Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

Justice Broken: How A Poor Theology Of The Cross Created America’s Broken Justice System

America's justice system is broken, but why? The ultimate reason can be traced back to the influences of the penal substitution theory of the atonement which focuses on punishment, not restoration. To fix America's broken justice system, we must recover a better understanding of the justice of the cross.

America’s justice system is broken.

Our jails are overflowing, people are receiving life sentences for minor crimes under three strikes laws, racial disparities leave minority populations disproportionately represented in the incarcerated population, and we’re so obsessed with killing that we’re now using untested concoctions of drugs that it recently took a condemned inmate over 20 minutes to finally die.

Our system isn’t working.

It might surprise you however, to understand how we arrived at such a broken justice system.

We got here because of poor theology.

While we do have a separation of church and state, it is undeniable that through the ages Christian theology has influenced laws, patterns of thinking, and social structures– especially in early America.

One such theology is a theology of the cross. In theological circles we call it “atonement theology”, which has been an area of theology that has been consistently morphing for the past 2000 years. You and I most likely grew up with one specific type of atonement theology which has tended to dominate the landscape since the 16th century or so– an atonement metaphor called “penal substitution”.

If you grew up within conservative Evangelicalism or have seen even one episode of Way of the Master, you are familiar with the penal substitution theory of atonement even if you don’t recognize the theological name I’m using for it. It usually isn’t described as an “atonement metaphor” but rather is passed off as the “Gospel” itself. It goes something like this (if you grew up a fundie, you might remember “Romans Road” to explain it):

— Everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (true)

–The wages of sin is death (also true)

–Sin can only be forgiven through someone/something dying (not exactly true– even in the OT sacrifices only satisfied unintentional sins, not deliberate ones. We also see Jesus forgive people in the NT prior to the cross, showing God is able to gratuitously forgive without a blood sacrifice.)

–When Jesus was on the cross, he was paying your fine/being punished in your place so that you could be set free (not quite true, or at least distorted/reduced).

Essentially, the cross is explained exclusively in legal terms. You and I are the criminal, God is the blood-thirsty judge and executioner, and Jesus becomes the one who steps in between us and lets the angry judge beat and kill him in our place. Having killed an innocent person this judge is somehow satisfied and a little less angry, so he sets friends of the innocent dead man free as he awaits the “end times” when he’ll finally get to let the bodies hit the floor and feel good about himself.

It’s actually quite twisted when you break it down. Jesus protects us from God? Or, if you accept the inspiration of scripture (which I 100% do) it gets even more uncomfortable when you see Jesus say things like: “If you have seen me, you have seen the father, for we are one”, or in Hebrews, when it is stated that Jesus is the “exact representation of God’s being”.

Accepting both the inspiration of scripture and the penal substitution theory of the atonement, one could actually say that Jesus died to protect us from Jesus.

Which is quite silly, really–  from one aspect this makes God look schizophrenic and on the other, it makes the cross look like a bad case of domestic violence–  something I personally find offensive.

Many of us grew up with this understanding of the cross, yet were never told that this was not the way Christians had historically understood the atonement. This idea began to emerge about 1000 years ago when people began to view the cross as God having his honor “satisfied” (called the “satisfaction theory”) and about another 500 years later it morphed into the concept that God had to punish Jesus in our place in order to forgive us– a concept that has remained the dominant understanding in most Evangelical circles. (I believe this is largely in part to some of the dominant theologians of the reformation periods having backgrounds as attorneys prior to becoming theologians, which gives shape to why they would have preferred to understand the cross in terms of legalities, punishment, etc.)

Historically, Christians had seen the cross as (a) defeating the works of the Devil (1 John 3:8) and that (b) God was in Jesus reconciling all of creation back to himself (Col 1:20). Yet, somehow a beautiful picture of defeating evil and reconciling creation got turned into this idea that God is so angry that he must have his anger satisfied by killing an innocent person. Penal substitution then, causes us to see God’s justice satisfied not because Jesus restored us but because Jesus was properly punished.

How does this play into America’s broken justice system you ask?

For 500 years we have focused our understanding of God and God’s justice as the need for punishment instead of the need for reconciliation, and this has led to a broken framework in our country in regards to justice. When we allow this broken framework to influence the application of justice (as we have) we see criminal acts in terms of “need to punish as justice” instead of “need to restore as justice” (a poor theological understanding that I also feel has led to an Evangelical culture of spanking). Yes, there are many criminal acts that require a person to be removed from society for their protection and for ours, but this theological framework has caused us to view “justice served” when a person receives what we feel is an appropriate sentence instead of seeing “justice served” when both the offender and the offended (even if that’s just society in general) have had their lives reconciled (perhaps not with each other, but in a general sense).

