Putting in a Good Word for Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Penal substitutionary atonement has been getting critiqued very harshly by many Christians. It's almost a fad. And I've done my share of criticizing. But following up on the last post, let me offer a one good word about penal substitutionary atonement.

As noted in my last post, the death of Jesus is understood by the biblical authors through a variety of metaphors. The cross cannot be reduced to any one of these metaphors. Rather, each metaphor is a particular window on much larger vista. And each metaphor performs a different theological function. So the issue is, what are the functions of the metaphors that support penal substitutionary atonement?

The metaphors of penal substitutionary atonement speak to the issue of human guilt. No other suite of metaphors so powerfully addresses this facet of the human experience before a Holy God. Thus, I do think it would be rash to completely do away with penal substitutionary thinking. It performs a task that no other view of atonement can perform.

The problem with the penal substitutionary metaphors are that they are so very strong. Too strong to be deployed on a regular basis. And that is the real problem. It's not so much that penal substitutionary thinking is wrong, it is rather that it is wrongfully deployed. Penal substitutionary atonement is at its best when deployed rarely and only in the most extreme circumstances. It can't be everyday fare. The trouble is that it IS everyday fare in many churches. Penal substitutionary atonement is like a very strong acid. It has to be handled with care. And if you handle it as much as we do in our churches, often and carelessly, you end up with chemical burns. Thus many Christians are pulling away from churches in pain.

So when is the proper time to deploy penal substitutionary atonement? Like I said, penal substitutionary thinking is at its best when it speaks to profound human guilt. Specifically, some of us have committed such awful sins that our self-loathing, guilt, and shame destroy the soul. We cannot forgive ourselves. Only a very strong concoction can wash us clean. Penal substitutionary atonement is that chemical bath. It's strong acid--You deserve death and hell for the life you've lived--making it the only thing powerful enough to wash away a guilt that has poisoned the taproot of a human existence. Nothing more mild (e.g., the moral influence views I so love) can speak to this issue.

So, it seems to me, there is a proper time to pull the beaker of penal substitutionary atonement off the theological shelf.

But here's the trouble. Most of us live bland bourgeoisie lives with bland bourgeoisie sins. Few of us have lived catastrophically immoral lives. Thankfully so. But this creates a bit of a disjoint when a preacher throws penal substitutionary atonement at us. It just doesn't resonate. The strong acid just burns us. The notion that God demands our death for these slight infractions AND that God will condemn us to an eternal torment of excruciating pain makes God seem, well, rather crazed.

This feeling gets worse when penal substitutionary atonement is thrown at children. In these contexts the deployment of penal substitutionary metaphors can seem obscene and psychologically abusive. Again, the issue for us is the incommensurability between the offenses of the children (not playing nice on the playground) and the penal substitutionary view (for these infractions God will punish you forever in hell). Continuing my chemical metaphor, kids shouldn't play with acid.

The point I'm trying to make is that penal substitutionary atonement isn't bad per se. The problem is that penal substitutionary atonement is a victim of its own strength. It has suffered not by being a bad idea, but by being handled too often and too carelessly. Some people do live in such a hell of guilt that only the vision of God's death sentence, something they feel deep in their bones to be justified and proper, can reach the depth of their self-hatred. So we shouldn't throw penal substitutionary atonement out the door. We just need to understand its proper function and place.

Christians just need to go to chemistry class.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

16 thoughts on “Putting in a Good Word for Penal Substitutionary Atonement”

  1. If you don't mind a rather long comment, your post reminds me of something I read once in this article explaining the atonement from what I would probably call a Moral Influence point of view:

    For many this sense of sin is something that is hard for us to understand today. Our generation is characterized instead by a feeling of emptiness. People's problems are with self-worth. People struggle with trying to learn to love themselves and often feel like they are so messed up, so broken, that they can never be well. God does not define us by our lack; he sees all of us, and he sees someone he loves dearly. God does not have a hard time loving us, but we have a hard time accepting love. A common thought is, "Who am I that God would love me?" That is the need of our day. In earlier generations their need was a deep sense of guilt. This is why in the writings of Christians of the time - Martin Luther being a primary example - the focus of salvation was on the forgiveness of guilt. They wanted to live moral lives and found themselves unable, and in their dilemma discovered God's grace. Just as our generation has a problem with really accepting that they are loved, theirs had a problem with really accepting that they were forgiven. That was the need of their day; it was what was blocking them from life.

