The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Another penal-substitution post

Hey guys. This is the first time I’ve been on this forum for a while.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the atonement and was hoping to gain some insight into a few key verses. I currently land somewhere in N.T Wright territory and would say both that I believe in all the theories of atonement, and also that in a way we cannot really, FULLY understand what exactly transpired on the cross that day.

Issues I have against penal-substitution:

  • Does God require suffering as atonement for sin? Why wouldn’t he just require reformation of character and recompense?
  • I don’t think God needs someone to ‘get it’ in order to forgive anyone.
  • Is God angry at us by default? Really? (Not all models of PS teach this but some do)

Issues I have in favor of PS:

  • I’m not interested in throwing out teachings just because they’re unsavory to us. I think that a lot of times it is really a caricature that is being addressed instead of an actual doctrine (see MANY common, but false, ideas of Christian Universalism that are in circulation).
  • How would God be able to save us other than giving us His righteousness? Can we ever be perfect enough for His presence? Is PS just the only way?
  • Other texts such as Isaiah 53 and Jesus’ words about drinking a ‘cup of sorrow’

The prompt for this was that today I visited a new church that meets on my campus. The sermon given was essentially a reaffirmation of how important Christ’s substitutionary atonement is, given how much evil is in the world. I believe that the speaker was coming from a spirit of humility and authentic faith. She was not speaking to inspire fear and I believe her objective was simply to remind the flock how important Jesus’ atonement is and to inspire gratefulness.
One of the key texts she employed was Romans 3:24-26 (emphasis added)

24 Yet God freely and graciously declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. 25 For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, 26 for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.

This seems like textbook penal-substitution to me. How would someone upholding the Christus Victor model or others respond to this?

She gave special emphasis to the apparent conflict of God’s mercy and justice, plus the idea that the Father turned his face away from Jesus on the cross. I spoke with the speaker after this and brought up Psalm 22, which I understand to be a prophecy/narrative of Jesus’ passion. In particular, I brought up what Psalm 22:24 has to say (emphasis added),

For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.

She listened but noted that the psalmist was jumping back and forth a bit between prophecy and their own context, and essentially told me it didn’t really matter. I think you can still believe in PS without including the whole ‘father turns His face away’ thing anyway. What do you guys think about this? Did the father really turn His face away? Was this necessary for our salvation? What’s up with this?

Many thanks friends :slight_smile: Shalom


Hi Val :slight_smile:

I don’t know if you’ve read it but George MacDonald’s sermon ‘Justice’ is an absolute belter if you’re interested in this topic - it’s not an exegetical work but it’s a wonderful essay full of rich wisdom on what it means for God to be just and how Christ being our penal substitute falls short of that (and I agree with him).

There’s lots of questions and biblical passages that you’ve alluded to in your post that we could discuss for days and days. My extremely condensed view is that there are ways in which Jesus could be said to be our substitute, even could be said to have suffered punishment. I deny the idea though that God took out his wrath on the Son in order to fulfill some kind of legal justice payment and then imputed His righteousness to us so that we would go free. I don’t see that anywhere in the New Testament. The punishment Jesus suffers is very much allowed, even orchestrated in some way by God, but it is us who punished Him, not the Father.

Just as far as your issues in favour of PS go:

I totally agree with this, though I don’t see this as somehow being in favour of PS. I think there’s often this slightly bizarre, though probably understandable idea that if your complaint about a particular doctrine isn’t solely exegetical it’s therefore irrelevant or just a matter of subjective preference. Actually I think that a number of the key points against PS aren’t simply a matter of personal preference but rather a working out of the logic. If someone argues that PS is untrinitarian or that it’s evil to require the suffering of an innocent party in order to satisfy justice, they’re not saying so just because it’s unsavoury to them. They’re pointing out that it doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

First of all, I would point out that technically we cannot live outside of His presence. I know there’s this notion of a particular ‘type’ of presence but the idea that God cannot look at sinners or cannot be in the same place as sinners is complete nonsense, ultimately founded upon absolutely nothing.

