Part 2 — Why I Deny Penal Substitutionary Atonement
by Matt Ferdelman
Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) is a theory of how God saves humanity. It seeks to explain (1) what problem God came to solve, (2) how the problem was solved, and (3) to what end goal God saves us. PSA explains that the primary issue facing humanity is the wrath and justice of God. God, being holy and righteous, will punish humanity at the last judgment for their sins by the eternal torments of hell. But God, in his love and mercy, sent Jesus to bear the penalty for our sins on the cross.
After a debate with an Orthodox friend of mine concerning Penal Substitutionary Atonement, I realized I needed to familiarize myself with its history and the arguments against it. My desire in doing so was to defend PSA and strengthen my faith in the doctrine. Surprisingly, my studies yielded the opposite result. In the space below I will outline some of the primary reasons for this change but, as with Part 1 of this series, I will leave out a good many details for the sake of brevity. There will be time for holistic debate later. For now I am just setting the stage.
A. The History of PSA
My studies began by researching the history of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. What I found was quite unexpected. Before, I had always operated under the assumption that PSA was the theory of the atonement — that it was what Paul and the other New Testament writers believed and preached and was universally believed by the church from its beginning until today. But as I looked into its history, I quickly came to realize my assumptions were completely unfounded.
Penal Substitution has its origin in Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm was a Roman Catholic archbishop during the 11th century. His seminal work, Cur Deus Homo, expressed for the first time in the history of the church the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement. Anselm wrote that the problem Jesus came to solve was that mankind did not give God his due. Every time someone sinned, they incurred a divine debt, a debt in magnitude to the one to whom it was due. Because God is infinite, any sin against him requires an infinite payment. But man, being finite, has no way to pay. God does not forgive without payment, so man is without hope, lost until a savior should come. But God in his mercy sent his Son to make that payment for us. Only an infinite being could make an infinite payment, so he exacted that payment from himself. This is what Jesus accomplished at the cross.
Anselm was influenced in the development of this doctrine by many sources in his cultural context. Anselm lived within a medieval common law that had developed out of Germanic tribal law. The Germans assigned value to human life on the principle of weregild, the honor given by one’s standing in the tribal community. The higher one’s position, the higher the honor assigned. When a member’s honor was affronted, payment had to be made to restore that honor. In most circumstances, this payment was life. The exception to this rule was for slaves. If someone killed the slave of another, the offender had to make recompense by paying the value of the slave to the owner. Slave’s had no value in and of themselves because of their low position, but did have value to their master. If someone killed or offended the honor of a freeman, life had to be paid for life. Honor was life, so any damage to another’s honor required your very existence as recompense. To offend a king, by extension of the value placed on his position, demanded the highest payment of all. Anselm extended this model to God’s relationship with man, saying that, because God is of infinite honor, any sin against him requires an infinite payment, without which God will not forgive.
Five hundred years after Anselm, John Calvin took his ideas a step further, saying that the debt owed to God by mankind was one of punishment. God had to punish sin because he was just. And when man sinned, he incurred God’s wrath toward himself, since God hates sin. The only way to appease this wrath is to make payment. Because God is infinite, the payment made must be infinite. Man, being finite, could not provide such a sacrifice, so God in Christ provided it himself. For further details, check out the Wikipedia article “Penal Substitution.”
When I discovered Anselm was the true progenitor of the system of belief I had thought had existed from the beginning of the church, I was greatly distressed. If in 1,000 years no Christian had held to this model of the atonement, how could I believe it was the true gospel? How could so many great men and women, filled with the Holy Spirit, have never come to a true understanding of Christ’s salvific work? How could the apostles that walked with Jesus not understand the gospel after Pentecost? How could an entire millennium of Christians been so wrong?
“But,” I hear the responding argument, “we know PSA is true from Scripture by the inspiration given by the Spirit. Besides, it takes a while for doctrine to develop. We couldn’t expect primitive Christianity to have developed a full understanding of everything in the Bible.” There are multiple problems with this line of thought.
