The Evangelical Universalist Forum

A Critique of Penal Substitution

This two page attachment consolidates here the reasons why I believe that ‘Penal Substitution’ does not well reflect the actual teaching of Scripture concerning the cross, as well as offering a start at what the New Testament does seem to emphasize. I would welcome any reactions and critiques.
2 pg Penal Substitution.doc (37.5 KB)

1 Like

Quite good Bob! (I know we have some penal-sub proponents here on the site, including where they believe it leads to universalism; but I’ll have to let them take shots at it, as I have no particular disagreement I can think of after a couple of quick readthroughs.)

Well written, Bob!

How do you add an attachment to a post?

I particularly like this
“wrath is satisfied when rebels come to repentance”
– Amen to that!

But you are far too kind to PS in #11 and #12 it seems to me.
PS has the death of Christ as satisfying God; as part of God’s “plan”; as being actually the will of God!
Except the killing of Christ was a crime – and an horrific one… Since when does God depend on a Vicious Crime to save us? Or to reflect His character and Love?
Jesus Himself calls it a " great sin". (John 19:11) So now PS is bound to embracing a great sin as being from God :question: :question: :question:

That’s a huge problem that PS hasn’t come close to solving. (Nor can it in my view)


Thanks to those of you sympathetic to my view (I’m aware that not everyone is and I welcome those reactions also)!

Paidion, I think the trick is to click on “Upload Attachment” just below the space for replies.

Bob, we’re again simpatico. I agree P.S. horrendously has killing Christ as satisfying God when it was immoral (and I cite it as the kind of thing that is “denounced”). I try to be generous since I have found that advocates take offense even when I use their own language to describe P.S. (e.g. they once denied that it’s fair to say that it “appeases” God’s wrath, until I showed them that Packer’s article that they had given me used that very language).

It does seem trickier to me when you imply that it’s wrong to say that Christ’s death was “God’s plan,” or wasn’t what “God depended on to save us.” Doesn’t Scripture speak of the event as a whole, as one which carried out God’s purpose, and which God ordained as a strategic place to carry out the work of our salvation? I only know to lessen this tension by distinguishing God and man’s part, and think of it as a supreme example of God taking what is meant for evil and turning it into good (Gen. 50). What do you think?

Yes Bob:

I deliberately choose to challenge the death of Christ on the Cross as being “God’s plan” because it is provocative! That may seem unfair but here’s what I’m thinking…

It is my conviction that there is simply too much in the Penal Substitution (PS) model of the Atonement that is absurd, opaque, and contradictory and that the only way to begin a fair evaluation of the PS view is to point – directly and unambiguously – to some of these glaring absurdities. So if PS is true, some things must also necessarily be true as well. And if those things are true then PS either becomes incoherent or it needs to be reconfigured and improved.

If one means then by God’s “plan” according to PS views that must mean it was God’s will and God needed it to happen in order to effect our salvation. The PS adherent thereby has his first huge problem: since Jesus Himself calls His false trial and crucifixion a sin, that places God in the extremely incoherent position of needing that sin in order for Him to save us! Worse, we should be honoring those evil men who killed Christ because without them, no death so no salvation! And most people are able to see immediately that this is blindingly absurd.

One is forced then, it seems to me, to consider other meanings of the word “plan”. For me it is clear that God knew exactly the nature of sin and where it would lead. (And open theism is no barrier to this belief either) And His “plan” from the beginning was not to sit on the sidelines and watch in despair (that’s just not in His nature or character) but to come and intervene. That task could be given to no other than to Himself; as witness to who He really was. So God planned to come live among fallen and sinful men; knowing full well what would happen to HIm! So of course God, who knows the true nature of reality, knew that He would be killed! But the plan was not for the death but for the witness and the full revelation and demonstration of who He was and How He behaves when amongst His creation! And He carried out that “plan” with total and complete faithfulness and sure enough, He was killed!

