“Penal Substitutionary Atonement”

This interpretation of the Atonement, of how Jesus’ death deals with our sins, has been under fire recently , and I can see why, but I also think we still need it.

Before starting on ‘PSA’, I want to firmly register that although it has been a very prominent interpretation of the Atonement, it is not the only one by a long way, and I don’t regard it as the most important. In many ways the Atonement, and the way God has made it known to us, is a ‘one off’ thing – and the Bible uses all kinds of pictures from our more everyday world to describe it; none of those pictures fully describes it, and many of the pictures have subsidiary aspects that shouldn’t be pushed too far. For example, one picture is of Jesus ‘paying a ransom’ for us; especially in some of the things meant by the Greek word, it’s a good picture – until someone pushed it too far and saw it as a ransom paid to Satan, as if he were entitled to be paid to release us! For me, I think the most satisfactory picture of atonement, with fewest problems, is ‘debt’ and the forgiveness of debt. We should also remember, by the way, that the Atonement isn’t just about payments and satisfactions – it’s also about reconciliation, and an action on God’s side that challenges us to seek that reconciliation, that change in our relationship to God.

PSA can be caricatured. It can look as if God is like some human tyrant who has made rules and decided to enforce them with an arbitrary penalty of death – then the human idiots break the rule, and somebody has to die or God will lose face, so Jesus gets arbitrarily killed so we don’t have to be…. The version of PSA used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses can sound very much like this caricature, as by rejecting Jesus’ divinity they have also rejected many other possible views of the Atonement.

That is why I prefer the picture of ‘debt’; there is nothing arbitrary about the penalty of debt – it’s “You owe it – you should pay it”. And in the context of debt, there’s a very real cost to be met by whoever clears the debt, whether that is the debtor himself or a kind friend who pays in his stead, or whether the creditor forgives and by so doing, faces the cost of the debt himself.

If you have seriously considered the nature of sin (though I’ll pass over that discussion here) you will have realised that being a sinner does effectively mean that you owe God your very life. You’ll also have realised that ‘the wages of sin’ is death not in an arbitrary way but because sin kills/destroys in you the kind of life that lives in God’s way. It is ‘soul-destroying’.

In the Old Testament this was depicted in the practice of sacrifice, in which the sinner ‘paid for his sins’ by the sacrifice of an animal which ‘substituted’ for the sinner himself. In an era before money, and with sacrifice the ‘common currency’ of religions, making a sacrifice dramatically demonstrated the need for the sinner to pay his debts, and the idea that the debtor owed his life to God. Many probably didn’t fully realise it, but in the context of a creator of the universe as opposed to the more limited gods of paganism, God didn’t need the sacrifices, it wasn’t a case of for instance feeding a hungry god. As prophets reminded Israel, the animals were already God’s animals, so even in the Old Testament God in fact symbolically supplied the sacrifice as a generous act of forgiveness. We should by the way note that in most ancient cultures there wasn’t a sharp line between the religion and the justice system that we observe in a modern pluralist culture; for example, the Roman ‘throwing criminals to the beasts’ in the arena was considered a religious sacrifice as well as an act of justice.

Old style justice used ‘penal substitutes’ more than a modern justice system which thinks in much more individualist lines. Family members might be held accountable for each other, for example, or communities for members of the community – even in capital crimes. So through most of history before and since the time of Jesus’ earthly life, human justice systems contained many examples of ‘penal substitution’, voluntary and otherwise, which as examples of substitution seemed suitable pictures of Jesus’ substitutionary self-sacrifice for us . The point is that as with other parables and images in the Bible, the bit that illustrates our message may be accompanied by other aspects of that human activity which are less helpful, so you don’t say “It’s exactly like…” you say “It’s a bit like this aspect of an everyday human situation….”

To take a rather obvious example, when Jesus called fishermen among his first disciples, he told them that as they followed him they would become ‘fishers of men’ – but I’m pretty sure he never intended the metaphor to be pushed to the point that his followers would be catching men for food!

With such caveats, I think we might still use the ‘Penal Substitutionary Atonement’ imagery, simply to convey the idea of Jesus standing in our place to suffer what otherwise should legitimately have fallen on us, while ‘majoring’ on other imagery. Two examples from older criminal justice systems do survive in the modern world and may be useful imagery. One is from the notion of ‘bail’, when someone else ‘stands surety’ for you and will pay the penalty in your place if you default. Another is simply the notion that when you have done something criminal and a fine is declared an appropriate penalty, if you haven’t the means of payment a relative, friend or other generous person may of course pay the fine for you.

In many circles ‘PSA’ is regarded as not just ‘AN image’ but THE major theory of atonement. I think that is wrong, it would be better that we should use it only as one partial image of atonement. If taken as THE doctrine, it has problems, whence the recent challenges. But why did it come to seem so important? Having thought about it I’ve concluded that it has to do with the ‘state church/Christian country’ issue.

On the one hand, the state isn’t necessarily very concerned about God himself – to them the purpose of having a state religion is the way it provides support and motivation for the laws of the state, encouragement to be good citizens (indeed rulers would often be cynically exploiting a state religion they didn’t themselves take seriously). That’s why the state would punish religious deviance – it wasn’t just seen as a difference of opinion but as an attack on the state’s moral foundations. With Christianity being wrongly used as a state religion, the state’s concerns influence and unbalance the way atonement is presented.

On the other hand, there would be a temptation to interpret the divine justice in terms of the human rather than the other way round, to use features of human justice to actually define God’s justice rather than merely to be an image. So you end up describing God’s dealings with the unsatisfactory aspects of the human imagery, portraying God as actually like the more tyrannical kind of human ruler, with somewhat savage and arbitrary penalties and with laws like ‘the laws of the Medes and Persians’ that he can’t set aside.

There’s more to be said about this, but I think it will be better in part 2 of my item about ‘Hell’….