Recent Evangelical Criticisms of Penal Substitution

The penal substitutionary view of the atonement has had a succession of formidable critics throughout the centuries, questioning whether it is biblical, moral, and appropriate as a way of explaining and proclaiming the saving work of Christ. But what is unusual about the last decade or so is the fact that several writers from the evangelical movement have stepped forward to join them.

For example, in 1995 John Goldingay edited a volume of essays entitled Atonement Today. Goldingay himself denies that there is any link between atonement and punishment in the Old Testament and argues that the improper linking of punishment with sacrifice in much Christian thought is particularly due to a misunderstanding of Isaiah 53.[1]

In the same volume, Stephen Travis surveys some of the key texts in Paul’s letters that have traditionally been taken to mean that Christ suffered the punishment due for our sin and concludes, for example, that Galatians 3:13 is not a statement about atonement in general or about the salvation of individuals. Paul’s concern is to show how the death of Christ ‘makes possible the coming of God’s blessing to the Gentiles (Gal. 3:14)’.[2] In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Christ is said to identify with sin as our representative and break its power, thereby freeing those who are in him to share his righteousness. But Travis does not believe that either here or in Romans 3:24-6 Paul taught that Christ experienced retributive punishment on behalf of humanity. Rather, ‘standing where we stand, he bore the consequences of our alienation from God. In so doing he absorbed and exhausted them, so that they should not fall on us’.[3]

In America, Joel Green combined with John Carroll and others to produce a volume entitled The Death of Jesus in Early Christianity. Almost the first half of the book is devoted to the Gospels and a consideration of the death of Jesus within the framework presented by each evangelist. However, the sacrificial dimension of Jesus’ suffering is not well explored. Examining the Pauline letters in only twenty-nine pages, Carroll and Green seem determined to exclude any sense of vicarious punishment from the apostle’s thought. The concluding chapter specifically argues that ‘Paul uses an almost inexhaustible series of metaphors to represent the significance of Jesus’ death, and penal substitution (at least as popularly defined) is not one of them’.[4]

These writers are particularly sensitive to the concerns of feminist theologians, who argue that the penal view of the cross makes God the patriarch who punishes his son in order to satisfy his own parental honour and sense of justice. Although there have always been moral objections to this view of the atonement, the notion that our salvation can only be accomplished at the expense of ‘the abuse of one perfect child’ is particularly abhorrent in an age when issues of parental punishment and child abuse are so prominent.[5]

More recently, S. Jeffery, M. Ovey & A. Sachs, Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 2007), have engaged at some length with objections to the penal substitutionary view of atonement, especially with arguments coming from evangelical sources.

In the  first part of this work, the authors establish biblical foundations for penal substitution. They then discuss the theological framework for the doctrine and explore the pastoral implications. Surveying a number of Christian writers over the centuries, they argue for ‘the historical pedigree of penal substitution’. The second part of this book is devoted to answering the critics of this doctrine.

[1] J. Goldingay (ed.), Atonement Today (London: SPCK, 1995).


[2] S. Travis, ‘Christ as Bearer of Divine Judgement in Paul’s Thought about the Atonement’, in Goldingay, Atonement Today, 24.

[3] Travis, ‘Christ as Bearer of Divine Judgement’, 37.

[4] J. T. Carroll & J. B. Green with others, The Death of Jesus in Early Christianity (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995), 263.

[5] Cf. Carroll & Green, Death of Jesus, 259-60; M. G. Houts, ‘Classical Atonement Imagery: Feminist and Evangelical Challenges’, Catalyst 19 no. 3 (1993), 1, 5-6; R. N. Brock, ‘And a Little Child Will Lead Us: Christology and Child Abuse’, in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, (ed.) J.C. Brown & C.R. Bohn (New York: Pilgrim, 1989), 42-61


2 thoughts on “Recent Evangelical Criticisms of Penal Substitution

  1. As I see it retribution inflicted by God on the unsaved and the atonement doctrine of penal substitution go together. If one is true the other must be true. If one is not true then the other must not be true. Also it really matters whether that retribution is eternal. If it stops followed by annihilation, well, then (not to trivialise a dreadfully serious and sensitive personal subject) – that might not be a very fearful prospect. Also, if, as Travis asserts ‘The outcome of being unsuccessful at the judgment is exclusion from relationship to God’ and, quoting Tillich, ‘Judgment is an act of love which surrenders that which resists love to self-destruction…’, then that might not be a very fearful prospect either.
    At stake is what is the terrible warning the Church needs to proclaim, alongside the wonderful message of deliverance. I see this as the most important disagreement in the Church and, increasingly, among evangelicals.

    I wonder if all evangelicals could agree that an essential part of faithfully preaching the gospel is to include the warnings in both Testaments about what will be the judgment on the unsaved at the Day of Judgment. Then the unsaved could form their own view about what they face.


    1. I agree with you Philip. I find the argument in favor of annihilation unconvincing, especially when one views NT teaching in the light the Bible’s overall teaching about the holiness of God. A weak view of God’s judgment against sin diminishes the significance of the cross and the need to proclaim the apostolic message with urgency to all people.


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