Defending Penal Substitutionary Atonement

By James M. Rochford

The New Atheists speak of Christ’s atonement with the most derisive of language. Atheist Richard Dawkins describes the atonement as “vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent.”[1] He continues, “If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment?”[2] Atheist Christopher Hitchens writes,

Ask yourself the question: how moral is the following? I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to try and stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy eternal life.[3]

In addition to atheistic critics, some so-called Christian teachers deny the concept of substitionary atonement. For instance, emergent author Rob Bell says, “The blood was never for God, that was just to help humans live with, absorb, and trust, the love of a God who keeps on insisting, trust me.”[4] Under Bell’s view, Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us, but rather to change our mind about him. Likewise, feminist and womanist thinkers refer to substitutionary atonement as “divine child abuse.”[5]

How should believing Christians respond to these allegations? Let’s think through the main themes in this discussion: (1) sin, (2) judgment, and (3) forgiveness.

1. Sin

Before considering how to defend God’s good news in the atonement, we should consider the bad news: sin. Without a proper understanding of sin, the atonement will certainly not make sense.

Does sin exist?

Atheist Richard Dawkins writes, “The Christian focus is overwhelmingly on sin sin sin sin sin sin sin. What a nasty little preoccupation to have dominating your life.”[6]

It seems that Dawkins lacks an understanding for the atonement, because he doesn’t understand the severity of sin (or even the existence of sin). In a famous segment titled “Stop Beating Basil’s Car,” he writes,

Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software.

Here Dawkins compares the human mind to the determined process of a machine—a computer. Thus if a person “sins,” it isn’t really their fault; they are merely malfunctioning. Under this view, instead of titling his book Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky should have named it Breakdown and Repair. Dawkins continues,

Isn’t the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes…? Doesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused’s physiology, heredity and environment. Don’t judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a [faulty] car?

Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live. My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at [a man] when he beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment.

Dawkins doesn’t believe that sin exists, or that we should face retribution for it. This is why he writes elsewhere, “Progressive ethicists today find it hard to defend any kind of retributive theory of punishment.”[7] Dawkins views this perspective as “progressive” and “enlightenment,” but we feel that this comment merely shows the bankruptcy of his atheistic worldview. Any worldview that diminishes the severity of sin is ultimately impotent in the rough and tumble of real life. While Dawkins is insulated in a secluded perch as a wealthy Oxford professor, most people on Earth are not. How does his worldview handle the bloody aftermath of a Rwandan genocide or African poverty? His worldview breaks under the weight of our fallen world. Since Dawkins’ naturalism doesn’t have a category for sin, his understanding of the atonement is just as flawed.

Moreover, if this system was believed across our society, the world would devolve into complete chaos, as we collectively realized that crime doesn’t really matter. There is nothing really right or wrong about it. Such a view would never lead to “progress” or “enlightenment,” as Dawkins claims. It would lead to anarchy.

Dawkins complains that Christians have an unnatural obsession with the concept of sin. But since Dawkins doesn’t even have a category for sin, we shouldn’t expect to see eye to eye with him. By contrast, Christian philosopher John Lennox compares denying sin to denying a brain tumor.[8] Would it be an “unnatural obsession” for your doctor to talk to you about your brain tumor, if you had cancer? By prescribing aspirin for your migraine headaches, would the doctor be acting kindly? Of course not. Likewise, if we want to have an adequate solution for sin, we need radical surgery to our souls.

If humans are totally depraved, why do they sometimes do good?

Some humanists point out that people sometimes do good. For instance, sometimes a heroic bystander will run into a burning building to save someone inside. Doesn’t this show that humans have good inside of them?

The Bible does teach that human beings are inherently evil, but it also teaches that we are sometimes capable of doing good. For instance, Jesus said that we are evil, and yet we “know how to give good gifts to [our] children” (Lk. 11:13). Jesus also affirmed that we know how to “love those that love [us]” (Mt. 5:46). Likewise, Paul affirmed that even Gentiles had a moral law “written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14-15).

However, the Bible also has a realistic picture of humanity. It teaches total depravity. Total depravity does not mean that humans are as evil as they possibly could be. Instead, it teaches that sin totally contaminates every facet of human life. That is, one sin pollutes our entire body. In the same way, when someone defecates in a public pool, the entire pool becomes contaminated. No one says, “Hey, come down to the deep end… nobody pooped down here!” Instead, everybody has to get out. Likewise, when a patient develops cancer in his lungs, this affects his entire body—not just his breathing. Or imagine putting one drop of poison in a glass of water. While the water is mostly pure, it is still completely poisonous water. In the same way, when we sin at all, we become totally sinful before God.

