Doctrine of Christ (Part 18): The Work of Christ (11) - Atonement, Doctrinal Reflection

June 07, 2017

Definition of Punishment

We’ve completed our survey of the biblical data concerning Christ’s atonement as well as a brief synopsis of certain great figures in the history of the church with respect to their thinking on the atonement. Today we want to now reflect on this doctrine and explore what options are open to a biblically faithful atonement theorist.

I want to reiterate what I said earlier that any atonement theory, however appealing or attractive it might appear to you, which does not do justice to the biblical data just is not an acceptable atonement theory. While I am not going to defend a specific atonement theory, I do think that any adequate theory of the atonement must incorporate the following elements.

The first and foremost of these is penal substitution. An essential, and I think, central element of any biblically adequate atonement theory is penal substitution. Penal substitution in a theological context can be defined as 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. Notice that that explication leaves open the question of whether God punished Christ for our sins. Some defenders of penal substitution recoil at the idea that God punished His beloved Son. But notice that the explication that I’ve given allows that Christ was not punished but that rather he endured the suffering which would have been our punishment had it been inflicted upon us. So God did not technically punish Christ for our sins, but he afflicted him with the suffering which we deserved as the punishment for our sins. I don’t think we want to exclude simply by definition such an account from being a penal substitutionary theory because on such an account Christ does suffer as our substitute and he does bear what would have been our punishment as a result of which we are released from punishment. My explication does allow you, if you want to hold this, that God did, in fact, punish Christ for our sins. So it is consistent with saying that God punished Christ for our sins, but it doesn’t require it. One can simply say that Christ endured the suffering which would have been our punishment had it been inflicted upon us.


Student: The whole concept of punishment in my mind revolves around justice. We did the crime, we gotta do the time. If he took it for us, that is a blessing for us, but we still deserve it.

Dr. Craig: Yes. That’s right. Penal substitution theorists would agree with that.

Student: I guess I don’t understand the distinction because if he truly was punished then he would have been cut off and without hope like we are. Was he that way?

Dr. Craig: Penal substitution theorists wouldn’t agree with that. They would say that he endured the punishment which was our just desert, but God raised him from the dead and he, having paid that penalty or punishment, cannot be held any longer and is risen and ascended into heaven.[1] That is a different question that I suppose the person who says that God punished Christ for our sins would have to deal with whereas the person who affirms this weaker or more modest version wouldn’t have to deal with that question.


I think any atonement theory which hopes to account adequately for the biblical data has to include penal substitution. There is no way to account for the biblical data from Isaiah 53 and the employment of that chapter in the New Testament without penal substitution. Moreover, if penal substitution is true it can’t just be a peripheral or subsidiary element of your atonement theory because it is foundational for so many other aspects of the atonement such as the satisfaction of divine justice, our redemption from sin, even the moral influence of Christ’s example. So a composite or multifaceted atonement theory is going to need to include penal substitution at its center.

Since the time of Socinus, however, the doctrine of penal substitution has faced formidable, and some would say insuperable, philosophical challenges. In discussing these challenges, my aim is not to provide a single solution to them. I want to explore with you various options which are open to the Christian thinker. A discussion of these challenges is going to take us into very lively debates in the philosophy of law, particularly with respect to the theory of punishment. Unfortunately, most theologians today, and in fact most Christian philosophers, have very little familiarity with this field of philosophy and with these debates. The doctrine of penal substitution is almost invariably dismissed by its critics today with a single paragraph, or maybe even a single sentence, to the effect that it would be unjust of God to punish an innocent person for somebody else’s sins, full stop, end of discussion. I think we’ve got to go much deeper than that.

One’s theory of punishment is going to include both a definition of punishment and a justification of punishment. A definition of punishment will enable us to determine what counts as punishment. A justification of punishment will help us to determine whether a punitive action is permitted or even required, depending on your theory. Both of these elements of a theory of punishment are relevant to penal substitution.

