Problems With Penal Substitution

Problems With Penal Substitution June 17, 2015

DISAMBIGUATION: This blog post is not about penile substitution – for information on that topic, go here.

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’ve written about this before, for instance in a blog post called “The Odious Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement.” But perhaps it is time to share how I really feel.

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.

"Money is the civil god of this world. I suspect that every religion in the ..."

How a Monotheistic Revolution Created a ..."
"Thanks for sharing your perspective. I will have to continue reading more on the topic. ..."

Trinity and Love
"Technically all is in God. And thus one way of thinking about evil is akin ..."

Trinity and Love
"Intriguing. I do recall a couple years ago you wrote in a comment that you ..."

Trinity and Love

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • John Thomas

    Totally agree. The idea of substitution has never made any sense to me. I know that it was a common understanding among the ancients. The idea that when we sin, we are at a debt to gods and gods needs to be appeased with an offering to gods usually offered by priests as substitution for that sin can be seen in the writings of Hinduism and ancient Mesopotamian religions. So it is natural to see that writers of Hebrew scriptures had a similar understanding during that period. It is also natural to see that some of the writers of New Testament books viewed Jesus’ death as an extension of that understanding in Hebrew scriptures as they were focused in conveying that New Testament is the completion of understanding in Hebrew scriptures. Personally for me, only view of atonement theory that makes any rational sense in this era is Moral Influence or Moral Transformation theory of atonement.

  • I agree that penal substitution theory has huge philosophical problems. However, the general concept of substitutional atonement going back to ranson theory has its merits. For example, Hugo Grotus made important improvement with the governmental view. All in all, the extremes of penal substitution theory can look like a straw man for the general concept of substitutional atonement. One day, I’ll get to writing this out in an article….

  • Per penile substitution, I donated my organs to medical science and who knows what they might take….

  • Jonathan Bernier

    “Atone deaf”: brilliant.

    I’ve long held the view that the God of the Qur’an is far more gracious than the God of substitutionary atonement. The God of the Qur’an is merciful simply because He is merciful, whereas the God of substitutionary atonement cannot simply forgive but must take out His anger on someone. I make this point because the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is usually construed by its proponents as a means by which to demonstrate God’s supreme grace: that instead of taking out his wrath on the sinner he took it out on the sinless. From where I stand, that sounds more like anger issues in need of psychotherapeutic intervention than grace.

    • David Evans

      It seems to me that the God of the Qur’an has already decided who will go to Hell. I don’t think that’s merciful.

      • Jonathan Bernier

        Leaving aside the fact that that sounds more like a description of Calvin’s God than anything else that is what we might call an exercise in missing the point. The point is that on this particular matter, namely God’s readiness to overlook sin, penal substitution does not come out smelling so good.

  • Chris Eyre

    I share with you a complete revulsion for the concept of PSA, in particular for what it says about the character of God. In that, I agree with Richard Beck.

    However, a few points. Firstly, I cannot see that any theory of atonement which does not take into account the perfectly simple and viable manner in which God forgives sins laid out in Ezekiel 18 (read the whole chapter) is viable; this would argue that a God who earlier revealed himself as perfectly able to forgive given a genuine metanoia has suddenly changed character.

    Secondly, and referring Mike Bird’s post, I do not see satisfaction in Rom. 3:25-26. In point of fact I see it as very clearly stating that God intends this as a demonstration to humanity which was (as he has in the past been merciful, a character trait I’m happy with) entirely unnecessary to his forgiveness.

    Thirdly, and again referencing Mike Bird’s post, I do not see a penal element as emanating from God evidenced beyond the bald fact that flesh dies. In the concept structure of Gen. 3, this is because flesh sins.

    My problem is that I’ve been acquainted with quite a lot of people whose pasts, plus a consciousness of very major wrongdoing, make PSA the only atonement theory which seems to have any traction with them. I ask myself whether instilling in them so faulty a concept of God is worth it to give them some peace – and I have to answer “yes”.

  • We relate to the suffering of a wide range of species not just human suffering. And it was recently discovered that deer react to the sound of a crying baby of almost any mammal species, not just the cry of a baby deer. But how does such empathy provide evidence for the truth of Christianity? Which reminds me of a poem…


    No chipmunk had to be crucified

    on a tiny cross of twigs

    To save all the other chippies,

    Had to have nails pounded

    through his little paws,

    Had to take upon himself

    all the sins of all the chippies

    that ever were or would be

    and die in agony

    So that after they died

    all the chippies

    could live again forever,

    But only if they believed

    in all the sayings and doings

    of the chipmunk crucified

    on the tiny cross of twigs.

    Antler, Last Words

    • charlesburchfield

      hey ed, manic?

      • The poem is by a fellow named Antler. But I see you prefer brief snide comments. What a marvelous apologetic.

        • charlesburchfield

          what a thrill it is to see yet another troll play his wind you up/put you down game! I suppose, as per our mega troll ‘father thyme’ aka ‘evergreen’, ruste_colhe, you are doing a form of ‘terror management’. Sad! )=

  • Though I admire Jesus for deploring the temptations of wealth, organized religion and its powerful sway, as well as hypocrisy, I no longer find the doctrines of either “original sin,” or “imputed righteousness” believable. I don’t think the cosmos is the way it is simply because one human couple failed a test, nor do I believe that a man being executed 2000 years ago “paid the price” for the “world’s sins,” and we ought to “eat his flesh and drink his blood” for the forgiveness of sins, not even metaphorically. Sounds rather paganish, echoing both vampirism and cannibalism, a theology taken right out of the caldrons of blood sacrifice and appeasement. Read up on sympatheitc magic sometime. I saw the film, The Passion, and was moved when Jesus’ mother ran toward him when he was being forced to carry the cross. She recalled the time Jesus fell as a child and she rushed to help him. My eyes teared up. But the rest of the film was one big blood orgy that did not move me any more than seeing any other human being unjustly tortured and murdered. I didn’t feel “forgiven” after watching the film, nor closer to God. Though when I was young and raised Catholic I had convinced myself of the connection, and even cried after reading the Gospel stories of Jesus’ death “for me, for me, for me.” The Christian schema doesn’t make sense to me anymore, neither intellectually nor emotionally. But direct forgiveness and people showing compassion to other people does.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      My Coptic students would be writhing in their seats right now, very keen to point out that “original sin” is very much a western (i.e. Catholic and Protestant) Christian doctrine, largely absent in the eastern (i.e. Orthodox) churches. As part of the broader family known as Oriental Orthodoxy, Coptic Christians really have no notion of original sin.

      • Funny how the things one Christians believes makes other Christians writhe in their seats. I suppose that even with a new heart and the Holy Spirit leading into truth, and the world’s most divinely inspired collection of writings to lead them, Christians can’t agree, in fact the history of Christianity is the history of schisms too numerous to mention.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          That is a strange point to take away from my comment, and certainly one at best tangentially related to my words. But yeah, given that there are well over two billion Christians in the world it’s hardly surprising that there is some disagreement.