Even if it were true, I don’t think PS gets people out of this. I don’t believe that the God Who is Truth invents some legal fiction, where His righteousness gets imputed to us and therefore we stand perfect in His presence. PS doesn’t make us perfect; it just means God treats us as if we were.

Isaiah 53 is more about us punishing the Servant than God. In fact, verse four is an explicit argument against the idea that God was punishing Him - we thought it was God who punished Him but it was actually our sin and iniquity that put Him there, which He bears on the cross. So while God takes sovereign responsibility for it (verse 10) it was not that He was taking His wrath out on Him (verse 4).

As for the cup that Jesus drinks, it is not, as some like to point, the cup of God’s wrath. Nowhere does it say or even imply that it is. Indeed, Jesus actually tells His disciples that they will drink from His cup (Matthew 20) so the mere use of ‘cup’ does not automatically entail that it was the cup of God’s wrath.

Hope that helps in some way :smiley:

What translation are you using for Romans 324-26? While Romans 3 can sound like P. S., this version seems to stack the deck and remains far from the original. E.g. there are no words in verse 24, such as “freed us from the penalty for our sins.” Try N.T. Wright´s commentaries for a different reading of this. I offer my own take on P.S. in the paper on my page. And my O.T. papers there offer a reading of Isaiah 53.

Good stuff Jonny :slight_smile: Thank you for the insight.

I have read ‘justice’ a couple of times and find it quite uplifting/convicting. I will admit that after the first time I read it I was almost converted to full universalism. However, since we have no idea what’s on the other side of death I decided to stay somewhere between agnosticism and hope :slight_smile: McDonald’s lack of exegetical work in that particular sermon does trouble me, but I agree with you that he has plenty of good points. A lot of theologians would accuse McDonald of trying to play God by saying he’s got a better idea of what salvation is, but I think that the Bible actually does have a lot to say about reforming people instead of merely punishing them.

I was about to object to your words on verse 4 because the NLT that I use translates it as meaning that we thought he was punished because of his OWN sins. However, upon switching to the ASV and others I quickly found that this idea was nowhere to be found. But what about verse 6 (emphasis mine)?

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

This isn’t much, and may even tie in with your idea that God was involved in the punishment of Jesus, although he didn’t inflict it directly. It could be argued that God is laying our sin on him but I think it can be argued either way. Also, about the cup of wrath. Some exegetes tie Jesus’ words to the hell text in Rev 14, where people are literally forced to drink ‘the cup of God’s fury’. The logic then goes that your sin gets paid for either on the cross or in hell for eternity.

This of course, means setting aside a whole series of questions about the words aion/aionios and the fact that Augustine didn’t know Greek very well :open_mouth: :laughing: [Thank you Dr. Ilaria Ramelli!] :slight_smile: . Either way, ‘ages of the ages’ still seems pretty graphic to me and is one of my trouble passages if you’re trying to ‘convert’ me to universalism :unamused:.

We could also go on and on about what ‘propitiation’ means and I’m sure that could be settled easily by looking through some of the other topics on this forum category (I think propitiation was discussed quite recently in fact). Otherwise, yes, this does help Jonny. Thank you so much for the advice :slight_smile:


I was using the NLT, but I instantly saw your point confirmed by using other translations (even the NIV!). Thank you Bob and I’ll give your papers and NT Wright a looksie. On a side note, I just started Surprised by Hope last night and am excited about what new insights it will bring!

Thanks and Shalom to all,


I wouldn’t worry about the lack of extensive exegesis in MacDonald’s essay/sermon; it’s part of a book of devotionals rather than a series of academic arguments. Doubtless he could have made an extensive exegetical argument if he wanted to but that wasn’t really the focus.

