More thoughts contra Penal Substitution

My blogging friend Morgan Guyton recently published a post in which he took on Four cringe-worthy claims of popular penal-substitution theology.  I heartily commend the post to all, and I cringe right along with Morgan each of the points he highlighted.  Nevertheless I find myself pushing back in some regards, and pushing further in others.  My intent here is to interact directly with Morgan’s article, so I encourage the reader to begin by reading his post.

Morgan’s first objection is to the popular notion in Penal-Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) that God’s d cannot tolerate the presence of sin…that “God is allergic to sin” as he amusingly puts it.  He’s absolutely right that this claim is baloney (I’ve addressed this before in my post Did God really abandon Jesus on the cross?), and that Jesus’ becoming human in order to get close–even to befriend–sinners is prime evidence of this fact.  His further statement “It was not that Jesus couldn’t tolerate imperfection but rather that His perfection was intolerable” is,  I think, a reasonable characterization.  He then concludes “God is light; He doesn’t need the cross to protect Him from our darkness; we need the cross so we can survive entering into God’s light.”  I think he’s almost right…the cross was for us and not for God…but not so much so we could “survive” God:  only God’s love and graciousness are needed for that.  Rather, we “needed” the cross in part because it demonstrated the positively crazy lengths to which God would go to invite humanity into his presence.  Without that prodigal expression of sacrificial benevolence, we could not (or would not) trust the Father when he invites us into his presence.  Thus the “boldness” we are challenged to exercise in Heb. 4:14-16, is the appropriate response to the cross.

Morgan’s second point is to oppose the notion that God sees Jesus, not us, when he looks upon those who have been justified through Christ…”that the reason God gives us His “approval” is because He doesn’t see us when He looks at us but sees Jesus instead. That’s not approval; that’s deception.”  Morgan is absolutely right.  I’ve always found the notion that somehow Jesus was helping us pull the wool over his Father’s eyes to be frankly offensive.  I can’t say it better than Morgan himself concluded this section:  “God doesn’t need to see a Jesus mask over our faces to approve us; His unconditional prior approval of us is the reason He sent His Word made flesh to empower us for holy living through our incorporation into His body.”

The third issue Guyton takes on is the notion that “Since God is infinite, he is infinitely offended by our slightest sins.”  Morgan goes into the history of the “Satisfaction” theory of atonement, which suggests that the cross was necessary to satisfy God’s honor which had been sullied by the sins of his creation.  Here again, he makes the assertion that the sacrifice of Christ, to the extent it would satisfy God’s honor, was because *we* need to be sure of God’s satisfaction, not because God demanded it.  My objection to this is that the whole notion that God’s honor needs to be addressed through a sacrifice is itself not a Biblical concept as far as I can see–it certainly is not part of any description of sacrifice that I can recall in the Bible.  I have not read Anshelm myself, but Guyton makes no mention of Anshelm’s having appealed to Scripture for the rationale of satisfaction, nor does Morgan himself appeal to Scripture in correcting the doctrine.  I suggest that it ought to be ditched wholesale as an extrabiblical proposition.

The fourth “cringe-worthy” point Guyton refutes is the claim that God poured out his wrath on Jesus on the cross.  As he says partway through the section:  “I cannot find anywhere in scripture that makes the Father the primary agent behind the crucifixion of His Son.”  He’s right.  I’ve argued similarly when I refuted the notion that God had turned his back on Jesus on the cross.  Guyton correctly points out that Romans 1:18-31 tells us the evidence of God’s wrath is him handing people over to the very depravity they desire.  That’s just not what happened on the cross.  In fact, nothing I can find in Scripture suggests that Jesus was the recipient of God’s wrath in any form.  As Morgan states, “In any case, what happened on the cross is that God the Father did not prevent God the Son from being killed by the Jewish religious authorities. He let Him drink the cup of (His/our?) wrath which He came to Earth to drink. But this in no way means that the Father was the executioner of the Son for the sake of His own anger management. When we talk about the Father “pouring out His wrath” on His son, we make Him look like a drunken child abuser.”

Morgan concludes “Penal substitution is an important part of the rich mystery of the cross — just not in the oversimplified, canned version that has come to predominate our juvenilized evangelical church.”  I’m frankly confused by this, because he’s just made very good points that Jesus was not being punished (the penal part) by God, but also because (and Guyton doesn’t say this) I see no evidence in Scripture that what Jesus did was “in our place” either…that is, whatever Jesus was doing was not as a “substitute” for us.  The Biblical testimony is clear that Jesus died and was resurrected for our sakes.  I do not mean in any way to deny or diminish that fact.  But the evidence that his death was somehow in loco humanis just isn’t there.  Penal-substitution doesn’t need to be reclaimed from poor interpretation, it needs to be discarded entirely.

Which is why I still find Christus Victor a much better way to attempt wrapping our puny brains around Jesus’ death and resurrection…

16 thoughts on “More thoughts contra Penal Substitution”

  1. Ruth Martin

    Here’s another “Amen!” My response to the capital punishment crowd is the same as to a lot of the made-up stuff that is touted as “doctrine” — “Show me one single place where JESUS said that!” And nobody ever has.

