Penal substitution is a phrase used to describe a particular view of the atonement, which says that Jesus took the place of the guilty in bearing God’s judgment due to them. Mike Bird (responding to William Walker) and Andrew Perriman (responding to Simon Gathercole) are among those who’ve blogged about the topic recently.
If you are still unable to distinguish this from the surgical procedure mentioned at the top of this post, you may be atone deaf.
I find penal substitution problematic as a contemporary theological viewpoint. That is a matter that no amount of prooftexting can address. Among its problems are the fact that is depicts God as unjust. It is not justice if a criminal is set free and someone else punished in their place. Another problem is that it depicts the fundamental issue to be addressed as with God rather than with human beings. God, according to penal substitution, cannot forgive because God has decreed a punishment for sin and it is irrevocable. To allude to an analogy used by Paul Fiddes, it essentially says that the way to deal with a surgeon’s anger towards cancer is to appease the surgeon rather than cure the patient. And it typically further adds the view that Jesus’ death is a transaction which pays our debt, but “we have to cash the check.” And so it makes believing this particular doctrine of the atonement all-important to salvation.
But penal substitution is also problematic when it is presented as though it were “what the Bible says.” The Bible as a whole, and the New Testament more specifically, uses a range of images and metaphors related to sin and atonement. I will not try to argue that penal and/or substitutionary imagery is never used. But the case can be made that it is not central either to the Bible as a whole or to the theology of specific authors.
For instance, the Levitical background to Hebrews (as clarified by Gordon Wenham) helps us understand that the imagery there is of purification of the sanctuary so that God can dwell in the midst of a sinful people. In Paul’s writings, many different images are used (including sacrifice and reconciliation), but main his focus is on being “in Christ” and participation with him in his death and resurrection. According to Paul, through our union with Jesus we are not spared a death that we deserve, but we die so that we can also live through our union with him (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). See my earlier post responding to Mike Bird on passages in Romans and Galatians, among others, for more discussion of some of the details.
In my opinion, penal substitution is a view of the atonement that is constructed out of some Biblical language, as well as other imagery and considerations, and then read into the Bible across a wider array of passages, where it fits poorly if at all.
See further my older post, “What’s Wrong With Penal Substitution?” (among others), as well as the treatment of the topic by other Patheos bloggers, such as Coleman Glenn and Morgan Guyton. And see too Richard Beck on how penal substitution turns God into the Devil.