The Atonement of Christ & Retributive Punishment

There is a long-running debate as to the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice and its implication for the need to divine retribution.

Unfortunately, it appears that often the same Biblical language is used by proponents from all sides with entirely divergent connotations (Boyd 2006, p. 102). For example, some writers see the Old Testament sacrifices─which almost all theologians agree as foreshadowing of the work of Christ─as a proto-model of penal substitution. In this view, atonement is necessary to appease God’s personal anger at human sin and to prevent His retributive judgment (Helm 2006, pp. 73–82).

Others, however, reject such language of propitiation.

They would insist that the object of atonement is always sin itself, not God; that the Old Testament sacrificial system was rather a means of grace to remind the Hebrews of God’s gifts, to instill a sense of generosity and goodness and to cleanse and repair the community’s socio-spiritual functioning (Fretheim 1996, pp. 127–130; Green & Baker 2000, pp. 48–49) and that sacrifices were primarily a matter of the heart (Psalms 51:17, 107:22) (Gunton 1988, pp. 121–122; Weaver 2013, p. 59). It was, in other words, more about communicating God’s love and re-stabilising the community rather than deflecting God’s wrath.

In my view, the best presentations of penal substitution couch God’s wrath as directed against the malevolent nature of people towards each other rather than being merely against humanity’s sin against His holiness. Divine wrath and judgment, thus depicted, resonates well with God’s actions against a diabolical system of worldly violence (Miller 2005) and is not at all reflective of his character and, in fact, can be characterized as God’s ‘strange work’ (Isaiah 28:21).

The atonement was about ending violence by fully identifying with it, in order to bring about peace. The natural corollary of this line of thought, in contrast to what many traditional theologies claim, is that God the Father was not ‘pouring out His wrath’ upon God the Son.[see note 1] That is to say that the work of Christ on the Cross was not about retribution at all but about restoring a relationship.

This is in contrast to the traditional view of the atonement, often known as penal substitution, which views Christ’s suffering and death as vicarious punishment to satisfy God’s justice on humanity’s behalf (Jeffery, Overy et al 2007, pp. 33–148; Schreiner 2006, pp. 67–116); God’s holiness was vindicated on the Cross whilst simultaneously His love was displayed (Cole 2009, pp. 49–52).

Unfortunately this sounds very much like the ‘war in the heart of God’ that S Mark Heim argues God and (through) Jesus were precisely not playing out (Heim 2006, p. 309; Brümmer 2005, pp. 73–77). Furthermore, this view is usually taken as paradigmatically binding and thus downplays other (contemporary and local) ways of reading the significance of Jesus’ death (Green & Baker 2000, pp. 184–198), one of which is that the split within the heart of God was not the division between holiness and compassion; it was the trauma of separation occasioned by a single-minded focus on love which absorbed into one’s self all that was non-love as an expression of amazing love for others.

It must be said, though, that doing away with retributive punishment is not an uncomplicated matter and there are clearly strong arguments for why it may be a necessary component of the atonement (Jeffery, Overy et al. 2007, pp. 233–281; Walls 2002, pp. 45–48).

Dan Shriver (1998) creatively juxtaposes forgiveness with punishment, declaring that the former makes room for the latter as well as room for reconciliation between enemies (p. 32). Colin Gunton (1988) both insists that the legal metaphor cannot stand above the rest and also that Jesus bore the consequences of sin according to God’s will to refashion the breach of relationships in the world (pp. 164–165). Gunton shies away from using the language of retribution but maintains that God desired a certain state of the world which only the death of Jesus could bring about.[see note 2]

Scot McKnight’s (2005, 2007) conclusion is laudable (though ambiguous) in that he notes that Pauline atonement goes beyond the resolution of sin, guilt and wrath, whilst affecting an actual re-creation and empowerment; thus the sacrifice of Jesus satisfies God’s just requirements. In other words, penal substitution is correct but also─and more fundamentally─recreates the world and is not primarily about the penal (2005, pp. 349–350; 2007, pp. 41–43).

A tentative conclusion is that whilst there is certainly a substitutionary dimension to the atonement, contra the traditional view, it is not about Jesus satisfying a deep desire within the heart of the Father to punish evil-doers (Boyd 2006, pp. 42–49; Gunton 1998, pp. 127–141). What Gregory Boyd (2006)─following C.S. Lewis─terms as ‘deeper magic’ (pp.102–105) is really a way of saying that through the work of Christ, that of taking the place of humanity on the Cross, the sacrificial process caused its own demise (Heim 2006, pp. 164).

The Cross of Jesus needn’t be thought of as a place of retribution.


[1] In fact, these two persons of the Trinity were working together; God was in God, reconciling the world to God (2 Corinthians 5:19).

[2] It is unfortunate that Gunton (1988) rejects any idea of a suffering God (p. 198) preferring to allow an ontology of impassability to pronounce on the historical event of the Cross rather than the other way round.


Boyd, G., 2006. Christus Victor View. In J. Beilby & P. Eddy, eds. Four Views: The Nature of the Atonement. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, pp. 23–66, 99–105.

Brümmer, V., 2005. Atonement, Christology and the Trinity: Making Sense of Christian Doctrine, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Cole, G., 2009. God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom, Nottingham: Apollos.

Fretheim, T., 1984. The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, Minneapolis: August Fortress Publishing.

Green, J. & Baker, M., 2000. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts, Downers-Grove: Inter-Varsity Press.

Gunton, C., 1988. The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition, Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Heim, S.M., 2006. Saved By Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Helm, P., 2006. Penal Substition View. In J. Beilby & P. Eddy, eds. Four Views: The Nature of the Atonement. Downers-Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, pp. 67–98.

Jeffery, S., Overy, M. & Sach, A., 2007. Pierced For Our Transgressions : Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution, Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press.

McKnight, S., 2005. Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus and Atonement Theory, Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press.

McKnight, S., 2007. A Community Called Atonement, Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Miller, G., 2005. But Isn’t Penal Substitution Actuall Illegal (if not Immoral)? The Christian Thinktank. Available at:

Schreiner, T., 2006. Penal Substitution View. In J. Beilby & P. Eddy, eds. Four Views: The Nature of the Atonement. Illinois: IVP Academic, pp. 67–116.

Shriver, D., 1998. Ethics for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.



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