The “penal substitutionary atonement theory,” PSA, is the default standard amongst evangelicals for explaining Jesus’ atonement on the Cross. The theory goes back about 500 years in the church, championed by John Calvin, who had a legal background, hence the legalistic slant. While Anselm 1033-1109, saw the atonement largely as a compensation paid back to God for the debt we owed, Calvin and the other Protestant Reformers saw Christ’s death not so much as payment or satisfaction of a debt owed, but taking on a punishment that we deserved. Thus basing the atonement on satisfaction of God’s wrathful punishment.
The basic critique of the Reformers new view came from Faustus Socinus, 1539-1604, who brought up some strong criticisms of the PSA view. First off, taking satisfaction negates giving pardon, they are incompatible. Justice is not served by killing an innocent in the place of the guilty, which is scapegoating, nor can a temporary death of one cover the eternal death of many. Basically he set the stage for a debate that continues today.
Gregory Boyd has some interesting objections I will share.
1 “Does God really need to appease his wrath with a blood sacrifice in order to forgive us? If so, does this mean that the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the ultimate description of God’s character? And if this is true, what are we to make of Jesus’ teaching that this law is surpassed by the law of love? Not only this, but what are we to make of all the instances in the Bible where God forgives people without demanding a sacrifice (e.g. the prodigal son)?”
2 “If God’s holiness requires that a sacrifice be made before he can fellowship with sinners, how did Jesus manage to hang out with sinners without a sacrifice, since he is as fully divine and as holy as God the Father?”
3 “If Jesus’ death allows God the Father to accept us, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Jesus reconciles God to us than it is to say Jesus reconciles us to God? Yet the New Testament claims the latter and never the former (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:18-20). In fact, if God loves sinners and yet can’t accept sinners without a sacrifice, wouldn’t it be even more accurate to say that God reconciles God to himself than to say he reconciles us to God? But this is clearly an odd and unbiblical way of speaking.”
4 “How are we to understand one member of the Trinity (the Father) being wrathful towards another member of the Trinity (the Son), when they are, along with the Holy Spirit, one and the same God? Can God be truly angry with God? Can God actually punish God?”
5 “If God the father needs someone to “pay the price” for sin, does the Father ever really forgive anyone? Think about it. If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? It seems not, especially since the very concept of forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”
6 “Are sin and guilt the sorts of things that can be literally transferred from one party to another? Related to this, how are we to conceive of the Father being angry towards Jesus and justly punishing him when he of course knew Jesus never did anything wrong?”
7 “If the just punishment for sin is eternal hell (as most Christians have traditionally believed), how does Jesus’ several hours of suffering and his short time in the grave pay for it?”
8 “If the main thing Jesus came to do was to appease the Father’s wrath by being slain by him for our sin, couldn’t this have been accomplished just as easily when (say) Jesus was a one-year-old boy as when he was a thirty-three year old man? Were Jesus’ life, teachings, healing and deliverance ministry merely a prelude to the one really important thing he did – namely, die? It doesn’t seem to me that the Gospels divide up and prioritize the various aspects of Jesus’ life in this way. (I maintain that everything Jesus did was about one thing – overcoming evil with love. Hence, every aspect of Jesus was centered on atonement — that is, reconciling us to God and freeing us from the devil’s oppression.)”
9 “To raise a more controversial question, if it’s true that God’s wrath must be appeased by sacrificing his own Son, then don’t we have to conclude that pagans who have throughout history sacrificed their children to appease the gods’ wrath had the right intuition, even if they expressed it in the wrong way?”
10 “What is the intrinsic connection between what Jesus did on the cross and how we actually live? The Penal Substitution view makes it seem like the real issue in need of resolution is a legal matter in the heavenly realms between God’s holy wrath and our sin. Christ’s death changes how God sees us, but this theory says nothing about how Christ’s death changes us. This is particularly concerning to me because every study done on the subject has demonstrated that for the majority of Americans who believe in Jesus, their belief makes little or no impact on their life. I wonder if the dominance of this legal-transaction view of the atonement might be partly responsible for this tragic state of affairs.”
The legalistic position of PSA adherents, that it satisfies justice, as I have pointed out before, really is not a just system, as Jesus was unjustly murdered. It presents us with an unjust Heavenly Father. Hyper-Calvinists like John Piper usually revert to “mystery,” that is, God’s purposes are unknowable, beyond our understanding. (I am constantly amused that those who can build elaborate intellectual rationales for God’s behavior, then fall back on mystery when flaws are revealed).
As Piper has stated “It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.”
Piper’s basic rational, and an underlying principal of PSA, is that “God is not beholden to us at all. He doesn’t owe us anything.
Now add to that the fact we’re all sinners and deserve to die and go to hell yesterday, and the reality that we’re even breathing today is sheer common grace from God.” (Ibid.)
It is rather difficult, as one might imagine, to understand A. How is God loving? B. Is this a good “Father image?” C. How can rape, genocide and the murder of children be attributed to the loving God Jesus presents us with.
Was PSA the dominant view held in the early church? No, it was Christus Victor for the first millennium. In this view, Christ is seen as victorious over sin, death and the grave. Mankind was viewed as captive to the powers of evil, Christ rescued us. Sometimes attached, is the view that a “ransom” payment was made to the devil, as is presented in “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” a trap of sorts sprung on Satan, but this is not intrinsic to the Christus Victor theory of atonement, nor particularly convincing.
One of the awkward aspects of PSA that CV overcomes is the disjuncture of the Godhead necessitated in PSA. Christus Victor “reverses this view by uniting Jesus and His Father during the Crucifixion in a subversive condemnation of the unjust powers of darkness. This is followed by the natural emphasis of Christus Victor: the Father’s vindication of Jesus in His victorious and bodily Resurrection.”
“While largely held only by Orthodox Christians for much of the last one thousand years, the Christus Victor theory is becoming increasingly popular with both paleo-orthodox evangelicals because of its connection to the early Church fathers, and with liberal Christians and peace churches such as the Anabaptist Mennonites because of its subversive nature, seeing the death of Jesus as an exposure of the cruelty and evil present in the worldly powers that rejected and killed him, and the resurrection as a triumph over these powers.”
I think it not inconsequential, and a bit ironic, that historically the church has been divided on these two views of the atonement. There is more at play here, then mere theological hair-splitting. The PSA teaching arose out of a church world view in which the Catholic Church (and later, the Protestant Church) sought to control all of society through dominance and violence. In Christus Victor, it is those very evil tendencies that Jesus fights and overcomes. Gods who are violent produce violent followers. This has been proven time and time again historically, and is true of all religions. What we see happening in western Christianity is a concerted effort to disavow its past violence and any connection to its conception of a violent God. To repaint its past, if you will.
Unfortunately, orthodox evangelicalism begins with a violent God in the OT, continues with God’s need for a violent atonement, and ends with Jesus returning to slay most of mankind. God is straightjacketed into this human mindset of violence as the ultimate solution. It is a betrayal of the Jesus, who, on the cross, employed his Heavenly Father to “forgive them,” the very ones murdering him. The church needs a better solution to mankind’s problems then one that starts and ends with violence.