Simon Gathercole (Defending Substitution) finds a common theme running through alternatives to substitutionary conceptions of atonement: They emphasize the cosmic and oppressive power of Sin, but downplay the role of specific acts of sin—sins—in Paul’s theology. Gathercole acknowledges that Paul can speak of Sin as a force that enslaves human beings, but he demonstrates that Paul speaks equally about sins, transgressons, and evil deeds in the plural (e.g., Romans 4:7, 7:5; 11:27; 1 Corinthians 15:3; Romans 3:25; 1:30; 3:8: etc.—see the chart on p. 49).
This has significant implications for one’s conception of the atonement. If Paul is only concerned with Sin, then the atonement can be more or less exclusively an act of deliverance. But if Paul also considers sins to be a central part of the human plight, then the atonement has to do something about them. We need to be delivered from Sin, for sure; we also need to be forgiven of our sins.
And this fits neatly with Gathercole’s effort to defend substitution. He makes it clear that he is not necessarily defending penal substitution (though he sees some support for it in 1 Corinthians 15:3; cf. 73, fn 33). His case for substitution rests partly on a detailed treatment of 1 Corinthians 15:3, which he reads against the background of Isaiah 53, “the only case [in the OT] of a human being who dies a vicarious death and thereby deals with the sins of others” (64).
I find the case for Isaiah 53 compelling, but even without that, Gathercole has a strong case. He sets it up by emphasizing the OT theme of those who “die for their own sins” (70-71). That’s not surprising; we expect people to die for their own sins, since the wages of sin is death. But then Paul says, in 1 Corinthians and elsewhere, that Christ died for our sins—which is, and is intended to be, a shocker. As Gathercole puts it, “The default Old Testament position would be ‘he died for his sins’ or ‘we died for our sins.’ The miracle of the gospel, however, is that he died for our sins” (73).Further on, he adds, “What is extraordinary is that a person dies for another’s sins, especially given that it is forbidden by the Torah. In the premonitions of Isaiah 53, however, there is a precedent for the miraculous salvation of others taking place through God’s bringing the consequences of the sins of others onto an innocent individual. In this way, Christ dies both in consequence of the transgressions of others and in order to deal with those infractions of the divine will” (79; Gathercole elsewhere discusses substitution rites in the law—the scapegoat, for instance.)
It’s not only there that Jesus’ death violates expectations. Gathercole devotes a chapter to Romans 5:6-8, and reviews ancient stories about those who give their lives for friends, who die as substitutes for others. Though there are commonalities between the gospel and those pagan myths and accounts, “the theme of vicarious death overall . . . is radically subverted by Paul. In the examples from classical literature, there is first the relationship, and this relationship provides the context that makes the vicarious death at least understandable, even if it is still heroic. In the case of Christ, however, his death does not confirm to any existing philosophical norm. In Romans 5, Christ’s death creates friendship where there had been enmity” (106, emphasis added).