Justice and Peace — and Atonement

Darrin W. Snyder Belousek teaches philosophy and religion at Ohio Northern University and Bluffton University. He taught previously at various church-related colleges—Louisburg College, Bethel College, Lithuania Christian College, Goshen College, and St. Mary’s College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and has studied at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He has published many articles, both scholarly and popular, in diverse areas—theology, consistent ethic of life, war and peace, social justice, ethics and economics, and philosophy of science. He has also served the church for seven years in mission assignments through voluntary service and international teaching.

Does—or should—atonement theology have practical implications for the church’s mission in the world today?  Is penal substitution the only, or even the best, biblical understanding of the cross?

Scot has invited me (Darrin W. Snyder Belousek) to introduce my book, Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans 2012).  This book challenges the church to rethink the cross—to reexamine the standard evangelical theology of penal substitution atonement and to reorient our thinking about justice and peace from the perspective of the cross.

My first intuition that something was not quite right with the penal substitution theory—the idea that God has dealt with our sins by having reckoned our sins against Jesus and punished him with death in our place on the cross—came about twelve years ago, while questioning the death penalty.

I had become convinced, based on Jesus’ teaching (“Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”), that Christians should not support capital punishment.  But I was wanting to press the question deeper, to the core of Christian faith—the cross.  Jesus’ death, after all, was a death penalty.  If there was a definitive Christian answer on the question, it must be found there.

The only atonement theology I knew was penal substitution.  I could thus reason: If God had already punished Jesus for our sins, then we who were spared by the cross from the death penalty we deserved had no right to insist that others deserved death for their sins.

That made sense, but it didn’t seem right.  I soon figured out why.

The penal substitution theory is based on retributive justice: sin must be “repaid” with death, and God “repaid” our sins by punishing Jesus.  But so also is capital punishment: the murderer must be “repaid” his crime with the penalty of death. To affirm penal substitution, therefore, is to affirm the same logic that justifies the death penalty.

I faced two problems.  First, the penal substitution theory couldn’t address the question: you can’t overcome the logic of retribution (capital punishment) with the logic of retribution (penal substitution).

Second, the penal substitution theory didn’t square with Jesus’ teaching of God’s kingdom, which is not ruled by retribution: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you…” (Matthew 5).  If the cross is the cross of Christ, I thought, our interpretation of the cross ought to be consistent with the teaching of Jesus.

The more I thought it through, the more the conundrum grew.  According to Paul’s gospel, Christ’s cross is both the revelation of God’s justice (Romans 3:21-26) and the demonstration of God’s love (Romans 5:6-11).  According to penal substitution, God’s justice is satisfied in retribution, Jesus punished for our sins.  Yet according to Jesus’ teaching, God’s love transcends retribution: He blesses righteous and wicked alike with sun and rain (Matthew 5).  How could the cross be both God’s justice by retribution and God’s love beyond retribution?  Is this God’s love—that God punished Jesus instead of us? That didn’t seem right, either.  I needed to begin again.

The root of the conundrum, I realized, is that the penal substitution theory of atonement frames the cross by a presupposed and unexamined principle of justice—retributive justice.  It then occurred to me: Because the cross of Christ reveals the justice of God, rather than allow a human assumption about justice to interpret the cross, we should let the divine revelation of the cross reshape our understanding of justice.

That was the turning point—the “Copernican Revolution”—in my thinking.

So, I set out to rethink the justice of God from the perspective of the cross of Christ—and to rethink the cross in accord with Jesus’ teaching of God’s kingdom.  And wrote a book in the process!

This book, then, does two main things.  First, it presents a comprehensive, critical examination of penal substitution and offers a biblically grounded, theologically orthodox alternative understanding of substitutionary atonement.  It should thus prove helpful to those who are wrestling with the biblical basis of penal substitution or wondering whether one can reject penal substitution but still affirm substitutionary atonement.

Second, it reorients our thinking about justice and peace—economic justice, capital punishment, the war on terror, ethnic-religious conflict—from the perspective of the cross.  It will thus challenge both “evangelically”-minded Christians to become concerned with social issues precisely on account of the cross and “socially”-minded Christians to engage such issues from a “cruciform” perspective.

I now invite you to respond to this post…and to read the book.

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  • Steve Sherwood

    I look forward to reading this, or, in the short term, reading perhaps a review here? I think these are great and significant questions. I have also been troubled by the Trinitarian implications that seem to me to be difficult in Penal Substitution. (How does one member of the Trinity feel or act toward me in anger desiring retribution while another member acts in saving, rescuing love?). Both Kenneth Bailey’s atonement work based in the Prodigal Son and T.F. Torrance’s theology have been very helpful to me in this regard.

    This book sounds very interesting!

