What follows are reflections on the theory of penal substitutionary atonement. It also engages with proposals made in the book Where Wrath & Mercy Meet (edited by David Peterson and published by Paternoster Press, Cumbria, UK, 2002 reprint).
A limited but working definition of punishment
The English word “penal” comes to us from the Latin word for pain and now carries the idea of “relating to punishment and its infliction.” The English word “punish” comes (eventually) from the same root. Whatever is penal has to do with punishment. But of course the two words now embrace more than the inflicting of pain though they haven’t lost that connection. What would a full and correct definition of punishment look like? Setting aside the legitimate uses of the word that could include abuse and injustice here is one that works well. It summarizes the proposal of Antony Flew. Punishment must embrace these elements in combination.
1. It must be an evil, that is, an unpleasantness (rather than a reward or a pleasure bestowed).
2. It must be related to an offence, the breaking of some rule (rather than a boxer giving another boxer “a thrashing” in competition).
3. It must be the (alleged) offender that is punished (this is the first definition of the Concise OED, “cause (an offender) to suffer for an offence”).
4. It must be inflicted by a personal agency or personal agencies. (Coincidences or accidents cannot be said to be punishment although if the degree of coincidence is extreme we might be tempted to believe that it was inflicted by some unseen personal agency. A child struck by lightning will suffer but that isn’t punishment. There must be intention.)
5. It must be inflicted by a recognized authority (rather than, say, by someone who “takes the law into his own hands”).
The last two points in particular beg to be developed but it looks to me that when we use the word “punishment” in a discussion about a system of punishment that this is the sort of thing we say when we’re using it correctly. As soon as we reject one of these elements something essential to the heart of punishment is lost. Since penal means, “of or concerning punishment or its infliction” when we use the word we must take into account the meaning of punishment as outlined above.
Punishment and suffering distinguished
It’s worth our while to say a little more about the difference between suffering and punishment because I notice in a number of recent publications that the two are used interchangeably. It is one thing to knowingly subject a person to grief or pain and it is another to punish them. A surgeon sometimes subjects a patient to considerable pain and we admire him for it because his intention is honorable and wise. A rapist or mugger knowingly subjects his victim to extreme suffering but it isn’t “punishment” as we’ve outlined above. An honorable judge knowingly subjects innocent little children to suffering when he sends their parents to jail for serious crimes. We say he is punishing the parents and not the children precisely because the parents are guilty and the children are guiltless. It is tragic that the children are subjected to suffering, which results (in part) because they are closely related to the transgressors, and the judge would feel their pain. But it wouldn’t enter our minds to say he was punishing the children. We find it difficult enough to watch the vulnerable and innocents suffer but to be assured that they are knowingly being punished is intolerable. Even though we recognize ourselves as sinners we still judge such a procedure to be immoral and outrageous.
The anger of God and punishment
There are those who are opposed to punishment in any form for any reason. I am not one of them. There are those who seem to think if God can be angry that that’s some form of weakness and so the wrath of God is either forthrightly denied or, for them, it becomes some form of human self-punishment. That is, God “allows us to hurt ourselves” and that, they tell us, is his “wrath”. I would have thought that a God who couldn’t be angry under any circumstances would have a weakness. Be that as it may, the scriptures look awfully plain to me and they teach God can get angry, has been angry and does even now express himself in retributive justice when he sees the need. Some of us have good reason to think of the word “angry” with connotations of vindictiveness or foaming at the mouth or unbridled passion but that isn’t in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In any case, if sinning carried punishment in itself as part of the structure of things then sin would be doing us a favor. We’d have the anomaly of sin working against itself and in favor of God by subjecting us to pain, which would tend to keep us from sinning. If we took the view that God structured reality so that sin was self-punishing then we would still have God directly involved in punishing us, which is what many people are anxious to deny. I would take the view that God sees sin as worthy of punishment and that he proceeds to punish it as and when he sees fit. I would also take it that his response isn’t the response of a slot-machine, a mindless and impersonal doling out of so much punishment for so much sin. Sin has no true meaning if there is no personal God and punishment has no meaning if there is no personal agent inflicting punishment.
Protesting penal substitution
My guess is that the penal substitution theory of atonement is still the most popular view in evangelical circles. I believe that it retains its popularity in part because it takes sin seriously, cherished hymns and credal statements keep it before us, and so forth. But I confess that I think the rank and file among us don’t think much about it and that if we did we’d look for a better (part) explanation for how atonement works in the Bible in general and through Christ in particular.
Perhaps it’s true that the protest against the theory has been stepped up in recent years with the rise of the “radical feminist movement” and the public outcry against child abuse. But the idea that the view has stood unopposed since the Reformation is foolishness; besides, even those connected to a “radical feminist movement” may be speaking truths that some of us don’t want to hear. Wasn’t that the case when even devoutly Christian people were slave-owners and promoted the slave trade? Some people stood up and asked us to take another look at the Bible.
Maybe rather than blaming radical feminists or “politically correct” people or furious protestors against child abuse for the protest against penal substitution we ought to recognize that the very words generate protest. We’re not speaking here about the innocent suffering! We’re talking about the innocent being punished!