    Sin is ultimately not an issue of transgression but of identity. That is, it is not about doing a bad thing disconnected from who we are, it is precisely about who we are. To an alcoholic for example their addiction defines their whole life. It is not just something they do, it threatens to become them. It swallows them. This person is not helped by words like "its not so bad, you’re a good person" because they know that it is not ok and that they are not good. What they need is what Martin Luther discovered - the "trotz" of grace. "Trotz" is a German word meaning "despite". What broke through to Martin Luther as he struggled with his own moral failings was not that it was ok, but that trotz his darkness, despite his blackness, God did not turn away. God embraced him even though he was black as sin. And this defiant "trotz" is what is so powerful about grace. it doesn't matter how low we have sunk, how lost we are, how black our despair is, God's grace is stronger.

    The problem is that the church has tended to emphasize only moral guilt when speaking of sin. There are many other things that separate us from God, from life, and from love. For some people it is a deep seated sense of self-hatred, for others it is a sense of hopelessness and doubt. What they need is to hear is that trotz their brokenness, despite their emptiness is the truth that they are loved. They need to fight the lies and hold on to the truth about them. What a person struggling with the sin of self-hatred does not need is to be told is that they need to work up some sense of self-loathing guilt in order to approach God. For the first person struggling with moral failure and addiction the big step for them is to face up to that, face up to their brokenness, and to realize that God loves them and died for them despite that. But to force the second person who's sin is self-hatred to do that is like making them swallow the wrong prescription medicine, and like taking the wrong prescription, what was healing to the one person, is poison to the other. Jesus did not have a formula, he encountered each person differently, looked into their heart and said to them what the Spirit told him to say so that they might find life. We need to do that too, not with a formula, but through the spirit meeting each person at the point of their need with the Gospel.

    I personally was raised on penal substitution and it never harmed me as a kid. I reject it now because 1) it doesn't make any sense with my current understanding of justice, guilt, and forgiveness, and 2) I don't think the Bible teaches it, at least not very strongly and not consistently.

    But what has harmed me, so much that I can hardly appreciate the emotional significance of the PS story any more, is the "worm theology" that tends to go along with it -- an overemphasis on human depravity, which implicitly denies that there is anything beautiful or loveable about human beings. God's love is thus completely arbitrary (since there's nothing about us that causes God to love us -- heaven forbid!). Sure, most contemporary Christians tone it down a bit, but the closest they come to actually denying any of it is some sentimental fluff about being made in God's image (which is just too vague to be of any help to someone like me). Add in double predestination, Divine Command Theory, pride as the worst of all sins (an opinion backed by everyone from Thomas A Kempis to C. S. Lewis to the good ol' Puritans), and clever arguments for not questioning God . . . and there's a good recipe for angst and self-loathing. But of course, if you struggle with self-hatred, that's just cause you need to get over your pride . . .

    But like I said, it's really a shame that now I wince every time human unworthiness is brought up. I was really grateful to read Marilyn McCord Adams' restatement of the issue in terms of purity/defilement and honor/shame (primarily in Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God) because it allows me to get back to the same awe at God's goodness and holiness that I used to feel, but in a new paradigm.

  2. Hmm. I can't say I'm convinced that PS atonement isn't fundamentally a bad idea, but this is one of the best arguments for it I've seen (in my opinion at least). So if it isn't a bad thing, if it is a redeemable view of atonement, then what you describe might be a way it can function.

  3. Hi Abigail,
    Wonderful comment. "Worm theology"! What an evocative and accurate assessment. Did you coin that? If so, you should copyright it. :-)

    I, too, was raised on worm theology. Looking back I don't think I was harmed by it. I just slowly grew out of it, finding it less and less applicable to my lived experience.

    Hi Doug,
    First, I love that pic of yours. Scares me every time I see it.

    In the end, given the potential for abuse for PS atonement, I don't know if even this "good word" does enough to revive it. I've made a similar argument about purity metaphors in my "Spiritual Pollution" series (see sidebar). That is, purity metaphors (and this speaks to Abigail's worm theology) can be particularly toxic, psychologically and sociologically speaking. There are proper uses for purity categories but the potential for damage is enormous. So it makes you wonder if we are better off just discarding them.

  4. Richard,

    Your approach seems to be making the goal of PS and atonement theories in general a sort of psychological state, more or less believing your guilt has been dealt with satisfactorily. But I'm not convinced that, absent some other things like coherence in terms of a good theory of justice and understanding of God's nature, that goal is even a good with regards to a theory.

    It seems to me that in a lot of cases, the very people who feel they need PS are the ones who really need to hear another way of looking at it. They need to understand God's justice and God's love differently in order for real reconciliation to take place.

    For me, understanding atonement has led me to believe that God has always been willing to come down into my darkest moments to pull me up out of them, rather than having to beat his child so he could pretend they never happened. And I think even people with more "spectacular" sins need to know that, if I'm right.

    So who is PS good for? Well, my answer would be this: someone who is operating with a Reformation-period concept of law and justice. In that case, if they're going to believe God is just, they're going to need to believe PS, no matter psychological effects it has.

