Why Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory makes me want to throw up a little bit in my mouth

Why Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory makes me want to throw up a little bit in my mouth April 19, 2016

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Sorry about the title – I had to get your attention somehow.

Seriously – if you go to church and you’re not sure what I’m talking about, listen up.

This is the ‘good news’ I suspect you were taught at church:

We are all sinners who deserve to be punished for eternity. God wants to forgive us and save us from hell, but as he is a holy and just God, he must punish sin. So in his great love, he sent his own Son to be punished in our place. He killed Jesus, pouring out his anger and wrath on him so that we wouldn’t have to be punished. Jesus died as payment for our sins. Our debt is paid, so we can go to heaven. Good news! Unless you don’t believe it in which case you still get punished for all eternity.

Wait, what?

This is very familiar, right? It is still today the most common understanding of what Christianity is all about.

And yet a rapidly growing number of evangelical Christians are rejecting this interpretation of the Gospel as a grotesque and dangerous misunderstanding.

(You’ll notice from my colourful use of inflammatory language this is something I feel pretty strongly about).


Having grown up accepting this version of Christianity without question, I now see it as a hideous and sickening misrepresentation of God and the meaning of Jesus.

The specific doctrine I (and many others) have rejected is known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (penal=penalty, punishment). It is one theory of the meaning of the cross which is now largely held as the only correct interpretation, and a (if not the) core doctrine of the faith.

It is currently my absolute least favourite thing about church. It’s everywhere… lurking in well-meaning sermon illustrations, in ‘easy’ answers in house group discussions, and sneaking into even the most popular worship songs.


Let me be absolutely clear about this.

I believe that Jesus, who was God, sacrificed his life to save us from sin. I believe that sin separates us from God, and God longs to restore his relationship with us. I believe that Jesus’ death was an act of atonement (at-one-ment), making us at one with God again.

I do not believe that God killed Jesus to satisfy his anger at our sin.

That’s the bit that makes me want to throw up in my mouth.

Before you write me off as nuts, please let me explain why…


Some of the problems with Penal Substitutionary Atonement:

1. God is angry, vengeful and violent, and ultimately our biggest threat. 

I get that God is meant to have taken the punishment upon himself. Sacrificed himself so we could be free. I get that.

But ultimately it is still God demanding a blood sacrifice as payment for sin. God wanting, needing to kill (and then continuing to torture) us because of our sin, but being satisfied to kill Jesus instead.

Whatever you think about the great mysteries of the Trinity, Penal Substitutionary Atonement makes God out to be vengeful, petty, violent and very angry at humans.

It makes the message of Christianity first and foremost one of fear… God is out to get you, you’d better hide behind Jesus before the smiting begins.

2. God doesn’t actually forgive us.

If Jesus settled our debt for us and God received payment in full, then God didn’t forgive anything. He got his blood payment!

Jesus teaches that we should forgive each other, but God doesn’t play by those rules.

So basically we are expected to be more loving than God.

3. The Gospel is at its core a legal deal or a transaction.

Once we’ve cashed in on the deal and made sure we’re in, the rest is basically irrelevant.

The whole of Jesus’ life and teachings are optional extras…if God had killed Jesus while he was a child the result would have been the same.

He paid the price, we get our ticket outa here. Then we get busy perfecting our sales pitch to convince our friends to get their tickets so they can be outa here too.

*Bangs head repeatedly on table*

4. If God killed Jesus, then violence is clearly the best way to solve problems.

People have actually used this to justify wars.

On a smaller scale, what kind of parenting model is that?

The whole point of Jesus was that he was demonstrating the path of non-violence and ultimately defeating violence.

Do you see the tragic irony in that?

A short but very very important history of Penal Subsitutionary Atonement:

(please keep reading, I’ve not got to the good bit yet…)

For the first thousand years of Christianity, Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory did not exist. You’d have gotten some very funny looks if you’d walked into an early church meeting and started talking about God punishing Jesus to pay for our sins.

In the 11th Century, a fellow named Anselm of Canterbury came up with the Satisfaction Theory, which was developed into the Penal Substitution Theory by the 16th Century reformers.

In the last 500 years, Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory has become so dominant that the vast majority of Christians don’t realise that’s all it is – a theory. A theory that the early Christians, indeed the people who wrote the Bible, didn’t know anything about.

In the last ten years or so people have started questioning this theory, and unsurprisingly those who have pushed for change have encountered strong resistance. This 500-year-old doctrine is so ingrained, moving away from it is no small task. Steve Chalke is the most public figure to have challenged Penal Substitutionary Atonement (calling it “cosmic child abuse”). It caused a bit of a hoo-ha to say the least, and the debate is still raging on.

It seems to me to be rather like trying to get an elderly parent to leave the house they have lived in since 1948. It’s the best thing for them, but they kick, scream and hurl abuse using words you never knew they knew.


“Well if not that, then what??”

So glad you asked.

God loves us and wants us to be whole, healed, brought home, free to reconnect with our Source. So God came to Earth as a man and endured the most humiliating and excruciating death possible at the hands of men in order to expose the ugliness of humanity at its worst, gripped by darkness and trapped in its own filth… and then to set us free.

The threat is not that God wants to punish us, it’s that our own destructive nature will tear us apart.

Jesus doesn’t save us from God. He saves us from darkness, disease, poverty, injustice, oppression, hunger, violence, our own destructive behaviour… everything that cuts us off from our Source and gets in the way of us being fully and gloriously human.

Which means God doesn’t begrudgingly accept us because we are ‘covered by the blood of Jesus’ and so he can’t actually see us… God actually quite likes us as us. So much so that he sacrificed his Son to save us from spiralling into destruction, setting us free to be fully ourselves.

I’ve just put into my own words a theory known as Christus Victor. It is believed to have been the dominant atonement theory for the first thousand years of church history. Again just a theory – humans trying to explain an inexplicable mystery – and there are other variations, but this fits most comfortably with the themes of the Bible and the concept of a loving God.


If this makes you feel like your faith is under attack, I’m sorry – please feel free to share your thoughts in a comment or email.

But let me first anticipate some common counter-arguments and give my response:

1. “You’re ignoring bits of the Bible to make the story sound nicer”

Nope, look… A Thoroughly Biblical Argument Against Penal Substitutionary Atonement

2. “I believe in Penal Substitution, but the picture of God you paint is a ridiculous caricature!”

Yes – I am exaggerating and using extreme examples to make a point. But if you logically follow through the arguments of Penal Substitution, can you really reconcile an all-loving God with one who demands blood payment as punishment for sin (and then still tortures people for eternity if they don’t believe the right things)? If a human parent acted that way what would we think??

3. “I believe in Penal Substitution, but I don’t think violence solves problems”

Neither did I when I believed in Penal Substitution – that’s because we are intelligent, reasonable human beings. So then God can use violence to solve problems, but we can’t? It’s starting to sound like we are more “good” than God…

4. It’s a central doctrine of Christianity – you can’t just throw it out.

Actually it’s not (as I explained above) – and yes, we can. We’ve thrown lots of other things out, it’s how we grow.


Image via Pixabay


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