Saved From God? 5 Problems With Penal Substitution Atonement Theory

Saved From God? 5 Problems With Penal Substitution Atonement Theory January 29, 2018
Courtesy of Pixabay
Courtesy of Pixabay

*Note: this is part I of a two-part series I am doing on atonement theology. Some of the content will be included in my forthcoming book entitled Heretic! An LGBTQ-Affirming, Divine-Violence Denying Christian Universalist’s Replies to Some of Evangelical Christianity’s Most Pressing Concerns.


“We are saved from God! And more precisely, we are sparred [sic] the wrath of God . .  . Without your trusting in Christ, the wrath of God that was placed on Jesus will then be placed on you.” ~ Jack Wellman, answering the question “What are we really saved from?

In so many words, this is the Gospel according to Western Christianity. Over the details we may quibble, but we are often told that Jesus died in order to save sinners from the wrath of God. In other words, he was a substitutionary sacrifice—he died in our place—to appease the Father’s justice, honor, and wrath. The story of how we get to such a place where we need such a sacrifice basically goes like this:

God created humankind in his image and saw that it was good. Then, humanity sinned and experienced a “fall.” This created a huge problem, one that finite creatures simply could not make up for. Why? Because God’s justice and honor are such that only a payment of infinite proportions could make atonement. So, God, in his infinite wisdom, sent himself in the form of a Son—one truly human—in order to be sacrificed to himself so that his justice and honor could be upheld. Thus, he fills the conundrum of needing an infinite payment from finite humans. Now, those who accept the blood sacrifice could be forgiven their sins. The rest? The wrath of the infinite Father forever abides on them.

I understand the propensity to mock and scorn such a view. “New atheists” in particular have a field day with it. However, we are not going to take part in the mockery here (as much as I would like to). Doing so would not be helpful though. What we are going to do is simply touch on some of the initial problems penal substitution (PSA) creates so that, in the following blog post, we can introduce some healthier—as well as more orthodox—views of how the Cross saves us, and what, exactly, it saves us from (hint: it’s not God!).

Problem I: The Debt-Collecting God

The first issue this view creates is that it basically depicts God as a debt collector. A debt was accrued and payment has to be made in order for the Father’s forgiveness and mercy to flow forth into the world. Contrary to the Pauline claim that love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5), the sins that are accrued are kept on the books until the spilt blood of Jesus covers them. Then, and only then, is the debt paid. And so, then and only then can the wrongs be taken off the books.

Problem II: The Retributive God

The second issue is the way in which original sin gets interpreted by folks in the PSA camp. Indeed, their understanding of humanity’s fall exposes God as a retributive punisher. What I mean is that our sin is just so damn disgusting that God must have blood in order to be appeased. To that end, the punishment Jesus took was the punishment we deserve. The lashings, the flogging, the mocking, all of it something God would do to us or have done to us if Jesus hadn’t taken the beating for us. That, or something similar. Those of us who accept the transaction are spared. Those that don’t get their just deserts in the end—infinitely re-tributed for their finite sins.

Problem III: The Archaic-Minded God

If history has taught us anything, it is that the gods we create demand blood sacrifices in order for their wrath to be appeased. Rene Girard has helped elucidate this more so than anyone. Think of all the virgins that were thrown into volcanoes throughout the eons. The penal substitutionary model of the atonement paints the Father in a similar light; the only difference being that God is both the one demanding the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself. So, while it is not surprising that we would sort of see Jesus as the “virgin we throw into a volcano to appease an angry god,” it is rather ironic, especially given that our Jewish forefathers (and mothers!) had already taken humanity away from such a view of “at-one-ment.” As James Alison reminds us:

The Jewish priestly rite was already . . . way ahead of the “Aztec” version we attribute to it. Even at that time [pre-exilic], it was understood that it was not about humans trying desperately to satisfy God, but God taking the initiative of breaking through towards us. In other words, atonement was something of which we were the beneficiaries. (From Alison’s essay “God’s Self-Substitution” in the book Stricken by God?, pp. 168 – 69)

Problem IV: The Janus-Faced God

Another issue we run into with this view is that two manifestations of the Trinity are pitted against one another. In one corner, you have the wrath of God, which needs the shedding of blood in order to forgive sins (Hebrews 9:22). In the other corner, you have Jesus, who forgave freely (Matthew 9:2; 18:22; Luke 23:34; John 8:11; 20:19–23). In other words, Jesus forgave even though blood hadn’t been spilled. One major issue with this is that the New Testament is fairly clear that both the Father and the Son are, in nature, eternally the same (Matthew 11:27; John 1:18; 4:34; 5:19–20; 6:38, 46; 10:29; 12:49; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 13:8). In later creedal formulations, it is said that they are homoousios, or “of one substance.” To put is simply, then, Jesus reveals what the Father is like and what he has always been like. Yet, in the PSA model, this hardly seems so.

