How (Not) to Think of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

My friend Richard Beck recently started a new Wednesday night class at Highland called Theologia. The class blog can be found here.

If you scan through the blog posts to date, you’ll see that, thus far, we have studied two different books:

  • Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice, a book which offers an interpretation of the cross that differs from the traditional, evangelical view of penal substitionary atonement (more on that in a minute); and
  • Peter Rollins’ How (Not) to Speak of God, a book that was the subject of a series of posts in this space during the last few weeks/months.

It occurred to me today that there is some interesting interaction between these two series . In fact, the whole dialog over penal substitutionary atonement provides a pretty good “test case” for applying Rollins’ ideas.

Penal substitutionary atonement (“penal substitution” or “PSA” for short) is an explanation for Jesus’ sacrifice which says (a) that Jesus went to the cross and suffered a punishment that should have been inflicted on the rest of mankind. By implication, some people have concluded that it must also mean (b) that God means to to punish us all horribly for our sin, and that the cross was his way of “taking it out” on Jesus instead of us.

A lot of Christians struggle with the implications spelled out in (b) because the cross begins to sound like a horrible act of cosmic child abuse, with Jesus as our co-dependent, rather than an act of God’s love. I won’t go into any further detail about those problems here. They’ve been explored and discussed elsewhere ad nauseum.

For me, PSA cannot be completely dispelled or ignored because – like it or not – scripture uses PSA-like language on several occasions to describe the cross. Rollins’ ideas in How (Not) to Speak of God, however, help me to put those PSA-like texts in perspective.

Why? Rollins, I think, would warn us about turning PSA into an idol. We are invited to reflect on PSA as metaphorical – i.e.,  as a way of thinking about what Jesus did on the cross by comparing it to something that happens in human legal systems. However, it is not THE explanation. What happened on the cross is deeper and more mysterious than can be conveyed by mere legal language.

Scot McKnight once said that scripture invites us to think of Jesus’ death in at least four ways (Scot – if you ever read this, accept my apologies if I don’t get this exactly right):
1. He dies INSTEAD of us  (PSA)
2. He dies FOR us (i.e., we think of Jesus like a ransom)
3. He dies WITH us (i.e., he suffers as we suffer, thus fully entering into humanity)
4. He invites US TO DIE WITH HIM (as he gave up of himself to find new life, so we do the same)

PSA, then, has a (rightful) place when it comes to reflection on the cross, but it is idolatrous to set  it up as the be-all-and-end-all explanation for the cross, to the exclusion of all of the other powerful imagery that we find in scripture. We can and should consider the cross to be like a situation where someone willingly suffers legal punishment instead of us. However, when we elevate it above all of the other metaphors, and when we assume it is THE explanation, we demean its richer, fuller meaning which transcends words and metaphors.

I also think we should consider whether is it possible that, by elevating PSA above other explanations, we inadvertently create another problem for ourselves. Specifically, we create the problem of having explain every implication of the metaphor. Here is what I mean: since PSA is now the complete, comprehensive explanation for what happened on the cross, we have to come up with a defensible explanation about where the “punishment” came from and why it was necessary. And before long, other ideas – ideas that are important to other meatphors for the cross, such as the concept of a sacrificial, loving God – become compromised for the sake of defending all of the implications.

I also suspect that – for the most part – the biblical authors who wrote PSA-like texts weren’t really that concerned with exploring the where-did-the-punishment-come-from implications of the metaphor. Thus, by ripping PSA out of context and turning it into a fulsome explanation rather than a beautiful metaphor, I think it is possible to end up doing violence to the reality of what happened on the cross.

[A side note: Do all four of these theories, when put together, fully describe the cross? Of course not! The “truth” of our experience with God will always be more fulsome than these, or any other metaphors that we use to describe that experience. Thus, they should all be treated as aids in reflection, rather than fulsome, complete explanations, of what the cross was all about.]

 Finally, I think Rollins’ ideas tell us this: if, in reflecting on PSA, you find yourself less inclined to love your fellow man (perhaps because you think they are deserving of God’s hatred/punishment as well as your own), then you are sure to be looking at the cross in the “wrong” way. PSA isn’t helping you. For that reason, you should set PSA aside, and reflect on the cross in another way.

On the other hand, if in reflecting on PSA, you are inclined to reach out to the world in love (perhaps because you think of people as being in pain or jeapordy of pain and the cross is a way of aleviating that pain), then hang onto PSA with every fiber of your being, because it is helping you to think of the cross in a healthy way.

In other words, PSA may “work” for some people and it may not “work” for other people, and – in either case – thats okay. God will use different metaphors to speak to different people, but he will always be producing in all of us the same result: a world that is infused with his loving presence. The reality of the cross will always break through into our world as long as we hold our metaphors and words of the cross in the right way.


3 Responses to How (Not) to Think of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

  1. sacred vapor says:

    I think one way that Rollins helped me understand how we error in our theological thoughts is that we try to break everything down into propositional theories. Because we are accostumed to a world of scientific inquiry, we systemitize everything. Instead of PSA as proposition, it makes more sense (biblically) to think of PSA as narrative. It becomes less theory and more story… and thus more relative to our story.


  2. curtis says:


    Seriously, I’m loving your posts, man. It’s really helping me, the way you’re distilling, and sifting through, some of these ideas and making it a little more straight-forward and palatable. I think that’s REALLY important, because there’s a lot of people out there, saying a lot of great things, but not in a way that “the masses” can decode. So this helps to hear it fleshed out a little more simply.

    Good stuff… Keep up the great work!

  3. Matt says:

    Thanks, Curtis! That means a lot to me. A lot of what I’m trying to do here is just what you say – translate ideas from the more academic to something that looks more like street-level theology.

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