The Death of Jesus: Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Since the very beginning of Christianity, the death of Jesus has been central to the Christian faith. No interpretation of that faith can avoid the significance of that event. Jesus’ death, however, for many centuries was never looked at or thought of in isolation. What came before and after his death were both crucial in understanding what happened at Calvary. What came before his death included his life, teachings, example, healings, miracles, deeds, and above all his message regarding what he called the Kingdom of God. Without these parts of the gospel, his death would be but one more example of the cruelty of the Roman Empire. Many thousands of men, women, and children were crucified by Rome. Jesus’ death is significant only in light of his life.

Easter validates both his life and his death. We cannot understand his death without Easter. But we cannot understand his resurrection without his death.

What came after his crucifixion was equally important. His resurrection further reveals the significance of his life and death. Without that resurrection his death signifies just one more tragedy in the history of the world. Easter validates both his life and his death. We cannot understand his death without Easter. But we cannot understand his resurrection without his death. There can be no resurrection (as the New Testament and early church understood it) without the cross.

One reason the death of Jesus has been central to the Christian faith from its very birth is that no one expected the Messiah to undergo such a fate. Even though Jesus spoke of his death and (like many a prophetic figure) realized the danger of speaking truth to power, his followers never absorbed that part of his message. Nothing in Jewish theology prepared the disciples for a crucified Messiah. His crucifixion was a shock, outrage, disgrace, and shameful defeat. This was one reason Paul persecuted the church. He could not believe that Israel’s Messiah could die such an ignoble and cursed death. But the resurrection demonstrated to the disciples and later to Paul that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. And so, all of his followers began to see his death as crucial to the message of the gospel. They came to believe that somehow the fate and destiny of every human being as well as the entire creation were linked to the fate and destiny of this man from Nazareth.

We shall try during this Lenten season to expand our understanding and appreciation of Jesus’ death.

So, what did his death mean? Every page in the New Testament has as its background Jesus’ death and resurrection. As those early followers reflected on his death, they found many images and metaphors to express what they believed happened that fateful day on Calvary. There is not just one understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death in the writings of the New Testament. In future articles we shall look at some of the ways his death was understood within the church. But in this article, I want us to look at one particular interpretation of his death. This interpretation is the one most Christians in our society have grown up with. In fact, it is the only interpretation many have ever heard and the only one many people believe is valid. If the death of Jesus is central to our faith, then it is crucial we understand his death as it is interpreted in Scripture, church history, and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We shall try during this Lenten season to expand our understanding and appreciation of Jesus’ death. My goal is not to tear down our faith but to enrich it as we become true to the witness of the Bible, the testimony of the church, and our own reasoning and experience.

The theory of atonement many Christians grew up with is called penal substitutionary atonement or penal satisfaction atonement. The theory goes something like this: sin prevents humans from being in a right relationship with God because God is holy. Since God is also just, God cannot simply forgive without first requiring punishment or payment as an appropriate penalty. God, however, sent his (and God in this theory is always a “he”) son to earth to suffer the punishment we deserve by dying on the cross. Jesus died in our place, taking on himself our punishment. This satisfies God’s justice, and since Jesus has paid the penalty for us, God can offer us forgiveness. If we believe we are sinners deserving of divine judgment but accept that Jesus died in our place and confess him as our Lord and Savior, we can be in a right relationship with God and go to heaven when we die. Without that acceptance, we are destined to suffer eternal torment in hell.

The theory of atonement many Christians grew up with is called penal substitutionary atonement or penal satisfaction atonement.

This theory of atonement was unknown in the church for the first thousand years after Christ. In a later article we will see how the early church understood atonement. What I want to focus on in this article is how this theory came into being. It began with the writings of Anselm (an Archbishop of Canterbury) in the 11th century. Anselm lived from 1033 to 1109 CE. He wrote a book entitled Why God Became Man. For centuries many in the church believed that the price Jesus paid through his death was paid to Satan. The logic went like this: Satan had ensnared every human being because of the sin all humans had committed. When Jesus was dying Satan thought he was just one more sinful human destined for hell. But because Jesus was without sin, he could not be possessed by Satan after death. Jesus’ death became a ransom to Satan whereby humans who trusted Christ could be saved. Anselm could not accept this crude theory of atonement. He rejected any notion that Satan had so much power. So, he sought to articulate another theory which saw the cross as some kind of satisfaction Jesus paid to God, not to Satan.

Anselm developed this theory not by using biblical models, terms, and metaphors but by borrowing customs and images from the European medieval world of lords and vassals. A vassal served a lord and owed his allegiance and absolute obedience to that lord. A vassal who did not fulfill the requirements of an oath of loyalty and obedience must offer something to satisfy the offended lord. The society deemed it improper if a Lord did not demand redress from the guilty vassal. Above all else, in that culture the honor of the Lord had to be preserved.

