05 / 06
birds birds birds

Is The Penal Substitution of Christ Unjust?

August 06, 2018     Time: 23:15
Is The Penal Substitution of Christ Unjust?


Dr. Craig addresses the alleged injustice of the penal substitution of Christ.

KEVIN HARRIS: Hey, so glad to have you on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig! I’m Kevin Harris. We've been studying for a long time now together the atonement. Dr. Craig is about to embark on a new area of study that we're gonna reveal to you very shortly, and boy, is it going to be interesting! But today we want you to hear a very concise talk that Dr. Craig presented at the joint conferences of the Evangelical Theological Philosophical Societies – “Is the Penal Substitution of Christ Unjust?” This is on the alleged injustice of penal substitution. This will take you deeper into your understanding of the atonement.

DR. CRAIG: Penal substitution in a theological context is the doctrine that God inflicted upon Christ the suffering which we deserved as the punishment for our sins, as a result of which we no longer deserve punishment.

The doctrine of penal substitution, ever since the time of Faustus Socinus (1539-1604), has faced formidable, and some would say insuperable, philosophical challenges. A discussion of such challenges takes us into lively contemporary debates over the theory of punishment in the philosophy of law. Unfortunately, most theologians, and in fact most Christian philosophers, have little familiarity with these debates. The doctrine of penal substitution is almost invariably dismissed by critics in a single paragraph, even a single sentence, to the effect that it would be unjust of God to punish an innocent person for others’ sins, end of discussion. We need to go deeper.

The Alleged Injustice of Penal Substitution

A theory of punishment should offer both a definition of punishment and a justification of punishment, aspects of the theory of punishment which legal philosophers have teased apart only in recent decades.

Although some have objected to the coherence of the doctrine of penal substitution on the grounds of the definition of punishment,[1] the more important and influential objection by far has been to the justice of penal substitution on the grounds of the justification of punishment. For it is an axiom of retributive justice that it is unjust to punish an innocent person. But Christ was an innocent person. Since God is perfectly just, he cannot therefore have punished Christ.

The crucial premises and inferences of this objection appear to be the following:

1.  God is perfectly just.

2.  If God is perfectly just, he cannot punish an innocent person.

3.  Therefore, God cannot punish an innocent person.

4.  Christ was an innocent person. 

5.  Therefore, God cannot punish Christ.

6.  If God cannot punish Christ, penal substitution is false.

It follows that if God is perfectly just then penal substitution is false.

One quick and easy way to deal with this objection would be to adopt a consequentialist theory of justice. Theories of justice may be classified as broadly retributive or consequentialist. Retributive theories of justice hold that punishment is justified because the guilty deserve to be punished. Consequentialist theories of justice hold that punishment is justified because of the extrinsic goods that may be realized thereby, such as deterrence of crime, sequestration of dangerous persons, and reformation of wrongdoers. It is common coin that on consequentialist theories of justice punishment of the innocent may be justified, in view, for example, of its deterrence value. In fact, one of the main criticisms of consequentialist theories of justice is precisely the fact that on such theories it is possible to be just to punish the innocent. A consequentialist penal substitution theorist could fairly easily provide justification for God's punishing Christ for our sins, namely, so doing prevents the loss of the entire human race.

But consequentialism seems ill-suited to serve as a basis for divine punishment because God’s judgement is described in the Bible as ultimately eschatological. The ungodly are “storing up wrath” for themselves for God’s final day of judgement (Romans 2:5).  Punishment imposed at that point could seemingly serve no other purpose than retribution. In any case, the biblical view is that the wicked deserve punishment (Romans 1:32) and ascribes to God retribution (ekdikēsis; avtapodoma) for sins (Romans 11:9; 12:19), so that God’s justice must in some significant measure be retributive.

During the first half of the twentieth century, under the influence of social scientists, retributive theories of justice were frowned upon in favor of consequentialist theories.   Fortunately, there has been over the last half-century or so a renaissance of theories of retributive justice, accompanied by a fading of consequentialist theories,[2] so that we need not be distracted by the need to justify a retributive theory of justice. This change is due in no small part to the unwelcome implication of pure consequentialism that there are circumstances under which it is just to punish innocent people.  Unfortunately, it is precisely the conviction that the innocent ought not to be punished that lies behind the claim that penal substitutionary atonement theories are unjust and immoral.

Responses to the Alleged Injustice of Penal Substitution

1. Penal Substitution without Punishment

It is not widely appreciated that the present objection has no purchase against penal substitution theorists who hold that God did not punish Christ for our sins. Christ may be said to have voluntarily taken upon himself the suffering which would have been the punishment for our sins, had it been inflicted on us. Since Christ was not punished for our sins, his voluntarily suffering on our behalf cannot be said to be unjust on God’s part. So the objection is pressing only for a penal substitution theorist who holds that God did punish Christ for our sins.

