The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are central to the Christian faith. Christians have long understood that God was “reconciling the world to himself in Christ.”
The earliest preaching, as it comes to us from the book of Acts, had a relatively straightforward take on this. Jesus came with the good news that God was gathering Israelites together to be the community they were always meant to be – good, compassionate, just, faithful, kind, loving, generous. It was a community in which adulterers were forgiven, the possessed were restored to their right minds, the rich shared with the poor, the lame and the blind were healed, the unclean were rendered permanently clean, and God was trusted to lead and provide. Awake to this calling, Israel could then fulfil its mission of being the vehicle for reconciliation between God and all the nations. The people however, prodded and goaded by powerful political and religious elites, who in turn were tools in the hands of shadowy and malevolent spiritual forces, conspired together to execute God’s Messiah. They stripped him bare, subjected him to shame and humiliation, then drained the life from his veins. God met their evil, not with retribution, but by raising Jesus from the dead and investing Jesus as Lord over all. Given this, the prudent course of action for any human being is to turn away from idolatry, injustice, violence, greed and abuse of others to follow Jesus into his new community of love, grace, peace, and hope.
In the centuries that followed our theologians turned their attention to this narrative. What did it mean for humankind that God had taken on humanity? What did it mean for God? When Jesus died was there something happening beyond his simply absorbing the evil smeared upon him? And what are the implications of his resurrection?
As these kind of questions were debated, the cultural frames of each generation were both a help and a hindrance. On the one hand, new cultural frames allowed fresh insights and interpretations and enabled the core themes of the good news to be articulated in ways that spoke to the deepest longings and needs of their age. On the other hand, each new theory was in danger of making the good news captive to thought structures succeeding generations could not embrace.
For a long time the dominant theory was that Jesus gave his life as a ransom to the devil, only for God to snatch it back in a daring move (the resurrection). By this means God rescued humankind from slavery to the devil.
In the 13th century Anselm shifted the dialogue. Informed by feudal notions of offended lords who required satisfaction for their wounded honour, Anselm argued that Jesus’s death was not a ransom paid to the Devil but an act that satisfied God’s honour.
Two centuries later the Reformers seized on Anselm’s theory. They replaced the idea of satisfaction with that of justice, God the offended noble with God the holy lawgiver. Jesus bore the penalty for our sin in order that we might be declared righteous. This understanding has proven dominant for the last 500 years and is deemed by many to be the very essence of the gospel. Indeed, for most of my life this is what I meant when I talked about the good news.
Yet it seems to me that the notion of penal substitution is fundamentally flawed. It speaks the language of a bygone era, employs tortured logic and to many people pictures a monstrous God.
It is not taught in the Bible.
There’s not enough space to get into all the relevant texts, but take those texts that speak of Christ dying for us:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
1 Corinthians 15:3-5
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:14-20
It is commonly assumed that in these passages Paul speaks of Christ dying to pay the penalty for our sin. This is so widely assumed, that many cannot see how the passages can refer to anything other than “penal substitution”.
Yet we use this type of language all the time without invoking ideas of a person paying a penalty for us. For example, a police officer might swap places with somebody being held hostage; a firefighter might give her life to rescue a child from a burning building; a football fan might say that a particular player scored the winning goal “for us”. When we say that the police officer took the place of the hostage there is clearly a substitution, but it is not penal. There is no sense in which we would say the police officer was paying a penalty for the sins of the hostage. In the case of the fire fighter there is no notion of penalty or substitution. The firefighter hasn’t swapped places with the child, but succumbed to injuries while seeking to get the child and herself to safety. And in the case of the sports fan the primary idea is the sense of solidarity and identification.
Nor will it do to say that the New Testament describes Jesus’s death as a sacrifice for sin and that just as the Old Testament sees sacrificial animals taking the place of the worshipper, so Jesus as a sacrifice bore the penalty we deserve. This simply misrepresents the Old Testament sacrificial system (you might like to read my post on this).
Some of Paul’s language is difficult to explain if he had in mind the idea that Jesus was paying the penalty for our sins. For example, “Christ died for our sins” cannot mean that Christ died instead of our sin or as the substitute for our sin. “Christ died for our sins” seems more likely to mean something like Christ died because of our sins. Or consider 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul speaks of Christ as dying and rising for us. In this instance it doesn’t make much sense to think in terms of substitution. Paul believed that Jesus’s resurrection opened the way for all of his followers to be raised from the dead. He is not saying “Christ rose from the dead in order that we need not rise from the dead”.
Logical and moral difficulties
There are some significant moral and logical difficulties with PST. It contains internal contradictions. For example, it declares that the just penalty for our sin is eternal separation from God and that Jesus bore the penalty for us. Really? Then why aren’t his bones still rattling around in a tomb in Palestine. Jesus clearly did not suffer eternal death. Or consider the fact that Jesus is understood to have paid the penalty for humankind’s sin. This means that either everyone’s sin has been paid for and therefore all will find salvation (which most of those in the traditional camp deny), or that Jesus only paid the penalty for some of us (which some Reformed Christians hold to but which many others consider appalling).
Penal substitutionary theory (PST) pushes us to imagine God in ways that are inconsistent with God as revealed to us by Jesus. For example, Jesus identified Yahweh as One who freely forgives our sin. Yet PST gives us a God who cannot forgive. At the heart of penal substitution is the idea that sin must be punished and that God cannot engage with us unless satisfaction has been made. This means the relationship is not established on the basis of forgiveness but on the basis that full satisfaction for wrongdoing has been made.
And what of the notion that God is estranged from us, burning with wrath against us, and that our sin is so offensive to God that God cannot bear our presence? Yet the Old Testament assures us God is slow to anger, and Jesus, whom we understand to the truest revelation of God, seemed to quite enjoy the company of sinners. He was marked not by a fury to punish but by compassion, generosity and grace and told parables that emphasised God’s kindness and compassion.
Faulty Conception of Justice
Or consider the grave problems with justice within the doctrine of penal substitution. If justice demands the guilty be punished and the innocent freed, PST can never be considered just, for God punishes the innocent . And what of the notion that a just penalty is proportionate to the crime committed? Can an eternity of unthinkable, never-ending torment possibly be considered a proportionate response to the harm and damage we cause during 60-80 years on earth, or for not worshipping a God who is somewhat hidden?
The idea that Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins and that his righteous status might be transferred to us was a brilliant response to the terror that gripped the hearts and minds of Europeans in the mediaeval period. It provided a powerful way of showing how God’s wrath against humankind, stoked to ferocity by our wickedness, could be averted; how God could both punish sin as required by God’s justice and forgive sin as required by God’s love. But it was fundamentally flawed.
The reason I raise questions about penal substitution is not because I want to undermine the gospel, but because I love it. The gospel of the crucified and risen Christ is the power of God for the salvation of the world (Romans 1:16-17). The problem is that when we equate PST with that liberating gospel it gives us a God who is incapable of forgiveness, who has a disturbing need for vengeance, acts in a horrifically unjust way and declares it justice, and who resorts to a bizarre technicality to save us. I find myself increasingly drawn into the earliest layer of interpretation, in which Jesus gently calls to recognise ourselves as loved by God and to join God’s movement for justice, peace, love, faith and offers us a way out of our idolatries; who is crucified by humankind, but who rises to lead us into a new world.