Evolutionary Creationism and Atonement Theology, Part 2: Why Penal Substitution is a Necessary Part of the Atonement | The BioLogos Forum


Thank you for your response.

There are other questions here.

For evolution there is no clear line where pre-human ends and human begins. It seems that physical death is indeed is part of the process for creating humans from other animals.

If physical death were the penalty for eating the fruit of the Tree, why was it not immediate like the other penalties for Original Sin rather than delayed for many years?

Also Romans also called death the wages of death, rather than the punishment, which seems to me very different.

@aleo Thanks for the leads. I have a hard enough time keeping up with fellow theologians, much less scientists, too.

@Relates Yes, there are other questions. I agree that there is no clear line for evolution between pre-human and human, because the distinction is the image of God, which may not show up at all in the fossil record. But the death that began with sin would be qualitatively different for a human than a pre-human, for it would involve not only physical death, but also facing the judgment of God and the possibility of spiritual death.

That’s how I answer your second question; spiritual death was immediate, seen in the response of Adam and Eve when God came down; they ran and hid from him. My own speculation is that physical mortality began for them with sin as well, such that they only began to experience the effects of aging after they sinned. But that’s just my speculation, not something I could support from Scripture.

As for your third question, you are right that Rom. 6:23 says wages, not punishment, but I’m not sure there is that great a difference when we’re talking about death. Why has God established death as the wages of sin? I wouldn’t see it as much of a reward. Maybe it also underscores that death is what we deserve for our sin, but God’s punishments are never unfair in the first place.

@relates As you can see from the quotes I sent jshammett, eminent anthropologists do see a clear historical line where humanity begins–at least the humanity that theologians are interested in.
Al Leo

@jshammett, I will not agree to disagree with you on this. The problem with Penal Substitution theory is that it claims the purpose of the Messiah’s death is to satisfy retributive justice, which it isn’t. There is no verse in the Bible that says that the Messiah or the animal sacrifices were for the purpose of satisfying retributive justice. That is something that has been read into Scripture. It is a very erroneous and harmful interpretation. It makes God to be very unjust. The whole non-believing world looks at Penal Substitution and says it makes no sense, and they are right.

The purpose of the death of the animal sacrifices was to remove the sin from the sinner, so that they were considered clean. It symbolized the death of our sinful human nature, which must be put to death. God will not be reconciled to the sinful flesh of the old Adam. We must be joined to the Messiah’s death to sin, so that we may be raised in his new life. His blood indicates that we are now in him and his new life. We have been transferred from the old Adam to the new Adam. That is why God is now appeased. It has nothing to do with satisfying retributive justice.

I will continue to agree that you and all supporters of Penal Substitution are terribly mistaken. You have taken something beautiful and made it ugly. And you besmirch the name of God.

You’re critiquing a caricature of penal substitution, not penal substitution as it has been traditionally understood. And this debate has already played itself out in the great atonement blog wars of 2007-2008. You aren’t really going to change anyone’s mind with straw men.

1 Like

@Christy, @jshammett,

Retributive justice means punishing the guilty party. Each one of us is the guilty party. In order for retributive justice to be fulfilled, each one of us would need to be put to death. By putting to death the Innocent One, the opposite of retributive justice has been done. In fact, the most unjust act - in terms of retributive justice - in the history of the world has been done.

By Jesus being put to death, what is accomplished is what we should call restorative justice. Things are restored to the way they were meant to be. That is why Isaiah 53 is not about the Servant suffering so that retributive justice can be fulfilled. It is about him suffering so that we can be healed, put back into a healthy relationship with God.

For people who defend Penal Substitution claiming that (retributive) justice must be satisfied before God can forgive us, is to say the most illogical thing possible. All they need to do is drop the “Penal,” and to say that restorative justice must be satisfied, and they would have it right. By our having faith in the Just One who died unjustly for us, we are made whole, and God is now satisfied, since he never wanted vengeance, just our healing from the disease of sin.

This is accomplished, because by having faith in and being baptized into Jesus, we are united with him in having put to death our sinful nature, which is the disease that must be destroyed. We are then also united with him in his new resurrection life, which restores our relationship with God.


Thank you for your response.

