A Question of Belief III

I want in this post to address the subject of justice. What is justice and specifically how does God see and execute justice? I said previously – ‘God’s justice is a justice of love – and in God’s justice his love will also be manifest.’ While I hold to that – in approaching some of the questions associated with the justice of God we are dealing with a depth of truth which requires much greater attention than we can give in a short article.  Questions like – does the justice of God in and of itself necessitate punishment as its ultimate censure – and if so why? In other words – is our concept of crime and punishment a universal principle of Divine origin?

We might also ask – is any punishment we might associate (rightly or wrongly) with the justice of God retributive or restorative?  To put it another way –  is retribution an end in and of itself or is any punishment inflicted at the hand of God, executed with a deeper purpose in mind? Or, can God’s judgements contain elements of both? Indeed, we might even ask, as we hinted above –  does a just God require punishment at all at the hand of man for his offence or sin – can he not simply forgive?

Of course all of this becomes extremely important as we try to understand the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. Why did he have to die? Was his suffering, as some teach, a just punishment inflicted by God as a form of retribution on behalf of the sin of humanity? In my tradition the view is very clear – Jesus suffered and died on the cross as a substitute for man – and he did so in order to satisfy the righteous wrath of an angry God. So yes – this view sees God’s justice as retributive. This doctrine is known as  ‘Penal Substitution’.  Interestingly, one of the best known and highly regarded sermons ever preached and printed, in the opinion of many within my tradition, was entitled – ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ (1) And this is where things begin to unravel for me as I do not see the Father of Jesus as an ‘Angry God’.  Nor do I see Jesus presenting him as such in his life and teaching.

Furthermore, it is taught in my tradition, that on the cross, Jesus was completely abandoned by the Father who turned his face away from his Son – so repulsed was he by the sin he bore on the cross on behalf of mankind. However, this view has serious implication for another Christian doctrine – the unity of the Godhead. The Father, Son and Holy spirit, are, so we believe,  indivisible. We will pick this up later.

While it may be possible to see both retribution (by God) and restoration (of man) in the story of the cross – the punishment inflicted on Jesus was, in this theory, as we have said, quite clearly retributive – an outpouring of God’s wrath full stop. In a recent interview in relation to this doctrine, the renowned conservative theologian N.T. Wright said this –

‘Many people have grown up assuming that is what the cross is all about and the awful thing is that this message about an angry God and an innocent victim has a lot more in common with ancient Pagan thought than with ancient Jewish or Christian thought.’ (2)

Another well known writer and theologian  of a past generation who rejected this view was  Scotsman, George MacDonald (1824–1905). He states –

‘Instead of giving their energy to do the will of God, men of power have given it to the construction of a system by which to explain why Christ must die, what were the necessities and designs of God in permitting his death; and men of power of our own day, while casting from them not a little of the good in the teaching of the Roman Church, have clung to the morally and spiritually vulgar idea of justice and satisfaction held by pagan Rome.’ (3)

Significantly, I think, George MacDonald was, as many will know, brought up in an atmosphere of  strict Calavanism  – and even a youth suffered emotionally as a result. He would go on to be one of the most ardent critics of  Penal Substitution. (See my note at the end of this article.)

As well as individuals some Christian traditions see this doctrine as abhorrent – and indeed heretical. However, this view is only one among several held by different Christian traditions relating to the meaning of the Cross (5)  What then, we ask, exactly is the doctrine of Penal Substitution (4) and where did it originate?  R. Hall gives the helpful overview in Religion Wiki –

‘Penal substitution is a development of the thinking of the medieval church leader Anselm. He lived in a feudal society, and his thinking reflected that. For Anselm, sin represented an offense against the honour of God. A dishonoured monarch demanded satisfaction. The sacrifice of Jesus was the means by which God’s honour is restored and forgiveness is made possible. The Reformers took Anselm’s thinking a stage further. In their scheme of things, sin is not an affront against God’s honour but rather a debt which has to be paid. The punishment due to the crime must done before restoration can be offered. God in Christ pays the penalty himself and makes atonement possible.’

