The Atonement Wars: What the Church Fathers Actually Wrote

Since I blog on the intersection of faith and science, and since the question of how the evolutionary origin of mankind is sometimes thought to impact the meaning of Christ’s atonement, I have recently done some reading on the subject. In the course of that reading, I noticed two things which surprised me. One is the recent fierce opposition to the long-established Protestant teaching that Jesus died in our place, bearing the penalty or consequences of our sin (i.e. “penal substitution”). This doctrine is now being called “horrific” and “cosmic child abuse,” even by more or less Bible-believing evangelicals. That has forced me to rethink this issue.

The other surprise was the claim that penal substitution is a relatively recent innovation, dating only to the time of Luther and Calvin. In contemporary debates it is widely stated (as established fact) by opponents of penal substitution that penal substitutionary atonement was unknown among the early church “fathers”, i.e. Christian leaders and writers from the first several centuries after Christ. Rather (it is said), the earliest Fathers believed that salvation came via Jesus offering himself as a ransom payment to Satan. But…I have actually read the writings of the earliest church fathers, and these assertions seemed incorrect to me. So I went back and reviewed the Christian writings from (mainly) 100-180 A.D. What I found in these texts is the ultimate subject of this post.

Before getting to what the church fathers wrote, however, I’ll offer some general thoughts on the subject of the atonement. As I delved into this subject, a number of challenging problems came up which I had not thought through before. There are severe, legitimate questions around the notion of an innocent man being punished for someone else’s misdeeds. It turns out that there are reasonable answers to these challenges (hint: God the Son was not just some random innocent bystander). But beyond the specific issue of penal substitution, I tapped into a vein of rich teaching from the Greek Orthodox tradition that presents the work of Christ in perhaps a more holistic manner than in typical evangelicalism. Some of those insights are shared below.

This article has gotten longer than intended, as I tried to address more and more issues that cropped up. I moved some discussions into Endnotes and Appendices. The busy reader might want to jump down to the concluding Personal Takeaways section.  Also, if this topic is not of interest, titles of recent articles on other subjects appear on the right-hand side of the blog window.



Multiple Aspects of the Atoning Work of Christ (New Testament References)

A Closer Look at Some Atonement Theories


    Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory

    Moral Influence / Moral Example

    Christus Victor

    Ontological theories of atonement/salvation

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Peaceful Coexistence of Atonement Theories

The Loathing of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

The Church Fathers’ Teachings on the Atonement: The Christus Victor Revolution

What Did the Fathers Actually Write Regarding Penal Substitution?

Some Personal Takeaways on the Atonement


Appendix A. The Final Judgment

Appendix B. Why Can’t God Just Forgive Us? Can Guilt Be Transferred to an Innocent Party?


Multiple Aspects of the Atoning Work of Christ (New Testament References)

A central theme of Christianity is that our ungodliness leads to a profound relational alienation between humans and God; and that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ solves this problem for those that accept his work. On that, believers are largely agreed. But how does this reconciliation work? What is the actual problem, and what is the mechanism of the solution? What exactly happened at and through the cross? How does the work of Christ move us into a lifestyle where we are pried loose from self-protection and move towards joyfully trusting God and loving him and our neighbors?

Atonement as a Black Box

It is often put this way: “salvation” refers to the results of Christ’s reconciling work (forgiveness, empowerment for righteous living, eternal life, etc.) and “atonement” refers to how salvation takes place. Christian thinkers have proposed various “atonement theories” to describe the mechanism of salvation that occurs in the black box shown above.

Supporters of the various theories sometimes go to great lengths to prove that their particular view is right and all others are wrong or trivial. However, the work of Christ is rich and multi-faceted, addressing the problems of humanity on many levels. It is clear that multiple aspects of the atonement are presented in the New Testament. Some of these aspects are listed below, with citations of relevant passages. In brackets are noted the names of some of the better-known atonement “theories”, which are typically derived from the passages cited.

(1) Substitutionary sacrifice for our sins [-> Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory]

Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29); Expiation/propitiation of our sin against God via Christ’s sacrificial death (Romans 3:25;  Heb. 2:17; I John 2:1 and 4:9-10); his blood poured out for forgiveness of sins (Mat 26:28); his death and resurrection leading to remission of sins (Luke 24:46-47; cf. Heb. 9:22  – no remission without shedding blood); purchased church with his blood (Acts 20:28);

Delivered to death for our sins and raised for our justification (Rom 4:25); justified, peace with God (Rom 5:1); God demonstrates his love in Christ dying for the ungodly (Rom 5:6-8); justified by his blood, saved from wrath by his life (Rom 5:9); enemies reconciled to God through death of his son (Rom. 5:10-11); his obedient “righteous act” brought justification and life, and made many righteous (Rom 5:18-19);

Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed (I  Cor 5:7); God in Christ reconciled world to himself, not counting people’s sins (II Cor 5:18-19); Christ became sin for us so we might be considered righteous (II Cor 5:21); gave himself for our sins, rescued us from present evil age (Gal. 1:4); becoming a curse in our place (Gal. 3:13); redemption, forgiveness of sins through his blood ( Eph 1:7; Col. 1:14); people without/far from God were brought near by Christ’s blood (Eph. 2:13); set aside the law in his flesh, reconcile Jews and Gentiles together to God through cross, provide access to the Father through Spirit (Eph. 2:14-17); loved us, gave self for us as offering/sacrifice to God (Eph 5:2); reconciled to himself all things, on earth and in heaven, by making peace through his blood on cross (Col. 1:20); reconciled us by Christ’s body through death to present us holy in his sight (Col. 1:22); forgave all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, nailing it to the cross (Col. 2:14); died for us that we may live together with him (I Thess. 5:10);

His work cleansed our sins (Heb. 1:3);  offered himself as a once for all sacrifice for our sins (Heb. 7:27); his blood cleanses our conscience from sins (Heb. 9:14) and obtains eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12); his death is a ransom to set us free from sins (Heb. 9:15); sacrificed self to bear/take away our sins (Heb. 9:26,28); his sacrifice for sins perfects us forever (Heb. 9:12-14); we were made holy through the one sacrifice of his body for sins (Heb. 10:10-14); we enter Most Holy Place by blood of Jesus, a new & living way opened through the curtain = his body (Heb. 10:19-20);  draw near in assurance, our hearts sprinkled to cleanse of guilty conscience (Heb. 10:22);   Suffered for our sins, the just for the unjust (I Peter 3:18); bearing our sins in his body (I Peter 2:24);  his blood purifies us from our sins (I John 1:7); he appeared to take away our sins (I John 3:5); he loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood (Rev. 1:5);  was slain, with his blood purchased persons from every ethnic group to be kingdom and priests (Rev 5:9-10)

God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.  Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Col. 1:18-22)

(2) Victory over death and evil powers [-> Christus Victor Theory]

Christ triumphs over death (I Cor. 15:26; Heb. 2:9, 14), and over the devil (John 12:31; Heb. 2:14; I John 3:8) and demonic powers (Eph. 1:20-22; Col. 2:15); we overcome Satan by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony (Rev 12:11)

(3) Participating in the trajectory of Jesus’ life/death/resurrection gives power to overcome sin tendencies and to experience the divine life now and later [-> Ontological Theories]

Identification with Christ’s death and his resurrection, such that we can experientially “walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4), and  have “participation in the divine nature” so as to escape “corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (II Peter 1:4); knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection and fellowship of his sufferings (Phil. 2:10); “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20); we are inwardly renewed day by day; in Christ, we are each a “new creation” (II Cor. 4:16, 5:17); we have died with Christ to the spiritual forces of this world, and have been raised with Christ and have put on the new self, and live by the Spirit, not the flesh (Eph. 2:5-6, 4:24, 5:8; Col. 2:11-12, 2:20-3:10; Rom. 8:9-14)

(4) Ransom/redemption [-> Ransom Theory]

We are rescued/bought out from slavery or captivity, typically at the price of Christ’s blood and death; the prior bondage was to the penalty or experiential power of sin, or to satanic influence (Mark 10:45 ; Romans 3:24; I Cor 6:20; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:13-14; I Tim 2:5-6; Heb. 9:15; I Peter 1:18-19; Rev. 5:9)

(5) Paves way for the indwelling Holy Spirit

As a result of Jesus’s death/resurrection/ascension, the Holy Spirit comes in a new way, to indwell, guide, illumine, empower believers (John 14:16-17; 15:26, 16:7; Luke 24:46-49; Acts 2:38; Romans 8:9-16, 23-27; Gal. 3:2-5, 5:16; Heb. 6:4). The Spirit is Christ’s representative presence in us; this presence is a foretaste and guarantee of our ultimate transformation so we can enter into the glorious fellowship of the Trinity (II Cor. 1:22, 5:5; Eph. 1:14; “Christ in you, the hope of glory” Col. 1:27)

(6) Adoption as Sons and Daughters of God, Co-Heirs

“Legal” adoption (analogous to Roman custom) as children of God, co-heirs with Christ for glorious future, qualified to address God with familiarity ( John 20:17; Rom. 8:14-23, 29; II Cor 6:18; Gal. 3:20,26, 4:5-6,28; Eph. 1:5, 5:1; Heb. 2:10, 12:5-8; Rev. 21:7 ); “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom 8:17); died for us so we can live together forever with him (I Thes. 5:10; cf. John 14:2-3); new birth into “living hope” through Christ’s resurrection, inheritance kept in heaven for us (I Peter 1:3-4)

(7) Moral example [-> Subjective or Moral Influence Theory]

In addition to the various “objective” results of the work of Christ [items (1)-(6) above], his teachings and conduct (particularly in sacrificial service) provide an inspiring moral standard which can work a subjective change in people who hear about it. (John 13:14; Eph. 5:2; Phil. 2:5; I Pet. 2:21; I John 2:6, 4:11).

There are other ways to categorize the various passages on the saving work of Christ, but any way we slice it, it is clear that there are multiple aspects involved. For instance, Mike Taylor writes:

In the NT [New Testament] there are five main images or metaphors used to explicate the saving significance of the death of Jesus. These images are taken from five different spheres of life:

– The court room: justification               (Rom 3:21-4:25; 1Cor 1:30)

– The market place: redemption            (Eph 1:7; Col 1:14)

– Personal relationships: reconciliation      (2 Cor 5:18-19; Col 1:20-21)

– Worship: sacrifice                                  (Heb 10:12; 1 Cor 5:7)

– Battleground: triumph over evil         (Gal 1:4; Col 2:15)

Frequently these images are compressed together so in Romans 3:21ff Paul brings together images of law court, justified, market place, redemption and worship, sacrifice of atonement. As always the teaching in New Testament is task-related, applied theology and nowhere is there an attempt to give systematic and comprehensive treatment of the significance of the death of Christ. This is the work of the theologians of the church.

A Closer Look at Some Atonement Theories

Ransom Theory

The work of Christ as “ransom” or “redemption” is referenced in a variety of contexts in the New Testament. In the Roman Empire, slavery was not race-based and it was not necessarily for a life-time. It was common for a slave to have his freedom purchased with the payment of a price of redemption, and then to be completely accepted by society as an ordinary free man.

The “Ransom Theory” usually refers a particular view, in which Christ’s death was a legal redemption price paid to Satan for the release of humanity. The thinking here is that via their choice to follow Satan rather than God, especially in primal Garden of Eden test, humans became legally the slaves of Satan. Around 230 A.D. the theologian Origen proposed that the death of Jesus was a ransom payment which Satan agreed to, which purchased our release from bondage. However, Satan fell for a ruse: he didn’t realize that Christ could not be held in the grip of death, so in the Resurrection he lost his grip on Christ, in addition to losing his claim to humanity at the Crucifixion.  A few other Fathers in the Eastern church championed this view in the fourth century, but it mainly got traction in the Western (Latin-speaking) church, after Augustine (c. 400 A.D) endorsed it. It became a dominant view in the Roman Catholic Church in the years 400-1100 A.D. This Ransom Theory, which is sometimes considered a version of Christus Victor (see below), is no longer widely held, since its premise (i.e. Satan had legitimate rights over humans, such that God had to negotiate with him, stooping to deception) is no longer generally accepted. [1]

Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory

The “Satisfaction” (or Commercial) Theory was formulated by Anselm of Canterbury in his book Cur Deus Homo (Why did God Become Human?), written about 1100 A.D. He argued that the payment of Christ’s death was not to Satan, but to God, on behalf of sinners. God’s honor had been violated by humanity’s rebellion, and satisfaction was provided by the willing sacrifice of the sinless God-man. This view made sense in the world of feudal honor and satisfaction. It continues to play a role in Roman Catholic thinking [2]. It was of great historical importance in dethroning the Ransom-to-Satan theory, and in establishing in the Western church that the death of Christ could provide some sort of “satisfaction” or payment to God. Thus, it prepared the way for the later Protestant penal substitution formulation, which focused on God’s justice rather than his offended honor.

