Penal Substitution


Last time I said we need to start our second look at the Fall from the other end; that is, with the Atonement.  To do that, I want to begin with what has tended to be the traditional viewpoint (at least in the West), the Penal Substitutionary model of the Atonement.  I’ve discussed it a bit before, but I want a narrower focus here, and I want to discuss the issues I see with it.  For the purposes here, I’m writing the outline as if the first two chapters of Genesis were literally true.

1.  The first human couple, Adam and Eve, are created innocent and free from sin.  Humans, like the angels before them, and like all created intelligences, truly have free will.

2.  The human race is given a test of obedience:  the command to Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

3.  Humans fail the test through the abuse of their God-given free will.  Tempted by the Serpent (traditionally interpreted as Satan), Eve eats the Forbidden Fruit and gives it to Adam, who does so as well.

4.  As a result of this, they and all their descendants are stained with Original Sin both in terms of guilt and of effects.  That is to say, all descendants of Adam and Eve inherit the guilt of their sin merely by descent.  Even a newborn child has the guilt of Original Sin, as well as the effects thereof. These effects include, among other things, weakness of the will, difficulty in overcoming bodily urges, loss of a direct knowledge of God, a tendency towards sinful actions, and most significantly, mortality.  Further, the world itself suffers from this curse, with plagues, disease, and all natural evils being unleashed into the world by Adam’s sin.

5.  Though the action of disobediently eating the Forbidden Fruit was finite, the guilt thereby incurred is infinite.  This is because the sin was against God, who is infinite.  The human race is therefore barred from fellowship with God, and from Heaven after death.

6.  God wishes to restore the human race to His fellowship and make Heaven possible for them.  However, He cannot merely dismiss Original Sin and allow a “do-over”, since He is all-just, and this would contravene His justice.  Through Original Sin, mankind is in “debt”, either to God or to Satan (accounts vary); and since God is perfectly just, this debt must be paid in full.  However, from 5, we see the debt is infinite.  Therefore, by definition, it can never be paid by mankind, individually or as a race.  However, as humankind incurred the debt, humankind must pay the debt; which is impossible.  Mankind is up the well-known creek without a paddle.

7.  God, however, is not only perfectly just, but perfectly loving.  Therefore, He sends His Son, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, to take human form.  This is vitally necessary.  As a human, Jesus can pay the debt incurred by Adam.  As God, Jesus can pay an infinite debt in full.  As both human and God, Jesus can represent the entire human race.  Therefore, his death on the cross pays the infinite debt of mankind to the Father (or the Devil) in full, thereby satisfying both God’s justice (the debt is legally paid, no chicanery) and his mercy (God in Christ does it for a human race that can’t do it for itself).

8.  Though the debt is now paid, individual humans, in order to benefit from it, must accept Christ.  How one does this varies in the teaching of different churches, but all agree on this in one way or another.

I think this is a reasonable summary.  Now let’s analyze it.

One is problematic from the polygenetic perspective I’m adopting.  It’s not possible that we descend from one primal couple.  At this point it’s not clear what it means to say that humans–two or thousands–were “created innocent and free from sin”, but we’ll reserve that for later.

Two is not falsifiable, but in the context of the problems of a literal reading of the other aspects of the story, it’s not tenable as it stands.  I’m not ruling out some kind of primordial test, but we can’t consider it the Forbidden Fruit.  The same can be said about three.  I am inclined to believe that the Fall of humanity is interrelated with the Fall of the created bodiless intelligences–the demons.  However, at this stage we have to view “temptation by the Devil” as an allegorical and mythological statement of this interrelationship, not a historical statement.

Four has many issues.  Aside from mere assertion, which when all the bells  and whistles are removed is more or less what traditional theology does, it’s hard to see how guilt of any kind, let alone that of Original Sin, can be understood to be hereditary.  Effects are a different matter.  If my father runs up debts and goes bankrupt, the responsibility for that, legal and otherwise, falls on him alone, not me.  The effects of that–growing up in poverty–might indeed affect me; but that’s a different thing.  Now he might set up dummy accounts in my name, and creditors might come after me  later, and I guess you could call that “inherited guilt”; but it’s hard to see how the Genesis account of Original Sin could work that way.