Theologian and historian H. N. Oxenham (1829 – 1888) stated of ‘Patristic Literature’ (Early Christian Theologians) during the first three centuries of Christianity, in relation to the ‘Penal Substitutionary’ theory –

‘There is no trace … of the notions of vicarious satisfaction, in the sense of our sins being imputed to Christ and His obedience imputed to us, which some of the Reformers made the very essence of Christianity; or, again, of the kindred notion that God was angry with His Son for our sakes, and inflicted on Him the punishment due to us.’ (6)

What is surprising to me then is that this view is all but universally accepted within my tradition as well as by most Protestant Churches in the western world today. Indeed, many teach that you cannot be a Christian without accepting it. How then do we account for the widespread adoption of this view? Well, as noted above, the influence of the the Reformers, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, is probably the main factor – but in more recent times the propagation of the doctrine of Penal Substitution by people like the late evangelist Billy Graham has done much to popularise the concept in the psyche of  western Christianity.

But, if indeed this teaching was alien to the first Christians – the next question we should perhaps ask is – what is the view of their closest successors – those in the Eastern Orthodox tradition? Well, significantly, I think, they also reject it. Orthodox author Robert Arakaki writes –

‘In Protestant theology, the big problem is the guilt that results from our violating the law and God’s wrath against guilty sinners. In Orthodoxy, the big problem is our alienation from God who is Life, and our captivity to the Devil and Death.’

And Orthodox Priest Stephen Freeman offers this –

‘Sin is not a legal problem because God is not a lawyer Sin is a death problem. It’s far more like a disease than anything else.’

Likewise, to me, the whole aspect of the ‘legal’ imagery used in this doctrine is very troubling – and again, I fail to find it in the teaching of Jesus. The definition of the word ‘Penal’ is – ‘relating to, used for, or prescribing the punishment of offenders under the legal system.’ Jesus never speaks in such a way and, significantly,  the word ‘Penal’ or ‘Penalty’ appears nowhere in the Bible (at least in the KJV).

While we are on the subject of words perhaps now is a good time to speak about a word which is, very often, connected with ‘Penal Substitution’ and that is ‘Atonement’. The word ‘Atonement’ is, in reality, a general term used to describe the suffering and death of Jesus. However, I suspect, it is also very often misunderstood to mean punishment. Indeed, the thought of Jesus dying on the Cross as an ‘Atonement’ has become so tied in to the theory of ‘Penal Substitution’ that the two are often seen as synonymous. However, Webster’s Dictionary defines the word as follows – ‘Atonement (‘ə-ˈtōn-mənt’) is a made up English word meaning ‘at one meant’. Very interestings the word ‘Atonement’  is exclusively an English word – it is not used in other languages. The Greek word underlying the English word  ‘Atonement’ is ‘Katallasso’, which means, according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon – ‘To change, exchange, as coins for others of equivalent value, to reconcile those who are at variance, return to favour with, be reconciled to one, to receive one into favour’. Nowhere is it connected with punishment – so the original English meaning ‘at one meant’ is perfectly accurate and in line with both the Greek and Hebrew words it is translated from.

It is very unfortunately, to say the least, that so many  people have twisted the word  ‘Atonement’ to mean something it was never intended to mean. Speak to anyone, at least in my religious tradition, of ‘Atonement’ and immediately the images flashing through the mind are those connected with appeasement or punishment. This is simply a wrong concept full stop. So much has the word been corrupted, some religious traditions are wary of using it at all. However, and here is the really shocking thing to me – the word ‘Atonement’ is used only once in the English New Testament and, apparently, in it original sense, that of reconciliation – ‘We also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.’ (Romans 5:11). So when you hear this word used – please do not presume it refers to punishment or appeasement – its true meaning is reconciliation.

