Volume 46 - Issue 1

Appeasement of a Monster God? A Historical and Biblical Analysis of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

By Geoffrey Butler


Long considered a key tenet of evangelical theology, the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement has come under particularly intense scrutiny in recent years. Critics claim that it is a fairly recent innovation with little support prior to the Reformation, and that it depicts Yahweh as comparable with the pagan deities of the OT. This article makes the case that, on the contrary, the substance of penal substitutionary atonement has been taught from the church’s earliest days, arguing that the doctrine stems directly from a careful, thoughtful engagement with Scripture, which from beginning to end points toward the sacrificial death of Israel’s Messiah.

The doctrine of the atonement has generated no shortage of controversy throughout Christian history. Perhaps as much is to be expected; what Christ accomplished on the cross cuts to the very heart of how believers are to understand the gospel. However, the penal substitutionary model has incurred particularly intense scrutiny. This view, alternatively labeled representative substitution, is defined by British theologian J. I. Packer as the conviction that the atonement involves “the innocent taking the place of the guilty, in the name and for the sake of the guilty, under the axe of God’s judicial retribution.”1 Likewise, philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig, a staunch defender of penal substitution, has defined it as “the doctrine that God inflicted upon Christ the suffering which we deserved as the punishment for our sins, as a result of which we no longer deserve punishment.”2

Though its proponents argue the view to be thoroughly biblical and demonstrably historical, this understanding of Christ’s work has been attacked on both accounts, often quite vehemently, by its detractors. Some who reject the penal substitutionary model assert that it is a Reformation, or at best medieval, invention that finds no support throughout the first millennium of the church. For example, the former Anglican Archbishop of Perth, Peter Carnley, derides the it as “inadequate” and charges that it “has been criticized in the course of history of Christian theology right from the moment it was first articulated by St. Anselm in the Middle Ages.”3 Moreover, the doctrine has also been criticized as a distortion of Scripture, nowhere clearly taught in the Old or New Testaments. It has been blasted as a barbaric distortion of God’s character that places him in the category of pagan gods such as Molech,4 depicting him as a “monster God” who is appeased only “through the barbarism of child sacrifice.”5 Detractors have also claimed that it is irreconcilable with the teaching of Christ that his disciples must love their enemies.6 If Christ did indeed pay the price for the sins of humanity, they charge, God has never truly forgiven any sinner as he expects believers to do when wronged.7 In the Gospels, they argue, Jesus depicts the Father as simply forgiving individuals with no mention of a sacrifice. How, therefore, can one argue that he requires the substitutionary sacrifice of his son in sense order to accomplish redemption?8 Even to the casual observer these are clearly serious charges.

The question is whether such charges are accurate. Is penal substitution a relatively recent invention? Does it truly depict God as some sort of violent, pagan deity? Is it incompatible with the loving God of the Bible as revealed through Jesus Christ? While such charges certainly merit consideration, ultimately this article will make the case that they are mistaken. It will argue that the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement has, in substance, been believed and taught since the infancy of the church, demonstrating that it has held considerable influence throughout Christian history, and represents a thoroughly biblical depiction of Christ’s work on the cross.

1. The Fathers on the Atonement

In order to address the first charge—that the doctrine of penal substitution is a relatively recent invention that would have been foreign to the early church—it is imperative to examine how patristic authors understood the atonement and whether their statements regarding Christ’s work on the cross resemble the penal substitutionary position. Given the magnitude of his influence in this era, there is perhaps no better place to start than with Athanasius and his signature work On the Incarnation. In his fourth chapter discussing the death of Christ, Athanasius makes several statements allowing readers considerable insight into his theology of the atonement.9 He describes the purpose for Christ’s coming to earth as follows:

Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved his Godhead by his works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression.10

It is generally accepted that Athanasius, in contrast to other patristic theologians such as Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa, rejected the ransom theory of the atonement which stipulates that the sacrifice of Christ was a price paid to Satan in order to free humanity.11 However, in speaking of Christ serving as a sacrifice in the place of others and settling an account, it appears that he conceived of the atonement as more than—though certainly not less than12—a cosmic victory over Satan.13 Athanasius clearly has in view the idea that Christ went to the cross in place of others, that he gave himself up instead of those who actually deserved his sentence. He further comments:

He had come to bear the curse that lay on us; and how could He “become a curse” otherwise than by accepting the accursed death? And that death is the cross, for it is written “Cursed is every one that hangeth on tree.” Again, the death of the Lord is the ransom of all, and by it the “middle wall of partition” is broken down.14

Note that not only does Christ sacrifice himself on behalf of others, die in their place, and settle their account of sin, but he also becomes a “curse”—bearing that which should have fallen on sinful humanity. This is the very heart of penal substitution; the innocent receives the penalty due the guilty, and the guilty receive the pardon due the innocent. What makes Athanasius’s testimony even more vital is the fact that he is an eastern father, a pertinent fact given that critics of penal substitution have sometimes labelled atonement theories in general as a construct of western theology.15 Granted, although his statements do not constitute a concise theory like one might find in a modern systematic theology, he clearly employs the language of substitution regarding the cross.