To put this another way, total depravity is not the same as utter depravity. That is, we aren’t 100% sinful (we could be worse), but evil has completely affected every facet of our lives.

2. Judgment

The judgment of God has become very unpopular in Christian circles in recent years. It seems that many pastors are too afraid to teach on this subject. While we don’t believe that we should be harsh or abusive about this teaching of Scripture, we do hold that we should be clear and honest about it: the Bible teaches that God will judge us for our sin (Gen. 2:15-17; Ezek. 18:20; Rom. 6:23).

What if God never judged?

While the judgment of God is difficult to contemplate, we should also consider the alternatives: imagine if God didn’t judge. If God didn’t hold humanity responsible for evil and suffering, then who would be responsible? Isn’t it obvious? God would be! But why would we want to love and follow a God like that?

In addition, if God didn’t judge evil, what would this communicate about the nature and character of God? Consider, for example, if your grandmother was beaten to death by a gang of thugs. All eight men are caught and brought before the court. In a dramatic display of emotion, all eight men apologize and break down crying before the Judge. “Your honor,” the gang leader says with tears in his eyes. “We really feel bad for what we did. We promise never to do it again!” The courtroom goes silent. The Judge looks at the men discerningly and says, “Well, okay. It seems like you feel really bad for what you did. I’ll just give you each 40 hours of community service. Case closed!”

Could you imagine this scene? What would you do if you bumped into that Judge at a restaurant the next week? Would you shake his hand? Would you look him in the eye? Would you give him a hug? Would you buy him a beer? I doubt it.

You wouldn’t make eye contact with that Judge. You wouldn’t talk to that Judge. You wouldn’t respect that Judge. Most importantly, you wouldn’t love that Judge. This is the great irony of denying hell. Many people want to make God more loving by denying hell, but instead, they make him less loving. If there is no hell, then God doesn’t need to suffer to bring us into heaven. But if there is a hell, God suffered hell in our place on the Cross.

What should be the punishment for sin?

When we consider the concept of sin, we shouldn’t look primarily at the violation; instead, we should look at the Person whom we’re violating. The greater the Person we are violating; the greater the punishment. We see this principle in our legal system. For instance, consider stealing twenty dollars from a gas station’s register compared to stealing the same amount of money from a federal bank teller’s drawer. It’s the same violation, but the punishment increases as we consider the institution that we’re violating.

Consider another example. When I was a kid, I used to burn the legs of ants with a magnifying glass under the hot sun. Was this wrong? Maybe. Maybe not. But consider if it wasn’t ants that I was torturing, but instead, it was dogs. Surely, the punishment would be worse for such a crime! Now, let’s up the ante. What if it wasn’t ants or dogs that I was torturing? What if it was kids? What would you think then? You probably wouldn’t think too much. You’d probably just tackle me, call the cops, and hope for the best!

Hopefully, you see the point. In each case, the violation was the same, but the object of that violation was different. The greater the being; the greater the punishment. Well, what happens if we sin against the greatest conceivable Being? What should the punishment be then? The Bible says that the punishment for that should be an eternal punishment.

While we might not agree with God’s verdict, this shouldn’t surprise us. Criminals and lawbreakers rarely agree with the sentence given to them by their judge. This is why we don’t allow criminals to set their own sentences. If we allowed the criminal to set his own sentence, we would have vacant prisons worldwide!

3. Forgiveness

Given the existence of sin and judgment, we now come to the solution: forgiveness. How is it that God decided to purchase our forgiveness? If God is wrathful toward sin, there is only one solution: substitution.

But before we consider God’s solution to our sin, we should be quick to point out that God didn’t need to save us. His hand wasn’t forced. Often, critics of the Bible will claim that it isn’t fair that God has chosen to work through atonement. But this isn’t a very good argument. If we wanted “fairness” from God, we would all go to hell and suffer righteous judgment. For instance, when angels sin, they are not capable of being redeemed (2 Pet. 2:4; 1 Cor. 6:3). Therefore, as soon as we appeal to “fairness,” we pull the rug out from under ourselves.

According to Scripture, Christ’s atonement was the only way that God could actually forgive humanity. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me” (Mt. 26:39). And yet, it wasn’t possible, and Jesus went ahead with the Cross. It was “necessary” for him to die (Lk. 24:25-26). Since Christ was perfect, he could substitute for us on the Cross. However, if he were merely a human, then he could only substitute for another human. But since he was fully God (see our earlier article “Defending the Deity of Christ”), he could substitute for the entire human race in an instant of time.

