4 Cringe-worthy Claims of Popular Penal Substitution Theology

Problems in popular penal substitution theology might be a reflection of the "juvenilization" of American evangelical Christianity. When church becomes youth group for adults, explanations that speak on a teenage level become the norm for everybody.
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I've often wondered if the same thing that makes violent video games appealing is why young evangelical guys are so infatuated with penal substitution theology. I figure a scary badass God is cool for the same reason that the loud wet smack of a linebacker knocking the wind out of a quarterback is cool (I was that linebacker once). I recognize that some guys need to have a God who likes to say "RAWR!!!" but in their zeal over penal substitution, some cringe-worthy and not entirely Biblical assertions are being made. There is a theologically responsible account of penal substitution; it's part of the mystery of the cross. But I wanted to examine four of the more obnoxious assertions that I've heard in what I would call popular penal substitution theology.

1. God is allergic to sin.

A pillar of popular penal substitution theology is that God cannot tolerate the presence of sin. I think it's more accurate to say that sin cannot tolerate the presence of God. The consequence of understanding things the first way is that the cross becomes God's inoculation for His sin allergy. Ironically, one of the main points of Jesus' incarnation was to prove that God is not distant and untouchably pure, but rather someone who "eats and drinks with sinners." Now this doesn't mean that sin is not allergic to God. People reacted to Jesus' perfect love and holiness either by repenting of their sin like Zacchaeus did or by lashing out defensively and crucifying Him like the Pharisees did.

It was not that Jesus couldn't tolerate imperfection but rather that His perfection was intolerable. In John 3:19, Jesus summarizes the relationship between sin and God's presence: "Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil." God is light; He doesn't need the cross to protect Him from our darkness; we need the cross so we can survive entering into God's light.

2. God sees Jesus instead of us when He looks at us.

In the Steven Furtick sermon that motivated this blog post, he said that the reason God gives us His "approval" is because He doesn't see us when He looks at us but sees Jesus instead. That's not approval; that's deception. I can't understand how anyone could possibly be encouraged by that. God doesn't need our true selves to be hidden from His view to love us infinitely. His rage against the sin that oppresses us is part of that love. It's true that Paul tells us to "put on Christ" and says that "in Christ we become the righteousness of God," but Jesus isn't a mask that we wear to cover ourselves up; He's a body in which we become ourselves.

Popular penal substitution theology perverts Paul's theology because it cannot recognize the sacramental character of the body of Christ from its modern individualist ontology. Jesus is not just our brother who stands in for us before God; He is also the one in whom "all things hold together." So the substitution Christ provides is really one-to-many rather than one-to-one.

The phrase "in Christ" cannot be understood correctly without recognizing that Christ was already the source of our being as the one "in whom all things were created." We are not truly ourselves outside of Christ; we are accidental constructions of our social context. It is only when we are "swallowed up" (2 Cor 5:4) by the life that Christ has provided for us that we gain the freedom to be what God has always seen in us. God doesn't need to see a Jesus mask over our faces to approve us; His unconditional prior approval of us is the reason He sent His Word made flesh to empower us for holy living through our incorporation into His body.

3. Since God is infinite, He is infinitely offended by the slightest of our sins.

The legacy of penal substitution theology can be traced to a book called "Cur Deus Homo" that was written by 11th century theologian Anselm to explain why Jesus needed to be both divine and human. Being from a medieval honor-based society, Anselm thought the primary problem resolved by the cross is the offense that sin inflicts on God's honor as a king. This became the satisfaction theory of atonement which evolved into penal substitution. Anselm reasoned that because God is infinite, someone who is also infinite (Jesus) had to become fully human to pay the debt owed to God's honor by humans. Hence the God-man.

When I read "Cur Deus Homo," I noticed an interesting phrase that Anselm used to explain why it had to be this way. He says in several places, "It is fitting." He doesn't say for whom it is "fitting" that Jesus pays our debt to God. Does God need it to happen or do we? I think popular penal substitution theology conflates satisfying God's honor with appeasing God's anger. They are absolutely not the same thing. We need for God's honor to be satisfied through Jesus' blood because otherwise we would not be able to bear the shame of looking into His face.

