Question: In what way is substitutionary atonement and sacrifice just?

Problem: Generally, when justice is demanded, it not merely that a payment be made, but that a particular person make the payment. For example, when a woman is found raped and murdered at the bottom of the Mississippi, justice does not lead the police to handcuff the next man on the street, drag him to prison and give him the death penalty; rather, every effort is made to find the particular man who committed the crime, and drag that man to prison and give him the death penalty. Even if an innocent man were to step forward and offer to take the penalty in place of the guilty man, it would not be allowed–indeed, it would not be just for the innocent to suffer in the place of the guilty. I cannot think of a single instance where an injustice committed against a person’s body or soul can be made right by punishing anyone other than the perpetrator of the crime. The only cases where substitution can be satisfactorily made are cases involving money, property or goods–in such cases it is permissible for a benefactor to provide restitution for the stolen/lost/damaged goods in the stead of the guilty one.

It seems to me that the sinfulness of man is more analogous to crimes committed against body or soul (against the character, essence or personality of subjects), than to crimes involving stolen/lost/damaged money, property or goods (crimes involving inanimate, impersonal objects). When man sins he disobeys God, rebels against Him, and refuses to acknowledge His authority. The sin he commits comes from the depth of his being, and stems from a wicked attitude, mindset or heart that purposes to flout God’s commands and follow his own desires instead. This is an affront to God’s character; it is scoffing at His essence and character (crime against a subject), and is not merely taking or disregarding something external to God (an object).

Therefore, how is it just that Jesus paid our debt and covered our guilt when we stood guilty for crimes against the person of God? Further, how is it just that God accepted this payment and allowed sinful man to be counted free? (It seems to be even more unjust that God essentially paid Himself off since He was both the Sacrifice and the Judge).

Possible Solutions:
1) Sin is not analogous to crimes against subjects, but rather to crimes involving external objects like money, property or goods. However, if this is the case, it is hard to understand why blood is required for the sin. Can it be just to require that payment for an object be the death of a subject? This seem incongruous.

2) By becoming a man, God, as the second person of the Trinity, came to share in the corporate guilt of man and so could be justly punished as a man among men; however, just as all men became guilty through the sin of their corporate head, Adam, so all men could become guiltless through the punishment of their corporate head, Jesus. In other words, although Jesus himself never sinned against the person of God, He in some way could become guilty by association with men when He became a man (in the same way that newborn children can be guilty by association with men even though they have not personally sinned). Thus, He could be justly punished. However, being at the same time without sin, His punishment could be applied to men–again, by the same principle of association–and so all men vicariously share in the punishment without actually being punished individually. The main difficulty with this solution is understanding how punishment and absolvement can ever be vicariously applied through an individual who stands as a corporate head or representative; this seems contrary to our notions of justice in which the individuals committing the crime must be individually held accountable for their actions (see the original problem). The problem is only partially dealt with by somehow involving Jesus directly with the sins of man (i.e. He is now one of the individuals of whom justice can be demanded); however, if He remains sinless, it is still problematic to understand how He can atone for the crimes of others.

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Posted by Tex


  1. The problem you raise is a deep one, Tex.

    One thought on our justice system: why is it that we decide that it is right for a man who committed x crime to serve y amount of time? Does that strike anyone else as a bit arbitrary? Especially in the cases of horrific crimes like rape or molestation does a set time penalty seem incongrouous. Can we ever actually punish enough to fill the chasm created by injustice?

    We must answer the question: what is man’s relation to sin? Your argument seems right in that sin is more analogous to crimes against persons than property. One possible road to go down is to affirm that sin is not intrinsic to man. Therefore, for substitutionary atonement to work, sin does not have to reside IN Christ but only must be “placed” on Him.


  2. “One thought on our justice system: why is it that we decide that it is right for a man who committed x crime to serve y amount of time?”

    Oppositely, Andrew, doesn’t an eternal punishment for a temporal sin seem incongruous?


  3. Maybe not if by “temporal sin” you mean, “sin committed in time against an eternal being.”

    But then again, I don’t even think we need to say that. Why not simply say “eternal rejection merits eternal punishment?”


  4. If sin is defined as “eternal rejection,” then God is effectively punishing us for a state of mind, not for any action, in which case tex’s original analogy collapses entirely.


  5. Andrew:
    What would it mean for sin to be extrinsic to man? Are you implying that sin is something like a wart that grows on a nose, but isn’t a part of the nose or(i.e. the wart could be removed and the nose would still be completely intact)? If so, I don’t understand how this can be for the reason that crimes and sinful actions arise from a heart and a mindset that belong to a particular person (that are intrinsic to that person; change the heart or the mindset and you change the person in some way).

    If sin is defined as “eternal rejection” I can see two ways that my analogy may still stand.
    1. “Eternal rejection” may not be so easily compartamentalized as a state of mind and nothing else. States of mind tend to lead to actions which may be judged as right or wrong. Help me imagine eternal rejection of God and His laws not always involving active rejection of God and resistance to and disobedience of His laws.
    2. Perhaps a state of mind may be a thing that can be punished just like actions can. If so, I still think that a common notion of justice demands that the individual committing the unjust action, or having the unujust state of mind, be the individual that is punished rather than allowing for an innocent substitute to take the individual’s place. I understand that our justice system does not punish individuals for their state of mind per se (at least not usually, although hate crime legislation may be changing that–another subject); nevertheless, the point of my analogy was that justice seems to require individual satisfaction for individual crimes against subjects. It seems conceivable that a crime against a subject could include a state of mind, if the subject was the sort of being that could be offended (I use the term loosely) by a state of mind.


