So the kids I like to play with tend to reject the doctrine of penal substitution, the idea that Jesus took the punishment for our sins in order to satisfy the wrath of God. A recent article on the Sojourners website gives a good example of this:
Essentially, the cross is explained exclusively in legal terms. You and I are the criminal, God is the blood-thirsty judge and executioner, and Jesus becomes the one who steps in between us and lets the angry judge beat and kill him in our place. Having killed an innocent person, this judge is somehow satisfied and a little less angry, so he sets friends of the innocent dead man free as he awaits the “end times” when he’ll finally get to let the bodies hit the floor and feel good about himself.
It’s actually quite twisted when you break it down. Jesus protects us from God? Or, if you accept the inspiration of Scripture (which I 100 percent do), it gets even more uncomfortable when you see Jesus say things like: “If you have seen me, you have seen the father, for we are one,” or in Hebrews, when it is stated that Jesus is the “exact representation of God’s being.”
Accepting both the inspiration of Scripture and the penal substitution theory of the atonement, one could actually say that Jesus died to protect us from Jesus.
Which is quite silly, really — from one aspect this makes God look schizophrenic, and on the other, it makes the cross look like a bad case of domestic violence — something I personally find offensive.
With hardly any Scriptural quotations at all, Benjamin Corey goes on claiming that penal substitution is responsible for the capital punishment and crual legal system of the United States, and like many other critics of the penal substitution theology he claims that the idea was founded by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century and that no Christian believed in it in the first millenia of the church.
Allow me to disagree.
Firstly, let’s define the term here. “Penal” means “punishmental” sort of, so the “penal substitution” of Christ means that He took our punishment as our substitute when He died on the cross. Now, this is something the Scriptures teach very clearly. The Old Testament is extremely clear in telling us that God wants His people to follow the Law, and if they don’t, they are punished for sinning (Ex 32:34, Deut 28:20, Hos 12:2, Zeph 1:9). To claim that God does not punish sin is totally unbiblical. Through His self-sacrificial love, however, He Himself dies for our sins on the cross (John 3:16, 1 Cor 15:3, 1 Peter 3:18). The messianic prophecy in Is 53 tells us:
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Is 53:6)
I tried to explain to a Christian friend about the criticism against penal substitution once: “You know, there are some who don’t think Jesus took our punishment when He died on the cross.” Surprised, she asked me “Who do they think took the punishment then?” “Uhm, no one… I guess.” “Then how do they interpret the Bible when it says that God punishes sin?” “You know what? I have no idea.”
I have still not found any reason to reject the theory of penal substitution, simply because it’s biblical. Other atonement theories like Christus Victor cannot replace it, only complement it. I read a book today called The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, where Greg Boyd defends the Christus Victor framework, and while I really liked his Kingdom approach there was one vital ingredient missing that Thomas Schreiner, who represented the penal substitution view, pointed out: Boyd can’t explain why Jesus’ death on the cross defeats the satanic powers unless he admits that it is because He died for our sins on that tree.
Likewise, Corey’s claim that penal substitution presupposes a “schizofrenic” God who uses domestic violence against His Son, is just a disturbing and unserious argument that honestly doesn’t fit such a good website as Sojourners. Jesus gives His life out if free will (Jn 10:18) and since He is God, God punishes Himself, He takes the punishment for man’s sinfulness in order to reconcile humankind with Himself. And this is indeed what the church fathers thought. I will come back later with another post covering atonement theology in the early church.