    But if we decide that we can do better than that with regards to justice, well, we need to go ahead and adust our atonement theories, even if that presents a new challenge to some of us with regards to our guilt.

  5. spiff,
    I see what you are saying. However, I would argue that learning about a better way to view God's love and justice can't happen for some people until their emotions have been cathartically dealt with. A good theological education about the love of God, in my view, isn't going to crack through their despair at self-forgiveness. Later on down the faith journey these issues might be revisited and recast, but I think the initial confrontation in the soul needs to be emotive rather than cognitive. Thoughts follow feelings for the most part.

    Also, if people are to be believed, many don't feel that PS atonement is "off." Rather, they feel it is entirely appropriate for their lived experience. Consequently, they find the cathartic effects to be spiritually transformative. Theology aside, PS atonement is pragmatically true for these persons.

  6. No, I didn't invent the term worm theology. I think it's actually fairly widespread among popular evangelicalism, used to deride the fire-and-brimstone approach of more traditionalist churches.

  7. Richard,

    I think you've nailed it descriptively, and yet I'm still not sure that the fact that some people can't deal with what is perhaps a better view of atonement until they've healed some and learned to forgive themselves amounts to a plus for penal substitution as an atonement theory.

    Of course, I think God does his work in many ways. For some it starts with emotional and spiritual healing and proceeds to theology later or not at all. Fine. On the other hand, for some like myself, it often starts (at least in my conscious experience) with theology and proceeds to the emotions. But none of these things are really relevant for an atonement theory normatively speaking.

    Yes some people think it and feel fine with it, and yes God works with them where they are at, just like he works with people who buy other theories where they are at. But if the idea of justice behind PS is no good, well, then the theory itself is no good, regardless of where any person is at in their ability to handle that fact. Right?

    I mean I'm not saying it's heretical, I'm not saying we need to push on people that it's wrong or anything like that. I'm just saying the fact that people believe it and find solace in it doesn't directly bear on its coherence or its truth.

    I guess at the end of the day, this is about the last thing you said. What does it mean for something to be "pragmatically true"? If I'm understanding you right, my interpretation would be "that which is useful by way of belief." But if something can be pragmatically true and yet externalistically speaking false, well I'm still not sure it's much good, in general.

    While of course it is true that theories are not true or false in quite the same way individual propositions are, it still strikes me that they depend on more than just pragmatic considerations. I shall have to think on this.

  8. spiff,
    I'm with you. In the end, here was what I was trying to do in this post. It seems that human guild is something that needs to be dealt with in the atonement, particularly if that guilt is profound. Scanning the atonement landscape it appears that PS atonement provides the most powerful emotional experience of forgiveness. This seems to be, phenomenologically speaking, an accurate assessment. That is my "good word" for PS atonement: It provides a powerful cathartic experience that might be useful for person struggling with deep guilt.

    But in the end, if as you suggest (and I agree with) PS atonement has skewed notions of justice built into it then it should be considered a nonstarter. That is, its powerful cathartic effects are accomplished via exaggeration and distortion and not from truth.

  9. Interesting. I suppose you're right that in general today PS seems to be the atonement theory most people turn to as an answer.

    On the other hand, I'll relate an analogy I've heard comparing PS to and incarnational theory in terms of the parable of the prodigal son.

    In the case of PS, well, we'd imagine that while the son is off living his wild life and then eating pig slop, the father realizes that he won't be able to forgive his son even if he does come back, because someone has to be punished. So he punishes the older son in place of the younger son. The younger son hears about this, realizes how much is father loves him, and returns.

    But imagining we adjusted the parable to an incarnational approach, we would say that the father, upon hearing that his son is eating pig slop to avoid starvation, sends word inviting his son to come home. His son will not, or cannot bring himself to return because he is too embarrassed and perhaps he's been gone so long and messed himself up enough that he doesn't even know the way anymore.

    On hearing this, the father himself goes to where the son is and lives his life with him, even going so far as to eat pig slop with him, in order to win him back and convince him to come home. When the son finally agrees, they return together, the father showing him the way.

    Now, I know that you're right, that phenomenologically speaking, PS is the one people get the strongest emotional experience from. But I have to think that's at least in part because it's been drilled into their heads, whereas other theories have been downplayed quite a bit.

    I have to say, I think other theories have just as much, if not more, potential for people to have a cathartic experience. They just haven't had quite as much of a chance.

    Anyway I think what you're trying to do is good. Forgive me pushing a bit, it's just a topic that I'm fairly interested in.

  10. spiff,
    No worries about the pushing. If PS is viable at all someone needs to give it a defense and others need to try to knock it down. It's the only way to see if it has legs.

