by Raymond Billy
To commemorate the executionary death of Jesus on what is called Good Friday, it is appropriate to contemplate a truth apart from which every person would be damned. This doctrine is perhaps more synonymous with the Christian faith than any other doctrine. However, it is also a tenet that has come under criticism from myriad angles. I am referring to the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.
This doctrine is about the theological meaning of Christ’s death on the cross. If you take the concepts articulated in the doctrine individually (in reverse order), it’s making three distinct claims. First, it’s proposing that the death of Christ is atoning because it is the reason a person can be reconciled to God. Second, the doctrine claims that Jesus’ death was substitutionary because his sacrifice on behalf of forgiven sinners made that reconciliation possible. Finally, the teaching asserts that Christ’s death was penal because Jesus absorbed the retribution from God that every human being deserves, thereby removing the barrier to reconciliation.
Even if the phrase “penal substitutionary atonement” (or PSA) is novel to the reader, the doctrine’s features are likely familiar to those who have been part of church congregations influenced by 16th century German Catholic dissident Martin Luther, 16th century French theologian John Calvin or 18th century English clergyman John Welsey. Such congregations include those affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God and the United Methodist Church — denominations that, combined, have more than 20 million members in the United States alone. Yet, although PSA is widely affirmed among evangelical Christians, it is perhaps the most heavily criticized and debated atonement doctrine. Indeed, PSA has been disputed for centuries for diverse reasons.
For example, some opponents of PSA say the doctrine caricatures God by overemphasizing the extent of his wrath and vengeance. These critics deny that Christ’s death was a punishment on behalf of his worshipers. Such contemporary opponents of PSA include Brian Zahnd, a pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Mo. In his 2017 book, “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God,” Zhand wrote:
God is not beholden to retributive justice. We are the ones who demand sacrificial victims, not God. We are the ones who insist upon a brutal logic that says God can’t just forgive. We are the ones who mindlessly say, “God can’t forgive, he has to satisfy justice.” But this is ridiculous. It’s a projection of our own pettiness upon the grandeur of God.
Zahnd believes that Jesus’ death was, in part, meant to be a denunciation of violence rather than God’s righteous means of punishing people’s sins. He believes that Jesus was setting an example for his followers in refusing to perpetuate violence by fighting back against his enemies.
In contrast to the likes of Zahnd, other critics regard PSA as being too gracious toward sinners. Essentially, they deny that Christ’s death was substitutionary. Perhaps the most famous person ever to object to PSA on these grounds was Charles Finney. He was an evangelist and leader of the so-called Second Great Awakening during the 19th century in the United States — a movement that led to a dramatic increase in church attendance nationwide. Finney believed that the notion of PSA wrongly relieved sinners of their moral culpability. As recorded in an anthology, “Lectures on Systematic Theology,” Finney said:
The doctrine of a literal imputation of Adam’s sin to all his posterity, of the literal imputation of all the sins of the elect to Christ, and of His suffering for them the exact amount due to the transgressors, of the literal imputation of Christ’s righteousness or obedience to the elect, and the consequent perpetual justification of all that are converted from the first exercise of faith, whatever their subsequent life may be I say I regard these dogmas as fabulous, and better befitting a romance than a system of theology.
Finney’s view of the cross was that it was a mere demonstration of God’s displeasure with sinners rather than a carrying out of his justice. In other words, Christ’s death did not achieve anything on behalf of sinners, but merely exemplifies to sinners the torment that they deserve for their rebellion with the intent to compel their repentance.
Whereas some people reject the notion that the death of Christ was penal and others deny that his crucifixion was substitutionary, still others doubt the idea that Jesus’ death was necessary for atonement. Walter Rauschenbusch, a pastor in New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was one of those critics. In his 1917 book, “A Theology for The Social Gospel,” Rauschenbusch wrote:
But what place does his death hold in this process of reconciliation? No place apart from his life, his life-purpose, and the development and expression of his personality; a very great place as the effective completion of his life. Men were coming into fellowship with the Father before his death happened, and before they knew that it was to happen. Jesus labored to unite men with God without referring to his death.
Rauschenbusch believed that Jesus didn’t die as a punishment on behalf of his worshipers, but as the most extreme example of human depravity ever exhibited. He believed that having such a horrific example of sin’s consequences — the death of the innocent Jesus — is what humans need in order to flee from selfishness and seek reconciliation with God. But God did not require the death of Jesus in order to forgive and be reconciled to humans, according to this system. Rauschenbusch’s thinking had a significant influence on the likes of 20th century U.S. civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.
Quite often, as we have seen above, philosophical arguments not supported by Scripture are made against the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. But others support the doctrine for reasons that are as much grounded in man-made arguments as I believe the objections are. Some of those supporters have presented the doctrine in ways that are unhelpful at best or abusive at worst. One notorious example of that came in a sermon nearly a decade ago by Mark Driscoll (then the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle). In October 2011, Driscoll preached a sermon titled “Jesus Sweats Blood.” This was referring to the scene in which Jesus demonstrated his anguish at the thought of his impending torture and death on the cross. Driscoll’s answer to that question was that Jesus experienced the effects of God’s hatred against sinners.
