Thoughts Against Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Thoughts Against Penal Substitutionary Atonement November 19, 2014

The great blog Mere Orthodoxy has a great podcast called Mere Fidelity. Because I am an anti-Protestant troll on Twitter, they invited me to do an episode of their podcast on the topic of the atonement theory of penal substitution. A lot of fun was had by all–or at least by me. I was arguing against PSA and the guests were arguing for.

While we were preparing for the podcast, I sent out to the other guests some thoughts on the topic to prepare, and I thought I would put them online so that viewers of the podcast (I’ll tell you when it’s online) can see it. After our discussion, there are some things I would amend in it, but I think it might be valuable to post it as-is for posterity’s sake (lol).

So, here you go:

The first thing that proponents of PSA often say is that criticism of PSA is based on caricature, and that if you understand the doctrine aright, those criticisms go away. It’s not cosmic child abuse, or the Father non-Trinitarianly punishing the Son, or whatever. Be that as it may. I would still suggest that if you need eleven asterisks to make your doctrine non-monstrous, then perhaps it is time to rethink your doctrine, regardless of the merits of your various asterisks.

That being said, my main problem with penal substitutionary atonement is that it is based on a premise, and it is the premise that is faulty. Once this premise is taken care of, penal substitutionary atonement appears as not even wrong. And the premise is this: that sin needs–needs–to be punished. God cannot just sovereignly decide to forgive us, he also has to punish sin.

Tim Keller, when explaining the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement to Oxford students, put it like this (I’m paraphrasing): if you break my lamp, I can either demand that you make restitution, or I can decide to forgive and forget–but even if I decide to forgive and forget, I will have to pay a cost. Either I do without the lamp, or I have to buy a new lamp. I bear a cost.

By the same token, even if God wants to forgive sin, he has to pay some cost.

To which I can only answer: um, excuse me, but who made up that rule and told God he had to follow it? Why does he have to follow it?

Of course, you can say that it’s not a rule that God has to follow, it’s a necessity that follows from his attribute of goodness or justice. Except that it follows from a notion of justice that is, it seems to me, simplistic, and, well, un-Christian and un-Biblical. Just like the Cross is not some exception to God’s power and sovereignty, but rather God showing us what his power actually IS like, and challenging our human notions of power, God’s mercy, God’s abundant and supererogatory desire, amply attested to in Scripture, to forgive all sins, is not an exception to justice, or something that is to be held in tension with justice, but rather God’s true definition of justice, revealed by God in Christ, which smashes our human definitions of justice like a potter’s vessel.

At the risk of being accused of caricature, it does seem to me to be premised on the idea of some great cosmic balance sheet that must be balanced somehow. Because we were bankrupt, Jesus injected cash to keep us a going concern. Penal substitutionary atonement, if driven by the very laudable pastoral concern to get rid of sin accounting at the level of the individual, only does so by reestablishing sin accounting at a cosmic level, and making it the binding rule of God’s justice.

It seems to me that, in turn, the root of this problem is a misguided understanding of sin. The classical Christian doctrine of sin always refers to a relational reality. Sin is not any actual thing, it is, rather, so to speak, an aspect or quality of my relationship with God. I did not break God’s lamp. But I did insult him. If you insult me, I can, actually, sovereignly decide to forgive you, at no cost to either of us. You are then free to refuse the offer of forgiveness, and live with the consequences of that, but that is a different matter.

This is something on which Thomas Aquinas is very helpful, and absolutely clear: God did not need the Cross in order to forgive sin. God’s forgiveness of sin is simply the product of his merciful and sovereign desire to forgive sin. Period.

Writes Aquinas in ST, III Q.46 a.2 ad 3, a judge acts unjustly if he just decides to forgive an offense, because the offense has not just been committed against him, but also against other goods, “for instance, against another man, or against the State, or any Prince in higher authority.” However, “God has no one higher than Himself, for He is the sovereign and common good of the whole universe. Consequently, if He forgive sin, which has the formality of fault in that it is committed against Himself, He wrongs no one: just as anyone else, overlooking a personal trespass, without satisfaction, acts mercifully and not unjustly.”

