Welcome back! This is part 2 in a series taking a critical look at the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement which will end off by offering some more constructive ideas to pursue, if you need to catch up or are not sure what penal substitution is, part 1 can be view by clicking over here.
Logical Objections to Penal Substitution
What I said so far in part 1 might shock some people. On the Apprising Ministries website for example, Ken Silva posted an excerpt from an interview done between Phil Johnson and John MacArthur. They were discussing a quote from a Christian author’s book that also dared to question the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. This was what MacArthur had to say:-
“It sounds like the language of a flat-out anti-Christian pagan atheist mocking the cross of Jesus. That’s mockery. That’s…that’s outright mockery… But this is not even Christian thinking. There’s nothing about looking at the Word of God there. There’s nothing about trying to interpret the Scripture... This is the worst kind of stuff because it sows seeds of doubt in the most fragile…But that’s not even Christianity, that is an attack on Christianity so to call yourself an evangelical and attack the heart and soul of the gospel… That’s not an evangelical viewpoint, that’s a heretic. And that’s…and if you have this mass of ‘professing Christian people’ that make up the large part of the church, the visible church, with no discernment, with no real theological understanding, then this stuff can be very, very seductive to them (1).”
I open with this because I realize that some people are going to look at what I have written and have the same knee jerk reaction as MacArthur did to another authors book. I certainly do not feel that I am not attacking the “heart and soul of the gospel” as MacArthur would say when I look at the weaknesses of the penal substitutionary model. As Christians we all affirm that Jesus saves. What we are looking at here though is HOW the atonement is salvific. While we can disagree on this and still be brothers, I believe it is still important to look at because the nature of the atonement has a lot to say about the nature of God Himself. As for me, when I began to meditate on these things, the walls of PST fell like a stack of cards built on an airplane landing strip. In addition to the scriptures mentioned in the previous post and ones that we will still look at, I had several logical objections against PST as well which had no satisfactory answers. Questions like these:-
1 – Does the cross deal with an offended God or with broken man? In Christ’s death and resurrection, who was He healing?
2 – Is it just to punish the innocent while the guilty go free? Would a judge pardon a man sentenced to death because an innocent man volunteered to take his place? What would you think of such a judge if such a scenario had to take place? Could you call him just?
3 – Can God not freely forgive people? Forgiveness is something God expects of us, it is part of Paul’s definition of love, “love keeps no record of wrongs”. But according to a retributive definition of justice, God cannot freely forgive; He still demands that the debt be paid. Yet Jesus had no problem forgiving people of their sins while He walked the earth. Something here is amiss.
4 - Penal substitution claims that in order for God to satisfy His retributive justice, Jesus had to endure the exact punishment that was due for all of humanity. When we consider His suffering and death, albeit as horrific, excruciating and awful as it was, is it comparable with the whole of humanity throughout all ages (maybe a 100 Billion people) burning in an eternal lake of fire forever and ever? The transaction just does not seem to balance.
5 - It has been stated by some that penal substitution is a form of “cosmic child abuse”(2). A Father who delights in the suffering of His only begotten Son at His own hands. While this is an extreme statement to make it is how many people interpret PST. It is incredible how many atheists blog about this as one of the main reasons why they reject Christianity. Are we turning people away from God with our message?
6 – Is Biblical justice retributive or restorative? Consider Zechariah 7:9 in your answer.
“Thus says the LORD of Hosts: Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother.”
7 – All ancient religions and pagan deities required a sacrifice (oftentimes one’s own son or a virgin) in order to be appeased. How is God ‘set apart’ from the false gods in PST?
8 – Is sacrifice associated with cleansing or with punishment in scripture?
9 – Can God, who is one(3), ever separate or forsake Himself? Not just in the sense that the Father could not look on the Son but in that there are needs in the Father that are contrary to those found in Jesus. One cannot look on sin, the other is a called a friend of sinners, one seeks to punish, the other seeks to save. How does that work?
10 - If the cross was indeed about satisfying the Father’s wrath, did Jesus succeed? The Bible has much to say about God’s coming wrath, “the day of the Lord” is spoken of throughout scripture. How does it all fit together? Where is the scripture that directly speaks about God pouring His wrath out on His Son?
