Thoughts on Penal Substitutionary Atonement: Part 1 of 2

In this first part of a 2-part series, we’ll take a look at the Christian doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.  What is it?  How did it come about?  And what does it mean for our lives today?

Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the current prevailing interpretation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in Western Christianity.  This doctrine is based on several interdependent premises:

Premise 1:

Human beings are inherently sinful by nature.  Known as the “total depravity of man”, this is a belief originally popularized by St. Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century CE.  It is claimed that this sinful nature is the result of the so-called “original sin” of Adam & Eve, who disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit offered by the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Premise 2:

Because of our sinful nature, human beings are entirely unworthy of being with God, and have thus been “cut off” from communion with Him.  With no way to justify ourselves morally, we can never earn our way back into God’s favor.  Unfortunately, the ultimate price of sin, which we are automatically guilty of from birth, is eternal damnation in a literal, burning Hell.  This last part may vary by denomination, but the end result is permanent exclusion from God’s presence.  This is the inescapable fate of every human being descended from Adam & Eve.  (Gee, thanks, guys!)

Premise 3:

Since God does not wish for all of humanity to be ultimately destroyed, he sent his “Son”, in the form of Jesus Christ, to live among mankind.  Although Jesus spent his life teaching a radical doctrine of love and acceptance, healing the sick and uplifting the marginalized, His ultimate purpose was to die on a cross by one of the most brutal execution methods ever invented.  This “blood sacrifice” was a fundamental requirement for any member of the human race to achieve “salvation”, and thereby be redeemed by God.

Premise 4:

This redemption is possible because the sins committed by every person, living or dead, past, present, and future, were somehow magically transferred “onto” Christ at his death, allowing his death to serve as an atoning sacrifice for mankind.  Thanks to this miraculous act of divine transference, God’s requirement of eternal damnation for any sin, even the smallest infraction, has now been met, and humans are eligible for reconciliation with their Creator.

It is worth noting that, although Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a widely accepted doctrine in the Western Church today, that was not always the case.  During the first few centuries of the Common Era, several alternative positions were held by different groups within the church.  The idea of “Christus Victor” was perhaps chief among these, and was embraced by the early church father, Irenaeus, in the 2nd century.  This interpretation viewed Jesus’ death and resurrection as a symbolic triumph over the forces of sin and death in the world, not as an atoning sacrifice required by God to pay for the sins of mankind.  Other, more radical positions, such as Universal Salvation, whereby all are saved through Christ, universally and unconditionally, were also taken up by other groups within the church.

A careful examination of Church history reveals that it was likely Constantine’s desire to make Christianity more palatable to the largely Pagan Roman population, that eventually influenced the Church to settle on Penal Substitutionary Atonement as the “official” interpretation of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.  Human sacrifice was a practice familiar and well-understood by the people of the Empire.  The citizens of Rome were more likely to accept a religion they could relate to, than the unfamiliar theme of universal brotherhood that Jesus actually taught and practiced.

There are two chief arguments against the Penal Substitutionary Atonement doctrine:

1. First, it implies a limitation on God. It suggests that He is incapable of forgiving people just because He wants to, that there is some sort of “cosmic condition” that even God Himself is subject to. It suggests that God must receive a literal blood sacrifice to pay for sin before He will deign to forgive a single human soul.

This argument is perhaps best conveyed by an analogy.  What would you do if your teenage son took your new car out for a spin and totaled it?  Now, you might be tempted to get retribution; perhaps demand that he buy you a new car with his meager $6.50 an hour job delivering pizza, or turn over part of his college fund to pay for the damage he caused.  But would you?  He is your son, after all, and you love him.  You may, in fact, forgive him.  With no strings attached.  Without condition or retribution.  Might you?  So, are we saying that we love our son more than our Father loves us, that we are capable of greater mercy and forgiveness than the Holy God of the Universe?  But wait a minute; that can’t be right!  God IS Love… isn’t He?

2. And second, Penal Substitutionary Atonement is cruel and self-contradictory. When taken in conjunction with Trinitarianism, the argument basically goes that: “God was angry with mankind, so God sent Himself to pay the price that He Himself demanded, in order to save mankind from His own eternal wrath.”  This seems a rather circuitous route for the all-powerful God of the Universe to take, just to get to a point where he can commune with his Creation again.

There is also debate over the merit of sacrifices in general.  In Isaiah 1:11, we are told: “What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?” says the Lord.  “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.” Are we to believe that God takes no pleasure in the blood of livestock, yet demands that of His Son as an atoning sacrifice for mankind?

The doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement also leads to what could be considered an unhealthy preoccupation with blood.  Christians have possibly the greatest fascination with a person’s blood of any modern people group (besides vampires, of course!).  Christians talk and sing continually about: spilling it, shedding it, bathing in it, and yes, even drinking it, through the phenomenon of transubstantiation.  In any other context, this emphasis on someone’s, anyone’s, blood, would be considered gruesome at best, or downright psychopathic, at worst.

It seems that, despite our denunciation of the ancient practice of ritual animal sacrifice as barbaric, and the practice of human sacrifice as downright evil, we insist upon glorifying one particular example of it.  The fact is that the Roman practice of crucifixion was barbaric.  It was supposed to be.  It was the worst possible way the Romans could come up with to torture and, frequently only after days of agony, rid themselves of those guilty of the most capital offenses.  Among these capital offenses was, of course, sedition and challenging the will of the Empire.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at an alternative view of the Cross, in light of the true meaning of the Law of Moses, as revealed by Jesus and the Apostle Paul.