  • Yes, this book and work sounds quite interesting to me, as well. Bluffton College near where I was raised. I want to read it. I still affirm a penal substitution in the sense that Christ died for us. It is in his death. And we’re told that the wages of sin is death, God’s gift being eternal life through Jesus. So I at this point would affirm penal substitution in that way, if indeed penal is the best term to use for it.

    Wrath would mean for me judgment. God has a just wrath against sin, and God takes it on himself. That is how seriously God takes sin.

  • joey

    1) It isn’t merely “death” that we deserve. It is “Hell” that we deserve. Whether “Hell” is conscious torture or whether it is annihilation, it is ETERNAL. Manifestly, Jesus was not our Hell “substitute.” Not to mention: We all die. The thief didn’t get to come down off of the cross.
    2) Wright has taught us that Romans 3:21-26 is about the covenantal faithfulness of God.

  • Wesman

    Atonement, Justice, and Peace is a fantastic book! Yes, it’s heavy reading, but it’s clear and compelling, and is a great resource because it interacts with so many issues and questions. One of the many things that struck me from reading this book is how complex and nuanced the atonement conversation is, and how prone we are to read so many assumptions and develop theological frameworks into just a few words: “Christ died for us.” But even more important about this work is that it attempts to provide a coherent interpretation between atonement, the message of Jesus, and the mission of the church. Highly recommended!

  • pduggie

    ” First, the penal substitution theory couldn’t address the question: you can’t overcome the logic of retribution (capital punishment) with the logic of retribution (penal substitution).”

    Maybe that should be your first clue.

    “Second, the penal substitution theory didn’t square with Jesus’ teaching of God’s kingdom, which is not ruled by retribution: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you…””

    a. God’s kingdom in Jesus teaching also doesn’t include marriage. That doesn’t mean we throw it out for earthly purposes.

    b. God’s kingdom is not ruled by PERSONAL retribution taken to avenge personal offenses. But that says nothing about governing authorities and their responsibilities. Romans 13 indicates that, in fact, the state exists by God’s will to avenge wrongs with a sword.

    So the problems aren’t problems from a different perspective. Why not look at them from a perspective that can accomodate Romans 13? (and Revelation, where the Saints are told to just wait a little while till Jesus retributively avenges their blood. And Matthew and Luke, where Jesus says that the blood shed from Abel to Zechariah will be retributively avenged in the destrcution of Jerusalem?)

    Also, John 8 has an authentic ring to it, but it is of questionable textual authority. It’s probably NOT a good idea to make it the main hinge of an argument against capital punishment.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    This is one of those highly charged conversations among the Reformed crowd. It seems to be an all or nothing approach from books like “Pierced for Our Trangressions” by Piper and company. I like what Wesman said, the issues are more complex and the conversation by some who are reframing the discussion are more nuanced. As soon as someone takes a more nuanced approach, they are labeled ‘neo-‘ this or liberal or fall into some heretical category. You would think Christians would be one group of people who would talk TO one another rather than AT one another (I also think of some of the conversations even here). Sagrav has been cordial here and I also can’t help but think how many conversations I have seen where Christians and atheists are talking right past each other rather than more relationally ;-(

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Thank you for this book. I look forward to reading it, and no doubt struggling with it. My own experience, including many struggles, tells me there must be a better explanation than Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but I have not yet found it. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement was too loose with scripture and its theology.

    Randy Gabrielse

  • Luke

    Now I want to know what he says about redefining justice…but I don’t want to pay $40…oh the humanity!

  • Isnt’ it the case that all retribution in penal substitution God’s self-retribution anyway?

  • Patrick

    1) IF Christ’s work for us should eliminate our right/desire as believer citizens to punish a violent murderer with execution, why wouldn’t His work also eliminate our right/desire to punish the criminal with imprisonment, essential slavery and possible torture eventually by other inmates? It seems it would be the same logic. How do we parse that?

    2) Several levels of conduct were worthy of execution “by man” in the Torah codex. Question is, why did Yahweh want the Jews to execute these violators back then?

    He did not advise execution for everyday typical sinful activity, it was for activity that could affect the entire tribe’s physical health, spiritual affinity and freedom of action in an environment where almost every human was against Yahweh and His people.

    Is preservation of His people and/or freedom from violent chaos for everyone and not our “moral right” a higher cause in God’s scheme of human governance?

    3) Romans 13 lends itself to a re-endorsement of the death penalty by human governance beyond the OT legal codex at least it appears .

    If we’re going to utilize a hermeneutic that “gets” what these writers meant for other purposes, we should be consistent. machaira = sword and Romans killed people with that thing. Legend has it they executed Paul our Apostle with that thing because he was a Roman citizen instead of crucifying him.