  • Don’t Christians ever wonder why killing God’s son (whom they believe to have been “God the Son,” the second person of the “Trinity”) was not the greatest sin humans could ever commit? Humans killed God?! How could humanity atone for such a sin except by killing another divine savior a second time round to “atone” for the first time that ultimate sin was committed? and so forth and so on? At some point the cycle of “atonement” has to be broken by direct forgiveness.

    • charlesburchfield

      it’s totally foolishness to the world!
      ‘struth ed!

    • John MacDonald

      Christians view Jesus as the paschal lamb, and that He is the reason we no longer offer animal sacrifices today. Christians believe animal sacrifices have ended because Jesus Christ was the ultimate and perfect sacrifice. John the Baptist recognized this when he saw Jesus coming to be baptized and said, “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Since the animals did no wrong, they died in place of the one performing the sacrifice, temporarily removing sin. Jesus Christ also did no wrong but willingly gave Himself to die for the sins of mankind (see the pseudonymous 1 Timothy 2:6), conquering sin. Christians believe Jesus Christ took our sin upon Himself and died in our place as the perfect atoning sacrifice. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” That’s why Christians believe that through faith in what Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross, we can receive forgiveness.
      It is not hard to see why Jesus, who did no wrong, could be a sacrifice for our sins, because in the same way in the Hebrew religion an animal, which did no wrong, could be a temporary sacrifice for the sin of the person performing the sacrifice.

      • It is not hard to see why Jesus, who did no wrong, could be a sacrifice for our sins, because in the same way in the Hebrew religion an animal, which did no wrong, could be a temporary sacrifice for the sin of the person performing the sacrifice.

        I find it equally difficult to understand how an animal could be a sacrifice for sins, and I think the same is probably true for others who object to penal substitution. You’ve essentially said “the penal substitution is easy to understand in the case of Jesus, since it’s similar to this other case of penal substitution” when the problem is with the entire concept of penal substitution, regardless of whether it’s applied to an animal sacrifice or the sacrifice of Jesus. The idea that the death of somebody or something else has any effect on whether I should be punished for an unrelated crime doesn’t make any sense to me.

        • And I would add to that that there is no evidence whatsoever that ancient Israelites understood animal sacrifice in a substitutionary way. The terminology used with various sacrifices, and the rituals performed, indicate their meaning to have been someing else: a gift, use of blood for purification, fellowship, etc. The one instance of sin being symbolically transferred to an animal was the scapegoat, and it was not sacrificed but released in the desert.

          • Shiphrah99

            It had the advantage of making sure that the Levites got to eat. The person who brought the sacrifice sat down to a meal with the priests & Levites afterward – of the very meat & meal that they brought.

          • John MacDonald

            (Leviticus 22:24)–“Also anything with its testicles bruised or crushed or torn or cut, you shall not offer to the Lord, or sacrifice in your land.”

            (Deuteronomy 17:1)–“You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep which has a blemish or any defect, for that is a detestable thing to the Lord your God.”

            The Old Testament is full of animal sacrifices offered by the priests of Israel. These sacrifices were intended to remove the sins of the people and of the nation. But, ultimately the blood of animals could not cleanse anyone from their sins (Heb. 10:4). So, what the Israelites were doing was participating, by faith, in the sacrificial system which was instituted by God in the Garden of Eden when Lord covered Adam and Eve with animals skins–killing an animal and shedding its blood to do this. This sacrificial system was followed throughout the Old Testament as is amply detailed in Leviticus. Christians say this shedding of blood was a representation of the future sacrifice of Christ as He shed His blood for the remission of our sins. Jesus was the true sacrifice–the perfect atonement for our sins.

            Christians say the reason the animal sacrifices had to be without blemish was that they represented, though imperfectly, the Lord Jesus. As Jesus was without blemish, so too the Old Testament sacrifices had to be without blemish.

          • John MacDonald

            And another point:

            The book of Leviticus discusses many of the sacrifices performed by the Levitical priests. In some places, it seems to claim that a particular offering could remove sins:

            “And he shall do with the bull as he did with the bull as a sin offering; thus he shall do with it. So the priest shall make atonement for them, and it shall be forgiven them. (Leviticus 4:20)”

            Yet the book of Hebrews explicitly states that animal blood could not take away sins.

            “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. (Hebrews 10:4)”

            This seems to be a contradiction but is fairly simple to resolve. Nowhere in the Old Testament is it ever claimed that sins were “taken away” (i.e., completely removed) by animal sacrifices. The root of the Hebrew word translated “atonement” in the Old Testament is kaphar, which has the idea of “covering,” not total removal. This word is also used to refer to how Noah’s ark was to be covered with pitch:

            “Make yourself an ark of gopherwood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and outside with pitch. (Genesis 6:14,)

            Tens of thousands of animals were ceremonially slaughtered by Jewish priests for centuries, the spilling of their blood vividly illustrated the deadly seriousness of sin. However, these sacrifices were essentially like a bandage, only acting as a covering for sin. They did not, and could not, remove sin, as Hebrews 10:4 clearly states.

            Christians also argue that animal sacrifices also pointed forward in time to the only One that could remove sin—Jesus Christ who shed His precious blood to accomplish that purpose:

            “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God. (Hebrews 10:10–12)”

            The phrase “take away” in verse 11 is translated from the Greek root periaireo, which does convey the idea of removal. Christians argue that this is consistent with the use of “atonement” in the Old Testament, as the Levitical sacrifices foreshadowed the final sacrifice of Christ.

            ConclusionAnimal sacrifices could only cover sins; they could not remove them. The passage from Hebrews 10 draws a contrast between the animal sacrifices and Christ’s sacrifice. The former could never take away sins, but when Christ shed his own blood, it was a once and for all sacrifice that removes sins.

            In this alleged contradiction, the solution is found by simply understanding the context and the proper meanings of the words employed within the text.

          • John MacDonald

            Sorry, in the second last paragraph it should have read “Conclusion: Animal.” Sorry, I type too fast and make mistakes sometimes lol

        • Gary

          “Who Wrote the Bible”, Richard Elliot Friedman.
          “The function of sacrifice is one of the most misunderstood matters in the Bible. Modern readers often take it to mean the unnecessary taking of animal life, or they believe that the person who offered the sacrifice was giving up something of his or her own in order to compensate for some sin or perhaps to win God’s favor. In the biblical world, however, the most common type of sacrifice was for meals. The apparent rationale was that if humans wanted to eat meat they had to recognize that they were taking life. They could not regard this as an ordinary act of daily secular life. It was a sacred act, to be performed in a prescribed manner, by an appointed person (a priest), at an altar. A portion of the sacrifice (a tithe) was given to the priest. This applied to all meat meals (but not fish or fowl).
          The centralization of religion meant that if you wanted to eat lamb you could not sacrifice your sheep at home or at a local sanctuary. You had to bring the sheep to the priest at the Temple altar in Jerusalem.”