I was trying to make a point indirectly which I think is valid, which is spiritual death, which began with the Fall should be distinguished and separated from physical death. When we fail to do this, we open the door to all sorts of serious problems.

Sin which causes spiritual death is the enemy of humanity, even though we often embrace sin. Physical death, which is the source of much pain and suffering, is the product of our finite nature, so it cannot be our enemy. When we reject physical pain, suffering, and death as evil, we reject our physical being which God gave to us and called it good. We reject ourselves, which in itself is evil and sinful.

A serious problem with Darwinism if I may use this word still is that it concentrates it study to physical genetics, as opposed to ecological change. Sadly also BioLogos tends to follow this view. As we have discussed before the evidence for the existence of modern humanity is not really genetic, but the evidence of intellectual and spiritual life, which is been placed outside of the purview of biology by materialists.

Another issue which has not been explored is the are of the development of the brain and mind. This area of study is germane to our discussion, but is in great flux.

The humans are both a part of nature and distinct from nature. One cannot say that we are completely separate or completely one. This is the problem we have had in the past, that we have had to chose in our dualistic world view between one or the other, when neither is really true. One the triune world view allows us to have an accurate understanding of who we are. Richard Dawkins certainly does not provide a reasonable understanding of who we are since he has clearly said that we “dance to the tune of our DNA.”

So it’s really just the word “penal” that is the hang up for you? Not everyone who claims to believe in (penal) substitutionary atonement insists that the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus, or that God was vindictive, vengeful, or demanding of retribution. I am sure you can find some heretic-hunting Neo-Cal man-children who have said stupid things on the matter in their over-zealous response to the “divine child abuse” bandwagon, but you can’t attribute their perspective to everyone who claims (because it’s all over the New Testament) that Jesus died for our sins and in our place, which is the heart of substitutionary atonement theory. For me, the “penal” just means the cross took my punishment, the “substitution” just means Jesus took my place. I have read plenty of theologians who would say similarly. Does saying that really “besmirch the name of God”?

It is reductionistic to claim that the whole of the atonement is explained by its relationship to the Levitical sacrificial system. Obviously, the analogy is going to break down at some point when you change out livestock for the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity. The atonement is multi-dimensional, multi-directional, and in many ways, mysterious.

I still think you are projecting the specific views of a certain minority of penal substitution adherents on anyone who uses the term, when the term itself actually expresses a much more general concept. You end up fighting windmills.


New favorite phrase. You get 10,000 points. :birthday:

1 Like


If God’s holy and righteous wrath is against sin and evil and everything that hurts and destroys the objects of his love, where is this description of penal substitution incompatible with the “restorative justice” you described.

If your Christology is properly Trinitarian, you can’t separate out the Father and the Son into a greater and lesser beings. God declared the just punishment for sin. God took the punishment for sin on himself in love. That’s grace, not vengeance and retribution.

@Roger You and I may be in fairly close agreement with regard to our views on Darwinism. Considering the fact that the mechanism of inheritance was unknown at the time, Darwin did a credible job in writing “Origin of Species”. He then led his readers astray with “The Descent of Man” in which he maintains that modern humans are a product of very gradual evolutionary change. Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution by selection, disagreed with him then, as do the most prominent anthropologists do now. (Did you read the quotes by Tattersall and Morris that I included in my recent post to jshammett?) As you point out, “humans are both a part of nature and distinct from nature.” In my presentation I use Teilhard’s terminology and state it: “We will never really understand human nature until we realize we have one foot in the Biosphere and the other in the Noosphere.” To the extent that humans must battle with problems like cancer and Alzheimers, Dawkins phrase of ‘dancing to the tune of our DNA’ has some truth to it. To the extent that humans lack the wise leadership of their societies to alleviate injustice and eliminate war, we need better Noogenes.
Al Leo


I’m not “projecting” anything. If you think that Jesus dying in our place satisfies retributive justice - which is what Penal Substitution theory states - then you are seriously confused about the meaning of retributive justice. Retributive justice insists that the guilty party be punished for their crimes, not the innocent.

