The Penal Substitution theory of the atonement

So, its Easter again, and we are all being subjected to people’s theories of the atonement. One stands out across many ecclesiastical traditions, and that is the penal substitution theory. Historically, this theory emerged in earnest at the end of the 19th century as a reaction against 19th century liberalism. A conservative element met in Niagara and pounded out their articles of faith in the form of “The Five Fundamentals”. For a period of time, this group produced a journal entitled the Fundamentals. Consequently, they were known as Fundamentalists. One of their five fundamentals was believing in the penal substitution theory of the atonement.

Across the world, preachers will be announcing that Christ died for our sins by way of taking on all human guilt, and conferring his righteousness upon us. I have a problem with this theory, and especially its placement in the 21st century as a means of explaining Christ’s death. Though Jesus speaks about his death, I cannot find anywhere in the Gospels where Jesus associates his death with a penal substitution explanation. Don’t bother telling me about Paul. I am talking about finding this on the lips of Jesus. How is it that such a theory of atonement has become so central in the Christian Faith when it is never found on the lips of Jesus?

Of course, there is that saying attributed to Jesus, that the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45). However, a ransom is something paid to a jailer, which is the devil, not God, in Biblical theology.

The idea that you must sacrifice to a angry god in order to appease him/her belongs to the most primitive level of human religiosity. Many years before the establishment of Israelite religion, people across the world believed that they needed to offer sacrifice to their god. Suffer an earthquake, volcanic eruption, famine, drought; lose a battle, etc etc? Better offer a sacrifice to appease an angry god. This mentality eventually was discarded as people came to understand the real causes of these things. The Old Testament drew upon earlier source material which still held these primitive ideas.

The penal substitution theory of the atonement separates the death of Christ from his resurrection and appends the resurrection almost as an afterthought. However, in almost every case in which Jesus talks about his death, he always speaks of his resurrection. Paul’s mention of things like expiation, propitiation, etc, appear to be attempts to persuade Jews that their cultic practices have been superseded in Christ, not an attempt to move this idea into the center.

One can happily discard the penal substitution theory of the atonement without destroying the idea that Jesus died for our sins and has developed a way for us to walk in righteousness. One can cling to the penal substitution theory if one desires, but always in the knowledge it is not found on the lips of Jesus.


I think it would be more helpful if people referred to these as metaphors for the atonement instead of theories. All of them are using different vehicles drawn from our embodied human experiences to understand a very abstract spiritual reality we have no comparable experience with. All metaphors have limits. Many metaphors taken together give us a fuller picture of this abstract reality, but none of them are going to work like a scientific model and explain how atonement “works.”

Personally, the metaphor of a substitutionary sacrifice illuminates aspects of the atonement that other metaphors don’t, so I think it has its uses. It’s when you treat a metaphor as a mechanistic explanation that answers all questions that you get into trouble. Metaphors always leave some things not made explicit and open to imagination.

Jesus spends his time talking about the coming Kingdom not explaining the atonement. All his references are pretty oblique.

To give his life as a ransom for many
Greater love has no one than laying down one’s life for a friend
You will destroy this temple but I will build it again in three days

John says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” This evokes the Jewish sacrificial system in which animals were substitutionary sacrifices and sacrifices were pictured by the community as necessary to avoid judgment and wrath. I don’t think you can get away with a claim that the idea that Jesus is a substitutionary sacrifice that takes a punishment meant for others is made up out of nothing in the 21st century. The idea clearly has a history in the Old Testament law. However I would argue that that Jewish sacrificial system was a metaphor and the link of Jesus death to the Jewish sacrificial system is another metaphor. They need to be understood as metaphors.


A few questions
To clarify, do you mean that the interpretation that has been passed along in our western cultures has clung too tightly to the metaphor of penal substitution as described by Paul, be it from familiarity or preference?
Can a survey of metaphors and their audiences give us a better understanding of the atonement?
@Christy your work deals with this at some point (or extensively), and I wonder, how have others who’ve worked with Bible translation worked with the concept of atonement for the target cultures?

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Particularly since the Bible uses more than one metaphor for the atonement.


The Eastern Orthodox have always had a more balanced view which see this as only one of a number of metaphors for the atonement. It is only in western medieval Christianity did this one metaphor become so strongly emphasized like it was to be taken literally.

The point of a metaphor is to reveal some truth about what it explains. But at some point the metaphor fails when taken too far. This is the nature of metaphors.

So what is the truth of this judicial metaphor?