Moral Influence / Moral Example

The “Moral Example” theory is fairly self-explanatory: Jesus championed the poor and downtrodden, urged social justice and personal integrity, and demonstrated self-giving service to others. His unjust trial and execution exposed the evil practices of human power structures. His example inspires people to go and do likewise, in serving others and withstanding social and political evils. This is termed a “subjective” approach, since it focuses on the changes to our inward emotional/mental state, without claiming that anything external to our psyches has occurred (such as defeating evil spiritual powers or satisfying God’s justice). This view has been a staple of the liberal wing of Protestantism for the last two centuries, and has been co-opted by followers of Rene Girard. A similar subjective view of the atonement (the “Moral Influence Theory”, where the demonstration in Christ of God’s concern for us excites love for God in us) was articulated by Peter Abelard (1079-1142), as a reaction to Anselm’s satisfaction theory.

Christus Victor

“Christus Victor” (“Christ the Conqueror”, in Latin) is a phrase coined by Swedish theologian Gustav Aulen in his influential book with that title. It refers to the work of Christ in delivering us from bondage by conquering sin, death, and the devil, and even the claims of the Law. Christ let the evil powers do their worst to him, but the Father vindicated him in the resurrection. Humanity shares in Christ’s triumph over the powers of evil, though the basis or mechanism of that participation may remain unexplained. Christ’s victory over the evil powers has little or nothing to do with satisfying God’s justice regarding human sin.   Aulen asserts that this was the dominant view of the atonement in the early church Fathers, so he terms it the “classic view”. He further claims (incorrectly, as we will show) that legal “satisfaction” theories (which he called the “Latin view”), which would include penal substitutionary atonement, were a relatively recent invention of the Western church, dating mainly to Anselm about 1100 A.D. and to the 1500’s Reformers.

There are indeed numerous references in the New Testament to the pervasive grip and influence of evil spiritual powers over humankind (e.g.  Luke 4:5-6; John 12:21, 14:30, 16:11; Acts 10:38; Eph. 2:1-2, 6:10-17; Colossians 2:15; Hebrews 2:14; 1 John 3:8), though in the West today it may be hard to take seriously the power of a personal devil or demons. Conservative Christians typically do accept the existence of Satan and hold that he was in some sense defeated through the work of Christ, but few evangelicals today hold that the defeat of the devil is the primary aspect of the atonement. [3]

In recent decades, various groups of Christians (e.g. post-modern, feminist, pacifist, etc.) have appropriated the language of Christus Victor, and shaped it to meet their interests; societal “structures of oppression”, rather than Satan, are often cast as the evil powers to be vanquished. Upon closer inspection, many of these modern social justice models which employ the dramatic language of Christus Victor are merely Moral Example approaches with specific political/cultural spins. Jesus’s life and death are said to “expose” the oppressive political/social “powers”. But these “powers” usually turn out to be purely human entities (individual or collective), and the effect of “exposing” them is a purely subjective effect within human hearts (e.g. heartening us to work for social justice), not an objective curtailing of external spiritual evil forces or beings.

Ontological theories of atonement/salvation

“Ontological theories” is a broad term to comprehend the teachings of many Greek-speaking church fathers, mainly in the eastern half of the old Roman Empire and mainly from 180 A.D. onward. These teachings center on our experiential participation in the divine life, which was enabled by the work of Christ who fully participated in, or “assumed” human experience, but without sin.

A recurring theme in Paul’s letters (see above) is that believers have participated in Christ’s death and resurrection, such that we are new selves. Paul then encourages his readers to act consistent with their new identity (“You are…; therefore do…”).  The ontological theories often come at this participation from the other side of the divine/human divide. Rather than only discussing humanity’s participation in Christ’s experiences/trajectory, the Greek fathers also focus on his participation in humanity’s experiences and trajectory.

The Incarnation plays a major role here, along with the Resurrection, with relatively less focus on the Crucifixion than in the West. Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.) taught that in the course of his life Jesus systematically “recapitulated” the history of the whole human race, but he made all right choices where Adam (and other humans) made wrong choices. Christ, the Second Adam, thus undoes the harm done by the first Adam. Christians can now experience victory over the force of sin by participating in this life of the Christ who was victorious over sin in every situation in his life.

This scheme is an “ontological” (whole being) substitution by Christ to deal with the entire power of sin in humans, rather than primarily a legal substitution addressing the guilt of sin before God’s justice. It is sometimes characterized as a “medical” model, stressing the healing of sick humanity rather than the judicial acquittal of a guilty humanity. Much of subsequent Eastern Orthodox theology, such as stressing the Incarnation and Resurrection, and experientially participating in the divine “energies” so as to become more and more God-like (“theosis”), is an elaboration of this ontological approach pioneered by Irenaeus. As with the Ransom Theory, the various flavors of Ontological atonement were subsumed by Aulen under the “Christus Victor” or “classic” rubric.

See Theopedia for a fuller list of atonement theories.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

The concept of the death and blood of Jesus effecting deliverance and forgiveness for our sins is pervasive in the New Testament, from Matthew:

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. (Mat. 1:21)

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mat. 20:28)

This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mat. 26:28)

…all the way through to Revelation:

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood (Rev 1:5)

You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Rev 5:9)

A widespread view of the atonement in historic Protestantism has been penal substitution. In this view, because God is holy and just, he does not simply forgive sin in the sense of shrugging it off and saying, “Ahh, no big deal. I didn’t really mean it with all those commands and expectations of living under my sovereignty. Let’s just forget about it.”  From God’s perspective, the ongoing breach in relationship caused by our unfaithfulness is akin to having one’s spouse be constantly unfaithful. It is not the sort of thing that is just casually dismissed as though nothing significant has happened.

God’s laws are understood to be good, and to carry with them blessings for obedience and sanctions for disobedience: “The soul that sins, it will die” (Ezek. 18:20).  Rebellion against an infinite Creator and abuse of his creation (including abuse of other people) in defiance of his commands merits judgment  (“those who practice such things are worthy of death”, Rom. 1:32). Since we owe our very existence to the Creator, he would seem to have the right to decree not only what our behavior and attitude should be, but also the penalties for defying his standards. Theologians have long noted that if God does not apply the sanctions he said he would, that would make him a liar. (See Appendix A for more discussion of God’s judgment).

“There is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps. 53:3), and “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  This is not a problem which we can fix ourselves, since we are the problem. However, God has graciously taken the initiative to provide a solution: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). [4]

Although Jesus was sinless, he took upon himself the penalty or judgment which was due us for our sins. This provided satisfaction of God’s decreed justice.  This aspect of the atonement has become known as “penal substitution”, although, as Adam Johnson notes, “Penal substitution is a misnomer in one sense, in that the emphasis is not upon Christ being punished in our place. Rather, the emphasis is upon him bearing our sin, and doing away with it though its destruction in the form of punishment” [5].

The issue here is justice, not placating God’s hurt feelings. Because the just demands of the law were satisfied through Christ’s voluntary death in our place, as our substitute, Paul can proclaim that God is both “just” AND the one who “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 3:26; 4:5).  In sum: “The wages [i.e. the just recompense] of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord [thanks to his vicarious sacrifice]” (Rom 6:23, with amplified notes added).

The concept of substitution may be said, then, to lie at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives which belong to God alone; God accepts penalties which belong to man alone. -John Stott, The Cross of Christ: 20th Anniversary Edition (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989), 160.

A standard evangelical description of penal substitutionary atonement was given by J. I. Packer in 1973:

The notion which the phrase ‘penal substitution’ expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory. To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity.  – J. I. Packer, What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution

A penal substitution approach was articulated by the Protestant Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, with some details varying [6].  They did not feel they were inventing something new, but that they were merely developing the straightforward implications of statements in the New Testament, e.g. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18).

Tim Keller has put it, “People think a Christian is one who follows Christ’s teaching and example, but Jesus is not primarily a teacher. He’s a rescuer.” A word search on “sin”/”sins” in the New Testament illustrates how urgent is our need for the forgiveness of our sins. The other aspects of Christ’s atonement (defeat of evil powers, participating in the divine life through the indwelling Holy Spirit, moral example, etc.) deal largely with our experience of how we can live better from this point on. Penal substitution, however, provides a clear basis for the forgiveness of our past and ongoing sins before a holy God. Church historian Richard Lovelace writes:

There is an essential connection between this doctrine and the perception of God’s holiness, as the centrality of the sacrifices in the Old Testament shows…The substitutionary atonement is the heart of the gospel, and it is so because it gives the answer to the problem of guilt, bondage, and alienation from God. [7]

Bill Muehlenberg summarizes some of the biblical evidence for penal substitution [8]:

Certainly 2 Corinthians 5:21 is a vital passage here: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Clearly the idea of substitution is taught here. Compare this with Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’.” Here we have substitution alright, but a clear penal component as well. Because he was made by God to be sin for us, that meant he took upon himself the curse of the law.

These passages hearken back to Isaiah 53 and the coming Servant who would suffer for his people. There we are told there that “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6). Verses 4-5 make clear how God was involved in all this: “we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.”

Indeed, “it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand” (v. 10). Many have tied this in with 2 Cor. 5:21, arguing that Paul understands Jesus to have been made a “sin offering” for us….

Of course other Old Testament concepts of sacrifice and atonement are being referred to here, including the passage from Deuteronomy 21:23 which says, “cursed is everyone who hangs from a tree”. Christ, by hanging on a cross, took upon himself the curse of God directed at sinners.

The New Testament teaches that the Old Testament sacrificial system provided a precursor or model for the atoning work of Christ. These things were a “shadow” or “type”, of which Christ’s work was the reality (e.g.  Colossians 2:17 , Hebrews 9:11-28, Hebrews 10:1 ). Without getting too deeply into this complex and nuanced topic, we note that key offerings to atone for sin required the death of an animal which had to be without defect:

The first [i.e. Mosaic] covenant was not put into effect without blood…In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Heb. 9:18, 22)

The life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar. It is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. (Lev. 17:11).

The Hebrew word for “atone” carries a range of connotations, including “cover”, “wipe away”, “ransom by a substitute”. All of these effects are ascribed in the New Testament to the work of Christ in dealing with our sins.  Note that in the Old Testament God himself graciously gave the Israelites the blood as the means to make atonement for themselves; the pardon of their sins was not something wrung from an unwilling deity.

Within contemporary Protestantism, the main alternatives to penal substitution for understanding Christ’s work are Moral Example and Christus Victor. However, both of these approaches falter as atonement theories because they present no logical connection between the death and resurrection of Christ and the redemption of humanity. Presumably Jesus would have had more impact as a moral example if he had been more muted in his messianic claims and thus lived another thirty years to further demonstrate a righteous lifestyle and to organize societal reforms,  instead of being executed after only three years of public ministry. There have been other good men and women who have died in the course of promoting justice. What is unique about Jesus and his death? Why even call him “Lord”?    

The same issue arises with modern formulations of Christus Victor: although it is presented in emotive language that evokes grand salvific themes, there is no often clear causal connection drawn between the work of Christ and the victory we are now said to share over death and evil powers. We can say things like “Jesus won by losing”, but how did that actually work? God is omnipotent, so he has always had the raw power to quash the devil and to resuscitate  dead people. Again, other men have died in the course of doing good, so what was so crucial about Jesus’ death? What did that change?