The effects of Original Sin on humans are intelligible, as noted. It’s difficult to see how the entire world falls as a result.  In the bankruptcy example, the family estate might have parts sold off and the rest fall into disrepair, but it’s hard to see what it is about Original Sin that causes this.  Actually, it seems, from Genesis 3:14-24, that this is not a result of Original Sin, but of a curse given directly by God.  This, too, is puzzling.  It’s true that everything is interconnected; but why this implies the specific result here is unclear, to say the least.  C. S. Lewis suggests that death, for beings marred by Original Sin, is a mercy; but that doesn’t explain the alteration in the cosmos, presumably even down to the laws of physics, since a literal reading would indicate that floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, and such did not exist before the Fall.

That’s another problem, since we know all those nasty things did, in fact, predate humans.

Five is another example of assertion instead of demonstration.  If I violated an order by my boss, the gravity of the violation doesn’t depend on whether my boss is Donald Trump or Jack, the local plumbing contractor.  If I violate a law, I’m guilty whether it’s a federal, state, or local law.  It’s hard to see how the fact of God’s infinity makes Original Sin of infinite gravity.  By this rationale, all sins, being ultimately against God, are infinite–something that seems intuitively mistaken.

It’s also hard to see how a debt is incurred.  If I work for Jack and he tells me to go install Mr. Jones’s water heater and I don’t, I’m not in debt to Jack.  He might forgive me or fire me or dock my pay or whatever; but there’s no model whereby I incur a legal debt to Jack whereby I have to pay him back the value equivalent of installing a water heater.  Say the installation would have cost Mr. Jones $100.  My failing to do it doesn’t mean I owe Jack $100, unless such an eccentric stipulation were written into my employment contract.

Now if I am in debt and I die, my heirs are responsible for paying off my debt; so in that limited sense, this point works.  If Adam incurred a debt to God, and if we’re all Adam’s  heirs–some big “if’s”–then it does logically follow that we are indeed indebted to God.

There’s nothing wrong with six as such; but as with many of these theological matters, I think it assumes more about how God works than we really know, or can know.  God cannot sweep it under the rug or allow a do-over; He must ensure the debt is paid; He has to do this in order not to abrogate His perfect justice.  Really, we’re binding the infinite, omniscient, and immortal God to human concepts and assuming He must follow them.

Now traditionalists at this point say something like this:  One, God is consistent and unchanging; two, God has freely chosen to put constraints on how He relates to the world; therefore, though He has the power to allow a do-over or to clear mankind’s debt, etc., He has irrevocably bound Himself to the framework He has chosen, and therefore He always and eternally will function according to these limitations.  An example of this is the insistence by the late Father John Hardon, S.J., that unbaptized children must go to Limbo.  He argues that while God can work outside the Sacraments, He has chosen not to in this case.  You either have water baptism, or baptism of blood or desire, the latter of which are open only to adults or children of the age of reason.  God could take an unbaptized infant to Heaven, but He’s bound himself to the sacramental rules; therefore said  infant must go to Limbo.

I think God could bind Himself eternally, in principle.  Whether He does so in this case is unclear.  It is said that God wills the salvation of all, given which it’s odd that He’d prevent some from being saved by the restrictions He places, for whatever inscrutable reasons, on Himself.  In any case, there are no places in Scripture in which there is a clear declaration that God works only through the chosen method of the  Penal Substitution model; and any Scriptural argument that once He chooses a certain mode of dealing with humans He’ll never change or depart from that mode has, at least from the perspective of the Old Testament, to account for the capriciousness and frequency with which He seems to change His mind!

One through six are thus highly problematic, for the reasons discussed.  However, if one accepts them, then seven follows logically and uncontroversially from them.  The only possible issue is that it’s not quite clear, apart from assertion, why Jesus can represent all humanity past, present, and future.  Presumably this is because He’s God; but to represent humans at all, He had to become human, which calls this into question.  However, for the purposes of the discussion here, and because I think the concept has something to it which I might use later, I’ll grant for now that Jesus can legitimately represent the human race, while saving the rationale as to how he can do so for later.