Athanasius is hardly the only church father to express sentiments that closely align with the doctrine of penal substitution. Writing in the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus16—again, a giant in the defense of orthodoxy frequently labelled the Trinitarian theologian17—was a staunch proponent of ransom language when discussing Christ’s atonement yet distanced himself from the view that his sacrifice was a price paid to Satan.18 He found repugnant the thought that God owed a debt to Satan in order to redeem the human race; while divine justice did indeed require a ransom to redeem humanity, he felt his fellow patristic writers erred in suggesting that the price was owed to anyone but God himself.19 Though acknowledging the difficulty in accepting that God required the sacrifice of his son in the place of sinners, he considered it the logical and biblical conclusion of ransom language in the Scriptures—just as proponents of the penal substitution would argue. Moreover, when the NT refers to Christ becoming a curse, Gregory argues this refers to him standing in place of the guilty, taking their sin upon himself. Commenting on 2 Corinthians 5:21 he claims, “As for my sake, he was called a curse.… He makes my disobedience his own as Head of the whole body. As long then as I am disobedient and rebellious … Christ is also called disobedient on my account.”20 In using such language, Gregory affirms the essence of penal substitution. Christ takes on the sin of humanity and thus becomes accursed, incurring the punishment they deserve; in turn, his people are freed from their debt and, as Gregory goes onto say, united with Christ.21 Clearly, this is a far cry from the notion that the atonement was a price paid to Satan.

However, of all the material penned by the early church pertinent to this discussion, The Epistle to Diognetus may be the most consequential of all. An early Christian apologetic dating to the 2nd century, the writer employs unmistakably substitutionary language in describing Christ’s work on the cross. While the author’s identity remains uncertain,22 his theology of the cross occupies a central place in the epistle, as he asserts, “He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for wicked, the innocent for the guilty, the just for the unjust.”23 Further using the language of substitution, the author continues, “O the sweet exchange! O work of God beyond all searching out, O blessings past our expectation that the wickedness of many should be hid in one righteous man and that the righteousness of the One should justify many wicked.”24 The understanding of the atonement, and the ransom language involved, is clear; it does not involve simply Christ’s cosmic conquering of the power of sin as Christus Victor proponents would assert,25 nor does the author give any indication he aligns with the ransom theory wherein Christ’s death is a price paid to Satan. In view is the idea of exchange; the wicked are justified before God on account of the atonement of his Son. How? Because in his work on the cross Christ serves as a substitute—“the just for the unjust”—meaning that he receives the penalty they deserve on account of their transgressions while his people are blessed with his righteousness—hence the author’s exclamation, “O sweet exchange!”

In all fairness, it could rightly be noted by opponents of penal substitution that the doctrine hardly represents the clear consensus of the early church. To be sure, this would be clear if only for the sympathy for the ransom theory found in the writings of such giants as Augustine of Hippo and Gregory of Nyssa.26 Nevertheless, the purpose here is not to demonstrate that this understanding of the atonement was unanimous among the early Christians in the first place, but simply to show that it was not unheard of but was, in fact, fairly widespread. With this position established, the next question becomes whether this understanding may be connected to the further development of the doctrine in the medieval era.

2. Medieval Theology

As stated at the outset, one of the more popular claims made by critics of penal substitution is that the doctrine had never been conceived of until the time of the Protestant Reformation. Thus, having established its presence in the patristic era, it now bears analyzing how the medieval theologians conceived of the atonement. There stands at least one figure in medieval theology that even fierce opponents of the penal substitutionary model of the atonement generally grant expressed the position clearly. Anselm of Canterbury’s support for the doctrine, or at least his sympathy with the essence of it, is well documented through his so-called satisfaction theory. In Anselm’s view, the atonement clearly involves God rescuing humanity from his own wrath.27 Granted, he also speaks of Christ freeing humanity from the power of Satan, comparable to the Christus Victor position; however, he goes well beyond this as he describes his substitutionary work. Anselm, drawing a parallel between the feudal society in which he lived and the cosmic moral order of the universe, reasoned that just as doing harm toward a human lord damaged his honor and threatened the community, to rebel against God was to dishonor him and his rightful place as Lord of the universe.28 Thus, in Anselm’s view, Christ’s atonement satisfies the wrath of God, paying on sinful humanity’s behalf a debt they could never repay. One may note the commonality between Anselm’s explanation of the atonement through the analogy drawn from his medieval context and Gregory of Nyssa’s explanation through the lens of Roman society.29 While this has invited criticism from those who argue both men relied too heavily on their respective social contexts to construct their theology, it could also be taken to demonstrate that Anselm’s theology did not simply emerge as a result of his feudal context but rather echoed a concept present in Christian theology hundreds of years before the medieval era. Like the church fathers before him who employed the language of ransom and substitution to describe the work of Christ on the cross, Anselm views an atonement that expiates the sin of humanity as essential to salvation. This expiation, in his thought, is grounded in propitiation, as the Son takes on the sins of the guilty in order to satisfy God’s wrath.30 His writing on the atonement was vigorously opposed by his contemporary Peter Abelard, who argued that, rather than a demonstration of God’s justice, the cross must be understood as a demonstration of God’s love for humanity.31 This is not to say that Anselm had nothing to say of the love of God demonstrated in the cross or that Abelard objected to understanding the cross as a sacrifice in any sense. Rather, Abelard differed with his counterpart first of all in emphasis, and secondly in his rejection of the notion God himself required a payment to forgive the sins of humanity. Unlike Anselm, he argued that the atonement need not have an objective basis, in other words.32 The purpose here is not to argue whether or not Abelard or Anselm is correct, but rather to point out the debate surrounding the penal aspect of the atonement far preceded the Reformation.

