Below is an internal dialogue in my own head over the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). For what its worth I think the view can be partially valid, but only to the degree that God is not the Punisher. I wrote a book on the atonement in 2019 and have had a fair amount of positive feedback. I presented a new model that finds the middle ground between Penal Substitution and Christus Victor. I call it Perfectus Liberatio (Perfect Liberation). If you shoot me a message, I will be happy to send you a link where you can get it for only $1. I am now re-editing that book to expand my view into a full-fledged theory. I want to share my own internal debate that made me eventually realize (especially as a missionary) that the view cannot provide clear answers to the most basic questions I have heard on the mission field. Feel free to share how you see things. Shalom, Matt.
THE DIALOGUE BEGINS:
NON-PSA ME: What is the essence of the Penal Substitionary Model?
AFFIRMING PSA: The essence of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement model is that God is pouring out His wrath on Jesus, to punish Jesus to death for our sins, and this allows God’s justice to be satisfied or sufficiently re-paid for grace to be extended without God’s justice being compromised.
NON-PSA ME: I agree that Christ suffers the consequential penalty of sin our place—death—and I even believe that can be interpreted as “punishment.” But why assume God is the PUNISHER extracting payment for sins out of Christ’s suffering? I see verses that say God “surrendered Jesus up” to death, or “gave Jesus over” to death.
AFFIRMING PSA: God has to be the Punisher, because God is pouring out all His hatred, indignation and punishing wrath on Jesus as our sin-bearer to pay back His offended justice. Jesus must absorb God’s wrath so we can avert it.
NON-PSA ME: Ok, let’s start there. I’m already lost. What exactly is God doing to Christ in pouring out His punishing wrath? What is Christ absorbing?
AFFIRMING PSA: What is God doing that Christ is absorbing?
NON-PSA ME: Yes, please tell me. Is God inflicting punishment by afflicting Christ with whips and thorns and nails?
AFFIRMING PSA: No, that is the Romans and wicked men.
NON-PSA ME: So what is it? How is God pouring out His wrath? What is the nature of God’s wrath that Jesus is absorbing on our behalf?
AFFIRMING PSA: Well, Jesus is being crucified.
NON-PSA ME: We are back where we started. Is God’s wrath inflicting Jesus with whips, thorns and nails? Does Jesus need to reach a threshold of pain to make the atonement work?
AFFIRMING PSA: Not exactly. I wouldn’t want to say it like that.
NON-PSA ME: So, exactly, what is it?
AFFIRMING PSA: I already said it is God punishing sin. He can’t let sin go unpunished.
NON-PSA ME: Ok, so again, what is God doing to Jesus that Jesus is absorbing as God’s wrath or punishment of sin?
AFFIRMING PSA: He is putting Jesus to death.
NON-PSA ME: Is God directly putting Jesus to death? Is God directly executing or killing Jesus?
AFFIRMING PSA: Well, not directly, but indirectly through others.
NON-PSA ME: So, Jesus is indirectly absorbing God’s wrath through others killing him?
AFFIRMING PSA: Yes.
NON-PSA ME: And this indirect absorption satisfies and pacifies God’s wrath?
AFFIRMING PSA: Yes.
NON-PSA ME: What about the two thieves on either side of Jesus who are also being crucified? Are they satisfying and pacifying God’s wrath for their sins?
AFFIRMING PSA: No, I wouldn’t want to say that.
NON-PSA ME: Why not?
AFFIRMING PSA: Because it is impossible for them to pay back their sin-debt by being crucified for their sins.
NON-PSA ME: But if Jesus is being indirectly crucified by God as punishment for sins, and they are also being crucified, why aren’t they also pacifying God’s wrath in virtue of being crucified like Jesus.
AFIRMING PSA: The difference is they deserved to die. They are truly guilty.
NON-PSA ME: I understand that. But if Jesus is absorbing God’s wrath so that we don’t get what we deserve, but they are actually getting what they deserve, then why doesn’t their deserved crucifixion pacify God’s wrath against them?
AFFIRMING PSA: Because being punished by God’s wrath is more than crucifixion?
NON-PSA ME: We are back where we started. What exactly is the nature of God’s wrath that is being poured out on Jesus?
AFFIRMING PSA: We deserve hell. So, God is pouring hell out on Jesus. Jesus is suffering an eternity of hell in 3 hours on the cross. God is inflicting Jesus with an infinite amount of punishment in hell in 3 hours.
NON-PSA ME: Where does the Bible say anything like you just said?
AFFIRMING PSA: Well—it doesn’t, not exactly or specifically.
NON-PSA ME: Well, I want to stick with exact statements in the Bible, so we can unpack them—especially if you say the core of the gospel is God’s wrath punishing Jesus in my place. I want to know what that means—exactly.
AFFIRMING PSA: Well, the Bible explicitly records that Jesus wondered why God forsook him. Sin separates us from God. Jesus was experiencing separation from God as punishment for sins.
NON-PSA ME: But if Jesus is experiencing separation from God, then how is God pouring out His wrath on Jesus. Wouldn’t that require proximity, not separation?
AFFIRMING PSA: It is a mystery.
NON-PSA ME: Is it mystery because the Bible says it is, or because you can’t find clear evidence for it?
AFFIRMING PSA: Jesus is definitely absorbing God’s wrath because the Bible says Jesus is our propitiation, which means “place of averting wrath.”
NON-PSA ME: Even if the English word “propitiation” is a proper translation of the Greek word “hilasterion” which is translated as mercy seat 28 times in the Greek Septuagint, it would still only mean Jesus’s death for sin averts God’s wrath from us. It would say nothing about Jesus absorbing God’s wrath. How do you go from: “Jesus’s death AVERTS to Jesus ABSORBS?”
AFFIRMING PSA: We have to have Jesus being punished by God for our sins because Jesus takes the penalty—our wages—which is death.
NON-PSA ME: I agree that Jesus takes the penalty of our sins, which is death, but that is the farthest we can take the idea of punishment. But that doesn’t require that God is the Punisher! The Bible says God “handed Jesus” over to death and “delivered Jesus up” to death. It says nothing about personally punishing Jesus or pouring out His wrath.
AFFIRMING PSA: But our sins offended God’s justice and put us in debt to His justice. For God to be just, He needed His justice to be satisfied through re-payment of sins before He could extend us forgiveness. By punishing Jesus for our sins, God justice is paid in full.
NON-PSA ME: So, are you suggesting that God’s grace is reimbursement and God’s forgiveness comes through re-payment?
AFFIRMING PSA: What do you mean?
NON-PSA ME: It sounds like your argument has four connecting points: 1) Our sins put us in debt to God’s justice. 2) God had to first get the judicial “capital” to “fund” a judicial offer of grace to us. 3) God funded that just offer through His justice getting reimbursed, and 4) that reimbursement was acquired by extracting payment for sins out of Jesus’s suffering death.
AFFIRMING PSA: Well, the way you put it makes it sound like a transaction settlement, and not grace.
NON-PSA ME: Where have I gone wrong or misunderstood you?
AFFIRMING PSA: I don’t know if you have, it’s just that it sounds better when I hear it from my R.C. Sproul or John MacArthur.
NON-PSA ME: One last question. If God was extracting satisfaction or re-payment out of Jesus’s sufferings on the cross, were the crucified thieves also paying God back for their own sins?
And around and around we go. These are the questions you get on the mission field (I’ve bee in S.E. Asia for 15 years) from probing minds who are not impressed by fancy, theological words that they can’t even understand anyway. When you have to break it down into simple language, it makes Penal Substitution into Payment Substitution–and that is hard to square with the Bible.