Picture of wooden crucifix on a table with the words "I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; it tainted the ‘good’ in Good Friday"

I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; it tainted the ‘good’ in Good Friday

So, last week I heard a man in paid ministry explain why Good Friday is good.

I took notes.

I knew in advance that he was an evangelical, so I guessed he’d be presenting a variant on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). In this post I’ll lay out what PSA is, what he said, what I said to him by way of challenge and other reasons why I felt the theology was problematic. In the next post, I’ll discuss the fallout, how that affected me, and what I make of the situation as a whole.

Before we begin: what is penal substitutionary atonement?

The word ‘atonement’ is a word that was created by a translator for a Hebrew word which the translator didn’t feel had a good English equivalent. It is multi-faceted in its meaning, but generally refers to dealing with and removing sin.

Penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) is the idea that when Jesus was crucified, he was in some way bearing God’s wrath and the punishment that humanity deserved on account of sin. According to PSA, Jesus’ suffering means that we don’t have to bear the just penalty of our sin — hence the word ‘penal’. For these purposes, penalty is deemed equivalent to punishment (I don’t think it should be, but it usually is).

Problem is, aside from Isaiah 53 verses 4, 5 and 8 (which Christians interpret as referring to Jesus’ suffering) the idea that Jesus bore our punishment is not explicit anywhere in the Bible.

There’s plenty about Jesus bearing our sin, taking away our sin, and even bearing a curse — but punishment is not there.[1]

This matters to me because if we say Jesus’ suffering was the punishment God would otherwise have inflicted on us, then we get into one or more of the following problems:

  • PSA assumes that retributive punishment does away with or fixes sin; however, punishment doesn’t do this because:
    • It does not make reparations or heal the consequences of sin;
    • It does not change the heart/mind of the person who sinned;
  • Under PSA, God the Father loses agency because he is framed as having to punish sins;
  • Because the necessity/proportionality of punishment is an action and something God determines as the ultimate judge, then, under PSA, Jesus’ suffering is to solve a problem that God created;
  • PSA has a contradiction because it says (1) that God doesn’t have agency to not punish, but (2) does have agency to accept the punishment of the innocent;
  • When PSA is analogised to human relationships, saying that God’s anger had to be ‘satisfied’, they paint God as having an inherently abusive character, being either a vitriolic parent, or (more to the point) a despot;
  • PSA assumes that ‘satisfying’ God’s anger deals with or fixes sin – it doesn’t.

On the other hand, if we say that Jesus took our sin through his suffering, we don’t have these issues. We might still wonder why the cross was necessary, but removal of sin is consistent with (a) transgressors becoming sinless, and (b) reconciliation and healing. We can also begin to wonder a bit more about whether the means of the cross was chosen to help us, for example by Jesus demonstrating solidarity with all who suffer.

So, sorry for the long introduction.

To be clear: the problem I specifically have with PSA, is how it conflates sin with punishment. But we  should distinguish these from the problems seen in how PSA is often presented.

But if you want to read about a bad presentation of PSA (not the worst, I’m sure) then carry on reading.

The presentation I heard

This man gave a three-part presentation complete with a handout and verses from John’s gospel.

“Point 1: Jesus made a deliberate act in going to the cross.”

He quoted John 18:1-5, which, um, well, isn’t the passage I’d pick but I agree with the point and I’ve blogged about this in some length here: Redemption vs Romance: Choice, commitment and consent (part 1).

“Point 2: the problem with humanity is that people don’t believe in Jesus.”

He quoted John 16:9, explaining that there is a heart problem at work that needs fixing and he began to talk about the bad things people do.

I wouldn’t have called it the most robust or elegant way of presenting the problem of sin, but I do agree that sin is a problem. In general, I also agree that the issue is associated with a fundamental orientation of ourselves, rather than the fact that we do bad things. So, although I’d question Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, I wasn’t going to argue.

But this man wasn’t done with point two.