Another important medieval voice on this subject (and other major theological issues) is the Thomas Aquinas. Without a doubt, differences do indeed exist between Aquinas’s view of the atonement and the position later articulated by some Reformers. As Randall Zachman, emeritus professor at the University of Notre Dame notes, in Roman Catholic Christology the Son of God “experience(s) the beatific vision” at all points in his earthly life, a view that differs from John Calvin’s understanding of penal substitution wherein Christ suffers the vengeance of God to the extent that he experiences the reality of hell itself.33 Yet, the substance of Aquinas’s argument remains the same as the predecessors in the patristic era and successors during the Reformation. The language that Aquinas uses to describe his understanding of the atonement sounds little different from the penal substitutionary view:

God’s severity is thus manifested; he was unwilling to remit sin without punishment, as the apostle intimates when he says, He did not spare even his own Son. But it also illustrates God’s goodness, for as man was unable to make sufficient satisfaction through any punishment he might himself suffer, God gave him one who would satisfy for him.34

Note that Aquinas, while not asserting that God could not forgive sin without due punishment, clearly states that he would not; thus, Christ acts as a sacrifice in taking that punishment.35 Aquinas goes on to label the work of Christ a “propitiation” on behalf of sinners, and declares that the debt Christ paid fulfilled the requirement of divine justice.36 Although he never employed the phrase “penal substitution,” in Aquinas’s Summa Theologica one will find as clear a description of it as anywhere else in medieval theology. God, on account of his justice, must punish those guilty of sin. Yet, Christ offers himself as a sacrifice of propitiation who satisfies the requirements of such justice and allows the sinner to be freed form their debt.37 In terms of substance, what more could one require of Aquinas?

3. The Reformers on the Atonement: Innovation or Explanation?

At this point one may highlight the relative lack of discussion surrounding the substitutionary nature of the atonement in medieval scholarship when compared with the age of the Church Fathers, and such a statement would be fair. It is perhaps partially on account of this that the Protestant Reformers, viewing themselves as heirs to the Fathers, were eager to recover a robustly biblical understanding of Christ’s work. Having laid out how the atonement of Christ had been understood during the patristic and medieval eras, the question concerning the Reformers becomes this: were they in fact introducing an entirely new theory of the atonement to the church, or merely explaining and expanding that which had already been established?

In order to demonstrate that the Reformers did not, in fact, formulate their own doctrine of the atonement from scratch but simply taught and expanded on that which was believed in centuries past, it is helpful to consider how Anselm’s previously discussed satisfaction theory compares with the atonement theory of one of the giants of the Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther. On the surface, differences indeed do exist; one can easily note the distinction in their style and theological method as they explain and defend their respective understandings of the atonement, with the former relying heavily on principles of logic and reason and the latter who preferring to defend his doctrine from the Scriptures alone. Even in answering the question of whether or not the atonement was necessary, Anselm answers the question from a logical standpoint, arguing that divine justice and honor logically necessitate that an atonement be made.38 Luther, on the other hand, rejecting the scholasticism that permeated medieval ecclesiastical thought, made the case that an atonement was essential simply because it is what God determined would happen; because he had ordained the atonement of Christ to be the means by which individuals are saved, it is by definition necessary.39 Yet, while their theological method may differ, concerning what took place on the cross the two parties are very much in agreement, especially on the matter of divine justice. Both Anselm and Luther insist that the work of Christ must meet demands of divine justice, for if sinners cannot repay the debt they owe God on account of their sin, a substitute is essential to pay that debt.40 In other words, Luther concurs with his medieval counterpart that God’s justice required payment, and Christ made that payment through his death on the cross. In substance, then, Luther’s doctrine of the atonement was hardly new, even if his emphasis differed from that of Anselm. While some claim that Luther did not, in fact, hold to the penal substitutionary view but rather the Christus Victor model, the preceding evidence clearly demonstrates he did understand the cross to entail Christ substituting himself in the place of sinners, bearing the wrath of God due them for their transgressions. It is a mistake to assume that because Luther—or, for that matter, any believer—makes certain statements consistent with another atonement model such as the Christus Victor understanding that they therefore reject penal substitution. They are not, by nature, mutually exclusive. One finds statements sympathetic to both models in Calvin’s thought as well as in Luther’s.41 Thus, when modern proponents of the Christus Victor position claim that the model “dominated” Christian thought for the first thousand years of the church,42 it must be remembered that even if this is the case, the presence of the Christus Victor model does not imply the absence of the penal substitutionary model. It is quite possible to hold them simultaneously, as it appears Luther and Calvin did.43

As for Calvin himself, it is quickly admitted that the Genevan Reformer held tightly to the penal substitutionary model, both by those who hold to the position and look to him for support and clarity and by those who reject it and decry the prominence it occupies in his theology of the atonement. Speaking of the work of Jesus on behalf of humanity he declares:

Christ interceded as his advocate, took upon himself and suffered the punishment that, from God’s righteous judgement, threatened all sinners; that he purged with his blood those evils which had rendered sinners hateful to God; that by this expiation he made satisfaction and sacrifice duly to God the Father; that as intercessor he appeases God’s wrath; that on this foundation rests the peace of God with men.44

There is much to unpack in such a rich theological text, but perhaps the best place to begin is noting how, in Calvin’s thought, expiation and propitiation are inherently linked; the latter makes the former possible. This serves as a prime example of how Calvin and his fellow Reformers were not the first to affirm the essence of penal substitution but did further expand and explain the implications of it. One looks in vain for such a systematic explanation in the church fathers of how exactly expiation and propitiation are linked, even though there is ample discussion of both in their writings. Calvin goes on to assert that he has attempted to maintain consistency with the fathers and the Apostle’s Creed,45 putting to rest the charge that it was his intent to revise the doctrine of the atonement rather than remain in the apostolic tradition.46

Considering this brief historical survey, it seems clear that, far from being a Reformation invention, the Reformers embraced and taught penal substitution precisely because it was not a new doctrine. The Reformation, contrary to popular belief, did not give rise to a new atonement theology as much as it recovered, refined, and reasserted that which had been held dear since the apostolic era.