Sam Storms notes that in fact the key way in which Christ defeated Satan “was by offering himself as a penal substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. The grip that Satan exerted on the souls of men was their unforgiven sin and guilt. By making propitiation for sins… Christ broke the legal claim of Satan and liberated from his power those for whom Christ died.”  It turns out that penal substitution is an explanatory cause, and Christus Victor is an effect. Thus, penal substitution does offer the sort of causal explanation required of an “atonement theory.”  Derek Rishmawy elaborates on this point:

Christ disarms the principalities and powers through exposure, yes, but also by robbing them of the power of accusation. This is how “the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down” and why the saints “have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:10- 11). They no longer fear death—the ultimate threat of the powers—because they no longer fear God, for their sins no longer stand between them.

Peaceful Coexistence of Atonement Theories

While extreme versions of some theories of the atonement may be logically incompatible with one another, no single humanly-devised theory should be expected to capture all aspects of the atonement. Johnson suggests that the task of the church “is not to determine which is the theory of the atonement, or which theory of the atonement has pride of place among the others. Rather…we ought to witness to the fittingness of the atonement to demonstrate how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brings together a wide range of benefits for the reconciliation of all things to God” [9].

Evangelical preachers and teachers may stress one aspect more than others, but they typically endorse multiple facets of the atonement.  They nearly all hold that, in addition to taking the penalty for our sins, Jesus defeated death and the devil, sent the indwelling Holy Spirit to empower righteous living, enabled our adoption as sons and daughters of God, and provided a worthy moral example. This broad inclusivity is consistent with the numerous New Testament passages cited above, which portray a rich picture of Christ’s work in reconciliation [9B].

Mike Wittmer puts it, “Christus Victor explains why Jesus died [i.e., to defeat sin, death, and Satan], penal substitution explains how his death worked [to accomplish this victory], and the double-sided moral influence and example theories explain what we should do in response.”

The Loathing of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

God’s mode of existence is far different than ours. Thus, it is to be expected that the three pounds of neurons between our ears, seemingly shaped over time to process the medium-sized physical information essential to killing and avoiding being killed on the African savannah, will struggle to apprehend metaphysical concepts like the Trinity, divine justice, and the atonement. These matters are termed “mysteries” from our point of view, since analogies with human experience, with human emotions, and with human families and human courtrooms, at some point simply fail us.

That said, a number of questions naturally arise in our minds regarding penal substitutionary atonement (henceforth, “PSA”). God tells us to just forgive, so why can’t he likewise just forgive?  Isn’t transferring guilt to an innocent victim unjust? These are reasonable questions, and reasonable answers have been given by proponents of PSA. I have appended (as Appendix B) an extended response by Stephen Wellum to those two specific questions.

Regarding the question of why God doesn’t “just forgive” us, Derek Rishmawy writes:

Taking into consideration God’s role in the universe, it is entirely reasonable to think that God’s forgiveness will look slightly different from ours. As we’ve already noted, God is King and Judge of the world. Part of his faithfulness to creation is to execute justice within it, to maintain the moral order he has established–which is not some impersonal justice, but one that is reflective of his own holy nature–in essence, to make sure that that wrongdoing is condemned and punished. Justice involves more than that, but certainly not less.

Given this, forgiveness cannot be a simple affair of “letting it go”, or passing it over for God. His own character, his holiness, his righteousness, his justice means that he cannot treat sin as if it did not happen.

Something in human nature seems to react violently against the teaching that God graciously took on flesh and suffered the penalty of death on our behalf in order to reconcile us to him. This reaction goes beyond merely questioning the counter-intuitive aspects of PSA, but escalates into vile denunciations of the doctrine. As early as 1902, B. B. Warfield noted, “A tone of speech has even grown up regarding it [penal substitution] which is not only scornful but positively abusive. There are no epithets too harsh to be applied to it, no invectives too intense to be poured out on it.”

Atheist polemicists throw around terms like “vicious, sadomasochistic and repellent” and “barking mad” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion) to characterize substitutionary atonement. Similarly, progressive churchmen have long been appalled by what Riverside Church (New York) minister Harry Emerson Fosdick characterized as “slaughterhouse religion”:

Substitutionary atonement … came a long way down in history in many a penal system. But now it is a precivilized barbarity; no secular court would tolerate the idea for a moment; only in certain belated theologies is it retained as an explanation of our Lord’s death.   – H. E. Fosdick, Dear Mr. Brown (1961)

These words are not surprising, since old-school liberal Protestantism has always been clear about setting its enlightened opinions above the primitive views of the well-meaning but benighted authors of the Bible. These Christians tend to locate the problem of sin in the collective, in “structures of evil” which propagate injustices in society, rather than in individual accountability to God and his commands. I have observed that when they confess sins, they mainly point at sins committed by other people (e.g. the sins of racial bigots out there who happen to be fellow citizens, such that “we all” are “complicit” in those sins), not the specific instances where they themselves fell short of totally loving God and their neighbor this week.  Since they evince little alarm over their own personal guilt before a holy, eternal Judge, it is not surprising that they hold little value for that Judge’s given solution for that personal guilt.

At the dawn of Christianity, Paul acknowledged the offensiveness of the cross. In regular human thinking, “Christ crucified” seems intellectually foolish and morally repugnant (the Greek word for “stumbling block” here is skandalon, from which we get our word “scandal”):

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.     Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.     For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength…  

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.  (I Cor. 1:18, 21-25, 27-30)

What is new in the past two decades is the number of Bible-believing Protestants who have joined in attacking PSA. Leaders of the so-called emerging church commonly denounce PSA as “cosmic child abuse”, and claim that wrath and punishment on God’s part would be logically incompatible with his love for mankind. This is a viewpoint seen all over the blogosphere. See, for instance, the video clips of Christian leaders Greg Boyd and Brian Zahnd and others misrepresenting PSA with nasty imagery of an angry father beating a helpless son to vent his uncontrolled emotions, or as an endorsement of the pagan myths of redemptive violence or child sacrifice, etc., etc. in the YouTube video They Are Trying to Shame Us out of Good Theology by Misrepresenting Penal Substitution. Christian musician Michael Gungor has called the substitutionary atonement “evil” and “horrific”.  In his book Lies Christians Believe, William Paul Young, author of the best-seller The Shack (now a movie), derisively represents  PSA as teaching that “It was God who killed Jesus, slaughtering Him as a necessary appeasement for His bloodthirsty need for justice.” [10]

An article by Frankfort, Kentucky Baptist minister Chuck Queen declares in its title, “It’s Time to End the Hands-Off Attitude to Substitutionary Atonement”:

This interpretation of Jesus’ death makes God the source of redemptive violence…Substitutionary atonement imagines a self-giving Son who gives his life in order to pay off/placate/satisfy/appease a harsh, vindictive Father…

Substitutionary atonement reflects more of an ancient, primitive view of God than the view taught and embodied by Jesus of Nazareth. In the ancient world, sacrifice was demanded to placate the offended deity; to stay the deity’s wrathful vengeance. Jesus imagined God as Abba — a loving, compassionate parent — seeking the best for God’s children. The God of Jesus would have no need to save us from God’s self.

Queen notes with satisfaction, “In the church I pastor we omit certain verses of hymns because of allusions and references to Jesus’ death as a substitution.” (Interpreters like Queen focus on only the strands of biblical teaching about God which they find culturally acceptable, such as the imagery of a loving Father, and deny the other, less comfortable, strands of revelation. But see Appendix A, “The Final Judgment”, for what Jesus actually taught about the “need to save us from God’s self”.)

Steven West writes:

Some opponents of PSA believe that it causes hatred, bigotry, abuse, murder, and crimes against humanity. And that’s just the short-list. PSA has also been called misogynistic, since it allegedly teaches women that the most beautiful act in history is to be bullied and beaten and even killed by the one who claims to love you. Thus, PSA apparently encourages spousal abuse and domestic violence.   It likewise apparently legitimizes child abuse, since the Son submits to the violence of the Father.

Plus hatred, xenophobia, genocide, war crimes…there seems no end to the foul accusations. Rishmawy has provided brief but cogent answers for most of these objections to PSA in his article The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement. For instance, in response to the charge of “cosmic child abuse”, he notes:

The Son is not some weak child subject to an all-dominating Father. He is the Eternal Son who willingly and authoritatively laid down his life, offering himself up through the Spirit. The Son is an active, willing adult. No one takes his life from him, but he lays it down willingly (Mk. 10:45; Lk. 23:46; John 10:11, 15, 17-18; 13:1; Gal. 2:20). He heroically gives up his life for others and is not simply a victim of violent forces beyond his control.

Another misrepresentation of PSA by its opponents is the claim that PSA teaches that God hated or hates sinners. That is a deceitful strawman attack: the reality is that it was precisely God’s love for mankind that motivated the atonement. This is made plain in what is perhaps the most-quoted verse in the Bible, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life”. (For more Scriptures along these lines, see Appendix A; see also endnote [4] ).

Rishmawy discusses some of these controversial issues in greater depth in his long review of Brian Zahnd’s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, including how God’s righteous anger against evil is compatible with (and is actually entailed by) his righteous love.

In the face of the widespread attacks on PSA, the Southern Baptist church adopted a resolution in 2017 titled, On the Necessity of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. This resolution affirms “the truthfulness, efficacy, and beauty of the biblical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as the burning core of the Gospel message and the only hope of a fallen race”.

Putting aside all the fierce (and mainly groundless) attacks on the doctrine itself, it is of course possible in practice to stress PSA so much as to distort the overall picture of salvation. One unfortunate consequence of the attacks on PSA from the liberal wing of the church may be a defensive reaction by conservatives, leading to an overemphasis on this doctrine. There is only so much “bandwidth” for the content of sermons; an exclusive focus on the cross and on justification will necessarily shortchange teaching on other aspects of Christ’s saving work as discussed above (e.g. the resurrection, the victory over sin and evil, the empowering experience of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit, etc.) and on our responsibilities as disciples and representatives of our Lord in caring for the poor and for the earth. Also, the range of what Jesus accomplished for us is so broad that a church could completely miss some aspects of his work, and still have a viable Christian faith. For many centuries millions of Orthodox and Roman Catholic believers have honorably (it seems to me) lived for, and often died for, their Lord, with little or no explicit consciousness of penal substitutionary atonement.

I’m sure there are churches in which nearly every sermon is a lecture on getting saved, and which stress God’s wrath more than his love. Also, some preachers luridly depict God “pouring out his anger” on Jesus at the cross, a disturbing notion for which there is no scriptural warrant and which is not an essential component of PSA [11]. That said, I have attended many hundreds of meetings in dozens of fairly conservative churches and para-church organizations over the past four decades, and have rarely found an unhealthy obsession with substitutionary atonement. In fact, I find it being mentioned less and less. Because PSA is so counter-intuitive and counter-cultural, unless this aspect of Christ’s work is cherished and continually explicated, it tends to fade out in favor of other, more palatable topics.

Opponents of PSA commonly engage in armchair psychologizing, accusing those who hold this doctrine of various sick motivations and attitudes. In turn, Owen Strachan writes of modern Christians who deny PSA:

Each case boils down to this: These voices promote the cross, but not the atonement. Such thinking matches fallen humanity’s pride. We don’t naturally want the cross to save us.

…What truly horrifies sinful humanity is not, in the end, Scripture’s stubborn reliance upon blood atonement. The problem is much deeper. What truly offends human nature about the atonement is the greatness of the God who forgives through it, the lavish nature of the mercy that flows from it, the salvation for the wicked accomplished by it. It is precisely this salvation our fallen hearts reject. It is exactly this forgiving God we defy, and even dare to correct.

B. B. Warfield identified what is perhaps the key issue in this controversy:

The fact is, the views men take of the atonement are largely determined by their fundamental feelings of need–by what men most long to be saved from… If we have not much sin to be saved from, why, certainly, a very little atonement will suffice for our needs. It is, after all, only the sinner who requires a Saviour. [12]

The Church Fathers’ Teachings on the Atonement: The Christus Victor Revolution

Every now and then a work is published which molds opinions on a subject for a whole generation or more. Such a work is Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement [13].  This book was published in Swedish in 1930, with an English translation appearing in 1931. It became seen as the definitive study of the historical development of theories of the atonement, and still wears that mantle some ninety years later. Its assertions are usually taken as established facts, as the basis for any further elaboration. The categories and significance of the various atonement theories are now taken to be as Aulen defined them.