Why does God call on us to forgive others, if he doesn’t forgive humans in the same way? Why does he need a substitute—even if we don’t?

While this objection is very ancient,[9] it was recently offered in a 2006 interview by emergent author Brian McLaren. He argues,

The traditional understanding [of the atonement] says that God asks of us something that God is incapable of Himself. God asks us to forgive people. But God is incapable of forgiving. God can’t forgive unless He punishes somebody in place of the person He was going to forgive. God doesn’t say to you—Forgive your wife, and then go kick the dog to vent your anger. God asks you to actually forgive. And there’s a certain sense that, a common understanding of the atonement presents a God who is incapable of forgiving. Unless He kicks somebody else.

Of course, God’s forgiveness is different from human forgiveness in a number of different ways. For one, God calls on us to forgive others because we are sinful ourselves. It would be entirely hypocritical to withhold forgiveness when we ourselves are the objects of mercy (Mt. 18:21-35). By contrast, God has never sinned and can’t stand to look upon sin (Hab. 1:13). He isn’t required to forgive us, because he is in a different category than human beings.

Moreover, by “kicking the dog,” McLaren creates a false analogy for God’s wrath. This illustration pictures God’s wrath as an infantile, emotional explosion, rather than a controlled expression of justice. God’s justice to humanity will be deed for deed (Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:12). This will be a perfect expression of justice—not an uncontrolled outburst of anger.

Furthermore, God took his wrath out on himself—not a dog or anything else. McLaren seems to ignore the fact that Jesus is God, and therefore, God took his own wrath at the Cross. As sinful humans, we have no right to take out our anger on a dog or a person, because they are separate from us. However, given the doctrine of the Trinity, God took out his wrath on himself—not an unwilling participant.

Why must God pay for our sins in a judicial way?

We typically think of sin as horizontal: human against human. However, we rarely consider sin as vertical: humans against God. Repeatedly, the Bible states that sinning against people is the same as sinning against God himself (Prov. 14:31; Ps. 51:4; Gen. 39:9; Acts 9:4; Mt. 25:31-46; Mk. 2:1-13). To illustrate this principle, imagine going to the park with your son. As you push him on a swing, a bully from the neighborhood walks up and pushes your kid off the swing onto the ground. He then proceeds to kick dirt in his face. As you go to defend your son, the bully turns to you and says, “Whoa mister! This isn’t between me and you. It’s between me and the boy. Back off!” What would you say? Would you respect the bully’s argument?

In the same way, God views all people on Earth like his children. When we violate people, we cannot say that this is only between us and them. Sinning against them is sinning against God himself. Some people say that they have never sinned against God, but the Bible teaches that God is going to veto this argument, when we stand before him (Mt. 25:31-46). As Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).

We have no right to withhold forgiveness from another person, because we are all guilty of sin ourselves. Additionally, we have all sinned against God because we have sinned against people made in his image. For this reason, the Bible explicitly teaches that no one is good enough to earn God’s standard of moral perfection. Paul argues that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Solomon states, “There is no man who does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46) and “there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins” (Eccl. 7:20). The psalmist writes, “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3) and “For in Your sight no man living is righteous” (Ps. 143:2) and “There is no one who does good” (Ps. 14:1). The Proverbs ask, “Who can say, ‘I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin’?” (Prov. 20:9).

According to Scripture, we have all sinned against a perfect God. This makes our debt to God incommensurably high. Therefore, in order to absolve that debt, God would need to take the initiative.

Isn’t it unfair that Jesus would have to pay for our sins?

As we noted earlier, some feminist and womanist thinkers refer to substitutionary atonement as “divine child abuse.”[10] However, we must note that Jesus was not the victim of an angry divine Father. Instead, the Bible portrays both the Father and the Son working together to accomplish salvation at the Cross (Jn. 5:19). Moreover, the Cross did not surprise Jesus. Regarding his death, Jesus said, “I lay it down on My own initiative” (Jn. 10:18). Later, he said, “Now my heart is troubled. What shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (Jn. 12:27-28; c.f. Mt. 9:15; 17:12; Mk. 2:19-20; 8:31). Jesus’ act was a voluntary, courageous act of love—not a weak or timid act of abuse.

Often an illustration is offered along: Imagine a young man who was arrested and tried for second degree murder.[11] When he is brought into court, he finds that his father is the judge who will rule over his case! As the court case ensues, it becomes clear that the young man is guilty. The town wonders what the judge will do: Will he judge his son and be just, or absolve his son and be gracious and forgiving?

