"...if we be honest with ourselves,
we shall be honest with each other." ~ George MacDonald
"...if we be honest with ourselves,
we shall be honest with each other." ~ George MacDonald

The quote above was taken from a Facebook discussion group.

It is not uncommon for Muslims, Jews and Atheists to put forward this argument. (It was one of Christopher Hitchens' favourite arguments.)

Instead of simply dismissing the argument and referring to Isaiah 53, we should examine this point very carefully, especially since there is disagreement about how some of the passages in Isaiah 53 should be translated. ( See "because of" in footnote 15 in the NET. There's a big difference between dying "because of" our sins and dying "for" our sins.)

“All we as sheep have gone astray; every one has gone astray in his way; and the Lord gave him up for our sins.” (Isaiah 53:6, The Septuagint )

Has Satan sown a false doctrine into the Church? It is certainly possible. He's done it before. And sometimes the church has taught those doctrines for hundreds of years. (Greg Boyd has rightly pointed out some of the problems with PSA in 10 Problems with the Penal Substitution View of the Atonement.)

Is it possible that we Christians have been conditioned to think a certain way by years and years of teaching? Are we reading into the text our theology? Without realising it, we are trained to focus on certain verses and gloss over others. For example, how often have you heard a sermon on the following?

"Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty" (Exodus 23:7).

Most Christians rightly believe that this is talking about God not acquitting those who make the false charge. But what they fail to realise is that if a crime was actually committed (e.g. murder), then the person who committed the crime will not be acquitted either.

The Bible clearly teaches that the innocent are not to be punished in the place of the guilty (See Deuteronomy 24:16, Jeremiah 31:29-30 and Ezekiel 18). It clearly teaches that if a judge accepts the death of the innocent in the place of the guilty, it is unjust (whether the death was voluntary or not).

Thinking Jews, Muslims and Atheists agree with the Bible in that regard (though they usually do so without knowing what the Bible says about the subject).

Proverbs 17:15 says:

“Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—
the Lord detests them both.”

Many Christians, who accept that Jesus was innocent, and that he died for the guilty, also have serious problems with the idea that Jesus was literally punished by his Father in the place of the guilty; they too think it is unjust.

It is important to note that Jesus was punished. But who was he punished by? If you asked the Jewish leaders of Jesus day, "Why was Jesus crucified?" What do you think they would say? They would say that they had Jesus punished by crucifixion for the crime of blasphemy. And they would have considered his crucifixion as evidence that Jesus was "punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted." (See Isaiah 53:4) But being considered "punished by God" and being punished by God are not the same thing. (The early Church Fathers did say Jesus was punished; but they never said the Father poured out his wrath on his Son or that the Father punished Jesus in our place. When the proponents of PSA see the Church Fathers use the word punish, they assume that it means God the Father punished the Son. For multiple examples of how PSA is read into the text of the Bible see Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church by Darrin W. Snyder Belousek.

When discussing God's justice, we must be careful not to project on to God mankind's idea of justice. Laws which govern societies on this earth, must by necessity enforce punishments when those laws are violated. An example must be set. Crime must be discouraged. Without punishments a government's law is simply not law. This is true whether the laws were created by people or given by God (such as the laws to govern Israel). But God's justice, regarding the judgment to come, is very different. 

Do those in Heaven need an example to be set? Would they be tempted to sin if those in Hell did not suffer endlessly? Not at all. Those in Heaven obey God out of love for him. They do not need the fear of punishment to keep them from sinning. (Endless suffering in Hell would not please God, and it would be of no use to those who suffer. Endless suffering serves no good purpose. Because it is evil, it is something God would never allow. For an in-depth look at what we ought to mean when we say, "God is just," see George MacDonald's sermon Justice.) God requires repentance in order to forgive, not punishment (see Ezekiel 18:21-23).1

"But how would we share the gospel with people without penal substitutionary atonement?" (See the home page https://www.jesus-wept.net)

The wages of sin would still be death. Hell would still be a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. God will still have become a man and died for us. And for a person to begin to be saved from their sins, they would still have to confess that they've sinned against God, thank God for forgiving them and begin to trust Jesus.*

Before going any further it is important to say that penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) is true in the same sense that the ransom theory of atonement is true; both are true in a figurative sense (see here). According to both theories, Jesus died so we don’t have to. Because believers have been released from their debt, it’s as if a payment has been made. (See Cancelled or paid for).

(I share the video above because his criticisms of PSA are valid. However, the theory of atonement he espouses is almost as bad as PSA.)