Some of you, God hates you. Some of you, God is sick of you. God is frustrated with you. God is wearied by you. God has suffered long enough with you. He doesn’t think you’re cute. He doesn’t think it’s funny. He doesn’t think your excuse is meritous. He doesn’t care if you compare yourself to someone worse than you, He hates them too. God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates some of you.
Notwithstanding such antics from the likes of Driscoll, the question is not whether or why we are for or against the doctrine from a personal standpoint. The question is: Is this a doctrine from the mind of God or from the minds of men? I believe Scripture clearly shows in many ways that this doctrine (not theory) accurately represents God’s initiative toward sinners.
There are several passages of Scripture that explain the fact that the cross of Christ was penal. Many verses also explain Jesus’ death as substitutionary and others that his suffering made atonement for God’s people. However, few texts bring all three concepts together quite like the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia. One significant thing to know about that letter is that it was likely Paul’s earliest-written letter to be included in Scripture and quite possibly the second of 27 New Testament writings. It was written in the late 40s or early 50s of the first century to a church in a region of the Roman Empire that is now part of modern-day Turkey. That makes his explanation of the cross in this letter foundational to the Christian interpretation of Jesus’ death.
Paul’s intention in writing this letter was to remind the Galatian believers that they were forgiven of their sins and accepted by God based on the life Jesus lived and the death Jesus died on their behalf. He said this to counteract those who were trying to persuade them that being accepted by God depended, in part, on adherence to ceremonial Jewish practices that were formerly prescribed by God. God Himself had canceled those ceremonial practices because they were intended to foreshadow Jesus’ accomplishments on behalf of sinners.
In Galatians 3 verses 10 to 14, Paul wrote:
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
When Paul wrote that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them,’” he was referencing Mosaic Scripture. As Moses gave his final instructions to the Israelites before his death, he commanded the tribe of Levi to pronounce curses upon those found guilty of certain social sins — those found to have violated God’s codified laws. They were commanded to end the pronouncement by saying “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deuteronomy 27:26). This curse referred to the penalty of calamity on those at whom it was directed.
Ultimately, this curse also applies to non-Jews. As Paul explained in his letter to the church in Rome, we’re all born cursed regardless of whether we were ever under the law of Israel. In chapter 5, speaking of the sin of Adam, he says that “because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man” (v. 17) and that “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (v. 18). He went on to explain that the Jewish “law came in to increase the trespass” (v. 20). In other words, the written Jewish law only adds condemnation to its transgressors in addition to the condemnation that every person is destined for who isn’t reconciled to God. Paul could have written “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse just like everyone else.”
Fortunately, as Paul goes on to explain to the Galatians, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” This is a reference to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which reads: “[I]f a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” According to Paul, Jesus died to pay the penalty of death owed to humans, substituting himself for those forgiven. He did this by being crucified on a “tree,” a reference to the wooden cross from which he hung. Peter also refers to the cross as a tree during a monologue in front of the Jewish religious authorities in Acts 5. He used this same wording in 1 Peter 2. The fact that Jesus became “a curse for us” by hanging from a tree shows the substitutionary aspect of His death.
According to Paul, the reason Jesus took on the curse that his own worshipers deserve was “so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” What is “the blessing of Abraham”? I believe that this is speaking of the atonement or reconciliation between God and people from every ethnic group that began with Abraham in the 21st century B.C. In Genesis 17, verses 5-7, God says to Abraham:
No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
That is obviously a promise that Abraham’s offspring would be reconciled to God.
A popular subject of theological and philosophical discussion is, “How could a loving God allow evil in the world?” A similar topic is “How could a loving God allow suffering?” Those questions have become mutually synonymous, as it is generally acknowledged that most human suffering is caused by the malice or negligence (i.e., evil) of other people. Yet people often fail to recognize that every person on the planet has been both the victim and the source of behavior that has led to suffering. If God were to take punitive action against the perpetrators of evil who cause human suffering — whether preemptively or as retribution — no human would be spared. Therefore, perhaps the most important question to ask about God in relation to oneself is, How can God be a God of justice without punishing everyone? That’s where penal substitutionary atonement comes in.
God is angrier about evil behavior than humans are. Therefore, no sin will go unpunished. But because God is merciful and gracious, he has made a way for humans to be spared the penalty for their sins. For those who are repentant and place their faith in Jesus Christ, his torturous death counts as the penalty for their sins. That’s because Jesus — having actively obeyed every command God ever gave humans and having passively submitted to the suffering God ordained for his life — never sinned. He had no due penalty of his own to pay.
Rather than decry the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as being too severe, too lenient or just plain irrelevant, repentant sinners ought to praise God for giving them a means of being forgiven and reconciled to him. This system is God’s ultimate expression of love and grace toward his people.
Raymond Billy is a former journalist who lives in Hawaii. His work has appeared in several newspapers, including the Tyler Morning Telegraph in East Texas, the Jacksonville (Texas) Daily Progress, The (Shreveport, La.) Times, The (Hammond, La.) Daily Star and The Odessa (Texas) American.