This understanding of the “plan” is vastly different it seems to me. For now the holder of PS is obligated to consider (because God surely didn’t will nor plan this monumental crime) other aspects of the Atonement. Enter truths emphasized by the MIT (Moral Influence Theory) wherein God dies as demonstration of His character and love and by the Christus Victor models (wherein God wins the victory over sin in and through Christ). The death of Christ then was needed – but certainly not by God: it was needed by us! It is we who needed this demonstration of reality! And there are two sides to this reality. The Cross unmasks both. Hard as it might be for we Christians to hear, the Cross marks the absolute nadir of sin and depravity: for what could be more craven and sinister than to kill the very creator Himself. Yet God absorbed fully the entirety of that evil and demonstrated it’s utter impotence with the resurrection of Christ! In this ONE great act of the Cross/Resurrection, God thus demonstrates both the complete depravity of separation from Him and the absolute power of life with Him. (And why not: for this just cements the truth that life comes from God…) This is why God can say with complete certainty that it is over. We know now beyond any shadow of doubt a) where sin leads and b) the true source of life.

So that’s what I mean to achieve by forcing the idea of the Cross being “God’s Plan” under the microscope. Of course it’s in “God’s plan” but not in the sense that PS demands.

And this idea lays waste, I believe, to any improper notion of the Cross as “substitution”. To my mind a huge problem with the “substitution” idea is that it posits a rough equivalence between me and Jesus: Him for me. Like an exchange of sorts. But that’s preposterous isn’t it? We are in no way equivalent. That denies quite plainly the divinity of Christ! The realities that Christ’s death and resurrection revealed definitively and for all time about God simply could in no way be demonstrated or revealed by my death, or your’s, or of any humans. So Christ’s death is vastly superior – even infinitely so! – to the deaths of any He is said to “substitute” for.

And yet, still, in a very limited sense of the word Christ did die so that I, or you, or anybody would not have to. In that limited way yes, it could be likened to a substitute… But that is very very different from what PS holds.

And of course you are entirely correct that a great many saints are deeply steeped in this PS framework and theology and wording. And their witness for God is quite moving, deep, and honest. Yet when it comes to the contradictions and absurdities their beliefs demand, they simply deny them and or don’t see them. Which is fine by me because it would make no sense to worship a God of Love whom we believed to be a monster. So yeah, I get all that!

Lastly, I think it’s also very important to insist that sin is simply not something that can be passed around and transferred. To say God “takes” my guilt and my sin upon Himself simply cannot mean that He is now the guilty and the sinner and I am somehow pure. Reality and history still reveal it was I who “did it” and no amount of wordplay changes that one bit. Jesus remains pure, innocent, and holy. And I remain the one who pulled the trigger. So the only way that Jesus can legitimately “take” my sin upon Himself is to HEAL me from my condition and TRANSFORM me into what He intened all along. And that, I believe, is exactly what the Cross and Salvation intend to do. And the entire beautiful and wondrous thing is driven fully and only by God’s mercy! It’s ALL about God and all we can do is delay it’s final fulfillment…

(sorry – wrote more than I thought I would Bob!!!)


It was always God’s will and plan to give himself to us in love.

Exactly :exclamation: :smiley: :exclamation: :smiley: :exclamation: :smiley: :exclamation: :smiley:



Thanks, I sense we feel the same. The cross was not God’s ‘plan,’ if it’s defined as PS, wherein God “needs that (sin).” For as you say, it’s we who need such a demonstration that love triumphs over evil. So then, why must we honor the evildoers (the crucifiers) who create the setting? Then, yes, it hangs on the meaning of “plan.” If this means that God not only knew Jesus’ murder would happen, but caused it, or morally endorses it. Then of course, no. But for some folk, ‘plan’ only means that God took what He knew sinners would do, and determined to work in that context. And we could say that God ordained that in this event, He would work to “save us” or accomplish our wholeness.