  2. Curt Coman

    I have heard all these points expressed many, many times as I’ve sat in various Presbyterian/Reformed churches and conferences. Although I’m a bit out of the loop on this sort of thing, I understand there is a resurgence of interest in “Reformed theology” — i.e. the teachings of John Calvin and the Puritan preachers and theologians — among young Christians today (I believe the phrase I’ve heard is “YRR”…Young, Restless, Reformed). I’m not sure what to make of it, as there are a number of things about Calvinist theology that I now find almost abhorrent. Anyway…

    As I understand it, the Hebrew for “atonement” is bound up with the idea of “covering,” and it may be that this is where the idea of “God sees Jesus, not me and my sin” is actually coming from. I can’t say for sure; it’s been a long time since I studied these things. But I do know that evangelicals tend to latch on to Greek or Hebrew words and wrestle meanings from them that may go far beyond the original intent of the writer.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I think that notion of “covering” may be a small part of it, Curt, but as an unambiguous anti-Calvinist, I don’t think that’s the biggest issue. Much bigger, I think, is a preoccupation with sin and punishment that hails partly from pre-Christian Jewish writing on sin and sacrifice–but badly misinterpreted–combined with a general conservative predilection to fear of punishment as a primary motivator. Cynical? Maybe…

  3. Aaron Martin

    I find many of these discussions as abstract and obscure as the discussions about the Higgs boson and the Standard Model of physics. But I think I might rather spend my energy understanding the Standard Model than working with these theological discussions. The work with the Standard Model points toward testable ideas that may, or may not, lead to practical applications, which can than close the debate. The theological discussions go round and round and seem to never lead to closure.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I would mostly agree, Dad, except that people kill people and split churches over bad theology, while to the best of my knowledge, neither has happened due to disagreements about the Standard Model. Refuting bad and unhelpful dogma is of value, I think, if it might lead people to seek more gentleness of spirit.

      I believe overemphasis on sin and atonement, in particular the doctrine of PSA, is directly linkable to violent and punitive human action and policy, and as such is worthy of vigorous debunking.

  4. Jack

    Please comment on Isaiah 53 being scriptural proof that Jesus suffered in our place, which is the seed of penal substitutional atonement. I have heard arguments that the “suffering servant” is Israel and arguments that it is Jesus. Which is it?

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Jack, I think an honest answer may be “it could be both, but we don’t know.” As a poetic and beautiful meditation on Jesus’ suffering, his innocence, and his submission to the Father, it is certainly reasonable to see Jesus in Isaiah 53, but there are elements that clearly cannot point to him, for example the latter half of Is. 53:10 … Jesus had no offspring to see. But I think the strongest argument that Isaiah cannot be used to “prove” PSA is that the punishment described is non-lethal…it is “by his stripes we are healed,” not by his death or his blood. Right there in verse 10 it is his life that is a guilt offering, not the taking or giving up of that life (though “unto death” in v. 12 may moderate that). The strongest evidence for this passage referring to Israel, I think, comes from reading the surrounding chapters. In context it really does seem to be describing the suffering of Israel in captivity, and the hope for return “redemption” of the “bought back” variety (see Is. 52:3). So an arc that sees ch. 52 as about exile, 53 about suffering in exile, and 54 about the hope of return is certainly a faithful reading of the text. There’s nothing wrong with seeing both in the text. The N.T. writers often did. But to hold it as a proof without other possible, faithful interpretation, is without merit.

  5. Robert Roberg

    If God did not want sacrifice, then he did not sacrifice his son, and the son did not sacrifice himself to the father. Yahoshua did everything to distance himself from this sacrificial travesty including eating a vegetarian meal with the Essenes at their Passover the day before the Jews killed their lambs. He was a living ransom delivered to the kosmokrator evil prince of darkness in exchange for all those trapped in the land of death. On the final day, the gates of hell cannot stay locked when Yahoshua calls their names -some to glory some to regret. As Paul implies the rulers of darkness had known they were walking into a trap, they never would have killed him The trap was this; a curse falls on anyone who takes a payment of an innocent and then kills the innocent man. Both the father and the son held their breath when the evil ones nailed him to th cross. If Satan could break him and make him curse God, he would win. If Yahoshua could remain faithful to the end without sinning, he would set all the dead free and birth the New Covenant and Satan would forever limp as his kingdom slowly crumbled. His power would be broken. The strong man would bound.