It is not that God is infinitely unable to understand the moral complexity that is behind our sin. He sees all the mitigating circumstances; He sees the good that we tried to do even in situations where we were ultimately in the wrong. The problem is not that God is an infinitely sanctimonious douchebag who needed His Son's blood to get over His pickiness; then it would be a lot easier to make peace with the dishonor we have shown Him. The problem is that we will be convicted and sorrowed to the point of eternal torture to stand in the presence of perfect love and truth without the assurance of Christ's sacrifice on our behalf. The peasants need the king's honor to be satisfied; otherwise they live in terror; and that's why the king Himself paid the price for their sin against Him.

4. God poured out His wrath on Jesus on the cross.

The word wrath in Greek is οργή, the root for our word "orgy" in English. When you look at how this word is actually used in the Bible, it's more mysterious than you might think. It's not just a synonym for "anger." Paul tells the Ephesians that they were "formerly by [their] nature children of wrath" (which the NIV theologically edits to say children deserving of wrath). To be a child of wrath according to Paul is to be owned by "the desires of our flesh and senses" (Eph 2:3). It has nothing to do with God being angry.

In Romans 1:18, Paul writes that the "wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness." If wrath were simply "anger," we could expect Paul to elaborate on this statement by cataloguing a series of natural disasters with which God responded to punish humanity's sin. Instead what we find is an account of the degeneration of humanity through the innate consequences of their sinful behavior. God "hands them over" to their lust, idolatry, etc, but He is not actively punitive independent of these innate consequences in His response to sin. This seems to suggest that God's οργή is the proliferation of sin itself.

When I read these texts, I wonder if we ought to think of wrath as describing the poison that fills the air and curses the ground when God is dishonored rather than an emotion experienced by a God whom we probably shouldn't presume to have the same kinds of emotions that we do. In any case, what happened on the cross is that God the Father did not prevent God the Son from being killed by the Jewish religious authorities. He let Him drink the cup of (His/our?) wrath which He came to Earth to drink. But this in no way means that the Father was the executioner of the Son for the sake of His own anger management. When we talk about the Father "pouring out His wrath" on His son, we make Him look like a drunken child abuser.

I cannot find anywhere in scripture that makes the Father the primary agent behind the crucifixion of His Son. The closest is the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 52-53 in which we read that "it was the Lord's will to crush him with pain" (53:10). First, I would contend that the Suffering Servant passage is primarily about Israel's exile and only secondarily about Christ in His role as the recapitulation of His people's destiny. The description of the Suffering Servant cannot be mapped completely onto Christ without compromising Christ's divinity and the full unity of the divine will. Secondly, in no place does Isaiah 52-53 describe the fulfillment of God's wrath as the purpose of the Servant's suffering. Isaiah 53:5 says, "Upon him was the punishment that made us whole; by his bruises we are healed." In other words, the purpose of the Servant's punishment is our wholeness and healing . It neither serves to fulfill God's ego needs nor some primordial cosmic free market principle of retribution that God is obligated to follow.

We are children of wrath; we are born into a world that sweeps us into degenerative cycles of pain and guilt. "But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ" (Eph 2:4-5). I just don't see the cross having anything to do with God's anger though it absolutely does rescue us from the οργη that describes the innate consequences of rebelling against God's plan for us as creatures.

I really think that these problems in popular penal substitution theology might be a reflection of what Christianity Today has called the "juvenilization" of American evangelical Christianity. When church becomes youth group for adults, explanations that speak on a teenage level become the norm for everybody. When I was a teenager, the purpose of being a Christian was to avoid punishment. I expected the rules to be arbitrary and incomprehensible. So it made sense to me to accept a savior who would rescue me from the clutches of the infinitely picky and thoroughly uncompromising High School Principal of the universe. That was the salvation I received when I asked Jesus back into my heart as a 16 year old (after I had already done believer's baptism at age 8).

But I experienced the metanoia that is true repentance when God spoke to me in 1998 through a little girl selling dolls in the square of San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico. He told me I could never be a tourist again. That was when I gave my life to His kingdom. That was when my heart was filled with wrath against all the ways that the world dishonors a God whose image was reflected to me through a barefoot indigenous girl. I need God's honor to be satisfied. I need the cross not only for the sake of my personal relationship with God but because I cannot live in a world where the crucified are not resurrected. Penal substitution is an important part of the rich mystery of the cross -- just not in the oversimplified, canned version that has come to predominate our juvenilized evangelical church.

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