Hi Bob,

Are you back from the Middle East? :slight_smile:

I think the critique could use a clear introduction to the model or models of penal substitution that you’re critiquing. I need to reverse all of your criticism to see what you’re critiquing in the first place. Perhaps those from a Reformed background that had Reformed penal substitution drilled into them know exactly what you’re refuting, but not everybody else like me knows this. Also, I read Greg Boyd refer to a Barthian version of penal substitution that clearly rejects any idea of the Father venting wrath on the Son, which is along the lines of what I believe. So I wonder if you also reject a Barthian/Boyd view of penalty in the death of Christ without the Father venting wrath on the Son.


Yes, we’re back and blessed. My paper’s first paragraph offers my best and clearest understanding of the definition of P.S. and its’ vocabulary that I’m attempting to refute. Thus, I’m not understanding why you needed to “see what it is” from the critiques that follow.

My sense, based also on our earlier discussion of this piece, is that you (and some others) seem drawn to the label, while not being comfortable with how P.S. is almost universally understood. Our earlier example was N. T. Wright, who said he endorsed Chalke’s repudiation of P.S., but believes in “P.S.” Yet Wright’s own words, like Chalkes, ridicule the tenents of P.S. that dominate the common use of the term (which seems to me one that we should quit trying to salvage).

Here, you say Boyd and Barth reject any view wherein God placed “wrath on the Son.” If so, that, in my interaction, is a rejection of the heart of that for which P.S. consistently contends. So it seems that we just have a semantic problem. And thus, my question is, if P.S. means denying that Jesus’ bore God’s wrath upon sin, what is left for it to mean? Did Jesus provide a substitute “penalty”? If so, in what sense, and how does this function?

Hi Bob,

I’m glad that you had a nice trip.:slight_smile:

Yes, your first paragraph summed what I asked. I was thinking of more development, but that should do.

I’ll give a brief reply for now, but I need a lot of time to address everything that you underlined. And I also need to research Barth’s material.

First of all, the biblical concept of divine wrath implies extreme anger. And the Father never had any anger toward the Son. In this context, all other humans owe a penalty for sin, and Christ paid that penalty at the cross.

There’s much more discuss, and I plan to write an extensive article on this in the future.

Hi again Bob:

Of all that is said in support of PS, this one aspect frustrates me perhaps more than any other – yet is never even acknowledged as a problem by it’s adherents!
And that is the casual acceptance that sin is transferable; that Jesus even could “pay” my penalty! It’s simply not allowed under ANY legal system! Yet PS adherents merrily cling to it as if nothing whatsoever is the matter! For me it’s utterly incoherent. Jesus is no more a sinner than I am a saint. So why on earth paint an Atonement model that seeks to “sneak” this fiction past God!

Why does Ezekiel (see 18:20) suddenly no longer matter: “The person who sins will die…” and then transfer of punishment is expressly denied!
Yes, it does say that Christ was “made to be sin” though He knew no sin… Which is horribly problematic if we insist on being literal in all this… So, was Jesus a sinner or not? To say “yes” denies the entire bible story; to say no denies the text!! Jesus simply cannot be both sinner and non-sinner! Yet that’s the precise bind PS believers embrace willingly! And it’s deeply irrational; moving and picturesque as they may find it.

There is ONLY one way to resolve this and I hear you doing so in this thread (though I think you should be more forceful and clear that sin is not transferable…) and that is to see this formulation as a guiding and explanatory metaphor.
“No son, Jesus didn’t actually take your sin away on His shoulders, but what He accomplished renders it AS IF He did something like this! You can be just as free from your sin AS IF He did!”

For worried folks who fear their condition leaves them yet remote from Jesus, this assurance can be a ray of great hope! Of course I understand that and do not begrudge them this assurance. But eventually, no amount of “sin bearing” substitutes for the transformation of the sinner into a sentient being who ceases to be a sinner! For he has been healed! That is God’s goal. That’s how God makes the sin ultimately disappear; not by Jesus “bearing” it.

Penal Sub models of the Atonement become abhorrent when they are lifted to do the work of literalism instead of being satisfied with being the metaphors they are.
That’s too bad.



