Penal Substitution Fallacy

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

Mainstream Belief

This atonement theory is ingrained in many evangelical or reformed Christians. This atonement is generally accepted due to its popularity and being unaware of other stated atonement theories. However, this very theology or atonement outlook was a gradual invention that first started with Anselm in the 11th century, and was perfected by the Protestant Reformers. Anselm held a different atonement theory called “Satisfaction Theory of Redemption”. This PSA theory is held by wrong understandings of justice, forgiveness, divine attribute, and also the writings of Christian Scripture. This theory is morally unjust, insulting to the divine, and deluded in concepts of morality and practicality. This post is intended to refute PSA theory, not to unravel another atonement theory; however, I will provide my atonement “theory” in another story (Purified Metanoia Atonement/PMA theory).

Rebutting the Doctrine of Imputation

The PSA theory heavily depends on the doctrine of imputation. Because in their theory, Jesus’ death makes men righteous by appearance in the sight of God, except this is blatantly false. Before the time of Jesus, men like Abraham and Job were justified on the basis of faith, not by the atonement of Jesus or by sacrifices. “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). In order to be justified, it must be on the basis of faith, not Christ’s atonement. It is only by the grace of God that man has faith and believes to be justified. God has always imputed righteousness to those who walk with God, including Job (Job 1:8). So, why would there be any need for an atonement? If God requires atonement to justify us in the sight of God, but does the exact opposite in the Old Testament narrative, then something is off about this doctrine.

The Reconciled Party

In order for PSA theory to be logically valid, it must be able to prove that the atonement not only reconciled us, but also God to us. There seems to be no verse to support this theory, except for us. As it is stated, “And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him” (2 Corinthians 5:18). What? No verse that says, “And Christ reconciled God to us”. This proves that the atonement was made to change our minds about God, instead of changing God’s mind about us. The next verse says:

19 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.

God’s Attribute of Aseity

The biggest issue with PS atonement is its contradiction against God’s aseity or self-sufficiency. The need for God to be appeased by bloodshed destroys one of God’s attributes. The Reformers’ god isn’t much of a deity without aseity. What’s even more embarrassing is that their image of god is unwilling to forgive sin without payment, and yet humans forgive unconditionally. This proves that humans are a better moral example than the god of PSA theory. Even Jesus displays forgiveness better than this supposed deity. The apostle Paul speaks of God’s aseity, “Nor is He served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He Himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25).

Payment Defeats the Purpose of Forgiveness

How can God forgive by legit means if payment is offered? Forgiveness loses its merit or value if payment is involved. Sure, you could argue that God forgives after payment is offered, but it is unreasonable to bear a grudge if the payment was made. Also given the notion that forgiveness is unconditional by nature. And if humans forgive without the other’s apology, doesn’t this make PSA god’s “forgiveness” to pale as a moral example? This argument may not be that convincing, but it is a notion that is worthy to examine carefully.

Divine Justice?

As a means to understand justice in a proper sense, we must see mercy and justice as complementary, instead of a distinctive dualism. The aim of mercy is to restore someone (or attract them closer to benevolent qualities). The aim of justice is to purge someone (or repel detrimental qualities from them). Now, these two concepts become effective and perfected when intertwined. Justice without mercy becomes abusive, punitive, or vengeful. Mercy without justice becomes wrongly passive or submission empowering abuse.

The idea that most people have about justice is punitive by nature, instead of it being corrective or purgatorial. They confuse the justice system of man with God’s sense of justice. This is unwise to ignore. God doesn’t afflict suffering on sinners for their destruction, but allows suffering for their correction. Only sin and the devil bring retributive harm, but Christ disciples for their restoration or salvation. It is given by Paul, “Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns” (1 Corinthians 5:5). Please don’t argue with me about hell, because I don’t assume the doctrine of “Eternal Torment” or “Total Destruction”. Also, why would God have to torment us when the devil and sin already do this? It is simply impractical and needless on God’s part.

Another issue with PSA is its claim of Jesus only embodying mercy, but God embodying only justice. This is a contradiction. If Jesus and God share the same divine essence, then God cannot be only just while Jesus is only merciful. Because Jesus and God share the same moral essence simultaneously, they cannot only assume one moral trait. This would make God (in persons) insufficient without the other, and therefore disqualifying their aseity. Yes, they choose to co-depend on each other but not due to insufficiency, yet for their desire of intimacy. Their divine desire is not rooted in necessity, but simply from choice rooted in divine essence.

Isaiah, I Choose You!

I know my critics well and they’ll argue from a passage in Isaiah 53. I’ll be using the Greek Septuagint to refute their claims, because it is a copy of one of the oldest Hebrew manuscripts, and it was used by the apostles and the church fathers. Let’s review this tampered manuscript:

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted (verse 4 Hebrew Masoretic).

He bears our sins, and is pained for us: yet we accounted him to be in trouble, and in suffering, and in affliction (LXX Septuagint).

Even if this tampered manuscript was valid, it is human assumption that deems Jesus to be struck by God, not God’s own words.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed (verse 5).