The penal argument

Taking out a jug labelled ‘Me’ he began to talk about bad things we do and how each time we do them, we store up punishment from God because you can’t be good and not take sin seriously. He said we recognised this as a society and therefore each time we sinned, there had to be a consequence.

My ears pricked — he had interchanged consequences and punishment. Trust me, the natural consequence of stealing from someone is not someone else detaining you. The consequence is that the person you stole from doesn’t have something that belonged to them. Prison is an intervention, not a consequence. But here this guy was, saying there had to be punitive consequences, like God has no agency in how he exercises judgement.

He poured some blue water into the jug. He put in a slosh for fiddling expenses, another slosh for gossiping, and then a larger volume for committing adultery. Because, he said, the damage caused by that would be even greater.

Again, my ears pricked — it was the first time he had mentioned harm.

He said that God, being a just God, had to punish “each infraction.”

The phrase sent a chill down my spine. He held up the ‘Me’ jug with all the blue water in it and said that we cannot reduce the contents. That the “debt” just grows, as if financial debt and sin are again interchangeable. And then:

“Point 3: Jesus’s perfect solution: he took my punishment.”

I gritted my teeth at the word ‘solution’; to me it implies redemption was a mathematical calculation, and it empties the cross of mystery. Though that particular fight wasn’t worth fighting just then. Instead, I began to wonder how he was going to back up his argument from John’s gospel, given that John’s gospel never mentions punishment.

He quoted John 18:10-11 where Jesus told Peter that he had to drink the cup the Father gave him. The man said that the cup meant wrath and punishment. With that, he poured the blue contents of the ‘Me’ jug into another jug labelled ‘Jesus’ and said that Jesus “drank up” our punishment.

And that was it. He gave us a few minutes to discuss amongst ourselves.

The question I asked

I was angry.

The whole talk was geared towards making people feel uncomfortable about the things they’ve done, though few today claim to be morally flawless. Meanwhile, the talk said nothing about our hearts can become like Christ’s and gave no comfort to people who might be wrestling with the wrongs they’d experienced. If anything, I felt that such people would be weighed down with a greater sense of hopelessness.

I knew I’d have issues with the presentation but I hadn’t thought it would be this bad. My fingertips were sweating and my wrists trembled a little. I looked over my notes and began to ask myself what I challenge I could give that would be most effective; whatever I said, it had to be rooted in John’s gospel.

I heard another man murmuring his appreciation for the clarity of the message. He said that people had to accept that there was a problem that needed fixing, for “why would God provide a solution if there wasn’t a problem?”

That’s when I knew what I would ask.

The discussion died down and the floor was opened for questions.

I waited just long enough to be polite but not so long that someone else put up their hand first. After all, there was only limited time.

Then I asked him: “So, what exactly do you see as the problem that needs solving? You talk about two different things here: on the one hand you say there’s a heart problem that needs addressing, but you’re also saying there are all these sins that have stored up punishment, and you’re saying that the punishment is the problem. But the way I see it, there are two problems: one is our state, our heart problem, our need to transfer from death to life, from darkness to light, like how Jesus explained to Nicodemus, but the other is the damage that’s been caused by our sin — surely we need the cross as a place of healing and reconciliation?”

I went on: “You’ve talked about punishment, but in John 1:29, John the Baptist describes Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he doesn’t say punishment. And in John 15, Jesus explains that he’s being crucified because the world hates him. So why do you say that our punishment is the problem that needs a solution? I think we get to where we are because so many of our theologians were lawyers, but I don’t see the idea supported in John’s gospel.”

What he said in response

For a moment his eyes widened like he knew he’d just been stumped on a mega-issue. Then the defences kicked in.

“So, nice simple question!” he joked and the room laughed. It didn’t surprise me that he did this, and I suppose it was probably necessary to disarm any tension. It was plain to everyone that I had made a statement, not asked a question.

He then said that when you give a 20-minute presentation, there are always limitations on what you can say. This is not an excuse, but again, I wasn’t surprised that he made it.

