At the end of my last post I said that I thought it was good that a majority of Christians held to a penal substitutionary view of the atonement. Not everyone agrees with me. There are some, and it seems as if their numbers are growing in recent years, that have criticisms of this doctrine. Some of the criticism are understandable while others are overly harsh and based largely on a caricature of the theory rather than what it actually teaches. I would like to take a little time to answer some of these objections.
Objection #1: There are other theories of the atonement, you know.
Yes, of course there are. No one is saying that Penal Substitution is the only theory. However, many would argue (myself included) that a Substitutionary understanding is the most complete and actually strengthens the other theories (or facets) of the atonement.
Objection #2: Penal Substitution first developed at the time of the Reformation. If the Church didn’t use/know about this theory for 1500 years then it must not be very important.
It is true that the Reformers wrote a good deal about this theory but it is not true to say that this is the first time these themes were discovered. From some of the earliest writings of the Church Fathers examples can be found of the major points of this theory. Specifically, the idea that Jesus suffered the punishment that we deserved (which is the point that most often comes under attack) is present in these writings. I will cite just one example because the full list would need a post all of its own (If you want more, email me and I will gladly send you the others). Eusebius of Caesarea wrote this in the early 4th century:
And the Lamb of God not only did this, but was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us.
It is true that this is not the only theory or facet of the atonement that the Church Fathers understood but it is incorrect to say that the Church did not known about or teach penal substitution until the time of the Reformation.
But more important than this, is whether or not this doctrine is taught in Scripture. Isaiah 53:5 says “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Rom. 4:25 says “[Jesus] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Rom. 3:25 says “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood”. 2 Cor. 5:21 says “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Gal. 5:13 says “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”. Heb. 9:28 says “So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many”. 1 Pet. 2:24 says “and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”
I could go on but surely the point has been made. The bible clearly teaches that Jesus bore the punishment that we deserve.
Objection #3: The idea that God would punish His innocent Son is abhorrent. It is nothing more than “cosmic child abuse”.
This objection misses the fact that it is also Jesus’ wrath that is being suffered not just the Father’s. The Son willingly bore the wrath of the entire Godhead. More over it is all done out of love. In love the Father sent the Son (John 3:16, John 10:17-18). In love the Son came and put on flesh (John 10:10). In love Jesus placed Himself in the hands of those who He knew would crucify Him (John 15:13).
Objection #4: God doesn’t need a blood sacrifice to love us. Surely an omnipotent Being could find some other way to forgive us.
First, the assumption that God didn’t love us before the crucifixion is false. It was precisely because of His great love for us that the Father sent Jesus and that Jesus willingly took on flesh and died in our place.
Now, as to the idea that God could have done something else to redeem us. I suppose that might be true as far as it goes but what difference does it make as to what God could have done? God could have done many things differently. What we are concerned with, is what He did do. To that point, the Bible is quite clear, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” Heb. 9:22.
To be continued…