Aulen’s monumental impact comes through in this summary of his work in Wikipedia:

Aulen’s most influential contribution to Theology was in the area of Atonement theory. His book Christus Victor has established itself as one of the key reference points in contemporary discussion.

Aulen identified three main theories of the Atonement: the ‘scholastic’ view, epitomised by Anselm of Canterbury (known as Satisfaction theory); the ‘idealistic’ view, epitomised by Peter Abelard (known as Moral Exemplar theory); and what he referred to as the ‘classic’ view.

Aulen advocated a return to this ‘classic’ view, which he characterised as follows:

Its central theme is the idea of the Atonement as a Divine conflict and victory; Christ – Christus Victor – fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the ‘tyrants’ under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself. 

He argued that both the other theories put too much emphasis on the work of humanity in the Atonement: the Moral Exemplar view wholly so, and Satisfaction Theory in its emphasis on “the service which Christ qua homo renders”.

Regardless of whether they agree with his arguments, most contemporary discussions of the Atonement follow Aulen’s three categories, and the term Christus Victor has become synonymous with the ‘classic’ view he advocated.

This is a fair summary of Aulen’s book and its impact. From reading this work, one comes away with the idea that penal substitution, i.e. the notion that Jesus’ died in our place, suffering the penalty of death that would otherwise fall on us, was practically unheard of among Christians prior to the 1500’s Reformers. Aulen lumps this view with Anselm’s satisfaction-of-honor scheme as “Latin” or “satisfaction” theories. The views of essentially all of the church fathers are lumped by Aulen under his Christus Victor category. Calling Christus Victor the “classic” approach cements Aulen’s contention that this was THE understanding of Christ’s work among the church fathers.

Following Aulen, opponents of PSA now cite, as incontrovertible fact, that penal substitution is a recent theological innovation. This then puts a burden on supporters of PSA to explain how this view could have vanished from Christian consciousness immediately after the writing of the New Testament. However, Aulen is simply wrong on this dismissal of penal substitution by the early Fathers, as I will show in the next section.

Aulen is also unfair in claiming that “satisfaction” theories do an injustice to the unity of the Trinity by pitting the Father against the Son. The New Testament presents the crucifixion as a fully Trinitarian enterprise, albeit with differing roles.

Perhaps Aulen’s most fundamental mistake is the logical error of the false dichotomy. He seems to assume that a Christian writer who stresses one aspect of the atonement (e.g. ontological substitution) is incapable of simultaneously appropriating an additional aspect, such as penal substitution. Eric Parker critiqued Aulen’s dis-integrative approach on more general theological grounds:

Because Aulen minimizes the importance of legal metaphors he leaves God’s justice hanging in the balance. When the penal aspect is not included in the classic view one is left with a partial victory of an unjust god. When the victory is not included in the Latin view one is left with a purely human act aimed at the appeasement of a purely wrathful god. When either of these two views leaves out the moral exemplary aspect Christ ceases to be the exemplar of the will of God for humanity – thus the Christian identity of “living sacrifice” is modeled after one whom man could and should never imitate. The solution to this problem of competing models has been demonstrated by Martin Luther’s return to the themes he saw prevailing in the biblical text. For Martin Luther and John Calvin the person of Christ is the source of unity between these models. Because Christ’s works cannot be separated from his person neither can his roles as Prophet, Priest, and King (i.e. Exemplar, Mediator, and Victor). Calvin’s thought is a reminder that Christology is the source of soteriology:

“In short, since neither as God alone could he feel death, nor as man alone could he overcome it, he coupled human nature with divine that to atone for sin he might submit the weakness of the one to death; and that, wrestling with death by the power of the other nature, he might win victory for us.” (Institutes, II.12.3)

Kirk Miller offers a further evaluation of Aulen’s assertions.

An additional pernicious fallout from Christus Victor is a popular perception that the earliest Fathers held to the Ransom [to Satan] Theory. This is actually not Aulen’s fault. It is simply a misreading of his work, erroneously taking the Christus Victor theory as being identical with the Ransom Theory, when in fact Christus Victor covers a vast range of concepts. But it is surprising how widespread this misunderstanding is (see e.g. here, here, and even this Wikipedia article on the book Christus Victor).

What Did the Fathers Actually Write Regarding Penal Substitution?

Since I was puzzled and challenged by the claim by the academic establishment that penal substitution was unknown among the early church fathers, and also by the popular belief what these fathers first taught was Ransom-to-Satan, I decided to re-read the Fathers myself to try to get to the bottom of these issues.

These writings include I Clement, letters by Ignatius of Antioch, the Epistles of Barnabus and Polycarp, the Epistle to Diognetus, the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, and writings by Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. These are the key Christian writings from the 100-180 A.D. timeframe. I focused mainly on these, because they are the earliest Christian writings we have, following the New Testament. I later expanded to read some key works of Eusebius and Athanasius from the early-mid fourth century, since they are widely cited in debates over atonement in the church fathers, and also excerpts from Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus.

From these readings, it is straightforward to dismiss the primacy of the Ransom Theory. The first writer to formally propose that God offered his Son’s death as a payment to Satan was Origen, writing around 220-230. He proposed that the devil was tricked into accepting the death of Christ as the ransom payment for mankind, mistakenly believing that the crucified Christ would remain under his control.  Origen was a brilliant thinker, but prone to excessive speculation; his writings were eventually condemned by the church. So this was not a strong start for the Ransom Theory.

About 150 years after Origen, his ransom-to-Satan theory was then picked up, tweaked, and promoted by Gregory of Nyssa. This was in the late fourth century, or more than 300 years into church history.  Gregory of Nyssa’s proposal was not immediately accepted. His contemporary Gregory of Nazianzus strongly rejected this Ransom Theory: since the devil was a robber, he did not have a legal right to be paid to release what he had stolen and so it would be an “outrage” for the devil to be paid the precious ransom of God the Son. Although the Ransom Theory did assume great importance in the West in later centuries, essentially all patristics scholars would agree that this was not the earliest view of the church fathers; the popular perception here is plainly incorrect.

The status of penal substitution is more contested. I read through hundreds of pages from these church fathers, and excerpted all the passages that seemed to bear on substitutionary atonement for the forgiveness of sins. I have written all that up in a detailed study, which I have posted along with some other lengthy articles up at the top of my blog window. In that long document I discuss the meanings of the excerpted passages in their original contexts.

Below I will simply show a sampling of some passages themselves, with minimal commentary. It should be evident that these texts speak of Christ’s substitutionary death for the forgiveness of sins, often with a penal context (i.e. taking on the curse or the debt of death due to our sins).


Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world. [Chap. 7]

He bears our iniquities, and is in sorrow for our sakes… He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we were healed. All we, like sheep, have gone astray; [every] man has wandered in his own way; and the Lord has delivered Him up for our sins, while He in the midst of His sufferings opens not His mouth. ….He Himself shall carry their sins. On this account He shall inherit many, and shall divide the spoil of the strong; because His soul was delivered to death, and He was reckoned among the transgressors, and He bare the sins of many, and for their sins was He delivered.”     [Chap. 16]

On account of the Love he bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls.  [Chap. 49]



He was… nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. [Smyr. 1]

He suffered all these things for our sakes, that we might be saved. [Smyr. 2]

[The Eucharist is] the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. [Smyr. 7]



For to this end the Lord endured to deliver up His flesh to corruption, that we might be sanctified through the remission of sins, which is effected by His blood of sprinkling. For it is written concerning Him, partly with reference to Israel, and partly to us; and [the Scripture] saith thus: “He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities: with His stripes we are healed. … He himself willed thus to suffer, for it was necessary that He should suffer on the tree.    [Chap 5]



The strong root of your faith, spoken of in days long gone by, endureth even until now, and bringeth forth fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sins suffered even unto death [Chap. 1]

…[Be] not severe in judgment, as knowing that we are all under a debt of sin.  [Chap. 6]



But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal.     For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God?   O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

Comment: Here God took on Himself “the burden of our iniquities”, He “gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous”, etc.  This was a “sweet exchange”, by which “the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors.”   This was, among other things, a forensic, legal, judicial transaction. This can only be characterized as a penal substitutionary atonement: Jesus dying in our place, to take upon himself the decreed consequences (“punishment and death”) for our sins, such that his righteousness is imputed to us. This passage utterly demolishes the claims that the early church fathers did not think in terms of penal substitution. Jordan Cooper writes of this passage, “When one first reads this, he may think it came directly from the pen of Martin Luther or John Calvin. The imputational language in this epistle is obvious.”



For Isaiah did not send you to a bath, there to wash away murder and other sins, which not even all the water of the sea were sufficient to purge; but… by faith through the blood of Christ, and through His death, who died for this very reason, as Isaiah himself said, when he spake thus:.. He bears our sins, and is distressed for us; and we esteemed Him to be in toil and in affliction, and in evil treatment But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him. With His stripes we are healed. All we, like sheep, have gone astray. Every man has turned to his own way; and the Lord laid on Him our iniquities…. And He shall bear our sins; therefore He shall inherit many, and shall divide the spoil of the strong, because His soul was delivered to death; and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sins of many, and was delivered for their transgression….[Ch. 13]

The Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise Him up…His Father caused Him to suffer these things in behalf of the human family. [Ch. 95]

Comment: Justin’s discussions of the work of Christ are complex and sometimes inconsistent, so these passages do not necessarily represent the primary thrust of his writings. Nonetheless, what he describes here seems to be clearly penal and substitution: Jesus took on himself the curse that we merited due to our sins. The penalty decreed by God for our sin is death, and that is exactly what Jesus submitted to in the course of bearing our sins.


All of these passages, drawn from the earliest of the church fathers, speak of Jesus dying for our sins in a substitutionary way. The implication is that the primary result of this sacrifice is the remission of our sins before God. In several passages, the penal aspect (Christ taking upon himself the debt or consequences that we owed) is clearly stated. This is not the language of Christus Victor, in which Jesus moves through a range of human experiences in order to sanctify humanity and thereby win our deliverance from the power of sin and/or Satan. Rather, these passages display exactly the sort of “legal” or “satisfaction” mentality which Aulen claimed was absent in the early church.

How did Aulen deal with these early fathers? He just ignored them. It’s that simple. He skated right past these writers, and started his analysis with Irenaeus, who wrote c. 180 A.D. I leave it to the reader to judge the merit of Aulen’s approach here.  (Ignoring the earliest fathers is a common move among opponents of penal substitution. This censorship is justified by claiming that these writers did not present “fully developed” atonement theories. But they were saying something about the significance of the death of their Lord, and what they did say often depicted his death as taking the penalty for our sin, as our substitute. )



The main work we have from Irenaeus is Against Heresies (c. 180 A.D.). As noted above, Irenaeus developed a detailed scheme of how Jesus accomplishes human salvation. Adam was the prototypical man, and his Fall is what got the whole human race on a wrong path. Jesus, in all his earthly experiences (his birth, childhood, adulthood, death) recapitulated the life experiences of Adam, and hence, of all mankind.  “Recapitulation” might be thought of as “re-heading” of a new humanity. Jesus was a sort of second Adam, who made right choices at all the junctures where Adam made wrong choices.  Christians can now experience victory over the force of sin by participating in this life of the Christ who was victorious over sin.

However, in addition to this recapitulation theme, there is also clear discussion by Irenaeus regarding remission of the legal debt of sin via Christ’s atoning death:

Now this being is the Creator … by transgressing whose commandment we became His enemies. And therefore in the last times the Lord has restored us into friendship through His incarnation, having become “the Mediator between God and men”;  propitiating indeed for us the Father against whom we had sinned, and cancelling (consolatus) our disobedience by His own obedience; conferring also upon us the gift of communion with, and subjection to, our Maker. For this reason also He has taught us to say in prayer, “And forgive us our debts; ” since indeed He is our Father, whose debtors we were, having transgressed His commandments. …And in what way can sins be truly remitted, unless that He against whom we have sinned has Himself granted remission “through the bowels of mercy of our God,” in which “He has visited us” through His Son? [Against Heresies, 5. 17.1]

Clark comments on this passage, “Notice that, for Irenaeus, sin is defined as transgression of the law. The incarnation was to restore enemies to a state of friendship. How? By ‘propitiating’ the wrath of God. Is that not the heart of the penal-substitutionary doctrine of the atonement? Cancelling, propitiation, and obedience for disobedience each point to aspects of the legal basis for a restored friendship with God. For Irenaeus, our intimate relationship with God has a legal premise.”