  • a fan

    @Luke–Christianbook.com has if for $34

  • Tom F.

    This looks like an amazing book. I’m going to pick this one up for sure. Would be really interesting to go through it on the blog.

  • Tom F.

    Patrick- good questions.

    1- Imprisonment can have other goals besides retribution, i.e., protecting society from dangerous people. I don’t think the “torture” that ends up in prison is desired, and besides even very “retributionary” folks (like the late Colson) worked to improve prison conditions and prevent torture (by lobbying the government to get serious about preventing inmates from being raped.) I don’t know that I’m against any principle of forced labor (although it shouldn’t be “slavery”), because it seems like another good goal would be restitution by the offender to the injured party and to society. In other words, plenty of other intents of prison besides retribution.

    2- I think you ask a good question about OT death penalty things, and it shouldn’t be swept under the rug. On the other hand, Jesus is revolutionary, and turned a lot of OT things on their head. Hopefully, Jesus is still at least resonating with the OT intent, which I think you can make a good case for.

    3- I don’t totally know what to make of Romans 13 to be honest. It does seem a bit far to say that Paul was giving the Romans carte blanc in their legal system; could the sword mean the use of force in maintaining order and protecting the innocent? That is, yes a sword is involved, put the purpose could be protection and restraint of evil rather than retribution. I’m not saying I know that it does, but it does seem also a bit of reach to say that you know the “sword” means capital punishment, and not just the use force in maintaining order. I don’t know a ton about anabaptist theories of justice, but I think I remember there being some debate over whether a police function may still involve some limited uses of force.

  • Patrick


    Good stuff there.

    On point #1 again, I was oriented to simply asking if we should not desire execution due to Christology/ theology, why should we desire imprisonment using the author’s logic.

    I agree imprisonment could be for more than retribution/justice. It just seems if we shouldn’t want to kill the person based on theology, why should we want to make him a slave? Both are for our physical protection ultimately. Do we have the authority for either if the author is accurate?

    The thing on Romans 13 is a tough call. Certainly the Roman policeman could use the sword to apprehend us as opposed to execution. However, I bet money almost all the people who read that while the empire stood interpreted it as execution.

  • Darrin W Snyder Belousek

    Thanks for these comments thus far. I look forward to reading others.

    A brief response to select comments:

    Joey: Yes, I quite agree with NT Wright–the justice of God in Rom 3:21-26 is precisely about God’s covenant faithfulness manifest in the faithfulness-unto-death of Jesus Christ. Reading the text that way opens up new vistas for thinking about the cross and justice in the context of God’s covenant and kingdom.

    pduggie: In the book I strongly affirm that God-self holds the sovereign prerogative of retribution and can choose to exercise that prerogative in judgment upon sin. At the same time, it is clear to me that the cross reveals God’s choice in salvation history to transcend retribution for the sake of redemption: we killed God’s son, Jesus, and yet God (a) vindicates the victim without violence by raising Jesus from the dead and exalting him to glory and (b) offers us who killed him forgiveness of sin and renewal of life–at the request of and in the name of Jesus, the crucified one (here I suggest reading the cross in context of the early apostolic witness in Acts).

    pduggie, Patrick, and Tom:

    First, regarding John 8…I think John 8 is both authentic text of Jesus’ teaching and reliable source for Christian theology. As I read that text, what Jesus does is not to promulgate a new teaching, but to bring the teaching of “the law and the prophets” to its culmination. So, there’s no disjunction between Jesus’ teaching and God’s covenant. Indeed, I show how Jesus’ ruling in that case demonstrates covenant justice to its full intent. (See Chap. 24 in the book.)

    Second, regarding Romans 13…I think we make a mistake to lift out a few verses from Paul’s letter and make it into a theory of government that transcends the biblical canon. Whatever Paul says there should be considered (a) within the context of Paul’s teaching in Romans 12-13 that retribution is God’s prerogative and that love is the highest law and (b) in relation to other teachings about human authority in the New Testament (e.g., Jesus in Mark 13 and John 8, the apostles in Acts 5, and John in Revelation 13). For my money, I think the best treatment of these questions is found in John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Chap. 10). As Yoder argues, the “sword” in Romans 13 is the “short sword” (a personal/hand weapon) not the “long sword” (the Roman instrument of execution and weapon of war). In the context here, the “sword” functions as a symbol of authority. So, yes, God has ordained human authority to maintain public order according to the rule of law–and to administer punishment on wrongdoers to that end. (Of course, it by no means follows that whatever government exists is “God’s government”–human government can itself be the evildoer, see e.g. “Rome, Nero, emperor of”). Still, I think, the text leaves open what government is authorized to do in performing that policing function. To kill? Our tendency is to take our assumptions about government and read them into the text and thus see here justification for capital punishment and just war, but the text itself does not actually say as much. At the same time, Jesus’ ruling in John 8 excludes only capital punishment–judgment that kills–from human authority. His ruling thus leaves intact the human responsibility to hold wrongdoers accountable within the proper limits of human authority (which he himself does in that case–he admonishes the wrongdoer to “sin no more”). Thus, I think we can see John 8 and Romans 13 as compatible, provided we take Jesus’ teaching about human authority as having highest authority (which, I would think, we should!).