Our debt to God is, well, to God. He can, and does, just write it off. Is it “costly” to Him? Well, no, actually, because God is infinite, and infinity minus five million billion trillion is still infinity. In the words of St Therese of Lisieux, even the worst sin in the world is like a drop of water in the burning pyre of God’s love.

This is not an incidental point, but actually, one that goes straight to the heart of the ontology of God. Is God truly infinite? Is God truly sovereign? Not sovereign in the sense of being a supremely powerful being among other beings who can just decide to do something because he feels like it, but sovereign in the sense of being the all-transcendent ground of being in whom all Good, True and Beautiful find their end; the one, for whom, therefore, sin has absolutely no existence apart from being a relational reality. Because God is transcendent, and infinite, and sovereign, his writing off of our sin comes at absolutely no cost to Him, it is only our refusal of His forgiveness that can come at a cost to us; because God is the supreme Good towards which all goods point, his decision to write off sin is not one that is to be held in tension with justice, but rather the true definition of justice.

Let me use another analogy, which like all other analogies, is limited, but may nonetheless be illustrative. The image looks something like this: there is an unstoppable freight train heading for you, and you are obliviously dancing on the tracks, and I push you out at the last moment and get hit by the freight train. I have just died for your sins. Very well. But what is the freight train? Proponents of penal substitution think they avoid the pitfalls of the doctrine’s potential monstrosity by changing the definition of the train: maybe the train is not God’s wrath, but sin itself, for example. But here is my point: there is no freight train! There is no unstoppable, unmovable force that must be “dealt with”, somehow, or that God needs to work around, or come up with some clever way to confront.

All of these pieces fall perfectly into place if one keeps in mind the classical Christian understanding of sin and evil as not a thing in itself, but rather the lack of some good, a privatio bonum, in the same way that darkness is an absence of light, and not a real thing.

Does God deal with sin and death? Yes, absolutely, and Scripture is quite clear how. Firstly, New Creation has been inaugurated in the flesh of the Risen Christ, who is present to His Church as Lord, and which, through the sacraments and spiritual and corporeal works of mercy, and the communion of saints, slowly and haltingly, is making more and more present what Christ accomplished. Secondly, this work will complete in a final judgement and final restoration, when God will be “all in all,” where the last obstacles between this Universe and God’s grace will finally be shattered, where the groaning of creation will end, and God’s light will shine in all the dark places. All will be purified, and those who were not perfected during the course of their earthly life will experience this purification as a painful fire; and there may even be those who, knowingly and stubbornly refusing God’s free offer of grace, experience this purification in the form of eternal conscious torment.

Do not mistake my position: sin is very serious, and God treats it very seriously. I hope I don’t have to defend myself–or Thomas Aquinas!–from accusations of pseudo-pelagianism. God treats sin seriously–and to treat it seriously is to treat it as what it is. God’s attitude towards sin is not so much an antagonism that would dignify sin as having intrinsic existence, but rather contempt, and a love that breaks the barrier that sin tries to put up. Where sin abounds, grace superabounds. The answer to sin is not punishment, it is grace.

From the perspective of the individual, of course, sin is very dangerous, and an outrageous insult to God’s perfection, so that the Scripture writers are perfectly entitled to speak of divine wrath against sin to shake us out of our complacency (which is itself the product of sin). But the Lord God, the Lord of Hosts, has nothing to fear of sin, no need to dignify it, no cosmic accounting to balance.

