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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