Doctrine of Christ (Part 21): The Work of Christ (14) - Atonement, Doctrinal Reflection Continued

June 28, 2017

More Responses to the Objection to the Justification of Penal Substitution

We began last week to look at the most important objection to the doctrine of penal substitution. The doctrine states that Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins. The objection is that this would be unjust and therefore immoral on God's part because Christ was an innocent person. I attempted to formulate this argument sympathetically in terms of six premises:

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 (is) an innocent person.

5. Therefore God cannot punish Christ.

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

We saw last time that someone who holds to penal substitution but denies that God punished Christ can avoid this argument very easily simply by denying premise (6). He would hold that God afflicted Christ with the suffering which would have been our punishment had it been inflicted on us instead. He would maintain that the truth of penal substitution does not require that God punish Christ, and the argument is invalidated.

On the other hand, suppose we do hold that God did punish Christ which is what most penal substitution theorists would say. Then we need to examine the first two premises – that God is perfectly just and if God is perfectly just he cannot punish an innocent person. I suggested that this needs to be contextualized within a theory of where moral values and duties come from. If God himself determines what is just or unjust then it doesn’t make any sense to accuse God of injustice because he is the ultimate standard of justice. So if God determines that punishing Christ for our sins in our place is just, who can gainsay him? Who can say that God is unjust – it is God who is the source of justice.

Perhaps the best face that can be put on the objection in response to this point would be to say, Wait a minute! Even you Divine Command theorists do not think God can do something contrary to his own nature. He can issue whatever commands he wishes so long as they are consistent with his nature. He can act in any way he wishes. He has no moral duties to fulfill. But nevertheless he has to act consistently with his own nature. So the objector might say, Perhaps retributive justice is part of God’s nature, and therefore it is impossible for God to act contrary to the principles of retributive justice because he would be acting contrary to his own nature.

That response, I think, while making a good point doesn’t distinguish or differentiate adequately between different accounts of retributive justice. What is retributive justice, after all? On the contemporary scene there are two different forms of retributive justice that are distinguished by theorists. One would be a positive retributivism and the other is negative retributivism. Positive retributivism says that the guilty should be punished because they deserve it. Punishment of the guilty is justified because they deserve their punishment. This is their just desert. Negative retributivism says that the innocent should not be punished because they do not deserve it. The first one says that the guilty should be punished because they deserve it; negative retributivism says the innocent should not be punished because they do not deserve it.[1]

The essence of retributive justice lies in positive retributivism. The heart of the theory of retributive justice is that the punishment of the guilty is an intrinsic good because the guilty deserve it. The Bible makes it very clear that God is a positive retributivist. Exodus 34:7 says, for example, “He will by no means clear the guilty.” So God is committed to positive retributive justice – the guilty deserve punishment and therefore should be punished. But how do we know that God is an unqualified negative retributivist? Even if God has prohibited human beings from punishing innocent persons and has established that as a moral norm in human society, and even if God is too good himself to punish an innocent human person, nevertheless he might still reserve to himself the prerogative to punish an innocent divine person, namely, Christ, in place of the guilty. This extraordinary exception would be not a defect in his justice but rather a result of his goodness. If that is the case then premise (2) of this argument is simply false – it is not true that God being perfectly just cannot punish the innocent. What I am suggesting is that one way to respond to this objection is to affirm that God is unqualifiedly committed by his very nature to positive retributive justice, but he is only qualifiedly a negative retributivist because he reserves the right to punish an innocent divine person, namely Christ, for sin.


Student: For the negative retributive justice, when the Bible talks about and the sins of the father go down to generation after generation, you have this generational type of passing down of punishment, how does that work out with what you are saying about qualification?

Dr. Craig: That is a really good question. I think there are two ways to look at it. One way would be to say this shows that God is not a negative retributivist. In this case he is willing to punish innocent people for the sins of their ancestors. On the other hand, as I said the other week, it could be here that he is saying the consequences of the father’s sins are visited upon subsequent generations. I distinguished between the consequences of sin and punishment for sin. It could well be the case that, in the instance you are talking about, what we are talking about are non-punitive consequences of sin that are visited upon subsequent generations. Ezekiel reacts very negatively to the idea that these people are being punished for the sins of their forebears. Ezekiel says very clearly, The soul that sins shall die. What do you mean by saying that people will bear the sins of their fathers? He rejects that. That would suggest that this is perhaps to be interpreted in terms of consequences rather than in terms of punishment. That was why I suggested that God may be qualifiedly committed to negative retributivism in that he prohibits human beings from punishing innocent people and also that he himself will not punish an innocent human person for the sins of somebody else.