    Back to your comment. Two responses. First, to push back. True, other atonement metaphors might pack the same emotional punch if we gave them a chance. But that begs the question why PS atonement got off to such a head start in the first place. I'd argue we go into this situation BECAUSE PS atonement was the more effective, emotionally speaking. To borrow language from some of my posts last summer, PS atonement is more "sticky" from a memetic stance.

    However, your point is well taken. I wonder what ecclesial life could be like if a preacher and a worship leader really went after incarnational images of atonement. Could these worship and Word experiences reach the emotional level a PS atonement service can reach?

  11. Well, to be historically fair, PS is pretty new, relatively speaking. At different points in history and in different cultures, different theories caught on.

    The impression I get is that for the western church in the patristic period, when push came to shove it was mainly a ransom/christus victor model that "stuck" until Anselm's satisfaction theory (substantively different from PS in important ways). And in the East, I think it's fair to say an incarnational model has always been the main way of understanding it. For them, the PS model doesn't seem to have stuck at all.

    So when I say other theories haven't had the chance, I mean in the minds of American church-folk in conservative protestant theological traditions.

    My theory for the moment is that what atonement theory "catches on", or has explanatory power in a given culture is in fact tied to the underlying accepted theories of justice in that culture, among other things. To me, this explains why PS is getting so much flack today. Today we have a much harder time with the idea of purely retributive punishment and with the idea that punishing a substitute could in any way achieve justice. This, I think, leads to the crisis over PS we have today.

    I think the problem comes in when people want to equate PS (or any atonement theory) with the gospel and derive their theory of justice from that, which is what some Reformed theologians tend to push for. It seems to me they are stuck in the 17th century when it comes to justice, because that's when they think theologians "got it right", so to speak.

    Now as for regular old church folk, well, I think we latch onto what we pray and sing and hear all our lives. Lex orandi, lex credendi, as they say.

    The last thing I'll say is this. It seems to me that MOST church folk who latch onto PS don't actually treat or examine it as a coherent theory. Instead, I think they latch onto specific metaphors within that theory that have emotional power, such as Jesus dying in our place. But of course such a statement is compatible with any atonement theory.

    So I think what we're seeing is that whatever theory is articulated, the metaphors in scripture and elsewhere will do their work. People, especially enlightenment-influenced peoples like us, in turn latch onto the theory they learned when it was the metaphors that actually did the healing.

    I want people to write songs and preach sermons about incarnation a lot more than they typically do. Some of the sermons that have moved me most have been sermons like that.

    Anyway, I'm sure I have more thinking to do. I'm about to read Anselm, which will be helpful. Thanks for the thought-provoking conversation!

  12. What an insightful post. I've been reading through Stricken by God? which I think is a well written, multi-authored book, but this post sheds more light on the reality of a deeper human need for absolution of guilt.
    Your point that there are people who need a stronger, more violent means of atonement is important!

    I think your view here does a lot for understanding the methods God used in various situations throughout the OT...it supports His relational qualities over His "law" qualities.

  13. After doing way more reading on atonement theology than is really healthy, I came to the conclusion that your chosen theory doesn't matter nearly so much as the way you preach it, pray it, and use it to support others.

    As a couple people have said above: For someone already convicted of sin, who needs to hear beyond a shadow of a doubt that God won't leave her alone in the dark (or accept her in some fictitious way that still harbors grudges)--substitution is a very powerful way of talking about that fact.

    However, Spiff is right--substitution is also the most recent of the atonement theories, and the one with the least biblical support.

    I did want to take issue with your assumption that there exists little or no sin in our average bourgeois life. Just for starters, if we're American citizens, we fund torture and environmental destruction. Compared to that, the stuff we think of as making up a "hugely immoral" life is small potatoes.

  14. Heather,
    I agree. If we start looking at sins of omission and complicity then the sins, big ones, start adding up fast.

    But even so, I wonder if the psychological distance (as unwarranted as it is) with these sins still leaves us with a bit of the experiential disjoint I describe in the post.

    Regardless, I think we both can agree on the felt incommensurability of simplistically deployed PS atonement: The second you first sin in this life (even if it just a white lie) you stand under God's death sentence and deserve (!) eternal damnation.

  15. What an enlightening post and discussion! I would refer you to a friend's article on penal substitution, to see if it has anything to offer you. I fully resonate with it. http://geocities.com/shsnj_2000/theology/crucifixion.html
    Thanks for your thought provoking posts!

  16. Thanks for this post on penal substitution. You are saying some important things here that need to be said ... and heard. You may want to check out my posts on PS at http://cruciality.wordpress.com/2008/01/08/the-wondrous-cross-atonement-and-penal-substituion-in-the-bible-and-history-a-review and http://cruciality.wordpress.com/2008/03/17/on-penal-substitution

    BTW. I'm enjoying your blog.

Leave a Reply