Why Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory makes me want to throw up a little bit in my mouth

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Sorry about the title – I had to get your attention somehow.

Seriously – if you go to church and you’re not sure what I’m talking about, listen up.

This is the ‘good news’ I suspect you were taught at church:

We are all sinners who deserve to be punished for eternity. God wants to forgive us and save us from hell, but as he is a holy and just God, he must punish sin. So in his great love, he sent his own Son to be punished in our place. He killed Jesus, pouring out his anger and wrath on him so that we wouldn’t have to be punished. Jesus died as payment for our sins. Our debt is paid, so we can go to heaven. Good news! Unless you don’t believe it in which case you still get punished for all eternity.

Wait, what?

This is very familiar, right? It is still today the most common understanding of what Christianity is all about.

And yet a rapidly growing number of evangelical Christians are rejecting this interpretation of the Gospel as a grotesque and dangerous misunderstanding.

(You’ll notice from my colourful use of inflammatory language this is something I feel pretty strongly about).

Having grown up accepting this version of Christianity without question, I now see it as a hideous and sickening misrepresentation of God and the meaning of Jesus.

The specific doctrine I (and many others) have rejected is known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (penal=penalty, punishment). It is one theory of the meaning of the cross which is now largely held as the only correct interpretation, and a (if not the) core doctrine of the faith.

It is currently my absolute least favourite thing about church. It’s everywhere… lurking in well-meaning sermon illustrations, in ‘easy’ answers in house group discussions, and sneaking into even the most popular worship songs.

Let me be absolutely clear about this.

I believe that Jesus, who was God, sacrificed his life to save us from sin. I believe that sin separates us from God, and God longs to restore his relationship with us. I believe that Jesus’ death was an act of atonement (at-one-ment), making us at one with God again.

I do not believe that God killed Jesus to satisfy his anger at our sin.

That’s the bit that makes me want to throw up in my mouth.

Before you write me off as nuts, please let me explain why…

Some of the problems with Penal Substitutionary Atonement:

1. God is angry, vengeful and violent, and ultimately our biggest threat. 

I get that God is meant to have taken the punishment upon himself. Sacrificed himself so we could be free. I get that.

But ultimately it is still God demanding a blood sacrifice as payment for sin. God wanting, needing to kill (and then continuing to torture) us because of our sin, but being satisfied to kill Jesus instead.

Whatever you think about the great mysteries of the Trinity, Penal Substitutionary Atonement makes God out to be vengeful, petty, violent and very angry at humans.

It makes the message of Christianity first and foremost one of fear… God is out to get you, you’d better hide behind Jesus before the smiting begins.

2. God doesn’t actually forgive us.

If Jesus settled our debt for us and God received payment in full, then God didn’t forgive anything. He got his blood payment!

Jesus teaches that we should forgive each other, but God doesn’t play by those rules.

So basically we are expected to be more loving than God.

3. The Gospel is at its core a legal deal or a transaction.

Once we’ve cashed in on the deal and made sure we’re in, the rest is basically irrelevant.

The whole of Jesus’ life and teachings are optional extras…if God had killed Jesus while he was a child the result would have been the same.

He paid the price, we get our ticket outa here. Then we get busy perfecting our sales pitch to convince our friends to get their tickets so they can be outa here too.

*Bangs head repeatedly on table*

4. If God killed Jesus, then violence is clearly the best way to solve problems.

People have actually used this to justify wars.

On a smaller scale, what kind of parenting model is that?

The whole point of Jesus was that he was demonstrating the path of non-violence and ultimately defeating violence.

Do you see the tragic irony in that?

A short but very very important history of Penal Subsitutionary Atonement:

(please keep reading, I’ve not got to the good bit yet…)

For the first thousand years of Christianity, Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory did not exist. You’d have gotten some very funny looks if you’d walked into an early church meeting and started talking about God punishing Jesus to pay for our sins.

In the 11th Century, a fellow named Anselm of Canterbury came up with the Satisfaction Theory, which was developed into the Penal Substitution Theory by the 16th Century reformers.

In the last 500 years, Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory has become so dominant that the vast majority of Christians don’t realise that’s all it is – a theory. A theory that the early Christians, indeed the people who wrote the Bible, didn’t know anything about.

