Saturday, July 11, 2015
Problems with Penal Substitution Atonement Theories
Various proposals have been offered to explain in what way Christ atones for sins: Ransom theories, penal substitution theories, satisfaction theories, moral exemplar theories, Christus Victor theories, and so on. I will not rehearse them all here, I will just note that I have never seen a satisfactory explanation. Nonetheless, I do think that some theories are better than others and that perhaps each theory has a kernel of truth worth preserving and incorporating into a better model. Unfortunately, I do not currently have that model. What I shall do here is lay out some of the problems with the penal substitution theory which is quite popular in the religious orbs I circle. If any of the readers can offer rejoinders, perhaps I will better be able to work out what (if any) kernels of truth survive the objections to penal substitution theories.
So what is the penal substitution theory of atonement? It is the theory which says atonement occurs in virtue of Jesus being a perfect substitute for our deserved punishment. We have sinned and deserve punishment. God's justice and wrath demands that someone be punished for our sins. But God is not only just but loving and prefers a substitute for our punishment. Of course not just any old person can be punished for the sake of all our sins. But a man who is also fully divine could be such a person. So the Father offers his Son on behalf of us to receive our punishment.
That's the basic view but details will vary depending on who is presenting his own particular version. But before I lay out the objections, I also want to be very clear about something else: What I list below are problems with a theory of atonement , not problems with individual Bible passages which are appealed to for the theory. For instance, the Bible talks about Christ being a sacrifice and Christ being sin. It also talks about humans being ransomed and Jesus conquering sin and the Devil. The question for the theorist is, in part, to try to figure out when figurative speech is being used and when it is not. It won't do simply to pick out a verse and use that verse as your theory! A verse isn't a theory. A theory tries to account for all the data, and a Christian atonement theory tries to give in literal language an explanation for how it is that Christ's work atones for sins. (As far as the "data" is concerned I am trying include all of it: Scripture, tradition, reasoning from the nature of God and natural law, experience, etc.)
And now five problems...
1. The Injustice Problem: On penal substitution atonement theories (hereafter PSATs), Christ is thought to be a substitute for individual sins--your sins and mine (and perhaps everyone's for PSAT theorists who are also universalists about salvation or are not universalists but believe in unlimited atonement). But for this theory to be genuinely explanatory, it is not simply enough to stomp one's foot and say that this is how things go; there needs to be a non-ad hoc explanation which also accounts (for example) for at least some instances of human punishment and justice. Yet when we think of similar situations in which someone freely gives her life for someone else's punishment, it seems that justice is not served. On the contrary, such a situation seems manifestly unjust.
Consider a brother and a sister, Jack and Jill. Jack brutally rapes and kills a random college student. Jack is arrested and goes before a judge. Jack is unrepentant even though the family of the victim pleads with him to apologize. The judge sentences him with death. But lucky for Jack, his sister Jill is there and says that they can kill her instead of Jack. The judge agrees, and immediately the bailiff chops her head off with a sword and the judge tells the murdering rapist that he is free to go. Penal substitution!
Surely justice has not been served. But then how is the death of an innocent Jesus on behalf of our sins just, but the death of Jill and the freeing of Jack unjust? (We can add to our story that Jack will be placed under heavy surveillance such that he won't rape or murder again.)
2. The Anger Management Problem:
On the PSAT view, it seems that God has anger issues. God's anger needs to be assuaged, so someone must die. The problem with this is that as the New Testament describes God, God is Love in some deep sense, and this is hard to square with the angry God who needs his anger assuaged. In addition, it would seem that God is subject to his passions. But God is supposed to be a se. Not only is his existence independent from the existence of anything else, but God is not able to be bound, inclined, or coerced by anything which he does not voluntarily allow himself to be bound, inclined, or coerced towards. Yet on the PSAT view it seems that he is subject to his passions. If we add that he is voluntarily bound by his anger, then a question arises about why this is so. Why not instead voluntarily ignore his anger? Why not voluntarily decide not to punish at all? This leads to the next objection.
3. The No Forgiveness Problem:
On the PSAT view, it is hard to make sense out of how people are forgiven. Yes, Jesus takes on everyone's punishment such that no one needs to be punished (or at least those who have faith in God/Jesus). God's anger is assuaged, but how are people genuinely forgiven? Generally we think that people are forgiven when they ask for forgiveness and a punishment is simply waved. No substitute is necessary. Take the story of the Prodigal Son. When the son comes home after squandering his inheritance, the father simply forgives the son and calls for a banquet. If the PSAT account is correct, we should expect the father either to punish the son or his brother before forgiveness occurs. But that is not what happens. Why does the Father not just forgive people without punishing his innocent Son? When Jesus says to turn the other cheek and not get even, isn't Jesus expressing to us that we are to imitate him? And in imitating him, are we not also imitating God?
4. The Defective Punishment Problem:
A punishment is harsh treatment for an offense. Moreover a non-defective punishment must have the following conditions: it must be (a) harsh treatment (b) for an illegitimate offense which (c) by the harsh treatment places condemnation on the offense. These conditions separate punishment from harsh treatment more generally. For instance, if I slap you in the face for being ugly, I have treated you harshly but I have not punished you. Or suppose that you do something which genuinely offends me. I tell some authority who believes me and the authority punishes you. As it turns out, I misinterpreted what you said or did; in fact, you did nothing for which I should have taken offense. You were punished, but the punishment was defective. It was not a perfect punishment.
Jesus lived a sinless life. He did not deserve punishment. He was completely innocent. There is no action that he did which any punishment could condemn by giving the punishment. But if Jesus is punished by the Father such that atonement occurs, surely such a punishment should be a perfect and not a defective one.
5. The Disanalogy With Old Testament Sacrifices Problem:
There are various sacrifices in the Old Testament. Typically they are understood as gifts to God and not punishments. For example, it is not as if we should think of grain offerings as involving the punishment of the grain. ("Die grain, die!!" "Take that, grain!!") Moreover, and more importantly, the animals are sacrifices, but they aren't being punished. A lamb is sacrificed as a gift and for atonement purposes, but the lamb in being sacrificed is not being punished. (It didn't do anything wrong!) But then if we compare Jesus's sacrifice with the sacrifice of the animals, we should not think of Jesus as being punished either.