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#674 God’s Essential Negative Retributive Justice

March 22, 2020

Hello Dr. Craig,

First and foremost I'd like to genuinely thank you for your work. At only 20, your writings in particular on Molinism and postmodernism have saved me from an intellectual faith crisis, something that I will forever be grateful for. (Not to mention that they're getting me through college in one piece!) More recently, however, I've been in the midst of a new crisis that I'm seeking to remedy, and it is that of penal substitution. While I'm inclined to agree with it, my sole gripe regarding this doctrine is how God can be considered just for punishing Christ (an innocent party) for what was due to me (the guilty party).

Certain that you have covered this topic extensively, I searched through your writings to examine whatever answers I could find. In your scholarly writing titled "Is Penal Substitution Unjust?" you make an interesting claim when responding to the potential objection towards the Divine Command Theory, with the possible counterargument being that retributive justice is in fact part of God's nature; "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 (Deut 24.16), and even if He is too good to Himself punish innocent human persons (Gen 18.25), 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."

My question regarding your statement is how you justify making a distinction between human persons and divine persons in regard to God's retributive justice. If God's nature truly is that of such justice, then why should it matter who the person on the receiving end is? Why should an exception be made to this retributive justice just because the one involved is divine? I greatly want to remedy this but can't seem to.


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Dr. craig’s response


The question I’m raising in the discussion of the justice of penal substitution is, given that God is essentially a positive retributivist who will punish the guilty, how do we know that God is essentially an unqualified negative retributivist who will not punish the innocent? How do we know that? Since God, on my view, has no moral duties to perform (since moral duties arise from divine commands and God doesn’t command Himself to do things), we’d have to deduce His unqualified negative retributivism from His perfect goodness. Can we do that? I think we might infer that a perfectly good Being would prohibit human beings from punishing other innocent human beings and, plausibly, would not even Himself punish innocent human beings. Nonetheless He can, if He chooses, punish an innocent divine person in place of the guilty because such an act of divine self sacrifice is an expression of His essential goodness. It isn’t so much the divinity of the person as such that makes a difference as it is that a divine person has the right to sacrifice Himself for the sake of others. What confidence can we have that if God is perfectly good He cannot make such a sacrifice for those He loves?  Not much, I think.

- William Lane Craig