    Randy: I agree with you that there must be a better–more biblical–account of the cross than PENAL substitution (note the emphasis). By the same token, I, too, am dissatisfied with J Denny Weaver’s “nonviolent atonement” (see my critique of Weaver’s view in the book, pp. 68-79).

  • Patrick

    Consider Matthew 15:3-4 and Mark 7:8-11 as contrary indicators for the John 8 thinking.

    Question, under the doctrine of kinosis, Jesus acts as a human and refuses to use His Divinity for His advantage. So, His general mode was acting as a Jewish citizen under Torah who was also a Jewish prophet, priest , but, not a Levitical priest and a king whose kingdom was not of this world.

    In Torah, who’s responsibility was it to adjudicate crimes? Was Jesus within Torah’s rules to adjudicate a crime? In Luke a guy asks Jesus to adjudicate his father’s estate between 2 brothers and Jesus flatly refuses, properly so , IMO. That was a Levite’s role.

    Also, is it possible:

    A) The John 8 passage is not canonical
    B) The passage is about an illegal attempt to get Jesus to condemn the woman?

    Don’t take my questions as argumentative, I have to satisfy my heart and I am inquisitive. Your view already has me thinking.

  • Darrin W Snyder Belousek

    Patrick, Thanks for your reply and questions. I can’t, of course, delve into the details here. But, in reply to your two points:

    (a) I would argue that the John 8 text is canonical, simply for the fact that the early church (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I believe) included it in the authoritative body of writings and for the fact that the early church fathers commented on the text as Holy Scripture. The canonicity of the text refers to its reliable witness to Jesus Christ and its authoritative function in the church as Holy Scripture, not its historical origin (when it was written down, who wrote it down, or where it was first included in the written Gospels are not relevant).

    (b) The question of legal procedure in this case is quite fascinating. Scholars will differ on this question, depending on what assumptions are made. I am convinced that the procedure here is legal–the episode we see is effectively the appeals process (provided for under Rabbinical law) following a regular trial in which the defendant has been convicted by proper authorities. That said, there would appear to be at least one procedural irregularity in the case (why is only the woman, not the man, being judged when the law applies to both?). Yet, quite interestingly, I think, Jesus does not seize on this as a basis for throwing the case out or overturning the verdict/sentence. That he overlooks the procedural issues, I argue, implies that Jesus’ concern lies elsewhere, with the fundamental question of human authority to execute a death sentence. Again, see Chap 24 of my book, in which all this is laid out in carefully and thoroughly.

  • Luke Allison

    The more I study 1st Century culture, (Jerome Neyrey and Bruce Malina have some great studies on this topic) and the shame/honor paradigm found both in ancient societies and most modern societies, I’m convinced that guilt/innocence is not really on the radar of the Biblical authors. How can the Scripture mean something now that it never meant then?

    Here’s a true story from recent experience: A young man who was conceived out of wedlock has been told by his father that he is the reason why the family is not happy. This young man is 17. His father essentially hates him not so much for what he’s done, but because of WHO HE IS. He represents everything that the father identifies with his own dishonor, unhappiness, and discontent.

    So at the core of this young man’s problem is not what he’s done, but who he is. What does the penal substitutionary theory have to say to him? This is not good news: “You’re forgiven!”
    For what? Is his conception his fault? Is his father’s attitude his fault?
    Here’s where PSA gets extremely dangerous, in my opinion…we now have to try and convince a hurting person that they really are guilty before the Lawcourt of heaven, rather than give them the good news of Jesus in the midst of their alienation and shame.

    The same goes for addicts, anyone from a culture that is based on honor/shame dynamics, people from different races, sexual orientations, etc.

    We’ve essentially ported a pre-modern understanding of life into the 21st century and it’s confusing as hell.

  • So because he had a hobby horse of being anti-death penalty, let’s get rid of penal substitution?

    There’s plenty of other texts to take in that one can walk away from being anti-death penalty, don’t have to only look specifically at the cross. The cross is ironic, it’s mysterious, it tells a paradox of mercy and justice… while, I’m certain, one can take into account other (more plain?) texts about us disciples and how we should walk in love.

    An interesting read though.

