If Atonement Ain’t Penal, Why the Cross?

Penal substitutionary atonement—whatever else might be said about this grotesque belief, it does provide a clear, simple-to-understand explanation of the events of Holy Week. On the cross the eternal Son endures the wrath of the Father for the sins of humanity; he stands in our place and suffers the punishment due our iniquities; he pays the propitiatory debt we could not pay ourselves. Through the lens of this teaching, Isaiah 53 acquires a perspicuous—and therefore distorting—intelligibility:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

The theory grossly distorts the gospel. It introduces retribution directly into the heart of the Father, thus requiring the invention of a device by which to reconcile the warring principles of justice and mercy within the Godhead. The result is the barbaric execution of Jesus of Nazareth. By Christ’s agonies and death, the Father is placated and humanity delivered from his wrath. God can now love again.

Once embraced as doctrine, penal substitutionary atonement inevitably becomes the principal focus of churchly preaching: “You are sinners living under the judgment of the cross. Believe on the Savior who has paid for your sins, lest you be eternally damned.” We have heard this message from our pastors on Sunday mornings, from television and camp meeting evangelists, from Sunday school teachers and youth ministers. It has shaped the religious and cultural identities of Americans since the First Great Awakening.

But does penal substitutionary atonement make moral sense? Herbert McCabe thinks not:

So God the Son became man so that by his suffering and death he could pay the price of sin. This seems to be based on an idea of punishment as a kind of payment, a repayment; the criminal undergoing punishment ‘pays his debt to society’, as we say. It takes a divine man, however, to pay our debt to divine justice.

Now, I can make no literal sense of this idea, whether you apply it to criminals or to Christ. I cannot see how a man in prison is paying a debt to society or paying anything else at all to society. On the contrary, it is rather expensive to keep him there. I can see the point in the criminal being bound to make restitution to anyone he has injured, when that is possible; but that is not the same as punishment. I can see the point in punishment as something painful that people will want to avoid and (we may reasonably hope) something to encourage them to avoid committing crimes; but this is not paying a debt. It is impossible to see Christ on the cross as literally engaged either in making restitution or in serving as a warning to others. If God will not forgive us until his son has been tortured to death for us then God is a lot less forgiving than ever we are sometimes. If a society feels itself somehow compensated for its loss by the satisfaction of watching the sufferings of a criminal, then society is being vengeful in a pretty infantile way. And if God is satisfied and compensated for sin by the suffering of mankind in Christ, he must be even more infantile. (“Good Friday,” God Matters, pp. 91-92)

The Christian tradition has long juggled metaphors by which to speak of our Lord’s atoning death on the cross–satisfaction, ransom, debt, expiation, liberation, victory. But of course these are metaphors drawn from our daily lives. We should not think of them as literally applying to the divine work of atonement, and we distort that divine work if we so interpret them. Every metaphor implicitly includes a denial, a not—like but not like. This is a good thing, as it allows the Church to draw on a wide range of figurative expressions by which to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. The metaphorical not saves us from a great deal of nonsense. “No theory and no metaphor is going to exhaust the mystery of the cross,” writes McCabe, “and by the same token the most peculiar theories and models may have some light to shed on it provided we do not taken them too literally” (p. 92).

So if the atonement ain’t penal, why the cross? It hardly suffices to think of Calvary as mere happenstance, accidental to the dominical life. Jesus certainly did not think so:

Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day. (Matt 20:18-19)

Our Lord both anticipated his death and understood it as the inevitable culmination of his work. He knew that the priestly authorities would reject his messianic mission, and he knew that the Roman authorities would deem him a threat to the social order. Thus one answer to the question “Why did Christ die on the cross?” would be: “He died because those who held power did not recognize in him the saviour they awaited and so found him merely a subversive nuisance, which was quite enough for the colonial power to have him crucified” (p. 91). But McCabe finds this historical explanation theologically inadequate. It does not explain why the cross became the central symbol of Christian identity and evangelistic mission.