2. Meta-Ethical Considerations

Suppose that we do accept that God punished Christ. An assessment of premise (2) – if God is just, he cannot punish an innocent person – requires its contextualization within a meta-ethical theory about the grounding of objective moral values and duties. Who or what determines what is just or unjust? The Protestant proponents of penal substitution were, like Anselm, all advocates of some sort of Divine Command Theory of ethics, according to which moral duties are constituted by divine imperatives. There is no external law hanging over God to which he must conform. Since God does not issue commands to himself, he literally has no moral duties to fulfill. He can act in any way consistent with his nature. He does not have the moral duties we have, and will have unique prerogatives, such as giving and taking human life as he wills. This is the lesson of the astonishing story of God’s commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Now if such a meta-ethical theory is even coherent, not to say true, as able proponents like Robert Adams, William Alston, and Philip Quinn have argued it is,[3] then the present objection will have difficulty even getting off the ground.[4] As Hugo Grotius observed in his classic defense of penal substitution[5], even if God has established a system of justice among human beings which forbids the punishment of the innocent (and, hence, substitutionary punishment), he himself is not so forbidden. He refused Moses’ offer of himself as a substitutionary sacrifice (Exodus 32:30-34), just as he refused the sacrificing of Isaac; but if he wills to take on human nature in the form of Jesus of Nazareth and give his own life as a sacrificial offering for sin, who is to forbid him? He is free to do so as long as it is consistent with his nature. And what could be more consistent with our God’s gracious nature than that he should condescend to take on our frail and fallen humanity and give his life to satisfy the demands of his own justice? The self-giving sacrifice of Christ exalts the nature of God by displaying his holy love.

3. Retributive Justice and the Divine Nature

Perhaps the best face that can be put on the present objection is to claim that, contrary to Socinus,[6] retributive justice is part of God’s nature, and therefore it is impossible that He act contrary to the principles of retributive justice.

But that raises the question: What is retributive justice? The present objection does not sufficiently differentiate various accounts of retributivism. While a so-called negative retributivism holds that the innocent should not be punished because they do not deserve it, the essence of retributive justice lies in so-called positive retributivism, which holds that the guilty should be punished because they deserve it. What distinguishes retributivism as a theory of justice is the positive thesis that punishment of the guilty is an intrinsic good because the guilty deserve it. God is a positive retributivist “who will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:7). But the penal theorist may maintain that God is only qualifiedly a negative retributivist, since even if he has prohibited human beings from punishing innocent persons, and even if he is too good to himself punish innocent human persons, still he reserves the prerogative to punish an innocent divine person, namely, Christ, in the place of the guilty. This extraordinary exception is a result of his goodness, not a defect in his justice.

This response alone suffices to dispense with the objection; but even more can be said.

4. Prima Facie vs. Ultima Facie Justification of Punishment

The objection also fails to reckon with the fact that the prima facie demands of retributive justice can be outweighed in specific cases by weightier moral considerations, so that an exception to justice’s demands may be justified ultima facie.

Feinberg and Gross observe that there are occasions on which a person can be fully justified in voluntarily producing an unjust effect upon another person.  Person A may be justified in violating person B’s rights when there is no third alternative open to him; but that justification does not cancel the injustice done to B. They state, “In that case, we can say that B was unjustly treated although A’s act resulting in that effect was not an instance of unjust behavior.”[7]

Similarly, even if God’s essential justice includes unqualified negative retributivism, the prima facie demands of negative retributive justice may be overridden in the case of Christ. In the case of the death of Christ the penal theorist might claim that God is fully justified in waiving the demands of negative retributive justice for the sake of the salvation of mankind. For God, by waiving the prima facie demands of negative retributive justice and punishing Christ for our sins, has mercifully saved the world from total destruction and was therefore acting compatibly with moral goodness.

Now it might be asked why, if there are weightier considerations prompting God to waive the demands of negative retributive justice in Christ’s case, he did not instead waive the demands of positive retributive justice and offer everyone a blanket pardon for their sins. In fact, many of the Church Fathers freely embraced this possibility, as did Aquinas and Grotius after them.[8] But these thinkers also held that God had good reasons for achieving atonement through Christ’s passion. As Abelard and Grotius saw, so doing was a powerful display of both God’s love of people and his hatred of sin, which has proved powerfully attractive throughout history in drawing people to faith in Christ, especially as they themselves face innocent suffering.

God’s pardoning sin without satisfaction does not, despite first appearances, imply universal salvation, for God’s pardon may still require its free acceptance by people, and it is not at all implausible that a world in which the great demonstration of God’s love and holiness in the vicarious suffering and death of Christ occurs is a world in which a more optimal number of people come freely to embrace salvation than a world in which free pardon without cost or consequence is offered men. The counterfactuals involved are too speculative to permit us to claim that a general pardon would have been more effective in accomplishing God’s ends. Besides, substitutionary punishment of Christ permits God to relax far less his essential retributive justice for the sake of mercy than would be the case with a general pardon, thereby expressing more fully his essential character of holy love.

