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.

Some Problems I Have With Penal Substitution Theology of Atonement

 

If penal substitution is true, God is not unlike other ancient, blood-thirsty god.

In church we often sing worship songs with themes and phrases that say, “there is none like you!” I believe those songs are beautiful, because it’s true– there is no God like our God.

But if penal substitution is true, God isn’t unique at all– God would be just like every other ancient god who had a thirst for blood. I mean, how is a god who needs a virgin thrown into the volcano any different than a god who needs a bloody human sacrifice on a cross? Both gods would functionally be the same.

Thus, if penal substitution is true, all those things we sing about God’s holiness and uniqueness are completely false.

If penal substitution is true, God is a slave to his own anger.

One of the key, historic Christian beliefs, is the belief in God’s omnipotence– but if penal substitution is true, God is not all powerful and neither is he free. Instead, God is constrained by his wrath, unable to freely forgive those who have wronged him or misunderstood him without first getting his pound of flesh in.

Defenders of penal substitution will often say things like, “God cannot allow sin to go unpunished” or, “God cannot forgive without a payment.” These statements however, indicate a belief that God is limited and powerless over his own anger. It would be a divine case of the tail wagging the dog, and I have an issue with God being a slave to that.

If penal substitution is true, God cannot or will not do what he asks us to do: freely forgive.

Here’s a question: if penal substitution is true, wouldn’t that make God a hypocrite? After all, it would mean God either cannot or will not do the very thing he asks us to do: forgive without demanding something on the part of the one who offended us.

Jesus tells us we are to forgive over and over again. He tells us that we should be loving toward our enemies to emulate God who is “kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” He tells us we should walk the extra mile, turn the other cheek, and to freely give without expecting in return.

However, if God demanded a blood sacrifice and was unwilling or unable to extend forgiveness without it, God himself is unwilling to follow the teachings of Jesus. Furthermore, it would mean Jesus was wrong about God when he claimed that God was kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

I like how Greg Boyd puts it:

“If God the father needs someone to “pay the price” for sin, does the Father ever really forgive anyone? Think about it. If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? It seems not, especially since the very concept of forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”

Surely, we don’t teach our children this idea of forgiveness. When someone says, “sorry” we teach them to respond with, “I forgive you.” We don’t teach them to say, “I will forgive you, but I have to punch you in the face first, or at least punch a substitute for you, before I can forgive you.”

If penal substitution is true, the atonement lacks true justice.

I affirm that Jesus, in some way that perhaps will never be fully understood, served as our substitute. However, where this breaks down is when you add the penal part of it all. How is penal substitution just? How does it even work?

For example, if someone robs a bank, how is justice served if an innocent person serves their prison term for them? Is not justice about more than punishment? Is not justice making sure those who have been wronged are made right, that the offender is rehabilitated and restored to life as God intended? If an innocent person serves the prison term while the offender is free to continue to harm others and harm him or herself, how is that justice? Wouldn’t such a scenario make the world more broken and unjust, instead of less?

If guilt and innocence can be so easily transferred, does not justice become deeply impersonal, lacking actual concern for the welfare and restoration of the parties involved? If this system of transferring guilt and innocence is so valid, why do we not use it in justice systems today?

If penal substitution is true, God’s primary method of resolving problems is the use of violence.

At the heart of penal substitution is the belief that God had to punish someone– that violence was the only solution to fallen humanity. This, of course, is highly problematic.

The problems with this concept could fill a book, but the biggest problem is that it is incredibly damaging to trinitarian theology. In orthodox trinitarian theology, the father and the son are one in essence. Jesus in fact claimed that “anyone who has seen me has seen the father” because he and the father “are one.”

Yet, penal substitution would divide them– they would not be one in essence, or in full harmony and agreement.

Jesus taught that we are to not use violence against our enemies– that violence is off limits, and that a commitment to nonviolent enemy love is a requirement of becoming a child of God. Time and time again, when Jesus was confronted with the option of using violence to either punish sin or solve problems, he rejected it and taught us a new way.

Jesus thwarted a public execution. He rebuked his best friend for using violence in self defense. Even at his trial he argued that the hallmark of his kingdom is the refusal to use violence to solve problems.

If penal substitution is true, God the father and Jesus the son radically disagree on the use of violence to punish and solve problems– one sees it the only way, and one sees it as the only option that needs to be immediately taken off the table. Thus, in my mind, penal substitution is at odds with orthodox trinitarian theology because Jesus and the father would not be one in essence and agreement.