Quickly going through the rest of your reply:

Isaiah 53:6 isn’t an issue at all for me - the key aspect to focus on is that it’s our iniquities being laid upon the Servant, not the punishment for our iniquities. God without doubt lays the iniquities of the people upon the Servant in that He orchestrates the situation for the people (us) to sin our sins onto His Son. In that way, God is laying our iniquities upon His Son, which the Son, in submission to the Father, bears. No penal substitution there - just us punishing the Son and the Father working along with this.

In terms of the cup, I see no reason to relate it directly to Revelation 14 - I’ve also seen theologians do that before but I’ve never really understood why and it’s not at all the only place where someone is said to ‘drink a cup’, hence why I mentioned Matthew 20 as a counterpoint. There’s no reason to think that Jesus was drinking the cup of God’s wrath as opposed to anything else.

I’m sure someone on here (Jason?) did an extensive analysis on the use of the word ‘propitiation’ in the New Testament which I remember really liking. Might be an idea to check that out.

From the Greek Septuagint translation (around 300 B.C.) of an earlier Hebrew text :

Because of man’s lawlessness, Jesus was wounded and crucified on the cross. God didn’t put Him to death; man did.

Because man was set on putting Him to death, the Lord (Yahweh) did nothing to prevent His death. In that sense, the Lord “delivered Him over to our sin”, that is “allowed” lawless men to put Him to death.

The Bible connects God’s wrath with the imagery of a cup:

Jesus confirms this in garden when he prayed as the suffering of the cross lay just ahead, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will”

Jesus drinks the cup of God’s wrath when God allows evil to have it’s way with Christ. All of the sins of His people will be punished by God. This is the cup Jesus drinks on the cross as He suffers and dies for our sin. This very cup, however, for us is the cup of salvation. In faith union with Christ we are one with Him. We are in Him and He is in us. This is how the just is punished for the unjust. We are crucified with Christ as we die to the old self and are resurrected to new life. The wrath of God is removed from our vision (along with our rebellion) so that we can see and feel the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. This spiritual beauty is first and foremost the outshining radiance of holy love.

The more we admire the fullness of His Beauty the more we reflect Him.

So He just overlooks your sin and your character because Jesus “paid the price.” Is that it?

Not according to Paul in Romans 2. You’ll be judged according to your works, according to your character:


Here’s what Christ was doing in the atonement

Showing that the worst evil in human history was meant by God for good

Providing the basis for our justification

Completing the obedience that becomes our righteousness

Taking away condemnation

Removing God’s wrath

Pleasing the Father in His obedience and love

Showing love and grace to sinners

Cancelling the legal demands of the law

Purifying His bride

Bringing the elect to faith

Giving eternal life to all who trust in Him

Making us holy

Giving us a clear conscious

Delivering us from the present evil age

Healing us from moral sickness

Bringing us to God

Freeing us from the slavery of sin that we might die to sin and live for righteousness

Enabling us to live for Himself

Creating a people passionate for good works

Calling us to follow His example of holy love

Creating a band of crucified followers

Freeing us from the fear of death

Gathering His sheep from around the world

Forgiving our sins

Penal substitution falls apart when we ask the question, what is the penalty that God has required us to pay for our sins?
1.The death of our physical bodies
2. Suffering a violent physical death
3. We cannot be with God in heaven after we die

If the answer is #1, then we all pay the price eventually. If the answer is #2, then some have already paid the price,which means that Jesus died only for the ones who pass away peacefully. If the answer is #3, then is Jesus somewhere other than heaven suffering this fate for us?
Also, does the person paying the price for sin have to be sinless and why? The answer most often given is that Jesus covers our sin so that God doesn’t see it. I don’t think that we can pull the wool over God’s eyes. As Johnny95 mentions, God sees all so He will see our sin regardless.

Besides this, there are many passages in the Old and New Testaments that say God never required this type of sacrifice.

Sin cannot be “paid for” either by ourselves or by a substitute or scapegoat.

God is not interested in getting paid for our sins. He is interested in delivering us from them. And that is EXACTLY what He did through the death of His Son, and EXACTLY why He gave His only-begotten Son, concerning sin. Here are the reasons found in the New Testament for Jesus’ death: