Just Say No to Penal Substitutionary Atonement

This comes up through my continued reading of Calvin’s Institutes but also is an ongoing issue with me as I think about theology in general, in pretty much every time and place.

The theory goes something like this: God’s justice requires punishment for sin, and that punishment is death; but God’s mercy enables God to punish Christ with death instead of punishing all of us, freeing God to love us and to be merciful to us. Satisfying the justice of God, through God’s merciful murder of Christ, reconciles us to God.

I’ll try to succinctly list the problems I have with this, and then I have a big finale:

1. The idea that God’s justice requires death as reparation for sin is morally and theologically apalling. Why is it that God can’t be as merciful as most human beings? Its a rare person who has to kill you for wronging them. Why can’t God’s justice be restorative rather than retributive?

2. The idea that torture and murder are restorative of relationship is morally and theological apalling. Does God welcome us home with God’s child’s blood still on God’s hands? The father in the parable of the Prodigal Son is far more merciful than this God. In fact, a father who merely abuses a child rather than killing them outright is more merciful that this God.

3. In a theology of substitutionary atonement, God’s mercy is empty and meaningless. God isn’t merciful – God’s horrific requirements are not reduced whatsoever, they are merely assuaged. God is still the Great Punisher, howling for blood, but other blood is offered instead of ours.

4. God in this situation is deeply disturbed and internally contradictory, becoming a Son in order to be executed in place of humanity in payment for sin. Its almost like God is playing a bait-and-switch on Godself, as if the merciful personality is outsmarting the retributive personality.

5. How is it that God would create human beings with the power to be evil but not to be good? How can we be so responsible for our failures and yet unable to take responsibility for any good that we do accomplish? Why is our punishment infinite but our reward conditional?

6. How is it that God would create human beings, knowing that they were powerless to live up to God’s expectations, and then demand human sacrifice to atone for this inability? This is an absurd, cruel, catch-22 God who must delight in the torturous trap that has been devised. “Ha! You can’t do what is right, and I know that you can’t, but I’m going to demand your punishment for failure anyway!”

7. Christ’s suffering is insufficient. There are billions in our world who suffer more in their lives than Christ suffered in his, and millions who die in more agony than Christ did. Added to this is the difference that Christ chose this suffering – it is far worse to suffer when you are powerless to end it, as so many do in our world this very day.

8. This theology is present in the Bible but it is far from the only interpretation of salvation. It certainly isn’t necessitated. There are many ways that God’s mercy and our reconciliation with God are expressed, and substitutionary atonement is only one of them. The focus on it arises out of a Medieval view of God-as-noble-Lord who’s honor cannot be smudged by accepting the insult of sin. That’s where the supposed justice of God in substitutionary atonement comes from – the Medieval fear of an insulted Lord’s rage. This is hardly what we want as a paradigm of the divine.

9. Most of all, I think this theology of atonement lets us off the hook too easily. If Christ’s death was somehow necessary to erase our sin, then it was a noble undertaking, and we were just participants in divine salvation history. If, however, Christ’s death wasn’t a payment of a sin-debt, a satisfaction of the honor of a medieval-noble God, then we’re in a lot of trouble, because we tortured and executed Christ. We cried out for Christ’s blood, not God. We condemned him to die. We watched it happen and did nothing. We denied him afterwards to save our own skin. And we continue to crucify, day in and day out, as we crush the poor and grind the oppressed into submission and reap the benefits of injustice. We are crucifiers as we sit atop an economic and social structure rooted in evil and crow about our own power, reveling in our impenetrability. We are the ones who demand the sacrifice, who demand that hundreds of prisoners pay with their lives in our justice system.

Substitutionary atonement commits the sin of foisting our thirst for the blood of the innocent on God. Christ’s resurrection was necessary – because God is the God of the cosmos, the God of infinite and unkillable love, who is God-with-us to the end of time itself. Christ’s crucifixion was necessary – to us, because we do evil and terrible things to those who love us and who pose no threat to us; because we will do anything, make anyone suffer, to preserver our power and safety; because we cannot bear to hear the truth about ourselves even from the lips of love; because we fear the Kingdom more than we fear a lack of it; because we confuse love and mercy with weakenss; because our hearts cannot hold and our minds cannot conceive and our words cannot describe the depth of God’s love – and we fear what we do not understand.