          So my personal opinion, Penal Substitution represents the evolution of common-daily practices by the ordinary person; into a big, self-sustaining bureaucratic practice by the establishment/bureaucracy/clergy (to their direct benefit). A Jewish person giving thanks for meat, becomes a Jewish High Priest money-maker through centralization.

          Enter Christianity. Process transforms into Penal Substitution, which maintains a guilt-trip authority of clergy over the average church-goer. Maybe I am overly negative, but some OT authors were specifically upset over using sacrifices as a business of the clergy. A prime example of manipulation of OT verses and practices by conservative Christians today, to maintain their Penal Substitution theology:

          Old school
          KJV Jer 7:22 “For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices:”

          New school
          RSV “For I spoke not unto your fathers nor commanded them, in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices.”

          Newer school
          NIV “For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices,”

          Now, maybe I am wrong. Please correct me if I am paranoid.

          It seems to me in my limited experience, that denominations that use the NIV, seem to also be heavy into the hymns like “washed by the blood of the lamb”, which always creeped me out, big-time.

          • Jim

            Yeah Gary, I’d say you’re pretty paranoid. Really, who would use religion as a platform for extracting sheep or money or even a private jet?

          • Gary


      • Jonathan Bernier

        The cessation of sacrifice probably has more to do with the destruction of the temple in 70, exactly the same reason that sacrifice ceased in Judaism (which, interestingly enough, doesn’t need a Jesus to make this happen). Indeed, the New Testament reports that Jewish Christians (including Paul!) continued to perform sacrifices through to at least c. 60 (take a look at Acts 21), and there’s no reason to think that this practice ceased before the temple’s destruction. There *might* have been a branch of Christian thought before 70 that was opposed to continued participation in the temple cult, but that is far from certain.

  • Ignatz

    There may be some problems with penal substitution, but the real thing doesn’t vibrate.

  • cameronhorsburgh

    Yesterday I started researching a paper which will, in part, compare PSA with the Hugo Grotius’ Governmental theory, which is known by a number of names.

    I had to snigger when I realised I was going to be writing about Penal and Rectoral Theories.

  • CrazyDogLady

    No kidding, here is an actual conversation I had with my husband after church just this Sunday:
    Hub: well, the sermon was fine this morning, wasn’t it?
    Me: no, actually, it sounded good at the beginning and end, but there was stuff buried in the middle again that I disagree with.
    Hub: What?
    Me: our pastor basically said that to be a real follower of Jesus, you must believe in the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. No, I don’t have to.
    Hub: (gasp, snort) Whaaat did you say? (Giggle, snort)
    Me (exasperated): Penal, like penal code. Not penile. Geeeez.

  • Darach Conneely

    Atone deaf… sigh
    Visiting this blog is so disappointing. The theology is great, but where are all the exciting digital recipes and virtual foods on Explorin’ Gourmatrix?

  • R Vogel

    If we try to take them too literally don’t all atonement theories fall short? The arguments over this always strike me as mistaking the map for the territory. The bible uses a variety of metaphors because people in different times and places will respond to different metaphors, yeah?

  • Matthew Williams

    Brother, I think part of the callousness you hear in penal substitution is due to descriptions of it apart from union with Christ. You speak of Union with Christ as though it were an alternative emphasis to PSA. I think Union with Christ is why PSA is true!

    In recounting your understanding of PSA, you are describing people as individuals over against Christ, as though God the courtroom judge was looking at Jesus, and then at us, finding us guilty but sentencing Jesus and sending him off to the cross. Bully for us!

    But these are false tellings of the PSA story – and would indeed be unjust on God’s part. The penalty is not shifted across to a separate party to satisfy a sort of punishment tally. It is not about God satisfying himself with a quantity of death – otherwise how would it work, being one death for all of our deaths?

    Yet the wages of sin is death. Has been since Genesis 3. In once sense this is organic – to reject the source of life is to die. In another sense this can be described in legal terms, because the giver of life gave a law, which we then break. This law crystallises and makes specific the general rebellion and search for independence from our creator. So different kinds of language can describe it, including legal terms like penalty.

    The penalty for our sin (death) is not shifted across to a third party but shifted up, if you like, to our own head. Christ forges a new humanity out of the existing, Adamic, dying one. For the same reason, the penal substitution of one death is universally sufficient but not universally applied. It only takes salvific effect for the individual through participation in Christ, when we die to ourselves (our independence) and accept again that God is the source of our life. It cannot be an arms-length transaction. It only takes effect by participation in the body of Christ.

    Christ died and rose again. Joined to Christ in baptism, we find that in that one death we all died, and in that one resurrection we all rose again. In this dying, Jesus ‘bore our sins in his body’. In this rising, Jesus sets us free to live as new creations.

    So just as the logic of original sin requires our union with Adam, so the logic of penal substitutionary atonement requires our union with Christ. It’s not that the penalty is shafted from one distinct individual to another. We become the Body of One who has already borne the death penalty, overcome its finality, and forged something new, something new which can break into our lives even now. He can be truly said to have borne ‘our’ penalty, because we can be truly ‘Him’.

    • Nick G

      Yet the wages of sin is death.

      I believe GUSRAT (General Union of Sinners, Reprobates and Allied Trades) is currently balloting its members on strike action.

  • Jerry Shepherd

    James, let me make a few observations from the viewpoint of one who holds to penal substitutionary atonement.

    First, you refer to how “no amount of prooftexting can address” what you see as problematic in the doctrine. The use of the term “prooftexting,” however, is far too pejorative. It fails to recognize the excellent academic defenses of the doctrine that certainly cannot be characterized as prooftexting. I refer here to monographs and articles by I. Howard Marshall, Scot McKnight, N. T. Wright, Jeremy Treat, Simon Gathercole, Hans Boersma, Henri Blocher, and Leon Morris, to list just a few, as well as more popular treatments by writers like John Stott. It also fails to
    recognize volumes of collected academic essays on the atonement as well. You may disagree with them, but it is unfair to dismiss them as simply prooftexting.

    Second, one of the major problems you have with the doctrine is that it portrays God as unjust, punishing the innocent in place of the guilty. However, only a little bit of reflection shows how unsubstantial this objection really is. Every act of forgiveness is an act of injustice. The forgiver always does himself an act of injustice in the act of forgiveness. If I loan you a thousand dollars, and then,
    if you are unable to repay the loan, I forgive your debt, I have not simply
    forgiven your debt, I have taken it on myself. Furthermore, the objection fails to deal with the Trinitarian nature of the atonement. The objection posits too
    great a difference between the persons of the Trinity. The penalty paid by the Son is also one that is paid by the Father. That is why Stott can refer to the “self-substitution” of God in the work of atonement.