Thanks, I assume you know that my answer to “Does Jesus provide a substitute penalty?” is No. I explicitly reject “transfer” language in #3 & #8 and cite Ezek. 18. Even the puzzling “made to be sin” doesn’t spell it out as providing a substitute penalty (Yet I see Jesus as embracing the place where the ‘penalty’ for sinfully rejecting his teaching was applied: i.e. zealots who did not love their enemies would be capitally punished on a cross. Still many Jews received the same consequence in AD 70 despite Jesus’ innnocently embracing the same price; for Jesus’ taking our rightful place can NOT substitute for the necessary righteous and repentant response in US that his atonement aims to produce). Thus, I think our only real challenge (and possible difference) is just clarifying God’s mystifying role in an event that was evil yet redemptive.

I don’t feel any need to disavow the doctrine of penal substitution which has solid biblical support to be able to believe that Christ is reconciling the world to himself.

Can someone explain to me how Penal substitution and CU and inconsistent. Perhaps I am missing something.

There is a good dicussion here … bstitution on Tony Jones’ blog, where Keith DR makes this post:
There doesn’t seem to be anything inherent in the P.S. theory to work against the possibility of all being saved. — Well, one might think the P.S. theory would somehow bring in its wake the implication that one has to explicitly accept the offer of substitution to be saved. But I & other Christian universalists like me (& this would certainly be true of Bell, too, if he were a universalist) already hold that one must explicitly accept the offer, anyway. So, for us, P.S. presents no problem at all. (I suppose if you had some other very different kind of Christian universalist whose universalism depended on the thought that explicit acceptance was not needed, then if P.S. somehow implies explicit acceptance, this could undermine their universalism. But none of the CUs I hang around with seem to be like that.)

I’m finding that as I understand God more as being concerned with our heart, that his wrath is not without purpose - to turn us, penal substitution seems to make less and less sense. For me, maybe I’m not thinking coherently, understanding God’s love as tough love goes hand in hand with not embracing a penal substitution that is just about overlooking sin if we believe the right things. If God really cares about our actions he’s not concerned with his anger being appeased with a beaten Jesus. He’s concerned with making changes in us, us dying to self and living for righteousness. Maybe God has multiple concerns, like defeating death, but the penal part isn’t characteristic of the way I understand God to be. Seems like a natural place to end up, but perhaps not because there are plenty of people that don’t feel the way I do.


I fear that you have not read the case under discussion, wherein I never argue that P.S. is “inconsistent” with CU. I’ve explicitly argued that it would provide strong logical support FOR it. My objections to it as being true are exegetical and moral, and presented in the paper under discussion in this thread, and in my discussion of P.S. under Soteriology. Many agree with you. So if you instead see “strong Biblical support” for the vocabulary of P.S., we could really use a thread outlining that case, as well as welcoming any critiques of the arguments presented against it in this one.

It’s probably because scripture also states:

Ex 20:5 You shall not bow down yourself to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me,(A)

2 Sam. 12:14 “But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die.”

Is. 14:21 Prepare a place to slaughter his sons for the sins of their forefathers; they are not to rise to inherit the land and cover the earth with their cities.

But the supreme example is probably the doctrine of Orinigal Sin.

15 But God’s free gift is not at all to be compared to the trespass [His grace is out of all proportion to the fall of man]. For if many died through one man’s falling away (his lapse, his offense), much more profusely did God’s grace and the free gift [that comes] through the undeserved favor of the one Man Jesus Christ abound and overflow to and for [the benefit of] many.

16 Nor is the free gift at all to be compared to the effect of that one [man’s] sin. For the sentence [following the trespass] of one [man] brought condemnation, whereas the free gift [following] many transgressions brings justification ([j]an act of righteousness).

These issues get complicated and I’m not one who will just dismiss God killing Kids (such as Pharaoh) as a punishment not on the son but on the Pharaoh.