4. The Biblical Witness

While the testimony of the historic church is indispensable to properly understanding the atonement—or, in fact, any doctrine—the ultimate standard by which any theological claim must be measured is the Word of God itself. For the purpose of understanding the atonement, it must be asked whether the Bible itself supports the notion of penal substitution, beginning in the OT. This requires at very least a basic understanding of how an Israelite in that context would have understood concepts such as atonement, the wrath of God, and redemption. In the first place, the concept of penal substitution rests on the notion that the wrath of God is indeed a fearful reality and that he will carry out retribution against those who violate his holiness.

While penal substitution is far from a developed doctrine in the early chapters of Genesis, God establishes a pattern that he intends all of his creation to abide by: obey his commands and live, or disregard them and face the consequence—death.47 This is the inevitable result of sin and is a direct result of the judgement of God—as the Apostle Paul would put it thousands of years later, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23 ESV). Moreover, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, while not explicitly laid out in Genesis 22, seems to be foreshadowed as notable parallels exists between the offering of Isaac and the sacrifice of Christ.48 As the passage details Abraham and Isaac journeying up the mountain together, so the Gospels detail Jesus’s journey from Bethlehem to Calvary, communing with the Father and submitting to his will along the way. However, unlike when Abraham lays his son on the altar yet is ultimately permitted to spare him, God the Son is abandoned on the cross as he bears the sins of the world;49 there is no goat or ram supplied to serve as a sacrifice, for the spotless lamb bears the wrath of God in the stead of sinners. Donald McLeod posits that it is this separation that evokes Christ’s cry of dereliction from the cross as he sorrowfully laments his abandonment by the Father.50 While God spares Isaac, he offers Jesus; while Abraham’s son continues to enjoy fellowship with his father, the Son of God is forsaken by his.

Likewise, in the Levitical Law—and indeed, the entirety of Israel’s story from the Exodus in Egypt through their conquest of the Land—the concept of a blood atonement, with a substitute offered to cover the sins of the people, is inescapable. As the angel of death passed through the land of Egypt, prepared to take the life of every firstborn son in an act of divine judgement for that nation’s oppression of God’s people, the Israelites were commanded to paint their doorposts with the blood of a slaughtered lamb so that the wrath of God would not come upon their household as well.51 What deflected the wrath of God, the sentence of death, was not the righteousness of the Israelites; they too would suffer the loss of their firstborn unless they obeyed the command. The difference lay in the blood which lay over the doorpost, indicating that a sacrifice had been made the cover the household. Thus, the Passover lamb—which would be memorialized for millennia in the Jewish Passover festival—served as a substitutionary, propitiatory role, pointing to their future Messiah who would one day serve as the true and perfect Lamb of God.52 And what of Leviticus? The Day of Atonement alone embodies the concept of penal substitution, with its ceremony involving two goats; one to be slaughtered and the other to be sent into the wilderness, bearing the sins of the nation.53 While Calvin may have expounded in depth the concepts of expiation and propitiation in the sixteenth century, one need look no further than this ritual from Leviticus for a prime example of how the two are connected in dealing with human sin. Indeed, the Hebrew word for atonement—כפרfrequently refers to an act of propitiation.54 In Numbers 25:13, for example, Phineas the priest “made atonement for the people of Israel” by driving a spear through a couple caught in fornication—an act that, though gruesome and even somewhat bizarre to the modern reader, satisfied God’s wrath and ended the plague the he had brought upon the nation on account of their idolatry and sexual immorality with the Midianites.55

Finally, no discussion of the doctrine of penal substitution would be complete without a thorough analysis of Isaiah 53, which details the afflictions of one commonly referred to as “the suffering servant”—in the historic Christian understanding, the Son of God himself. What is so striking about this passage is that not only does the servant substitute himself in the place of others, but that, in doing so, he is afflicted by Yahweh himself.56 William Lane Craig notes that what God refused to do to Moses—that is, take his life on behalf of the people of Israel—he readily does to the servant.57 Reminiscent of the Levitical Law, he is said to be a “sacrifice for sin,” echoing the language of animal sacrifices prescribed in the Torah. Moreover, verse 10 makes the striking assertion that it “was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief” (Isa 53:10), making it abundantly clear that the servant is taking a punishment that is not his own. The surprising element in this passage is that, while God had indeed commanded the Israelites to engage in animal sacrifice, the practice of human slaughter was strictly forbidden—unlike the cults of Israel’s pagan neighbours. In this passage, it seems clear that what Yahweh would not accept from Isaac or Moses, he would accept from the servant—to bear the sins of the people and in doing so incur the divine wrath that should have fallen on them.58