    Third, the utilization of Wenham’s commentary on Leviticus is problematic. You note that Wenham’s commentary clarifies the “imagery of the purification of the sanctuary”; and in your other articles, you “strongly recommend Gordon Wenham’s fantastic commentary on Leviticus” for the understanding of sacrifice. However, Wenham is very clear that he subscribes to a substitutionary understanding of the sacrificial system. To be sure, he understands the sacrifices to deal with the area of purification; however, he does not treat this as an either/or, but as a both/and. For just a few examples, he refers to how when the offeror brought his sacrifice, the animal “was a ransom, a substitute payment instead of his own life.” The animal dies “in the worshipper’s place as his substitute,” and is to be regarded as “receiving the death penalty because of the sin transferred to it.” Building on Leviticus, and discussing Isaiah 53:6, he notes that “In these words the idea of substitutionary atonement is clearly set out. The servant suffers instead of us. He bears the penalty of our sins.”

    Beyond this, in another article, entitled, “The Theology of Old Testament Sacrifice,” Wenham states, to give one just one representative statement, “The animal is a substitute for the worshipper. Its death makes atonement for the worshipper. Its immolation on the altar quietens God’s anger at human sin.”

    So I agree with you. Wenham is a fantastic resource. There are other problems, but I’ll let those go for now.

    • Regarding your second point: you’re treating it as obvious that all crimes or sins are comparable to debt. OK, if I forgive a debt, there’s a sense in which I have taken on that debt myself, in that I won’t be getting the money I was expecting. How does this apply to a different situation, such as if somebody attacks me and I later forgive them? The forgiveness doesn’t involve me losing anything, or not getting some stuff that I was expecting to get. I am no richer or poorer for forgiving them; I don’t suddenly get more beaten up by forgiving them, nor was there ever any prospect of the attacker paying his debt sometime in the future by somehow un-attacking me.

      • Jerry Shepherd

        Good question, Ophis. A couple of things by way of reply.

        (1) There is a good reason why, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus framed sin in terms of debt. Jesus talks about our debts being forgiven, and then explains what he meant by that in terms of sin (Matt 6:12, 14-15). Indeed, just recently, I read somewhere (though I can’t remember where right now) that the imagery of debt is a particularly apt one for the idea of sin. Sin always puts one in debt. This again, explains the use of debt imagery in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt 18). Even in the example you have given, it is more likely than not that the attack on another person is one that causes injury, and the injured person is owed compensation for the injury. By forgiving the attacker, the injured party forgoes their right of compensation.

        (2) “I don’t suddenly get more beaten by forgiving them.” But this is exactly what I argue happens in the atonement. I have offended a holy God. He has the right to exact punishment from me for that sin. Instead of exacting it from me, he exacts it instead in the flesh of his own Son. He sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering” (Rom 8:3). The text goes on to say that in this way God “condemned sin in the flesh.” As N. T. Wright argues, along with many other commentators, the logic of the passage indicates that “flesh” here is the flesh of Jesus Christ. God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ. It is an absolutely incredible act of love, and grace, and mercy. God has provided redemption and forgiveness, but not without great cost to himself. This is extravagant love.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          But isn’t the point of the parable of the unmerciful servant precisely that God does not require compensation? Why then is the atonement that is crucifixion necessary? You state that God has the right to exact punishment for that sin, but doesn’t that suggest that he has the right to not exact punishment? He could just let it go. It seems to me that your God is bound either to a higher law than himself, which requires that he must exact punishment, in which case he is not truly free; or his character is such that he just must inflict punishment for wrongdoing, in which case he is not truly gracious. So which is it? Is your God bound by necessity or devoid of grace?

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Jonathan, you are missing here the fact that in the case of the unmerciful servant, the master suffers the loss of compensation in forgiving the servant. He can only forgive the debt by suffering loss himself.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Whilst I suppose that is true strictly speaking it is interesting that the text makes no comment about that fact: strange, if it is so central to understanding what is going on there. It seems to me that making it central is a classic example of eisegesis: i.e. reading into the text what simply is not there.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Hi Jonathan. Thanks, all I need is the admission that it is “true strictly speaking.” Two things in regards to the fact that the text makes no comment about this. First, I’m not trying to make this point to be “so central to understanding.” But, second, I am trying to follow the logic of the parable. This is by no means a classic example of eisegesis. Remember that every genre of literature has its own expectations of the reader. One of the expectations of parabolic literature, which achieves its results through economy of expression without making explicit comments on every detail of the story, is the expectation for the reader to engage in a close reading of the text and to be able to connect the dots. In the case of this parable, I think it is only fair to recognize that the master, by forgiving the servant’s debt, is not simply forgiving it, he is absorbing the cost of it. It costs him to forgive the debt.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Sure, it costs him, but the parable makes absolutely no reference, even obliquely, to that fact. Precisely the point is that the master does not seek compensation of any sort. How one gets from that to “He needs compensation in the form of a grisly death on a cross” is quite beyond the scope of any reasonable operations with which I am familiar.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Jonathan, I wasn’t trying to make a direct link between the parable and atonement. I was only trying to make the point that, in general, forgiveness has a cost attached to it.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Strange, given that you said that the one thing I was missing about the parable is that forgiveness is costly.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Jonathan, the cost the master pays in the parable is not the same as the cost that God pays in the death of his Son. I was by no means trying to draw a straight line from “not seeking compensation to a grisly death on a cross. My only point for the parable was that it demonstrates that every act of forgiveness entails a cost for the forgiver.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Okay. Let’s try this again. The death of the Son is the cost incurred when God forgives sin. This is based upon the analogy between debt and sin, although you have now acknowledged that the analogy cannot be drawn too hard. But where I’m having a problem following your reasoning with the analogy between debt and sin is that when a debt is forgiven it is simply written off. No payment is expected, from anyone. That is the loss.

            But for your theory to be a theory of *substitutionary atonement* then what must be happening is that the debt is being paid, simply not by the person who owes the debt. Thus there is no forgiveness of the debt but rather payment from another source. Ultimately the debt language, taken as metaphysically literal, is simply not satisfactory as a way to describe the divine work of forgiveness.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Good attempt, Jonathan, though there are still some misperceptions.

            (1) You say, “The death of the Son is the cost incurred when God forgives sin. This is based upon the analogy between debt and sin . . .” But, no, I am not basing my arguments on the analogy between debt and sin. The use of the debt analogy is only an illustrative analogy. I am basing the statement, rather, on clear statements in Scripture. God procured our redemption at great cost to himself, the death of his Son. I think the analogy is a close one, but it is not the basis for my understanding of atonement.

            (2) The analogy is still a close one. Debt forgiveness entails a cost for the forgiver. Sometimes this is greater than it is in other instances. For example, a friend might ask me to loan him a thousand dollars, but I might not actually have it. In fact, it is possible that I might borrow the money myself in order to make the loan. If I forgive my friend’s loan, I still have to make the payments on my loan. So there can be great variations in the circumstances and the cost, but the cost is always there.

