Why Penal Substitution Doesn’t Work
Posted by Steven on 21 December 2011
Penal substitution is one of several ideas of how Christ’s death reconciles us to God. It argues that, by sinning, humanity offended the justice of God. God, in His love and mercy, wants to forgive us, but His justice demands reparation. In order to solve this problem, Jesus was sent to receive the punishment intended for sinners, so that we could be reconciled to God and join Him in heaven. Thus, God remains merciful without violating His justice.
There are two main problems with this idea of atonement. The first is it ignores what the punishment actually is. The Bible tells us that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), or eternal separation from God in hell. If Christ received this punishment in our place, then Christ (who is God) must have been eternally separated from God. God cannot be separated from God, nor was Christ’s death eternal, because He was raised from the dead.
The second, larger problem is that penal substitution is irreconcilable with the idea of forgiveness; they cannot both exist. Either penal substitution is true, or forgiveness of sins is true – but not both. The word “to forgive” can be defined as “to grant pardon for or remission of”, “to cancel an indebtedness”, “to give up all claim on account of”. In other words, to forgive a debt means that the debt does not have to be paid any more – by anyone. But penal substitution says that the debt had to be paid by someone, and that Christ became that someone.
If Christ took our punishment for us, then God did not forgive us. We weren’t forgiven because there was no longer a debt to forgive. Likewise, if we have been forgiven, then there would be no punishment for Christ to take on Himself. These two ideas are antithetical.
An illustration of the contrast between forgiveness and punishment in Scripture is in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-34 NASB):
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished tosettle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.”
In this parable, the servant owes his lord a sum that he will never be able to repay. When condemned to be sold in order to help repay the debt, the servant begs mercy. In response, the lord forgives the debt. There is no one else paying the debt. He does not demand that the debt be repaid by someone, he cancels it. Seeing his servant’s actions, however, the lord rescinds his forgiveness and again demands that the debt be paid. Notice that the payment and the forgiveness do not coexist – only one of them is possible at a time. (Incidentally, this parable also shows that salvation can be lost – but that’s another post)
The Catholic View
The Catholic view of atonement is called the Satisfaction view. Instead of taking our punishment on Himself, Christ offered up something else that God would accept instead: Himself, a holy, perfect, blameless sacrifice, freely offered for all sinners. This offering was worth so much more than our punishment, and in offering this sacrifice, Christ appeased God’s wrath.
Unlike penal substitution, satisfaction is certainly found in Scripture. One of the most obvious accounts comes from the incident of the golden calf at Mount Sinai (Exodus 32 / Deuteronomy 9:15-21). While Moses is with God on Mount Sinai, Aaron and the Israelites make a golden calf to worship. God sees this and is angry, intending to destroy them. Moses asks the Lord to have mercy, and goes down the mountain. After dealing with the situation, Moses says to the people, “You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the LORD, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Ex 32:30). Later, he says, “I fell down before the LORD, as at the first, forty days and nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all your sin which you had committed in doing what was evil in the sight of the LORD to provoke Him to anger” (Deut 9:18). Moses tried to make atonement, and was successful. Many died, but God did not destroy the nation of Israel.
There are other examples of this satisfaction, such as Phinehas (Psalm 106:29-30 / Numbers 25:1-13). Israel began to worship the false god Baal, again stirring the Lord’s wrath against Israel. Phinehas, in his zeal, killed an Israelite and his Midianite wife, and thereby “turned back” God’s wrath (Numbers 25:11). Though all Israel sinned, Israel was not destroyed. Like Phinehas and Moses, Jesus offered up something else to God so that we wouldn’t be punished. He offered Himself.
Also unlike penal substitution, satisfaction and forgiveness are compatible. Something that wasn’t owed to God was given so that what was owed would not be demanded (compared to penal substitution saying that something that was owed to God was given by someone else). Thus, God’s justice is satisfied, but forgiveness still occurs.