I was sitting outside the library at the University of California at Santa Cruz when two other students walked by complaining about Christian faith in the crucifixion of Jesus. As a young Christian with an interest in working with my cohorts to evangelize the campus, I turned my head to hear more. I don’t remember much of what they said except the exclamation of one of the women: “Dying on a cross—it’s just so disgusting.”
To this day I think this young woman grasped better than many Christians the horrific nature of Jesus’ death. We sometimes try to drive this point home by comparing the cross to death by electrocution, wondering if we’d wear necklaces or sport T-shirts with electric chair symbols. But as gruesome as electrocution is, crucifixion is far worse—a long, drawn-out affair, sometimes preceded by bloody scourging, with hands and feet pierced with thick nails, the entire weight of the body suspended at three agonizing points. After hours of agony, you slowly suffocated when your legs could no longer support you and your lungs were smothered with the weight of your body. All this etched in blood dripping mercilessly from head and hands and feet.
This young woman had it right. A bloody and violent event stands at the very center of our faith. And it’s not just the event, but its meaning, especially as evangelical Christians see it, that prompts many to recoil in disgust. Evangelicals more than most are deeply moved by the notion that Christ died for us on a cross, that he was a substitute who suffered in our stead, that he endured a punishment we deserved.
This idea—summarily called the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement—has fallen from grace in many circles. It’s been under assault not just by agnostics but by Christians themselves, some of them identifying themselves as evangelical. To be sure, it has been framed sometimes in crude and even pathological ways. But it remains a way of looking at the atonement that deeply moves millions and draws them in grateful love to the one who hung on that cross.
Contemporary theologians have done the church a service in reminding us of the many models of atonement alluded to in Scripture. Like the ransom model: We are held in the power of the devil until Christ died and freed us from his grip. And Christus Victor: The malevolent principalities and rulers of this age have been defeated by Christ on the cross. And the moral model: Seeing the lengths to which Christ went to demonstrate his love by dying on the cross, we respond in love.
Still, evangelical Christians believe there are persuasive theological reasons for privileging penal substitution among these and other models of the atonement. Perhaps the best concise case is a paper delivered by J. I. Packer in 1973, at the Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, “What Did the Cross Achieve?” I won’t repeat his good reasons, but instead I want simply to note how and why, despite the many valid criticisms of how the doctrine is misunderstood and abused, penal substitution remains central to so much evangelical preaching, teaching, and devotion.
It Makes Intuitive Sense
The main reason is simply this: It makes intuitive sense to men and women of an evangelical disposition. Evangelicals wouldn’t continue to believe it if it didn’t also have biblical and theological justification. But they are not sophisticated theologians when they first find themselves astonished at hearing about what Christ has done for them on the cross. Nor do arguments for the doctrine explain why they fall to their knees weeping as grateful recipients of forgiveness and eternal life.
They are grateful because they have, as we have noted in earlier essays, “an urgent sense of man’s predicament … a mood so deep that it could never be completely articulated.” The mood is despair, and the urgency comes from a foreboding: If the reason for this despair isn’t addressed, one is doomed. The despair is grounded by guilt and shame for transgressions against divine law, which evangelicals recognize not as an impersonal and arbitrary law, but one that is a direct expression of the Personality behind the law. When we sin, we are keenly aware of the connection between the law of God and person of God. We have not merely violated a law but a person, and as such we are subject not just to punishment but also wrath, not merely just consequences but also rejection.
These are not notions—the intimate connection between law and lawgiver, and between guilt and rejection—that sit comfortably with us today. Many argue such notions are more akin to primitive religion that seeks to appease angry gods. No one, we tell ourselves, really thinks like this anymore. But a little more thought and we recognize that the basic dynamics are well understood even today.
For example, you make a vow to your spouse to be faithful. But when you have an affair, it’s clear that it’s not just an abstract vow that has been broken; the relationship has also been ruptured. Or when a teen steals from his mother’s purse to buy and use drugs, the mother takes this personally, as well she should. It’s not just moral infractions of stealing and lying, and she’s not upset only because her teen is inflicting damage to himself. The biggest problem is the sabotaging of trust; the teen has failed to respect, honor, and love his mother.