Problem V: The Unfollowable God

When the Father and the Son are pitted against each other, choosing the correct one to follow becomes quite a conundrum. If we forgive like Jesus, for example, then forgiveness will precede repentance (Matthew 9:2; 18:22; Luke 23:34; John 8:11; 20:19–23). However, if we choose to forgive like the Father, we will only forgive those that show repentance, or after they make a payment of some kind. But did Jesus not command that we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is (Matthew 5:48)? And is that perfection not displayed as pure mercy (Luke 6:36)? It seems rather dubious, then, if the way in which the Son and Father forgive is as dissimilar as East is from the West.

What Are The Alternatives?

Over the course of its history, Christianity has put forth alternatives to the penal substitutionary view. In fact, many theories predate PSA (a theory not even formalized until John Calvin, a lawyer, put it together during the Reformation. Essentially, with some slight alterations, it’s just like Anselm’s eleventh-century “Satisfaction Theory,” which posits that Christ died in order to satisfy God’s honor. Calvin took that idea and emphasized God’s wrath rather than his honor.)

So, if this way of thinking about the atonement has not always been the norm, what were Christian theologians saying about the cross prior to the Middle Ages? Interestingly, something much different than we commonly hear today in the West. However, that is going to have to wait until my next entry. (I know, I’m such a tease!)

Until then, feel free to comment below and let me know what problems you have with penal substitution. Or, if you affirm it, feel free to make a defense for your case. I’ll do my best to follow along.


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  • Excellent!

  • Tim Ellison

    You had me at the title of your new book!!! Can’t wait!!

  • Ken Nichols

    I think you should have left out the “babies” comments. It makes you sound snarky and isn’t necessary. The rest of the article is very even-handed, but those “babies” remarks are kind of slaps. Plus, many (most?) that believe in PSA have a way of escape for babies and young children, so it’s just going to get pushed right back at you. The article works just fine without it. Just my opinion, of course. If you take it out, I’ll delete this comment (if I can) so as not to cause any confusion.

  • Ellen Hammond

    Looking forward to reading part 2 of this. Even as a 7-year-old child, I couldn’t logically accept that a ‘Heavenly Father,’ who loves all of his children, would brutally punish his innocent son for something another child did. In fact, I couldn’t wrap my brain around a father being so monstrous as to demand the death of someone in order for him to be able to forgive others. Given that “Thou shall not kill” was one of the Ten Commandments it seemed like such an oxymoron to me. Seeing in the last few years, that there are many others who don’t just accept PSA either is very encouraging.

  • Hopefully March 1!

  • Fair point. Sometimes I just can’t help myself and need folks to help keep me in check.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    A quibble: Hebrews 9:22 is misused to justify PSA. The “shedding of blood” is more accurately the “pouring out of blood” and what the chapter repeatedly refers to is the sprinkling of blood on people and things to purify them, and therefore this, not the original killing of the animal from which the blood is obtained, is what is being referred to.
    The parallel in the new covenant with this “pouring out of blood” in the law is not with the killing of Christ in the crucifixion, but with the partaking of his blood in the mass / communion. The passage is not saying that God requires death, vengeance or suffering to forgive us, but rather that we require participation in the death and resurrection of Christ through partaking in his blood to be purified of our sins.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    A quibble: Hebrews 9:22 is misused to justify PSA. The “shedding of blood” is more accurately the “pouring out of blood” and what the chapter repeatedly refers to is the sprinkling of blood on people and things to purify them, and therefore this, not the original killing of the animal from which the blood is obtained, is what is being referred to.
    The parallel in the new covenant with this “pouring out of blood” in the law is not with the killing of Christ in the crucifixion, but with the partaking of his blood in the mass / communion. The passage is not saying that God requires death, vengeance or suffering to forgive us, but rather that we require participation in the death and resurrection of Christ through partaking in his blood to be purified of our sins.

  • jekylldoc

    Helpful clarification. Thanks.

  • JD

    I’d love to see part 2 of this series

    I was 8 when I realized the god of the bible was one sadist prick. No matter how it was spun it always came back to ‘you will worship me or I will kill you.’ This reduced humanity down to nothing more than property, like a shovel or herd of goats. Those that did not meet breed standards would be slaughtered. Even when Jesus came on the scene it was still the same thing; except now most the worship was transferred to Jesus. But the end result was still the same: you will either worship Jesus are you will go to hell. So, Jesus didn’t solve anything and actually made it worse for now you have to believe in two deities or be damned.

    I’d love to see how the author reconciles this quandary.

  • Oh, just you wait 😉

  • JD

    Looking forward to it.