Penal substitution proof texts
Before we can proceed to what I think is a more accurate understanding of the atonement we still need to look at a few more verses that are used in support of PST. Perhaps you thought of some of them in response to my final question above. The big one that we must address is found in Isaiah 53:10 and it reads:-
But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand (4).
This is the go-to verse for penal substitution in the Bible. It is the one and only place where in black and white it seemingly suggests that God found pleasure in executing Jesus and so it is vitally important that we address it here. My first counterpoint would be that the surrounding context, particularly verses 5 through 7, have already told us that it was wicked men who, thinking they were doing God’s work, were responsible for killing Jesus. If “it pleased God to crush Him” is indeed the best translation of this verse (and there is reason to believe otherwise) then surely the idea behind it would not be that God actually took pleasure in the torture and killing of His Son but rather it would better be understood within the concept that Jesus, being offered as our guilt offering, was within the framework of the godheads plan of redemption.
I just mentioned that I believe the words “It pleased God to crush Him” are not the best translation of this verse at all. It is interesting to see how the Septuagint translates this verse bearing in mind that the Septuagint would have been the translation that Jesus and those around Him would have had access to and read from. It is a Greek translation of the Old Testament and is hundreds of years older than the Hebrew texts that our modern Bibles are translated from. This older manuscript reads as follows:-
And the Lord desires to cleanse him from his blow. If you give an offering for sin, your soul shall see a long-lived offspring (5).
This is very different from what the latter Masoretic Text says and lines up beautifully with what Peter said on the day of Pentecost. Wicked men killed Him but God desired to heal Him from His wound and raised Him up again. Many of the early church fathers quoted this verse from the Septuagint translation in their writings as well, Clement of Rome in the Epistle to the Corinthians, Justin Martyr in the First Apology and Dialog with Trypho, Augustine in Harmony of the Gospels and John Chrysostom in Homolies on First Corinthians (6). In light of the older Greek manuscripts, the witness of the early church and the simple rule of thumb in letting scripture interpret scripture, this translation of Isaiah 53:10 seems to be the better of the two.
Jesus dies as a guilt offering
There is something else that we have not considered in Isaiah 53:10 yet as well. The very verse that is quoted to prove PST also contains a severe obstacle to the theory. Verse 10 speaks of an offering for sin, many translations including the NASB, the ESV and the Young’s Literal Translation equate it with the guilt offering described in Leviticus 7. The guilt offering was to be offered when someone had unintentionally profaned something holy. This is interesting because Isaiah 53 says that we thought that God was punishing Jesus when in actuality verse 3 reveals Jesus was despised, rejected and punished by men (7). It is also interesting that this type of offering would normally be associated with profaning the
which both point to Jesus as well (8). In an act that completely went
over the heads of the people; Jesus was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver and
the crowds handed him over to be killed as their guilt offering. Why is this a
stumbling block against the popular view of the atonement in today’s
Westernized church? I believe it is because if penal substitution were true,
then Jesus would have died to cover the Father’s guilt for profaning something
holy, His own Son. Those are heavy words worthy of meditation. Temple
In conclusion, I hope that one can see that to doubt PST is not to reject the gospel, it is not an attack on Christianity and it is not a mockery of the cross of Jesus as John MacArthur says. I hope that the points that I have made are at the very least compelling enough to be considered for further reflection.
1 - http://apprising.org/2009/03/28/john-macarthur-on-the-cosmic-child-abuse-in-the-penal-substitutionary-atonement/.
2 - Steve Chalke, The Lost Message of Jesus, 182, 183.
3 – Deuteronomy 6:4.
4 – New American Standard Version translation used.
5 - A New English Translation of the Septuagent, Edited by Albert Pitersma and Benjmin G Wright, 2007, Oxford University Press, Inc.
6 – See Clement of Rome: (Epistle to the Corinthians, Sec. 16), Justin Martyr: (First Apology, Ch 51), Justin Martyr: (Dialog with Trypho, Ch 13), Augustine: (Harmony of the Gospels, Book 1, Section 47) and John Chrysostom: (Homilies on First Corinthians, Homily 38).
7 – Isaiah 53: 3-4.
8 – See John 2:19 and Hebrews 9:11.