Substitutionary Theology Is Not a Good Look




In evangelical circles the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement—of Jesus serving as scapegoat for our sins—is more or less taken as a given. It is the essential theological mold from which the significance of the Cross is shaped, the canopy under which salvation and redemption converge in fulfillment of God’s will. God, through Jesus, paid the ultimate price for our sins by taking on a burden that no one else could carry. And only through God’s sacrifice were justice and forgiveness for our sin necessarily accomplished.

That this is just one way of seeing Christ’s death is often neither stated nor implied. An evangelical, particularly one growing up in so-called nondenominational Christianity, will no doubt be surprised to learn that not only does their model have a name, but that there are multiple other models (plural), in which penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) is a relative newcomer alongside ransom theory, Christus Victor, the moral influence view and others. For most of the Early Church period, ransom theory and moral influence theory held sway; PSA did not set down roots until the Reformation.

But this post is not primarily intended as a dig on evangelicals or a bemoaning of religious literacy. It is mainly to call attention to the problems and implications of the penal substitutionary view as preached from megachurch pulpits around the country. It was inspired, moreover, by a recent post from Benjamin Corey on Patheos. He does a decent job articulating the more frontal concerns of PSA, in particular its tension with the Jesus of the gospels:

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.”


These thoughts resurrected questions I had as a teenager. Why was a death—anyone’s death—required 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? And was God’s “sacrifice” really a sacrifice at all? You might say he “rose” to the occasion a mere three days later. It’s more akin to being spanked and sent home with a warning; seems like a trivial punishment for an ultimate burden.

The substitution component should immediately strike us as strange. If my wife wrongs me in some way, I don’t go next door and punish the neighbor in her stead. If a crime is committed, we don’t jail a knowingly innocent person and let the felon off scot-free, even if they volunteer to do so as a courtesy to the felon. Notice how we have not adopted this concept of justice in criminal justice systems around the world, where the legal principle of personal responsibility predominates over ancient concepts of vicarious satisfaction and scapegoating.

But the bigger problem lies with PSA’s fundamental premise: that sin needs to be punished. From whence this cosmic statute, and why must God be bound by it? True forgiveness need not require anything in return. That’s what it means to offer something freely. A forgiving nature with no strings attached is a mark of good character, one admittedly difficult in practice but worthy of emulating.

Consider that when someone insults you, this can come with a personal cost to your self-esteem. The impulse to retaliate may be strong, but overcoming that impulse by walking away is an ethic of virtue. By contrast, the idea that this cost must be redressed through punishment to achieve some kind of restitution more bespeaks petty vindictiveness than goodness of character. This concept, moreover, surely was foreign to the canonical Jesus (Cf. Matt. 5), who expressed a Ghandi-like commitment to nonviolence and grace.

Now, I don’t think this principle runs through in every situation. If we take something like sexual assault, for instance, the moral imperative is not first to forgive and walk away, but to report the offender and, if possible, press charges so as to prevent the person from reoffending. (Though we should recognize that these are not always feasible or emotionally available options for the victim.)

Yet even if we qualify the ethic in this way, where does that leave us? Was our sinful nature curtailed through Christ’s death? No. Sin continued, just as it had before. So what did the Cross achieve? Remember that PSA teaches that Christ’s sacrifice was a prerequisite for grace and redemption. But then we’re right back at square one: why this prerequisite, and why must God be obligated to follow it? Why must forgiveness be conditional? What’s wrong with forgiveness without asterisks?

Aquinas saw these flaws clearly. The idea that there is a necessary connection between sacrifice and justice/forgiveness didn’t compute in his mind. He saw the two not as complementary but antithetical. In Summa Theologica III Q.46 a.2 ad 3, he writes:

But if He had willed to free man from sin without any satisfaction, He would not have acted against justice. For a judge, while preserving justice, cannot pardon fault without penalty, if he must visit fault committed against another–for instance, against another man, or against the State, or any Prince in higher authority. But God has no one higher than Himself, for He is the sovereign and common good of the whole universe. Consequently, if He forgive sin, which has the formality of fault in that it is committed against Himself, He wrongs no one: just as anyone else, overlooking a personal trespass, without satisfaction, acts mercifully and not unjustly.”


On Aquinas’ view, it is of no cost to God to forgive us our sin without sacrifice, as God’s sovereignty is infinite. God’s answer to sin isn’t punishment–substitutionary or otherwise–it’s grace. And he gives it freely.

This is where an alternative conception like the moral influence view is advantageous. It doesn’t require us to explain the Cross in terms of God meting out justice for a sinful creation, or for that matter to awkwardly account for Jesus supposedly atoning for “original sin” in the context of an Old Earth with evolutionary processes. The moral influence perspective, rather, looks to Christ’s character and the example he served for humanity. It was this bold example–a seditious one given the historical context–for which he was ultimately put to death, and his legacy that we must continually strive to live up to each day. Christ’s death is no longer central to the narrative as with PSA, but a single data point in relation to Jesus’ teachings, the life he lived, the movement he founded and, ultimately, his resurrection.

On Faith and False Dichotomy

However we are to make sense of Christ’s death, contending that it was necessary for salvation and redemption seems to me a non-starter. That God’s sovereign plan would involve creating more death and violence and bloodshed in a world already shot through with mortality and suffering does not appear to be a good or sensible doctrine for the world to embrace. Nor are concepts like gruesome blood sacrifice and capital punishment qua righteousness particularly good messages to be taught to children. This always bothered me as a Christian.

The extreme penalty of carnage by crucifixion sits comfortably within the historical context in which Jesus emerged, as do Hellenistic and pre-Hellenistic motifs of scapegoating, martyrdom and other sacrificial systems. These concepts do not, I think, sit well with the moral intuitions and ethical sensibilities of those of us living today.

We should further 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 more crucial danger, however, 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. These presumptions are dangerous because if a Christian who is put off by this particular theology, unable to square it with their faith in an unconditionally loving and forgiving God, believes it is the only view available to them, they may choose to leave the faith altogether rather than adopt a different understanding of the Cross.

We see precisely this same phenomenon all across the country in those who were brought up with a fundamentalist faith and taught that evolution is incompatible with Christianity, or that creationism is the only valid position a Christian can affirm. Faced with the conflict between empirical reality and faith, many choose the former and leave their faith behind. If Christian leadership wishes to avoid turning away young people, they should be wary of setting up false dichotomies that appease our theological preferences.


External link: Some Problems I Have With Penal Substitution Theology of Atonement