5. Punishment and the Imputation of Sins

But suppose that the prima facie demands of negative retributive justice are essential to God and could not be overridden. Would God be unjust to punish Christ? Not necessarily. For consider premise (4) – Christ was an innocent person. Up to this point we have acquiesced in the assumption that Christ was, indeed, innocent. But for penal theorists like the Protestant Reformers, who affirm the imputation of our sins to Christ, there is no question in Christ’s case of God’s punishing the innocent and so violating even the prima facie demands of negative retributive justice. For Christ in virtue of the imputation of our sins to him was legally guilty before God. Of course, because our sins were merely imputed to Christ and not infused in him, Christ was, as always, personally virtuous, a paradigm of compassion, selflessness, purity, and courage, but he was declared legally guilty before God. Therefore, he was legally liable to punishment. Thus, given the doctrine of the imputation of sins, the present objection to penal substitutionary theory is a non-starter, being based on the false assumption of premise (4).

Detractors to the doctrine of imputation typically protest that we have no experience of the imputation of guilt from a wrongdoer to an otherwise innocent person. Such an assertion is, however, simply uninformed. In both civil law and criminal law there exist cases of what is called vicarious liability in which the liability or guilt of a subordinate is imputed to his superior even though the superior is entirely blameless in the affair. Cases typically involve employers being held liable for the illegal sale of items by employees, but may also include torts or crimes like assault and battery, fraud, manslaughter, and so on. If time permitted, I could say much more on this head but suffice it to say that the vicarious liability that exists in the law shows that the imputation of our guilt to Christ is not wholly without parallel in our experience. In the law’s imputation of guilt to another person than the wrongdoer, we actually have a very close analogy to the doctrine of the imputation of our sin to Christ.

In sum, the objection to penal substitution based on the justification of punishment is insufficiently nuanced. It applies only to theories which affirm that Christ was punished for our sins. It makes unwarranted assumptions about the ontological foundations of moral duty independent of God’s commands. It presupposes without warrant that God is by nature an unqualified negative retributivist. It overlooks the possibility that the prima facie demands of negative retributive justice might be overridden in Christ’s case. And it takes for granted that Christ was legally innocent, in opposition to the doctrine of imputation. It thus fails to show any injustice in God’s punishing Christ in our place.[9]



[1]          See Mark C. Murphy, “Not Penal Substitution but Vicarious Punishment,” Faith and Philosophy 26 (2009):  255-60.

[2]          See, e.g., Mark D. White, ed., Retributivism: Essays on Theory and Policy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Michael Tonry, ed., Retributivism Has a Past; Has It a Future?, Studies in Penal Theory and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).  Ironically, some theologians, unaware of this sea change, denounce in the strongest terms a God of retributive justice (Steven Finlan, Options on Atonement in Christian Thought (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2007), pp. 97-8), not realizing that their objection to the justice of penal substitution depends on a view of divine justice as retributive, lest God punish the innocent on consequentialist grounds.  Kathleen Dean Moore, Pardons: Justice, Mercy, and the Public Interest (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), chap. 5, gives a moving account of the horrendous results of consequentialism for our penal system.

[3]          Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods:  A Framework for Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); William P. Alston, “What Euthyphro Should Have Said,” in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, ed. Wm. L. Craig (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), pp. 283-98; Philip L. Quinn, Divine Commands and Moral Requirements (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978).

[4]          I have since discovered a forceful statement of this point by Alvin Plantinga, “Comments on ‘Satanic Verses: Moral Chaos in Holy Writ’,” in Divine Evil?: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham, edited by Michael Bergmann, Michael J. Murray, and Michael C. Rea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 113-14.

[5]          See A Defence of the Catholic Faith concerning the Satisfaction of Christ, against Faustus Socinus (1617).

[6]          Socinus holds that what he calls punitive justice (or vengeance) is not an essential property of God, any more than is his mercy. If punitive justice were an attribute of God, then God could under no circumstances forgive sins; likewise were mercy a divine attribute, God could under no circumstances punish sins.  Rather what is essential to God is his uprightness (rectitudo) or fairness (aequitas).  But whether he punishes sin is up to his free will. Similarly, mercy (misericordia) is an essential property of God only in the sense that God is loving.  But whether God chooses to pardon sinners is up to his free will.  Ironically, objectors to penal substitution need retributive justice to belong essentially to God, lest the Divine Command Theorist say that God freely determines that it is just to punish Christ, however innocent he may be.

[7]          Joel Feinberg and Hyman Gross, eds., Philosophy of Law, 2nd ed., (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1980), p. 286. An anonymous referee for this journal furnishes the example of the state’s exercise of eminent domain. In such a case a home owner may suffer the terrible injustice, which may be deeply felt and bitterly resented, of being stripped of his home, but the state does not act unjustly in bringing about this effect because of overriding justificatory reasons.

[8]          For the most vigorous contemporary defense of a non-necessitarian penal substitution theory, see Blaine Swen, “The Logic of Divine-Human Reconciliation: A Critical Analysis of Penal Substitution as An Explanatory Feature of Atonement” (Ph. D dissertation, Loyola University, Chicago, 2012).

[9]          Total Running Time: 21:35 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)