The Penal Substitution theory of the atonement

It’s not my argument. It’s one that has been pointed out by numerous NT scholars. For example, Scot McKnight in the King Jesus Gospel.

Are you saying these parts explain the atonement? Because I don’t see it.

Of course not, because it, like all the other metaphors/models/theories of atonement are constructs built on the entire message of the New Testament, in light of some Old Testament understandings. The idea of a substitutionary sacrifice is there though. That is what being the Lamb of God is all about. That is the significance of Jesus entering the Sheep Gate and parading through Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the 10th day of Nisan, the day that lambs were traditionally paraded through the streets, families picked the lamb that would live with them for 14 days before it was sacrificed as the paschal lamb. The paschal lamb symbolized what happened at Passover where the lamb was a substitute for the firstborn son who was destined to die in Egypt as punishment if that sacrificial lamb’s blood was not on the doorframe. It’s not spelled out for you, but the inferences we are supposed to draw are pretty clear.


One thing that nearly thirty cultic, heterodox years helped with is seeing the continuous, seamless power of the Passover fulfilled by Jesus, completely understood by the Apostolic Church. It is that metaphoric process of substitution that has to be transcended. We have to knowledgably and knowingly leave it all behind.

I havent yet read further in your post…but i wish to sort out this early statement before moving on as it would change the entire post you made

I am not convinced that the Devil is the jailer in biblical theology. Perhaps i am just reading your statement in the wrong way.

My view is that sin cannot coexist with our creator…he is the complete opposite of it. Therefore, we separate ourselves from the Father through our sinful nature and indeed our sins. Because of that, we reject Him, he does not reject us. He graciously offers all of us the free gift of salvation but we must choose (an action/work) through our faith in Christ’s ability to redeem/save us by dying on the cross, to accept and follow Him.

We know from the book of Revelation that Satan Himself is bound…he is in fact Himself jailed in a way. In choosing not to accept the free gift of salvation, we become bound like Satan is…we follow Satan to his own demise/jail.

So to simplify, wouldnt i be correct in stating that through our own rejection of salvation, we become our own jailers?

1 Like

My sources say a ransom was the payment to free a slave, which makes sense when you read the verse.

I see no mention of a jailer but I do see slave. Given the Greek word used, λύτρον, is only used twice in the NT I don’t see how you get the meaning is a get out of jail payment.

1 Like

Yes the Bible theology is not that Satan is the Jailer, but that we become a slave to sin. Satan is Himself a slave to sin, but i do not think that makes him the Jailer.

A jailer is someone who has authority to keep a person incarcerated…Satan has no authority of his own to incarcerate anyone. In fact, at the end of the theme of the Bible (which is the plan of salvation), Satan will be killed along with all other sinners who are not redeemed.

In what lifes experience would one normally see the Jailer suffer the fate of inmates? Clearly, Satan is not the Jailer!

I agree that the Kingdom of God is a central theme in the teaching of Jesus.
It is tied to the question of how can we become part of this kingdom, as citizens or children instead of outsiders?

I do not see other ways to enter to the Kingdom of God, except through Jesus and especially, through the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus. We can see other important meanings in the life of Jesus but being saved is a vital point from our perspective. I guess this explains why this viewpoint to the life and death of Jesus has gained a central place.

Dying on the cross is just half of the atonement. Resurrection is as important.
An executed, failed messiah could not be THE Messiah. Resurrection proved that he did not fail, the sacrifice was effective, and the resurrection made it possible for us to live in the presence of the Kingdom of God, although the Kingdom is not yet fully visible.

Another guestion is the meaning of the saying ‘going to heaven’. Personally, I believe that the Kingdom will be established on Earth after the return of Jesus. What happens between our death and the return of Jesus is not obvious to me.


Well, to be precise, λύτρον (meaning “ransom” and its variants occur four times in the New Testament. The two additional variants (besides Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45) are 1 Titus 2:6, where it appears as ἀντίλυτρον, and Hebrews 9:15 , where it appears as ἀπολύτρωσιν.

The worldview of the New Testament was created against the background of the apocalyptic worldview developed in the time between the two Testaments, and this was a time in which the battle was between the powers of this world and God. Satan or the devil is quite frequently lumped in with these powers. For example, in 2 Timothy 2:26, salvation is about escaping "from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will."

However, let us not go off on a tangent. The point I am arguing is that talk in the New Testament of Jesus’ life being a “ransom” gives no support to the penal substitution theory of the atonement.

Well, this is a retreat into sources other than Jesus himself. Such a retreat only emphasizes my point that although Jesus frequently speaks of his death and resurrection, he never interprets it as a penal substitution.

And Jesus does frequently speak of his death and the implications of it, and in a way that cannot be contrasted with his preaching of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God, or the kingly rule of God as some would prefer, is about Jesus’ followers following him as the king. The “journey to Jerusalem” feature of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) presents Jesus’ pathway to Jerusalem and his death and resurrection, as the pathway of discipleship. His followers must take up their cross and follow him. There is no penal substitution here.

Jesus himself used metaphors and the spoken texts we have recorded show lots of intertextuality with the Old Testament and rabbinical teaching. Jesus was not speaking outside of a context. Are you saying we shouldn’t try to understand Jesus in light of the Old Testament and the apostle’s preaching about Jesus? How could you expect to understand his meaning well if you ignore the context and the interpretations of the earliest believers, the ones he personally taught?

What passages are you referring to?