  • Steve Bailey

    Thank you, Matt. The irrelevant Calvinist notion of God continues to haunt us and cripple the fullness of a Gospel of the fullness of God’s reign among us. Keep up the good work.

  • Zenon Lotufo Jr.

    I believe you do an important job of focusing on the most widespread doctrine of atonement. As a pastor and psychotherapist, serving members of Christian churches for more than 50 years, I have becoming increasingly impressed by the devastating effect on mental and spiritual health caused by the image of God resulting from the Anselmian doctrine of penal satisfaction. This led me to write the book “Cruel God, Kind God – How Images of God Shape Belief, Attitude, and Outlook.” One point that I thought it worthy to point out is that by studying the practice of sacrifice in the most different times and cultures, I verified that in them what is intended is to send to the deity a given offer, avoiding whenever possible the suffering of the victim. Only in this horrible “Christian” doctrine of expiation, suffering becomes central, that is, it is used as a bargaining coin because it “pays” to the justice of God and satisfies it !!

  • Alan Miller

    I don’t believe that’s true. Jesus never wanted to be worshiped! He made it very clear that his true disciples were those who followed in his footsteps. But an angry, vindictive, vengeful god is absolutely critical to the wealth and existence of the organized church. They serve as a middle man between you and hell. Give them your money and they will build billion dollar structures where this god can be worshiped and skim off a few dollars themselves. But Christ said this god doesn’t exist!!! He told the Jews that if they wanted to know what God was REALLY like, look at Him; the exact opposite of what organized religion MUST have you believe. Based on his teachings Christ would want those billions of dollars to feed the hungry and heal the sick. This is why there is really no religion based on the life and teachings of Christ. You can’t make a business out of it.
    Do you think an intolerant, all powerful, vengeful god would send his “son” to earth and have him born in a filthy barn where unclean animals slept and pooped. Or have him sleep in a manger, which is a feeding trough for cattle? Maybe he was trying to tell us something.

  • ashpenaz

    My question has always been saved, after Jesus has paid your debt, what do you do next? There’s nothing in PSA which requires you become like Jesus. There’s nothing that says you have to love, or even like, Jesus. You can say, “So long, sucker!” at the base of the Cross as long as you take the gift He’s handing out. All that’s happened is you’re no longer going to hell–then what? Sing a bunch of praise songs? Or don’t? It doesn’t matter. God is looking at Jesus, not you, so you can pretty much do whatever you want. I think the best atonement theories are the ones which show us how Jesus transforms both us and creation into what God intended everything to be.

  • Bill

    Not being raised in a church, I always have been very uncomfortable with the Christian mantra of “He died for our sins”. It is one of the things about the Christian faith that I push back against, much to the consternation of my fellow Lutherans. Looking forward to part 2 discussion.

  • Very, very good points!

  • ashpenaz

    Plus, the only reason to love Jesus in PSA is because He gave you something. If you want to sing “My God is an Awesome God,” it’s not because He’s compassionate or on the side of the poor, or anything intrinsically lovable about Jesus–it’s because He gave me a get-out-of-jail-free card. His sole function is to save me from God’s wrath and eternal judgment. Jesus is like a teenager who only has friends because He has a car. And why is God so mad at me? Umm–because He created me. Not for anything I’ve done–God hates me and wants to send me to hell and eternal conscious torment from the moment He made me. My sin simply justifies his Holy anger which is already there, no matter what I do. So, there’s no reason to love either God the Father or God the Son for who they are. I guess God the Holy Spirit is pretty nice in this system, but He seems like that quiet uncle who sees the abuse that’s going on and takes us to the movies to get away from it for awhile.

  • Problematic in any theological discussion is the human mental logical either/or categories – either God is loving, or God is not. What is lost is the paradoxical side of faith, the “I believe because it is absurd” of Tertullian and Kierkegaard. We must start with a confession that we cannot understand God, for we are finite, just as we cannot understand quantum physics, even while we create mathematical proofs for its existence. So for some, the PSA model is a human attempt to understand the inexplicable – the creator becoming the “crucified God” as Luther termed it. When we look to the scriptures, written by different humans many years after the events themselves, we find contradictory understandings of the cross, which is something to be expected. It is like the problem of evil – I have answers which satisfy me, but others will be unsatisfied with my answers. Similarly, the cross is a conundrum, “foolishness,” to use the Apostle Paul’s term (1 Cor 1:23), not something to understand, much as we want to. While Paul maintains we are “justified by his blood,” (Rom 5:9), he doesn’t point out exactly how or why we are; he just says we are “saved from the wrath of God.” (Interestingly, Paul never mentions hell – the wrath to come is the destruction of the world.) So I think we will each have to wrestle with how the blood “saves” us, from what, and what that means. While I agree with everything you may say, I also understand how some other Christians may need a more “tangible” and understandable POV on atonement. Perhaps each is correct in its own way, and yet none are correct, for God transcends all our limited categories…

  • JD

    I agree with everything you said.