The entire town comes to hear the decision of the Judge when he reaches a verdict. The judge announces, “I find the defendant guilty of second degree murder… I sentence him to life in prison!” And he decisively slams his gavel. The members of the town gasp at his sentence, wondering how he could send his own son to prison for life. And yet, without waiting another second, the judge takes off his robe and offers himself over to the bailiff, saying, “But you can take me to prison instead of him!”

This illustrates the message of the gospel. God took his justice out on himself, rather than humanity. In this way, he remained both loving and just.

And yet, critics of substitutionary atonement argue that no legal system on Earth would permit a judge to do this. If someone commits a crime, they need to pay the sentence themselves. People are not allowed to substitute for criminals in this way. But in response to this, a number of counterarguments can be made:

First, this illustration breaks down, because the judge in the story is a third party—not the offended party. Imagine if the judge was the only one that the son had sinned against. If the judge was the only innocent and offended party, then he would have the prerogative to do whatever he wanted to absolve the son of his guilt. In the same way, since God is the offended party of our sin, he gets to decide how he wants to pay for it—not us.

Second, substitution is allowed in our courts for some issues. For instance, during the Civil War, a man could substitute for another man to go into active service. Likewise, when someone owes a debt to the authorities, anyone can pay for it. So the concept of substitution is applicable in some settings.

Third, we don’t allow a substitute for a murderer, because the man would continue to murder. However, what if we were certain that the released man was guaranteed to never murder again? When God takes us into heaven, we will be guaranteed never to sin again.

Fourth, what if we really are in the position of the son? Before we complain about this situation too much, we need to remember that we are the son in the story. If God is offering forgiveness to sinners on death row, we should graciously accept it—not bicker about how it is unfair. Of course, when we really reflect on this story, we quickly realize that it isn’t fair at all. Instead, it is incredibly merciful and gracious.

Should those oppressed by unjust systems submit the way that Christ did?

Critics of substitutionary atonement argue that this model encourages passivity to violence and injustice. One theologian writes, “For people in such situations of an unjust status quo, the idea of ‘being like Jesus’ as modeled by satisfaction atonement means to submit passively and to endure that systematic injustice.”[12]

However, we don’t find this accusation very strong: Christ was submitting to God’s will—not the will of the human perpetrators. Since God doesn’t will systematic injustice, we should not submit passively to it. Of course, Christ’s suffering was unique in that he had a special insight into the purpose of his suffering that we most often do not. When the Bible does tell us to submit to evil and injustice, it does so in order that we can avoid persecution—not incur more of it. God is not a sadist that enjoys seeing us suffer; instead, he tells us to submit so that we can avoid further persecution (see our earlier article “The Bible and Slavery”).

Different Views of the Atonement

Thus far, we have been giving a defense for the doctrine of substitionary atonement. But are we even sure that this is the Bible’s teaching on the subject? Some emergent authors have recently argued that the Bible speaks of the Cross in a multifaceted way, and the Cross is bigger than just the concept of substitution. For instance, emergent author Brian McLaren writes, “I think the gospel is a many faceted diamond, and atonement is only one facet, and legal models of atonement (which predominate in western Christianity) are only one small portion of that one facet.”

Of course, we would agree that the Cross is multifaceted. It didn’t occur purely or solely for the purpose of substitution; other purposes were no doubt in view in the mind of God. However, we strongly contend that substitution was the primary or central purpose of the Cross. We hold this view for a number of reasons:

REASON #1: Many passages speak about the active wrath of God.

While Scripture does speak of God’s passive wrath (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28), it also speaks of his active wrath (Rom. 2:16; 12:19; 1 Thess. 1:10; Lk. 12:48; Eph. 2:3). If God is actively wrathful against sin, something (or someone) would need to pay for that wrath. The Bible uses the language of propitiation to describe how God’s wrath was satisfied on Christ (Heb. 2:17; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10). All other models of the atonement fail to adequately interact or engage with the language of propitiation (for more on propitiation, see comments on Romans 3:25).

REASON #2: The OT points toward substitutionary atonement.