But he was wounded on account of our sins, and was bruised because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his bruises we were healed.

Jesus didn’t die for our sins to appease God, but He died because our sins killed Him. His example displays the cruelty of our sins, but that God is forgiving by nature, empathetic of our suffering as in able to experience it, and potent enough to defeat all barriers (i.e. death and sin).

Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand (verse 10).

The Lord also is pleased to purge him from his stroke. If ye can give an offering for sin, your soul shall see a long-lived seed: 11 the Lord also is pleased to take away from the travail of his soul, to shew him light, and to form him with understanding; to justify the just one who serves many well; and he shall bear their sins.

And God was pleased to purge or heal Christ from affliction, not to bruise or incite suffering. Christ bore our the effects of our sins, but God sought His restoration into light, insight, and deemed righteousness to Christ’s cause.

Early Evidence and Translation Errors

The proponents of PSA theory will argue that early christian apologists like Mathetes’ epistle to Diognetus claims their theory. Here is the claim:

“By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!” (Mathetes Epistle to Diognetus).

First of all, these certain texts may have been mistranslated by bias translators who presuppose the text by their doctrine of choice. I’ll demonstrate this example using the same source, Hebrews, and 2 Corinthians. Secondly, there is no perfect or full description of Penal Substitution in Mathetes’ epistle or any apostolic writings. This view depends on an irrational interpretation of the text. To explain the first section of it, Jesus purchased us from our sins by making us into a divine reflection and defeating our sinful reflection; in other words, our sins are hidden with Christ because He has made love a priority over sin in our hearts. Even Colossians holds a correlation to Mathetes’ epistle on sins being hidden in Christ, “For you have died, and your life has been hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Our life is comprised of love overcoming sins in Christ. Love atones for sins by overcoming evil with good (Proverbs 16:6; Romans 12:21). Thirdly, Jesus justifies us by showing us the path to faith, which is the means of being in right intimacy with God. I’m not saying Jesus’ appearance didn’t contribute to faith or trusting God. Even Mathetes makes this claim about God sending Jesus to persuade us, not to convince or appease His wrath. For instance:

“As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent He Him; as God He sent Him; as to men He sent Him; as a Savior He sent Him, and as seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for violence has no place in the character of God”.

If Jesus came to appease the wrath of God, then wouldn’t this be the best time to mention it when explaining Jesus’ mission on earth? And for the argument against bias translations, here is an example of their bias:

“Then shall thou condemn the deceit and error of the world when thou shall know what it is to live truly in heaven, when thou shalt despise that which is here esteemed to be death, when thou shalt fear what is truly death, which is reserved for those who shall be condemned to the eternal fire, which shall afflict those even to the end that are committed to it. Then shalt thou admire those who for righteousness’ sake endure the fire that is but for a moment, and shalt count them happy when thou shalt know [the nature of] that fire” (verse 10:7 by J.B. Lightfoot Translation).

You can see the contradicting views of eternal fire and having a definite limit in time. If I were to say, “You will be in my room until the end of an hour,” it implies against an endless duration. The Greek word used for eternal is aionion, which implies an age in a literal sense, or a great quality of something in the rhetorical sense.

The purpose of a sin offering was for ritual purification from defilement. And Jesus’ blood is compared to this kind of atonement, not in the sense of imputation. Here’s an example of this: “For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that their bodies are clean, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the [aionion/great-abiding] Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:13, 14). By the way, the Greek doesn’t translate as “to God”. So the blood wasn’t meant for imputing righteousness, but for becoming righteous by sanctification. Others oppose by using 2 Corinthians 5:21:

“God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God”

This verse in context supports the notion of becoming righteous in heart, instead of being made righteous by appearance. It can be re-translated as: “God made in Himself know no sin for our sins, so that we might become the righteousness of God.” In other words, God chose to ignore and forgive our sins, so that we can be empowered to become righteous in actuality, not implying some legal appearance. Because if God is fixated on our sins, then He becomes sin-conscious and unable to forgive by nature. That is why it is written, “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins” (Hebrews 8:12). Now, the context of this verse implies we become a new creation, which means God has transformed our hearts rather than making us seem holy (2 Corinthians 5:11–21). Since God does not consider our transgresses against us, then the doctrine of PS imputation seems to be a contradiction and alien to verse 19. We are made righteous in heart, not by appearance lest sin perpetuate as a problem.

As for the verse in Hebrews like, “without the shedding blood, there can be no forgiveness,” it doesn’t correlate to God but rather to the law of Moses. I won’t go deep into this verse, but in a future post. God and the law of Moses are separate entities, and John distinguishes the human origin of the Mosaic law with the divine origin of truth and grace (John 1:17). If the law of Moses was purely God-inspired, then it should be called “the law of God” and instead of crediting only Moses.

Because of scrutiny and evidence, I conclude the theory of Penal Substitution to be flawed theologically and philosophically. Find a better atonement theory or discover such a theory yourself, instead of imitating a crowd mindlessly. God bless the humble elect.

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George M. Garcia

George M. Garcia

A writer interested in theology and the supernatural. A Christian with divine experiences and a vast understanding of Scripture.