Justice becomes punishment, not healing and restoration.

And so, our prisons are overflowing. Why? Because our theological framework has told us that justice can only be satisfied when someone has been properly and fully punished, instead of telling us that justice is most fully satisfied when a life has been restored. The justice we seek in society today all gets traced back to how we view the justice of the cross.

The fact that our prison system has now become defacto mental institutions for individuals who are ill reveals that we are focused on justice as punishment, not justice as restoration and healing.

The fact that we have elderly people in the prison system who look nothing like the act they committed 70 years past– but yet will never see the light of day– tells us that we see justice as punishment meted not as a life changed.

The fact that we currently have more than 2,500 children serving life without parole because of murders committed as juveniles, and 3,200 people serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses, tells us that we prefer a sense of justice that sends people away from society instead of a justice that finds creative ways to restore people to society.

I believe this is largely because we have misunderstood God as someone who will only be satisfied when he has his pound of flesh, and so we do these things and call it “justice served” when in reality, it is “justice broken”.

The cross wasn’t about an angry god who needed to get his punches in to be satisfied, but rather about a loving God who was reversing the narrative and sending the story in the direction of restoration and healing. It wasn’t a horrific act of divine child abuse, but a beautiful act of reconciliation.

However, since we’ve understood the cross in terms of punitive justice, we push forward a culture that is drunk on punitive justice– thus arriving at our current predicament.

The reality is that the cross was an act of restorative justice– God was reconciling everything to himself, and in turn, inviting us to become what Paul called “ministers of reconciliation”– people who go forth and reconcile lives as Jesus reconciled lives.

In order to fix America’s broken framework in regards to justice, we must recover a holistic understanding of what happened on the cross and no longer reduce and distort it into to a punitive legal action. If we do this, we just might begin to build a culture that is hyper focused not on punishing people, but restoring lives.


For a real life example of justice broken, see this short interview with Sara. Sara was a victim of child sex trafficking and serial rape, and killed her trafficker (pimp) when she was 16 years old. She’s now serving life without parole plus four additional years. Apparently, dying behind bars isn’t enough and another four years postmortem was needed.

To go deeper on this issue, here are a few additional short videos:

Life without parole for nonviolent offenses

Life without parole at 16 years old for 2nd degree murder




Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

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42 Responses

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  3. I was interested to hear the arguments you adopted as a conservative evangelical to support the death penalty, and, while even as a fundamentalist Christian I swam against the prevailing current and exposed it, I still cringe when I think of the mis-applications of Romans 13 I heard at church. There is actually a conservative website out there in which conservatives and libertarians, many of them Christians, share our concern about the death penalty and our broken justice system. You can find it They are unlikely allies in criminal justice issues, but have been helpful in key areas, i.e. in taking a stand against prison rape by correctional staff and other very serious human rights abuses.

  4. One of the elements in Jesus crucifixion (the one I find most important) is that he was executed because he stood against the socio-religious culture of his time. In other words, he made important people nervous. So they killed him.

  5. The question is: Why blame God or his word for the perverted acts sinful deceived man did to his word and application of that word?

    It seems you blame God for everything man does. You would have to prove that God wanted the American legal system that way and gave specific commands to make it so before you can go blame him for anything.

    It isn’t the legal system that is broken, it is just that sinful man runs it according to their desires not God’s. If you look at Micah 6:8 you would see that God has said how the legal system is to go: He has showed you , O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy…

    Don’t blame God because man has used his free choice to follow sin.

  6. You must have been exposed to pretty strange expositions of substitutionary theory of the atonement to be making the connection you are. However, three cheers for what you are saying about looking for healing , restoration, transformation through our justice system

  7. “The cross wasn’t about an angry god who needed to get his punches in to be satisfied, but rather about a loving God who was reversing the narrative and sending the story in the direction of restoration and healing. It wasn’t a horrific act of divine child abuse, but a beautiful act of reconciliation…The reality is that the cross was an act of restorative justice– God was reconciling everything to himself, and in turn, inviting us to become what Paul called “ministers of reconciliation”
    I can see what you are against, Benjamin, but I am less clear on what you stand for. In the evangelical view, the point of Jesus’ pain on the cross was being punished in our place. In your view, what was the goal of the pain and the cross? You say the goal was restoration, but how do you go from the method (pain and death) to the desired result?

  8. All of this salvation through suffering BS is a holdover from the many millenia of “god” worship. Jesus LIVED to show humanity how wrong we are in our ideas of what it takes to become one with The Sacred spirit of the universe. The sacred Spirit is the breath of life; YHWH does not translate to “god” but to breath.

  9. I completely appreciate your emphasis on what justice is really about. I also agree that the common (but not universal) Christian view of the atonement prominent in the US for most, if not all, its existence has contributed to the faulty and dysfunctional core of our justice system. It can and should be changed… and there ARE some encouraging signs here and there.

    However, I also am convinced that the problem is also partly aside from Christian theology and its direct influence. We see in many times and cultures, the tendency toward capital punishment and other cruel forms of punishment that are just that… punitive as opposed to restorative or merely protective for society. They represent a lower stage of human development in which “tribe” is the key organizing center and violence is accepted as a “solution”. There are numerous other factors, quite consistent across cultures, common to such a level as well as higher levels of development, both for a society and for individuals. (They tend to somewhat track together, though not completely of course.)

    The best and most complete “meta-analysis” and synthesis of several such schemes into a single system that is fairly easily grasped is the Integral work of Ken Wilber and colleagues at Integral Institute. One branch of their work, which I find very enlightening and a positive guide, is “Integral Christianity”. The book under that title by long-time pastor, Paul Smith, I reviewed in some depth on my blog.

  10. Very good piece making the connection between substitutionary atonement theory and our broken criminal justice system. I have preaching, teaching, writing for some time now in my little corner of the Bible Belt challenging substitutionary atonement and offering alternative ways to understand Jesus’ death in a redemptive way. Glad I found your blog. I blog at

  11. I think part of the problem is that when the Old testament was translated into Greek, the Septuagint translators used the nearest equivalent Greek words from Greek culture and their pagan sacrifices to describe the OT sacrifices. Since that became the terminology used by Hellenistic Jews to describe the OT sacrificial system, the New Testament used these terms too. The problem came later as we tried to understand what the NT is saying about Jesus’ sacrifice. Instead of looking to the OT and trying to understand the Hebrew meaning described there, we have looked to Greek Lexicons and built our understanding of the cross of a pagan theology of sacrifices that turn aside a pagan god’s wrath.

    1. Interesting take, Darach. Another point of confusion has been the terminology of Jesus dying “for the sins” of the people (“his” people, contemporary Jews) or of the world (per Paul, John). Just what meaning that had in earliest Christianity seems hard to nail down, but it seems quite likely it was in the sense of a martyrdom, not a sacrifice for sins. A human sacrifice for sins was completely off the radar and unacceptable by “Second Temple” Judaism, as was a “divine” Messiah. In other words, it seems likely that the original Apostles (the “Twelve”) did not hold to ANY kind of “atonement” in the death of Jesus. (Statements indicating otherwise in the General Epistles or Acts cannot be validated as coming from them but much later, by numerous indications.)

      Rather, they were looking for a finalization of the Messiah’s mission (in their apocalyptic view) via the VERY soon return of Jesus, the Messiah (still human and vindicated, elevated by God) to institute a “new age”, the Kingdom of God on earth. (cf. Schweitzer, 1968 [written 1951], reviewed on my blog, and many other scholars).

      1. Interesting. I agree we have traditionally based our understanding of the cross on Paul, rather than the other apostles; But we see the same OT sacrificial imagery and language used by the other apostles and even John the Baptist who described Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29. Peter uses that imagery of Christ as a sacrificial lamb and speaks of him ransoming us. 1Peter 1:18&19 knowing that you were ransomed…with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. Matthew uses the same language of ransom and redemption Matt 20:28 the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. John uses the language of an atoning sacrifice (propitiation) we usually associate more with Paul 1John 2:2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, I agree they were pretty mixed up about what ‘kingdom’ meant and seemed to expect Jesus to return in triumph within their lifetimes.

        1. I’ve always found some aspects of ransom theory interesting, but have never been sold on it being a primary metaphor to understand the cross. However, it is interesting in the atonement theory you cite, that the life is paid to the devil, not to God (aka, the ransom). I still think CV is a better metaphor to understand the whole of the cross.

          1. I think we need to go back to scripture and try to understand what these meant in their OT context rather than read ransom and atonement theories back into the texts. Asking who the ransom is paid to was stretching the metaphor way too far. Maybe the ransom is simply what it cost to free us. My main understanding of the cross is built around Romans 6:4 The cross saves us because we are united in Christ in his death, dying to our sin, and are raised to new life in him through his resurrection.I found out later that was actually Athanasius’s take on it, so I feel I am in good company 😉 Don’t know if Athanasius qualifies as part of CV though.

            Great article Benjamin.

            1. Perhaps it does stretch it too far– was just citing the basics of the ransom theory. Like I said, it was never my favorite. I’m 100% CV because it leaves room for all the other theories. The important point to remember is that all atonement metaphors are describing the same event, and the event itself, not the descriptor, is the most important aspect.

              1. Yes I agree with that. Part of the reason the discussion becomes so divisive is that people mistake a metaphor describing the reality for the reality itself.

        2. I was purposely abbreviated in my comment… not developing the Gen. Epistles comment, etc. Granted, a lot goes into arriving at this (I did so only reluctantly and slowly myself), but it is also quite important… that certainly 2 Pet., and almost certainly 1 Peter; 1, 2, & 3 John; Jude; probably James and probably 6 (at least 4) of “Paul’s” letters are forgeries. (Yes, properly labeled forgeries–cf., among others, Ehrman’s “Forged” [also reviewed on my site].) I understand the case that these book ARE “genuine” but, at best, one has to treat them as potentially to very likely NOT. Thus, they serve as very weak support, if any, for citing Apostles Peter, Paul, John, etc. as to what they actually believed and taught. Acts is another whole “can of worms”, though certainly with some historical value.

  12. To put it another way, a God that always forgives and seeks to reconcile is certainly merciful, but is he holy and just as well?

  13. For 500 years we have focused our understanding of God and God’s justice as the need for punishment instead of the need for reconciliation, and this has led to a broken framework in our country in regards to justice.

    Can their be “reconciliation” without some sort of punishment for sin? If someone commits murder, what sort of “reconciliation” is there?

    The fact that we currently have more than 2,500 children serving life without parolebecause of murders committed as juveniles, and 3,200 people serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses, tells us that we prefer a sense of justice that sends people away from society instead of a justice that finds creative ways to restore people to society.

    It strikes me that Biblically speaking, the punishment for murder was quite often death. If that’s so, then the current system of life imprisonment is in fact more merciful, and not less, than what is found in the Bible.

  14. Ben, This is good. I was thinking while reading the article, how I must of indeed had a good measure of the grace of God upon me while, as a child, I sat in churches most of my life and ignored this aspect of the teaching of the cross, pinning my heart to the reconciliation part of the story. I have always said that the church I attended as a child was positive in this: I learned the words that Jesus said, which insulated me to some of their other teachings. Some things they said just didn’t sound like Jesus! I think the heart of a person responds to clean message of Jesus, in spite of the fact that it sometimes comes surrounded by bad doctrinal baggage. Sifting is good,and you are good at sifting through to the nuggets of truth.You made me think today, and that’s a good thing.

  15. That torturing somebody on a cross is somehow “love” is a belief system beyond the comprehension of man and produces the calamities you describe.

    “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!” ~John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, September 3, 1816

    “…I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel, and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what it’s Author never said nor saw. they have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man…” ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Charles Thomson, January 9, 1816

  16. Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross (as the originator of the term) was not one of penal substation. Luther, unlike Calvin or Anselm, was not all that quick to nail down one particularly atonement theory. However, Luther’s methodology/Theology of Cross has led most Lutheran theologians to avoid separating God and Christ on the cross. Luther used the term Deus Crucifixus or the crucified God.

    In that paradigm, it is humanity who puts God on the cross, because God threatens our own attempts to be God in God’s place. Christ’s death becomes the completion of God’s reconciliation with creation (birth/life/death), and even though humanity tries to do away God, God insists on coming close to us. The cross becomes an instrument of reconciliation in this understanding, rather than a tool of medieval satisfaction.

    1. I love that about Luther– a beautiful way of seeing it and similar to what I’ve tried to articulate in other articles. You’re making me think about becoming a Lutheran… though, I’m not nearly as sarcastic enough… I do have enough tattoos though.

      Good to see you here, Erik. Thanks for the contribution.

  17. I don’t know about this one. I’m no stranger to Evangelical or Catholic theology. But I’m just not seeing the correlation here. Many Christians believe that Jesus died to pay the Lagan price for sins, yes. America has a deeply flawed justice system often devoid of common sense or compassion, yes. Many people waste away in prison for their whole lives in order to pay the full penalty for their crimes. There are parallels of thought in these two things.

    However, I failed to see any evidence of causation in your article. Much as I’d love to pin more injustice on Christianity, I’m an atheist and I therefore like evidence. All I read about were two things that were similar in the way you portrayed them. And then you claimed that one led to the other. I’m not buying this one, simply because I can’t find a basis for the entire Judicial branch of American government being influenced by one particular contemporary interpretation of Christianity.

    Your article also failed to reference another part of the broken justice system. People who receive extraordinarily light sentences for their crimes, people who are paroled without any evidence that they’ve been rehabilitated, and people released just because prisons need more room. All of these happen with frightening regularity, but they don’t seem to fit into your theory.