  6. I think certain terms, specifically as justice, ought to be defined. You bring up another problem with penal substitution, but the solutions must not cater to the definition of justice I think you might be using. Allow me to bring up another problem (and this problem lies more with a generally western definition of justice as retributive).

    When someone has a debt, the justice you are referring to requires that this debt not only be paid, but that it be paid by the specific person to whom it belongs. However, forgiveness in this context would follow as wiping this debt or not requiring the payment of it (the debt is forgotten). As such, how can God be both forgiving and just? That is, how can it be said that God required payment for this debt, but also forgave this debt? Not only is the contradictory, but it makes forgiveness fake. For this reason I believe justice has been very misunderstood as the West has often attempted to define it.

    God is love. This is the essence of the Trinity and the only essence (or attribute) that could eternally define the essence of the Trinity. For it to be kingship, there must be an equally eternal kingdom or subject(s) for the Trinity or one person of the Trinity to be king over (some may attempt to say the Father is king over the Son and/or Spirit, but this incredibly misunderstands Trinitarian theology and the type of relationship the Son claimed to have with the Father). For the essence of the Trinity to be holiness, there must be something coeternal to be set apart from. Love is the only thing that can explain the essence and relationship between the Trinity for all eternity past and future.

    As such, all other “attributes” (which I prefer to call energies) must be understood through this love and flowing from this love. Thus, justice, wrath, mercy, etc., must all be interpreted and defined through the lens of divine Love shared and experienced in the Trinity.

    Once this grounding has been set I believe it is necessary to question our normal/instinctual conceptions of what justice is. Is justice essentially retributive or restorative? First, it seems justice is often used to describe what is really the discipline/wrath/punishment. Accordingly, I don’t believe justice to be paying back debts so much as mending and fixing what has been broken and wronged. I find retributive justice incredibly off as I don’t find it in the cross nor do I think it works as a foundation.

    When one man murders another, people say he ought to be executed. Oftentimes people defend this by saying that the family needs closure, but revenge/retribution rarely (if ever) does this. The reason for this is retribution only continues the pain and suffering. My murdered brother (speaking figuratively) is still gone and now his murderer is too. What’s worse is this can almost be said to equate my brothers life with that of the murderer. Because my brother’s murderer is dead, everything has been set right. The problem is I’m still missing a brother and the man who wronged my brother and I hasn’t fixed/mended the brokenness that has invaded my life and relationships (family and between the guilty man and I). Reconciliation is ignored and rather impossible because both men are dead.

    What if, instead, justice requires that brokenness and evil (sin) be rid off, destroyed. Obviously what has happened cannot be made undone historically. However, things can be healed and reconciled. As such, justice requires evil to be undone (the cross) and the guilty to restore and reconcile what they have broken (I’m sorry for this incredibly long discourse on just justice).

    When trying to understand the cross and atonement, I believe focusing on substitution is incredibly misguided and lacks an understanding of Old Testament cultic sacrificial system. Neither the scapegoat nor the blood sacrifice of Yom Kippur were substitutive in order to carry out a punishment. Rather, the scapegoat exchanged a pure and sinless state with the community that had a sinful and evil state. This was meant to send the evil and sin away from the people (a change of states). Neither did the blood sacrifice “pay the penalty” in the place of the people. As a matter of fact, the focus is not even on the killing of the lamb, but the pouring, squeezing, and spreading of its pure blood on the mercy seat (hilasterion). The blood was believed to have a life giving quality that was meant to purify the temple. Penal substitution cannot explain this.

    Furthermore, God’s wrath was directed as sin and the people were saved from such wrath on Yom Kippur because sin was expiated with the scapegoat and the temple (and thereby the nation) was made pure through the blood of the lamb on the mercy seat. I believe that God’s justice must be understood with these in mind. His justice and wrath flow from his love and seek to make his people sinless so that they can experience the abundance of life. Evil and sin seek to destroy what is good and full of life and, therefore, God hates each. Accordingly, God will deliver his people from both as he did through the cross. Thus, being justified is to become sinless, not to have paid your debt.

    Obviously, there is so much to touch on for this topic and is impossible to do so here. However, I find it very disconcerting that many in the Church today have held onto Calvin’s Penal Substitution and Anselm’s Satisfaction atonement models over the Cristus Victor, Healing, Ransom, and Recapitulation models of the early Christian Fathers Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa and Nazianzus. Both Calvin and Anselm were a part of the Medieval Latin context and tried to answer the questions to their context. However, both have in different areas left out early orthodox theology or misunderstood other things by beginning at the wrong premises. Perhaps the greatest problem with both theories is that both make out God to be the one with a problem that needs to be addressed and fixed. Anselm has God’s honor damaged as a Medieval king might experience and Calvin focused on God’s law, justice, and wrath that needed to be brought to rights after being wronged. However, the early Fathers only allowed the problem to remain in humanity and the created order. We were the ones with the problem of sin which left us cut off from life, enslaved to sin, death and Satan. Accordingly, we needed a savior, deliverer and forerunner in our salvation; salvation from sin, death, and Satan unto life and adoption.

    Many models of atonement today focus solely on the death of Christ, while some attempt to address the resurrection. However, most ignore the incarnation and life of Christ, while the earliest models of atonement incorporate all four.


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