Speaking for myself (though I know I’ve been shaped by many people before me and around me), I’m opposed to the penal substitution theory for numerous reasons. Some of them I think are exegetical and some are theological. I presently think that my theological reasons are based on exegesis and the grand drift of the biblical witness.
A working definition of penal substitution
So what does the penal substitution theory of Christ’s atonement mean? It isn’t easy to tell judging by how different people frame it. James Packer defines it without the use of the words “punishment” or “substitution”. I don’t accept the theory and yet I could fully agree with what Packer said. “Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything that was necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgement for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory.” (As quoted in WWMM, page 102.)
That says nothing about God punishing Jesus. Nor does it exclude Jesus sharing with us the judgement of God against sin. It says nothing about the transferring of guilt or sin or punishment. If what Packer said were all that penal substitution means it wouldn’t be objectionable but neither would it be recognizable as penal substitution. Peterson concedes that Packer has reworked penal substitution to avoid the pitfalls of former formulations of the doctrine. But in light of the above definition he has also avoided penal substitution.
Gary Williams reveals his definition of substitutionary punishment (page 75). “The sharing of punishment is not the same as substitution, since in substitution one goes free from the punishment and another suffers it for him.” That seems plain enough and he seems to come by it honestly in light of the words themselves. It’s the kind of honest-to-goodness definition a regular church-goer would give if he or she had interest in or knowledge about the theory. We humans have sinned against God, our sin demands punishment by God, Jesus Christ stands as our substitute, God punishes him and we go free from the punishment because God punished Christ.
In commenting on 1 Peter 2:24 and Isaiah 52 & 53 (81) Williams tell us that they teach, “Christ bore the sins for his people in their place, and that in so doing he wrought atonement for them as the punishment was poured out upon him by the hand of God himself.” The word “as” in the quotation functions causally. Christ worked atonement because Christ bore the punishment for their sins; punishment that God personally inflicted on Christ.
The personal infliction by God is important to Williams and his colleagues and he wants us to understand that it doesn’t matter who or what God uses as an instrument to punish Christ it is God who punishes him and not the instrument. That is, Gentiles may have spiked him to the cross for their own malicious reasons and Jews may connived in it for their wicked reasons but God alone is the one who punishes him.
The notion of transference (the religious word is imputation) entered the whole scheme honestly. God declares it to be wrong to punish the innocent for someone else’s sin (Deuteronomy 24:16). It is unjust to knowingly punish a known innocent so down the years many writers taught that man’s sins were imputed or transferred to Jesus Christ! They thought this made it easier to deal with God punishing Christ to whom our sins are transferred (in that respect—compare the use of 2 Corinthians 5:21) and God justly punishes him as he would a sinner. This transference notion is bolstered by the use of the scapegoat ritual on Yom Kippur (see Leviticus 16).
Williams feels the tension of this issue. It simply isn’t just to punish the innocent. He tells us that Ezekiel 18 is written to deny that Ezekiel’s peers were innocent (pages 75-76). “The people protest that they are innocent and so should not be suffering for their fathers’ sins, but the Lord answers with an assertion of their guilt. Were they innocent, the Lord argues, they would not suffer...The concern here is to deny that these people could be innocent and yet suffering for the guilty (which would be an injustice on the part of God), not to deny that the guilty can suffer for the guilty.” (The italics is mine. And note how Williams has avoided the word “punished” and substituted the neutral word “suffer”.)
Williams says that the Lord argues that if they were innocent they wouldn’t suffer. He has forgotten what he is supposed to be proving. Then he matter-of-factly says it would be unjust of God if he punished them if they were innocent. I would have thought that that would put an end to his penal substitution speech but no. Williams assures us (page 79) that “Isaiah 53:10 plainly states that the crushing of the Servant was the ‘will of the Lord,’ even though it was also a ‘perversion of justice’ (v.8).”
He goes on to confess that this is hard to unravel unless we conclude that two wills are operating, that of wicked men and that of the Holy Father. But again he slips into the neutral word “suffering” and avoids the crucial word “punishment”. The one who is punishing the innocent Christ he assures us is the Holy Father, personally. But when God punishes guilty Israel through wicked Assyria (see Isaiah 10:5-7) God alone is the punisher though wicked Assyria is his big stick. It doesn’t matter what Assyria’s agenda is (though the text tells us it is self-aggrandizement) God himself is punishing Israel for her sins. There is no difficulty in that. God is forever using man’s unrighteousness to further his righteous ends.
Williams’ difficulty lies in this: he has the Holy Father punishing an innocent man. It’s clear that Christ’s enemies were guilty of injustice because they were punishing an innocent man (53:8 and the New Testament record). Williams assures us that God was doing the very same thing—punishing an innocent man.
I don’t think we need to invent reasons why people protest penal substitution. I would have thought that any reasonable Bible student would assert that it’s immoral because it is unjust, to punish the innocent.
We simply can’t make moral sense when we put punishment and innocence together.