For many people, the title of this post may be meaningless. “What is penal substitution?” would seem to them a better question. But if I explain that it is the idea that there is a penalty for sin, and God punished Jesus instead of us, they will immediately recognize it and say “That’s what I believe!” So forgive the technical shorthand if it is unfamiliar to you.
I abandoned the penal substitutionary view of the atonement while I was an undergraduate student at an Evangelical Bible college in the UK, in spite of it being the view of the professor who taught Christian doctrines. I remember that I wrote an unsolicited essay for him, which I entitled “Salvation through Discipleship”, about how the New Testament teaching lay elsewhere. I managed to persuade the professor, although (like Bock and Wallace in their interaction with Borg and Crossan) he asked why and whether this meant we ought to abandon this historic model of the atonement. Perhaps I interpreted some parts of Dethroning Jesus in light of this. I usually am a big supporter of finding middle ground, and so I suspect that, in addition to my concern that what was being found wasn’t in fact the middle, I also may have been concerned that saying “We accept what you say, but we can keep what we already think alongside it” could lead to things remaining as they are, with no real creative rethinking of one’s beliefs being necessary.
Much early Christian literature is focused on the cross. It is worth noting, however, that very little that Jesus says, and certainly little or nothing that can confidently be regarded as authentically going back to Jesus himself, focuses on the cross. This is easily explicable: the earliest Christians in the post-Easter were persuaded that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and were persuaded that his death could not have been unforeseen but must have been foreordained. And so, beginning with Moses, they went back and made sense of what had happened with the help of Scripture. Probably even more helpful than “Moses” was 4 Maccabees 6, which presents a martyr praying “Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (4 Macc. 6:28-29). Clearly there were ideas that existed in the Judaism of the time that helped make sense of the death of the righteous in terms of atonement.
Yet the New Testament does not use the language of punishment and exchange in the way 4 Maccabees (which was written after the early Christians had already interpreted the death of Jesus in atoning, sacrificial terms) does. Paul can talk about sacrifice (and discussing what sacrifice meant in the Judaism of this time would be a subject of its own), but he prefers to use the language of participation. One died for all, so that all died (2 Corinthians 5:14). This is not only different from substitution, it is the opposite of it. Jesus is here understood not to prevent our death but to bring it about! This fits neatly within his understanding of there being two ages, with Christ having died to one and entered the resurrection age, and with Christians through their connection to him having already died to the present age and thus made able to live free from its dominion.
Let me conclude by noting what are perhaps the biggest problems with penal substitution. One is Biblical, the other is moral. First, the Bible regularly depicts God as forgiving people. If there is anything that God does consistently throughout the Bible, it is forgive. To suggest that God cannot forgive because, having said that sin would be punished, he has no choice but to punish someone, makes sense only if one has never read the penitential psalms, nor the story of Jonah. The penal substitution view of atonement takes the metaphor of sin as debt and literalizes it to the extent that one’s actions are viewed in terms of accounting rather than relationship. It is not surprising this is popular: in our time, debts are impersonal and most people have them, and it is easier to think of slates being wiped clean and books being balanced than a need for reconciliation. But the latter is the core element if one thinks of God in personal terms. And for God to forgive, all that the Bible suggests that God has to do is forgive.
The moral issue with penal substitution is closely connected with the points just mentioned. Despite the popularity of this image, to depict God as a judge who lets a criminal go free because he has punished someone else in their place is to depict God as unjust.
The heart of the matter is that there is a stream of Christianity that soothes the conscience of Christians about the misdeeds they do by claiming that (1) God is the only one whose forgiveness matters, and (2) this forgiveness is already available and can wipe away your debt through a miracle of divine bookkeeping. All sense that anyone is harmed by what one does (whether God or other human beings), and that that is what matters, disappears from view entirely (cp. Job 35). Again, I can understand the popularity of this view. But it isn’t popular because it is Biblical, neither is it popular because it is self-evidently true. It is popular because it makes people feel good about themselves in spite of their not following the challenging parts of the Bible that have to do with how we relate to others. I say this as someone who used to hold this view, and so my discussion of psychological motives for the popularity of this view, I am being first and foremost self-critical. Indeed, discovering that the Biblical view of sin and atonement is not that set forth in the penal substitutionary view was a key step in my ability to be self critical in precisely this way.