            (3) So, no, your conclusion does not hold. Because I forgive my friend’s debt by absorbing the debt myself, by no means cancels out the fact that I am forgiving the debt. And if God forgives me by taking my sin-debt on himself, it is still, very definitely, an act of forgiveness.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            Also, note that you have not dealt with the actual theological matter in my comment. If God requires satisfaction of any and all debts then he is, by definition, bound by necessity. That necessity is either external or internal. If external then there is a higher order than God to which God is subservient, and thus not truly God on any classical theological reckoning; if internal then it must somehow speak to God’s character, which would thus be a character that cannot simply let things go but requires satisfaction. In other words, God is either not God or not gracious. This is not my position of course, but simply the necessary logical outcome of yours.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Yes, I wanted to deal with the first part of that paragraph separately before moving on to the second part. First of all, please note that your logic has a fatal flaw here. You say, “If God requires satisfaction . . . then he is, by definition, bound by necessity.” This is completely illogical. If God sets up a system, and then promises to work within the system that he himself created, then how does this in any way equal necessity. If, for example, God makes a covenant with his people, one in which he makes certain promises and even swears to those promises by an oath–then yes, we can talk about God binding himself with an oath. But it is an oath by which he has freely bound himself. He did not have to take the oath; he did not have to enter the covenant; he freely chose to do so. The only necessity here is one into which God has freely entered. Your logic here is one which is tantamount to the nonsense question, “could God make a rock so big he couldn’t move it?” God has bound himself to his people and to his promises, not by necessity, but by a free and sovereign act. So there is absolutely no question about some external principle of a higher order to which God must submit. God created the principle.

            I simply cannot follow your reasoning in the second half. If God, by an incredible act of love, takes on himself the punishment that we deserve, how can you possibly come to the conclusion that when God does so, he is not being gracious. If my sins merit punishment, but God takes that punishment onto himself, how can you possibly argue that God, in forgiving me for that sin, is not being gracious to me.

            So your reasoning simply breaks down at every point. God is God; he has freely entered into covenant and sworn certain promises in that covenant. He is not bound by necessity; he is bound by his own word. He has, in an incredible and extravagant act of grace, taken my sins and their deserved punishment onto himself. He is the free and sovereign God and he is a God of matchless, marvelous grace.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            So…God *requires* satisfaction yet is not bound by necessity? In fact, it’s illogical to think that a requirement is something that is necessary? Did words stop having meaning?

            But your point falls flat. You state that God took an oath and by his character could not break said oath. First off, that’s a concession that God is bound by an internal necessity, but let us that to one side. What you are telling us is that God left Godself no option but the crucifixion. But a God who is left without option is not the God of classical theology, for such a God would be either other than omnipotent or other than omniscience.

            As for grace, think about it: there is none. God is not forgiving any debt. Rather, he is getting paid by another avenue. But your arguments re: God paying himself make this payment at best a legal fiction, and more properly an accounting fudge; if I withdraw $100 from my own account in order to pay myself $100 I am hardly $100 ahead, and if I am owed $100 by someone else I’ve hardly paid their debt. So in fact God is not actually balancing the books at all, yet declaring them balanced. So in fact your God doesn’t need the debts to really be paid at all. Yet on your account what then is the necessity of the crucifixion? None at all, in point of fact, which makes God simply a sadomasochist, who on your account inflicts pain on to his son (thus the sadism), who is also himself (thus the masochism).

            So, again, your God is either not God, at least in a classical sense, or a sadomasochist who crucifies the Son to no effect whatsoever. God is powerless over his own purposes or his purposes lack grace: those are the logical and necessary consequences of your position.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Jonathan, if God requires something, he is not operating by necessity. He is not being acted upon; he is the one doing the acting. He is the one making the requirement; he creates the requirement. The requirement is not acting on God, God is making the requirement. That God requires something does not mean that God needs to require it. To suggest otherwise is just theological sleight of hand.

            Again, in your second paragraph, you are trying to make the “rock so large he couldn’t lift it” argument. If God promises to do something, and then does it, he is just being a good God. Would you really want a God who breaks his promises? You are employing some strange logic here.

            For your third paragraph, again, this is an attempt at theological sleight of hand. If God has declared that sin is to be punished, and that I, having sinned, ought to be punished, but takes that punishment on himself, then he is has been incredibly gracious to me. However, if you want to think of this as a “legal fiction” whereby the books are not actually balanced, but God declares them balanced; then I’m actually Ok with that. “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:25-26).

            References to sadism and masochism, which entail the idea of enjoyment at the inflicting and suffering of pain, are just silly, and have no place in this discussion. It was out of love that the Father delivered up his own Son. And it was out of love he raised him from the dead, highly exalted him, and seated him at his own right hand.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            What you continue to avoid is that if your account is correct then God freely chooses to requires punishment, but instead of taking it out on one target takes it out on another. If I say “I’m going to hit you” but then opt to hit another person instead I’m not being gracious to anyone. Yet that is precisely what your God is doing. By your account he’s from 100% freedom created a system in which he must kill people for sin, and instead of killing the sinners instead kills a wholly innocent person. An abuser who switches targets is still an abuser.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Jonathan, I am not avoiding the point; rather, I am proclaiming it. God freely chose to create and implement a system that requires punishment for sin. The rest of your reasoning, however, is way off the mark. If God takes on himself the punishment that I deserve, he is being incredibly gracious. This is not abuse.

            By the way, I’ve been answering your questions and objections, but you have not been answering mine. So, again, how do you understand the relationship between the cross of Christ and forgiveness, as articulated in Eph 1:7 and Matt 26:28, as well as the related passages in Rom 3:25-26; 5:8; 8:3, 31; 1 Peter 2:18-24 and 3:17-19?

          • Jerry Shepherd

            By the way, one more point as to the problem with your understanding of theology through history. You say that a “God who is left without option is not the God of classical theology.” But this is very far off the mark. Classical theology has no problem whatsoever with a God who makes promises and keeps them, a God who keeps his word. And classical theology certainly does not regard the making and keeping of an oath, which God freely makes and enters into, as forcing some kind of necessity onto God or compromising his freedom and sovereignty. This is simply an erroneous understanding of classical theology.

        • Regarding (1), I don’t see how enduring a crucifixion is anything like failing to receive compensation. I don’t really understand the nature of the “debt” involved in sin. What exactly is it that I owe God as a result of having sinned against him? What benefit have I deprived him of, that I am expected to repay? The whole imagery of debt or compensation suggests that I can deprive God of something, and can repay it by giving him something of benefit to him, and I don’t see how either of those things is possible with an omnipotent god.

          On (2): “Instead of exacting it from me, he exacts it instead in the flesh of his own Son.” Why? Why not just avoid exacting it on anyone? That is what “forgiving a debt” implies; you simply avoid taking back whatever you’re owed, and nobody pays anybody back. What’s the problem with doing that, and what is gained by the alternative of God incarnating himself and then getting himself crucified?

