement of their sins. The shedding of Christ’s blood was the payment of the perfect ransom price. He has borne the Father’s wrath for us, just as the bulls and lambs in the OT did…’ [p. 65].

    Do you have any recommendations for books that present a non-penal substitution interpretation of the OT sacrifices (and their reference in the NT)?

    Thanks again for an interesting post.

  • Luke

    Hi Mr McGrath,

    At your recommendation, I’ve visited the library to have a look at G. J. Wenham’s commentary on Leviticus (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1979). Admittedly, I’ve only read a little (part of the introduction and the section on the burnt offering), but it seems to be rather in favour of penal substitution (from a recommendation in a post against penal substitution, I was hoping it would offer a non-penal substitution interpretation of the sacrifices). For example, he says: ‘One may regard the animal either as dying in the worshipper’s place as his substitute, or receiving the death penalty because of the sin transferred to it by the laying on of hands’ (p. 62); and applying the OT principles to Christ, he says: ‘Christians therefore have no need to offer burnt offerings for the atonement of their sins. The shedding of Christ’s blood was the payment of the perfect ransom price. He has borne the Father’s wrath for us, just as the bulls and lambs in the OT did…’ [p. 65].

    Do you have any recommendations for books that present a non-penal substitution interpretation of the OT sacrifices (and their reference in the NT)?

    Thanks again for an interesting post.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Luke, I replied to the other comment before I read this one. I’d keep going with his commentary on the first 7 chapters and on the Day of Atonement ritual. Wenham clarifies the variety of sacrifices and what they may have been understood to do. I can’t recall what view of the atonement, if any, he adopts with respect to Jesus, but he certainly explores a variety of non-substitutionary understandings of the Levitical sacrifices.

    @Peter, that parable certainly does use an accounting metaphor, although in service of making a point about forgiveness, I think.

    • Luke

      I’ll give it more attention, then. Thanks.

    • http://weirdmaths.wordpress.com/ Luke

      At your suggestion, I took a few hours to (skim) read sections of Wenham’s book. Thanks for the recommendation; I found it interesting and enlightening (I’ve even found a cheap-ish copy –under £10 — and ordered it).

      Turns out, Wenham sees the burnt offering as the “penal substitutionary” offering (although he might not use those exact words), the one where the sins are transferred to the animal that is then killed instead of the offerer, or is simply killed instead of the offerer. The other offerings are for things like dedication to God (peace offering), cleansing from sin (sin offering) and making up to God for a wrong (restitution offering).

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Luke, I replied to the other comment before I read this one. I’d keep going with his commentary on the first 7 chapters and on the Day of Atonement ritual. Wenham clarifies the variety of sacrifices and what they may have been understood to do. I can’t recall what view of the atonement, if any, he adopts with respect to Jesus, but he certainly explores a variety of non-substitutionary understandings of the Levitical sacrifices.

    @Peter, that parable certainly does use an accounting metaphor, although in service of making a point about forgiveness, I think.

    • Luke

      I’ll give it more attention, then. Thanks.

  • Gary

    OK – one more time for me, and “Who Wrote the Bible” from Friedman (who, BTW, is liberal and Jewish), pg 91, “The function of sacrifice is one of the most misunderstood matters in the Bible. Modern readers often take it to mean the unnecessary taking of animal life, or they believe that the person who offered the sacrifice was giving up something of his or her own in order to compensate for some sin or perhaps to win God’s favor. In the biblical world, however, the most common type of sacrifice was for meals. The apparent rationale was that if humans wanted to eat meat they had to recognize that they were taking life. They could not regard this as an ordinary act of daily secular life.” So different opinions exist. Mine, the priests made it into a corrupt business, by making the temple a for-profit business, inserting a guilt-trip on the people to make sure they sacrificed everytime they sin…much like the tele-evangists… get rid our your sins, and health problems, by simply sending a “free-will” offering, VISA, check, or cash will do.

  • Gary

    OK – one more time for me, and “Who Wrote the Bible” from Friedman (who, BTW, is liberal and Jewish), pg 91, “The function of sacrifice is one of the most misunderstood matters in the Bible. Modern readers often take it to mean the unnecessary taking of animal life, or they believe that the person who offered the sacrifice was giving up something of his or her own in order to compensate for some sin or perhaps to win God’s favor. In the biblical world, however, the most common type of sacrifice was for meals. The apparent rationale was that if humans wanted to eat meat they had to recognize that they were taking life. They could not regard this as an ordinary act of daily secular life.” So different opinions exist. Mine, the priests made it into a corrupt business, by making the temple a for-profit business, inserting a guilt-trip on the people to make sure they sacrificed everytime they sin…much like the tele-evangists… get rid our your sins, and health problems, by simply sending a “free-will” offering, VISA, check, or cash will do.

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  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Glad you found it – and found it to be worth finding!  :-)


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