First and foremost, the argument claims it is by the Holy Spirit that we know how to interpret Scripture. But the Christians of every time had the Spirit, not just those here and now. According to Protestant doctrine, the Spirit gives understanding of Scripture to each believer individually. If this is the case, what would stop us from believing the Spirit would give a full understanding of Scripture and of God to every Christian in every place at every point in history since Pentecost? If the Spirit automatically gives right understanding to each Christian on their own, then each Christian should fully understand how Christ saves us from the Apostles until today. Thus, the Christians of the first millennium, and all the Orthodox from the beginning until today should have known PSA to be the truth and should have believed it. But this is obviously not the case. During half the history of the Church no Christian held to such an understanding of the atonement, nor has the Orthodox Church ever held to that doctrine. Thus, using the Protestant understanding of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we must question the rigor of PSA.
Second, the argument implicitly claims that doctrine develops, and that in a non-conciliar manner. Anselm, in his development of the Satisfaction theory, did so largely on his own. In an attempt to explain how salvation works to his flock, he drew a parallel to the society in which they lived. The way he explained the atonement did not mesh with the explanations given by the Fathers of the Church over the centuries prior to him. Over the five-hundred years after Cur Deus Homo his ideas steadily gained precedence until they were accepted de facto as the correct understanding of the gospel. So when John Calvin came in the 16th century and expounded the Penal Substitutionary theory, no one questioned his assumption that God demanded payment from man, though they might have debated the minutia of what sort of payment had to be made.
The problem with this story is that Satisfaction theory was a new doctrine. But doctrine does not develop. As I discussed in part one of why I became Orthodox, right beliefs were handed down by the Apostles and have been maintained to this very day. The ideas expressed by Anselm and Calvin were new ideas and not congruent with what had been taught and believed since the inception of the Church. Moreover, Satisfaction and Penal Substitutionary atonement were both created outside the Orthodox Church. Anselm published Cur Deus Homo in 1099, fifty years after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches split.
Perhaps one could argue that Satisfaction theory was just an extrapolation of what previously believed. If the word Trinity was just an extrapolation on what Christians had believed prior to that, why couldn’t the Satisfaction theory just be a more concrete explanation of what Christians had believed since the beginning? The problem with this claim is that the arguments used in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo were very different from the expressions of the atonement found in the preceding church fathers. At times, explanations and further articulations on previously held beliefs are necessary. We can see this in the work of the ecumenical councils in defining with specific words how to understand Jesus’ relationship to the Father via the Nicene creed. The concept of Trinity was believed from the beginning of the Church, but it was not dogmatically given the name Trinity until the councils. But these councils were meetings of bishops and hierarchs in the Church to confront heresy and other widespread issues assaulting the Church. So, even if we say Anselm’s theory is just the solidification of what was previously believed – which is not the case – he did so in a non-conciliar manner. He did not do it in a manner which was inconsistent with Church practice, without the guiding work of the Spirit at work in the Church corporate.
As we discussed in our first post, rejection of conciliar doctrinal articulation ends in relativism. If doctrine develops outside this manner, how do we know which doctrine that developed is the right one? Do Seventh Day Adventists have all the right doctrine? Perhaps it is the Mormons? Maybe the Methodists? Which group has it right? Really, we have no way of telling. We are just blind men seeking for the light. “But,” I hear again, “the Spirit will help us know which doctrines are the right ones.” But again I must say “Which Spirit is the right one?” For these groups differ on more than just peripheral concepts. They at times hold to radically different foundational dogma, including doctrines on hell, election, the Trinity, etc. And I know of no one in the Protestant church who would say “Anyone in the Presbyterian or Lutheran or Baptist or any other Protestant church that disagrees with me is just not a Christian.” But if we believe the Spirit gives us right understanding individually, this would be the logical conclusion. If we believe the Spirit has given us right understanding from Scripture on doctrinal issues, we should deny the legitimacy of those who hold to different doctrines. We should believe they must be speaking from a different spirit, and not that of Christ Jesus. To not come to this conclusion is to say that
(1) Christians do not have the Spirit,
(2) the Spirit is divided against itself by providing different interpretations to different people, or
(3) that the Spirit does not give understanding of Scripture on an individual basis.