I grew up believing in penal substitution, and it was to be unquestioned. No one told me it was a new theology, born largely out of the reformation, and often articulated by European theologians who had previously been lawyers– making sense of the fact they’d understand the cross by way of strict legal terms.

The reality is, penal substitution has a lot of problems– and thankfully, more and more Christians are recognizing that.

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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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  • These problems I find exceedingly odd as critiques; some quick observations:

    “If penal substitution is true, God is not unlike other ancient, blood-thirsty god.” If the Bible is true at all, then God is open to that (shallow) accusation. Who is it, after all, that “will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty,” inviting the birds to gorge themselves on his enemies’ bodies?

    “If penal substitution is true, God is a slave to his own anger.” And when he forgives and shows mercy, is God a “slave” to his love? or might we just say simply he is acting in accordance with his character; both in justice and love?

    “If penal substitution is true, God cannot or will not do what he asks us to do: freely forgive.” And when we forgive someone, does that similarly remove from them any just punishment that is deserved? When a victim forgives, that person is absolved of standing trial for their crime?

    “If penal substitution is true, the atonement lacks true justice….If this system of transferring guilt and innocence is so valid, why do we not use it in justice systems today?” We see it all the time when the punishment is in fines – anyone can pay a punishment for another. And there would certainly be justice in other punishments in it if everyone involved – including the judge and the injured party, agreed with a person making such a voluntary substitution.

    “If penal substitution is true, God’s primary method of resolving problems is the use of violence.” I’m not sure I understand what this even means. Does the fact that our criminal justice system requires certain just punishments for certain crimes mean that our culture’s primary way of resolving problems is the use of punishment?

  • Good food for thought. Why was God required to kill in order to redeem? Why couldn’t an omnipotent god—who repeatedly preached forgiveness and nonviolence and turning the other cheek—freely forgive sans the bloodshed? True forgiveness need not require anything in return. That’s what it *means* to offer something freely. Creating more death and violence and bloodshed, in a world shot through with mortality and suffering, does not seem to me a good thing for the world. Nor are concepts involving gruesome blood sacrifice and the exacting of mortal punishment on another particularly good messages to be taught to children. These things always bothered me as a Christian.

    The extreme penalty of carnage by crucifixion sits comfortably within the historical context in which Jesus emerged. The gospel writers drew upon Hellenistic and pre-Hellenistic motifs such as scapegoating, martyrdom, and other sacrificial systems to make sense of the death of a revered figure. These concepts do not, I think, sit well with the moral intuitions and ethical sensibilities of those of us living today. Notice that we have not adopted this concept of justice in our criminal justice systems around the world (e.g., contrast the ancient concept of vicarious satisfaction with the modern legal notion of personal responsibility).

    We should also recognize that substitutionary atonement as a theological concept is a relatively recent innovation, rising to orthodoxy in the Reformation period through the work of Luther and Calvin and, later, Charles Hodge. As such, it represents a primarily Protestant evangelical understanding of the atonement which differs, in some ways dramatically, from Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox understandings as well as the liberal Protestant understanding which tends to affirm the moral influence view—the dominant view of the early Church. I think there is a danger, moreover, in presuming the penal substitutionary view is the only view available to Christians, that it is the only valid view, that it originated with the early Church, or that it is less recent than competing views.

    Fundie Xians, in their rush to paper over the mere hint of nuance, set up unnecessary false dichotomies, and this can–as in the case of those who are taught they must choose between faith and evolution–lead to deconversion and a lapsed faith.

  • What about Romans 8:3? In reference to Jesus’ flesh the text says “God sent the Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin He condemned sin in the flesh.” The word for ‘condemn’ there is ‘κατακρινω’ which according to BDAG means “pronouncing a sentence after determination of guilt.” That “for sin” is also used 44 out of 54 times in the LXX to refer to a sin offering. Or what about Romans 5:9 which says that “after being justified by his blood (meaning death) we will be saved from wrath.” Who’s wrath? God’s. Or Isaiah 53 “it was the Lord’s will to crush him” (in reference to Jesus). That is just three examples I could go on and on. I recommend you actually study biblical truth and articulate it well before you attack it on a blog. You demonstrate you don’t really know what you are talking about with all due respect.

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