    1. I agree that Ben’s comments are not enough evidence for a cause and effect argument. I still think he’s hit upon something of a truth about the American mindset in general. It’s all a bit more complicated, of course. I am thinking about the fact that the ‘justice’ you receive is so closely connected to the amount of money you’re able to vehemently throw at defense . This is not an American phenomenon, I’m sure, and a whole other story. Picture how differently some of the fantastic trials ending with the release of a guilty person would of ended if they’d had a lowly public defender instead of their high priced lawyers.

    2. You must have infected me because I cringed at ‘Martin Luther’s Theology’ in the post above. Thank you (and I mean that honestly, not sarcastically).

      But I think you have hit it on the head here. I think it is pretty easily established that retributive justice is the norm in most human societies. Considering the harsh penalties for infractions in the OT, our modern system represents quit a moderation, an idea that criminals can be ‘rehabilitated’ versus just punished. There is some interesting reading about the early prison reforms by the Quakers on the Eastern State Penn site,
      (which if you ever find yourself in Philadelphia I highly encourage you to check out)

  18. I found this fascinating. I’m not ignorant about such things, but I had no idea the “vengeful, sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry God” type of theology was so recent, and I didn’t know its roots. Honestly, part of what has kept me on the outside is that I can’t accept (let alone worship) the angry “domestic-abuser” God that has been the most common image of the Divine in Christianity for my adult life. I’ve long felt that the “vengeful God” image feeds our overly punitive justice system. But what if that image is just a mistake? Lots to think about…

  19. As a Christian and former prosecutor, I’ve given this topic a great deal of thought and agree that we are a vengeful society at least in part due to our understanding of the cross. If the cross is evidence that God himself is incapable of forgiving sin apart from violent retribution, why should we be any different? We need a new understanding of the cross to inform us that we may move forward with restorative approaches to criminal justice. I haven’t seen too many people articulate this view. I’m glad you did.

    1. It is heartening to see a former prosecutor do the honest soul-searching and share such an excellent comment. One resource that may help us in rethinking our theology of the cross is the book Jesus On Death Row. I have a family member in prison (my dad) though thankfully it isn’t a death penalty case, and some Mennonites have been visiting him. I pray that they can provide a whollistic spiritual message that will help him be a Christian.

  20. I didn’t become familiar with Christus Victor – or anything besides PSA – until late 2013. Needless to say, it turned my whole theology upside down. Up until then, thinking about the atonement – watching The Passion of the Christ or listening to any messages in the lead up to Easter – had a way of making me physically and spiritually ill. How could I worship a God who needed blood in order to forgive?

    Knowing that Penal Substitution is a fairly recent theology has overhauled the way that I view God and my relationship to God. And, it has definitely turned me into an activist against the broken system that you describe. Thank you for framing issues like these into the language of our faith.

    1. When you realize the PS paradigm wasn’t the only lens through which to view things, it’s a life-altering event. Embracing CV is what led me to environmentalism and all sorts of other fun reconciliation stuff.

  21. There is some language in the NT, specifically in the book of Hebrews and in the Revelation, that evokes imagery from the temple cult sacrificial system of the OT, that being the blood sacrifice of atonement. So, there is something to the substitutionary atonement… I’m not willing to wholesale throw that out.

    HOWEVER… that said, I think focusing on that as the ONLY way of understanding the atonement without all the other thoughts adding immense nuance cheapens the thing. Perhaps, we need to listen a bit more to C. S. Lewis Narnia cycle… instead of God being the blood thirsty executioner, judge, etc., maybe we need to take another look at the scriptures and realize that the accuser is not God, but The Enemy. The White Witch is the one who did the executions and the punishment, not Aslan and not “The Emporer over the Sea”… so, instead of the PSA theory being about God being bloodthirsty… what if we saw it as God protecting us from the powers who want to apply that legal perspective? In that case, PSA becomes even a Christus Victor over PSA, doesn’t it?

    1. I definitely affirm substitution, just not a fan of penal substitution. However, this is why I like CV because it leaves room to find some helpful elements of PS– a metaphor which might have some ancillary benefit but makes a dangerous structural framework.

      1. Great article! Love reading your posts! How does ‘substitution’ work in CV? What about Christ as the sacrificial Passover lamb? Thanks!

    2. I’m with you (as you have probably read on my blog). Satan = The Accuser. The PSA view makes God the Accuser. But if you tweak it just a little where Jesus is a substitute for our own sense of retributive justice, which we get thanks to Satan, then it makes a whole lot more sense. And we are left with a desire to overcome punitive justice frameworks with a reconciling grace.

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