In the last ten years or so people have started questioning this theory, and unsurprisingly those who have pushed for change have encountered strong resistance. This 500-year-old doctrine is so ingrained, moving away from it is no small task. Steve Chalke is the most public figure to have challenged Penal Substitutionary Atonement (calling it “cosmic child abuse”). It caused a bit of a hoo-ha to say the least, and the debate is still raging on.

It seems to me to be rather like trying to get an elderly parent to leave the house they have lived in since 1948. It’s the best thing for them, but they kick, scream and hurl abuse using words you never knew they knew.

“Well if not that, then what??”

So glad you asked.

God loves us and wants us to be whole, healed, brought home, free to reconnect with our Source. So God came to Earth as a man and endured the most humiliating and excruciating death possible at the hands of men in order to expose the ugliness of humanity at its worst, gripped by darkness and trapped in its own filth… and then to set us free.

The threat is not that God wants to punish us, it’s that our own destructive nature will tear us apart.

Jesus doesn’t save us from God. He saves us from darkness, disease, poverty, injustice, oppression, hunger, violence, our own destructive behaviour… everything that cuts us off from our Source and gets in the way of us being fully and gloriously human.

Which means God doesn’t begrudgingly accept us because we are ‘covered by the blood of Jesus’ and so he can’t actually see us… God actually quite likes us as us. So much so that he sacrificed his Son to save us from spiralling into destruction, setting us free to be fully ourselves.

I’ve just put into my own words a theory known as Christus Victor. It is believed to have been the dominant atonement theory for the first thousand years of church history. Again just a theory – humans trying to explain an inexplicable mystery – and there are other variations, but this fits most comfortably with the themes of the Bible and the concept of a loving God.

If this makes you feel like your faith is under attack, I’m sorry – please feel free to share your thoughts in a comment or email.

But let me first anticipate some common counter-arguments and give my response:

1. “You’re ignoring bits of the Bible to make the story sound nicer”

Nope, look… A Thoroughly Biblical Argument Against Penal Substitutionary Atonement

2. “I believe in Penal Substitution, but the picture of God you paint is a ridiculous caricature!”

Yes – I am exaggerating and using extreme examples to make a point. But if you logically follow through the arguments of Penal Substitution, can you really reconcile an all-loving God with one who demands blood payment as punishment for sin (and then still tortures people for eternity if they don’t believe the right things)? If a human parent acted that way what would we think??

3. “I believe in Penal Substitution, but I don’t think violence solves problems”

Neither did I when I believed in Penal Substitution – that’s because we are intelligent, reasonable human beings. So then God can use violence to solve problems, but we can’t? It’s starting to sound like we are more “good” than God…

4. It’s a central doctrine of Christianity – you can’t just throw it out.

Actually it’s not (as I explained above) – and yes, we can. We’ve thrown lots of other things out, it’s how we grow.

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19 thoughts on “Why Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory makes me want to throw up a little bit in my mouth

  1. bgpery says:

    If you don’t mind me adding.

    #5 It makes God unjust. In penal substitution the wrath and punishment of god is a necessity because of Gods justice. Justice that was fulfilled by torturing and killing the most innocent and only sinless one, this is itself the most possible injustice in history.

    #6 It is incompatible with the doctrine of the Trinity. At least in some versions of penal substitution where “God the Father turned his back on God the Son and the Son experienced separation from the Father”, this sort of thing is taught in certain forms of Evangelicalism. Orthodox doctrine of the trinity includes an unbreakable unity within the trinity. The Father cannot be separated from the Son to say so is heresy according to historic doctrine of the trinity.

    #7 It results in a “Jesus suffered so I don’t have to” attitude. Traditional understandings of the cross on the other hand give meaning to the sufferings we all have in this life. I follow a guy that got crucified what makes me think I should have the world handed to me.