Just to demonstrate that the OT foreshadows a penal substitutionary atonement would be insufficient, however; many opponents of the model concede that the God of Israel frequently seems to behave in a brutal manner.59 What should really be of interest in understanding the cross, it is charged, is how Christ and his Apostles understood the atonement. Thus, proponents of penal substitution must be willing to grapple extensively with what the NT teaches as well. Throughout his earthly life and ministry, Jesus forthrightly declared that his purpose in coming to earth was to give his life as a ransom.60 This sentiment is echoed throughout the NT letters, making clear that his Apostles also viewed his work on the cross as a substitution for others. Scot McKnight, elaborating on Christ’s understanding of his atonement, notes that Jesus depicts his suffering as a necessity; the Son of Man, as he often speaks of himself, had to be delivered over to the authorities and suffer.61 Likewise, in Matthew 20:28, Jesus employs the Greek word αντί—that is, in place of—to describe his death on the cross for sinners, demonstrating that he understood his work to be substitutionary in nature.62 During the Last Supper with his disciples, he interprets the OT Passover ceremony as a foreshadowing of his own atonement—the Passover, in which a lamb would be slaughtered in order to cover the sins of the people. The bread and wine that he offers to the disciples is his body given “for you” and his blood poured out “for you” (Luke 22:19–20), which would be shed “for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). It seems that in Christ’s understanding of the atonement, there is more in view than a cosmic defeat of sin or a moral example; rather, he offers his life as a substitute for them.

At this point, some critics of the penal substitutionary model posit that it makes God guilty of hypocrisy, for if God requires a sacrifice on the part of Jesus before he forgives, how could Christ, in his earthly ministry, instruct his disciples to turn the other cheek and simply forgive when they are wronged?63 Is God not, in punishing his Son, ignoring his own command to his people? However, such a charge fails to recognize how the persons of the Trinity, when rightly understood, are not at odds in this understanding of the atonement.64 First of all, the fact that each member plays a different role in accomplishing the atonement does not mean it is not a thoroughly Trinitarian work; on the contrary, this would make the atonement not unlike creation, the incarnation, or the resurrection.65 Christ did not have his life taken against his will; as the Gospels document, he laid it down of his own accord (John 10:18). Thus, on this understanding Jesus is not a helpless victim but a humble savior as Isaiah 53 depicts. As for the charge that penal substitution depicts God as unwilling to forgive others, as Jesus requires of his people, it is certainly possible that Jesus instructs his disciples to forgive those who have wronged them precisely because of his atonement. Whatever wrong one’s human enemies may have committed, the atonement of Christ means that their sin has been dealt with at the cross by the Son of God, indicating his willingness to forgive—thus necessitating a willingness for his people to do the same. Second, the argument that God cannot take vengeance if he instructs his people not to do so runs counter to the NT’s teaching that God’s people must not seek revenge in part because the Lord repays individuals according to his justice.66 Judgment is a prerogative that, while denied to his followers, is reserved for God himself, who always judges perfectly. Finally, because penal substitution is a Trinitarian act, in which God, in the flesh, bears the penalty due humanity, it is essentially God himself assuming that which his enemies should have borne. Does this not parallel the human act of forgiveness—often a painful step—in a very real sense?

The doctrine is not limited to Jesus’s teaching, however, as it is clearly on display in the thought of Paul. The apostle notes that all people are under the wrath of God on account of their failure to acknowledge him for who he is (Rom 1:18). The penalty for such an offense is death; however, in his writing to the Corinthian church, Paul declares that God made Christ to be sin in a substitutionary sense order to accomplish the redemption of humanity. Brian Vickers explains, that “The Old Testament background of Paul’s language, the concept of reconciliation, and the context all point to a sacrificial interpretation of ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin’ in 2 Corinthians 5:21.”67 Harkening back to Leviticus, Paul refers to Jesus as a “sin offering,” and says that those who believe in him have been “justified by his blood” in Romans 5:9.68 Further, he says God “condemned sin in the flesh” by sending Christ (Rom 8:3); as the Son bore in his body the iniquity of mankind, he took upon himself the condemnation of God.69 The Father, then, in Paul’s thought, makes Christ an offering for sin—echoing Isaiah in the OT. In Galatians 3, yet another epistle to a different congregation, he describes how Christ fulfilled the law and defeated the sin of his people by becoming a curse on their behalf.70 And what of the other NT authors? Hebrews depicts Christ as the fulfillment of Israel’s sacrifices in the OT,71 which have already been established as propitiatory and expiatory; such sacrifices were merely a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice, for the author declares such animal sacrifices could never truly take away human sin (Heb 10:4). Peter, who followed Jesus throughout his earthly ministry and witnessed firsthand his death, burial and resurrection, declares that Christ suffered on the cross as righteous in the place of the unrighteous in order to reconcile the guilty to God (1 Pet 3:18).72 He references the servant of Isaiah in 1 Peter 2:24, noting he “bore our sins in his body on the cross” and declares that “by his wounds we are healed.” His suffering, his sacrifice, his taking the sins of the world on himself, is ultimately what makes this healing possible. These statements make little sense unless they are taken to mean that Jesus substituted himself in place of the guilty. Finally, in his discussion of the rites of the Mosaic Law as “copies of the heavenly things” as a precursor to the New Covenant, the author of Hebrews observes that according to that law, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22–23 ESV).

The biblical witness, then, is clear. Not only are Calvin and his contemporaries not responsible for inventing the doctrine, but neither are the church fathers who they leaned on so heavily. The true origin of the doctrine lies in Scripture itself. Once again, far from misrepresenting and demeaning the character of God, the saints throughout the ages who have believed and taught the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement have done so in light extensive biblical support for the position. Thus, it not reasonable to propose that the contemporary church do likewise?

