I wrote a page on “penal substition” or the “substitutionary atonement” at Christian-history.org. However, because of the nature of my site, Christian History for Everyman, I included an exposition of the atonement from my perspective, which I hope was an educated one.
A solid explanation of the atonement is terribly difficult to nail down, both from a scriptural and historical perspective.
Perhaps this is good. Why should we humans be able to fully understand the most divine, sublime, paradoxical (God becoming flesh and dying?!), influential, and powerful act in human history? It should not surprise us that the power of the atonement is a mystery.
Today, I want to skip trying to explain the atonement and simply show that one extremely popular interpretation, penal substitution or substitutionary atonement, cannot be true.
Doing that is simple.
The idea behind penal substitution is that every sin earns the death penalty (a rather bizarre and frightening idea on its own, but we’ll leave that refutation for another post). Jesus offered pay the death penalty for us by dying on the cross. Being divine and sinless, his offering was sufficient to erase the penalty of sin for everyone.
This idea is called penal substitution because Jesus death was a substitute for our penalty. It’s also called the “paid penalty” theory for the same reason.
Problems with Penal Substitution
There’s two problems with this theory, both of them fatal to the theory. First, it contradicts several Scriptures, and second, its origin can be traced to Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. No one prior to A.D. 1200 believed it.
Novelty in Christian doctrine is not good.
Contradiction of Scripture #1
If Jesus paid for all sins by his death, then no sins can be judged. Many Christians, and even whole denominations, teach that unbelievers are not condemned for their sins, but because they did not believe in Jesus.
The apostle Paul flatly contradicts this:
For this you know, that no sexually immoral or unclean person, nor a covetous person, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Do not let anyone deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the disobedient. (Eph. 5:5-6, emphasis mine)
God … will render to everyone according to his deeds … to those that are contentious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, [he will render] indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of mankind that does evil. (Rom. 2:5-6,8-9, emphasis mine)
Contradiction of Scripture #2
Others believe that penal substitution does not go into effect until we believe. In fact, Calvinists (whose doctrine I strongly oppose) teach that Jesus only died for those who will be saved.
Those who believe this often teach that the judgment for Christians, though according to works, will only include our good works. How can it include our sins? They have already been paid for.
Paul doesn’t agree:
For we shall all appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive the deeds done in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Cor. 5:10)
Use of “Paid” and “Penalty” in Scripture
One final mark against penal substitution.
You would think that if penal substitution was correct, then the Scriptures would speak the way we do. It would use words like “the penalty was paid,” or “Jesus paid it all,” or “Jesus paid a debt he did not owe; I owed a debt I could not pay.”
We don’t find these things. We find the apostles teaching that Jesus paid a purchase price for us or that he was a ransom. The very word “redemption” implies a purchase price from slavery.
However, neither “ransom” nor “redemption” implies a price paid to God. Instead, ransoms and redemption money are paid to slave owners.
Most Christians I’ve mentioned this to flinch. The idea of Jesus’ death being a payment to the enslaver of mankind is horrifying to most of us.
Is that because the idea is not scriptural? Or is it because we have believed a false doctrine for about 800 years?
I’m not the one who wrote “ransom” and “redemption” in the apostles writings. They wrote it. Jesus said it, too. I’m not repeating it because I like the idea, and I decided that I’m going to try to make my idea popular. I’m repeating because it’s in the holy Writings of the apostles and prophets.
It will take thought, prayer, and revelation to understand the mystery of the atonement to whatever level we are able to understand it. However, I hope that I have helped put a bullet in the head of the novel and false idea that Jesus’ death was a substitution for a penalty that our sins brought upon us from God.