I am quite sure I have not engaged in caricature, or at least not to an extent that would make my points miss their mark. The expression “penal substitutionary atonement” includes the word “penal.” It says that the Cross is the result of some cosmic requirement that God punish sin, whereas a proper doctrine of God and a proper doctrine of sin reveals that this is simply not the case at all. We punish ourselves when we refuse God’s free offer to save us from our sin. There is no conflict between some eternal law that requires God to punish sin and another eternal law that requires him to forgive it, with the Cross being the loophole, and I see no way to admit this and rescue the theory of penal substitution.

Well, then, one might ask, where does that leave the Cross?

Nowhere, but that’s a problem with penal substitution theory, it’s not a problem with the Cross.

What, then, some will surely say, are we to make of the many passages in Scripture that have been adduced to support a view of penal substitution?

The big one is the suffering servant song in Isaiah, and then several verses in Paul. The first thing that must be noted about the suffering servant song is that the penal substitution themes–if that’s what they are, and I will argue they are not–are not the main theme at all. The main theme is the servant’s obedient suffering. Those verses that have seemed to so many to suggest penal substitution come, as it were, within that overall framework, but they are not the main thrust.

If we read the Isaianic text in context, we realize that those passages are obvious references to the sacrifice of the scapegoat in ancient Israel, on the day of atonement, which themselves are widely recognized as a type of Christ. And this leads to a new question: what is the meaning of the scapegoat in the Bible?

And, here, I have to put my cards on the table. To me, one of the best possible readings of the sacrificial system of Israel and of the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures–and thence, of the Cross, is that of René Girard.

Girard can be a bit of a lightning rod, so let me be careful and limit myself to the following assertions. These are assertions that one can hold without subscribing to Girard’s entire mimetic theory; indeed, assertions that ought to be non-controversial. Number one, scapegoating, in the sociological sense of a group of people punishing or lynching an innocent, lonely person, for perceived offenses which are really projections of the group’s own failures, is a phenomenon that exists. We can all come up with examples. Indeed, I think we can all come up with examples where we have been complicit, even active, in scapegoating. Number two, scapegoating–in this sense–occurs in the Bible, from Joseph and his brothers to Daniel and Susanna. Number three, whenever scapegoating occurs in the Bible, the Biblical narrative sides with the victim. To simply stick at that level allows us to avoid some false antinomy, with “penal substitution” on one side, and “mimetic theory” on the other, with one being forced to choose between the two, or one having to embrace the other if the first is rejected.

So we can still avoid “going full Girard”, and yet nonetheless say very securely that the Bible is a narrative that contains an insistent and strong condemnation of scapegoating, thus understood.

But, once we understand that, we understand those passages very well, and, once again, the idea of a “penal substitution” view of the atonement just evaporates. Yes, Christ “bore our sins” and was killed “for our sins.” But here’s the thing: the Bible is not telling us that that’s a good thing, it is telling us that that’s a bad thing. Sin is condemned in the flesh of Jesus: indeed! God sent us a perfect man, loving, meek and humble of heart, full of grace and truth–and we killed him. We only need to look at the Cross to be reminded of the reality of our own sin, and God’s verdict upon it. The scapegoat has been vindicated on the morning of Easter, and thus our sin, which led him to the Cross, is condemned.

One further point, here: there is obviously an enormous amount that can be and has been said about sacrifice in the Bible. But of one thing we can be sure: in the Bible, right sacrifice is never propitiatory in the sense of appeasing God’s wrath or even really of punishment in general. The reason we can know this is because the sacrificial system under the Mosaic covenant is a polemic against this view of sacrifice, which is the pagan view of sacrifice. In the pagan worldview, gods and men depend on each other. The gods are like cosmic mobsters–if you feed them with sacrifice, they will protect you, but if you don’t, well, nice city you have there, it would be a shame if something happened to it. Instead, the Bible informs us, God has no need of sacrifice. Sacrifice is for our benefit, not God’s. Is it possible to hold this Biblical view of sacrifice in mind and still accept penal substitutionary atonement? I don’t think so.