5. Conclusion

Given the rich historical and biblical witness to this doctrine, then, a decisive conclusion may be drawn. This doctrine is not a distortion of biblical teaching, making Yahweh comparable to a brutal pagan deity, nor is it the product of any sixteenth century system. On the contrary, the doctrine of penal substitution is a precious truth that should evoke awe and thanksgiving on the part of those redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. While it may be true, as critics assert, that the substitutionary aspect of the atonement has been overemphasized in some circles to the exclusion of other integral components, this should not mean that penal substitution ought to be dispensed with altogether; on the contrary, it should serve as a catalyst to recover a balanced, Christ-centered theology of the cross. Doing so could come as a much-needed reminder that this understanding of the cross is not inherently a hindrance to recognizing other benefits of the atonement as well. It may also serve as an occasion to demonstrate that the doctrine of penal substitution is not at odds with, but rather perfectly fits into, the larger story of Jesus’s earthly life and ministry—as well as other models of the atonement as well.73 Indeed, in the vein of the historic Christian tradition, the contemporary church would do well to recapture a rich, through doctrine of the atonement that recognizes all that Christ accomplished in his death on the cross, a key component of which is the propitiation of humanity’s sin.

[1] J. I. Packer, Knowing God, reprint ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 186. Packer makes this claim in chapter 18 (“The Heart of the Gospel”), in which he explains why the doctrine of penal substitution is essential to a biblical understanding of the Christian faith and how the scriptural idea if propitiation vastly differs from pagan conceptions of it.

[2] William Lane Craig, “Is Penal Substitution Unjust?,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 83 (2018): 231.

[3] Peter Carnley, Reflections in Glass Trends and Tensions in the Contemporary Church (Sydney: HarperCollins Australia, 2011), prologue. Carnley further derides penal substitution due to the “offensive view it projects of an uncompromisingly cruel and punishing God” and the “rough-and-ready kind of justice it depends on, given that the innocent Christ who suffers the required punishment to satisfy God instead of the guilty.”

[4] Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook, 2017), 82. Much of Zahnd’s work centers around his own move away from penal substitution, which he firmly held to in his early days of ministry. He highlights the famous Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”—of which he made his own copy at one point——as a prime example of the “Angry God” preaching he believes to be the logical outcome of holding to penal substitution.

[5] Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands, 89.

[6] Gregory A. Boyd, “Christus Victor View,” in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, eds. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 42–43. In Boyd’s view, the principle of loving/forgiving one’s enemies is grounded in a non-violent atonement that highlights the evil of the sinner’s actions, declaring, “Our Calvary-like response to our enemies exposes the evil of what they are doing, breaks the tit-for-tat cycle of violence that keeps the demonically oppressed world spinning, and lovingly opens up the possibility that our enemy will repent of their ways.”

[7] Gregory A. Boyd, “Christus Victor Response,” in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, eds. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 103–4.

[8] Boyd, “Christus Victor Response,” 103–4.

[9] Athanasius, On the Incarnation: Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, rev. ed. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1996), 49. Athanasius devotes a full chapter of his work to the meaning of Christ’s death, later asserting “now that the common Savior of all has died on our behalf, we who believe in Christ no longer die, as men aforetime, in fulfillment of the threat of the law.”

[10] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 49.

[11] See, for example, Michael J. Vlach, “Penal Substitution in Church History,” MSJ 20.2 (2009): 201.

[12] For a discussion of this understanding of the atonement—often labelled the Christus Victor model —see Greg Boyd, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, 2 vols. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017). A brilliant writer who demonstrates a pastoral heart, much of Boyd’s work—particularly his serious and prolonged engagement with the patristic authors (pp. 116–18)—is indeed commendable. However, it is not necessary, in order to hold that Christ defeated the power of sin in his atonement, to dispense with the belief that he also bore the penalty of sin. His charge that penal substitution “tends to downplay the revelatory significance of the cross” (p. 161) and that a proper “understanding of salvation is distorted and paganized” (p. 528) by this doctrine stand out as clear shortcomings.

[13] Vlach, “Penal Substitution,” 200.

[14] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54–55.

[15] Vlach, “Penal Substitution,” 200. Though Vlach admits the considerable influence the Reformers in particular and the western tradition broadly had in the doctrine’s recent development, he demonstrates that the substance of the penal substitutionary understanding far precedes the emergence of Protestantism. See also Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands, 82. The author contends that the penal substitutionary model “was wisely rejected in the Eastern Church,” and his title proves to be a very sharp criticism of this view. He claims the character of God is “viciously maligned” by its proponents in their attempt to “explain the cross according to the honor codes of feudalism.” Indeed, he is “suspicious” of the very idea of atonement theories in general as “attempts to reduce the scandal and mystery of the cross to rational and utilitarian formulas.”

[16] It is worth noting that Boyd engages with Gregory in chapter 10 of Crucifixion of the Warrior God, citing him to argue the thesis that the language of sacrifice in the OT is an example of God accommodating to fallen human understandings of the divine rather than an actual desire for sacrifice, a requirement that God abolished “when his people had matured further” (p. 710). Yet, the fact that Gregory speaks of the atonement in the above terms seem to show he understood the work of Christ as an actual sacrifice, and that the biblical passages that speak of it as such are not an accommodation to human shortcoming.

[17] Vlach, “Penal Substitution,” 208–9.

[18] Stephen R. Holmes, The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History (London: Paternoster, 2007), 48.

[19] Holmes, The Wondrous Cross, 48–49.

[20] Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 174. In this volume the authors survey no less than ten writers of the patristic era, all of whom embrace key aspects of penal substitutionary atonement. This, they claim, is imperative to avoid the error which critics already accuse defenders of penal substitution of—interpreting Scripture in a novel fashion and thereby misrepresenting the work of Christ.

[21] Jeffery, Ovey and Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions, 174.