I want to issue a word of caution, however, before we look at this in more detail. The type of punishment discussed by legal theorists and philosophers of law is almost invariably legal punishment within the criminal justice system. While this can be very analogous to divine justice, human systems of justice also have features which are significantly disanalogous to divine justice. To give just an obvious example, the state may be forced not to administer justice to some person because of a lack of prison space due to overcrowding or lack of funds. Obviously, these kinds of limitations would not affect the administration of divine justice. So human justice and divine justice will not always be tightly parallel. Nevertheless legal theorists and philosophers of law have poured an enormous amount of thought into the theory of punishment, so I think there is a great deal to be learned from them.[2] But we always need to keep in mind that their theories of punishment are not directly transferable to all forms of punishment, especially divine punishment.

We want to begin by talking about the definition of punishment. Punishment involves, first of all, harsh treatment of someone, as is obvious from typical cases of punishment. But “harsh treatment” is not sufficient for something to be punishment, however. As even Socinus recognized, God could afflict a person with suffering and that wouldn’t necessarily be punishment on that person. So what transforms harsh treatment into punishment? This where the debate begins. I want to look at the alleged incoherence of penal substitution.

In fact, there is no consensus among legal theorists as to what are the sufficient conditions for harsh treatment to count as punishment. But I want to consider some of the necessary conditions for punishment according to a standard philosophical encyclopedia. This is from the article on retributive justice in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – the article “Retributive Justice.” This is what the author says, “For an act to count as punishment, it must have four elements.” So here are four necessary conditions for an act to be punishment. “First, it must impose some sort of cost or hardship on . . . the person being punished.” That is the harsh treatment. “Second, the punisher must do so intentionally, not as an accident, and not as a side-effect of pursuing some other end.” If you were to accidentally run over somebody in your car, you would treat him harshly but that wouldn’t be punishment. “Third, the hardship or loss must be imposed in response to what is believed to be a wrongful act or omission.” The person has done something wrong or omitted some action that he ought to have done, and therefore the hardship is being imposed in response to this wrongful act or omission. “Fourth, the hardship or loss must be imposed, at least in part, as a way of sending a message of condemnation or censure for what is believed to be a wrongful act or omission.” There is a sort of stigma attached to punishment that carries a connotation of condemnation or censure for this wrongful act or omission.

This is a version of what is called an expressivist theory of punishment. This has been made popular by the legal theorist, Joel Feinberg. According to this theory of punishment, harsh treatment imposed upon someone must express condemnation or censure in order to count as punishment. That is why it is called expressivism. This harsh treatment is an expression of condemnation or censure. Some critics of penal substitution have claimed that given an expressivist theory of punishment, God could not have punished Christ for our sins. God could not condemn or censure Christ because Christ was sinless. Since he was utterly innocent (had done nothing wrong) he could not be condemned or censured by God. Notice that the objection here is not that it would be immoral or unjust for God to punish Christ for other people’s wrongs. No, the objection is that any harsh treatment that God might impose upon Christ – any suffering that he might afflict him with – would not count as punishment because it wouldn’t express condemnation or censure.[3]


Student: So, I am confused. The condemnation is of the act?

Dr. Craig: Ah! This is a very good question. You are really thinking! I admire your subtlety. Let me read again that fourth condition from the article on retributive justice. “The hardship or loss must be imposed, at least in part, as a way of sending a message of condemnation or censure for what is believed to be a wrongful act or omission.” That definition did not say that the condemnation or censure had to be directed toward the person punished. We are going to pick up on that omission or that lacuna in our response. You are quite right in noticing that. Expressivism, as it is typically stated (as I’ve always seen it stated in fact; I’ve never seen an exception to this), it never says that the condemnation or censure needs to be directed toward the person punished. We will say more about that later. Good question.

Student: Is there anything in the objective of punishment that would lead us to understand better its definition? Is the objective to rehabilitate someone? Or is the objective to keep others from doing it?

Dr. Craig: I wasn’t going to go into that, but you are quite right in drawing our attention to that. Your theory of punishment is going to derive from your theory of justice. What you think punishment is for will be based upon your theories of justice. There are typically two broad competing theories of justice. One is called retributivism, and the other is called consequentialism. Retributivism says that justice gives the offender what he deserves. Punishment is the just desert of the guilty. The guilty deserve punishment. That is the justification for punishment. It is giving the offender what he has earned – he deserves to be punished. Consequentialism says that the reason you punish the offender is for the benefits or consequences that can ensue from punishment. For example, to sequester dangerous criminals from society where they can’t harm people. You lock them away. Or the reformation of the criminal – to help him to become a better person and turn over a new leaf, you punish him for his personal reformation. Or a third consequence could be for deterrence. When people see how these criminals are punished, this will hopefully deter them from committing similar crimes. So you can see that consequentialism is very different from retributivism with regard to justice and your theory of punishment.

