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I have recently been lead to thoroughly reject the evangelical church’s typical view of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, that is, the penal substitution view. In my opinion, there are numerous problems with this view, not the least of which is that the God of penal substitution is not perfectly good!

Now, what do I mean by that? Perhaps it would help if I defined the penal substitutionary position. According to Theopedia,

Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.

The doctrine is more simply summed up in the words of the old hymn,

Till on the cross, as Jesus died,
the wrath of God was satisfied,

It will also be helpful for the purposes of my argument that this “God” is not perfectly good if the doctrine is broken down into several points, which can be addressed in turn.

1. God is fundamentally just, and this means He must always fully punish sin.

2. God, however, in the case of humanity, did not want to punish sin, but to show mercy.

3. Therefore, God punished His Son in place of humanity, and allowed them to go free.

Now, I could go on for days about the problems with this theory, mostly centering on point 3 and point 1, taken separately, but instead, today I’d like to talk about the fundamental contradiction between points 1 and 2, and how they impugn the character of God.

First, Point 1. “God is fundamentally just.” I would agree that God is just. I would not agree that His justice is fundamental. His love is fundamental. Justice is a manifestation of love, and is always consistent with love. If it were not, it would be inconsistent with God’s nature, which is love(1 John 4:8, 16), and thus God could not be just.

Second comes the second part of Point 1, that God’s justice requires Him always to fully punish sin. This is of course nonsense. Penal substitutionists would do well to read George Macdonald’s sermon “Justice” in which he debunks the idea that justice consists entirely, or even much, in punishing sin.

Suffice to say here, however, that punishment never has, never will, and absolutely cannot satisfy justice. Let me clarify that. Punishment certainly can be deserved. Additionally, punishment may accomplish any number of good ends, such as the reform of the one punished, deterrence to other potential offenders, and deterrence against repeat crimes by the same offender. However, punishment never satisfies justice.

Justice demands the righting of wrongs. If a man steals from me, and goes to prison for it, even if he goes to prison for the rest of his life, if I do not get back what was stolen, justice is not satisfied. No wrong has been righted.

Ask the family of any murder victim: Does the murderer deserve to be punished? Absolutely, they will reply. Will that punishment in any way make up for what he did? No, of course not. Punishment never satisfies justice, because no matter how the killer is punished, his victim remains dead.

If a man steals from me, justice is done when restitution is made, when I have back what is rightfully mine. Punishment properly belongs to another area altogether. Thus, I hope you can see that Point 1 in the penal substitutionary system simply makes no sense.

But let us pretend that we have not done this exercise. Let us pretend that justice can indeed be satisfied by punishment. If that is the case, we see a contradiction between Points 1 and 2.

The contradiction is as follows. If God is perfectly just, and perfectly good, then perfect justice must be perfectly good. If justice demands full punishment for sin, then showing mercy must be evil, or at least less than perfectly good. If that be the case, then God’s desire to show mercy, as claimed by Point 2, is an evil, or at least, less than perfectly good, desire.

But if God has evil(or less than perfectly good) desires, then He is less than perfectly good. And if justice be admitted to be not perfectly good, so as to allow mercy, here viewed as justice’s opposite, to be perfectly good, then God cannot be both perfectly just and perfectly good. And if He is admitted to be imperfectly just, then the whole argument falls apart, as it depends on God’s being unable to refrain from “justice”, which is here defined as meting out sin’s full punishment.

And so you see, that Penal Substitution must regard either justice or mercy as an evil, since they are considered to be fundamentally opposed, and since they both exist in God, this theory’s “God” cannot be perfectly good.

Next time, I’ll be presenting another objection to penal substitution, the famous “War Within the Trinity” objection.

–Sam Starrett