…Therefore, by remitting sins, He did indeed heal man, while He also manifested Himself who He was. For if no one can forgive sins but God alone, while the Lord remitted them and healed men, it is plain that He was Himself the Word of God made the Son of man, receiving from the Father the power of remission of sins; since He was man, and since He was God, in order that since as man He suffered for us, so as God He might have compassion on us, and forgive us our debts, in which we were made debtors to God our Creator. And therefore David said beforehand, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord has not imputed sin; ” pointing out thus that remission of sins which follows upon His advent, by which “He has destroyed the handwriting” of our debt, and “fastened it to the cross; ” so that as by means of a tree we were made debtors to God, [so also] by means of a tree we may obtain the remission of our debt.  [Against Heresies, 5. 17.1]

James Bradley observes that, in addition to his recapitulation scheme of salvation, “Irenaeus, just as Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin in their turn, also articulated a thoroughgoing substitutionary view, and this is a fact that Aulen completely subordinates.   Irenaeus clearly and repeatedly argues for all the essential elements in what can only be called a penal, substitutionary view of Christ’s atoning work.”

Irenaeus states Jesus “suffered for us, so as God He might have compassion on us, and forgive us our debts”, and acknowledges a “debt” we owe God because of our sin, and also that Christ’s work on the cross gives us remission of that debt: “As by means of a tree [i.e. the tree in the Garden of Eden] we were made debtors to God, [so also] by means of a tree [the cross] we may obtain the remission of our debt.” Irenaeus elsewhere makes passing reference to Jesus “propitiating God” and suffering death to deliver man from condemnation:

He did not make void, but fulfilled the law, by performing the offices of the high priest, propitiating God for men, and cleansing the lepers, healing the sick, and Himself suffering death, that exiled man might go forth from condemnation, and might return without fear to his own inheritance. [Against Heresies, 4.8.2]

The language in these passages seems to comprehend Jesus paying the debt we owed by taking upon himself the legal penalty (death) for our sins, thereby propitiating God, as with sacrifices under the Old Testament law. These are the essential elements of penal substitutionary atonement, even though they are overshadowed by other themes in Irenaeus’ writings.

Again we ask, how did Aulen treat these passages in Irenaeus do not fit into his simple Christus Victor model? Again, he simply ignored them. He has a whole chapter on Irenaeus, but he only discusses the passages which fit into his model.

In my detailed article on the church fathers, I show that penal substitutionary atonement elements are also clearly present in the writings of later fathers such as Eusebius and Athanasius, although as with the earlier fathers their views of the atonement were not confined to just one “theory”.

I won’t cite all the back and forth argumentation here, but more recent partisans for and against penal substitution have (unlike Aulen) started to deal with some of these passages from the early fathers cited above. As with Aulen, the main rhetorical strategy of contemporary opponents of penal substitution is the false dichotomy: if a church father expounds on one aspect of the atonement, he cannot possibly be cognizant of some other aspect. Passages like those cited above which mention penal substitution are dismissed by its opponents as being mere proof-texts which have been ripped out of context and misunderstood.

But it makes no sense to assume that early Christian writers necessarily had such pinhole vision.  We need look no further than the letters of Paul to find multiple aspects of the work of Christ celebrated in a single passage by a single writer (e.g. Rom. 3:21-26, Col. 1:12-13, Titus 2:11-14). In my detailed article, I show that the penal substitution themes are truly present in the early church fathers, alongside other aspects of the atonement.

Some Personal Takeaways on the Atonement

I started off in this area mainly just curious, wanting to check my memory about what the early church fathers wrote about the atonement. I began writing this present article as a quick orientation to this doctrine and to summarize what I found in the Fathers, for readers who would not want to read my more detailed monograph on the subject. I found that the early Fathers did indeed write of the death of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sin, often with penal connotations. So the modern claims that penal substitution, or even “satisfaction”, were unheard of before the late Middle Ages are simply not true. That said, penal substitution was typically only a minor aspect of the early church’s understanding of the atonement.

In the course of that somewhat academic study of ancient writings, I ran across a number of topics regarding the atonement, particularly penal substitution, which I found personally challenging. In the course of trying to nail these issues down to my own satisfaction, this article has grown far longer than planned. In this concluding section are noted a few areas where I feel I have gleaned significant learnings.

(1) Stiff Challenges to Penal Substitutionary Atonement

In the course of my readings, I was exposed to surprisingly broad and vehement attacks on the historic Protestant doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).  That forced me to think through the scriptural and logical grounds for this teaching. I tried to give a fair hearing to both opponents and supporters, and also skimmed through the entire New Testament myself to note relevant passages.

This experience gave me better understanding for how odd and offensive this doctrine can be for folks today. I think that as late as 1900 or so, most people in North America, and many in Europe, still had at least a vague sense of the holiness of God and of being accountable to him. That worldview, which recognized a present alienation from God due to our neglect of him and his ways and also a future judgment by the just Definer of right and wrong, furnished a logical backdrop for PSA; that alienation was the problem for which PSA was the solution. With the crumbling of the old God-fearing consensus, a common response to the proclamation that “Jesus died so God can (consistent with his righteousness) overlook your sins” is, “What are you even talking about??”  The issue here is not a problem with PSA per se, but simple ignorance about divine holiness and judgment.

Even for those who retain something of traditional theism, reasonable questions arise, such as “Why can’t God just forgive sins without a sacrifice?”, and, “How could the death of an innocent man provide forgiveness for somebody else?” It was enlightening to acknowledge the weight of these problems, and to see if answers were available that went deeper than just quoting a few verses to shut down further discussion.  It turned out (per discussion above and below) there are such answers. Assessing these matters has drawn me into a deeper appreciation for the logic of PSA and for the involvement of the whole Trinity in the work of redemption, and specifically clarified that there is no basis for the common notion that the angry Father “poured out his wrath” on the hapless Son or abandoned him on the cross. As for the wilder accusations against PSA, they simply fall apart upon examination.

(2) The Centrality of the Second Coming

As recently as the 1980’s, preaching and teaching on the Second Coming of Christ was common in the more conservative wing of American evangelicalism. Believers overlooked what Jesus said about the timing of his return being unknown, and instead promoted various schemes involving a pan-European Antichrist, a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, and a Russian invasion of the Holy Land.  Nowadays, I hardly hear a peep from the pulpit about the Second Coming, except perhaps a vague nod to its eventuality. Maybe the Baby Boomers who lived through the earlier eschatological fervor are embarrassed over all the failed speculation of their youth and want to move on. Also, given the passionate opinions folks have on the subject, pastors may see it as too divisive to touch.

I won’t unpack this here, but in my read-though of the New Testament I was struck by how much stress is there, especially in the words of Jesus himself, on his second coming. He urged his hearers to order their entire lives in readiness for this event, to live as though the final judgment might occur at any moment. His apostles continued to sound that message. This was the “blessed hope” of the early believers. This forceful event is depicted as having a very different character than Jesus’ first appearance.    All the injustices of this life will be overturned, as every thought and act is fully exposed and justly rewarded; every good deed will be celebrated forever and those who love their Lord will finally see him face to face. This will resolve all the questions about the justice of God which trouble thoughtful people in this life. The inevitability and severity of this event provides motivation for contemplating the atonement, as discussed in Appendix A (“The Final Judgment”) [14].

(3) The Wisdom of the East:  Healing of the Whole Person

Humanity is both sick and guilty, and thus is in need of healing as well as forgiveness. The New Testament writers, who were nearly all Jews, devoted much attention to the issue of justification before a holy God. The Greek Fathers gave relatively less attention to the need for forgiveness as such, and focused more on the need for the healing of the whole man.

Modern opponents of penal substitution often try to set these two aspects of the work of God in Christ into opposition, but they cannot be pried apart. A thoroughgoing ontological substitution, where Jesus lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died, actually entails penal substitution: being reconciled by Christ’s death and being saved by his life (Rom. 5:10) are all part of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

In Western Europe, in both Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions, there has long been an emphasis on the humanity of Jesus and on his crucifixion. Thus, crucifixes (pictures or three-dimensional representations of Jesus on the cross) are common in churches and in peoples’ homes. Jesus’ body is often shown fairly realistically: gaunt, dripping with blood, and sagging from the nails in his hands, as in the painting below.

“The Crucifixion”, by Matthias Grunewald, c. 1515

Depictions of the Resurrection in western churches are fewer, and paintings of this event often show something like what a human observer might have seen: perhaps a tomb with a stone cover removed, and perhaps the risen Jesus standing nearby, talking with Mary Magdalene.

In the Eastern Orthodox churches, there is a more balanced emphasis on the Resurrection along with the Crucifixion. Also, there is more focus on the spiritual significance of these events than on physical realism. For instance, this painting of the Resurrection shows Jesus, having busted down the doors of Hades, pulling Adam and Eve (representing fallen humanity) out of their graves, up with him in his conquest of death [15]:

Icon of the Resurrection

This iconography illustrates some fundamental differences in Eastern and Western approaches to the Christian faith. Both traditions can end up affirming a similar set of effects of Christ’s work (forgiveness, sanctification, eternal life, etc.) but the way these aspects are packaged and the way they relate to one another differs.

In evangelicalism, in practice if not in theory, these aspects can be presented in a somewhat disjointed, sequential fashion. Christ’s penal substitution to cover our sins is the typical entry point, and then the other benefits of his work such as empowerment for righteous living and life after physical death are introduced. A common problem with this approach is it can produce believers who endorse Jesus as their Savior (thanks to penal substitution) but not as the functional Lord in their daily lives; they are fans of Jesus, not actual disciples.

Orthodox theologians tend to stress how Christ’s work in overcoming sin and death is one big package that we can participate in. There is often some recognition that Jesus paid the “legal” penalty of death for our sin, but this is not the “burning center” of their thinking, like it is for the Southern Baptists. The main emphasis is on how the entrance of God the Son into the entire human experience brought healing to the entire person, i.e. the restoration of the image of God in us, so we can share in his divine life. The Incarnation, where God united his divine nature with our flesh and bones nature, and then lived out a righteous human life, is central to the salvation of humanity.  The Crucifixion and Resurrection are seen as the completion of the overall incarnational operation. The Orthodox approach is positive and forward-looking, rather than simply doing damage-control from sin. There is more talk of what we are being saved to, and less of what we are being saved from. [16]

It seems to me that the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement can be successfully defended against the various logical challenges thrown against its legitimacy. However, in view of how difficult it may be to educate twenty-first century people on their need for divine forgiveness, I wonder whether something like the Eastern Orthodox framework might be a more appropriate way to introduce people to Christianity today. Presumably as folks learned more about the radical goodness of God on other fronts, they could later come to appreciate the measure of God’s grace displayed in the Son dying for their sins.

But actually we don’t have to go as far back as the early church fathers to recover a more holistic view of the work of Christ.  The disjointed approach sometimes found in evangelicalism is simply poorly thought out theology by today’s preachers. It is not intrinsic to Protestantism or to penal substitutionary atonement. The reformer Martin Luther in the 1500’s had a rich view of what Christ accomplished through his life-giving replacement: “[T]hat the curse, sin, and death were to be destroyed, and that the blessing, righteousness, and life were to replace them – and that through Him the whole creation was to be renewed” [17].  This is the language of “Christus Victor” and of healing the whole cosmos, but coming from the man who is largely responsible for bringing to light in modern times the teaching that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, by dying in our place.


[1] C. S. Lewis used a Ransom Theory approach to represent the atonement in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

[2] The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on the atonement have developed over time, as its doctors have continued to contemplate this mystery.  A survey of the history of this development is given in the Catholic Encyclopedia. As for the satisfaction-of-honor aspect, Catholic author Thomas Crean provides a contemporary presentation:

“The Catholic doctrine of atonement depends not on the notion of punishment but on that of satisfaction. Sin shatters the relation between the creature and the Creator. Of course it cannot harm God in Himself, since He is immutable. But it violates His eternal right, as the supreme good, to be loved above all things. It thereby ‘robs’ God of the honor that is His due. To satisfy for sins is to restore the balance that should exist between creature and Creator, by taking something from oneself and offering it to Him, out of love for His supreme goodness…Jesus Christ made a perfect satisfaction for sins by the offering of His life. He was not ‘punished’ by God, since He was without sin. He offered his life to God, and this gift, being the life of a divine person and therefore of infinite value, glorified God more than all human sins had insulted him.“   [from God Is No Delusion, Ignatius Press/Family Publications, 2007, pp. 145-146].