Evangelicals Christians grasp this intimate connection between the law of God and person of God. They also intuitively recognize it is no small thing to transgress the law or the law’s Creator. It’s not just that they need pardon—no, something graver is at stake. They need a lifeline. For they suspect inwardly what the Scripture says explicitly even before they hear the Scripture: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
Again the modern conscience balks. What type of universe is this in which every day and relatively harmless behavior—lying, greed, pride, lust, and so forth—deserves eternal and irreversible damnation? Evangelicals respond, “This type of universe,” and point to common experiences with very much the same dynamic—relatively insignificant actions that result in horrific and lasting consequences.
A woodworker thoughtlessly moves his hand too close to the table saw blade, and in an instant, his hand is lost forever to him. A jogger glances at her cell phone and momentarily wanders onto a busy street; she is hit by a passing car, and after multiple operations, she is told she’ll never be able to run again. Why the world is built this way—where small lapses in physical laws can have such devastating consequences—is hard to say, but evangelicals accept it for what it is, and even more when it comes to divine law.
As noted, evangelical Christians are also more comfortable than most in calling such consequences a form of punishment. To talk only about consequences drains the blood from the dynamic and moves us in the direction of deism, into a world where God sets up the moral and physical laws and steps away. The consequences of ignoring divine law are akin to the consequences of ignoring gravity—nothing personal, just cosmic business.
The Bible reveals a much different God, one whose laws are a direct reflection of his very character—and that very character is, ultimately, love. So to disobey divine law is to reject not only the wise Lawgiver but also the Lover of humankind. And thus in Scripture, God reacts to sin less like a judge who impassively metes out justice, but more like a wounded lover who has been rejected. It’s very personal.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called, the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.” (Hos. 11:1–4)
This personal dynamic is what gives substitutionary atonement such homiletic force, and why it is a staple of evangelical preaching, teaching, and devotion. Of all the models of atonement, it best reflects the personal God of the Bible, in his loving creation of the world, to his anguished reaction to sin, to his sacrificial death on the cross to restore the broken relationship.
The punishment that results is not an arbitrary expression of a rejected lover’s wrath, but also an act that somehow balances the moral books. That is why forgiveness as a mere act of the will is not sufficient. Sins must be paid for, as a debt must be paid for. Why this is the case, why the moral universe operates in this way, is hard to say, another deep mystery of life.
We first understand the nature of just punishment as children. Your sister repeatedly changes the channel you are watching on TV to watch what she wants. She is rude and unbending until your father steps in. An apology from her is all well and good, but you are not satisfied until your father adds that your sister can’t watch TV for a week. Punishment is part of the solution to this problem, and if there is no punishment, you feel like justice has been cheated.
Or take the trope that Hollywood regularly relies on in revenge movies. The screenwriters are appealing to something deep and basic in the human heart: When a great injustice has been done, retribution is due. The villain rapes and murders a series of teenage girls; all through the movie, the viewer wants the villain not merely caught but punished, usually in some violent scene that leads to the villain’s death. In spite of the predictable fireworks and excessive violence, we keep coming to such movies precisely because we are deeply satisfied by the punishment of offenders.
Again, evangelicals see this dynamic at work at a spiritual level. Our sins cannot be swept away by the wave of a hand. They deserve death, and only by death can they be adequately paid for.
As self-righteous as evangelical Christians can become, in their better moments they recognize that they are sinners in the hands of a just God. And so when a preacher outlines the biblical teaching regarding sacrifice and substitution for sin, they not only recognize the darkness of their situation but also see a ray of light.
Also built into the very fabric of the universe is the notion that one death can be accepted in place of another’s, and that the one death can redeem an otherwise hopeless situation. Again we’re tempted to think we’ve regressed to primitive religion, but once more, we look around to see this phenomenon all around us. It’s another regular trope of storytellers, who create “Christ figures” whose deaths liberate others.
This is a powerful motif not merely because it mimics the crucifixion but because we recognize a mysterious law of the universe in play: Sometimes the suffering and death of one key person—who is perceived as good and loving—transforms the lives and situations of others for the good, as the deaths of activists like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. suggest.
There is no straight line from the deaths of men like these to the creation of more just laws for those for whom they lived and died, but there is clearly a positive relationship. There is a mysterious sense in which they endured the punishment for injustice that was deserved by others and that this event made a measure of healing possible.