Student: I was just going to quote the passage you are alluding to where God, through Ezekiel, takes on this popular saying among the Israelites which was the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge. And God says through Ezekiel, No longer shall you recite this proverb in Israel. The soul that sins is the one that shall die. In other words, a misunderstanding perhaps of what the subsequent generational consequences were, meaning that, Oh, you sinned, and somebody else pays for it.

Dr. Craig: Yes. Good. Thank you.[2]

Student: I would raise the point . . . the book of Romans and again the Old Testament – it clearly says, Is any man righteous? No, not one. If that is true then there is no such thing as punishing the innocent.

Dr. Craig: I think that is a very good point. In these cases that are raised, the children are also engaged in the same sorts of sins and so it is not really the case that sins are being visited upon innocent people. I do think that that is a point well worth remembering when we think about these cases.

Student: I don’t think God punishes Christ. The nature of sin is it does harm to others. In Chinese culture, justice is maintained by revenge. Revenge is passed down to generations. The son is obligated to revenge his father’s enemy. I think Christ takes on the punishment of the sin so that he can put a stop to this perpetuated revenge. I don’t think that is God punishing Christ. He takes it on so that it can put an end.

Dr. Craig: That would be in accord with the first line of response that I suggested to the argument which would deny step (6) of the argument. I think that is open to the defender of penal substitution. The Lord clearly prohibits that kind of vengeful activity when he says, Do not avenge yourself. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, and therefore prohibits this kind of activity to human persons reserving for himself the prerogative of judging human beings and punishing them.


It seems to me that this serves to dispense with the objection. This response to the objection will grant that retributive justice does indeed belong to the divine nature. It is essential to God, and therefore it is impossible that God act contrary to the principles of at least positive retributive justice and for the most part negative retributive justice as well with the marked exception of reserving the prerogative to punish an innocent divine person for our sins. If this is correct then the second premise of the argument is false, and the argument falls apart.

But there is more that can be said as well for drawing premise (2) into question. I want to move on to a second line of response. This is to distinguish between the prima facie demands of retributive justice and the ultima facie demands of retributive justice. That is to say, the prima facie demands would be the face value demands of retributive justice. The ultima facie demands would be when you weigh other moral considerations and consider one’s ultimate moral obligation in a certain case. Another way of putting this is to say that those who defend retributive justice distinguish between the justification of punishment in general and the justification of a specific act of punishment. They are trying to say that in general the guilty should be punished because they deserve it. But there can be specific cases where the demands of retributive justice are weighed because there are outweighing moral considerations. If that is the case then, for example, even though positive retributive justice is true, sometimes prosecutors will wave it by giving a plea bargain, say, to the accused criminal so that people who are guilty of even more heinous crimes can be convicted by means of their testimony. Or in other cases the demands of retributive justice might be waived because imposing them would deny the moral rights of others and rob them of their rights.[3] Therefore, just because punishment is in general justified doesn’t mean that it is always justified in some specific case.

I introduced to you the other day Joel Feinberg, a very famous legal philosopher. In an article that he co-authored with Hyman Gross, Feinberg and Gross point out that there are occasions in which a person can be fully justified in 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. Feinberg and Gross say, “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. For an act to have an unjust quality (whatever its effects) it must be, objectively speaking, the wrong thing to do in the circumstances, unexcused and unjustified, voluntarily undertaken, and deliberately chosen by an unrushed actor who is well aware of the alternatives open to him.”[4] What Feinberg and Gross are saying is there are cases in which a person can be ultimately justified in producing an unjust result for some person – violating a person’s rights because of these overriding moral considerations.

Apply that to the case of Christ. In the case of the death of Christ, the penal theorist says that God was fully justified in allowing Christ to be unjustly treated for the sake of the salvation of mankind. The biblical scholar Donald Carson reminds us,

It is the unjust punishment of the Servant in Isaiah 53 that is so remarkable. Forgiveness, restoration, salvation, reconciliation–all are possible, not because sins have somehow been canceled as if they never were, but because another bore them unjustly. But by this adverb ‘unjustly’ I mean that the person who bore them was just and did not deserve the punishment, not that some moral ‘system’ that God was administering was thereby distorted.[5]

In the specific case of Christ the demands of negative retributive justice were outweighed by heavier moral considerations so that even if it is true that God is an unqualified negative retributivist as well as positive retributivist, in view of these overriding moral considerations the demands of negative retributive justice can be waved in the case of Christ so that God could punish an innocent person. He can produce an unjust effect upon Christ even though he is fully justified morally in doing so. It is consistent with his divine nature.


Student: It seems like when you are saying somebody can be justified . . . a heinous action can be justified if it is better overall. That may be true. If two elevators are going to crash and you got one with twenty people and one with ten people so you let the ten one die, but you both are going to be punished. You are going to be punished for killing ten. You don’t want to kill thirty by not making a decision and they both fall. You are justifying Hitler and people like that when you use that logic.