By dying in our place Jesus satisfies restorative justice. His taking the punishment on himself brings healing to us and restores our relationship with God. How? By coming to faith in Jesus, we are united with him in his death to sin. Our sinful human human natures have been crucified and buried with him. We now have new life in Jesus’ resurrected life. We are no longer in the old Adam of sin and death, but in the new Adam of righteousness and life. But it does not satisfy retributive justice. We do not have a God who insists that retributive must be satisfied before he can forgive us (an oxymoron), but a God who forgives us in the act of dying for us, reversing all that sin had produced.

If you are willing to reject the idea that Jesus’ death somehow satisfies retributive justice, great! You’ve just given up the silly and harmful theory of Penal Substitution.

According to who? That’s the point I’ve been trying to make. I don’t think that is what the heart of penal sustitutionary atonement theory states at all. I just looked it up in Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology, and retributive justice does not come up, but there sure is a lot about restoration and reconciliation.

This is the definition given of “penal substitution”: Quoting John Stott, “In and through Christ crucified God substituted himself for us and bore our sins, dying in our place the death we deserved to die, in order that we might be restored to his favor and adopted into his family.” It then goes on to mention the symbolism of the Levitical sacrificial system where the sins of the worshiper are credited to the victim, which dies in the worshiper’s place. The focus of penal substitutionary atonement theory is on the vicarious nature of Jesus’ death, not on whether God’s justice is restorative or retributive. The argument over the precise meaning of hilasterion and expiation vs propitiation is presented as tangential and debated.

Quoting N.T. Wright on Romans 8:3, “No clearer statement is found in Paul or indeed anywhere else in all early Christian literature, of the early Christian belief that what happened on the cross was the judicial punishment of sin. Taken in conjunction with 8:1 and the whole argument of the passage, not to mention the partial parallels in 2 Cor 5:21 and Gal 3:13, it is clear that Paul intends to say that in Jesus’ death the damnation that sin deserved was meted out fully and finally, so that sinners over whose heads that condemnation had hung might be liberated from this threat once and for all.”

I agree with what you wrote about restorative justice. But I have not given up penal substitutionary atonement theory at all. I never believed it meant what you say it means. We are talking about an atonement theory that has been expressed by Clement, Augustine, and Barth, not just Calvin or John Piper.

@Bilbo @Christie
You may not consider as important the opinion of someone who has spent a lifetime in scientific pursuits but is far outclassed compared to either of you in the areas of philosophy and scriptural studies, but here goes, nevertheless. Although I do not grasp all of your two different points of view, it seems obvious that the difference between retributive and restorative amounts to more than just semantics. Since I interpret the evidence from anthropology as supporting the postulate that humankind was given the gift of conscience to override the urges of their selfish genes, but they spurned that gift, I tend to favor the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice was more in the nature of a restoration than of retribution. Since I am ‘out of my depth’ here, my ‘two cents worth’ might not be worth even that.
Al Leo

Everyone’s two cents is welcome!

I don’t think @Bilbo and I even have that very different of a point of view. I don’t think God seeks retribution from sinners or from Christ (which would be God seeking retribution from himself?). I think “the wrath of God” is a biblical concept, but God’s wrath is directed at sin and evil and is an essential part of the vindication of the righteous that God’s justice promises, it is not a vengeful anger that seeks appeasement like some pagan deity.

I’m just arguing with him for fun over my right to claim traditional penal substitutionary atonement theory is historical, orthodox, and necessary, which he disputes because we don’t agree about what “penal subsitutionary atonement theory” says or means. The Nestorians were kicked out of the church basically because they didn’t like the wording of the Chalcedon formulation. We have a long history of arguing over terminology. :cop:

1 Like

@Christy @Bilbo I think the dialogue between Bilbo and Christy reflects the dialogue that has gone in the past ten years or so between Paul Fiddes/Joel Green/Steve Chalke/ etc. on one side and John Stott/ J. I. Packer/most of evangelicalism on the other. I’ve read Bilbo’s arguments about restorative justice at length in Paul Fiddes, and have found them unpersuasive. Christy’s points seem much more reflective of NT teaching to me, but I don’t think we’re going to come to agreement. I’d be willing to continue the discussion, but it seems to be generating more heat than light, so I think I’m going to bow out, and let Christy and Bilbo continue if they wish to.

1 Like

@Christy, from here:


“Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.”

In other words, the guilty party needed to be punished (the core concept of retributive justice), first, before we could be forgiven.

