Saturday, July 11, 2015

Problems with Penal Substitution Atonement Theories

According to Christian teaching, Christ in some way atones for sins, in particular his death plays a central role in atoning for sins.  But what does this mean?    Is it that Christ atones for everyone's sins by his death?  Just a few?  How does this work?

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.


  1. Tully, I'm not much for defending the penal substitution theory of atonement, precisely because of many of these problems. Having said that, what condition does Jesus punishment (assuming PSATs) fail to meet? I assume you think it fails to meet (b), and because it fails to meet (b), it also fails to meet (c).

    I think there is a reasonable response here. We often talk about Jesus taking on our sins, and 1 Peter 2:24 talks this way. Now, the guilt incurred from committing a sin is an accidental feature of the sinners. If John sins, he incurs guilt, but it was not necessary that John sin. John would still be John if he had not sinned. But, now that he has sinned, he has a feature--being guilty of sin x.

    Perhaps God, in the "moment of atonement", transferred all the sins committed by individuals onto Jesus. This would make Jesus the bearer of all this guilt. As such, it seems like he might meet your three conditions.

    This way of thinking about (PSATs) shouldn't be completely foreign. Many think that God changes out the substance of bread and wine, so maybe God changes some accidents from us to Christ.

    I expect that you'll worry that this theory might ruin Christ's innocence, if the guilt is really changing bearers. I don't see why that must be the case though. Maybe it's possible that John's guilt can be attached to Christ while still remaining John's guilt. It's where the guilt originated that matters here. It didn't originate with Christ, but me. So, while he is now in possession of John's guilt, he is still innocent, since it did not originate with him.

    Regarding problem 5, isn't the relevant sacrifice the sin offering? I'm not a biblical scholar, so I might be off here, but it seems like it doesn't matter that Christ's sacrifice is disanalogous to the other sacrifices. And, as far as I can tell, the Levitican law doesn't specify how the sin sacrifice actually works--that would require a theory of atonement.

    One last thought: In problem one you say, "...there needs to be a non-ad hoc explanation which also accounts (for example) for at least some instances of human punishment and justice." What do you think would count as non-ad hoc? Hopefully, your answer allows for someone to amend the theory somewhat in light of objections. I don't find such changes to be ad-hoc.

  2. Thanks.

    "Perhaps God, in the "moment of atonement", transferred all the sins committed by individuals onto Jesus. This would make Jesus the bearer of all this guilt."

    TB: He transfers all the sin? I don't know what that means. Past sins have already been committed by people. Future sins will be committed. As far as the transference of guilt goes, that seems impossible. How could Jesus be guilty for a host of things he didn't do? How could he be guilty of MY sin if he's not me? Maybe he could be punished on behalf of me--that's certainly possible. But I don't know how he could bear my guilt.

    "Regarding problem 5, isn't the relevant sacrifice the sin offering?"

    TB: Some take the O.T. passage about blood being required for atonement as giving a necessary condition. I think that's wrong. It sure seems like God wants obedience more than sacrifices and that he can forgive sins simply by waving our punishment if we sincerely ask for forgiveness. But let's compare the O.T. sacrifices with Christ's sacrifice. In NONE of the sacrifices does it appear that the animal is being PUNISHED. So if Jesus's sacrifice is foreshadowed by O.T. sacrifices, we have reason for thinking that Jesus is a sacrifice but he is not being punished. We need to remove the PENAL from penal substitution.

    "What do you think would count as non-ad hoc?"

    TB: If a theory of atonement posits a unique case of justice which applies in no other circumstances it's ad hoc. A non-ad hoc explanation should be able to present a unified understanding of justice, punishment, and forgiveness such that (e.g.) it can explain why the Jack and Jill case is an instance of injustice but not Jesus's death.

  3. The incoherence of a 'justice and mercy' that demand some victim, any victim, should be stressed. No man would be held just if he accepted a substitute. And further, this formula almost hypostasizes the justice&mercy, giving them a grammatical agency and intentionality beyond what anyone would accept, if they unwound the metaphor.

  4. Cyrano,

    Jesus apparently thought that justice does not demand punishment. Moreover, though he was in his rights to punish people, out of love he waved that punishment for those who would accept his love and forgiveness. Add that he best represents God to us (on the Trinitarian view, Jesus is God, etc.) and it's hard to see why we should think that God thinks that justice demands punishment.

    Still, this leaves open that, even though punishment isn't demanded, one might freely substitute oneself in the place of others. But more needs to be said to show how this might work with the atonement.