Dr. Craig: I guess I disagree. I think there can be cases where the just thing to do will be to allow an unjust act or effect to happen to a person and that this is the moral thing to do in virtue of these overriding moral considerations.

Student: I would not call it moral or just. I would say it would be the best thing to do.

Dr. Craig: That word “best” is a moral term, right?

Student: You are going to pay for killing those ten people. That is not removed.[6] There are a lot of things . . .

Dr. Craig: Let’s think of the examples that I appealed to where a plea bargain is offered to a criminal to give testimony that will serve to convict other people of even more heinous crimes. In a case like that, justice is not done to that criminal. The demands of justice are waved because of overriding considerations. It seems to me that there can be many other examples that we might think of where the prima facie demands of justice are not enforced because of these overriding ultimate concerns.

Student: I don’t oppose that so much as killing somebody else so that say you have to kill one person so you can convict those twenty. I don’t see that. Not inflicting punishment on somebody is different.

Dr. Craig: Well, the question would be then, in the case of Christ, would God be justified ultimately in punishing Christ for our sins and waiving the demands of negative retributive justice? It seems to me that plausibly he could.

Student: I don’t believe God would punish an innocent man. He wouldn’t punish Christ. I believe Christ was no longer innocent when he voluntarily took our sin upon himself.

Dr. Craig: OK! That is the next point. But what we are doing here is we are examining various ways of responding.

Student: Point number three sounds like you are saying, God is crooked and doesn’t obey by the same law he puts over us. That would be true. So yeah that would be true but that is not the case. God is totally righteous.

Dr. Craig: Well, I am going to agree with the point that you just made, but it does seem to me that this is an important distinction that is very common in legal discussions that allow the prima facie demands of justice to simply be waved in certain cases because there are overriding considerations. In the case of Christ, to me at least, I could see where God would waive the demands of negative retributive justice in order to secure the salvation of mankind.

Student: I think he would put his justification or arbitrariness of his law in jeopardy if you were to do that. He would not punish Christ if Christ had not willfully received our sin. In fact, I think . . .

Dr. Craig: Again, you are going on to the next point where I am going to agree with you. But for now I am making a more preliminary point. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. You can reject it. But I think it is a point that is worth making that when people talk about the demands of retributive justice they are always talking about just prima facie demands and everyone recognizes that these demands are often waived because of overriding moral considerations that are heavier than the demands of retributive justice in specific cases.

Student: Would you like to speak to the just war theory and the Old Testament where God having also used people and commanded them to do certain forms of justice and punishment to groups.

Dr. Craig: I would have to think more about that. I think what you are getting at would be in the case of a just war you are justified in killing people, for example, and lying and doing other things that prima facie you wouldn’t be justified in doing. But because of these overriding moral considerations these are now morally permissible and perhaps even obligatory. I think you are making a similar point here or illustrating it.

Student: For those who are pacifists, they would say regardless of just war they refuse to kill. They are very, very strict about that one aspect.

Dr. Craig: Right. They would not compromise the prima facie demands in view of these ultima facie considerations. But just war people would. That is what I am pleading for here. I am going to say that in fact we don’t need to do that but that is the next point.

Student: Don’t we have to draw a distinction between temporal justice and eternal justice?[7] Because, for example, God’s justice is frequently deferred – his forbearance. We know that all things work together for good. Well, there is all kinds of evil that is not punished immediately.

Dr. Craig: Right. Now, how would that apply to the case at hand – in the case of Christ?

Student: The ultima facie – we don’t see immediate justice for evil deeds. Right? Because there is a better good in God’s plan. Why do we see injustice in the world if he is in control and could stop any circumstance if he chose to? He allows it to go on. He doesn’t have immediate justice for those sins because there is some greater good that he sees that we don’t necessarily see.

Dr. Craig: Right. OK. I am not sure that I see the applicability to the question of whether or not God could have waved the demands of strict negative retributive justice in the case of Christ. Because there that wouldn’t ever be reversed.

Student: No, no. Not with Christ. There are two distinctions I think. One is people versus Christ. And the other is eternal versus temporal. God’s justice is eternally absolute, but temporally we see all kinds of injustice that he allows and permits.

Dr. Craig: Sure.


Let me go on in the interest of time to my last point. And that is to question premise (4) of this argument – that Christ was an innocent person.