During the first half or three-quarters of the twentieth century, the dominant view among legal theorists, as a result of the influence of psychologists and social scientists, was consequentialism. And it was a disaster for our prison system. In fact, deterrence doesn’t work, it doesn’t reform the criminal to lock them away in prison. Very often they become worse. The whole idea of consequentialism has been exposed as really fraudulent. In fact, it resulted in terrible abuses. One writer that I read pointed out that as a result of this theory, women received longer prison sentences than men for the same crimes.[4] The rationale was that women were thought to be more reformable than men, and therefore you punish them more because the purpose is to reform them and help them to become better. As a result, women were given more severe prison sentences than men out of this misplaced motivation of trying to help them reform. So there has been a sea change in recent decades concerning theories of justice where these consequentialist theories have really receded and retributivist theories would be the standard way in which justice is understood. The fundamental reason you punish the guilty is because this is what they deserve. It is their just desert.

This is a very welcomed development, I think, for the Christian theist because it seems very clear, to me at least, that biblically-speaking God’s justice is retributive. The reason I say that is because God’s justice is eschatological – he waits until the end of time (the end of human history) to finally administer justice. Until then he lets the tares grow with the wheat. But then ultimately there will be final judgment in which people get their just deserts. It is hard to see how that could have any sort of consequentialist motivation. The people in hell aren’t going to be reformed or bettered. There is no deterrence factor at that point. It seems that the nature of divine justice is retributive. The Scriptures say over and over again that the guilty deserve punishment by God. Paul says in Romans 1:32, Though they know that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only approve them but practice them themselves. That is a statement of retributive justice. Those who do such things deserve to die. So this change in legal theory has been, I think, a very welcomed development from the standpoint of the Christian theologian given that the biblical view of divine justice, I think, is fundamentally retributive.

Student: Could you expound on consequentialism as a form of justification?

Dr. Craig: The idea would be – and this is a justification for punishment – the reason punishment is justified is because, for example, you’ve got to isolate these rapists and thieves and murderers or they might hurt other people. So for the sake of society you incarcerate them and put them in prison. That is a consequence. It is not that they deserve to be in prison. It is not that they deserve this punishment. You just put them away there to isolate them from hurting more people. Do you see that?

Student: I guess my confusion is . . . when I think of justice I do ultimately think of retribution. It just seems weird to think . . .

Dr. Craig: That is not the consequentialist view. The consequentialist view is that these people are to be punished, for example, because it isolates dangerous criminals or, as I mentioned, it is for his own benefit. You are going to reform him. The benevolent state is going to do these things to help him become a better person. Or, as I say, to deter crime. Those are all consequentialist reasons for why the state should punish people. As I think you can see, those don’t seem to apply very well to divine punishment.

Student: It is interesting you mention that because I was thinking how I hear a lot of atheists lately will object to the doctrine of hell and substitutionary atonement by attacking retributive justice because they tend to be very consequentialist in their thinking about punishment. One statement I hear them say is in hell you don’t come out a better person. So it seems pointless. It is that consequentialist motivation.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. That is very good! You are seeing the assumption that underlies the objection.[5] You don’t come out of hell any better so what is the point of punishing. They clearly have absorbed this consequentialist view that was dominant until around the 1970s or so.

Student: I guess I am just ignorant. I always assumed it was still dominant, but I guess I am wrong on that.

Dr. Craig: Read the article on retributive justice in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This is an online resource that anyone can read. It explains the sea change that has taken place. Not just a renaissance of retributive theories of justice, but a simultaneous waning of these consequentialist theories. Partly for theoretical reasons (the philosophical objections to consequentialism were thought to be pretty substantive), but also because, as I say, of the practical and social consequences that showed that this theory of justice was not working in our prison system and had terrible effects. So for those two reasons this consequentialism is very much in retreat today

Student: A minute ago when you mentioned God’s justice being eschatological, I wanted to clarify. That doesn’t mean that it is exclusively eschatological, correct?

Dr. Craig: That’s correct.