In the OT, an innocent animal was substituted for the sin of the people (Lev. 4, 16). Isaiah writes, “He [Jesus] was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Erickson explains this OT concept of atonement:

The Hebrew word most commonly used in the Old Testament for the various types of atonement is כָּפַר (kaphar) and its derivatives. The word literally means “to cover.” One was delivered from punishment by the interposing of something between one’s sin and God. God then saw the atoning sacrifice rather than the sin. The covering of the sin meant that the penalty no longer had to be exacted from the sinner.[13]

The NT authors use this OT terminology to describe Christ’s substitionary work (1 Pet. 2:24; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10). While the Passover lamb died in the place of the Israelites in Egypt (Ex. 12), Paul writes, “Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). When he first saw Jesus, John the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29) Paul refers to Jesus’ death as “an offering for sin” (Rom. 8:3), couching this verse in OT sacrificial imagery.

The concept of the blessings and cursings comes from the OT, where God would judge or bless Israel based on their obedience to his law (Lev. 26; Deut. 28). Paul writes that Christ became the curse for us, and he gave us his rightful blessing (Gal. 3:13).

Finally, when we consider the entire context of Hebrews 9 specifically (vv.16-28), we see that this discussion is framed in the OT sacrificial system, where an innocent animal was forgiven for the sins of the people. The NT authors framed these other passages in an OT context as well (Jn. 1:29; Mt. 26:28), making the OT sacrificial system the proper context in which we should understand the atonement.[14]

REASON #3: The NT claims that substitutionary atonement is the primary—though not exclusive—way that we should understand the Cross.

Paul says that he delivered the message of the gospel to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:1-2), and he explained the message that was of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). His language does not refer to the order of speech (i.e. “this is the first thing I need to say…”). Instead, “first importance” refers to the primacy of this doctrine (i.e. “this is at the top of the list…”).[15] There are a number of reasons for affirming substitutionary atonement:

1. The Bible affirms that sinful humans get their righteousness from Christ.

(2 Cor. 5:21) He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

(1 Pet. 3:18) For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.

(Phil. 3:8b-9) That I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.

(Rom. 5:19) For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.

(Rom. 3:25-26) God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

(1 Pet 2:24) He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.

2. The NT ascribes the blood of Christ as the means through which we have peace with God.

(Rom. 3:25) God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.

(Rom. 5:9) Having now been justified by His blood.

(Eph. 1:7) In Him we have redemption through His blood.

(Eph. 2:13) In Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

(Col. 1:20) Through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross.

(Mt. 26:28) This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.

3. Christ died for human beings as a substitute for our sin. The Reformers called this The Great Exchange: We give Christ our sin, and he gives us his righteousness. The word “justification” (Greek dikaiosis) is a legal term, referring to being declared judicially not guilty. Paul writes, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Earlier in Romans, Paul argued that as sinful people, our “condemnation is just” (Rom. 3:8) and sin results “in condemnation” (Rom. 5:16; c.f. v.18). However, by virtue of the Cross, we have “no condemnation” (Rom. 8:1).

(1 Thess. 5:10) [Christ] died for us.

(Rom. 8:32) He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all.

(2 Cor. 5:14) [Christ] died for all.

(Eph. 5:2) Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us.

(Gal. 1:4a) [Jesus] gave Himself for our sins…

(Rom. 4:25) He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.

(Rom. 5:8-9) But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.

4. The NT affirms that Christ’s death was a substitutionary ransom. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Erickson explains that the concept of “ransom” implies a substitute and payment. He writes, “The word λύτρον (lutron—‘ransom’) with its cognates is used nearly 140 times in the Septuagint, usually with the thought of deliverance from some sort of bondage in exchange for the payment of compensation or the offering of a substitute.”[16] Of course, Christ saw himself as a substitute for us (Jn. 15:13).

5. Jesus viewed his work as completed on the Cross. Before he died, he said, “It is finished!” (Jn. 19:30) Of course, if Jesus’ atonement continued after his death, what was “finished” at the Cross?

In addition to these passages, the gospels emphasize the death of Christ through selective history. We know virtually nothing about the childhood of Jesus, but we know considerable details about his death. In fact, much of the Gospel of John (Jn. 13-19) focuses on the last day of Jesus’ earthly life. Why would these authors spill so much ink over the Passion Week, unless this was theologically significant?

For these reasons, we hold that penal substitutionary atonement makes the most sense of the biblical data on the Cross.

Other Views of the Atonement

Should we understand the Cross as more than just substitution? Theologian T. Scott Daniels argues, “If the cross is understood simply as an instrument of the pouring out of God’s violence upon the second person of the Trinity, then it would make no sense at all for disciples to take up their cross in a like manner.”[17]

Of course, as we argued earlier, we don’t believe that the “cross is understood simply” or only as substitution; the atonement was multifaceted. But we contend that penal substitution is at the heart of the Cross, and these other characterizations of the Cross are tertiary to the central mission. In a similar way, there are many reasons for a young couple to have a wedding ceremony: gathering family, enjoying good food, drink, and dancing, etc. But the central purpose of a wedding is not these things. The heart of a wedding is for the couple to pledge their love and vows to each other. In the same way, the Cross has many purposes, but the central purpose was penal substitution. This being said, consider other views of the atonement:

1. Example Theory (or The Socinian View)

Who taught it?

