Penal Substitution and Divine Withdrawal

It’s a familiar story used to illustrate ‘what Jesus did on the Cross’. Assume that Messi stole a football from his teacher, was caught and ‘sentenced’ to 10 lashes in the principal’s office. Then Ronaldo, because he’s such an awesome guy, comes along and says, “Look, Mr Principal, I care about Messi and I don’t want him caned. So why don’t you punish me in his place instead?” The problem is that Ronaldo himself also stole a football in the past, so him ‘taking Messi’s place’ doesn’t work. Along comes the Principal’s son, who hasn’t stolen shit but instead has been giving generously; he offers to take both Messi’s and Ronaldo’s place. By accepting the caning from the Principal, the son1) fulfils the demands of the law (that football thieves be caned) and 2) demonstrates his love for M and R.

The bottom line is that somebody must bear the ‘sin’ of the stolen football as a substitution for the true culprits. Translate this to theology, the point is that the Cross appeases the wrath of God whilst demonstrating his mercy/love to the world.

What could be wrong with that, right? Only a few things:

  1. In the Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples to love their enemies and pray for them for such is how we are to be ‘perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect’ i.e. divine perfection is characterised NOT by wrath but rather forgiveness. Hence, it appears disingenious for Jesus to on one hand claim that the Father is perfect because He forgives His enemies and pray for them but, on the other, live and die in a such a way as to ‘appease His Father’s wrath’ against His enemies.
  2. In 1 John 3:8, it’s stated that the purpose of the Son of God appearing was to ‘destroy the works of the Devil’. However, if Jesus’ work on the Cross was primarily about satisfying the demands of the law, about becoming the penal substitute of humanity — thereby suffering God’s wrath in our place — then isn’t it clear that what Jesus was ‘destroying’ belongs, in fact, to God? Strictly speaking, what does the Devil have to do with the Cross anyway, since it is God who demands the payment? Wouldn’t verses like 1 John 3:8 make MORE sense if, instead, Jesus was acting in a way to unravel the Devil’s schemes rather than His Father’s anger?!
  3. If God was the one who demanded the ‘kill’ (as payment for sin), but if God was ‘in Christ’ as part of this process (2 Cor 5:19) too, then this would strongly suggests a schizoid Being, no? So He absolutely HAD to kill sinners but He Himself decided to, well, kill Himself instead?

For the above reasons (and others, see Note 1), I think we should rethink the penal-sub model.

Judgment via Withdrawal

In his magnum opus, Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Greg Boyd contends that God’s mode of judgment always involves withdrawing His life-giving and life-sustaining protective presence.

In a nutshell, this means that God is always ‘with us’, aiding us, supporting us even when we do dumb soul-damaging stuff. There comes a time, though, when/if our anti-community actions keep being perpetuated over and over again until God decides to remove His care and protection, thereby ‘abandoning’ us to the consequences of our (freely determined) actions.

So, according to this view, on the Cross what mainly happened was that God ‘forsook’ Jesus, hence that traumatic cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This resulted in the full force of evil to fall upon His Son thereby causing the self-destruction of the Devil’s works.

To use our football theft analogy, imagine there was this really bad Principal, Wenger, who loves beating children. Over the years he covertly starts gangs in the school whose role it is to influence children (such as Messi and Ronaldo) to steal so he, Wenger the Principal, can proceed to punish the children. Why does he love punishing kids? Because he’s a sadistic asshole. Anyway, one day the owner of the school finds out about what the Principal is doing. But because the Principal has so corrupted the school board and the rules, it’s impossible to charge him (hey, it’s just an analogy, ok?). So the owner ‘delivers his son’ (Romans 8:32), Jesus, into one of the gang meetings with the evil Principal. In no time, Jesus is targeted and, soon, is charged with stealing a football and eventually brought to the Principal’s office. A terrible terrible beating and, because Wenger didn’t know that Jesus was the owner’s son, he goes all the way — and Jesus is killed. This episode then allows the owner to initiate a massive investigation which, finally, uncovers the crimes of the Principal, his collaboration with the gangs, leading to the Principal’s arrest.

Okay, it’s a bit lengthy. But you get the picture.

The ‘problem’ here isn’t God’s wrath, it was the Devil’s control and enslavement of the world. God’s ‘judgment’ was NOT about pouring His wrath out on Jesus but about ‘abandoning’ Jesus to the Devil’s wiles, torture and murder. The ‘victory’ isn’t when God no longer felt wrathful towards humanity, but when the Devil himself was disarmed and publicly disgraced (Colossians 2:15).

A substitutionary element remains but, crucially, it is not penal in nature. Jesus ‘took our place’ not in order to bear God’s (blood-demanding) wrath but precisely as a way of ‘channeling’ God’s (love-filled) wrath towards defeating a cosmic foe.

There is no ‘schizoid’ God here. God wasn’t being loving to us whilst simultaneously demanding that we die for our sins. In fact, God’s love for us spurred Him to judge His Son in a manner which invited the forces of evil to destroy Him and in so doing, destroy themselves.

Think about it?

Note 1: Elsewhere I’ve tried to proffer a psychoanalytical reading of the atonement (see Lau, A. 2016. Saved by Trauma: A Psychoanalytical Reading f the Atonement. Dialog, 55(3), pp.273–284). In this article I also point out additional problems with the penal substitutionary model of atonement (p. 279).