  1. Jesus certainly did give his life for our salvation.
  2. We certainly need to understand that our sin has a terrible price.
  3. Justice is involved because justice is about facing the reality that our action have consequences. (cheap forgiveness can sometimes do more harm than good)
  4. Often it takes the death of an innocent for us to understand how destructive our sins are and to enable us to find the will to repent of them.

And where does this judicial metaphor fail if taken too far?

  1. No sane system of justice actually allows the innocent to pay for the crimes of the guilty.
  2. God needs no special song and dance or magic spell in order to forgive people as is demonstrated quite often in the Bible, especially by Jesus Himself.
  3. Human sacrifice and blood sacrifices in general don’t have any power to accomplish anything.
  4. If treated like a magical spell then it starts to sound like some sort of black blood magic which is more suited to demonic necromancy than to anything taught by Jesus.

Perhaps someone can add more items to these two lists. …or do the same for some of the other metaphors.


That looks like an eat your cake and have it too oxymoron to me.

More like they have taken a metaphor and treated it like a mathematical equation that solves atonement. That’s not how metaphors work. They give you a picture. They give you a bridge between something you know and have experienced and something you are still trying to grasp.

Certainly, especially if we spend some time thinking about the ones that have been somewhat neglected by our particular community. Jackson Wu writes a lot about how different metaphors speak differently to different cultures because we are primed to see certain things more clearly because of our cultural frames. The acquittal metaphor plays really well in Western culture. (That’s the one where your guilty verdict is ripped up) We are tuned in to individual guilt and innocence. In other societies these legal metaphors don’t have nearly as much power as the ones that tune in to Jesus taking away shame and restoring honor or Jesus removing fear and displaying victorious power.


There are actually four basic theories of how the atonement works.

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Thanks Christy! Mission ONE looks like a good resource too, I’ll read more :slight_smile:

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Time for an update: 7 Theories of the Atonement Summarized

I got my info from a lecture given by our theologian-in-residence. So I’ll pass on the update, thank you.

I think you see it that way because you have been conditioned (classical conditioning) to always think that “died for our sins” refers to the penal substitution theory of the atonement. Rather, Jesus dies on account of our sins so that he might pioneer a new way through evil (our own and that of others). It was human sin that caused his death - the threat that Jesus posed to the powerful - but in the process he led the way through evil and in the power of the resurrection showed us a new way to become righteous.

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Just saying that and not listing your supposed “four basic theories” is not very helpful and looking up “four theories of atonement” brings you to the following list of six theories from Wikipedia…

Early Christian notions of the person and sacrificial role of Jesus in human salvation were further elaborated by the Church Fathers, medieval writers and modern scholars in various atonement theories, such as the ransom theory, Christus Victor theory, recapitulation theory, satisfaction theory, penal substitution theory and moral influence theory.

But I wonder if this also partly comes from insisting on using the word “theory” rather than the word “metaphors” (specifically those used in the Bible).

Looking up metaphors for the atonement leads to a smaller list.

Atonement in the New Testament is expressed through metaphors of sacrifice, scapegoat, and redemption to picture the meaning of the death of Christ. The Apostle Paul is the main fountainhead of these soteriological metaphors, but they occur in the other epistles and in Revelation. (from here)

Here is a list of four metaphors which turns out to be an old post of mine in another forum. LOL

The metaphors –

  1. Judicial: Jesus was punished for our sins in our place.
  2. Payment: Jesus’ life was a payment of ransom for our liberation.
  3. Blood Sacrifice: Jesus was the lamb slaughtered to expiate our sins.
  4. Surgical: Jesus was transformed into our sin so it could be destroyed on the cross.

And from here

Recently our local church has been blessed by a series of sermons entitled “Prism: Metaphors of the Atonement.” Four different speakers presented, over a five week period, Adoption, Reconciliation, Ransom, and Romans.

Looks to me like I am getting an endless number of different lists of such theories and metaphors.

Nice Orthodox try. I’m in to The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death by John Behr. Your story, like his, is better than most Western ones. But not all. Because it’s still just an allegory. Sin has nothing to do with it. It’s all a fantasy. We are all waiting for the reality. And we’ll all get that. When we die.

I’ve listed them here before, not that long ago. Don’t you remember? But by all means, go with your wikipedia.

No. I will go with my own list of four metaphors which popped up on a google search. Yours still isn’t in the thread. The Wikipedia answer even has links to each of the six theories it talks about. It might be more academic but I still like my answer best. Information which is available and easy to find is definitely a good way to go. But there is something also to be said for the answer which is concise and to the point.

Whoa! Are you saying that Jesus was too busy with other stuff to even bother with talking about the meaning of his death?

First let me say, I am not picking on you personally Christy. You just happen to put forward the most coherent response upon which others reflect.