Up to this point, we’ve just taken for granted that Christ was indeed an innocent person. But for penal substitution theorists like the Reformers like Francois Turretin that we examined, who affirmed that our sins were imputed to Christ, there is no question in the case of Christ of God’s punishing an innocent person and therefore violating even the prima facie demands of negative retributive justice. For in virtue of the imputation of our sins to Christ, Christ was legally guilty before God. Of course, one needs to add immediately that because our sins were merely imputed to Christ and not infused into Christ, Christ himself remains personally virtuous. He remains a paragon of compassion, selflessness, purity, courage, and so forth, but he was declared legally guilty by God in virtue of our sins being imputed to him. Therefore, he was legally liable to punishment. Therefore, given the doctrine of the imputation of sins, there is no need to compromise even the prima facie demands of negative retributive justice, which will make some of you feel more comfortable. I am sure in this case God can be both a positive and negative retributivist in an unqualified sense, but because of the imputation of our sins to Christ there is just no question here of God’s punishing an innocent person.

The objector at this point might say, I think that imputing our sins to Christ is itself unjust. To impute our sins to an innocent person is itself an unjust act. Sometimes people like this will raise objections to vicarious liability in the law, which we’ve discussed in previous sessions, where the guilt or deeds of a subordinate can be imputed to his employer and the employer will be held liable or guilty for the deeds of his subordinate. Some people have protested that that is unjust, even if it is permitted in our legal system for practical reasons. But under what conditions would such vicarious liability be unjust? It would seem to me that it would be unjust only in the case in which it is non-voluntary. Only in the case in which vicarious liability is imputed in a non-voluntary way to the employer or superior. But suppose you have an employer who has compassion upon his employee and knows that it would destroy the employee to exact the demands of retributive justice at his hand.[8] So the employer says, Exact it from me. I am willing to be made vicariously liable and to pay the entire liability – the entire penalty – for the deeds of my subordinate. In that case, how could that be said to be unjust? It seems to me that so long as it is voluntary there can be no charge of injustice in the imputation of the liability to the employer for the deeds done by the employee.

Therefore, given the doctrine of the imputation of sins, this argument, I think, again falls apart. It is unsound because it is not, in fact, true that Christ is an innocent person.


Student: In this connection, maybe someone can dig up the little passage where Paul talks about Onesimus and his wrongs, and Paul says, Put it on my account, and my good goes to him, and his bad goes to me. That sort of thing.

Dr. Craig: I hadn't thought of that. That is in Philemon where Paul says, If he owes you anything, put it to my account. He is trying to free a runaway slave. That is an interesting metaphor because, as we saw, the whole idea of ransom and redemption was the word used in biblical times to buy slaves out of captivity and to give them freedom. That would be the case with Onesimus who was a renegade slave that Paul had led to Christ and now wants to allow to go free.

Student: This might not be exactly on topic but it came to mind. This verse in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that’s commonly said, He made the one who did not know sin to be sin. Some translations say, to become sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. A little research on that verse, I found out that there is some competing manuscripts that actually kind of read it more, to become a sin offering for us, not to become sin. That really changes the meaning of it because to say that he who did not know sin to become sin is like for him to be transformed and become sin itself is an entirely different thing than to become a sin offering for us.

Dr. Craig: I think you are right that they are different. I don’t think this is based upon manuscript evidence, but just a different interpretation of the word for “sin” there. I take it at face value that this is teaching the doctrine of imputation, not infusion as you say. He can’t become an evil person. But legally our sins are imputed to Christ in the same way that his righteousness is imputed to us.


To summarize and conclude, it seems to me that this objection to the doctrine of penal substitution is again very challengeable. If you don't hold that God punished Christ for our sins then step (6) goes by the board. On the other hand, on a Divine Command Theory of justice, God himself is the one who determines what is just or unjust, and so he can punish an innocent person if that accords with his nature. It does seem to accord with his nature that he would voluntarily give his own life as a sacrifice for our sins. If you say, no, the demands of retributive justice are essential to God and therefore cannot be compromised, then we distinguish between positive and negative retributive justice and say that while God is an unqualified positive retributivist, he is only qualifiedly a negative retributivist. He reserves for himself the right to punish an innocent divine person should he so want to. You can also then distinguish between the prima facie demands of retributive justice and the ultima facie demands and maintain that in the case of Christ there were overriding moral considerations so that God was perfectly acting in a just way to wave the demands of negative retributive justice in Christ’s case. All these would go to call into question premise (2) of the argument. Finally, the doctrine of the imputation of sins shows that Christ was not, in fact, an innocent person. He was legally guilty before God and therefore premise (4) of the argument is false. So it seems to me that all of the crucial premises in this argument are eminently challengeable and therefore there is no compelling objection to the justice of penal substitution.[9]



[1] 5:11

[2] 10:03

[3] 15:08

[4] Joel Feinberg and Hyman Gross, eds., Philosophy of Law, 2nd ed., (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1980), p. 286.

[5] D. A. Carson, “Atonement in Romans 3:21-26,” in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Perspectives, ed. Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 133.

[6] 20:00

[7] 25:01

[8] 30:03

[9] Total Running Time: 35:41 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)