Eight is very problematic.  All humans lost the possibility of Heaven and were tainted with the Fall, independent of their own actions, and without regard to their will or preferences.  It seems a violation of symmetry that the only humans that reap the benefits of Christ’s payment of Adam’s debt are those who accept it.  I guess you could say it’s as if I freely chose not to be included in a class-action lawsuit.  However, it seems somehow grossly unjust that all humanity became estranged from God through no fault of their own, but are responsible for accepting the payment of a debt they didn’t incur themselves and might not even be aware of, lest they be eternally lost.  Certainly it seems unjust in the case of those who lived before Christ or who otherwise had no way of knowing him.

Having looked at all of these issues, it’s quite possible that I’ve erred here or there at places, and that people of good will might disagree on some points.  However, overall, there seem to be so many issue, problems, and questionable assertions in the Penal Substitution model that it seems best to me that we jettison it  altogether.  There may be some concepts that might be reusable in a different context; but I think Penal Substitution, as a valid way of viewing the Atonement is not going to work.  We’ll look at some ideas that may lead us to a more viable model in the near future.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Posted on 07/01/2014, in Bible, Christianity, philosophy, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. If you haven’t already read it, Fr. Kimel recently posted David Bentley Hart’s essay (“A Gift Exceeding Every Debt”) on the reconcilation of substition with Athanasius in a charitable reading (are you including Anselm with Calvin when you say “penal” as if the extrinsic punishment eclipsed the internal imperfection?) might help.

    If we dropped the “guilt” clause (granting this would no longer be penal substitution), which the Catholic Church has rejected (and, to my knowledge, most of the Eastern Fathers and Pelagius rejected as well), then Original Sin is first and foremost a consequence of natural death. Since human beings as created, limited creatures naturally tend towards dissolution, then we in no sense “merit” the supernatural grace to beatific existence made possible through the Word. Indeed, Adam himself – as Augustine said in his Literal Interpretation of Genesis – was naturally subject to death; as you said in your Tolkein posts, we learned to fear death in our alienation from God as death is no longer the ease into the arms of God but full of fear. Of course, “Sister Bodily Death” in herself is not wicked in the strict sense.

    Anselm’s real conundrum (besides the fact Man owes the Devil nothing; the Devil owes God everything) is why God simply couldn’t forgive Adam on the spot following the fall from the possibility of union with the Word (symbolized by being taken out of the Garden and access to the Tree of Life which made gods of men). He is stuck by saying God possesses “honor” in the sense God cannot go back on His commands that Man will die, fall into natural dissolution and be voided of the possibility of supernatural grace. Thus humankind only inherits the natural human condition and thus God is not responsible in the strict sense for making the offer of beatific immortality to all. Of course, neither does this merit Hell like Augustine might say, but that’s not relevant to this – I think. Athanasius himself wrestles with this in the “On the Incarnation” and concludes also God cannot go back on His word – and then also concludes “corruption” (as he terms it) precludes this. He doesn’t really explain what he means by any satisfaction of mine. He attempts to suggest that civilization is so radically corrupted, possibly through supernatural agencies like in Genesis 6, that any change on God’s part would only be extrinsic and not addressing the real intrinsic condition, but then that seems to imply collective guilt or active evil in that all would be apriori resistant to grace.

    Nevertheless, one could say we have a debt only in the loose sense that we cannot merit something which we originally did not have or have a right to as mortal, contingent creatures. At the same time, maybe debt is the wrong word as that implies penalty which implies moral responsibility which we don’t have.

    I guess I’m trying to say that “guilt” language in the sense of monetary deficit if aligned more closely with the language of Christus Victor theory.

    • Thanks for the heads-up re Fr. Kimel and the Hart essay–I’ll have a look. I certainly need to go to the source and read Athanasius on this. As to my title, I had Anselm more in mind–I admit I was a little loose in my language here.

      The book Debt: The First 5000 Years is mainly about economics, but it makes some fascinating points in showing how the language of debt enters religious thought in the 2nd Millennium BC and has profound effects on how sin, guilt, retribution, and morality are construed. The very word “redeem”, which has more religious overtones than nearly any other word in Christianity literally means “to buy back”.

      As to why God couldn’t just have forgiven Adam on the spot, I don’t really claim to have an answer, either. I tend to find many of the traditional arguments to this effect rather fishy; but this is something I need to mull over for a bit. It’s probably not answerable at all, but there are probably some directions that are more fruitful than others.

      Anyway, many thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  1. Pingback: Legends of the Fall: Index | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  2. Pingback: The Atonement: Index | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  3. Pingback: Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 2–Just Desserts | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

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