Using this medieval paradigm Anselm said that we are the vassals who owe our absolute obedience and allegiance to God. By our sin we have offended God, and God’s justice demands satisfaction. Therefore, according to Anselm God sent Jesus to offer a solution to this dilemma. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, he was able to satisfy the justice and honor of God and bring about our reconciliation to God. His righteousness could be transferred to us because he, the only human without sin, could pay the price necessary for our salvation.

What we must realize today is that Jesus’ death was never understood this way prior to Anselm and the medieval period. It is based on the honor system which demanded the honor of an offended lord be satisfied and restored. As time passed the original medieval setting of this theory was forgotten, but the theory itself was not only kept–it was expanded. Instead of the focus on restoring the honor of the Lord, the new emphasis was on the guilt and punishment of the sinner. We are guilty and must be punished. Our guilt is so extreme and massive there is no way that we can overcome that guilt. There is no punishment severe enough to wipe out our sin. Jesus, the divine-human without sin, is the only one who can pay for our sin and remove our guilt. In the extreme forms of this understanding of atonement, God is presented as exceedingly angry at us. God’s wrath is so great that we are condemned to everlasting torment in hell. Jesus comes and takes our rap, God is satisfied with Jesus’ pound of flesh, and the Almighty is willing to forgive humans based on Jesus’ sacrifice. (In 1970, I remember hearing a sermon which horrified and disgusted me. The preacher said that as Jesus was suffering from the cruel tortures of crucifixion, the angels were begging God to end Jesus’ agony and let him die. Over and over the angels pled. God’s response to each plea was the same: “No! I will not let him die until the last drop of blood drips!”) There are conservative theologians who believe in a satisfaction theory of atonement who do not go this far in their understanding of Jesus’ death. But what I want to emphasize is that many Christians in our culture understand the death of Jesus precisely in this way.

In my mind and in the mind of most theologians today, there are many things wrong—terribly wrong– with the penal substitutionary atonement theory.

I firmly believe we need a better interpretation of the death of our Lord. In my mind and in the mind of most theologians today, there are many things wrong—terribly wrong– with the penal substitutionary atonement theory. First of all, we must realize that the church preached the gospel for a thousand years without this understanding of Jesus’ death. Neither the New Testament nor the early church interpreted his death in this manner. Furthermore, Eastern Orthodox Christianity has never embraced this way of looking at Jesus’ death. Because of Eastern Christianity’s emphasis on the Incarnation and the Trinity, it sees Jesus’ death in terms of the liberation of humans from sin and death and as the ultimate step of God’s solidarity with all of creation.

A second problem with this theory is what it says about God. This interpretation of Jesus’ death basically says that God is unwilling to forgive unless someone suffers and pays a price. Those holding this perspective essentially are saying that the problem is God and not us. God is the one who is angry and will not forgive without appeasement and sacrifice. God is the one who demands a pound of flesh. And yet God, according to Jesus, expects us to forgive and love our enemies. Jesus even says in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to love our enemies because God loves God’s enemies. What kind of God expects more love and forgiveness from us, sinners though we may be, than God is willing to offer? To me this theory denies the whole basis of the gospel which conservative Christians are always quoting: “God so loved the world.” As Paul says, God was in Christ reconciling the world unto the Divine Self. In II Corinthians 5:18 we find these words: “All this is from God who reconciled us to God through Christ.” The marvelous benediction in the Book of Jude refers to God as “Savior” and to Jesus as “Lord.” The New Testament, taking its cue from Jesus, sees God as being in the loving, healing, and saving business—not in the condemning, punishing, and damning business.

In contrast to the New Testament, the penal substitutionary theory describes what happened on the cross as directed toward God and changing something in the Divine Self which allows God to be reconciled to us. Theologian William Placher states it well:

Focusing on God’s need to be reconciled to us gets things backwards from the New Testament standpoint. For Paul, it is we who need to be reconciled to God, not the other way around. God’s love endures; it is our sin that has broken our relationship with God; it is we who like sheep have gone astray. The barriers that have to be broken down are built from our side.

It is a psychological fact that you cannot love what you fear.

It is a psychological fact that you cannot love what you fear. You can obey and be servile to what you fear, but you cannot love what you fear. As I John says, “Perfect love (which is God) casts out fear.” How could any of us really love a God as fickle, wrathful, and cruel as the penal substitutionary atonement theory would have us believe? A gospel which is not based on the unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, and everlasting love of the One Jesus called Abba can never nurture love for oneself, God, or others.

We must also remember that throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the four Gospels we find many examples of when God forgives and saves. The Psalms and the Hebrew prophets overflow with the claims that God does not deal with us according to our sin—that God removes our sin as far as the East is from the West—that God is merciful, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. We have no concept of God being unwilling or unable to look at and deal with human sin. In the gospel stories we have many accounts of forgiveness and salvation offered with no mention of blood atonement or penal sacrifice. (e. g., the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus, the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair, the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son). On two occasions Jesus quoted the prophet Hosea regarding sacrifice. In Matthew 9: 10-13 he says to the religious leaders who criticize him for eating with sinners, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” And in a most remarkable passage in Matthew 12: 1-8, Jesus, in reference to his ministry, presence, and mission says, “I tell you, something greater than the Temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” Jesus claimed to be greater than the Temple in Jerusalem where sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin (among other kinds of sacrifices) were offered. Hosea and Jesus say that God is not interested in sacrifices. God is far more concerned with compassion and mercy, neither of which are found in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement.