Having grown up in a congregation enamored of 19th century liberalism, I am familiar with the way in which metaphors can be used by them to cover everything that seems unpalatable to them. In response to them I ask, are metaphors always an accurate way of describing events in the New Testament? Metaphors are figures of speech which don’t refer to the physical world. They belong in the intellectual world. They are concepts.

Lets look at another way of describing the atonement under the banner “dying and rising with Christ”. You find it in Romans chapter 6:

*We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:4 NIV)

and Romans chapter 8:

And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. (Romans 8:11 NIV)

In both texts, the power of the Holy Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead is at work to enable us to walk in the pathways of righteousness, and even to enable our own eventual resurrection.

Is it the metaphor which reaches out to us, or the power of God? If the latter, is the diagnosis of “metaphor” really adequate? Is it the persuasion of a metaphor, construed by our own intellect, the thing that empowers us, or the power of God’s Spirit?

First of all, metaphors are not attempts to replace or deny the actual (even physical) things or concepts to which they refer. Nobody is going to fully comprehend the power of God or all the mechanics of how God’s salvation will play out in the eschaton. We need metaphor to help us even begin to see these things, which is probably why the scriptures are rich with metaphor.

Second, nor are metaphors attempts to “explain away” something. They are attempts to help us conceptualize something (and that only in part) - nothing more, nothing less.


Aye, Biblically, especially NTly, they are attempts to explain other metaphors. They are nothing to do with any actual transcendence in the afterlife.

I’m saying his explanations were oblique and they were tied to the preaching about the coming Kingdom not giving personal salvation to individuals so they could go to heaven when they die. I believe that is one of the benefits of Jesus death and resurrection, but it wasn’t what Jesus or the apostles focused on.

I don’t feel picked on. I argue for fun, remember.

I have also noticed that some people use “metaphorical” as a hand-waving tactic to dismiss something they don’t really want to deal with. Or they use metaphorical to mean “not historical” or “not true.” Or to designate something that doesn’t need to be taken seriously. I don’t use metaphor that way. I use it in the technical sense that means when one concept is used to describe or explain another concept via points of similarity.

Not true. We use metaphors all the time to understand and describe the physical world. Metaphorical expressions can have a positive truth value if the proposition they make corresponds with reality.

They are mental links between concepts, actually.

I don’t understand this question. Metaphors are features of thought and language they aren’t entities with agency. Metaphors can explain and describe the power of God and that can be the cognitive vehicle used to help us understand how God’s power works.

Metaphor is just a label on a cognitive process and how that process is realized in language. It doesn’t mean “not true” or “not real” or “not historical.”


I argue to discern the truth. Consequently, I put my ideas out there and wait for feedback. A kind of peer review thing.What I eventually end up with may be a conglomerate of views.

I don’t think your argument, about the preaching of the kingdom of God having priority, can stand. Look at the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke, for the casual reader). One of the things they share is a structured way to tell the story of Jesus. The story comes in three acts. Act one is Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Act 2 is the journey to Jerusalem, and all the teaching it entails. Act 3 is arrival at Jerusalem and the conflict with the authorities that leads to Jesus being tortured to death and rising from death.

Act 2 is where Jesus lays it on heavy about his death and resurrection as being not only his death, but also that of the disciples. Mark’s Gospel spells out the combination clearly:

“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31 NIV) This will be repeated three times in Act 2, i.e. “The journey to Jerusalem”.

Luke’s Gospel massively expands this section of the Synoptic structure and shows the apostles wrestling with this call to take up their cross and follow Jesus. They are shown to be blind to the implications of this call as they, for example, try to secure positions for themselves in the kingdom of God. In other words, there is no kingdom of God without the way of the cross and resurrection. So this whole section of the synoptic Gospels puts Jesus’ death and resurrection to the fore. However, in this section Jesus’ death involves not some sort of celestial transaction whereby there is a two-way swapping of guilt and righteousness. Jesus’ death is brought about by things of historical reality - the seduction of power for sinful humanity. Furthermore, Jesus’ death is something into which his disciples are drawn along with his resurrection.

In short, in this section Jesus’ speaks of his death center stage, and there is no talk of penal substitution. How odd that such a theory has become the center of understanding for some groups of Christians. What I am emphasizing here is not what Peter, Paul or John may have said; but what Jesus himself said. My point is, how strange that a theory of atonement that is center stage for some Christians is never found on the lips of Jesus. I just ask people to let that sink in.

In regard to the discussion of metaphors, perhaps I can let that be transferred to a discussion of the resurrection. I’ll try that in a new post, as soon as I recover from Easter Sunday. :grinning:

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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