[22] Paul Foster, “The Epistle to Diognetus,” ExpTim 118 (2007): 163. Foster notes the parallels between the epistle, however, and the writings of early Christian apologists such as Justin Martyr. He also points out that the introduction bears striking similarity to Luke’s greeting to Theophilus at the beginning of his Gospel, both of which indicate the very early dating of this piece—and, thus, the very early development of an atonement model closely resembling penal substitution.

[23] Henry George Meecham, The Epistle to Diognetus: The Greek Text with Introduction, Translation and Notes (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1949), 87.

[24] Meecham, The Epistle to Diognetus, 87.

[25] Boyd, “Christus Victor View,” 44.

[26] Holmes, The Wondrous Cross, 47–48.

[27] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo 1, in Anselm: Basic Writings, trans. Thomas Williams, Hackett Classics (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007), 10. Anselm addresses the objection “that God allows him to be treated in that way, even though he was willing, does not appear suitable for such a Father with respect to such a Son,” by explaining that, “it is appropriate for such a Father to consent to such a Son if what the Son wills is praiseworthy because it honours God and it is useful because it procures the salvation of human beings, which could not be accomplished in any other way.”

[28] Stephen Finlan, Options on Atonement in Christian Thought (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), 57.

[29] Finlan, Options on Atonement, 58.

[30] Saint Anselm, Cur Deus Homo 1, 12.

[31] Alister E. McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 299–300. Despite Abelard’s opposition to Anselm’s articulation of the atonement, McGrath cautions that, “While Abelard did indeed place considerable emphasis on the subjective aspects of the atonement, that is, Christ died to become an example to humanity of God’s love, he set this emphasis within a context which included a full incorporation of sacrificial understandings of the cross.”

[32] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation, Studies in the History of Christian Thought 60 (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 86–87.

[33] Randall Zachman, Reconsidering John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 156.

[34] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I–II, 3a q.47 a.3, trans. Fathers of the Dominican Province (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1948).

[35] Anselm and Aquinas differ slightly on this point; while Aquinas stopped short of claiming God could not forgive sin without punishment, Anselm argued that “it is not fitting for God to do anything unjustly … that he does not leave unpunished a sinner” and that “if injustice is forgiven by mercy alone, it is freer than justice, which is utterly absurd” (Cur Deus Homo 1, 12)—indicating that he understood the penal aspect of the atonement essential to a proper understanding of the cross.

[36] Aquinas, Summa Theologica I–II, 3a q.47 a.3.

[37] Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions, 184–85.

[38] See Burnell F. Eckardt, Anselm and Luther on the Atonement: Was It “Necessary”? (San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992), 177. This approach is consistent with the distinction previously highlighted between Anselm and Aquinas.

[39] Eckardt, Anselm and Luther, 190.

[40] Eckardt, Anselm and Luther, 28–29.

[41] Strehle, The Catholic Roots, 105.

[42] Greg Boyd, “Christus Victor View,” 44.

[43] See Boyd, Crucifixion of the Warrior, 253–54. Not only does Boyd acknowledge that, like Luther, “Calvin saw the cross as the center both of Jesus’s revelation of God and of his saving work,” but he actually credits the Reformers with preparing the groundwork for the emergence of his own “cruciform hermeneutic”—the key focus of his work—through this recovery of the centrality of the cross. Yet, he also strongly disagrees with them both on this point, and indeed notes that the founders of his own Anabaptist tradition considered their position “myopic.”

[44] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.16.2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1960). Calvin, in the vein of patristic and medieval theologians before him, likewise viewed expiation and propitiation is tied together, prefacing his above comments by declaring that God’s people “were under a curse until their iniquity was atoned for by his sacrifice…. They were estranged from God until through his body they were reconciled.”

[45] Calvin, Institutes 2.16.6.

[46] For a full-length analysis of Calvin’s dependence upon patristic authors in the development of his theology—not just on the atonement, but a number of other doctrines—see A. N. S. Lane, John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999).

[47] William D. Barrick, “Penal Substitution in the Old Testament,” MSJ 20.2 (2009): 2.

[48] Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 177. McLeod notes this parallel when addressing the mystery of Christ’s abandonment by the Father, saying of Christ’s bearing the sins of humanity that, “The paradox should not escape us. He was sinless. He was the Son of God. But there, on Golgotha, he was a sinner. He was sin.”

[49] MacLeod, The Person of Christ, 177.

[50] Donald MacLeod, Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 48–49.

[51] Barrick, “Penal Substitution,” 9. Addressing the blood painted on the doorpost of every Hebrew home, Barrick explains “the sacrifice appeared to forestall the penalty of death for those who were within the household—especially firstborn sons. Although the lamb signified substitution, the text does not state that the blood atones or expiates; it only protects and preserves the household from divine wrath.”

[52] Barrick, “Penal Substitution,” 10.

[53] Jeffery, Ovey, and Sachs, Pierced for Our Transgressions, 42–43.

[54] See, for example, Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 274. While acknowledging that “Hebrew linguists widely disagree about the nuances implicit in the verb,” Hamilton notes, “It is significant that the Targum of Leviticus from Qumran … translates the Hebrew word kappomret (‘mercy seat, propitiatory’).” Furthermore, in his discussion of the sacrifices outlined in the first seven chapters of the book, Hamilton asserts that the sacrifices required in the case of a guilt or sin offering, “are expiatory or propitiatory in nature. Explicitly, sin and its forgiveness are the issues” (235). See also BDB 497 (כִּפֶּר), which notes that the term can also be used to mean “cover over” or “pacify,” and Jay Sklar, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC 3 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 50–51. Sklar observes that though this term can sometimes be used to denote purification, “in contexts when sin is being addressed … [the focus] is on averting God’s wrath.”

[55] Jeffery, Ovey, and Sachs, Pierced for Our Transgressions, 42–43

[56] See Bernd Janowski, “He Bore Our Sins: Isaiah 53 and the Drama of Taking Another’s Place,” in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher, trans. Daniel P. Bailey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 48–74. This essay is written as “an alternative to Immanuel Kant’s narrow understanding of representation…which insists that no person can represent or take the place of another in matters of personal guilt” (48). The author charges that in the context of Isaiah 53, “Israel, which is no position to take over the obligation arising from its guilty, must be released from this obligation in order to have any future. This liberation comes from an innocent one who surrenders his own life according to Yahweh’s “plan” … the expression about the vicarious “bearing” of the guilt of others (v. 4a; cf. vv. 11b, 12b) means to say nothing other than this” (p. 69).

[57] William Lane Craig, The Atonement, Cambridge Elements (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 13.

[58] Craig, The Atonement, 13.

[59] Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands, 25–26.

[60] Craig, The Atonement, 21.

[61] Scot McKnight, Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2005), 62. While McKnight goes on to state on page 347 of his work that Paul’s theology of the atonement is much broader than just a penal substitutionary understanding, and in fact cautions against overemphasizing the importance of any one model of the atonement, he also criticizes those who—unlike the apostle—avoid using the language of substitution because they find some of the implications of it uncomfortable. Though he sees Paul’s theology of the atonement as centered around issues if life and death rather than divine justice—as, for example, in Anselm—he still recognizes that concern as a “real and fundamental issue for soteriology.” In the prologue of his work, McKnight uses the analogy of a set of golf clubs in his description of atonement theories, and cautions against the tendency, common among too many Christians in his view, to rely only on one “club,” as it were, instead of understanding “the value of each.”

[62] Richard L. Mayhue, “The Scriptural Necessity of Christ’s Penal Substitution,” MSJ 20.2 (2009): 139–48. “The phrase to give his life as a ransom for many is one of the clearest statements in the New Testament of the saving effect of Jesus’ death,” according to R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC 1 (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985), 297.

[63] G. J. Williams, “Penal Substitution: A Response to Recent Criticisms,” JETS 50 (2007): 72–73.

[64] The issue of how the persons of the Trinity relate in the atonement is another issue raised by Brian Zahnd, for example, as he claims that penal substitution “fractures the Trinity by pitting the Father against the Son in order to vent divine rage,” comparing it to “the cultic practice of ritual sacrifice” (Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands, 106). Thus, perhaps despite obvious disagreement, this question is one that proponents of penal substitution would do well to grant more attention to given the seriousness of this charge.

[65] Keith E. Johnson, “Penal Substitution as an Undivided Work of the Triune God,” TJ 36 (2015): 60.

[66] Williams, “Penal Substitution,” 73.

[67] Brian Vickers, Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 170. Vickers argues that this understanding is not unique to this epistle; he later proposes, in his detailed analysis of “the righteousness of Christ” in this passage, “When one recognizes the sacrificial background for 2 Corinthians 5:21, the substitutionary atonement that background entails supported by the theme of representation in verses 14–15, and the non-reckoning of sin in verse 19 that takes place by Christ’s vicarious bearing of sin—this text begins to look and sound similar to Romans 3:21–26” (p. 183). See also Thomas R. Schreiner, “Penal Substitution View,” in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, eds. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 72–73.

[68] Craig, The Atonement, 11.

[69] Williams, “Penal Substitution,” 79.

[70] Schreiner, “Penal Substitution View,” 73. In contrast to many critics of the penal substitutionary understanding who claim that it makes true love and forgiveness, as Jesus demands of his followers, incoherent, Schreiner claims just the opposite. “The forgiveness of our sins by virtue of the death of Christ,” he claims, “is the wellspring of ethics; we love God because he first loved us (1 Jn 4:19), and such love is the wellspring of a life of obedience.” Thus, a Christian understanding of ethical behavior may be grounded in this understanding of the atonement; because Christ loved the believer and sacrificed himself for them prior to any expression of love on their part, they are free to do adopt the same posture toward others.

[71] For a detailed treatment of this matter, see R. B. Jamieson, Jesus’ Death and Heavenly Offering in Hebrews, SNTSMS 172 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 57. Hebrews 8 in particular, according to Jamieson, “confirms that Christ offered himself in the only place where he was qualified to serve as high priest, the heavenly tabernacle…. Heb 8:1–5 confirms that, just as the Levitical priests offered their sacrifices in the earthly tabernacle, so Christ offered his in the tent in heaven.”

[72] Schreiner, “Penal Substitution View,” 92.

[73] Boyd’s criticism that the penal substitutionary model “tends to unwittingly drive a wedge between the salvific cross, on the one hand, and every other aspect of Jesus’s identity and mission” cannot be overlooked here (Crucifixion of the Warrior God, 161). Certainly, it is worth considering whether this charge is accurate. However, though some evangelicals may be guilty of such imbalance, it is a mistake to view such a shortcoming as the inevitable result of holding to penal substitutionary atonement. If true, the goal must be to correct this perceived imbalance without making the mistake of dispensing with a doctrine that ought not to be blamed for the problem.

Geoffrey Butler

Geoffrey Butler is a graduate of Tyndale Seminary and a current PhD candidate at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario.

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