Instead of simply dismissing criticism of penal substitutionary atonement, perhaps we should consider the possibility that God is trying to use unbelievers, and some Christians, to get through to our church leaders. Perhaps there are unbelievers who are drawn to Jesus yet they reject our message about why Jesus died and rose from the dead because they can't accept a theory of atonement that they regard as unjust. If it is unjust, the fault would lie with our misrepresentation of God's justice, not with their idea of justice. Perhaps if we presented God as being just, they would be more willing to accept him. It's a serious thing to misrepresent God; so we need to look at this issue closely. (If you are convinced that the Bible teaches PSA it would be wise to read the book Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church by Darrin W. Snyder Belousek.)

The theory of PSA is built on the premise that in order for God to forgive his wrath has to be satisfied by suffering (see here and here). Instead of starting with the idea that past sins have to be punished by a wrathful God who demands suffering, perhaps we should start with a different premise.

We know that God hates sin. But does he hate sin because he is offended by it? Or does he hate sin because sin destroys sinners whom he loves? The idea that he hates sin simply because he finds it offensive, doesn't sit well with what we know of Jesus who ate and drank with sinners. When we look closely at him, we see him caring about the lost sheep who are oppressed by their sin. He doesn't hate them; he hates the sin which is oppressing them. The idea that God hates our sins because he loves us has far more biblical support than the idea that he is simply offended by it; it's on every page of the gospels and there are numerous examples in the Old Testament.

So it seems to me that there are good biblical grounds for starting with a different premise other than God's wrath against sinners. We know that God is love. And the Bible clearly teaches what the nature of love is.

So here I offer a different reason for why Jesus died and rose from the dead. (It's just an outline. All I'm asking is for you to honestly answer the question, "Does it make sense?")

In 1 Corinthians 13 we are told that love keeps no record of wrongs. Because love keeps no record of wrongs, no one goes to hell because of their past sins; they go to hell because they remain an unrepentant sinner.

God does not require the punishment of sin, he requires repentance from sin.2 When the New Testament talks about repenting and believing in Jesus, it simply means to accept that Jesus died and rose from the dead for you, thanking God that he has forgiven you, and then committing yourself to following him (i.e. by beginning to trust and obey Jesus).

If a person does this, they have begun to put their faith in Jesus and therefore have been set right with God, even if they don't accept (and have never accepted) a particular theory of atonement. Their debt has been cancelled (as opposed to being paid for). In other words, God has freely forgiven them because they have put their faith in him (as opposed to putting their faith in something he has done).*

One of the reasons I think that explanation makes more sense than PSA is because we either have to take passages like Ezekiel 18 and Exodus 23:7 literally or we have to take verses like 2 Corinthians 5:21 literally. (Assuming that the footnote in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is not the right translation. See here.) We cannot take both literally today for they clearly contradict each other. I cannot see how Ezekiel 18 could be read in a figurative sense. However I can see how 2 Corinthians 5:21 could be taken figuratively. i.e. If because of Christ's death on the cross, we confess our sins, thank him for forgiving us and turn and follow him, then it is as if our sins were crucified on that cross. They are not held against us. If a person repents because of Jesus death on a cross, it is as if he literally died in their place. This is the only way verses that seem to support PSA can be squared with verses like Exodus 23:7;and Ezekiel 18.

It seems to me that the reason why so many people believe penal substitutionary atonement is biblical is because they are taking some of the figurative language in the Bible literally.

It was Jesus obedience that pleased the Father (John 8:29); obedience even to death (Phil. 2:8), not his actual death (Ezek. 18:32). When Jesus suffered and died on the cross he endured incredible physical pain but his Father endured even more emotional pain (See The Eloi). The Father and the Son knew that his dying would cause men to come to the Father through trusting the Son. That is why they endured the cross (Heb 12:2). They took no more pleasure in their suffering than a man with a bad heart who, knowing that he must have open heart surgery to live, takes pleasure in that surgery. It was not our sins that held Jesus on the cross, it was his love; and it was his Father’s love for us that allowed the injustice to happen.

The Old Covenant was inaugurated through the shedding of blood, and the New Covenant was inaugurated through the shedding of blood. (In that sense, they are both legal contracts. But it is not just for the innocent to die in the place of the guilty. "By a perversion of justice he was taken away." Isaiah 53:8 NRSV. The Father and the Son endured their suffering out of love for us. See Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church by Darrin W. Snyder Belousek. See also  Punished “for” or “by” our sins).

Note: I'm not sharing the following video because I agree with everything he says in it; I don't. I'm sharing it because he says some things that are worthy of careful consideration.