Faustus and Laelius Socinus (1539-1604) founded the Socinians, who taught the Moral Example theory. This view is still very influential in Unitarian circles today. Socinus was an Italian theologian, who lived in Poland after 1578, and he garnered a rather large following.

What does it teach?

This view teaches that the Cross gives us a perfect example of how to obey God.

Which passages support it?

Advocates of this view point to 1 Peter 2:21, which states: “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” Likewise, Jesus commanded, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Lk. 9:23).

Criticism of this view?

We don’t believe that this view is wrong. Certainly we are to be imitators of Christ, and the Cross was the perfect expression of obedience to God. However, we deny that this was the central reason why Christ had to die: why would God ask Christ to go through this suffering for us to follow? There must be a sufficient purpose for God to incarnate and die in this way. Substitutionary atonement satisfies this purpose, but the example theory is left wanting. Once we affirm substitutionary atonement, the example theory makes more sense. We should suffer for a purpose that is far beyond our understanding (Rom. 8:28), the way that Christ did (Heb. 12:2).

Of course, the Socinians—the founders of this view—believed that Jesus’ death was merely an example, and Jesus was merely a human being—not divine, which we believe is false. They also affirmed Pelagianism, which is the view that humans can seek after God and come into a relationship on their own volition. Erickson writes,

All that is necessary, according to [the Socinians], for God and a human to have fellowship is that the human have faith in and love for God. For God to have required something more would have been contrary to his nature, and to have punished the innocent (Jesus) in place of the guilty would have been contrary to justice.[18]

We believe this theory of the atonement falls very short.

2. Moral Influence Theory

Who taught it?

French theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was the first to develop the moral influence theory of the atonement (1079-1142), but this view “exerted its greatest impact in nineteenth-century Protestant liberal theology.”[19] In the United States, Horace Bushnell (1802–76) pushed this view the most, and in Great Britain, Hastings Rashdall was a leading advocate of this position.

What does it teach?

This view teaches that the purpose of the Cross was to demonstrate how much God loves us. Unlike the example theory, this view emphasizes Christ’s divinity. While the example theory teaches us obedience, the moral theory teaches us God’s love. Erickson writes, “Jesus demonstrated to humanity the full extent of God’s love for them. It was humans’ fear and ignorance of God that needed to be rectified. This was accomplished by Christ’s death. So the major effect of Christ’s death was on humans rather than on God.”[20] Under this view, the Cross accomplishes a subjective purpose—not an objective one. It changes our view about God—not God’s view about us. Jesus’ self-giving love, expressed in his death on the cross, leads us to love God and love others fully, giving our lives back to God.

Advocates of this view tend to emphasize the love of God above all other attributes and minimize the justice or holiness of God, as a consequence. They emphasize that the central problem with humanity is our view of God—not our sin. Nothing in God’s nature needs a payment for our sins; he loves us unconditionally. And the Cross demonstrates this love to us, so we can trust him.

Which passages support it?

Peter writes, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). Likewise, John writes, “The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 Jn. 2:6).

Criticism of this view?

We have no argument that the Cross was the ultimate expression of God’s love for us. But we feel that the content of that love was penal substitution. Christ’s death wasn’t merely a gratuitous act of senseless violence; it had a purpose behind it that exceeds a moral influence. As theologian Michael Horton writes, “In much of evangelicalism today, the emphasis falls on the question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ rather than ‘What Has Jesus Done?’” We feel that we should focus on the substitution of the Cross in order to get any sort of moral influence from it.

3. Christus Victor Theory (or Ransom Theory)

Christus Victor is also called as the ransom theory of the atonement. There are actually minor distinctions between the two theories, but for simplicity, we will combine these two, because they are so similar.[21]

Who taught it?

Origen (AD 185-254) was a theologian from Alexandria, who was the first to enunciate this view. Later, Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335-395) held this view as well. Erickson notes that this theory was the “standard view in the early history of the church.”[22] While this view has lost a major following in recent years, Gustaf Aulen has been a notable, modern proponent.

What does it teach?