I’m willing to accept your repudiation of this view, if that is what you are offering. And if you wish to replace it with the concept of resotrative justice, yet still call it “Penal Substitution,” that’s okay with me. I’ll know that you aren’t referring to the traditional definition of it. Of course, Dr. Hammet will mean something different by the term than you do.

Really, that’s the only way of looking at it? And the only thing at play here is restorative vs retributive justice? Sorry, but I reject that as overly simplistic. Substitutionary atonement does not require the view that God was sulking and sullen because people didn’t listen to him, and in order for his ruffled feelings to be smoothed over so he could be in a good enough mood to forgive, he needed to watch the offenders (or Jesus in their place) suffer. That is a caricature.

The way I see it, It’s not so much that God needs to see the guilty party punished, as their sin and separation from God need to be dealt with. The death sentence is hanging over the offender. The guilty deserve to be punished. A debt needs to be paid to remove their guilt and the barrier to relationship with God and restore them. God looks on the situation with compassion, grace, and a desire to save and restore. I fail to see where retribution comes in. (Is all justice that involves an incurred punishment “retributive” in your mind by definition?) I also don’t know how you could read the New Testament and come away with a different picture of the situation.

I’ve read Steve Chalke on this. (Though it was a long time ago, when people were discussing these things ad nauseum) It seemed to me that he did a lot of talking about what God must be like in order for him to deserve worship, and reasoning and deducing from there. There was not a lot of dealing with what the Scriptures actually say about the sin situation and how Jesus deals with it.

Borrowing ideas from N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, I think we have a hard time as people used to democracy and personal rights and autonomy wrapping our mind around the concept of a sovereign ruler. God is King. We are traitors. We have been found guilty of trying to usurp the reign of the King of the universe. Even though God looks on the whole situation with heartbreak and mercy (not the desire for retribution), a king cannot maintain sovereign rule if he doesn’t deal with treason and find a way to restore traitors to good standing in his kingdom.

@Christy…you know, saying “Hi Christy” sounds better than putting “at Christy.” Maybe I could put “Hi @Christy” as a compromise.


Okay, I’ll offer a definition from here: Retributive Justice (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

“The concept of retributive justice has been used in a variety of ways, but it is best understood as that form of justice committed to the following three principles: (1) that those who commit certain kinds of wrongful acts, paradigmatically serious crimes, morally deserve to suffer a proportionate punishment; (2) that it is intrinsically morally good—good without reference to any other goods that might arise—if some legitimate punisher gives them the punishment they deserve; and (3) that it is morally impermissible intentionally to punish the innocent or to inflict disproportionately large punishments on wrongdoers. The idea of retributive justice has played a dominant role in theorizing about punishment over the past few decades, but many features of it—especially the notions of desert and proportionality, the normative status of suffering, and the ultimate justification for retribution—remain contested and problematic.”

Anyway, our justice system is based on the idea of retributive justice. And I think it should be.

But it is not all clear to me that God is obligated to fulfill retributive justice. It seems that he has the option to forgive someone’s wrongdoing - not hold it against them - if he so desires. Further, there is the problem of how guilt is transferred from us to Jesus. We committed sin, not Jesus. Retributive justice demands that we be punished, not Jesus. People who think that our guilt is somehow transferred to Jesus have what appears to me to be an insurmountable problem.

But I do not see God’s problem as how to uphold justice while still dispensing mercy. I see God’s problem as how to destroy sin without destroying the sinner. I think a major Biblical view was that sin was an evil disease - like ebola - that ultimately led to a person’s complete death. Thus, sin had to be removed from a person and destroyed.

I think the story of the bronze serpent was meant to serve as a good analogy. The people have been bitten by fiery serpents and will die. Looking on the bronze serpent heals them of whatever venom is in them.

I think this is the best way to understand the Atonement. We are infected with the disease of sin. It pervades our very nature. What is the cure? Jesus dies on the cross, and by having faith in him, we are united with him in his death. Our diseased sinful nature is put to death in him, and we are raised in his new, resurrected life, free of the disease of sin.

So yes, Jesus died for our sins. But I do not think it was to satisfy justice. It was to cure us without destroying us. Yes, we must die. There is no other way to get rid of the disease of sin. But if we die in Jesus, we can be saved and given a new, uncorrupted nature and life.