    J Ken

  • Scott Courey

    Darin thanks for stepping into this with courage and integrity, liable to get knocked a bit from either side, I’m sure.
    I would like to address the issue of violence and murder from two perspectives…
    First, Jesus equated hatred with murder, so let’s level the playing field right there. I am not justifying the death penalty but quite the opposite. If the death penalty is way out of bounds then do we also shudder to think of how equally condemn-able are our murderous hearts? We must never dissociate what Jesus gravely warned against – physical murder and heart-murder. Wondering if you address this in your book.
    Secondly, do you address the issue of the future violence of God? I cannot see how to understand the violence of the cross doing so. We are given the promise not only of being saved from God’s wrath, but as well, a disturbing (and for me, oddly hopeful) place of joining God in the violence he will take out against evil (Mal 4:2,3). The cross is not God’s truest violence. No. That he is saving for when he puts his son, not on a cross but on a white horse and we ride behind him. Romans 16:20 is describing this Evil-crushing God as a God of…peace. And Jesus? Revelation 19:11-16 says “with justice he’ll make war” with the fire in his eyes. (I’m sorry but that is not very Ghandi-ish). And how will we know it’s Jesus? Our robes will be gleaming, spotlessly white, but his, the war-making Jesus will be wearing a robed dipped in blood. When Jesus wages violence we will be reminded that it was evil who drew first blood on him. I’m pissed about that right now, aren’t you? Jesus is the true Braveheart we will follow into the Mother of all wars. Jesus endured the cross for the joy, yes, but to be sure, for the prerequisite violence that is also set before him. Which he will take out precisely when His Father says, “it’s time to bring justice – go kill…and make peace”.

  • Scott Courey

    correction line 10: “without doing so”.

  • Tom F.

    Darrin- Thanks for the lengthy interaction! I’m looking forward to reading your book.

    Matthew 15:3-5- This doesn’t seem as tough: there is no recorded instance in scripture of this ever being carried out. Seems like taking this one literally is a bad idea, since the Jewish tradition interpreted “death” as meaning “really awful”. Same with Mark.

    On the slave thing, do you think restitution would be an adequate motive (perhaps indentured servitude would be a more apt term though- not lifelong except in rare circumstances).

    On the sword thing, do you have any evidence of the sword thing being interpreted in terms of execution? Is there a historical text that suggests that this is an idiom for execution? (And not defense/rule/order/maintain stability/restrain from lawlessness)? Just curious.

    Revelation is possible to be interpreted in different ways; for example, the blood stained robe could be Jesus’s blood. Also, need to distinguish between Jesus vs. Persons and Jesus vs. Spiritual Forces of Evil. Also, Revelation is bad place to make a stand: so hard to interpret. Usually need to use other parts of the Bible to make sense of it: therefore if other parts suggest a God that’s against certain kinds of retributive elements, than probably best to see if Revelation can be interpreted that way as well. And I think you can make a pretty good case that you can. My church just went through Revelation, btw, with a distinctly non-retributive lens, and I think it mostly worked, about as well as any interpretation of Revelation can work, anyway.


  • I’d like to read and hear more. I’ve also experienced the same disconnect between penal substitution and God’s love and mercy. Working w/ folks on reconciliation issues has helped clarify aspects – forgiveness requires the forgiver to absorb the pain of the sin vs. him/her, without retribution vs the offender… “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” seems even more potent than John 8 vs. capital punishment, if some question its textual authority as pduggie 5 brought up. (I would question its location in the text more than its veracity, given John’s structuring.)

  • Luke Allison 18, I pray that young man has the family of Christ assuring him of his precious worth. Lord, have mercy on those who project their own brokenness onto any other’s existence. NO sin lies in his “being”, and his true Father knows that.

  • Mark

    While being quite open to the conclusions regarding both penal substitution and capital punishment, I highly question the logic of the arguments in the post. As one example: in the original post it was said “I had become convinced, based on Jesus’ teaching (“Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”), that Christians should not support capital punishment.” Even granting the authenticity of the text, that seems to me to be a classic example of the mistake of lifting a few verses out of John’s telling of the Jesus story and making it into a theory, to paraphrase from post 15.

    All the same, because I do think the word “cruciform” to be a key word to describe the believer’s perspective, I look forward to getting my hands on the book.

  • Scott

    How is this a different book from Joel Green and Mark Baker’s Recovering the Scandal of the Cross?

  • Darrin W Snyder Belousek

    Thanks, again, to readers for more comments. I appreciate the opportunity for dialogue.