Student: Certainly, he has administered justice throughout history.

Dr. Craig: He does. For example, he judged Israel by having Babylon come in and destroy Israel and carry them into exile. So clearly God’s retributive justice is exercised in history. But ultimately, as I say, remember the parable of the wheat and the tares. Jesus says in the parable, Don’t go out and try to pull up all the weeds because if you do a lot of wheat is going to be damaged. In other words, a lot of innocent people are going to be hurt. Wait until the harvest, and then you will separate the wheat from the tares. So you have this prospect in the Bible of this great judgment day that is coming when God’s ultimate justice will finally be meted out. But certainly you are right that along the way there can be historical acts of justice as well.

Student: So things like Adam and Eve in the garden . . .

Dr. Craig: Or Ananias and Sapphira when they were struck dead, for example. Clearly there are retributive acts of justice along the way.

Student: It seems like a number of these terms – punishment and retribution and so forth – deal with the human experience and God’s dealing with us sometimes on Earth or between each other as human beings. But in a cosmological sense, 2 Corinthians says, He made him sin who knew no sin. He neutralizes sin for the person that is in Christ. When the judgment comes, you are judged as a believer as to the effectiveness of your life, not a hit parade of your sin. For the unbeliever, real punishment would be annihilation. God gives them their choice. They chose separation and that is what they get, not that they are given punitive measures to remind them of what they did in life but they are separated from God. That is the penalty.

Dr. Craig: You’ve raised a number of issues here. I don’t see any reason to think biblically that the real punishment for sin is annihilation rather than eternal torment. These people who ought to be annihilated instead have chosen to be eternally tormented.

Student: That is what I said. I don’t believe in annihilation, but if God was involved in punishing people for unbelief then it seems the ultimate punishment would be annihilation. They’ve chosen separation.

Dr. Craig: I don’t agree with that. God’s punishment has to be just, and I think that in Scripture the just punishment for those outside of Christ I would say is eternal torment or eternal separation from God. But we don’t need to decide that issue. I know there are lots of Christians who are annihilationists. That gets to the content of the punishment, not to your theory of justice. In either case, it is meant to be a retribution on the unbeliever that he deserves whatever that punishment is. I forgot the first part of your question.

Student: I am putting the onus on the unbeliever. Redemption is available.[6]

Dr. Craig: Oh, right. In Christ we are released from the condemnation that we were under when we were outside of Christ. That is the whole point of the atonement. That is exactly right. It is through the atoning death of Christ, and I would say penal substitution, that we are freed from having to bear the punishment for our sins. Christ has born that penalty or punishment for us. Therefore those who are in Christ are freed from that condemnation and desert.

Student: What would you do with that 2 Corinthians passage?

Dr. Craig: We will talk about that later on. I think that gets into imputation of sin. We will get to that.

Student: I had a question about the degree of punishment. Are you going to get into any of that at all?

Dr. Craig: No, because that kind of thing, as well as annihilation and so forth, should be reserved for our section on doctrine of the last things when we talk about heaven and hell, degrees of punishment, and things like that. Here our focus is on the atonement and specifically penal substitution. As I say, we are not concerned here with the content of the sentence that God has meted out, but simply that God’s justice is retributive and therefore those who deserve punishment are punished. Now we are asking: what does it mean to be punished? We are looking at this expressivist theory of punishment and asking: does this exclude Christ from being punished since he had no sin for which he could be condemned? That will be the question that we’ll take up next time.

Student: Where I was going with that was look at Christ’s punishment on the cross. It was finite but the deserving punishment of sin against God is actually infinite.

Dr. Craig: Were you not here last week?

Student: No, I wasn’t. Did you discuss that?

Dr. Craig: That’s what I thought. We dealt with that last week with Francis Turretin, the great Reformed theologian of Geneva from the last 1600s. I think Turretin was quite correct in saying that though Christ’s suffering was finite in duration, it was of infinite value because of the divinity of the person who was suffering. It was God himself. I think that is a plausible answer to that question.


We are out of time. What we will do next time is to look at various responses to the alleged incoherence of penal substitution.[7]



[1] 5:18

[2] 10:06

[3] 15:06

[4] 20:04

[5] 25:00

[6] 30:03

[7] Total Running Time: 33:34 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)