The lattermost of these explanations is the one to which I ascribe.
B. Love and Hate
In Penal Substitutionary Atonement, God is painted as being righteously angry at sin. Sin harms the glory of God, which is the greatest good, and must be dealt with. Therefore, because man sins, God punishes man, thereby justly condemning sin and upholding the worth of his glory. Because he loves us, he hates sinful men. Punishing mankind for sin is the most loving thing he can do.
There are two places at which this equation falters. Here, I will only deal with one. The argument above is that God punishes humans because he loves them. “Punishment,” in one understanding of the word, can indeed be loving. If I “punish” my son who has refused to eat all day by keeping him in his high chair until he has received sustenance, I thereby love my son. Though the action of restraining him is against his will and causes him discomfort, I perform the act solely out of a desire to provide for and love him. But the word “punishment” doesn’t really get across the right meaning here. The negative connotation associated with the word makes even loving actions sound harsh. The word “discipline” would be much more accurate. I discipline my son for his good, out of love for him. Sometimes discipline is unpleasant, but it is always done in love, and it always has the end goal of restoration and healing.
But the punishment of God in hell, as explained by PSA, is not discipline. It is only punishment. Its cause is purely retributive. Its end is only suffering. In the hell of Penal Substitution, God punishes people for their sins and never stops. He doesn’t do out of a desire to love mankind; he only does it to get back at us for the wrong we have done. Thus, God does not love mankind. He loves himself. He loves his glory. Therefore he punishes mankind to display his glory and to alleviate his wrath against sin. Loving discipline is always designed to produce repentance and to restore. Infinite torture does no such thing. It is not love.
The problem with this view is that it says God hates mankind. But we are told countless times in Scripture that God loves us. For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son. God shows his love in that he died for us when we were yet sinners. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. So if God loves us, why does he torture us for eternity? Here, PSA is inconsistent with Scripture.
Now, we must point out the obvious fact that those who hold to PSA also believe God loves us. They believe God punishing Jesus instead of us is the greatest display of this love. But when you combine this with the discussion above, you reach a rather confusing result. The dilemma is this: In PSA, the object of God’s wrath and love are one and the same — man.
But how can this be? How can one love and hate the same thing at the same time? Loving someone is wanting the best for them and working toward that with all your might. Hating someone is wanting the absolute worst for them and working to accomplish that. Hate and love are mutually exclusive. And yet, PSA seems to teach God hates and loves us simultaneously. He loves us beyond any doubt – Scripture bears witness to that. But PSA teaches God hates us because of our sin. The Orthodox do not and never have held to the doctrine of PSA. Nor do they hold to Sola Scriptura. But even for those who do hold to Sola Scriptura, the question eventually becomes: Which source are we to trust – the work of one man in the 11th century or the inspired word of God? PSA, even standing on its own theological framework, cannot stand firm.
C. The Payment That God Makes
This raises another question about God’s loving relationship with man. God loves man and wants him to be free from sin. God doesn’t want mankind to be condemned, but wants everyone to be saved. In PSA he sends his Son to take his wrath on the behalf of mankind. And yet, after God does this, his wrath still remains on some. But where is the logic in this? If God loves mankind, why would he not just remove his wrath from everyone? In PSA, God does that very thing for some people. So why not for everyone? Let me explain this further, considering both the Calvinist and Arminian approaches to this topic.
In the Calvinist view, God predestines to save those whom he foreknew — the elect. He sends Jesus to pay the penalty for the sins of these people, dying only for these select few. God chooses these Christians without any regard to anything they did or will do, on a purely impartial basis. The rest are left with an infinite debt to pay, but no way to pay it. These are the damned. But if God loves mankind, why would he not choose to save everyone? It was within his power. It was within his will. In the Calvinist view no one is saved until God sends Jesus to pay their debt and the Holy Spirit applies that work to the believer. Nor does anyone believe until the Spirit, without their permission, softens their heart. But God goes so far in Scripture to say that he longs that all might repent and be saved. So if God wants everyone to be saved, why doesn’t he just do it? Calvinism cannot answer this question. In this view, God is schizophrenic, or at best confused.