So why then did Christ die on the cross? Because of his faithfulness to his divine mission, McCabe answers—namely, to be human, truly and fully human, to live into existence perfect love:

Well, then, did the Father want Jesus to be crucified? And, if so, why? The answer as I see it is again: No. The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wishes is that Jesus should be human. . . . And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human. This is his obedience, an expression of his love for the Father; the fact that to be human means to be crucified is not something that the Father has directly planned but what we have arranged. We have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not involve suffering.

Jesus accepted the cross in love and obedience, and his obedience was to the command to be human. Let me explain what I mean. As I see it, not Adam but Jesus was the first human being, the first member of the human race in whom humanity came to fulfilment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love—for this is what human beings are for. The aim of human life is to live in friendship—a friendship amongst ourselves which in fact depends on a friendship, or covenant, that God has established between ourselves and him. (p. 93)

To be human, suggests McCabe, is to love freely, spontaneously, courageously, generously, not holding back from self-giving for fear of being hurt or impoverished or enslaved or killed. To love is to live beyond ourselves, to abandon ourselves to God and to others. “We need to lose our selves in love,” comments McCabe; “this is what we fear” (p. 94). We fear the loss of control. We fear the risk of adventure. We fear that if we make ourselves available to life, if we truly give ourselves over to others in love, we will find only disappointment and suffering. And so we deny “the summons into life” and withdraw into our self-made, but ultimately futile, securities. That we do so is our sin, our death, our hell:

Our greatest talents and creative powers turn against us in destruction unless they are in the service of love, unless they are used in obedience to this mysterious call to transcend ourselves. We cannot live without love and yet we are afraid of the destructive creative power of love. We need and deeply want to be loved and to love, yet when that happens it seems a threat, because we are asked to give ourselves up, to abandon our selves; and so when we meet love we kill it. (p. 95)

Now extrapolate this deep fear of life into the economic and political structures, the structures our fear has created and into which we are born. We have made a world in which anyone who ventures into generosity and charity must be destroyed. Such it has always been, as far back as we can see; such it will always be, as far forward as we can see. We pass this world of sin and death to our children, unto the third and fourth generations. The Church calls this original sin.

Jesus was the first human, McCabe asserts, who had no fear of love and therefore no fear of being human:

Jesus had no fear of being human because he saw his humanity simply as gift from him whom he called ‘the Father’. You might say that as he lived and gradually explored into himself, asking not just the question ‘Who do men say that I am?’ but ‘Who do I say that I am?’ he found nothing but the Father’s love. This is what gave all the meaning to his life—the love which is the ultimate basis and meaning of the universe. However he would have put it to himself (and of this we know nothing), he saw himself as simply an expression of the love which is the Father and in which the Father delights. His whole life and death was a response in love and obedience to the gift of being human, an act of gratitude and appreciation of the gift of being human. (p. 95)

Jesus knew God as the Father who had loved him into being; and in knowing him as Father, he knew himself as the only begotten Son, come into the world to faithfully communicate to mankind the love of the Holy Trinity. For this reason the world found it necessary to nail him to the cross:

So my thesis is that Jesus died of being human. His very humanity meant that he put up no barriers, no defences against those he loved who hated him. He refused to evade the consequences of being human in our inhuman world. So the cross shows up our world for what it really is, what we have made it. It is a world in which it is dangerous, even fatal, to be human; a world structured by violence and fear. The cross shows that whatever may be remedied by this or that political or economic change, there is a basic wrong, persistent through history and through all progress: the rejection of the love that casts out fear, the fear that without the backing of terror, at least in the last resort, human society and thus human life cannot exist. The cross, then, unmasks or reveals the sin of the world. (p. 97)

Why did we nail Jesus to the cross?

Because we needed to be rid of him.

Why did Jesus accept the cross?

Because of love.

What did the cross accomplish?


(19 April 2019; rev.)

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8 Responses to If Atonement Ain’t Penal, Why the Cross?

  1. Rob says:

    Wonderful. John Behr suggests that when Jesus cried from the cross “It is finished!”, the task whose accomplishment he was proclaiming was the creation of the human being.