Evangelical Christians simply believe that when the perfectly just and innocent God-man, Jesus Christ, died, he fully atoned for our sin; this results not only in our forgiveness but in the lifting of the consequence and punishment for our sin: Death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54).
A Long History
Some critics have tried to argue that the idea substitutionary atonement does not appear on the scene until a thousand years after the crucifixion, particularly in the theology of Anselm of Canterbury. To be sure, no such model was fully developed until then, but it’s clearly in the minds of many of the early church fathers, like Justin Martyr, Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, and Augustine. Take this very representative example from Eusebius of Caesarea. In commenting on John 1:29 (“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”), he writes:
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 dishonor, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us.
It has been recently argued that, though substitutionary atonement was revived in the Reformation, it wasn’t central to Luther’s thought as we have believed. Perhaps, but he could still wax eloquent about it:
Therefore Christ was not only crucified and died, but by divine love sin was laid upon him. He has and bears all the sins of all men in His body—not in the sense that He has committed them but in the sense that He took these sins, committed by us, upon His own body, in order to make satisfaction for them with His own blood.
While many contemporary theologians have distanced themselves from this model, some of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century gave it pride of place in their work. Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg would be two examples. As Pannenberg put it in his systematic theology:
As Paul saw it, God himself by means of the human judges not only made Jesus to be sin but also had him bear in our place … the penalty that is the proper penalty of sin because it follows from its inner nature, i.e. the penalty of death as the consequence of separation from God.
This is no primitive theology, unless you mean by it that it was part and parcel of the primitive church: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood” (Rom. 3:25).
Such passages—and there are many more—take their cues especially from the prophet Isaiah:
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (53:5–6)
Evangelicals are mystified by theologians—even some of their own—who argue that the idea of punishment is simply not found in the Bible.
Pride of Place
The reminder of other atonement models in the New Testament has been a good corrective for evangelical preachers who have limited their preaching to substitutionary atonement. Not everyone at every point in life will be moved by dynamics of guilt and shame, law and punishment, sin and substitution. A drug addict caught in the chains of addiction might better grasp the miracle of the crucifixion if the ransom model is expounded, for example.
In one respect, however, evangelical preachers have proven themselves more open-minded and ecumenical than their liberal brothers and sisters. Whereas the latter insist on completely eliminating substitutionary atonement—and especially penal substitution—as primitive and unworthy of the modern mind, evangelicals simply will not eliminate any of the other models, no matter their weaknesses (which each model has). If Scripture clearly shows that there are indeed different ways of grasping the deeper significance of the crucifixion, so be it.
To be sure, evangelicals give priority to substitutionary atonement; they see it as the one model that holds all the others together, making sense of each one. And many agree with Packer who, in the essay noted above, suggests that substitutionary atonement is not a theory as much as a model, not an ironclad explanation of the mysterious ways of God but a dramatic narrative of what took place on Calvary:
Surely the primary issue with which penal substitution is concerned is neither the morality nor the rationality of God’s ways, but the remission of my sins; and the primary function of the concept is to correlate my knowledge of being guilty before God with my knowledge that, on the one hand, no question of my ever being judged for my sins can now arise, and, on the other hand, that the risen Christ whom I am called to accept as Lord is none other than Jesus, who secured my immunity from judgment by bearing on the cross the penalty which was my due.
And a principal reason that evangelical preachers continue to rely on this model is precisely that “it preaches.” As Packer put it:
The effect of this correlation is not in any sense to “solve” or dissipate the mystery of the work of God (it is not that sort of mystery!); the effect is simply to define that work with precision, and thus to evoke faith, hope, praise and responsive love to Jesus Christ.
Yes, the model has been abused. Some have explained it as if Jesus appeased the wrath of an angry Father who gleefully watched his Son tortured to death—as if the Father and the Son had two different wills about what was going on. Not quite. Substitutionary atonement grounded in good Trinitarian theology insists on the unity of purpose of the Father and the Son, since “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19, NASB). That is, God was enduring in his own self the divine wrath that we deserved—that I deserved.
The last point is one existential reason evangelical Christians remain deeply committed to this model of atonement. It is the one atonement model more than the others that reminds us of the personal investment of God in each one of us. Where Christus Victor, for example, is a wonderful model to describe cosmic redemption, substitutionary atonement is about my salvation: Christ died for me. It doesn’t get any more personal than that. And evangelical religion is nothing if not personal.