And this is the key thing. If the Bible condemns scapegoating–as it surely does–then this view is incompatible with penal substitution. Under a scapegoat view, that Christ bore our sins is bad, since putting our sins on someone else is bad; under a penal substitution view, that Christ bore our sins is good, since it is the necessary prerequisite for grace. Under a penal substitution view, Christ bore our sins because of God’s good decision to deal with sin so that grace could abound; under a scapegoat view, Christ bore our sins because of man’s wicked decision to kill the servant. There is no potential both/and, here. It has to be one or the other.

If there are two views, and the Bible sometimes sounds like it endorses view A, but it definitely endorses view B, and view A and view B cannot be both true, then view A must be dismissed. Especially if view B is at least as good at explaining the passages that seem to suggest view A.

There are no two ways to go about it: however you frame it, no matter how many asterisks you throw at it, the theory of penal substitutionary atonement represents a divine endorsement of scapegoating; but the Biblical narrative is an unequivocal divine condemnation of scapegoating.

So, to sum up, penal substitution must be dismissed. On doctrinal grounds, because it is incompatible with a sound doctrine of God and sin, and on scriptural grounds, because it is incompatible with a proper reading of the whole witness of Scripture, and we have a much more secure and much more Biblical way to read the passages that seem to some people to imply a penal substitutionary view of atonement.

Two important codas:

– As you can guess, my problem with PSA is more with the “penal” part than the “substitution” part. But I would nonetheless say that once you get rid of the penal part, the categories of “representation” and, especially, “solidarity”, get you everything that “substitution” is supposed to do, but with much less risk of misinterpretation. In particular, and here I am reading Paul through Aquinas, because Christ is the Head of the Church and the Church is his Body, and we are members of His Body, we then naturally receive the benefits of the Paschal Mystery. We are “in Christ” not merely in the juridic sense that, if you are “in David,” you get the benefits that David earned; we are “in Christ” in an ontological sense: we are members of the Body of Christ. Thus my old self has been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live but the Messiah who lives in me, and so on. (And Christ’s mother is also my mother, and the Bible says to honor your mother–but that’s another topic altogether! :P) These are not just juridic or pious sentiments but ontological realities, and the category of “substitution” only obscures that.

– In the sitcom Father Ted, a really stupid priest has to hang out with bishops and doesn’t want them to find out he’s an idiot. A fellow priest instructs him to answer every question with either “Yes” or “That would be an ecumenical matter.” In theology, the “Trinitarian angle” so to speak plays a similar role. You say something very clever, and then someone else asks “Ah, yes, but where is the trinitarian aspect” and you have to ho-hum because you realize it’s very important and you have to “fit it in there” somehow but you’re not sure how. But here is what I would say: the Paschal sequence is God’s most self-revelatory act. It therefore cannot fail to be a deeply trinitarian act, and cannot therefore be understood unless the Trinity is at the root of our understanding of it. And the doctrine of the Trinity talks about the Father generously begetting the Son, graciously imparting His nature to Him in self-gift, and the Son responding to the gracious loving gift in thanksgiving, and the “breath”, the “ruach” of this mutual fatherly and filial love is what we call the procession of the Holy Spirit. The point is this: it will not do to try to rescue PSA by saying that it is God “tinitarianly” drawing sin into him or some such (as we have said, this presupposes an erroneous understanding of sin to begin with) instead of the Father “untrinitarianly” punishing the Son. If the economic Trinity reveals the immanent Trinity, and the Son’s mode of relationship to the Father is self-gift, and particularly self-gift in thanksgiving, and if the Paschal sequence is a fundamentally Trinitarian act, and fundamentally about the Son’s relationship to the Father, then we have to understand it as an act of loving self-gift in thanksgiving. And it just so happens that the Bible gives us positively enormous resources and warrant for thinking such a sacrifice, a thanksgiving sacrifice, and not a propitiatory sacrifice in the sense of involving punishment and/or substitution. All of those pieces fall perfectly into place as soon as you forget about PSA.

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