    Liked by 2 people

    • myshkin says:

      These articles also had me thinking of Fr Behr. thanks for sharing that. the rest of this is not a direct reply to what you say, just a random thought.

      what if destroying death by death, destroying the fear of death, and redeeming all that He assumed, means that Jesus’ death redeemed and transformed death. and death is now the final act of earthly salvation.

      our singular death now acts as our own narrow path to the Father’s house, and we see in retrospect that our whole life was the narrow path after all. Hell has been harrowed and death is now the doorway to Bliss. He took the wage of sin and made it the doorway to Salvation. Happy Fault indeed!

      a disclaimer to say that of course Baptism matters, but He won’t be cheated of His Beloved who could not, for whatever reason, partake of Baptism. Here, i think, we can see the Good Thief as the first to experience this redeemed reality. The words on his lips are the hearts desire of all who exist: Remember me. and Our Lord’s answer, given as He is both Creating the Cosmos and Redeeming the Cosmos, is the only answer that has ever mattered: this day – you and me – paradise.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Calvin says:

    “He refused to evade the consequences of being human in our inhuman world.”

    Um, begging your pardon, but if the gospel accounts are to be trusted there were in fact several times that Jesus intentionally evaded people looking to kill him. And I’m sure I don’t need to say that he seems to be anything but unafraid of the cross in this accounts.


  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I can follow this as *a* reason, but not the only or principle one: Jesus’s suffering and death still needs a reason outside itself. If Jesus only died so that he might die, then it becomes an act of empty masochism.


    • Jesus died that He might conquer death.

      And because we might know that He has died; that He has not scorned to partake of our humanity even unto death.

      Liked by 2 people

    • johnnsw says:

      Perhaps Iain Lovejoy has unwittingly identified the problem, when he writes, “Jesus’s suffering and death still needs a reason outside itself.”

      Can it be that we are so horrified by the death of Jesus (His extreme sufferings despite His innocence etc.) that we look for the explanation for His work of redemption there, and there only? It seems to me that even some of the N.T. writings also give this impression.

      I think that Gerhad Forde may be pointing us in the right direction, when he writes of approaching things “from below”. So Jesus’ death was the inevitable RESULT of a life lived in love for God and for others, despite whatever such a life would cost. It was the fulfilment of that life of love. And are His followers led to expect anything other? “ … anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt.10:38,39)

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Garreth Ashe says:

    For me Penal substitution (P.S) contradiction the gospels in so many places. You would think it would be enough to reject P.S simply because of the depiction of the father it presupposes, but clearly not, if I’m honest myself there was time when I believed it.

    One of the major reasons is that particularly John’s gospel claims is that if you see Jesus you see the father, but how do you reconcile the message of Jesus, of turning the check, walking the second mile, loving your enemies, don’t forgive 7 times forgive 77 times, with the idea of forgiveness that is at the heart of the father depicted by P.S.

    Secondly the gospel depict the good news that Jesus has overcome death, that death is not part of the kingdom, but the final enemy to be overcome, but from P.S perspective death is a necessity because the father requires the death of the son, without the son dying there is no reconciliation between God and humanity.

    Thirdly, the necessity of the son death on the cross also make a mockery of the idea that the cross subverts the principalities and powers of the world, simply because the father needs these principalities and powers to wield the mechanism of death, of the cross, for atonement to be fulfilled, so in other worlds, the kingdom is no different to the kingdoms of the world, they are the exact same. So P.S ends up rejecting the good news of the gospel. So clearly the cross isn’t penal.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Alexander says:

    I’m not a fan of penal substitutionary atonement, and I like McCabe. But his explanation that Jesus’s obedience was merely to “be totally, completely human” that Jesus merely “died of being human” would seem to make his death (and his particular form of death) almost incidental to our salvation. It doesn’t seem to do justice to the biblical explanation that Jesus’s crucifixion and death were the essential means of our salvation. E.g., 1 Corinthians 1:23 (“[W]e proclaim Christ crucified ….”); Hebrews 9:26-28 (“[H]e has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many ….”).

    Happy Pascha to all!

    Liked by 2 people

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