Paul Thigpen (2004) provided a Catholic understanding of why Christ suffered for us. Among other things, Christ’s Passion moves us to trust that God loves us, and moves us to gratefully love him in return. It also provides an example of how we should live, in sacrificial love of others.

[3] Contemporary evangelical theologian Greg Boyd is a notable exception here, holding that the primary work of Christ was indeed to defeat Satan:

“The main thing Jesus came to do was destroy the devil and liberate humans from his oppression… the incarnation of the Son of God was first and foremost a military maneuver. Jesus came to bring an end to Satan’s regime and reclaim the earth, humans and the entire creation as the domain in which God is King. He came to establish the Kingdom of God by vanquishing the kingdom of darkness.”

[4] For the record, John Calvin also taught God’s prior, initiating love:

However much we have brought death upon ourselves, yet he [God] has created us unto life. Thus he is moved by pure and freely given love of us to receive us into grace. Since there is a perpetual and irreconcilable disagreement between righteousness and unrighteousness, so long as we remain sinners he cannot receive us completely.

Therefore, to take away all cause for enmity and to reconcile us utterly to himself, he wipes out all evil in us by the expiation set forth in the death of Christ; that we, who were previously unclean and impure, may show ourselves righteous and holy in his sight. Therefore, by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ. Indeed, ‘because he first loved us’ [1 John 4:19], he afterward reconciles us to himself.          – Institutes 2.16.3

[5] Adam Johnson, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, Bloomsbury T&T Clark (2015), p. 112.

[6] Opponents of PSA sometimes claim that Luther, and even Calvin, did not actually hold to penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). However, these claims are usually based on an overly narrow definition of PSA, a definition which focusses primarily on the wrath of God being poured out on Jesus. But as noted below, the notion of the Father being angry at the Son is not intrinsic to PSA; that is an embellishment by post-Reformation preachers, and was explicitly denied by Calvin. The following quotes from Luther, for instance, show he clearly held to PSA as defined above by Packer:     “Christ was delivered for my sins, and was made accursed for me, that I might be delivered from everlasting death…..We are sinners and thieves, and therefore guilty of death and everlasting damnation. But Christ took all our sins upon him, and for them died upon the cross: therefore it behoved that he should become a transgressor, and (as Isaiah saith, chap. 53) ‘to be reckoned among transgressors’ ”… “For God hath laid our sins, not upon us, but upon his Son, Christ, that he bearing the punishment thereof might be our peace, and that by his stripes we might be healed”.

[7] Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), p.97. In this passage, Lovelace continues, “The earlier this answer is spelled out in the process of evangelism and nurture, the better. Persons come to Christ initially for a variety of reasons, some of which are eccentric to their principal need for redemption: loneliness, a sense of meaninglessness in the godless life, suffering, fear and so on. Only those are lastingly converted, however, whose eventual motivation is to turn from their sin to God and receive the answer to sin in the work of Jesus Christ” (pp. 97-98).

[8] Unsurprisingly, the interpretations of all these passages are disputed.  Ben Witherington, III, provides accessible exegesis of key passages from the Gospels, Romans 3, Hebrews, I John, and I Peter regarding the atonement. For instance, a key term in Romans 3:25 is the Greek word “hilasterion”, which is rendered “propitiation” in the King James and New American Standard versions. Since this term connotes turning aside wrath (of God), opponents of PSA try hard to strip this meaning away from this word in this verse, and soften it to something like “expiation”. But Witherington points out that propitiation of wrath is the normal meaning of this term and its cognates in Greek literature, and it is surely how a largely Gentile audience would have heard the term”.

For further discussion of these New Testament passages, see  Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. The Google Books version is here, where you can thumb through long sections of this book, including discussions of key Old Testament subjects such as the Passover lamb and the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement. This book notes that the Israelites as well as the Egyptians were subject to the judgment of God, and the blood of the Passover lamb protected the Israelites from the destruction (penalty) which would otherwise have been their due. The firstborn son of any Israelite family who had not killed a lamb and put its blood on the doorway would have died on that night, so the lamb died instead of the son. Thus, the sacrifice of the Passover lamb had penal and substitutionary aspects.  Also, sending out the scapegoat was not merely “cleansing” sin away from the camp. A typical penalty for sin for an Israelite was to be “cut off” and sent away from the people of God. This was something of a death sentence back then. When the sins of the people were placed on the goat and the goat was sent out of the camp to a “place of cutting off”, this was a penal substitutionary atonement: the goat, as a substitute, took the penalty (“cutting off” from the camp) that would otherwise have fallen on each Israelite for their sins. Depending on how mature the goat was, sending it out to fend for itself among the desert jackals may have been a death sentence as well.

[9] Johnson, p. 5

[9B] Gary Gilley, in his article Atonement Wars, Part 1, has surveyed the various atonement theories and likewise concludes that a variety of these “theories” all have some Scriptural support and that they are complementary, not contradictory. He cites John Stott:

In fact all three of the major explanations of the death of Christ contain biblical truth and can to some extent be harmonized, especially if we observe that the chief difference between them is that in each God’s work in Christ is directed toward a different person. In the “objective” [penal substitution or satisfaction] view God satisfies himself, in the “subjective” [moral example] he inspires us, and in the “classic” [Christos Victor] he overcomes the devil. Thus Jesus Christ is successively the Savior, the Teacher and the Victor, because we ourselves are guilty, apathetic and in bondage.

[10] Some of these misrepresentations of PSA may be driven in part by various horrifyingly inapt analogies or illustrations of PSA that have been presented in sermons or talks at youth groups, such as the story of the drawbridge operator whose young son falls into the mechanism of the bridge just as a train comes along, such that the father makes the agonizing decision to crush his son in the machinery as he closes the bridge to save hundreds of passengers in the train from plunging to their death. That story presents the son as a hapless victim, whereas the Bible shows Jesus Christ to be an empowered agent who, “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2) proactively decided to save mankind: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). Moreover, in that drawbridge story, the son is dead and gone for good, whereas in the biblical narrative, after his suffering Christ reappears in power and glory.

[11] The notion that the Father poured his anger on the Son or otherwise rejected or abandoned him at the crucifixion seems to have come about by a misunderstanding of Jesus’ cry as he was dying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mat. 27:26, Mark 15:34 ).  This cry should not be taken as the sum total of the end of Jesus’ life. He also said things like “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46) and “It is finished” (John 19:30), which indicate that Jesus was by no means succumbing to despair.

Jesus may well have felt a sense of abandonment, but that does not mean the Father did actually reject him. The fact that this cry is actually the opening line of Psalm 22 should give us pause. This “Messianic” Psalm describes the experience of a man who was despised by people and seemed to have been rejected by God: “All who see me mock me, they hurl insults, shaking their heads, [saying] ‘He trusts in the Lord, let the Lord rescue him’ “ (Ps. 22:7-8.) . Furthermore, “They have pierced my hands and my feet…They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing” (vv.16, 18). That sounds very much like what Jesus was subjected to on the cross. But the Psalm does not end there. It goes on to declare that God in fact “has not despised or disdained the suffering of his afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (v. 24). The result will be that “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you” (v. 22), and “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord” (v.27).  Thus, far from being a cry of defeat, Jesus with this one line turns the tables on his mockers: he self-identifies with the Psalmist, and therefore declares that God will fully and publically vindicate him, no matter how bad it looks at the moment.

[12]  B. B. Warfield, “Modern Theories of the Atonement,” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield vol. IX Studies in Theology, pp. 283, 297. Cited in “The Revolt Against Penal Substitution” (2008).

[13] Large swathes of Christus Victor, including much of the chapter on Irenaeus, may be read in the Google Books “Preview” .

[14]  C. S. Lewis wrote his thoughts on the final judgment in his essay “The World’s Last Night”, which I have summarized here:   “The World’s Last Night”: C. S. Lewis on the Second Coming

[15] Here is an Eastern Orthodox explanation of this type of icon of the Resurrection, which conveys how the Orthodox view things:

Christ is standing on two doors, which are the brass gates of Hades, now broken down because of the Resurrection. They are in the shape of a cross. Scattered near the gates are the locks and keys that bound humanity to Hades….Adam and Eve are now given a new chance and a restored image. For Christ, who in many places is called “the Second Adam,” has come to earth and done what the first Adam could not. He showed that it is possible to live a life in unity with God, demonstrating faith and love, and avoiding temptation. The reward for this life is eternal life, Resurrection from the dead.

…Christ is shown grabbing the wrists of Adam and Eve. This is an important part of the icon. When people great one another and shake hands, this denotes a position of equality, you might even say that symbolically it means meeting one another half-way. The depiction of Christ grabbing the wrist of Adam tells us that we are not equal with God. We cannot even meet God half-way. But if we reach out to God, He is ready to grasp us by the wrist to take us with Him to Paradise. This is the most hopeful part of the icon. It reminds us that we have to reach out to God in faith, and let Him take care of the rest.

…Jesus did not “cheat” death—He destroyed the power of death. We will not cheat death either. Each of us will eventually die an earthly death. But because the Resurrection destroyed the power of death over us, when we die on this earth, we will be resurrected with Christ, the power “death” has over us will indeed be destroyed.

[16] For more on the teachings of the Greek Fathers, see the Conclusions section of my more detailed article on church fathers and atonement. A particularly insightful and edifying evangelical perspective on Eastern Orthodox views of the atonement is Donald Fairbairn’s essay Patristic Soteriology: Three Trajectories . Whole books have been written helping to bring Orthodox insights to evangelicals, such as Fairbairn’s Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes, and Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition by James R. Payton, Jr.

[17] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works 26, 282. Cited in Adam Johnson, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 41.


Appendix A. The Final Judgment

Behind the notion of penal substitutionary atonement lies the notion that God will judge, and appropriately reward or punish, each individual after death: “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:29).  This concept has been widely accepted by Christians of all stripes over the ages. However, in the past fifty years preaching on the final judgment has largely faded away except in the most fundamentalist congregations, so it may be unfamiliar to many current self-identified Christians. Thus, given its importance for understanding the atonement, it seems worth reviewing the biblical basis for this doctrine. Theologians argue that a God who did not call evil what it is, and did not treat it as it deserves, would not be good.  I will not attempt to justify God’s justice to the satisfaction of skeptics, but in the interest of time will just survey some of the relevant New Testament passages.

In the physical creation, things operate with consistent cause and effect, which is why we can do science. In biblical thought, there is also a divinely ordained cause and effect in the moral realm:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.  Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (Gal. 6:7-8)

To some extent, this reaping of what you sow occurs in the natural course of events.  What goes around comes around: people will tend to treat you the way you treat them, and your own emotional state is uplifted or degraded by your attitudes and actions towards others.  However, there is another dimension, a deliberate judging and rewarding by God. It seems to be part of his innate nature to do so:

He is a rewarder of those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6b, NASB)

Paul writes, “This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” (Rom. 2:16).  This judgment is not presented in Scripture as a bad thing. Things will not go well for the ungodly, of course, but believers who have been patiently keeping the faith in the face of personal disappointments and scorn from skeptics will be vindicated. They will receive their hearts’ desire, which is unhindered and unlimited communion with their master and friend and lover. They will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Mat. 25:21). Paul reminds believers that their ultimate citizenship is “in heaven”, and so “we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:20-21). The degree of our longing for this event may serve as a gauge of how Christ-centered versus world-centered our lives are.

This divine recompense is set in the future, at what is called the Second Coming of Christ. At present, however, divine justice is typically not apparent in our experience (cf. 1 Timothy 5:24). The jaded philosopher of Ecclesiastes observed, “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve” (Eccles. 8:14).