Yes. And he clearly taught that his Messianic (anointed king) mission involved his death and resurrection and he was worshiped as Lord by the early church because he was the resurrected, exalted Son of God.

That doesn’t mean there is no substitutionary atonement anywhere. Your claim that it was made up in the 21st century is still wrong. Look, I think some of the things that have been added to the substitutionary sacrifice metaphor of atonement by rabid Neo-Cals who have a wrathful view of God and delight in their worm theology are not really part of “the gospel.” I think they are additions to make a man-made construct make more sense to the men who made it. But I think it is wrong to respond to the “divine child abuse” crowd by chucking the whole Lamb of God metaphor. The metaphor is instructive and true and permeates the Gospels. If some people have come up with the wrong entailments from it, the best response is to deal with those errors, not throw the baby out with the bathwater and declare the whole metaphor to be wrong.


Of course, there is a degree of continuity, as well as discontinuity, between Jesus and the Old Testament. The question is, where do you draw the lines? The interpretation of Jesus’ life by his contemporaries is a good point you make, though part of the answer will include their target audience and their purpose in addressing that audience. I will have to sleep on that to see if I can come up with a more comprehensive answer.

Probably the passages which most stand out are the three in the journey to Jerusalem segment of each of the Synoptic Gospels. Since they are very similar, I will reference Mark with the Synoptic parallels. They are:

Mark 8:27-35 (Matthew 16:13ff; Luke 9:18 ff)
Mark 9:30-32 (Matthew 17:22 ff, Luke 9:43 ff)
Mark 10:32-24 (Matthew 20:17ff; Luke 18:31 ff)

These episodes of teaching are usually associated with illustrations of the disciples behavior which is the opposite implied by the teaching. In other words, the disciples just don’t get it.

I think this conversation has reached its end, in both senses of the word.

I usually don’t appreciate people giving me a reading list in the midst of a debate as it tends to interrupt the flow of debate. However, if this thread has got you thinking, and you would like to look at a number of theories of the atonement, I recommend The Nature of the Atonement. Four Views. IVP 2006. In this book, each of four authors gives their view, and after each, the other three authors get to respond.

There are limits on what a forum can achieve, but this book, and no doubt others, goes into much of the details.

1 Like

Coming late to the conversation. Is it fair to summarize that almost all the contributors agree with the Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, Anglican and protestant churches that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; and in this, we all agree with John the baptist, with Peter, James and John, who knew and walked with Jesus; and with the earliest church and creeds. And I think we all agree with this cloud of witnesses that God is just.

I’m not sure that the discussion has changed anyone’s view of these central truths - certainly not mine. Perhaps because I’m too simplistic; too childish; not erudite enough to participate in a refined debate about the nuances of atonement.

But I’m concerned about something. I think perhaps the most important mission of BioLogos is to help the Christian community to understand that Biblical and orthodox faith are quite compatible with science. Many, or most, Christians would stop reading BioLogos material if it appeared that BioLogos members might generally not believe that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Then we would lose the opportunity to discuss the important matters of science with most ordinary Christians.

In fact, atonement is not an esoteric, denominational matter. It is important to all Christians; and if we appear - even for exceptionally erudite reasons - to argue against some aspect of it, we will fail in our basic mission. The world desperately needs reconciliation.

Not a new concept (I Cor 1 for example), but vital to remember for this organization, I think. Certainly, I could be wrong.

1 Like

Here’s a thought, only by God’s wrath being satisfied in Jesus can we be assured that his wrath will not ever be directed towards us.

Some people believe that. I’m not a fan of the whole “God’s wrath needed to be satisfied” theological angle. But I also don’t think “God’s wrath needed to be satisfied” is a necessary entailment of “Jesus died in our place as a substitutionary sacrifice.”


I’m a big fan that it has been satisfied, that there is not any possibility a tiny bit is still floating around out there to catch up with me.

1 Like

In general, it is not the habit of Christians to dispute what is written plainly in the Bible. Some care may be needed in distinguishing when the person speaking in the Bible is speaking for God. It may not be true of John the Baptist during all of His ministry, but that portion of John the Baptist’s ministry is clearly directed by God. So yes we affirm that Jesus is the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” The differences of opinion come regarding what that means exactly – particularly where the Bible doesn’t spell it out in detail.

But yes, I think the primary mission of Biologos is the compatibility between Christianity (even evangelical Christianity) and evolution. So while many come to the conclusion Adam and Eve didn’t exist and the garden is just a story, others like myself make it clear they see no reason for such a conclusion on the basis of evolution alone. I personally might take issue with an excessively literal treatment of the judicial metaphor for the atonement, but clearly this has nothing to do with evolution, and my issues are in no way representative of Biologos.

1 Like

I know I can’t ask this : ) but what else could it possibly entail? Ransom? Paying Satan?

Then I’m in good company.

You can’t imagine a role for a sacrifice or a substitute in the conceptual domain of atonement other than to appease a wrathful God? Do you read no literature? “Christ figure” is a thing.

Yeah, Superman. Chuck Heston in The Omega Man. Many westerns. Most of the best. Sidney Carton. You name it. I can see substitution for a sacrifice in war, not punishment. But I don’t think that was in any NT mind. I can see that Jesus’ shock sacrifice was necessary in His proof of divinity by resurrection. But no substitution. If anyone can, you can. See it. Think it.

PS even more subtly appropriate tropes, where a man sacrifices all for the woman he loves (like Carton), as Jesus (YHWH) for the Church (Israel), but that’s tenuous to the point of contrived?

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

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.