August 16, 2009

Penal Theory of the Atonement

Hi Dr. Craig,

First of all, I'd like to thank you for the incredible work you have put into your ministry. This website, your books, lectures and debates have completely changed my life and given me such a confidence when it comes to evangelism. A big thanks to you, and all the volunteers who help.

My question is in relation to the Atonement. Quite basically, I am having trouble understanding the justice of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

If I am the one who committed the sin, and God punishes Jesus instead, has justice truly been served?

I can better understand it if I think of it as a debt that needed paying; Jesus steps in and bails me out.

But the court room analogy just doesn't sit right with me.

Let's say a man murdered my family. I take him to court, and the judge says "Well, I'll tell you what, I'll give my perfect son the death penalty, instead of this murderer."

I'm sure the murderer would be happy that he got out of it, but where is the justice in that? I would be outraged.

I'm hoping you may be able to shed a little light on the subject.

When the bible says "He who knew no sin became sin", is that a literal event?

I'm pretty embarrassed that I still haven't grasped such an essential doctrine.

Thanks for any help you can provide!


The doctrine of the atonement is one of those areas of Christian theology which is most in need of careful philosophical analysis. In fact, if any of you readers are contemplating graduate work in philosophy, here is a great dissertation topic! You can be almost guaranteed publication of your work, given how central and philosophically underdeveloped a doctrine the substitutionary atonement is.

For readers who aren’t familiar with this doctrine, let me state simply that the Penal Theory of the atonement holds that in dying on the cross Christ bore the penalty of sin that we deserve, so that the demands of God’s justice are met and we may be forgiven and our guilt removed. As you rightly note, Tony, the Penal Theory is quite different from a Satisfaction Theory of the atonement propounded by theologians like St. Anselm. According to that theory we, because of our sin, owe God an enormous debt—say, ascribing Him due honor—which we cannot pay. So Christ pays our debt (and more!) for us, so that we are freed. While the Satisfaction Theory contains elements of truth, it cannot be the whole story, for the moral elements of justice and punishment are missing from the story. A full-orbed doctrine of the atonement, it seems to me, must include the penal aspects.

Unfortunately, my areas of research interest have not included the atonement, so my remarks here will be at best sketchy. My hope is that they will provoke others to tackle and think further about this important doctrine.

The central problem of the Penal Theory is, as you point out, understanding how punishing a person other than the perpetrator of the wrong can meet the demands of justice. Indeed, we might even say that it would be wrong to punish some innocent person for the crimes I commit!

It seems to me, however, that in other aspects of human life we do recognize this practice. I remember once sharing the Gospel with a businessman. When I explained that Christ had died to pay the penalty for our sins, he responded, “Oh, yes, that’s imputation.” I was stunned, as I never expected this theological concept to be familiar to this non-Christian businessman. When I asked him how he came to be familiar with this idea, he replied, “Oh, we use imputation all the time in the insurance business.” He explained to me that certain sorts of insurance policy are written so that, for example, if someone else drives my car and gets in an accident, the responsibility is imputed to me rather than to the driver. Even though the driver behaved recklessly, I am the one held liable; it is just as if I had done it.

Now this is parallel to substitutionary atonement. Normally I would be liable for the misdeeds I have done. But through my faith in Christ, I am, as it were, covered by his divine insurance policy, whereby he assumes the liability for my actions. My sin is imputed to him, and he pays its penalty. The demands of justice are fulfilled, just as they are in mundane affairs in which someone pays the penalty for something imputed to him. This is as literal a transaction as those that transpire regularly in the insurance industry.

I think your rendition of the courtroom analogy is somewhat skewed. It’s lacking altogether the elements of contrition and repentance on the part of the criminal and the voluntariness of the son’s sacrifice, as well as the fact that we are all of us in the murderer’s shoes. You also have to be very careful that what you’re looking for is really justice rather than simply vengeance. There’s a big difference! The more accurate analogy is that the murderer in the story has genuinely repented of his crime and that you, having once been in his place yourself, want the judge to forgive him. But the judge is obligated to see that justice’s demands are met. So the judge himself volunteers to have the responsibility of the crime imputed to him, so that he will die in the murderer’s place. I think you’ll agree that if such imputation is possible, then justice will be served, even if vengeance is not wrought. The real issue, therefore, is imputation.

What I’d like to see some Christian philosopher do, then, is to really tackle this concept of imputation, explore how it functions in legal affairs, and make a moral and theological application. Any takers?