          The idea of punishment as a debt doesn’t make much sense to me. If somebody who commits a crime against me is punished (e.g. by being imprisoned), I might be pleased with it, but I am not repaid by it, since I receive no benefit from it.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Ophis, with regard to no. 1, your problem here is one that you’ll need to work through in the biblical text. As I pointed out, Jesus himself is the one who talks of sin in terms of the imagery of debt. Our sin is an offense against a holy God; it robs him of the glory which he is due from a creature made in his image. Over and over again in the Scriptures God declares that the person who sins is to be punished. So I really do not understand the problem you are having with this one. Even in our own time we talk about criminals who are punished as paying their “debt to society.” The “wages of sin,” or the debt owed to God, to use two different metaphors, is death. Christ dies that death in my place. This is the teaching of the book of Romans. And I don’t understand your argument about the omnipotence of God. Of course, God can do anything, and one of the things which he can choose to do is to punish sinners for their sins, or lay their sins on his own Son.

            With regard to no. 2, let me turn that one back on you. Why do you think God incarnated himself and was crucified? The problem you are going to have here is that it is not just the penal theory of atonement you are going to have problems with; you are going to have problems with any theory of atonement that is tied to the death of Christ. In some way, as I have already mentioned in another response, the forgiveness of sins is tied to the death of Christ (Matt 26:28; Eph 1:7). On any theory of the atonement, you have to explain the relationship between forgiveness and the death of Christ. And whatever explanation you come up with, you can always be asked, “couldn’t God have done that some other way?” I think the New Testament’s understanding of the issue is the correct one: forgiveness is not cheap; it is costly.

          • The “debt to society” is just a metaphor that doesn’t really work if you take it too literally. A monetary debt can be paid by a friend of the debtor, and the person paid will be satisfied, but we wouldn’t normally think it was satisfactory for someone to serve his friend’s prison sentence while the criminal went free. That would just mean someone was suffering to no useful purpose. I think the same applies to the crucifixion of Jesus; none of the reasons for punishing someone are served by punishing the innocent in place of the guilty.

            The omnipotence of God means that ideas of compensation can’t apply to him. Compensation for a human involves providing them with something they need or will find useful to replace whatever they have been deprived of. An omnipotent god wouldn’t need anything, and couldn’t be deprived of anything by a mere human. And it’s unclear exactly what benefit a crucifixion is supposed to be providing for him.

            With regard to no. 2, let me turn that one back on you. Why do you think God incarnated himself and was crucified?

            I don’t think he did. I agree that any theory of atonement tied to the crucifixion has problems, and I don’t think any of the theories really works.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Ophis, if you do not believe that Jesus was God incarnate, and if you do not believe that Jesus was crucified, and if you do not believe that Jesus died for our sins, and if you do not believe that there is some relationship between the death of Jesus and atonement and the forgiveness of sin, then there really isn’t any point in our continuing the conversation. We’re not working from the same base.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Ophis, let me rephrase my last couple of sentences. If you do not believe these things, then I’m not quite sure why you want to have this conversation. We’re not working from the same base. I’m happy to continue the conversation; but I think we should understand that we are working from different vantage points, belief and unbelief.

          • I don’t think it matters that much that we have different beliefs on this. The question of whether penal substitution works as an explanation for the Christian account of the incarnation and crucifixion is a separate question from whether the incarnation and crucifixion actually happened. The only way it really affects anything is that I have the option of rejecting penal substitution without having to try to find a better alternative.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Actually, it matters quite a bit, because you are not in a position to judge whether the Christian account of incarnation and crucifixion works or not, per 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16.

          • I would think it should be possible to work out whether a particular position on this is at least internally coherent, even if it requires God’s help to make me actually believe it. Do you think that it’s impossible to convince a non-believer just of the internal consistency of your theological beliefs?

          • Jerry Shepherd

            You already know that this explanation of how atonement works has its own internal consistency. The problem is not that you cannot see the logic of the theory; the problem is that you are not prepared to accept it.

          • I’d be perfectly happy to accept that a claim had some sort of internal logic to it even if I still thought it was false. That’s not the problem here.

            Imagine if a judge decided to release a criminal and sentence himself to time in prison instead, claiming that this somehow satisfied the demands of justice. That’s how the idea of penal substitution looks to me; simply nonsensical, involving an idea of justice that seems outright immoral, and a punishment that has no obvious purpose. Presumably if that happened in an actual court case, you would think that something was wrong.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Thanks, Ophis. Your response has demonstrated my point. Regardless of your opinion that this theory of atonement involves, “an idea of justice that seems outright immoral,” the theory still has its own internal logic. This has been recognized by thousands of theologians over the years. The exact situation you envision of the case of the judge is used as an analogy in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, where he speaks of the “Judge judged in our place.” And Martin Hengel and others have demonstrated that this idea of vicarious atonement or vicarious punishment was a recognized motif in the ancient world. So, the theory has its own internal logic. So, again, you do actually understand the logic; you just don’t like the logic. You may regard it as immoral, and I might be inclined to agree with you if God had chosen any Joe Schmuck off the street to be the one to bear this vicarious punishment. But he did not do that; rather, he chose himself. I do not consider that immoral; I consider it to be an overwhelming demonstration of love.

          • So let’s imagine the situation in the analogy actually happened. Imagine a judge lets a criminal go and sentences himself instead. Would you say that judge has done a good job? What is the purpose of punishment in a system where the punishment can be applied to someone other than the criminal?

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Keep in mind, Ophis, that there is no such thing as a perfect analogy. There are always discontinuities that must be taken into account. Analogies should not be turned into full-blown allegories. Here are some of the discontinuities with this particular analogy:

            (1) Unlike human judges, God is perfect, holy, sinless, completely wise in all his decisions.

            (2) The divine judge has a relationship with the criminal. He is the criminal’s creator, his father.

            (3) Unlike in the case of the human judge, the penalty which the divine judge calls on himself, has other effects as well. One of the important effects in the case of the divine judge is that the criminal is not merely “let go,” but is transformed and made holy.

            (4) The penalty which the divine judge calls upon himself is not one that will be forever. In three days, Christ rises from the dead!

            So, yes, in the case of the divine judge, I would say he “has done a good job.”

            Even in the case of the human judge, given other relevant factors, it might be possible to say that he “has done a good job.” People might look at what he has done and say that it is foolish. But that would simply correspond to what Paul says in 1 Cor 1:18 about the foolishness of the cross.

            “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments,
            and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Rom 11:33)

          • I don’t know how points 1 and 2 are supposed to affect anything; they don’t seem relevant to the problem. Point 4 is also true of most prison sentences, which are also not permanent, so I don’t think the fact that the penalty is only temporary changes anything.