But without hijacking this I believe the problem for me is that the scriptures seem to be very complex. Paul on one hand seems to speak like Bob that God wants a change in us (a righteouss character). But on the other hand Paul seems to allow for grounds that we’re not perfect and we often do things we hate. I don’t think Penal Sub has to carry with it a necessary clause that keeps people from behaving. Although, it def. is proned to being understood in such a way - much like Catholics might plan a murder and then go make their confession to the priest in order to be forgiven for that murder. But are non Penal substituion models subject to this as well? I think so. For example, even if God did not provide a substitution for us, that is God requires that we do what is right, when we do wrong will God send us to hell? If the answer is yes, then it seems perfection is required (as proponenets of penal substituion endorse). If the answer is no, then it seems that People have grounds to live a wicked life and God’s not going to send them to hell (under a non-substitutionary model).

If we should argue that it’s not about going to heaven or hell but it’s about NOW. It seems to me to still apply. If a believer should sin against his neighbor and God punishes him - he does that in penal substitution. God punishing the believer is not foreign to Penal substitution. I think it would have to be demonstrated that God does not punish the believer in a penal substitution model, in order for it to be proven the penal substitution endorses a believer to live in wickedness.

But with all that I believe distinctions have to be made between the Penal part and the Substitutionary part.


Isn’t this compatible with Universalist view of God’s wrath? If I as a father should loan my son money to buy a car and he commits to repay me in 1 year. Is it wrong for me to charge him interest in the event that he should not pay back the money (sin against me)? In doing so, giving him consequences or payback, for the wrong he’s done me can be for his correction of character.

Of course one might say this is not retribution. But then it could be argued that while modern proponents of Penal substitution support retribution, they might be wrong. In other words, penal substitution might be seen in a corrective sense as well???

just me rambling :slight_smile:


Exactly auggy!!

We now have “dueling” texts! NO, you are not condemned for your father’s sin, and YES, you are!!!
These are quite blessed challenges the scriptures present to us. Just as we read of a God who loves ALL and wills that all are saved, AND we read of a God whose will IS accomplished and realized, AND we read of a group who appear to be lost and set apart from God for eternity. These statements CAN NOT be reconciled with each other on their face!

Just back from a wedding this weekend. The ladies former husband was a womanizer, and substance abuser. She is a stellar soul and victim of all his abuse. And their sons, they TOO suffer from mistreatment of women; and are prone to addictions and substance abuse… I suggest, auggy, that THIS is what God means by the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons! It is a description of the very nature of the flesh! And has nothing to do with divine justice OR the practice of transferring sins (the topic I was speaking to) but simply lays out the sad way that a fathers sins effect his descendants. I think you know and appreciate that auggy…

So, your suggestion that the very prospect that “original sin” refutes (or possibly does) the Ez 18:20 text is a really great question! But this is not really that hard is it? The passing of a fathers sin/characteristics/choices to his offspring is not to suggest in any way a legal transfer (as demanded by PS) is it??
Besides, this really flies in the face of the whole protest that God respects the choice of the sinner! (I don’t respect YOUR choice, but I DO respect the choice of your FATHER??)

Here’s the interesting problem then auggy:
If God does NOT require nor respect the choice of my father with regards to my future, does that mean perhaps (maybe?) my choice for damnation is equally non-effectual??
This is very new to me and yet it screams to me in Romans 9:11 — “So then it does NOT depend on the man who wills OR the man who runs, but on GOD WHO HAS MERCY!”

But maybe there is a brighter side to this auggy. If you insist that a Father’s sin may legitimately have it’s consequences visited upon his children, then MAYBE what we’re talking about here is the legitimacy of the SON’S faithfulness visited upon all of God’s creation! What “works” one way should work the other right?!

Which doesn’t help me with MY problem of transference of sin, but it sure wreaks havoc with the PS adherents model of Atonement!

So question auggy: was the FREE GIFT free before Christ died? or was it only free AFTER His death? or did His death simply announce that the gift was, ALREADY free, just as it had always been???

What do you think??