Another fly in the ointment I detect in the theory of Penal Substitution, viewed as the exclusive meaning and understanding of the Cross, is that it seems clear to me, both from the teaching of Jesus  and from the requirements he makes of those who would follow him, that the forgiveness of sin does not, by default, require punishment. In fact the opposite is true. We are asked to forgive freely by a God who himself forgives freely. So again – forgiveness does not of necessity require punishment. We see this clearly in our own world. What loving parent whose child breaks an ornament requires punishment before forgiveness. Some might of course – but that is not an act bourn from a heart of love. Now take a father, as Jesus did, who had been sorely abused by his son, yet forgives him freely demanding no punishment for the offence and heartbreak he has caused – and then take a step further and see in that father, as Jesus surely intended, his own Father – and we see how strange is the belief that punishment is required before forgiveness. Furthermore, Jesus tells us – ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5).  Why – because in doing so we are reflecting the heart of God to our enemies – for in such a way he treats those who are at enmity with him.

A further reservation I have in relation to this theory is when I return to the concept of the unity of God.  My concern here is that I am asked to separate God and Jesus at the Cross. To my mind, as I have said, this conflicts with the unity of the Godhead. Furthermore, Jesus clearly states – ‘The Father and I are one’. (John 10:30) and ‘The Father is in me, and I in him’. (John 10:37). This is, of course, a mystery – but one we need to be reconciled with.

I have come to the conviction that whatever view we have of the meaning of the Cross (generally referred to the ‘The Atonement’) –  the fact is that God was, in the person of Jesus, suffering and giving himself upon it. The Apostle Paul clearly states –

‘All of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!”’

2 Corinthians 5:18-20 (NLT)

Please take a moment to meditate on these words and please notice the language used – it is the language of the estranged being called home – the language of reconciliation! And, if we are in any doubt as to who was pierced on the Cross please listen to the prophetic word of God himself  as he views a yet future day when all will see him as he truly is –

‘And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.’

Zechariah 12:10 (AKJV)

To whom are they looking here? Who is the ‘me’ speaking? We find the answer at the beginning of the declaration –

‘This is the prophetic revelation, the word of Yahweh about Israel. Yahweh—who spread out the heavens, laid the foundation of the earth, and forms the spirit in a person ..’

Zechariah 12: 1 (NOGB)

Ah, I hear someone say – but what about the cry of Jesus from the Cross –  ‘li, Eli, lema sabachthani?My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  Most of us will know, I suspect, that Jesus is here quoting from Psalm 22. Commenting on this, theologian and teacher Fr. Patrick Reardon of the Greek Orthodox Church says –

In making this prayer his own, Jesus was not expressing a sentiment unique to himself. He was, rather, identifying himself with every human being who has ever felt himself to be at a great distance from God. Perhaps this prayer best expresses what we mean when we speak of “the days of his flesh” (Hebrews 5:7). It was in this deep sense of dereliction that we perceive that “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14).

Did Jesus go on to finish that psalm, silently? Christians have always suspected that this was the case. I wonder, however, if we should stop with Psalm 22. Indeed, why would we? Let us imagine, rather, that Jesus, as he was dying, continued praying the next several Psalms after Psalm 22. If he went on, quietly praying the subsequent psalms, Jesus’ next words were: “Adonai ro’i, lo’ ‘ehsar — ”The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

If Jesus did pray this short sequence of psalms, it took only a few minutes for him to reach Psalms 31:5, which Luke identifies as his final words on the cross: “Into Your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).’

I personally see no conflict here. The Father did not abandon the Son – he did not turn his face away, despite what many of our theologians and hymns may tell us – because  on the Cross the Father was in The Son. No wonder Charles Wesley wrote –

‘Tis mystery all! Th’Immortal dies!
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine!
‘Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

To be continued …


(1) ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’  – a sermon written by the American theologian Jonathan Edwards.

(2) N.T. Wright states he sees this view as ‘A major failure in the western tradition’ – going on to say  – ‘Many people in our churches believe that the Christian gospel teaches that the Creator God was very angry and wanted to lash out and kill us all because we had offended him .. and that the angry Creator exhausted his wrath on his Son so that everyone else could go free. A popular hymn says – ‘And on that cross as Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied.’ This is a thorough Pagan soteriology (theology of salvation) and it is not taught in the New Testament.’