And this brings us to a third problem with this theory. Almost all of those who ascribe to the theory of penal substitutionary atonement maintain that the only way to be saved is to believe Christ died in your place, to accept his death as a payment for your sin, and to accept him as your personal Lord and Savior. This is the only way to escape the torments of everlasting hell. If all of this is true, then very few people in the history of the world have any hope of salvation. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that more than 108 billion humans have lived on this earth in the past 50,000 years. So, when it comes to “salvation,” what about all the people who lived before Jesus? What about all the people who lived after Jesus but never heard of him? What about all the people of the world today who sincerely believe in the God they grew up trusting and worshiping? What about all the Christians who trust in Christ and have given their lives to Christ but who cannot accept this theory of atonement?

This theory denies the gospel that God so loves the whole world. If God so loves the world and everyone and everything within it, how could God pursue a plan of salvation which saves a very small percentage of the human population. The God of this theory is too small, too petty, too biased, and not trustworthy. If God so loves the world, then God’s love must reach out to every human being and indeed to all creation. The scope of God’s love is entirely too limited by the penal substitutionary atonement theory. The good news according to this theory is only for a select few who had the luck of being born at the right time and in the right place. I refuse to believe that the God Jesus proclaimed and revealed is that fickle when it comes to our salvation.

A fourth serious problem with penal substitutionary atonement involves ethics. The life, example, deeds, and teachings of Jesus are basically disregarded with this theory. It virtually ignores the fact that it was Jesus’ lifestyle and message which led to his death. It overlooks his conflict with the political and religious powers of his day. It neglects the centrality of the Kingdom of God in his teachings. It has no place for the importance of the justice which characterizes God’s Kingdom. Basically all that is important in this theory is that Jesus lived a sinless life and died in our place to appease a God of wrath so we could be saved and go to heaven when we die—provided, of course, we believe that we are sinners, that Jesus died in our place, and we accept him as our Savior. There is little room in this theory for Jesus’ words, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” This teaching assumes that Christ’s disciples will live as he lived and that such a righteous and just life will possibly lead to suffering, misunderstanding, and persecution.

Clarence Jordan told of an incident he witnessed when he was a boy. He lived within hearing distance of a chain gang camp and often talked with prisoners through the barbed wire fence which surrounded the shackled prisoners. The warden of that camp was a member of the Southern Baptist church the Jordan family attended. He sang in the choir and often was overcome with emotion with tears running down his cheeks as he sang songs like “Love Lifted Me” and “Oh, How I Love Jesus.” But this was the same man who would put prisoners on a rack which would tear their muscles, tendons, and ligaments and dislocate their bones. One night Jordan recognized from the cries of agony coming from the man who was being tortured on the “stretcher.” He was a black man named Ed Russell—a man Jordan had befriended over several months.

If all that matters is that we believe Jesus died for us and that we go to heaven when we die, then we will have little concern for issues like hunger, injustice, prejudice, human rights, the rape of the environment, or anything else that is Kingdom oriented.

How could a man sing about the love of Jesus and put a human being made in the image of God on a rack and tear his muscles and joints apart? He could do so because he believed and had been told by ministers that all that really mattered was that he was saved by his belief that Jesus had died in his place and that he had accepted Jesus as his Savior. That’s also how German soldiers could torture and kill millions of Jews and other victims and then go home and pray with the families, worship in their Nazi churches, and sing Christmas carols when they were on leave. I do not mean to imply that all people who hold to his theory are cruel and lacking in empathy. I have known many who were compassionate and loving. But I do mean to imply that if we accept what this penal substitutionary atonement theory claims matters most in the Christian faith, we may find ourselves doing some very un-Christ-like things. If all that matters is that we believe Jesus died for us and that we go to heaven when we die, then we will have little concern for issues like hunger, injustice, prejudice, human rights, the rape of the environment, or anything else that is Kingdom oriented.

Even as a child I had a gut feeling that something was profoundly wrong about what I was hearing in church and in the community in which I grew up. I now refer to this penal substitutionary atonement theory as “Whipping Boy” theology. I am convinced that this view of atonement is about as far removed from the gospel as anything we can imagine.

So, what does the death of Jesus mean? What does it mean for our lives, our discipleship, our ethics, and our faith? That is what we shall be looking at in future articles. But if you have heard nothing else today, please hear this: you are loved by God now and forever. Nothing will ever change God’s love for you or any other part of this creation. And that is truly good news.

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