10 thoughts on “Just Say No to Penal Substitutionary Atonement

  1. Wow! Seriously!Who knew that we’d gotten it so wrong for the last 2000 years or so! As a student of theology myself, both studied in academia and as it is applied to the real lives and real suffering of the members of the body of Christ in His church, I find it remarkable that you are able to so confidently make light of the thoughtful writings and reflections of so many Christian theologians whom time has tried and tested. After reading your thoughts on sub atonement, I am curious to know more about your theology of sin – do you consider what an offense sin is to a holy God? The effect of Jesus’ death on the cross comes not from the degree of his suffering – for yes, others suffer more severely – but rather from his identity – the important thing is who it was who suffered undeservedly. I wonder if you have really experienced the consequences of either sin or redemption in your own life, and if you have yet realized how offensive each one of our lives are, and how great a debt we each owe when faced with the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Thank God that God did stand in, to satisfy justice and to prove what real love is, and is willing to sacrifice. What a tragedy Christianity is if all Jesus’ life and death accomplished was to illustrate the problem of injustice in this world.I pray you may find the deeper meaning, peace, and joy of knowing that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Peace,Rev. Ryan Kraus


  2. ryan, thanks for posting a comment.I’ll try to unpack your comment and respond. First, I don’t think that Christianity has been anywhere near universal in its acceptance of sub atonement for 2000 years. My modest study of church history and theology over the past ten years or so confirms this to me at least.For me, the idea of a towering impervious God, like Adonis or Zeus, whose honor is offended by human sin just isn’t very meaningful or moving. In perichoresis, for example, I think that God is a God of relationship, and that sin is the destruction of this relationship through human evil. This relationship can only be fully repaired by God.I think, as I said, that a God who demands murder to restore this relationship is, for lack of a better word, acting evilly. If I met a person who acted like that, who had to murder me or someone in my place in order to forgive me my wrongdoing, I would describe that person’s actions as evil.In putting forward this rejection of sub atonement, I feel I am directly in line with a lot of modern theologians who are better thinkers and articulators than I am. I would point you towards any Liberation theologian, any Feminist or Womanist theologian, any theologian to have come out of the historical peace churches, for an idea of what I’m drawing on here.I think I have experienced some of the consequences of sin and redemption in my own life – I would say perhaps regeneration through the holy spirit through the power of forgiveness, for example, or what I wrote about at the end of my post about my understanding of human complicity in the death of Christ. I can’t imagine a more horrific sin than that. And yet despite that God chooses relationship with us, chooses to justify and sanctify.For me, the tragedy is the acceptance of a God who, though infinitely knowledgeable and infinitely good, still acts like a Medieval nobleman when wronged. In the richness of Christian tradition I find other images of God that speak to me much more strongly. Gustav Aulen, for example, in his book Christus Victor, points out that sub atonement was not rooted in the theology of the early church “fathers” but rather in the Medieval Catholic idea of penance. That’s just one specific example that is easy to find – and in my own (again modest) reading of early church writings, sub atonement doesn’t seem like an overt or particularly powerful thread. Instead, it seems rooted in Anselm’s satisfaction theory, a thousand years after Christ’s resurrection.Nevertheless, I still remain confident of the arguments that I presented. Like in anything else, I choose some theologians over others, just as you do in choosing sub atonement as your main model rather than the theologies I mentioned which reject it. I think I have excellent reasons for doing so.I won’t pray that your understanding brings you closer to me, but rather that your understanding brings you closer to God.PeaceDoug


  3. I enjoyed your post Doug. You really should be in our atonement class this semester I think you would really enjoy the readings and I would be interested in hearing your response to many of the alternative models that we’ve been discussing. Plus, remind me when I finish my final paper to have you review it. I think you might be intrigued by some of the thoughts that I am focusing on.


