The theological concept of penal substitution, or substitutionary atonement, means that Christ by his own sacrificial choice was punished (penalized) in the place of sinners (substitution), satisfying the demands of God’s wrath so that he could justly forgive our sins.
Some theologians find it in scripture, perhaps based on the Old Testament sacrificial lamb metaphor. The Reformers developed it. Lawyers, like Calvin, loved it and made it even more legalistic.
However, other creative thinkers like George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis found it lacking.
Today some compare the theology of penal substitution to “cosmic child abuse”, claiming that this breaks the analogy and is no longer useful.
Let me ask the question: what does the theology of penal substitution DO? It says:
- We were sinners.
- We were forgiven.
- We are now loved by God.
Most if not all religions have a story to make sense out of the human instinct that we are somehow deficient, that something has to be done about it, and that since this something has been done everything’s okay. Of course some, still obsessed with legal transactional law, demand that in order to receive it you have to sign something somewhere and perhaps even pay.
Most if not all religions have a story to make sense out of the human instinct that there is good and evil in the universe and that there is a cosmic battle between a good god and an evil one and that we’re caught up in the middle of it while hoping the good one wins. Of course, stories of how this battle goes and concludes are as numerous as the stars.
This is how I see the theology of penal substitution: it is a metaphorical attempt to describe the theological journey from rejection to acceptance.
It is finished!
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