            Point 3 does provide a purpose for the crucifixion, since it describes some benefit that results from it. So what’s the mechanism supposed to be here? How does the crucifixion do something to change the criminal, and why can’t this change be made to occur without a crucifixion? God would presumably be able to transform people without crucifying anybody, if he wanted to do so.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Point 1 is relevant in that the complexities of atonement in Scripture are much greater than they would be in the simple analogy of one judge paying the penalty for one criminal; the atonement is on a cosmic scale.

            Point 2 is relevant in that, with regard to biblical atonement, we are not talking about some dispassionate, clinical, purely judicial act on the part of the judge.

            Point 4 is extremely important, precisely because we are not talking about temporary punishments; it is a matter of life and death.

            As for point 3, all I can do here is point to the biblical language at this point. Romans 6 talks about we have been baptized “into his death,” and raised with him to “live a new life.” It says that “we have been united with him in death,” and “that our old self has been crucified with him” so that we are no longer slaves to sin. So Christ’s death is not only objective forensic, but also subjectively transforming, sanctifying, and purifying.

            As to why God chose this method, as opposed to some other, frankly, I find such questions to be incredibly ill-conceived, as if we and God were working with the same exact data set. It serves no purpose to ask why God couldn’t have done things some other way. Our only responsibility is to work within the confines of what he has chosen to do.

          • Point 1 is relevant in that the complexities of atonement in Scripture are much greater than they would be in the simple analogy of one judge paying the penalty for one criminal; the atonement is on a cosmic scale.

            So it’s the same thing happening on a bigger scale; it doesn’t really change the logic of the situation.

            Point 2 is relevant in that, with regard to biblical atonement, we are not talking about some dispassionate, clinical, purely judicial act on the part of the judge.

            That explains God’s motivations for wanting to do something, but again doesn’t affect the logic; it doesn’t explain why he did it the way he did rather than doing it another way.

            Point 4 is extremely important, precisely because we are not talking about temporary punishments; it is a matter of life and death.

            Same problem as point 2.

            As for point 3, all I can do here is point to the biblical language at this point. Romans 6 talks about we have been baptized “into his death,” and raised with him to “live a new life.” It says that “we have been united with him in death,” and “that our old self has been crucified with him” so that we are no longer slaves to sin. So Christ’s death is not only objective forensic, but also subjectively transforming, sanctifying, and purifying.

            Does this have any meaning other than a metaphorical one? As much as it might be a nice metaphor, we haven’t actually experienced the punishment that Jesus had. It still seems to be a case of one person being punished for another’s crimes, which is an injustice even by Biblical standards.

            As to why God chose this method, as opposed to some other, frankly, I find such questions to be incredibly ill-conceived, as if we and God were working with the same exact data set. It serves no purpose to ask why God couldn’t have done things some other way. Our only responsibility is to work within the confines of what he has chosen to do.

            This seems to be veering a little close to “don’t question it, just believe”. The purpose of asking whether God could have done things some other way is to work out whether the story makes any sense. If there’s an easier way for God to do what he wants to do, then it makes no sense for him to do things the hard way. If God can forgive sins and redeem humanity without getting crucified, which as far as I can see should be a possibility, then what was the point of suffering through the crucifixion?

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Hi Ophis,

            (1) No, it doesn’t change the logic of the situation; but it does call for humility. First of all because there is not going to be a perfect analogy. Second, because there are more factors than either you or I can possibly take account of. Our analyses are always going to be working with incomplete data.

            (2) Again, I didn’t say it changed the logic. But it does introduce an additional factor: love, empathy, compassion.

            (4) No, it does not have the same problem as point 2.

            (3) Yes, it does have a meaning other than metaphorical. Christians believe there is a real, vital union with Christ effected by the Holy Spirit.

            And no, it does not border on “just believe it.” It has already been demonstrated that the PSA has it own logic. Now you are going beyond that to ask the question: “Couldn’t God have done this more efficiently and with less trouble?” The problem here is that you are trying to take a principle, the path of least resistance or the most efficient method, and set that principle above God. You are saying that God has to conform with an external standard of efficiency that you have set up. Do you think that God should hire you as his efficiency consultant? “Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord, or instruct the Lord as his counselor? Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?” (Isa 40:13-14). It’s one thing to say that you don’t understand the logic, though I think you actually do. It’s entirely another to say that you have a better logical plan.

          • It has already been demonstrated that the PSA has it own logic.

            I’m not so sure about that. You’ve at least given some purpose for Christ’s atonement (to transform/sanctify humanity), but no explanation of how this happens. There isn’t a natural link between someone I’ve never met being killed in some distant time and place, and me being changed somehow. If it has to be mediated in some way by the Holy Spirit, then it seems to be a crazy way to do things, since the Holy Spirit should be able to effect this change without any deaths. The relation between this purpose and the idea of penal substitution hasn’t been explained either; if, for some unspecified reason, the temporary death of Christ somehow assists the process of sanctifying humans, then where does the idea of a transfer of punishments come in?

            Now you are going beyond that to ask the question: “Couldn’t God have done this more efficiently and with less trouble?” The problem here is that you are trying to take a principle, the path of least resistance or the most efficient method, and set that principle above God.

            You could also call that principle “not creating unnecessary problems” or “acting sanely”. Presumably getting crucified is not particularly enjoyable for Jesus, so if there is an easier way to do whatever he wants to do, it makes sense to avoid crucifixion.

            You seem to want me to pretend that the obvious better options available to an omnipotent being simply don’t exist. If God can do whatever he wants with or without a crucifixion, then getting crucified just means he’s going through something horrible for no good reason, which doesn’t seem like something any intelligent being would do.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      Okay. Let’s accept that in forgiving sin God has somehow done himself an injustice. I’m actually not at all sure how that works but okay. Thus accepted however I’m utterly baffled as to why he would then feel the need to compound that injustice to himself by putting the second member of the trinity through the crucifixion. It’s not at all clear to him how two injustices to self come out as just.

      • Jerry Shepherd

        Jonathan, I’m a little confused by your question. You first refer to how “in forgiving sin God has somehow done himself an injustice,” and then you refer to a second injustice incurred in the crucifixion. But these are not separate events. The forgiveness is effected by the crucifixion. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph 1:7). “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). It’s the same event.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          Okay, let’s work this through. You say “The forgiveness is effected by the crucifixion.” You also say “Every act of forgiveness is an act of injustice.” If both these statements are true then the crucifixion must be unjust. That’s not my conclusion, but rather the necessary conclusion to be drawn *from your own statements.* If this is the case, and if this is a defense of substitutionary atonement, and given that the forgiver here is God, then you have conceded clearly and explicitly the accusation that the God of substitutionary atonement is a God who acts unjustly.

