On his “Glory to God for All Things” blog last week, Orthodox priest Fr. Stephen Freeman posted on the Orthodox perspective on Jesus’ atonement in contrast to the theory of penal substitution (penal substitution is the theory that Jesus died instead of you to take on the punishment due to you from God for your sins). Fr. Stephen argues that even the passages that seem to directly imply “penal substitution” atonement, or at least some form of “satisfaction theory” (i.e. Jesus died as a substitution in place of us to satisfy some demand of God), actually do not inherently suggest any such thing, and only seem to when they are read through a pre-existing lens of a substitutionary theory. As Fr. Stephen points out, satisfaction theory is only 1,000 years old at most, and penal substitution is even younger, which suggests that it is not the clear and obvious reading of Scripture that so many take it to be.
But why does penal substitution persist in so many denominations as the view of what Christ accomplished in His death? There are many complex factors at play, but I want to focus on one thing in particular that I think accounts for some of its persistence: that given the set of assumptions it postulates, penal substitution theory provides an explanation that is logically very satisfying in a way that other theories don’t tend to be.
In particular, it provides a very clear, logical answer to the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” Of course, even asking this as the central question tends to come from having already formed an idea of Jesus’ purpose. The Gospels, Acts, and Epistles make it clear that the earliest Christians believed that Christ came to live, die, and rise again. The focus on His death in particular tends to come from a view of the atonement that sees His substitutionary death as His primary purpose in coming, and His life leading up to it and His resurrection afterward serving only secondarily to confirm that He was truly qualified to offer Himself as a sinless substitute. Someone with a more traditional view of Christ’s purpose might better ask, “Why did Jesus live, die, and rise again?”
Still, even if its importance has been overstated, we have a legitimate question: “Why did Jesus have to die?” It’s a question tailor-made for penal substitution, because penal substitution more than any other theory of atonement focuses on the absolute necessity of Christ’s death, and it answers the question with a logical, clear rational argument. It goes something like this:
1.) God’s justice demands that sin be punished.
2.) Every person is completely sinful.
3.) Therefore, every person deserves eternal punishment.
4.) The demands of God’s justice are such that one person may serve another person’s sentence, just as in human law we justly allow one person to pay another’s debts.
5.) The requirements of God’s justice, therefore, are that for every human being who has lived, someone must experience eternal punishment.
6.) However, because everyone is deserving of eternal punishment, it would be impossible for one person to serve another’s sentence unless that former person was sinless.
7.) Even then, a sinless person (if such a thing were possible) could willingly take on the eternal punishment only for one other person.
8.) Therefore, only someone superhuman (i.e. both God and man) could take on the experience of eternal punishment multiplied by the number of people who would ever live.
9.) Because God is love (or, because God desires glory), He willed to save some (or all) people.
10.) Therefore, God sent His Son Jesus to die on the cross, at which time Jesus, being both God and Man, experienced eternal punishment multiplied by infinity, thereby potentially serving the punishment due to every person who would ever live or who ever had lived.
11.) Jesus / God declared that His sacrifice “counted” for everyone who simply believed that He had died in their place, and would not cover those who tried to establish their own righteousness.
The logic of the argument is clear and watertight, mathematically sound. And a mathematical, tight argument like that is simply satisfying. Compare that to the logic of the Orthodox position presented in the blog post I linked to above:
1.) God desires all people to be saved.
2.) Sin turns a person away from God and leads to death instead of life.
3.) All people are sinners.
4.) Therefore, all of us are on track for death rather than life.
5.) Jesus was both man and God.
6.) Because Jesus was man, He experienced the wages of sin: temptation and death.
7.) Because Jesus was God, He rose again, and raised His humanity along with His Divinity.
8.) Therefore, people who are united to Jesus must die to everything sinful, but after this, they are raised into new life because Jesus has been raised.
This latter view may be true (and although it’s not identical to my view, the New Church view, it’s much closer to it than the former is), but it contains far too much mystery to scratch the same itch for logical clarity that the former does. In particular, what does it mean to be “joined” to Jesus? That’s vague, not nearly as neat and tidy as simply being able to say, “I believe that Jesus died in my place for my sins.” And how can you say “dying to sin” is in any way the same as Jesus actually dying on the cross? That’s putting an awful lot of weight on a metaphor, isn’t it?
Add to that the fact that for many evangelicals, penal substitution is presented as the only way of seeing Christ’s work, as the gospel itself, it is no wonder that it sticks around. And the thing is, if you start with it, you can find evidence for every one of its propositions. Every time you find that evidence, that feeling of satisfaction in the logic and clarity of the argument is strengthened.
The problem, though, is that even though the logic of it is sound if you accept the propositions, and even though you can find some evidence for each of those propositions, the propositions themselves are deeply flawed and out of line with the Bible’s overall message about who God is, starting with the very first one. God’s justice does NOT demand punishment for the past sin of someone who has repented – Ezekiel 33, for example, says this:
14 Again, when I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ if he turns from his sin and does what is lawful and right, 15 if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has stolen, and walks in the statutes of life without committing iniquity, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 16 None of his sins which he has committed shall be remembered against him; he has done what is lawful and right; he shall surely live. (NKJV)
I don’t have space here to detail the flaws in all the other propositions – and others already have – but if even that first proposition is shown to be false, the whole system crumbles. But for many who hold this view, that simply won’t happen, because it has become so ingrained that they do not realise it is a “view” at all – they feel they are simply seeing the “plain reading” and that everyone else is simply contorting scripture to avoid the obvious conclusions. As Fr. Stephen says in his post,
It has long been known that people tend to see what they think they are seeing. This is particularly the case where what we think is familiar and expected. The case of “mistaken identity” flows from our assumptions and expectations. This is no where more true than when we are reading Scripture. If a passage has years of associations, it is almost impossible to see anything else. I have noticed this to particularly be the case when Christians are reading and thinking about the death of Christ.
What’s the way out? First of all, on the part of those who hold to penal substitution – I’d challenge you to look at the alternatives, look at the history of the different views of the atonement, make yourself aware of that the lens you are looking through is one of many different ways to view Christ’s death.
For those of us on the other side, I think we have an obligation too – to present the alternative views with as much clarity and logic as possible, while acknowledging that parts of them cannot be explained simply by logic. To know that “dying to sin” is more than a metaphor, you have to have experienced some of it. So, let’s be explicit about that: we will make our best efforts to explain the logic and rationality of our perspective, but we also have to openly decare that it has to be lived to be understood, in a way that penal substitution doesn’t have to be. I don’t think that’s a flaw, but it is a challenge. That’s how the early Apostles said it would be – it’s only in experiencing the Spirit of truth that truth “makes sense,” and before that it seems foolish – “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). We’re not called to be illogical, but we need to recognise that the fact that an explanation forms a tight logical argument does not mean it is true or Biblical, and an explanation with “fuzziness” – language about being “united to Christ” and “dying to sin” – may be fuzzy only because there are no words that can adequately convey the depth, meaning, and power of those things.