Last time I gave a brief explanation of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (if you haven’t read that post, you should do that first). I would now like to point out some of the philosophical problems that I have with this view of the atonement. While I use to hold this view, I don’t anymore. So although this is going to look like just a list of philosophical and theological points, it’s actually a glimpse into what my mind has been wrestling with for some time now. These criticisms are pieces of a journey that has led me away from this land of Penal Substitution and into a much better place (theologically). But before I talk about why there works, I need to explain why here doesn’t.
Philosophical Problems with Penal Substitution
One of the problems that I have with this view is that it often pits the second Person of the Godhead (Jesus) against the first (God the Father). While orthodoxy holds that both Jesus and the Father are God, this view has Jesus saving us from the Father. Now, some very clever people have tried to say that it isn’t like that, but it still almost always comes across as if Jesus and the Father were working at cross-purposes. God (even if simply by His just nature) is seeking to condemn us, and Jesus is seeking to save us. So, like it or not, this view has God conflicted within Himself. God saves us from Himself by venting His wrath against Himself on the cross. That doesn’t seem quite right, does it?
Another problem I have with this view is that the sort of punishment that God is dealing out is not corrective punishment. It’s not as if Jesus learned a lesson by dying on the cross, and it’s not like the damned in hell are going to learn a lesson that leads them to repentance. God (in this view) is not punishing people so that they will turn to Him. He’s just balancing the scales. In essence, He’s just “getting even.” That hardly seems like an all-loving God. If you met a judge who dealt out sentences not to reform convicts, but just to “get even,” would you not question his sense of justice … not to mention love?
A third difficulty with this view came to me in the form of a conversation I had with a Muslim scholar a few years ago. In discussing the atonement, he asked me to explain to him exactly how I believed God saved us. So I explained Penal Substitutionary Atonement to him. He then asked me why in my view God couldn’t simply forgive mankind. At the time I didn’t have an answer for him, and I’ve still yet to find one that is consistent with Penal Substitution which I think he might have found convincing. Nevermind all of the scriptural difficulties with this sense of God’s justice (which I’ll get to later), it still doesn’t seem like a loving and forgiving God would have to exact a punishment in order to forgive us. It seems to me that this view of God is tantamount to a rageaholic father who feels like he has to beat one of his children for wrongs they’ve committed, even if the beaten child wasn’t the one who actually committed the crime (and, truthfully, I don’t think it makes the father sound any healthier mentally to say that he beats himself to forgive his child). Ultimately, the Penal Substitution view portrays Jesus primarily as a cosmic whipping boy whom God must punish before He can forgive us.
Which leads me to another problem I have with the Penal Substitutionary view. If Jesus paid our debt, are we really forgiven? When I ask people this question, they usually quickly respond, “of course!” But think about it. If you owed me a large sum of money which you could not afford to pay and someone else paid it on your behalf, could I rightfully turn to you and say, “I forgive your debt.” Not really, because I’ve been paid in full. If Jesus pays our blood-debt to God for us, then God doesn’t really forgive us. He is simply acknowledging a settled account. All of the Bible verses that talk about God forgiving us because of Jesus have now become really confusing, because real forgiveness doesn’t seek payment. It’s no wonder I’ve heard so many Christians say something like, “I forgive them, but they still have to pay for what they’ve done.” This reduces forgiveness from an action you do to merely an attitude you have.
And the last philosophical problem I have with this view (but certainly not the last one that could be leveraged against it) is that in this understanding of salvation there is no real connection between justification (being made right with God) and sanctification (becoming more like Jesus). In the Penal Substitution view, our justification is attained by merely buying into the contract that Jesus made with God, whether that’s through baptism, confirmation, public confession of faith, believing the right doctrines, saying the sinner’s prayer, or whatever. Sanctification then is something that is commanded and subtly expected, but not necessarily related to the atonement. This, I think, is partly why although roughly 80% of Americans claim to be Christian, only a very small percentage of those (less than 4%) actually live lives that look anything like Jesus. Living a life consistent with the life and teachings of Christ becomes optional. Most self-proclaimed Christians function as though they are merely waiting for their “fire insurance” to kick in. Hence, why so much emphasis in western Christian evangelism is focused on the conversion experience, and discipleship has taken a backseat.
Well, there you have it! Next time, I’ll focus on scriptural problems with the Penal Substitution view. Until then…