  6. Thomas

    I lean towards Satisfaction. Don’t get me wrong, Christus Victor is an absolutely true aspect of the atonement, but it seems to me that the Bible points very strongly towards a substitutionary, or ransom, atonement, and Satisfaction provides that while also 1.) dismantling the idea that God poured his wrath on Jesus. 2.) creating a meaningful way in which righteousness can be imputed, ie. the merit of Christ, and 3.) allowing for an infinite atonement. If PS is true, then Christ can only from eternity past bear the penalty for those who accept him, and has to be limited, and thus only intended, for the elect (the objection here is that he merely “died for sin,” which is silly because if he died for sin in general through Penal Substitution he provided atonement for everyone, making universalism true). If Satisfaction is true, then Christ’s death was infinitely meritorious, meaning the atonement could be for all men without Christ “wasting blood,” so to speak. Limited atonement is a false dichotomy that is only a problem if you accept Penal Substitution.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Where I think I’d disagree with you, Thomas, is that the idea that God would accept an innocent death, even (or especially) his own son, in satisfaction (of what, precisely?) implies either that God voluntarily constructed a fundamentally unjust system, or the morality that drove God to need/accept this was extrinsic to himself. I find either option repulsive. But beyond that, I’d invite you to point to what scriptural basis you would find for Satisfaction.

  7. Robert Roberg

    If the whole sacrificial system is false, as Yahoshua taught, then there is no atonement . The evil one has convinced us that El Shaddai is a peevish, blood-thirsty being who murdered the best of us to save the rest of us. If however, Yahoshua volunteered to be a living ransom, then the evil one is the real murderer. Yahoshua did not save us by his death, but by living a sinless life. Life does not come from death. Life comes from life. The messiah died ahead of us, not instead of us. Blood does not remit sins. John the Baptizer saw through that OT lie. El Shaddai does not change. He has always forgiven the merciful, and to those who love greatly. His grace surrounds the faithful ones and extends to people in every nation who seek him.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I think you’re going WAY too far, Robert, when you suggest “the whole sacrificial system is false.” There are clear commands to sacrifice in the Old Testament, and it is not, as you characterize it, and “OT lie.” Rather, the interpretation of sacrifice as a quid pro quo payment for forgiveness, not taught by the OT but taught by Christian proponents of PSA, is what’s false. Be careful that you don’t go beyond what is written.

  8. Robert Roberg

    perhaps you are right. If we throw out the entire sacrificial system, we throw out a third of the bible and make all apostolic writers false teachers. Correct me if I am wrong, but didn’t the Essenes reject sacrifices and the Ebionites and Marcionites. It’s not a new idea. Didn’t Yahoshua teach that El Shaddai did not want sacifices? He entreated us to study this idea -Hos_6:6  “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice.” Heb 10: 5 (ESV)  Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,” Heb 10:8 DRB)  ” Sacrifices, and oblations, and holocausts for sin thou wouldest not, neither are they pleasing to thee. “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and sacrifices for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them”
    Jer. 7:22-23 For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
    • To do righteousness and judgment is chosen of El Shaddai rather than sacrifice. (Prov 21:3)
    • For, I, in loving-kindness I have taken delight, and not in sacrifice; but in the knowledge of El Shaddai rather than in whole burnt offerings. (Ho.6:6)
    • and he that does mercy, offers sacrifice. To depart from iniquity is that which pleases El Shaddai, and to depart from injustice, is an entreaty for sins. (Ecclesiaticus 35:4)
    • “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)
    • “With what shall I come before El Shaddai, and bow myself before El Shaddai on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will El Shaddai be pleased with thousands rams, with ten thousands rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my life?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what El Shaddai requires of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:1-4, 6-8)
    • Whoever sacrifices an ox is like one who kills a human being;
    whoever sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
    whoever presents a grain-offering, like one who offers swine’s blood; whoever makes a memorial offering of frankincense, is like one who blesses an idol. (Is 66:3)
    this is the only topic Yahoshua specifically told us to go learn. This is what I learned. What did you learn?

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      There are also specific provisions for sacrifices in the Mosaic law. Can’t escape that fact unless you write off the Pentateuch as a false representation of God’s command. ‘Fraid I can’t follow you down that rabbit hole …

      There is no question that the prophets and Jesus himself lambasted those who practiced the ritual while ignoring the justice side of the equation. There’s also no question that whatever meaning sacrifices ever had in the worship of God, Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfilled or nullified them. But to go back and say the whole thing was a lie isn’t something Jesus ever said, or even implied.

      Now let me hasten to add that, because Jesus HAS fulfilled it, there is absolutely no reason to require people today to somehow mentally accept that they’d be under a sacrificial requirement (or a blood sentence, which is a very-different thing biblically) before they come to Jesus. That’s part of my objection to PSA. There is now no need nor requirement for sacrifice.

      But while it is absolutely true that God always wanted obedience and justice more than he wanted ritual, I’m not prepared to say that there’s any reasonable, biblical case to say that the old testimony is false.

  9. Robert Roberg

    Dan, please show us where Yehoshua lambasted those who practiced the ritual while ignoring the justice side of the equation. Actually my idea has nothing to do with justice, i’m talking about thE falsehood of the PSA doctrine.

    Dan, please don’t go down this rabbit hole. I’m just one student sharing his idea. I may be wrong but i refuse to believe El Shaddai ever wanted blood sacrifices and loved the smell of Yehoshua’s sacrifice.

    It is believed by the Jewish online encyclopedia that Ezra rewrote the scriptures when they returned from Babylon . And he made additions.
    Jer 8:8 You say, “We are wise because we have the teachings and laws of the LORD.” But I say that your teachers have turned my words into lies!

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