In the Arminian view, God does not predestine people to heaven or hell. God sends His Son for everyone. He pays the penalty for everyone that has or ever will live, giving everyone a chance to be saved. But if God took all his wrath against every human being out on Jesus, why does anyone wind up in hell? After all, hell exists as a place for God to torture humans with whom he is angry. But he no longer has any anger against any of them. So why hell?
Perhaps one could answer that God took care of all their sins at the cross, but if they reject Jesus and refuse to accept him, God gets angry again, and that anger was not dealt with on the cross. But this denies a central tenant of PSA soteriology: the chronological transcendence of the atonement. In Protestant theology Jesus at the cross takes the punishment for every sin ever committed — past, present, and future. If Jesus did not die for future sins, no one who sinned at any point after Jesus’ death would be saved. That would mean every Christian born after Christ’s death is doomed to hell. So Arminians and Calvinists alike rightly hold that Jesus died for all sins throughout all time. Because God exists outside of time, he can apply Jesus’ work to any human at any point in history. But then if Jesus took the punishment for all future sins, did he not also die for the sin of rejecting him? Or did he leave that one out? If so, what about those who reject Jesus when they hear about him but later repent and receive the gospel — are they saved? Such a view is likewise incoherent. If we believe Jesus died for all sins, we must believe all are saved from God’s wrath.
In Orthodox soteriology, there is no such conflict between God’s desire and action in salvation. In Orthodox thought, God’s love for us drives his hatred of sin. Sin separates us from God. But God wants us to be united with him, to share in the love of the eternal three-in-one. We should not hold that God loves and hates us at the same time. That is oxymoronic. Instead, we should understand God’s wrath and anger in Scripture as being against sin, and existing, not to harm us, but to lovingly remove sin from us. Like loving discipline, God’s anger can seem harsh when not understood in its context. But after it is over and the dust settles, if you cooperate in and understand the discipline, you realize everything was done out of love and for your benefit. God is like a surgeon, bringing a scalpel down next to our flesh to cut off the cancerous growth of sin. For those who dread God and do not trust his accuracy and intention, they scream and kick and fight, thinking God means to hurt them, possibly even cutting themselves against the knife in the process. But for those who understand and trust God, while the process may still be painful, it is quicker and easier and brings healing. God loves you. Therefore he longs to remove sin from you, for sin separates you from himself.
In Penal Substitutionary Atonement, God does not forgive mankind until just punishment is rendered. God, in his righteousness, demands payment be offered for his offended glory, and man is without hope. But Jesus takes the punishment in our place, allowing God to forgive us.
The problem here is with the word forgiveness. The word forgiveness means “to cease bearing anger toward someone or to cancel a debt.” But in the Penal Substitutionary model, God does neither of these things. God doesn’t stop being angry at us. God doesn’t cancel our debt. Instead, he placed the weight of both those things upon Jesus. Jesus bears our wrath and pays God what we owe him on the cross as a sacrifice in our place. And God will not forgive until Jesus performs this on our behalf.
To forgive is to no longer hold something against someone else. But God doesn’t do this. He always punishes someone — either Jesus or us, either him on the cross or us in hell. There is no forgiveness. The debt is never cancelled. It is paid in full. This does not meet the definition of forgiveness. And yet PSA claims God forgave us by paying the debt for us. But this is not forgiveness. This is the opposite — this is holding a grudge.
What is more, God tells us to forgive the way he does. Paul commands we love one another as God in Christ loved us. But if Jesus does not forgive, instead demanding payment before he lets go of his grudge, shouldn’t we do likewise? Shouldn’t we demand recompense for every tiny slight and inflict pain for every harm done to us? Logically, we should. PSA adherents argue in response that we do forgive the way God does. We forgive knowing God will take vengeance for the wrongs done to us, either on Jesus at the cross or on the sinner in hell. But this is reading into Scripture an idea simply not present. Ephesians 4:32 and its context do not say we look should look to God’s pouring out of wrath on Jesus or them and therefore forgive. We are just told to forgive, leaving everything else to God.