He agreed with me that Jesus took away our sin. He repeated this several times. He then seemed to give a bite-sized version of his talk, going over what he’d already said but saying “sin” instead of “punishment”.

He also added: “Of course we need healing and please don’t think for a minute think that I don’t think that sin doesn’t cause harm to other people.” I wasn’t suggesting he did, I just found it telling the that concept of reconciliation and healing had been wholly absent from his talk.

Then he went back to John 3, repeating what I’d said about us having a fundamental heart issue that needed fixing. But he landed on the last verse where it says that whoever doesn’t believe in Jesus is still under wrath; the implication (in his view) being that punishment applies.

Then time was up.

Unravelling the theology further

Over the afternoon I chewed over what he’d said.

I’d never would have thought he’d say that the ‘cup’ was the cup of God’s wrath rather than simply a cup of suffering. It bothered me because this an assumption and my guess is it doesn’t have regard to Jesus’ Jewish context (which had many cups, by the way). Also, Jesus told his disciples James and John that they would also drink the same cup (Mark 10:39). Therefore, given Jesus alone saved the world (no evangelical will deny this), whatever this cup is, it’s not the world’s punishment.

When I got home, my husband pointed out the fallacy in referring to sin as debt. Financial debt can be settled by anyone, because money is interchangeable with itself. But that doesn’t work when you want to settle a grievance; it makes no sense to direct retribution towards someone who hasn’t wronged you. Meanwhile, people who take satisfaction in vicarious suffering are very, very disturbed, so why apply that concept to God the Father?

A couple of days later I was mulling over something I read ages ago: that it wasn’t so important what we thought of God, what was important was what God thought of us. The implication is that being ‘under wrath’ is the primary problem and God’s attitude towards us is what should concern us most. Now in some ways this statement is true: the fact that God loves us is way more important than our technical theological understanding of who God is.

But something clicked that hadn’t before.

God’s wrath isn’t the primary problem. Being in a state where we fundamentally orient ourselves in opposition to him — that is the problem, because that’s where all the mess and bad stuff happens. God’s wrath is a reaction to that problem.

But you know what? Just because God’s angry, that doesn’t mean he is compelled to punish.

You know what else? Wrath is not God’s only reaction. Mercy, compassion, redemption — these are also part of how God reacted to us. That why the cross exists!

And I know that this man probably knew that the cross is an act of love from God to deal with the problem of sin, but the emphasis of his presentation was far from that. It was like he felt the fact that Jesus was giving a solution was more important than the solution Jesus provided. And it was like he considered the solution Jesus provided was more important than what the solution achieved.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but think that the message presented would be dispiriting for people who are weighed down by oppression and the injuries that other people’s sins have inflicted on them. It had too much emphasis on the ‘rightness’ and accumulation of punishment that God would necessarily inflict on us. It had nothing to say, “You know what? Suffering is bad. That’s why God wanted to end it. And he did end it, showing those who suffer that he also shared their sufferings, and showing conquerors that he can invert and subvert and triumph over even their greatest instruments of oppression.”

But that comfort wasn’t there. Overwhelmingly, that was my concern with the presentation.

Because if you’re not preaching good news for the poor and the poor in spirit, you’re not preaching the gospel.

After the talk, I contacted the event organiser. I’ll write about that in my next post.


[1] So, given that neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor the author of the book of Hebrews mentions punishment, we’ve got to wonder how much weight we should put on these few verses from Isaiah. This is particularly the case given that (a) the passage is poetry and (b) it says “we considered” that the suffering servant was being punished by God — as if “we” were actually mistaken, and (c) when you look closely at the Hebrew words, they don’t fit well with PSA.

If you’re up for more of my posts that look at Jesus’ passion, you might be interested in:

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One thought on “I heard a talk on penal substitutionary atonement; it tainted the ‘good’ in Good Friday

  1. Thanks for summarizing PSA so well. Your precise words help me to think about it and remind me that all theology is built on the Bible (or at least should be) but is not the Bible itself.

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