          Of course, this problem is resolved if one removes the really quite bizarre supposition that forgiveness is by definition unjust.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            The huge difference here, Jonathan, is that God has not acted unjustly toward some innocent, impersonal third party. Rather, he has acted unjustly toward himself. He has absorbed into the life of the Trinity the injustice of the situation. This is exactly what Peter means in 1 Peter 2:18-24 and 3:17-19. Christ suffered for us, the one who committed no sin and in whom there was no deceit. He died, by the decree of the Father, on our behalf, the “just for the unjust.” He bore our sins in his body on the cross. His death was an unjust death, one which he accomplished by the will of the Father. Yet, paradoxically, when he submitted himself to this unjust death, willed by the decree and command of the Father, he also committed himself to the one who “judges justly.” To procure our pardon, our forgiveness, our redemption, our salvation, he went to extravagant lengths, dying for us, the just for the unjust. It was a costly forgiveness.

          • Jonathan Bernier

            But a cost that was, on your own account, unnecessary. It is unnecessary because, you insist, God is not bound by necessity. If God is not bound by necessity then there was no necessity for him to pay that cost in order to achieve his ends. And more to the point, why does an omnipotent God need to pay anything to accomplish God’s ends? Why could not such a God simply will that this be the way that it is? The only answer is that there was some sort of necessity that prevented God from doing so, but you have ruled that out. Therefore we must conclude that God *choose* to set things up so that the forgiveness was costly. And surely a God who choose to forgive without cost is more gracious than one who choose to forgive at cost?

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Sorry, Jonathan, I fail to follow your logic. Do you not understand what it means for God to set up a certain system of justice and then to work within that system which he freely created. But yes, I do conclude that God chose “to set things up so that the forgiveness was costly.” But your last sentence I completely disagree with. Why do you believe that a God who chooses to forgive without cost is more gracious than one who chooses to forgive at cost? The problem here is that you are refusing to work with the biblical data. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom 8:31). Paul declares that the love and grace of God is demonstrated in his giving up his Son to death on the cross. If you do not feel any responsibility to work within the data of the biblical text, then please be up front about this and declare this to be the case. If you do not believe there is some connection between the death of Christ and forgiveness (Eph 1:7 and Matt 26:28), then you really should say so.

    • My point about prooftexting was in relation to contemporary theology. Just as citing Genesis is not a legitimate basis for claiming that Christians must believe there is a dome over the Earth, so too, if it were shown that ancient Christian thought in terms of penal substitution, that would not in itself demonstrate that we today can or should.

      • Jerry Shepherd

        There is a vast difference between the dome over the earth and the idea of penal substitution. Christ’s death on the cross and what God accomplished in that death is the non-negotiable heart of the gospel. And I don’t see any reason why “we today” have any reason to reject this understanding. After all, many millions of Christians today, all over the world, not only accept but glory in this teaching about the atonement. There are no sufficient modern rationales to reject it.

        • Some would say that the relocation of heaven is a much bigger deal than the matter of how one interprets the cross, since at the very least all Christians agree that there is not just one monolithic understanding of the cross and what it accomplished in the New Testament, and likewise no creed of the early centuries ever specified one particular way of understanding the cross as “the” orthodox viewpoint.

          • Jerry Shepherd

            Two points, James. First, I really don’t think whether or not the sky is to be conceived of as a dome has that much relevance to the location of heaven. Solid dome or not, there was still the basic idea that heaven was in some way “up.”

            Second, I think you are certainly correct that there was no monolithic understanding of the cross. And this is the reason why the discussion that Aulen started as to the various theories of the atonement was frankly not all that helpful. The church fathers corporately and individually understood that the cross did several things: pay for our sins, cleanse us from those sins, provide our ransom, rescue us from the devil, restore us to the image of God, etc. They were far more kaleidoscopic than is often understood.

  • woofboy

    (It probably won’t matter too much, but your link to Andrew Perriman above is actually a link to Michael Bird.)

  • John MacDonald

    Paula Fredriksen’s “non-temple-superseding” interpretation of Paul is fascinating. I tend to think “superseding readers” may be reading Mark back onto Paul.

    I tend to have a “non-atonement,” but still “temple replacing” interpretation of the Gospel of Mark (and Luke-Acts), especially because of the “Adamic” imagery in Mark:

    I wonder if Jesus’ resurrection in the Empty Tomb in Mark replaces the Holy of Holies in the temple for the first Christians with the site of the empty tomb? Traditionally, only the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies, and so no one saw what went on there but him. In Mark, the death of Jesus triggers the tearing of the veil (Mark 15:38), and hence seems to initiate the replacement of the exclusionary Holy of Holies of what Mark thought of as the corrupt, Roman loving Temple Cult (recall Jesus’ temple tantrum), with the empty tomb site of the resurrection, which for the first Christians was even more sacred than the Holy of Holies, because while only the high priest saw what went on in the Holy of Holies, no one goes in the empty tomb and witnesses what happened in the resurrection. Josephus records that Pompey profaned the Temple by insisting on entering the Holy of Holies in 63 BCE, so this may have been the impetus for Mark wanting to replace it.

    In this Markan narrative, we see “The Naked Young Man (Mark 14:51),” apparently representing humans stuck in the perpetual state of the “Naked Adam (guilt and the endless cycle of temple sacrifices)” before the accusing eye of God (the young man being guilty by association for following the criminal Jesus – which is why all the disciples fled when Jesus was arrested), transformed with faith in Christ’s resurrection into a holy state previously reserved for the high priest in the Holy of Holies. This interpretation assumes the naked, young man (Mark 14:51), representing guilty humans with their endless animal sacrifices in a perpetual state of being “The Naked Adam” before an accusing, interrogating God, is the same person as the angelic young man in a state of holiness, proclaiming Christ’s resurrection in the Empty Tomb in Mark.

    In Mark, this doesn’t reflect Jesus’ death as being an atonement for sin, where mankind is thought of as being a perpetually guilty Naked Adam in the damning gaze of a Interrogating God, but rather a reinterpretation of the nature of God from ‘Accuser’ to ‘Loving Father,’ who deems as holy and resurrects even a (in the eyes of man) blasphemous, convicted criminal like Jesus. Jesus was certainly guilty of the crimes he was accused of. He was guilty in Rome’s eyes for a number of reasons (e.g., the socially disruptive assault on the money changers in the temple, etc.), and in the eyes of the Jewish high council (e.g., blasphemy). The charges were legitimate, so he deserved to die according to the standards of his day. But the charges were also illogical. Are we not to fight against social injustice as Jesus did with the money changers? The paradox was that Jesus deserved to die, but at the same time was a great person who helped a lot of people and deserved to be venerated. The Markan message was one of a reinterpretation from God as “An Accuser” that the Naked Adam knew, to God as a loving father who saw Jesus as a good, holy man in spite of what the world had judged him to be, and so clothed Jesus’ guilty (in the eyes of man), naked young man in robes of holiness when we see the young man in the tomb. This has nothing to do with the penal substitution of atonement, but rather the first Christians rethinking God and His relationship to humanity.