While penal substitutionary atonement focuses on the death of Christ and the moral influence model focuses on the life of Christ, Christus Victor focuses on Jesus’ resurrection. Advocates of this view argue that too little is said about the resurrection of Christ. For instance, Thomas Finger states, “Neither model ascribes distinct atoning significance to Jesus’ resurrection.”[23]

This view teaches that Satan owned the world and all of the people in it (2 Cor. 4:4). God offered his Son for the entire human race (Jn. 3:16). Satan accepted the offer, but after he took Christ into his possession in death, Jesus broke free and rose from the dead (Heb. 2:14-15). Under this view, the ransom was paid to Satan for our bondage. We see this view beautifully portrayed in C.S. Lewis’ Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Aslan the lion gives his life for Edmund—a selfish, unrepentant boy. He does this because the white witch demands a life for a life. After the witch slays Aslan, he unexpectantly rises from the dead. In the same way, as Christ rose from the dead, he rescued humanity, being a “victor” in the battle with Satan. Gregory of Nyssa compares Satan killing Jesus to a fish biting a hook and being duped into being caught.[24]

Which passages support it?

In addition to the passages mentioned, advocates of this view argue that the Bible mentions that Jesus gave his life as a “ransom” (Mk. 10:45; Mt. 20:28). Under the ransom version of Christus Victor, “the devil held the souls of humankind captive.”[25] Since the entire world lies in the power of the evil one (1 Jn. 5:19) who is the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4), God must have paid Satan for the human race by offering his Son. They also argue that many passages speak of Jesus’ victory over Satan (Col. 2:15, Heb. 2:14, 1 Jn. 3:8). J. Denny Weaver defends this view, arguing that this was the “predominant image of the early church.”[26]

Origen focused heavily on 1 Corinthians 6:20 to support his view (“You have been bought with a price”).

Criticism of this view?

We believe that there are several problems with this view:

First, the ransom was not paid to Satan—but to God. We feel that this view neglects the key passages on propitiation (Heb. 2:17; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10). It was God’s wrath that was dealt with at the Cross—not Satan’s. While humans deserve judgment, Satan has no right to dole out this judgment.

Second, Christus Victor pictures humans as victims, who need rescuing. This is true. However, substitutionary atonement pictures humans as sinful and in need of repentance. This cuts to the heart of our core condition as human beings.

Third, while the Bible does have short passages which teach Christ’s victory over Satan, sin, and death, there are extended discussions on substitution. For example, the books of Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews all have extended discussion on substitution. However, there is no extended discussion on Christus Victor in the entire NT. We do affirm that Jesus triumphed over Satan at the Cross, but this was because he defeated Satan’s claim that God isn’t trustworthy or worth loving.

4. The Recapitulation Theory

Who taught it?

Irenaeus (AD 130-202) was the first to articulate this view.

What does it teach?

This view states that Christ is the new Adam. Where Adam sinned, Jesus faithfully obeyed. Where Adam failed, Christ succeeded. Christ bought back what Adam lost for us. William Barclay writes, “Through man’s disobedience the process of the evolution of the human race went wrong, and the course of its wrongness could neither be halted nor reversed by any human means. But in Jesus Christ the whole course of human evolution was perfectly carried out and realised in obedience to the purpose of God.”[27]

Which passages support it?

Several passages speak about Christ being the new Adam. For instance, Paul compares Jesus’ saving work to Adam’s sinful work (Rom. 5:15; c.f. 1 Cor. 15:22, 45). Advocates of this view argue that this is the central view of the Cross.

Criticism of this view?

We don’t have an extended criticism of this perspective. But, as we have already argued, this perspective shouldn’t be central to the atonement. It should be held as a tertiary aspect of Christ’s work on the Cross.

5. The Satisfaction Theory (or Commercial Theory)

Who taught it?

Anselm (1033-1109) was the first notable Christian thinker to express this view in his work Cur Deus Homo? [Latin for Why the God-Man?]

What does it teach?

This view is similar to substitutionary atonement. It states that our sins are an affront to the honor or dignity of God. He held that Christ substituted to satisfy God’s honor being defiled. While substitutionary atonement deals with the judgment and wrath of God, satisfaction theory deals with God’s honor. This view states that Christ made restitution for our sin, mending what was broken and paying back what was taken. It is also notable because it does not involve Satan in the atonement—contra the ransom theory.

Anselm, who originated this view, lived under the feudal system—not Roman law. Under the feudal system, justice was considered an offense against the feudal lord. Thus Anselm was most likely influenced by his culture.