Jesus confronted this subject in the case of a man who had been blind since birth. His disciples assumed this dreadful condition must be payback for some major past sin. They were not sure, however, of exactly whose sin was involved. Thus their question to Jesus was, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus cut through their payback assumptions with his reply: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”

Jesus dealt further with the issue of justice in this life, in his commentary on a local massacre and the collapse of a building where eighteen people were killed (Luke 13:1-5). He made it clear that the victims in these tragedies were not worse sinners than anyone else in the city. Thus, Jesus made it plain that in this life the same tragedies befall all types of people, young and old, nice and nasty; and also that all people face judgment in the next life.

While all humans experience pain and loss, they also experience various gifts and pleasures in this life, again typically without regard to their moral merit.  Jesus observed that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mat. 5:44), and also that the beauties of nature like the “lilies of the field” are accessible to all.   We can choose to focus just on the negatives (and blame God for making such a horrible world) or just on the positives (and perhaps be insensitive to others’ suffering), or (preferably) try to take a balanced and realistic view of life. (See Jesus on Seeing God in Nature: No Signs, No Justice, No Fear  for more on this subject.)

All the injustice we observe in this world raises questions in our minds as to whether God is truly all-good and all-powerful. There will come a time of reckoning, however, when justice is finally served. God’s judgments are characterized as “true and just” (Rev. 19:2). This judgment is not upon communal “structures of evil”, but upon persons, upon morally accountable individuals.  (When Matthew 25:31 ff. states “all the nations will be gathered before him” for judgment, comparison with the teachings of the rest of the New Testament shows that this means that “people from all nations” will be gathered for judgment, not that everyone from Nation A will be saved and everyone from Nation B will not, in some sort of corporate assessment. Rev. 7:9 explicitly states that in heaven there will be a great multitude saved “from every nation, tribe, people and language”. )

In the New Testament alone, a search on “judge” and “judgment” finds these terms employed dozens of times to describe a momentous evaluation and recompense for each man and woman:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:31 )

Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?     But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.  But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.  (Rom. 2:4-8)

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God… It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 9:27-28, 31)

A major theme in II Peter is that believers should patiently live their lives in light of the judgment to occur at Christ’s second coming. Since this judgment is not visible in the current natural order, “scoffers” mock the very idea of a final judgment, saying, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (II Pet. 3:4). We are told that the judgment is being delayed because the Lord “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (3:9), but that day will eventually come. The heavens and earth “are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (II Pet. 3:7).

What sort of judgment? If God “condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly, and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man who was distressed by the filthy lives of ungodly men…then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment” (II Pet. 2:6-9). Those who love and follow the Lord, however, can look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (II Pet. 3:14).

See also John 5:24-30,  Acts 10:42, Romans 14:10 , 1 Corinthians 4:5 , 1 Peter 1:17 , 1 Peter 2:23 , 1 Peter 4:5 , Acts 3:21-23; Eph. 5:5-6, 6:8 ; Col. 3:5-6; I Thes. 1:10; II Thes, 1:6-10; I Tim. 5:24; I Pet. 3:5, Rev. 20:12-15, etc. When the apostle Paul talked with the local governor Felix about “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come”, this seasoned Roman official became so alarmed he broke off the conversation (Acts 24:25). So this is a serious matter.

Jesus on the Final Judgment

Lest we think that a cataclysmal final judgement is something devised by Paul and other epistle writers, we should note that Jesus also endorsed it, often describing it in vivid terms. Jesus was a complex character. He called attention to the Father’s gracious response to those who seek him (cf. Luke 11:10), and to his generous gifts of rain and sun to all mankind (Matt. 5:45). Jesus himself was a witty, compassionate, basically happy man, with a reputation as a party animal, a champion of women and the oppressed, and a guy that people liked to hang out with.

These winsome qualities make it easy to miss the fact that he was also a forceful preacher of God’s apocalyptic judgment. This judgment will suddenly fall upon the entire world at any moment, and so Jesus urged his hearers to live each day with their eternal reward in mind. He told his followers that they should be more afraid of God throwing them into hell than of the hostile men who could (and later actually would) murder them:

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.  But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. (Luke 12:4-5)

Opponents of penal substitution tend to stress some parables of Jesus (e.g. the Prodigal Son), while ignoring others, such as the parable of the vineyard (Luke 20:9-16), where the owner of the vineyard comes and kills (!!!) the wicked tenants. One parable portrays the graciousness and mercy of God, the other reveals his justice and coming judgment. It is admittedly a real stretch to ponder how these two seemingly disparate images cohere, but that is how we grow in our knowledge of the actual revealed God, rather than by suppressing or watering down the parts that make us uncomfortable.

Jesus told a parable (Matt. 13:24-29) about a man sowing good seed in his field, and an enemy sneaking in and sowing bad (weed) seeds, such that weeds grew up among the wheat. The master told his servants not to try to pull out the weeds, lest the growing wheat be uprooted. Rather, “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”

This parable hints at a reason why divine judgment is delayed. Here Jesus pictures the present age as a time when both godly and ungodly people are present and when good and evil can be difficult to cleanly separate; a premature attempt to stamp out evil would thwart the production of the full complement of good.

Unlike the Prodigal Son story, Jesus actually provides the interpretation of this parable. When his disciples wanted to know its meaning, Jesus told them that at the end of the age he himself (the Son of Man) would send his angels to remove evildoers and throw them into a fiery furnace, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” :

The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matt. 13: 37-43)

Thus, in response to Pastor Chuck Queen’s scornful comment cited above, Jesus does indeed teach the need for God to “save us from God’s self”. We find many words of Jesus relating to this sort of final and severe divine judgment. For instance, in the gospel of Matthew alone: 5:29-30; 7:23; 8:42; 10:15, 32-33; 11:22-24; 12:36;  13:37-43,49-50; 16:24-27; 18:6-9, 34-35;  19:28-30; 23:33; 24:45-51; 25:14-30, 31-46. And in the Gospel of John (5:28-29) we read these words of Jesus: “A time is coming when all who are in their graves will come out – those who have done good will rise to life, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” These passages do not portray judgment as merely the natural consequences of our mistakes catching up to us, but as the deliberate retributive actions of both the Father and the Son.  It seems unlikely that all of these depictions can be dismissed as mere metaphor.

Human Responses to the Final Judgment

The final judgment is, of course, summarily dismissed by unbelievers. Christians of the more progressive school are appalled by these seemingly crude, even violent portrayals of divine judgment, and seek to reimagine a more politically correct God than the one that is so clearly described in the New Testament. Fundamentalists embrace the notion of judgment, but may presume on “cheap grace” instead of soberly ensuring that their “works” (particularly in charity toward the poor and distressed) truly demonstrate that their faith is not “dead” (cf. James 2:17).  We may infer from the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) that the most appropriate response to the prospect of the final judgment is to renounce all self-righteousness, press into God’s presence the best way you know how, and cry out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”.

But this is not the universal response. In the course of laying out the gravity of the human predicament in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul offers some observations on how we often psychologically deal with the prospect of judgment by a holy God. Although at some level people all know that they are subject to a holy Creator, in practice they wickedly “suppress the truth” (v.18):

Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools…They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.  (vv. 21-22, 25).

Just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done… Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (vv. 28, 32)

According to Paul, people actually do succeed in suppressing the truth about the final judgment. This allows them to basically do what they want to do without worrying about eternal consequences (cf. Eph 4:17-19). This might be termed the Alfred E. Neuman approach to the final reckoning:

What Me Worry

From a human perspective, this can seem liberating. On the other hand, the absence of eternal consequences necessarily entails the ultimate pointlessness of every human decision and action, since in the natural course of things every memory of human endeavor will vanish in the eventual entropic freeze of the universe (and will likely be burned up long before that, as the sun expands to become a red giant, cooking Earth and Mars).

The Binary Outcome in Judgment

I find it somewhat surprising how “binary” the final judgment is. I mean, if it were up to me, I suppose I would judge people’s lives on some sort of a sliding scale, with a bell-shaped distribution. Guys like Hitler over on one end, kindly grandmas on the other end, with most folks muddling through somewhere in the middle, and with rewards proportional to one’s percentile rank. Or something like that.  However, God’s ways are not man’s ways. Although middle-of-the-road muddling through may seem acceptable to us, a lukewarm approach toward the one who sustains us in being does not go down so well with him (Rev. 3:16). Jesus expected his followers to put him completely above their personal goals, their financial security, their family members, even their lives; otherwise, he said, you are “not worthy of me” (Mat. 10:37-38). On his team, you are either all in, or you are not in at all.  (Although Jesus set an uncompromisingly high standard for his followers in his teachings, in practice he showed great grace for their failings along the way, as long as they were still trying).

And so it happens that the judgment described in the New Testament is mainly a 0 or a 1 rather than an analog continuum. There are some gradations of rewards for the righteous (cf. I Cor. 3:10-15) and punishment for the unrighteous (Luke 12:47-48), but fundamentally you are either in, sharing your master’s happiness, or you are out, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mat. 25:30).

The criteria used in this judgment involve one’s overall orientation for or against the triune God and his ways, where one’s actions towards other humans are indicative of this orientation. Some passages highlight the importance of faith in Jesus Christ and relying on the efficacy of his perfect sacrifice. Others stress the need for righteous living. Taking any such passages in isolation can lead to misunderstanding. Our good works are never sufficient to justify us before God, but a life of consistent sensuality or selfishness would demonstrate that whatever faith we claim is shallow and ineffective (Luke 6:46; I Cor. 6:9; James 2:14-26). It is possible to live a generally righteous and pious life (e.g. Acts 10:2; Phil. 3:6), yet even law-keeping Jews and the conscientious Gentiles fall short of God’s holiness and thus need a Savior (Acts 11:14; Phil. 3:9; Rom. 3:19-28).

Delving into the how, when, and where of this judgment would require a whole book. Theologians continue to debate many of these details.  My point in bringing it up here is simply to note the magnitude of the problem of human rebellion against a holy God, in order to appreciate the magnitude of the solution to this problem which is freely provided by God’s gracious initiative in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In addition to being just, God is loving beyond description. He is for us, not against us. Whether or not they are conscious of it, it is humans who are enemies toward God (cf. Romans 5:10, Colossians 1:21, James 4:4), not the other way around.

The Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) acts out of radical love towards an often ungrateful world:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep….No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. (John 10:11, 18)

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

God our Savior…wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (I Timothy 2:3-4)

The ultimate reward is simply being in God’s presence for eternity. Some folks long for that privilege, others don’t. From his end, God has done all that is needed. God, in Christ, was and is “reconciling the world to himself” (II Cor 5:19) – – however, he allows us the choice of accepting or rejecting him and his ways. If you don’t want him, you don’t have to have him:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”  – C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

God’s Wrath

God’s “wrath” (Greek orgē) is mentioned in connection with his judgement. It is takes some care to understand the meaning of this term; any attempt to describe God’s “feelings” is bound to err in some measure.  In humans, wrath or anger is often a sudden, uncontrolled flare-up of emotion in response to a threat or insult. God’s orgē is quite different. It is a settled disposition of opposition to the humans who are opposing him. One word study summarizes it: “ Orgḗ (“settled anger”) proceeds from an internal disposition which steadfastly opposes someone or something based on extended personal exposure, i.e. solidifying what the beholder considers wrong (unjust, evil)…Orgē comes from the verb oragō meaning, ‘to teem, to swell‘; and thus implies that it is not a sudden outburst, but rather (referring to God’s) fixed, controlled, passionate feeling against sin . . . a settled indignation.”

In Tony Lane’s examination of God’s wrath in relation to love, his definition is: “It is God’s personal, vigorous opposition both to evil and to evil people. This is a steady, unrelenting antagonism that arises from God’s very nature, his holiness. It is God’s revulsion to evil and all that opposes him, his displeasure at it and the venting of that displeasure. It is his passionate resistance to every will that is set against him.”  Furthermore, “God’s wrath is directed primarily against evildoers because of the evil that they do… My sin is the wrong direction of my will; and my will is just myself as far as I am active.”

While man’s anger is typically unrighteous (James 1:20), God’s wrath against evil is just. However, God doesn’t just leave it at that, but with lavish love he takes initiative to overcome evil and its relational consequences. Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.  All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.  But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:1-7)

To those who do not sense the weight of their own faithlessness and ingratitude towards God, his “settled disposition of opposition to sin” may seem petty and unfair. As usual, we can either assume the role of cosmic judge (and demand that God justify his actions to our satisfaction), or we can with gratitude receive the “incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus”.