    And, again, a few responses to select comments…

    Joel: No, the argument is not that, presuming an anti-death penalty stance, one should reject penal substitution. Don’t mistake the route of reasoning for the logic of argument. It was asking the question of the death penalty that led me into asking the question of atonement theology, and thus into questioning penal substitution. But I question penal substitution on grounds of biblical adequacy (does it square with the witness of Scripture, both OT and NT) and theological orthodoxy (does it square with the doctrine of the Trinity). On both counts, I conclude that it falls short. And this is no quick exercise–as you will see in the book, it extends over 250 pages of detailed exegesis and careful thinking (see Chaps. 5-17).

    Scott: You’re right about hatred. Hatred is no less condemnable than murder–Jesus himself says so. Perhaps the most radical implication of the cross is how it addresses human hostility, the hostility rooted in the human heart. Paul says in Romans 5 that the death of Jesus is God’s love for us who were God’s enemies. Paul also says in Ephesians 2 that the cross of Christ is (literally) “the murder of hostility” between human enemies (Jews v. Gentiles). We need to take that seriously–reconciliation with God through the cross of Christ is inseparable from love of enemies. The cross thus calls us to “murder hostility” in our hearts and thereby to heal relationships with our enemies. (See Chaps. 28-30 in the book.)

    Scott: Yes, in the book I do address the vengeance of God, both as revealed in the OT (law and prophets) and as anticipated in the final judgment (Revelation). In a nutshell, I argue that the biblical witness affirms that God (a) holds the sovereign prerogative of retribution but (b) characteristically transcends retribution in judging sin for the sake of redeeming sinners (exemplified most perfectly at the cross) yet (c) retains the right to judge in the end. The cross, while the definitive disclosure of God’s justice beyond retribution, is not God’s absolute divestment of sovereign prerogative to judge sin and dispense vengeance. Within a Trinitarian-theological framework of the “economy of salvation” (as Irenaeus called it), Jesus is both savior and judge. Regarding the latter, Jesus is the executive agent of divine vengeance, as depicted in Revelation 19. But how should we expect God’s agent to execute vengeance? When dealing with Revelation 19, we must be careful to not make assumptions about how God’s vengeance must appear and simply read our all-too-human assumptions of violence into the text. We should instead take our cues from the details of the text itself (which would seem to depict a spiritual battle against evil) and the canon of Scripture (e.g., oracles in Isaiah, which Jesus cites in reference to himself, that speak of God’s vengeance in terms of restoration rather than destruction) to help us imagine how God’s vengeance might appear. (Tom is correct–one can faithfully read Revelation 19 as other than depicting a violent vengeance.) Honestly, in the end, I don’t draw any firm conclusions about final judgment, primarily for the reason that the biblical witness leaves us with no single picture of God’s vengeance. That said, I think that we should understand the economy of salvation as a coherent whole rather than a set of discrete moments. Thus, the Christ who will come on God’s behalf to judge us (future) is the Christ who intercedes with God for us (present) is the Christ who died out of God’s love for us (past) (cf. Hebrews 13:8). (See Chap. 21 in the book.)

    Ann: You’re right about forgiveness–to forgive requires that one absorb the pain of offense into oneself rather than “repay” it back upon the offender (i.e., to forgive is to forgo retribution). That, I think, is precisely what Jesus did for us: we murdered him, the truly innocent one, yet he willingly took the pain of this greatest of all sins into himself, bearing it in his body-self on the cross (1 Peter 2:24)–and, rather than seeking vindication of his innocence by petitioning God’s vengeance upon us his murderers, he entrusted himself to God’s justice (1 Peter 2:23) and petitioned God’s mercy for us (Luke 23:34), thereby opening the way for Gods’ forgiveness of sins to be offered in his name to sinners of all nations (Luke 24:47).

    Mark: I appreciate your skepticism about John 8 and the death penalty. That text is tricky and needs to be handled with care and nuance. I think, however, that you may have misunderstood what I wrote. The post above offers no argument against the death penalty–I’m just recalling the path of thinking that led me into seeking a connection between the ethical issue of justice and the theological matter of atonement. To see my actual argument against the death penalty based on John 8, read Chap. 24 in my book. There you will find a careful, nuanced treatment of the text in its rhetorical, legal, canonical, and theological aspects (15 pages rather than 15 words!). Hope it meets your expectations!

