So, last time I shared with you my philosophical reasons for no longer holding to Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Today I would like to give you the scriptural problems I see with this view. Bear with me. I’ll get to what I actually do believe. But I want to make it abundantly clear why I came to the point where I felt like I needed to rethink my atonement theology. So, here we go…
A number of times in Scripture, God condemns human sacrifices, particularly those that involve parents sacrificing their children to appease the wrath of pagan gods (Deut 12:31; 18:10; Jer 7:31). However, in the Penal Substitution view, the greatest act of atonement is expressed by God the Father sacrificing His Son to appease His own divine wrath. If this is the case, then we are forced to conclude that the intuitions and actions of pagans who “burn their sons and daughters in the fire” were fundamentally correct, even if misapplied. But doesn’t Scripture, as well as our inherent sense of morality, scream out that these pagan practices are heinous and wrong?
One aspect of the Penal Substitution view is the claim that Jesus actually took on the guilt of all mankind, thereby absolving us. But this quickly raises the question, “Can guilt be transferred?” To be sure, certain passages of Scripture, as well as our own experiences, teach us that the consequences of sin can be experienced by others, even after generations (cf. Num 14:18). But guilt itself? Can one person actually be made guilty of crimes they never committed? Not only does this not make logical sense, but a number of passages suggest that guilt is something specific to the individual (Ezek 18:20; Rom 2:6-9; cf. Deut 24:16; Jer 31:30) … therefore, not transferable.
Another problem is that a number of times the apostle Paul taught that through Jesus’ atoning work God reconciled us to Himself (Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 5:18-20; Col 1:20). However, the Penal Substitution view teaches that what really changed was not our sinful state, but merely how God views our sinfulness – through the blood of Christ. This would mean that God instead reconciled Himself to us. Yet, never once in the New Testament is it taught that God reconciled Himself to us. While most people might disregard this argument as being “just semantics,” those of us who’ve spent much time studying the Greek New Testament know all too well how specific and intentional Paul was with the wording in his letters, especially when he uses the same wording in multiple epistles.
Or think about this – considering that Jesus is the exact representation of the Father’s nature (literally, “essence;” Heb 1:3), how is it that Jesus was able to forgive sins without seeking retribution (Mk 2:5-11; Lk 7:48-49; 23:34), if God the Father cannot forgive mankind our sins without seeking retribution (as the Penal Substitution view teaches)? Not only did Jesus live out non-retributive forgiveness, but he also taught his followers to do the same (Mt 5:38-45). Within this teaching, Jesus showed that the old eye-for-an-eye paradigm is inferior to the law of love, which is how the children of the Father in heaven live. The problem here is that the Penal Substitutionary view assumes that (contrary to Jesus’ teachings) the eye-for-an-eye paradigm is at the core of God’s nature, that God’s true nature is just as much about tit-for-tat retribution as it is about loving enemies (if not more so). To top it all off, if God is really so concerned with balancing the justice scales that He has to punish someone (even Himself) in order to forgive, how then should we understand places in the Bible where God does forgive without seeking retribution (cf. Prov 16:6; Isa 6:7)? If Penal Substitutionary Atonement is really how God forgives His wayward children, stories like the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32) quickly lose a lot of their power and beauty.
And last of all, at least for this blog post, it strikes me as odd that although Satan plays an incredibly prominent role in the Bible, both Old Testament (Gen 3; 1 Chron 21:1; Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7; Zech 3:1-2) and New (Lk 4:5-6; Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Cor 4:4; 1 Jn 5:19; Rev 11:15; 13), he plays absolutely no role in the Penal Substitution view of the atonement. Imagine if the Star Wars movies were like this – in episodes one through five, the Sith lords take over the Galactic Republic and wage war against the Rebel Alliance. And then in Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker finally masters the force and the film ends. Audiences would be outraged! What about Darth Vader? What about the evil Empire? Suddenly nobody would care about whether or not Han shot first, because everyone would be too preoccupied with the fact that nobody defeated the bad guys. This, I contend, is one of the greatest shortcomings of the Penal Substitution view, particularly for those of us who tend toward narrative theology.
Okay. There you have it from a biblical standpoint. Next time I’ll address the motif of sacrifice in the Old Testament. Until then …