In keeping with our theme of atonement from yesterday, I thought I’d outline some of the more common objections to penal substitution offered in contemporary ‘evangelical’ literature. Again, these are very brief descriptions of the arguments, but they are simply intended to familiarize us with what is being said by self-proclaimed evangelicals today.
God willing, we’ll examine some of the arguments for penal substitution tomorrow, but for now, here are some of the most common contemporary objections to it:
- Penal Substitution and Divine Love
- Penal Substitution and Divine Justice
- Penal substitution and the Trinity
- Penal Substitution and Violence
Those who hold to this objection argue that God is love (1 John 4:8), and his expression of his character in Christ is ultimately love. With this schema in place, seeing God as wrathful and punitive is clearly out of character, and therefore wrong. The God who would demand penal substitution is a God of vengeance, it is argued, not a God of love. The justice of the God of the Bible is in line with his love and is therefore corrective and remedial rather than wrathful or punitive.
Here it is argued, in connection with the above argument that we have misunderstood divine justice. God’s justice must be interpreted in light of his love. The notion that there is guilt which must be punished is western and modern in its origin, and is far from biblical. God’s justice must be viewed as remedial. Our guilt is better viewed in terms of shame, rather than guilt, and once that is understood we will see that there is no need for a penal substitute to satisfy the wrath of God. Like God’s justice, it is argued that his wrath must be redefined in non-western terms. Rather than an angry response to sin, God’s wrath is seen merely in the natural consequences for sin.
Here it is argued that penal substitution betrays a wrong understanding of the Trinity. Since, in penal substitution, God the Father would be turned against God the Son (which, it is assumed, could never happen), then penal substitution must therefore be wrong. Any pitting of the persons of the Trinity against each other must be wrong, and therefore penal substitution is jettisoned.
Here it is argued that the notion of God requiring a violent atonement for the sake of forgiving offences and propitiating wrath is entirely distasteful at best, and could well be construed as condoning violence in human relationships as well. For example, it is often argued in contemporary feminist literature that penal substitutionary atonement theories only encourage the abuse of women and children who are innocent, but told they must bear the wrath of their fathers and “bear up” and suffer like Christ. This, they argue, is a far cry from biblical Christianity, and is a reason to deny penal substitution.