    Scott: Mark Baker and Joel Green’s book–Recovering the Scandal of the Cross–is very good, I think. Their book helped confirm my suspicions that something was not quite right with penal substitution, and my book is very much in tune with theirs. There are three key differences…First, different focus: The Baker/Green book is focused on setting the gospel of Christ crucified into various contemporary and cross-cultural contexts. That is a very important task, especially as it supports the faithful proclamation of the gospel in post-modern and non-Western missional contexts (the situation in which most Christians today actually live!). My book, by contrast, is focused on integrating atonement theology and Christian ethics. It addresses issues such as economic justice, capital punishment, just war, inter-ethnic conflict, etc., that are beyond the purpose of the Baker/Green book. Second, larger scope and deeper detail: In addressing penal substitution, my book goes well beyond the Baker/Green book (or any other book out there, as far as I know) to analyze and assess penal substitution point-by-point, text-by-text. In fact, the section of my book addressing penal substitution is as long as the Baker/Green book in its entirety (nearly 250 pages!). Third, specific contribution: my book not only comprehensively critiques penal substitution but also presents an alternative to penal substitution that not only leaves behind the “penal” aspect of that theory but also develops a biblically based, theologically orthodox view of substitutionary atonement drawn from the Pauline and Petrine writings, the apostolic fathers, and the Eastern Orthodox tradition (esp. Irenaeus and Athanasius).

  • Darrin, when Peter says Jesus entrusted himself to the one who “judges justly” (1 Pet 2:24), you take this to be a rejection of retribution? How so?

    Second question: If God did not punish sin in Christ, where do we go to see how God feels about sin and evil? (There’s a large theodicy issue in rejecting penal substitution, no?) Practically, when someone I love is deeply wronged and they want to take retributive justice into their own hands, what can I give them to say they don’t need to? Or should I rebuke them because their desire for retribution is ungodly?

    Does God’s love transcend retribution or does it reach its highest levels in absorbing its own retribution? Penal substitution shows God’s love for me at its most sublime in that he bore my well-deserved punishment. Why should I feel otherwise?

  • Darrin W Snyder Belousek

    Peter, Thanks for your comment. A response to both questions:

    (1) Regarding Jesus “entrusting himself to the one who judges justly”…That does indeed refer to Jesus renouncing retribution in/through the cross. Why so? Simply because that’s what the text actually says: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). The “abuse” and “suffering” here clearly refer, I think, to Jesus’ torture and execution. And in that abuse and suffering, the text says, Jesus made the deliberate choice not to retaliate against his torturers and executioners–not to return violence for violence, not to threaten his enemies with God’s vengeance–even though (presumably) he would have been justified in doing so. So, “entrusting himself to the one who judges justly” is precisely Jesus’ choice to forgo retaliation and leave the matter of justice to God. Jesus might have sought divine vindication of his innocence by calling down God’s vengeance upon his persecutors. The gospel narrative, however, tells us a different story, a story reflected in Peter’s brief account: Jesus, having suffered unjustly, rather than righting the wrong being committed against him by petitioning God’s punishment upon the wrongdoers, chose instead to bear that wrong in himself on the cross and petition God’s mercy for the wrongdoers so that they might be made right with God (Luke 23:34; 1 Peter 2:24).

    Now, you could say here that, by bearing the sin against him rather than retaliating it against the sinners, Jesus effectively substitutes his resulting death for (“in place of”) the punishment of his persecutors, thus releasing them from their sin and opening the way of forgiveness. That, I would agree, is correct. But that is NOT the idea of penal substitution. We must be careful here not to make the assumption that “sin bearing” entails being punished for sin and then read that assumption into the text, such that “he bore our sin in his body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24) means that God punished Jesus for our sins in our place. It is precisely that assumption, central to the penal substitution theory, that I am calling into question. In my account, there is a punishment–the unjust punishment of Jesus by humans. But God actually punishes no one. Jesus’ act of atonement–his willingness to bear in himself the sin against him (inflicted directly by humans, not reckoned forensically by God)–is his choice to forgive the sinners and thus to transcend retribution for sin. Thus, Jesus’ act of atonement for sin functions, not as the satisfaction of punishment/retribution, but as an alternative to punishment/retribution.

    (2) Regarding sin…Yes, the question of theodicy–how God rights wrong and deals with evil–is directly implicated in atonement theology. Any atonement theology worth its salt must be able to address the question of how the cross is God’s way of dealing with sin. Proponents of penal substitution like to claim that we have to maintain penal substitution because it is the only view that “takes sin seriously.” But I wouldn’t agree that PENAL substitution (again, note the emphasis) is the only view capable of addressing the theodicy question. Yes, God must deal with sin; and the cross is God’s way of doing so. But it doesn’t follow that we must therefore think of the cross as God’s punishment of Jesus for our sins. Rather than reviewing the details here, I will direct you to pp. 339-359 (esp. 343-347) in my book for an alternative account of substitutionary atonement, of how God-in-Christ deals (in an “objective” sense) with the sin of the world through the cross.

  • Luke Allison


    Hopefully you’re still monitoring this….

    Doesn’t some of our confusion lie in the fact that we don’t really understand atonement in its ANE context? Margaret Barker and Christian Eberhardt have both done lots of work on this, and it would seem that atonement has more to do with imaging God’s work in the world than guilt/innocence (the introspective conscience ported into ANE culture) or punishment for “sin.”

    Maybe we go off the rails the second we use the word “sin” in the first place! A translation of a translation of a translation of a translation of a Hebrew concept, and we use one three-letter-word to try and sum it up. Confusing as hell, as I’ve said before.

  • Darrin,

    Thanks for that thoughtful response. That’s very helpful. Your view sounds very similar to some governmental views of the atonement that I would agree are substitutionary (without being penal). My own view is that such views are helpful but ultimately fall short of dealing with the theodicy question when left to themselves. If Jesus bears a punishment but its not divine in any sense, then where do I look to see how God feels about sin? I can’t look at the cross, so where do I go?

    On 1 Peter 2:24 I’m still perplexed though. When you say Jesus left the matter of justice to God I completely agree. But exactly what kind of justice does he leave to God? I don’t see an answer to that in your response. As I read it, Peter’s whole admonition only makes sense against the background of retribution. Of course Jesus renounced such retribution. Of course he didn’t respond in kind. And of course we are to follow suit. But the question is why? Because God has renounced it too and we are to imitate God? Or because retribution is God’s prerogative alone, a prerogative Christ himself gave up in his earthly ministry, not least on the cross?

    If I read your comment right (and correct me if I’m not) you seem to be saying that because Jesus did not call for retribution in the moment he therefore rejected retribution on principle. But it surely makes more sense to read 1 Peter 2:24 as Jesus rejection retaliation not because all retaliation is wrong but rather because that’s God’s job not his. In this regard, it is not insignificant that the NT speaks of God giving Jesus the right to judge.

    So again, I’m not sure how you’re understanding the just Judge Jesus entrusted himself to. If there is not a day of reckoning for those who crucified our Lord, then why didn’t Peter say that Jesus didn’t retaliate because retaliation is ungodly? Or better yet, why not draw attention to Jesus’ prayer for his perpetrators as you did?

    Am I making sense?

    BTW, I tried to find an email but couldn’t. I would love to have a conversation with you about this over email if you’re open to it. Try my website linked above if you’re open to it. Thanks!

  • Darrin W Snyder Belousek


    Ah, I see your question. Yes, Jesus leaves the choice of retribution to God (the Father) precisely b/c (a) retribution is God’s sovereign prerogative but (b) Jesus (as Son) has renounced that prerogative for the sake of accomplishing redemption. That renunciation, I think, is integral to the kenosis of Christ in the economy of salvation. As I wrote earlier in response to Scott, this does not in any way “bind” God regarding final judgment–retribution remains God’s sovereign prerogative. Nonetheless, Jesus is God’s executive agent of final judgment (as attested in multiple NT texts)–and the Christ who comes to judge in the end is the same Christ who intercedes for us even now is the same Christ who died for us on the cross (i.e., the economy of salvation is a coherent whole). So, perhaps (I would not affirm anything with certainty about final judgment, as it belongs ultimately to God’s choice), God’s final judgment might look like God’s judgment of sin at the cross.

    In any case, you’re right–in order for the cross to address the theodicy question, it must involve God’s action to deal with sin. And it does. First, remember Trinitarian theology: Jesus’ atoning act is an atoning act on God’s behalf for our sake–Jesus acts “for God” as much as he acts “for us.” One might thus say that God takes sin so seriously that, in the person of the incarnate Son, he is willing to die to deal with it, to put an end to sin by taking it all upon and into himself while refusing to dish out vengeance in return (even though he has divine right to do so). Second, God not only takes sin into himself but actively judges that sin at the cross–not by punishing Jesus in place of sinners, but by sentencing and executing sin itself, putting sin to death (God “kills” sin, as Irenaeus put it). In lieu of details here, see my account of God’s judgment of sin in the book (pp. 343-347), where I elaborate on the striking imagery of three Pauline texts–God “condemns” sin (Romans 8:1-3), God “crucifies” sin (Colossians 2:13-14), and Christ “murders hostility” (Ephesians 2:16).

    Hope that helps!

  • Thanks again, Darrin. Knowing that you don’t rule out retribution on principle leaves some interesting avenues for you to take in other parts of the theological map. You’ve managed to pique my interest enough to think about getting the book 😉

    I’m especially interested to see how you manage to affirm a non-penal judgment. I’ve seen some others try this as well and, in fact, I think that’s basically what Barth tried to do. Much of your second paragraph there sounds a lot like Barth. For Barth, the cross eliminates the sinner as sinner so that any notion of punishing sin (or sinners) is rendered superfluous. There simply isn’t any sin (or sinners) left to punish.