    I would just like to add as well that satisfaction theory (the obedience of Christ is pleasing to the Father, he is satisfied by it) is distinct from Penal substitution/imputed righteousness, which is a monstrous (and entirely Protestant) development from it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • andrewsterlingansley says:

      300-400 AD the groundwork for the penal substitution theology was laid. It takes a while to develop some things into concrete views. Augustine believed in penal substitution (although it wasn’t labeled as penal substitution. Paul indicates a theology of penal substitution and it does not counteract God’s loving kindness. You are drawing false conclusions. The God you seem to worship cannot be said to be just or righteous. apparently all he can do is love at the detriment of everything else that you deem “unfair” and “mean”. I haven’t read all your stuff but this kind of theology usually leads one down a universalist road. No one goes to hell. God’s love defeats everything and no punishment exists. Its all hugs.


      • bgpery says:

        Andrew- I am no universalist, I assure you. There’s much that could be said, the discussion could quickly become very broad and multifaceted. The comment box forum isn’t the best place for this sort of exchange so I will try to be succinct as possible.

        Yes you could argue that Penal Substitution has its roots in S. Paul, S. Augustine, S. Anselm, S. T. Aquinas et cetera. However, what you seem to be missing is to understand that- It is entirely possible to believe that Christ suffered for sinners, atoned for sin, and even that he paid for sin; without believing in penal substitution. The Protestant reformers, Calvin in particular, altered understanding of the atonement into something entirely novel. Something purely legalistic.
        The merits of Christ are infinite because he being God is infinite, for us to not go to hell they must be applied to us. Without getting into all the different theories of atonement, most of which are harmonious with each other, the question comes down to how. Penal substitution says it is simple nominal substitution, a bankers balance sheet trick, and that the debt owed is simply one of wrath being poured out.

        The reason people respond to PS with negative emotion is because of the implications about the nature of God. That God has to dump out wrath being problematic isn’t necessarily an emotional argument (where do people get their natural sense of justice which leads to the negative emotional response?). Just one example my #5 above. Murdering an innocent, perfect person is objectively unjust, period. My point #5 is not an emotional argument it is a logical one. If God chooses to save persons by dumping the wrath they deserve on the only good man, itself an objectively evil act (his own son to boot) instead of them, he then is become source of evil as well as good.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Brad says:

        Andrew, how would you’d answer the questions on the following page?


        I’d answer yes to all those questions. And if yes is the answer to all three, then PSA is not necessary for atonement.


  2. Ruth Womack says:

    Wow! I have been on and off with church going all my adult life because I have found the penal substitution theory to sound wrong, I could not love or worship the god described but could not forget the Jsus a had come to know in the gospels. I have always felt guilty about this and thought it was my fault for not “”getting it”. Thank you so much for your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Luke says:

    “The threat is not that God wants to punish us, it’s that our own destructive nature will tear us apart.”

    This seems to me a false dichotomy. A great deal of God’s “punishment” against people in the Bible is simply the natural consequences of their actions. This does not in any way diminish God’s role as judge. He is responsible for the created order, and for sustaining it when we attempt to violate his natural law.

    A good analogy is when you trip and fall and scrape your knee. You can argue all day that “God didn’t do it, your shoelace did.” But God is the creator and sustainer of the force of gravity. He tore open the flesh of your knee against the ground that remains firm and unyielding at His command.

    The self-destructive nature of sin is in fact punishment from God.


  4. Lee says:

    Hi Emma,

    Thanks for a good article. I agree 100% about penal substitution, and have written similar articles about it on my own blog. It is a horrible, blasphemous, non-biblical doctrine.

    I would suggest a couple of tweaks to your article, though:

    1. Penal substitution is not “the most common understanding of what Christianity is all about.” Rather, it is the dominant understanding in the Protestant branch of Christianity. However, Protestantism constitutes only a little over 1/3 of Christianity as a whole. And penal substitution is not taught outside of Protestantism—most notably, it is not taught in Roman Catholicism or in Orthodox Christianity. So penal substitution remains a minority position within Christianity.

    2. You say, “For the first thousand years of Christianity, Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory did not exist.” But it is actually for the first 1,500 years of Christianity that penal substitutionary atonement did not exist. It arose along with the Protestant reformation. Yes, Anselm came up with satisfaction theory 1,000 years in, and Aquinas modified it into the atonement theory currently accepted in Catholicism a couple centuries later. But neither of these theories involved penal substitution. You’re right that penal substitution was developed on the basis of Anselm’s satisfaction theory. But the “penal” part of it was a new invention of the Protestant reformers 500 years later.


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