The message of the Cross is a stumbling block to people today, as it was in the first-century (1 Cor. 1:23). While we shouldn’t needlessly offend secular people in our culture, we also shouldn’t water down the message of the Cross, either. This is the message which has the power to reach people with God’s message of love and forgiveness (Rom. 1:16).

Further Reading

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology: Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Books. 1998. See Chapter 38 “Theories of the Atonement” and Chapter 39 “The Central Theme of the Atonement.”

We feel that Erickson’s Christian Theology is the premier systematic theology text. While we do not agree with Erickson on every doctrine, he represents all views fairly and adequately. He also has a philosophical mindset, which helps articulate and clarify theological subjects. His chapters on the atonement were very helpful.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan Publishing House. 1994. Chapter 27 “The Atonement.”

Grudem covers many of the popular questions regarding the atonement, as well as the pain inflicted on Christ at the Cross (e.g. physical, psychological, spiritual, relational, etc.). This was an excellent treatment.

Lennox, John. Gunning for God. Oxford, England. Lion Hudson. 2011. Chapter Six. “Is the Atonement Morally Repellent?”

Philosopher John Lennox responds artfully to the attacks of the New Atheists on the atonement.

Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006.

Honestly, we were disappointed with this book. Its purpose was to offer different models of the atonement that could answer why the atonement needed to be violent. While we appreciate hearing different theological perspectives, we didn’t feel that the classical alternate views were represented well (for instance, Christus Victor was viewed as “Narrative” Christus Victor. Also, the penal substitutionary view wasn’t well articulated or defended. We would’ve liked to have seen more interaction between the views, where they could critique one another’s position more.

Stott, John R. W. The Cross of Christ. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986.

Stott represents the view of substitutionary atonement with clarity in this classic book.

Jeffrey, Steve. Michael Ovey. Andrew Sach. Pierced For Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. Wheaton, IL. Crossway Books. 2007.

This book represents a standard Reformed view of penal substitutionary atonement.

[1] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 287.

[2] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 287.

[3] Hitchens, Christopher. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. London: Da Capo, 2007. 209.

[4] The God’s Aren’t Angry. DVD. Authored by Rob Bell. 2007; San Francisco, CA: Zondervan Publishing, 2008.

[5] Cited in Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 6. Likewise, emergent author Steve Chalke writes, “The fact is that the cross is(?) a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful father, punishing his son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a construct stands in total contradiction to the statement ‘God is love.’ If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and refuse to repay evil with evil.” Chalke, Steve, and Alan Mann. The Lost Message of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003.

[6] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 285.

[7] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 287.

[8] Lennox, John. Gunning for God. Oxford, England. Lion Hudson. 2011. 149.

[9] See Faustus Socinus, De Jesu Christo servatore 1.1.

[10] Cited in Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 6. Likewise, emergent author Steve Chalke writes, “The fact is that the cross is (?) a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful father, punishing his son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a construct stands in total contradiction to the statement “God is love.” If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and refuse to repay evil with evil.” Chalke, Steve, and Alan Mann. The Lost Message of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003. 182-183.

[11] I am indebted to Dennis McCallum for this illustration. See McCallum, Dennis. Discovering God: Exploring the Possibilities of Faith. Columbus, OH. New Paradigm Publishing. 2011.

[12] Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 11.

[13] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology: Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Books. 1998. 822.

[14] Daniels’ holds that the scapegoat imagery should be understood in light of Paganism! See Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 132. However, this stretches our credulity. The NT authors were Jewish, and they quote from the OT—not from Pagan thought.

[15] Mare writes, “Some have understood the words translated ‘of first importance’ in the temporal sense of ‘at the first.’ But that seems redundant because at all times Paul’s preaching identified the death and resurrection of Christ with the gospel. The stress is on the centrality of these doctrines to the gospel message.” Mare, W. H. (1976). 1 Corinthians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 10: Romans through Galatians (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (282). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[16] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology: Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Books. 1998. 824.

[17] Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 127.

[18] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology: Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Books. 1998. 802.

[19] Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 89.

[20] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology: Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Books. 1998. 803.

[21] To be specific, Christus Victor focuses on Christ’s victory of Satan, sin, and death, while the ransom theory focuses more on how we were held bondage by Satan, sin, and death. The two are distinct, yet intricately connected.

[22] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology: Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Books. 1998. 810.

[23] Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 95.

[24] Gregory of Nyssa writes, “In order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active.” Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, 5:494. Cited in Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 52.

[25] Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 2.

[26] Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 2.

[27] Barclay, William. Crucified and Crowned. S.C.M. 1961. 100.