Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) is a popular understanding of how it is that Jesus’ death saves us. It views Jesus as suffering instead of us (thus ‘substitutionary’) the just punishment (thus ‘penal’) we deserve. That punishment is the consequences of our sins – death as well as the despair of estrangement from God.
I ran across a post of Scot McKnight’s. In it he argues that PSA is unavoidable. He offers the following five fundamental propositions as making PSA inescapable:
1. Humans sin.
2. Sin has serious, ultimate consequences before God.
3. The consequence of sin, its punishment, is death.
4. Jesus died to bear (and bear away) the consequences of sin (and sin).
5. Christians proclaim the forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus.
The only way to avoid PSA, McKnight suggests, is to through one of the following ways:
1. Believe that sin has no final consequences.
2. Eliminate the sin-bearing intentions/consequences of Jesus’ death.
3. Claim that Jesus’ death did not deal with the consequences/punishment of sin.
If one believes Jesus’ death forgives sin, one must explain why he had to die to forgive sins. One must see in death the consequence/punishment of sin. That is, Why did Jesus have to die to forgive sins? Hence, to claim he forgives sin by death means he has taken our place in his death and in that death absorbed the consequences/punishment of sin.
That is called penal substitution.
Several things can be said in response, the first of which might be that some items McKnight mentions require important clarification. What’s meant by “ultimate”? What’s meant by “death”? Is mortality a punishment for sin? Does ‘death’ also mean spiritual death? What’s the relationship between the Cross and God’s forgiving us? And most importantly, what determines the “penal” nature of the “consequences” we suffer due to our sin? There’s a lot in these five propositions that begs further questions.
That said, I’d like to offer some reasons for thinking that PSA can be “altogether avoided” without essentially denying that our sin has consequences which Jesus saves us from. That is, PSA can be false and it be true (1) that sin has consequences, (2) that Jesus’ death makes clear God’s intention to bear these consequences, and (3) that God in Christ does bear these consequences (albeit not as punishment). Note that McKnight defines his conclusion into the premises (the third prop in each set).
The first and perhaps most significant thing to question, indeed, the point at which PSA began to unravel for me, is the relationship between the Cross and God’s forgiveness. McKnight feels Jesus had to die to make it possible for God to forgive. I’ve pursued the question elsewhere, but I’ll just say here that we have good reasons for rejecting this belief and for concluding instead that forgiveness precedes the Cross as its motivation.
God incarnates and suffers for us because God forgives us, not so that he can forgive. Stated similarly, the Cross doesn’t make it possible for God to forgive us. Instead, God’s forgiveness of us makes the Cross possible. This opens us up to understanding the Cross in altogether non-penal terms without dismissing the despair and estrangement from God which are intrinsic consequences of sin that Jesus deals with.
A second change in perspective would be to approach the consequences of our evil by understanding these consequences in non-penal terms. That’s certainly possible. We are punished by our sins, someone said, rather than for our sins. This does amount to rejecting McKnight’s (3), but that’s to be expected since he defines “consequences” as “punishment.” That, however, is the point being contested. True – if we want to avoid penal associations altogether, we have to deny that Jesus’ death addresses the penal consequences of our sin. But that’s not to say he doesn’t address the consequences of our sin.
There certainly are intrinsic consequences to our evil, and Christ saves us from these consequences, but we needn’t understand the consequences in punitive-penal terms. If the consequences of our evil choices are intrinsic to the choosing, they’re intrinsic to the chooser and by definition aren’t the kind of things that can be borne by another. We should recognize that we already suffer the intrinsic consequences of our choices. We all live the despair of not enjoying the knowledge of forgiveness and intimacy with God. Jesus doesn’t suffer these “instead of” us. He saves us from them not by experiencing them as such (i.e., not by being forsaken or cursed by God), but by making possible a relationship to God whose consequence is life and joy. The way to be saved from despair and estrangement from God is to make choices who consequences are other than despair and estrangement. So while it is true that Jesus suffers “as a consequence of” our sin, i.e., he comes to us and as a consequence of our evil and we murder him in consequence of his coming, but this is not to say he suffers “the consequence of” our sin.
Thirdly, an important biblical theme to contemplate in this regard is the repeated emphasis in the Psalms and Prophets that reminds us that what grounds the experience of forgiveness is the simplicity of a humble and repentant heart. Blood sacrifice is simply not required by God. Humility and repentance are all he cares about. Several passages point out that God isn’t interested in blood sacrifice:
Ps 51.17, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”
Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Heb 10.8, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” though they were offered in accordance with the law.
The list could go on.
My own sense is that God had to work with blood sacrifice because that’s where Israel was, not because spiritual realities on God’s side of the equation require it. Consider Israel’s (evil) demand for a king. God went with it, even incorporated the monarchy into Israel’s prophetic imagination foreshadowing the Kingdom and Christ as Messiah. But it was never introduced by God into Israel’s religious traditions as an embodiment of abiding spiritual truths. Similarly, Moses permitted Jews to divorce through writing a letter of divorce. But Jesus made it clear that God never waned or endorsed it. It wasn’t his idea. He only tolerated it because of Israel’s hardheartedness. Point is, we mustn’t mistake the best use God makes of our falsehoods and misunderstandings as suggesting divine endorsement of those positions.
I suggest we view blood sacrifice in its entirety the same way – something Israel insisted upon as a way to relate to God which God managed through the law for the best but which has absolutely nothing to do with satisfying divine requirements for forgiveness or for making sure “somebody suffers the punishment” God requires. In the end – nobody “pays.” That’s the good news.
One could attempt to find a penal connection between Christ and the sacrificial system in places like Hebrews 10.5-7: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, my God’.”
Does the author mean God isn’t pleased with the blood of bulls and goats but he is pleased with the blood of an innocent human being? Does Jesus end all blood sacrifice by being the biggest most satisfying blood sacrifice of them all? Or does Jesus end all blood sacrifice by letting the sacrificial system exhaust itself upon himself in order to expose that system as failed and bankrupt? In the first sense, Jesus saves us “because” of the inherent efficacy of sacrifice; God just needed to find the right sacrifice. In the latter sense, Jesus saves us “in spite of” sacrifice. There’s saving efficacy in the Cross, yes, but only in the sense that God endures the full force of the sacrificial system – not because he requires it.
Take Gal 3.13 for example. We have every reason to believe God did not in fact curse Jesus, nor is God of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by him. That is Israel’s false belief, but God gives himself to it (allowing it to exhaust its resources on him). But assuming it is not true that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by God, how can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? How can God demonstrate that he doesn’t need or require blood sacrifice in the slightest? He demonstrates this by hanging on a tree without being cursed. So Christ “becomes a curse” for us in the sense that he is treated by us in all the ways we identify with being cursed by God, not because we’re right in believing God to curse the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.
So Heb 10.5-7’s “sacrifice and offering you did not desire” is true. Fine. But where then does “so a body you have prepared for me” come in? Not to introduce a source of blood that God is interested in. On the contrary. It is to demonstrate the lengths to which God will go to demonstrate how antithetical blood sacrifice is to God. How can God get it across to Israel that he’s not interested in blood sacrifice whatsoever? The answer is: by submitting himself (“a body you have prepared for me”) to our sacrificial machinery – antithetical to him in every way – and then rising from the dead to expose once and for all its failure and impotency.
Contra McKnight, we can affirm with full seriousness the consequences of sin, the divine intention to deal with them, and that Christ finally deals with them without understanding salvation in penal terms at all.