(3)  George MacDonald  – ‘Justice’ –   Unspoken Sermons, Part 3. To read this in full, and it is well worthwhile doing so,  please CLICK HERE

(4) What is Penal Substitution? Penal substitution rest on three basic ideas. First and foremost, the notion of retributive justice, that God requires the death of a perfect sacrifice to forgive our sins. In short, that on the cross Jesus Christ died to pay back God’s justice. Second, that the wrath of God must be appeased, that God is full of wrath towards us and must have that wrath satisfied, or “propitiated” in Christ’s death. And finally, the third notion is that God turned His back on Jesus Christ in His death, that Jesus was forsaken and abandoned because God cannot look upon our sin.

Penal substitution is the most common atonement model within the evangelical church today. It’s often preached with the analogy of a courtroom. God is a holy judge, and we are the guilty sinners. God’s justice demands payment, demands our death, and therefore God’s wrath is against us until payment is made. We deserve punishment, but we are unable to pay back God’s justice or appease His wrath. But Jesus Christ came out of love for us and died in our place; God punished Jesus instead of us, thus paying back the Father’s justice, satisfying His wrath, and saving us from hell. God turned His back on Jesus Christ, and in forsaking Him, God now accepts us as His children. God’s wrath is appeased, God’s (retributive) justice is satisfied, and God can now accept us as His own. This is penal substitution: Jesus Christ is punished (penal) in our place (substitution). (Stephen D. Morrison – Author & Theologian)

(5)  See – CLICK HERE

(6) We may pause to sum up briefly the main points of teaching on Christ’s work of redemption to be gathered from the patristic literature of the first three centuries as a whole. And first, as to what it does not contain. There is no trace, as we have seen, of the notions of vicarious satisfaction, in the sense of our sins being imputed to Christ and His obedience imputed to us, which some of the Reformers made the very essence of Christianity; or, again, of the kindred notion that God was angry with His Son for our sakes, and inflicted on Him the punishment due to us ; nor is Isaiah s prophecy interpreted in this sense, as afterwards by Luther; on the contrary, there is much which expressly negatives this line of thought. There is no mention of the justice of God, in the forensic sense of the word; the Incarnation is invariably exclusively ascribed to His love; the term satisfaction does not occur in this connection at all, and where Christ is said to suffer for us, huper (not anti) is the word always used. It is not the payment of a debt, as in St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, but the restoration of our fallen nature, that is prominent in the minds of these writers, as the main object of the Incarnation. They always speak, with Scripture, of our being reconciled to God, not of God being reconciled to us.’ [p. 112-3]; ‘His [Jesus’] death was now [in the Reformation period], moreover, for the first time viewed as a vicarious punishment, inflicted by God on Him instead of on us.’ (H. N. Oxenham, The Catholic doctrine of the atonement (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1865), p. 112-3,119) ( Source – Wikipedia)


For a good overview of this issue please see the article ‘Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory – A Sad Substitute’CLICK HERE

While considering the ‘Angry God’ and ‘Penal Substitution’  doctrines here, one of my concerns has been that, in most discussions and writing, the issue is seen purely as theoretical and abstract giving little attention or thought to the very real and practical impact of such beliefs.  Perhaps because I, like George MacDonald,  was brought up in a nation and religious tradition where I have seen first hand the inestimable pain and destruction wrought in the lives of those who have been affected by it I am keenly aware of the danger of simple playing with theories here. Marxism is a theory – but millions died because of it. The truth is an ‘Angry God’ theology breeds, very often,  angry people. I have witnessed this first hand – and more than once!  In the Presbyterian system of my culture even the churches are built after the pattern of a  Law Court replete, until recently, with the stool of repentance – an elevated seat in a church used for the public penance and humiliation, prescribed by the ‘Courts’ of the church, of people who had offended their moral standard. The humiliation of this punishment drove some to suicide – and it is not unknown in the history of Presbyterian Scotland for people to be executed at the behest of the church for moral sin.  I find it significant to note here the fact that the early church met in a dining room – but we ended up in a courthouse! Speaks volumes doesn’t it? Sadly, the consequences of all this is by no means restricted to history. I have friends who have been thrown in to deep depression because of such teaching as well as many who  have totally rejected God as a result of their upbringing in such circles.  I also have reason to believe that this harsh form of Calvinism has led, in my lifetime and experience, to high levels of alcoholism and mental health issues in the population here in the Western Highlands and Island of Scotland.



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