PS atonement theory

at*one*ment: Penal Substitution Theory

Throughout Lent, we are taking a look at various atonement theories.  If you haven’t read the introduction of this blog’s series, you may want to do that here first.

I’m an advocate for the Deaf, and because of this, I have an interest in the television show on abcfamily that airs on Tuesday nights called, “Switched At Birth“.  The premise of the show is two girls were switched (wait for it… wait for it…) at birth, which wasn’t discovered until they were in high school.  The one girl is named Bay and lived in a high class home, raised by a retired pro-baseball player, her mother.  The other girl is named Daphne, who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, by a single mother, and who also became deaf at a young age due to sickness.  The two girls meet and the families live on the same property and work on raising the girls together.

In the season three finale, Daphne gets in trouble while already on probation.  To avoid further punishment, she decides to go to the police station and turn herself in for the actions she committed.  Bay goes along for support, but in the end, Bay confesses to Daphne’s actions and is taken away to jail, while her sister is free.  I guess you could say, Bay took Daphne’s place in punishment.

Penal Substitution Atonement Theory is the most (or one of the most) popular atonement theories among the Evangelical world.  It is based on the premise that our sins need to be punished and paid to God so it is possible for Him to forgiveness us.  Why?  Because God hates sin that much.  In the Old Testament, it was the animal sacrifices that took on the punishment, but that was simply not enough.  So God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins.  Or sometimes stated, “He took my place on the cross and bore my sin and shame so that God could forgive me.”

The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms defines Penal Substitution Theory as this, “Christ stood in the legal place of sinners, bearing the just punishment due us because we transgress God’s law.” (pp.17)

Scripture Support

Isaiah 53:5-6, “But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds.  We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the Lord has punished Him for the iniquity of us all.”

Romans 3:25-26, “God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed.  He presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.”

II Corinthians 5:21, “He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

Galatians 3:13, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written: Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”

Romans 4:25, “He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

Problems Penal Substitution Theory Presents

God seems to have an anger management issue.  God is angry with mankind in the Old Testament, and then suddenly, Jesus’ blood is spilt and OH!  God suddenly changes into this nice Being in the New Testament…  Is God bipolar?  (Actually, God gave mercy to several people in the Old Testament such as David, Cain, and the entire nation of Israel on several occasions.)

A punishment (or sacrifice) was not needed in order for God to forgive sins.  In fact, nowhere in the Gospels is it recorded that Jesus gave/offered sacrifices in the Jewish Temple, but there are several places where Jesus forgave sins… John 5:1-15, Jesus tells a paralytic man his sins are forgiven and to pick up his mat and walk.  In John 8:1-11, an adulteress woman is brought before Jesus and he tells her that he does not condemn her and instructs her to go and sin no more.  Luke 7:36-50 tells us a story of Jesus telling a woman that her sins are forgiven.  In Luke 4:17-26 Jesus forgives the sins of His friends… so on and so forth…

And in the absolute worst cases, Penal Substitution Theory has been used to validate child abuse.  Just as God was an abuser by working through the actions of the Roman soldiers, and just a Jesus accepted that abuse, so must a child accept the abuse of their parent/s.  It has been used to justify spousal/domestic abuse.   This is extreme and rare, but nonetheless, does take place.

And I think this last point is made clear by this cartoon:



For further study, check out this website.



Throughout the Lenten season, we will be writing about various atonement theories.

And some of you might have just gone, “huh?”

Atonement is defined as “at*one*ment with God” or “the reconciliation of God to humankind through Jesus Christ”.  That’s the black and white part of atonement.  The more gray area resides in the fact that The Bible isn’t clear on how atonement takes place.  The majority of the Evangelical Church will answer that question by saying, “Through Jesus who spilt His blood as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins on the cross.”

Actually… that’s ONE of SEVERAL theories.

Various authors of the Books of the Bible used various metaphors/similes to try to illustrate how atonement took place, which in the end, lead to various views and thoughts on the topic. Typically, at any given Evangelical Good Friday service, a sermon will take several atonement theories and wrap them into one.  Since we are so immune to Christianese (or Christian verbiage) we aren’t even aware that these several atonement theories are contradictions to each other and cannot all be true.  For example we might hear:  “Jesus came to die on the cross to pay the ultimate price for our sins.  God hates sin so much, He could not forgive us or look at us without the blood of Jesus.  It was the blood that paid the price, so that we could become part of His family.  Now, when God sees us, He sees Jesus.  That is how much God loved us!  He sent His Son to save us–for the whosoever to believe in Him and have eternal life.”

So… is atonement a sort of “legal transaction”?  Was God so repelled by our sin, that Jesus was forced to die so He could pay the price to God for our sins with His blood?

Or… is atonement more of a love story?  Did Jesus die on the cross because of God’s love for us and paid the price to Satan so that we could be reconciled to Him?

Those are completely contradictory ideas.  One places the motive on an angry God that demands payment, and the other places the motive on a loving God… so which one is it?

And speaking of which, who exactly was the price paid to?  God?  Satan?  Us?

And is God a mean, old, grumpy dude in the Old Testament, and then Jesus comes along and suddenly God turns into this loving God?  Is God bipolar?  How can He have a change of heart after Jesus if He is the same yesterday, today, and forever?

And how can God say to us, ‘thou shalt not murder’ and then murder His Son on the cross?  Does that make God a hypocrite?  I thought hypocrisy was a sin and God was perfect…?

And did the atonement even take place at His death?  What if it took place at His birth instead? Or what happens if it takes place at the resurrection?

Is atonement attached to the Old Testament’s celebration of the Day of Atonement or is it attached to Passover?

And on and on, the questions go, one after another, after another, after another…

When dealing with theology the first question people like to ask is: Does this affect salvation?  Because if it doesn’t affect salvation, then we don’t need to worry about it.

Uh… that’s totally the wrong question.

When dealing with theology the wise question to ask is: Does this affect how I live my life today?  Because if it does, then I need to know what I believe and why.  Not for the sake of argument, but for the sake of my own personal convictions, and for the sake of how I interact with God and others.

Does our belief in any given atonement theory affect how we live our lives today—YES!—especially in our understanding of God’s character, how He reaches out to humankind, and/or violence (even though we may be completely unaware of it).  And just for clarification purposes ANY and ALL theology affects how we live today, because we naturally live out what we believe, and theology is what we believe about God.

So, your next question might be, is this worth arguing about?  Maybe… In some circumstances.  Is it worth being educated on?  YES!

For those who are in the same denomination as me, we typically embrace the Ransom Theory (aka Christus Victor Atonement Theory) which will come across our blog in March with a guest post.  Our doctrine specifies that atonement took place with Christ’s death, the rest is just as vague about how it all takes place as it is in Scripture.

The big picture is that we must agree that we are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ in order to be Christians.  However, in regards to what we believe how and when that reconciliation took place, we can be Christians who agree to disagree agreeably.  Even the Early Church who wrote the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed left out this topic, because they didn’t find atonement to be a crucial topic for us to be in agreement on as the Universal Church.

So as we go throughout this series, our purpose is to educate on the various views of atonement.  This may leave you asking questions, doing your own research, or it may even change your perspective on atonement, and for that I say, go for it!  We are hoping this is simply a tool to help you discover and understand Lent, Easter, and atonement a little bit better this year and in the future.

So… let’s dive in!  :-)

For a look at Penal Substitution theory, click here.

For Recapitulation theory, click here.

For Ransom/Christus Victor theory, click here.

For Governmental theory, click here.

For Feminist Theories of atornement, click here.