A result of Christ’s atoning death is that those who receive its benefits are “saved from God’s wrath though him” (Rom. 5:9). Some preachers assert that on the cross God “poured out his wrath on Jesus”, but that is mere speculation, and is not an essential element of penal substitutionary atonement. John Calvin argued forcefully that the Father was in fact not angry at, or hostile to, the Son at the crucifixion, even if in the midst of his suffering it may have felt that way to Jesus. (Institutes 2.16.11).

Divine Retribution

“Retributive justice” is something of a red flag for progressive Christians. Enlightened human jurisdictions, we are told, practice restorative justice, rather than retribution. Also, Jesus didn’t retaliate against the evil men who beat him and killed him, and he told his followers to not take revenge against those who harm them. Wouldn’t it be hypocritical of God to then do what he told us not to?

Like so many other objections in this area, this fails to account for the qualitative difference between God and humans. His role as the ultimate definer and enforcer of justice in the universe is much different than ours. We don’t get to hold him accountable for his actions, however much human pride hates to hear that. This takes us back to the primal dispute between God and man: who gets to define right and wrong?

The nominally “retributive” justice of penal substitution turns out to be radically restorative for those who receive it. Jesus, who actually took the hit, was well satisfied with the transaction (cf. Heb. 12:2). Rishmawy notes that retribution is an essential part of attribution:

Retribution, as I’ve been saying, is not about vindictiveness, or pettiness, but rather is about notions of desert and truth. Purged of sin [i.e. done properly] it is a matter of reckoning—of naming sin as what it is and treating it as it deserves. When Peter says we call “Father” the One “who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds” (1 Pet. 1:17), retribution is that impartial judgment applied to wicked deeds. As an aspect of distributive justice, it is God paying out what is due.

Looked at from another angle, Oliver O’Donovan has suggested we think of retributive punishment as an aspect of “attributive” justice—as a matter of truth-telling about persons, about acts, about offenses.

Also note that affirming God deals in retributive justice does not rule out God’s restorative justice. Even in punishment intended to reform a prisoner (or even a child), there is an element of retribution—it’s only right to do so if the person actually deserves it. There’s no call to subject them to any treatment against their will if it were not in some way merited.

When it comes to the atonement, satisfaction theories or penal substitution are making precisely the claim that God miraculously accomplishes his restorative justice precisely by way of his retributive justice enacted in the cross. God doesn’t have to put aside his law to save law- breakers. He can be just and the justifier of the ungodly (Rom. 3:26) who punishes sin while reconciling sinners to himself.

And let’s just add that admitting a retributive moment in the cross does not for a minute mean you must ignore the restorative value of his saving life, his resurrection, or ascension into the heaven.

Moreover, this objection against God’s retribution completely misunderstands the basis of God’s command that we humans should not retaliate. The reason we don’t retaliate is not because God does not retaliate, but because he does retaliate, though in his time and as he sees fit. The difference is that God is capable of judging justly, while we are not. Romans 12:19 puts it clearly: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” In earlier times, the first part of this verse (“do not take revenge”) challenged cultural norms; now it is the second half (“It is mine to avenge; I will repay“) that offends us.

During his first coming, Jesus did not retaliate, not because retaliation is wrong, but because he trusted that God would execute judgment in due time: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”  (I Peter 1:23). At his second coming, this very same Jesus will “send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mat 13:41-42). This is not very “tolerant” behavior.

Paul told the believers in Thessalonica, who were being viciously persecuted by people who rejected the claims of Jesus:   “It is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”   (II Thes. 1:6-9 NASB, italics added).      At his second coming, Jesus comes in power instead of in weakness, and will “deal out retribution” of “everlasting destruction”. God is just to visit retribution on the persecutors. It is implied that he would be unjust if he did not punish them.   (I realize this grates terribly on our modern sensibilities; I am simply reporting what Jesus and his apostles said on the subject). Anyway, it seems to me that those who wish to construct a theology of Christian pacifism might do better to work with, rather than against, what the Bible says about God’s eventual judgments.

All the same, something in us longs for some sort of ultimate restoration for everyone. While there are many verses which portray final, irrevocable, destructive judgment upon those who reject God, there are a few passages (e.g. Colossians 1:19-20, I Corinthians 15:22-28, Rom. 5:18) which speak of seemingly cosmic reconciliation for “all”. These verses fuel ongoing debates over universalism in salvation. Unfortunately for the universalist interpretation, the contexts of these passages indicate that “all” does not means “every sentient being, regardless of their response to God”, but rather all those who “continue in [their] faith” (Col 1:23) and who “receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness” (Rom. 5:17).

A final comment: besides the effect of the final judgment on individuals (which has been the focus here) there are indications that the whole physical creation will be renewed. The end game may well be living in resurrected, “incorruptible” (I Cor. 15:42-54) bodies on a rebooted earth rather than in an ethereal heaven. Paul writes that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:21). The book of Revelation (21:3-4) describes the new creation in these terms:

Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.    

Appendix B. Why Can’t God Just Forgive Us? Can Guilt Be Transferred to an Innocent Party?

Excerpts from:  Answering 4 Common Objections to Penal Substitutionary Atonement, By Stephen Wellum

…In his classic book, The Cross of Christ (IVP, 2006), John Stott famously wrote: “At the root of every caricature of the cross there lies a distorted Christology” (159). I couldn’t agree more, yet it’s crucial to remember that a true Christology is also dependent on a correct theology proper. Thus, it’s more precise to say: “At the root of every caricature of the cross is a distorted doctrine of God.” If we get God wrong, we will never grasp the problem of sin, and its glorious solution in Christ and his cross. In fact, all common objections to penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) are ultimately rooted in sub-biblical ideas regarding the triune God of Scripture.


In brief, the God of the Bible is the triune Creator-covenant Lord. As triune, the Father, Son, and Spirit have eternally shared fully and equally the one, identical divine nature in perfect love and communication (John 1:1; 17:5). Also, in every divine action such as creation, revelation, and redemption, the divine persons act inseparably according to their eternal person-relations. There is never a divine action that is not triune, including our redemption in Christ and his cross. Furthermore, as the triune Creator, God is independent and self-sufficient, not merely in his existence and knowledge, but also as the moral standard of the universe. Unlike creatures, God’s moral character and justice is grounded in himself.

In Scripture, God’s independence or aseity is closely associated with his holiness (Exo. 3:6–6; 19:23–25; Lev. 11:44; 19:1; Isa. 6:1-5; 57:15; Heb. 12:28; 1 John 1:5). God in his self-sufficiency and moral perfection is the ultimate criterion of rightness and justice which entails that the triune God of holy love is the law, and as such, he always acts consistently with himself.

For this reason, sin before this God is serious. God in his holiness is “too pure to behold evil” and unable to tolerate wrong (Hab. 1:12-13; cf. Isa 1:4–20; 35:8; 59:1–2). This is why, given who God is, he cannot tolerate sin; he must act in holy justice. God remains true to himself, and as such, our sin separates us from him (Isa 59:1–2). As the righteous God, he upholds his own holiness and acts against every violation of it, which also results in divine wrath, i.e., his holy reaction to evil (Rom 1:18–32; 2:8–16). God’s wrath, unlike his holiness, is not an internal perfection; rather it is a function of his holiness against sin. Where there is no sin, there is no wrath, but there is always holiness. But where the holy God confronts his creatures in their rebellion, there must be wrath. To dilute God’s wrath is to diminish God’s holiness and self-sufficiency along with the exercise of his holiness in justice.

No doubt, alongside God’s holiness is his love, and Scripture never pits one against the other. Yet for God to forgive us of our sins, he must satisfy his own righteous demand, which is what he has done in Christ’s cross. The supreme display of God’s love is the Father giving his own Son as our propitiation, which turns back his own wrath against us and satisfies the demands of justice on our behalf (1 John 2:1–2; 4:8–10; cf. Rom 5:8). In the cross, we see the greatest demonstration of God’s holy-justice and love. It’s where he remains just and the justifier of those who have faith in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:21–26).

With this basic sketch of who God is in place, we can now think through four common objections to PSA, which at their heart, all have some distorted view of God.

  1. Why can’t God just forgive us?

First, why can’t God simply forgive sin? After all, we are called to forgive people without demanding payment for sin (Matt 5:38–48). Why can’t God do the same? Why does Christ have to pay for all of our sins in order for God to forgive us?

The answer is, God cannot simply forgive because of who he is as the moral standard of the universe. All of God’s attributes are essential to him, including his holiness, righteousness, and justice. In regard to his justice, God is not like a human judge, who adjudicates a law external to him; instead, God is the law. Our sin is not against an abstract principle or impersonal law, but it’s always against God who is holy and just (Ps. 51:4).

So for God to forgive us, he must do so by remaining true to himself. That is why our forgiveness is only possible if the full satisfaction of his moral demand is met. For God to declare sinners justified before him, our Lord Jesus must perfectly obey all of God’s moral demands for us and fully pay for our sin in his substitutionary death (Rom. 3:21–26; 2 Cor. 5:21).

For those who stumble over this explanation, think of the alternative. Ultimately, everyone who denies PSA thinks that God can forgive our sins without the full satisfaction of his justice. But to make sense of this, one must deny that God’s holiness and justice are essential to him. However, if this is so, then how is God the moral standard of the universe?

Or, appeal is often made to God’s love being greater than his other perfections such as his justice, as if God can forgive us without the full satisfaction of his justice. But this will not do either. God has all of his attributes essentially and inseparably. In forgiving us of our sins, God’s love is not opposed to his justice; instead the very demonstration of God’s love is that in Christ and his cross, God’s own righteous demand is met (1 John 2:2; 4:8–10). These other views pull apart in God what cannot be pulled apart, effectively making his love unjust and his justice unloving. They thereby change God’s very nature.

Our triune God is a God of grace and justice, and in our justification, he remains true to himself. God remains the loving, just, and holy one; no sin is overlooked or condoned. Instead, our sin is paid for in full either in Christ or in final judgment when all sin, evil, and death will be destroyed. It is only PSA that allows us to affirm these biblical truths in all their beauty and glory.

…4. Isn’t transferring guilt to an innocent victim unjust?

Fourth, isn’t it unjust of God to transfer our guilt to an innocent victim? This last common objection involves at least three problems.

First, it assumes a human court analogy. No doubt, in human courts, judges adjudicate laws external to them and cannot transfer the sin of a guilty person to an innocent one. Yet, in this case, God as the Judge is the law, and he is the person we have sinned against. He has every right to pronounce our guilt or justification in relation to whether our sin has been paid for or not.

Second, it fails to grasp that the one who has taken our place, obeyed all of God’s righteous demands for us, and paid for our sin is God himself in Christ. For sinners to be declared just in Christ, who is the Son incarnate—the very person we have sinned against and whose moral demand is against us—is hardly an unjust transfer of guilt!

Third, the objection also fails to grasp how in God’s eternal plan (Ps. 139:16; Eph. 1:4, 11; 1 Pet. 1:20), the Son is appointed as the Mediator of his people, and how in his incarnation and new covenant work for us, Jesus chose to become qualified to represent us and to act as our representative and substitute. As the Son, in his humanity, he stood in our place, rendered our human obedience, and took his own righteous demand on himself for us.

There is certainly nothing immoral or unjust here, but only the glory of our triune God in the face of Christ, and the wonder of the truth of the gospel! The divine Son has every right to take our place for it is against him that we have sinned and we owe him everything. The divine Son, along with the entire triune God, is the offended party, and he has the right to demand satisfaction from us. By choosing to become our Redeemer in his life and death, our Lord Jesus gloriously, graciously, and justly accomplished our eternal salvation.

About Scott Buchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, theology, folding scooters, and composting toilets, at . Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 100 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas. Now retired and repurposed as a grandparent.
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  1. Pingback: Views on Christian Atonement – Economist Writing Every Day

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  3. mituforchrist says:

    One of the best and most helpful treatments on the atonement I have read so far. Thank you!

    • I’m glad you found it helpful. It took forever to complete this – – I kept running into more and more sub-issues that seemed to merit treatment, but it turned into a big learning experience. God bless…

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