  4. Doug,Interesting. The other day my Dad (the honorably retired reverend) asked me at the end of one of our theological conversations “so, do you not believe in substitutionary atonement?” to which I said, “wellll… I guess I don’t need it. Most of what needs explaining doesn’t need it, and it doesn’t seem to explain anything else that does need it”It seems to me that as a doctrine it is anthropomorphically locked to a place and time in history that doesn’t exist any more. Jesus the Christ on the other hand is not. That in itself should raise some good questions.Another question is, can the proof texts from the OT explain something else? Can the NT proof texts mean something else? What exactly? And how >do< you explain the cross?Jodie


  5. Jodie, that’s obviously a huge question. Some of the answer is presented in various ways if you click on “Christology” under “Different Kinds of Wrong”. Its a lot of reading though, and I’m not sure how interesting it is.For me, the last bit of this post says a lot of what I believe. I think that the execution of Christ, the destruction of the incarnation of God’s absolute goodness, was necessary for human beings because we…for lack of a better word because I’m tired…we just can’t face it. We are retributive, vengeful, selfish, angry creatures. When someone hurts us, our bodies flood with enzymes and hormones and neurotransmitters that fill us with the desire to fight back. Our social structures inculturate a fear of outsiders and a desperate desire to be part of the in-group.It is God’s goodness we cannot understand. We just don’t get it – that someone does something horrific to you, and you love them. That someone is totally undeserving, and you love them. So the crucifixion is humanity’s judgment of God, and the resurrection is God’s judgment of humanity.At least, that’s one way I see it. For me, religion is all about multiplicity of meaning and image and symbol. That’s why I love it so much. It is an endeavour of infinite richness. And that is why I am so suspicious of claims of orthodoxy or doctrine – because when you nail something down, you kill it. You know something is dead when it stops moving.


  6. Hello again Doug.Hey, I could be wrong but I am quite sure humans murdered Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Who they actually were, race wise, is inconsequential. The point is mankind/womankind had a hand in his death. Sure, God the Father was watching, which begs the question, “Did God commit the sin of omission?” Was He like the passerby who observed someone drowning in a lake and did not bother to stop and help? Does that alck of action, and continued lack of action in world history make God one of the biggest sinners the world has never seen?Is it possible that God’s attributes could actually contradict each other in some way? Or is there a means of harmony in this divine mix?


  7. As far as I can tell, substitutionary atonement is simply this: an attempt to explain the mystery of Christ crucified. No more, no less. If you don’t find it helpful, well, being able to explain exactly how Christ crucified changed things for us isn’t nearly as important as loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, etc, loving your neighbor as yourself: that is, following Jesus, and in so doing being taken up into the kind of life that is in Him.


  8. I think that’s correct. Exactly. But, for some (many?), what you believe, the specifics of it, is what ‘saves’ you – i.e., “faith” as cognitive assent rather than existential trust. Anyway.


  9. You are correct that the theory of substitutionary atonement is wrong. The problem with this idea is the expectation of escaping from eternal death by the murder caused by bloodshed of a male human. The truth about Jesus’ crucifixion is that it is the sin of murder caused by bloodshed. Since it is also true that God demands an accounting whenever a male human’s life is taken by bloodshed. The crucifixion of Jesus is a forgivable sin if it is confessed directly to God. Relative only to the sin of Jesus’ crucifixion one word has been added to the law of God making it necessary for each person to Repent of the one sin of Jesus’ murder for the forgiveness of all sins. The principle for salvation is that God loves obedience rather than sacrifice. If you are not willing to obey Jesus as Lord by the faith of repenting of the sin of his crucifixion and be baptized into this Way of faith to be saved from death it is a disobedience that carries the penalty of eternal death. Since God does not respect persons there are no exceptions. The only sin that can be repented to obey the Acts 2:38 command is the sin of Jesus’ murder.Theodore A. Jones


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