D. The Faith That Saves
In Penal Substitutionary Atonement, we are saved from the eternal torment of God by grace through faith in the Son of God. Jesus’ work placates the wrath of the Father, but this is not applied until the believer has faith. It is by faith we are saved, this faith working by somehow uniting us to Christ and his death. But how exactly does this work? Why do we need to have faith in Jesus’ work to receive it? Is there some ontological necessitywithin us or within God that prevents either the giving or receiving of Christ’s work without faith? Perhaps God simply does not want to forgive until he is honored by the act of belief?
Think about it this way: If God emptied his judgment and wrath upon Jesus at the cross, he doesn’t have any left. Nothing else needs to be done. It’s gone. All of it. So why do we need to believe? Why would I need to have faith to receive something which is already finished? Really, I don’t need to receive it. God is the one who received payment, not me. Perhaps one could argue that we need to believe to receive and/or develop the righteousness of Christ. OK, that might be getting somewhere, but it doesn’t explain the foregoing wrath that must be quenched. If God’s wrath is extinguished in the sufferings of his Son, why do we need to believe for him to stop being angry at us? He’s already done being angry. Nothing else needs to be done. The cross already accomplished this. The only way to get around this issue is to say we do not have to believe to be saved, which is inconsistent with Scripture and Protestant teaching.
In Orthodox soteriology, no such problem exists. Orthodoxy views salvation as the unification of man with God. God has invited all to come to him and desires that all should be saved. He has provided his Son as a means to remove our bondage to sin and death and re-stamp his image on mankind by the incarnation. The only factor now separating man from God is man’s unwillingness to approach him, the fear of death, and unbelief in his goodness. Some reject God simply because they love other things more; some because they want to grab as much pleasure as they can before they die; and others because they have been deceived to believe God is cruel and should be avoided. Belief is the cure to this disease and to all its symptoms. Belief in Jesus as the Son of God frees us from the bonds that hold us to sin and death. By faith we know God is the greatest pleasure. By faith we know eternal joys exceed the ups and downs of hedonism. By faith we know God is love, even as his Son has revealed. By faith all the barriers within us that separate us from God are removed.
In PSA, God is the reason people do not make it to heaven. God refuses to accept anyone until he dispels his wrath and makes man perfect. But in Orthodoxy this is not the case. In Orthodoxy, man is the sole cause of his own demise, not God. God in his love accepts all, but not all accept him. Jesus has made a way back to the Father, but few choose to walk that path to its end. There is much more to the Orthodox view of salvation which I do not try to express here. That would require a separate paper by itself. I hope the small revelations I have made thus far will suffice for the time being.
If you begin to lose faith in PSA, do not thereby begin to believe God is not the savior of mankind. He is.
But what he saves us from is much different in the Orthodox view. I hope to expound on the Orthodox view of salvation thoroughly as time passes. Should you desire more information speedily, let me know and I would be happy to provide some articles and books that can steer you in the right direction.
In the paragraphs above I have only given a brief sketch of why I deny Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Every point would require chapters to cover thoroughly. And entire books could be written about arguments of which I have not even made mention. God willing, there will be time for that later.
Matt Ferdelman is a catechumen at St. Paul the Apostle Orthodox Church in Dayton, Ohio.
Matt was born into the Pentecostal church where he attended for the first 17 years of his life. In 2008 he began the process of becoming a five-point Calvinist at Apex Community Church in Kettering, OH, where he remained until his conversion to Orthodoxy in November 2014. After marrying his wife Erin in 2011, he finished his Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science in Accountancy at Wright State University in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Matt now works as a CPA in a small accounting firm downtown, and spends his free time entering deeper into Orthodox theology and life, and playing with his two young boys, ages 2 and 3 months.