Note: I don't agree with everything in the following video either; and at first his argument seems weak; but once his points are clarified the strength of the argument becomes obvious.3

The doctrines we believe about God are built upon premises about God. If any of those premises are wrong the conclusions will likely be wrong. This is why we must carefully examine many of the premises on which penal substitutionary atonement is built (e.g. What is justice? See here. What is faith? What is God's grace? Does believing in God mean accepting certain propositions about God or does it mean trusting and obeying him? Why does God's wrath burn? What satisfies his wrath? Does God regard all righteous acts as filthy rags? See here.)

There are sound biblical reasons for rejecting penal substitution. (See here. See also Evaluating the cross & 'penal substitution by Bob Wilson. The sooner we reject the theory, the better. See Satan Laughs).

The really good news is that God the Father, is revealed through God the Son.

Jesus hated sin because he loved sinners. 

The Father hates sin because it enslaves the children whom he loves. He hates our sin because he loves us. The Lord is a jealous God who loves all his children. His wrath burns for us, not against us. (Loving parents who have been angry at their children—because they care for them—should have no trouble understanding this.) God's wrath is appeased not by punishment, but by repentance. God is pleased when a sinner begins to trust him.

One last thing.

The argument that the majority of biblical scholars hold to a particular view and therefore it must be right holds very little weight with me. If there are ten men who have all studied the scriptures and one comes up with a very different conclusion to the other nine, it is wrong to assume he must be wrong. If that single scholar is more honest and more godly than the other nine, then what he has to say must be carefully considered. He may be mistaken; but if it is a mistake it is an honest mistake. If that scholar happens to be more intelligent than any of the other nine then it is far more likely that the nine are mistaken.

With this in mind, it's time we took a closer look at the writings of a man who is often misunderstood and consequently misrepresented — George MacDonald. MacDonald constantly read the Bible in the language in which it was written and was more godly and more honest than any other scholar I know of. And to top it off he was a genius. He was greatly admired by Oswald Chambers, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and other godly men for his godliness and wisdom. It's interesting to note that the author of the following article, Ken Pulliam, was a Christian, who then became an atheist. One of the main reasons he gives for turning away from God is the doctrine of penal substitution. But after becoming an atheist, he discovered MacDonald. (As to when he discovered him, I do not know.) Pulliam died not long after writing George MacDonald on Penal Substitution. (The article can be viewed here. For more about MacDonald see here.) Perhaps if Pulliam came to see that many of the verses which are used to support PSA are figurative and not literal, he might have begun to have a more favourable view of God's justice and come back into the fold. As for Pulliam's view of Grace, I doubt he would have walked away from God if he held Artman's view. See here.

* Acknowledging sin, thanking God for becoming a man and dying for us, and then swearing allegiance to the rightful King, are a sinners first acts of obedience.

“It is the one terrible heresy of the church, that it has always been presenting something else than obedience as faith in Christ. The work of Christ is not the Working Christ, any more than the clothing of Christ is the body of Christ. If the woman who touched the hem of his garment had trusted in the garment and not in him who wore it, would she have been healed? And the reason that so many who believe about Christ rather than in him, get the comfort they do, is that, touching thus the mere hem of his garment, they cannot help believing a little in the live man inside the garment ” (George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons ).

Whether in the Old Testament or the New, the way to be made right with God has always been the same. The only way a person can be made right with him is to begin to trust him. Without faith in God it is impossible to please him and without faith in him it is impossible to have a relationship with him. What we do reveals our faith, or lack of faith; that is why there are so many verses in the Bible which tell us we will be judged according to what we do. Biblical faith simply means to trust God; it simply means to take him at his word and to try and do what he asks of us, however imperfectly. (See here. See also The Old Covenant and the New ). This is not a works salvation (see here).

1. These last two paragraphs can be found elsewhere on the site.

2. And yet, in another and very real sense, God has already forgiven everyone. 

“His nature is always to forgive, and just because he forgives, he punishes. Because God is so altogether alien to wrong, because it is to him a heart-pain and trouble that one of his little ones should do the evil thing, there is, I believe, no extreme of suffering to which, for the sake of destroying the evil thing in them, he would not subject them. A man might flatter, or bribe, or coax a tyrant; but there is no refuge from the love of God; that love will, for very love, insist upon the uttermost farthing.” - George MacDonald

3. In fact there are many things in the videos on this page that I do not agree with. I share them because they highlight legitimate problems with the theory of penal substitutionary atonement.


What's Wrong with the Innocent Dying for the Guilty?

Three questions about the atonement

Cancelled or paid for?

God does not change

Do we have to be perfect to be accepted by God?

God's Justice

Absolute Assurance

An Open Letter to the Church Leadership