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Some years ago a pastor scandalised the Evangelical world by claiming that the belief in ‘penal substitutionary atonement’ is cosmic child abuse. ‘Penal substitutionary atonement’ is the teaching that on the cross, God punished Jesus for our sins — Jesus died in our place. It was a key teaching in the 16th century Reformation and still a cornerstone of Evangelical theology. (It has always been a part of the church’s understanding of the cross but came to particular prominence in the Reformation). 

The doctrine has fallen out of favour in some circles and critics have a number of problems with it. For one, they object to the image of an angry and vengeful God who needs to spill blood in order to forgive. Another is the question of justice — how could a loving Father punish his Son for someone else’s sin? In any other context we would consider it morally repugnant. If this doctrine is true, does it make God immoral?

Certainly the doctrine is confronting, particularly to a modern Western listener, but it has strong Scriptural support, and the Bible should be our starting place for understanding Christian beliefs.

Isaiah 53 is an important passage that looked forward to the suffering Messiah. “He was pierced because of our rebellion, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on him, and we are healed by his wounds.” (v.6) “The Lord has punished him for the iniquity of us all.” (v.7b) “The Lord was pleased to crush him severely. When you make him a guilt offering…” (v.10b) “My righteous servant will justify many, and he will carry their iniquities.” (v.11b)

The New Testament also takes up this theme. 1Peter 2.24 says, “He himself bore our sin in his body on the tree…” and 3.18, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God.” Hebrews 9.26 says, “Now he has appeared one time at the end of the ages, for the removal of sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

Of course, the Bible never uses the phrase, ‘penal substitutionary atonement’, although I think it accurately reflects what the Bible teaches. But that doesn’t solve the problems the critics raise. Is God immoral for requiring this? How can it be just?

We don’t have space to go as deep as this discussion deserves, but we can note three things. 

First of all, sin is deadly serious. God warned Adam, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat of it, you will certainly die.” (Gen 2.17). Adam’s eating was an act of rebellion against God, the source of life. Paul writes in Rom 6.23, “The wages of sin is death…” And more than this, in our unredeemed state we are “slaves of sin.” We are in a world of hurt. Paul also says, “Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who did not sin the likeness of Adam’s transgressions.” (Rom 5.14) 

We must not underestimate the hideousness of sin. God may love us, but he is holy and hates sin, and we are sinners. We perpetrate sin — sin against God and against others. We are guilty and God is a just judge. It’s a matter of cosmic justice that he condemn the guilty and acquit the innocent. 

So death had us locked up and the only way to open that lock was through the death of someone not subject to death — the sinless Son of God.  On the cross, God’s love and justice come together in Jesus.

How, then, is this not ‘cosmic child abuse’? God punished his innocent Son for the acts of guilty sinners!

What critics disregard on this point is the Trinity. Jesus is God in human form. John 1.1 says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And “the Word became flesh” (John 1.14). Col 2.9 says, “The entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ.” And Phil 2.6 says, Christ Jesus, “Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited.” The Father sent the Son, but the Son went willingly, out of love both for the Father and for His creation.

Jesus was not a hapless victim in this endeavour — he planned it, along with the Father and the Spirit, before the creation of the world. God was in Christ on the cross. We can really only claim any kind of ‘cosmic child abuse’ if we deny the divinity of Jesus.

Penal substitutionary atonement is certainly not the only way of thinking about the cross, but it is an important way. In fact, there are at least seven so-called ‘theories of the atonement’ (theological frameworks for understanding why Jesus died). You can read a good summary here. Most of these should be considered aspects of the atonement rather than competing frameworks.

The cross is the central event in Christianity and when we mine the riches of Scripture and spend time reflecting on this topic it will lead us to a deeper worship and love for God.