    Often I view Jesus coming back and ripping the gold trimming off the churches and demanding; “Why isn’t this being used to feed my people?”

    When a philosophy is turned into a relgion the meaning has already been lost.

  • Chris Eyre

    PSA also renders virtually all of the lifetime ministry redundant. All you need for it is birth and death (and, contra Hebrews, an acceptable sin-offering *might* have been a bag of flour…). Gone are the many sayings about the Kingdom, gone is the Sermon on the Mount/Sermon on the Plain.

    I’m also concerned that this seems to elide most of the various forms of offering in the Levitical law – aside from the purification/sin offering, which was, on my reading, not inevitably an atoning sacrifice, there were gift offerings, burnt offerings, grain offerings (not to be confused with flour used for sin offering), purification offerings and reparation offerings. Of course, there’s also a confusion between seeing Jesus as the Paschal lamb (arguably a form of atoning offering) and as the scapegoat (which was not axiomatically killed at all) of Leviticus 16:8. Entirely different modes of operation there.

    Why, I ask, would God prescribe all of these various forms of offering when what he actually wanted was a single human(ish) sacrifice?

  • Does Paul say we are saved from the wrath of God, though? If Pauline scholar Douglas Campbell is correct in how to read Romans, then the whole wrath of God stuff is not Paul, but an argument he is dead set on refuting.

  • Bonnie Rice

    I’m new to this type of thinking, but I have stumbled upon commentaries that interpret a lot of Paul’s teaching very differently from what we were told in church and it seems to mesh with reading other persuasive letters of the time and how they are constructed. I notice that at times, what’s been used as “clobber” verses are actually statements set up to be knocked down more than statements to just accept at face value. I had been thinking that Jesus dying to save us from “God” is hard to believe if you can understand it at all, and that maybe Jesus died to save us from ourselves. I think I’m moving in the direction you are but still sorting it out. When does the book come out?

  • Hopefully March 1, or thereabouts.

  • Neal Warren Stafford

    After reading this progressive channel for over a month now, I have noticed that progressives are highly reductionistic. The whole of the Bible is now condensed into one verse: “I DESIRE MERCY, NOT SACRIFICE.” Pop American Evangelical Rick Warren, also is reductionistic with this by this verse “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). The Jesus Seminar in 1985, basically used the Sermon on the Mount as the only real content of the NT. When I was growing up, the central teaching of the Reformation on which the church stands or falls…. was Justification by Faith….

    There also a shift in Christology. In 1831, David Strass published Das Leben Jesu (Life of Jesus), which basically questioned the existence of an historical Jesus. This theory has been throughly discredited even by the liberal critique Bart Ehrmann in his latest book, Jesus Before the Gospels. In the 19th and 20th, Jesus was considered just a man, and divinity was bestowed upon him after the Second Century….Now I see reversal of this on Patheos, with the advent of a more mystical-Spiritual Jesus who becomes human only after the Second Century. Wierd.

    With Rene Girard as the enlightened guru, a lot of writers are just followers of this new fad. Remember the dictum: IF IT IS NEW, ITS TRUE. Progressives will abandon the mimic theory, when something new and better comes along. I will check back in a year or so…so see if my prediction is valid.

  • I believe Paul sees it that way: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness…” (Rom 1:18, NRSV) But as for hell, Paul knows nothing of it: “Then comes the end (i.e., God’s judgment, IMHO), when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power…the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:24-26) I read Paul as seeing an apocalyptic end of the world, coming soon, and his mission was to hasten its coming by preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles, bringing the Kingdom into fruition. Apocryphal worldviews were not uncommon in Jesus’ day, and Paul drank deeply of those waters. The Day of the Lord, a day of judgment, was very much a part of this schema which I think Paul shared.

  • Tim Ellison

    Hey Neal – thank you for your comments – this is exactly how knowing and wisdom operate in this world. Since Kuhn taught us about paradigm shifts – new understanding continues to replace what came before. All things are in the process of becoming new! And yes, Girard is amazing and excellent, but his reading may well be replaced in a year, or ten years…but it is the best paradigm we presently have to explain the data we have. His paradigm is breathtaking and has tremendous explanatory power today.

  • Romans 1:18-32 is, as Douglas Campbell has shown, most likely the voice of a false teacher Paul is arguing against. From there, chapters 2 thru 4 include a lot of diatribe that shows what that argument is.

  • Jeffrey Haase

    I think PSA means God can’t control his own wrath. Yet I am commanded to control mine or risk hell.

  • Michael

    “In so many words, this is the Gospel according to Western Christianity.”

    That’s a bit of an illicit generalization, don’t you think?