Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Is penal substitution immoral?

This is inspired by something I read on Simon Hutton's blog.

Is penal substitution immoral? This is a stock charge made by liberal theologians and by atheists against the Christian gospel ("Christ died for our sins"). Here's atheist Christopher Hitchens explaining the objection (sorry for the lack of a reference - copied this from Simon's blog):
“Is it moral to believe that your sins – yours and mine, ladies and gentlemen – can be forgiven by the punishment of another person? Is it ethical to believe that? I would submit that the doctrine of vicarious redemption by human sacrifice is utterly immoral. I might if I wished … say, “look, you’re in debt, I’ve just made a lot of money out of a God-bashing book, I’ll pay your debts for you” … I could say, if I really loved someone who’d been sentenced to prison, “if I could find a way of serving your sentence, I’d do it” … I could do what Sydney Carton does in A Tale of Two Cities … “I’ll take your place on the scaffold,” but I can’t take away your responsibilities, I can’t forgive what you did, I can’t say you didn’t do it, I can’t make you washed clean. The name for that in primitive Middle Eastern society was scapegoating. You pile the sins of the tribe on a goat and you drive that goat into the desert to die of thirst and hunger; and you think you’ve taken away the sins of the tribe: a positively immoral doctrine that abolishes the concept of personal responsibility upon which all ethics and all morality must depend.”
Now, if I was responding directly to Hitchens my first move would be to take him to task for making dogmatic pronouncements about what ethics and morality "must" depend on. Such assertions make sense in a Christian context where there is an all-supreme God who lays down the law for his creatures. But for an atheist to just bandy those ideas around as if they came down from heaven and whose obviousness was written upon our very human nature is for the atheist to jump up and down crying out "There is a God! There is a God!". Hitchens also abombinably misrepresents the scapegoat of Leviticus 16 - which the Bible everywhere teaches was symbolic; the idea that it was believed that the goat itself took away people's sins is a pure invention out of Hitchen's brain with no support from the book itself. But I digress. Let's take the point about penal substitution. Is its very nature immoral? Here's my two-part answer.
  1. Let's grant that it's immoral. Then we're all damned. If I must bear the responsibility for all my sins because of this alleged immutable principle, then I must bear the responsibility for all my sins. According to the the law-giver (God), the wages of sin is death - eternal death, the unending punishment of hell. It's pointless for Hitchens to start arguing about whether God's standards of justice are wrong and that eternal hell isn't deserved. Everybody knows that condemned criminals who are found guilty of the most appalling crimes (in this case, rebellion against our God and Creator), make the very worst judges of what their crimes deserve. They're incompetent, because they're totally biased.

    So if nobody can pay the penalty except the sinner, then that's very bad news indeed. God, though, spent many centuries teaching mankind that substitution was possible, using such means as for example the symbolism of the scape-goat. Hence nobody should make this mistake!

  2. Hitchens does not understand the cross of Jesus because he misses out a vital part of the Bible's teaching. He argues using three analogies, but fails to understand why they fail in this case. Jesus was not punished for the sins of his people despite a lack of any real connection between Jesus and his people. On the contrary, he had a unique relationship to us, which does not exist in other cases. The missing element is the doctrine of the "covenant", and the ensuing idea of a "federal headship". Here, "federal" means "representative". Christ was, by a covenant, appointed to be the head of his people. He agreed to take upon himself their responsibilities and to perform what was required of them.

    Now, this idea of federal representation, far from being the end of all morality, is the very basis for a great deal of the transactions in the world. The government (in the US, the "federal government") acts on the behalf of its people. For them, it negotiates treaties, passes laws and goes to war. One soldier shoots another soldier, but isn't arrested for murder as Hitchen's ideas require - because both were acting on behalf of a people. Hitchens is actually propounding a hyper-individualism. His assertion is only logically consistent with total anarchy, in which every individual acts only for themselves, and nobody can ever act on your behalf. No employee can act for his boss; no father can take a decision on behalf of his infant child and no government can act for its people. If they did, according to Hitchens, it would end all morality. Hitchens is a modern Westerner, and promotes the individual above all other federations to such a level as to completely destroy them - but it's a bit rich for him to do this in the same breath as committing the chronological fallacy and sneering at the foolish beliefs of those in the ancient east.

    Jesus took the punishment for his people justly, because he was joined with them in a divine covenant. This is the same reason why Adam's sins can be imputed to us - he was appointed the federal head of humanity, given authority to act on their behalf. Will Hitchens dare to tell God that he is not allowed to make such appointments? That he must run every covenant or other arrangement he wishes to make past Hitchens first, to get his approval? He's forbidden to appoint anyone to a representative role without the atheist's agreement first? Hitchens seems not to understand who is the potter, and who is the clay in this setup.

    At this point Hitchens might argue that personal responsibility cannot be taken by a substitute without an individual's prior and personal consent. Again, this would make him a radical individual anarchist. Will the government of Kenya or the UK agree to exempt me from its laws and taxes if I simply declare that I no longer consent to them being my government? I withdraw permission, therefore I am now a law unto myself? If an infant Hitchens suddenly announces to his daddy that said daddy no longer has permission to represent or act for him in anything, will Hitchens senior immediately agree?

    But again, let's grant him this point. If Hitchens decides to use this granted authority to positively forbid Christ to have anything to do with him in representing him, or atoning for his sins, or pleading before God on his behalf, then so be it. What is the outcome? Hardly joyful, is it? Insisting on the rights of one's own individuality to claim one's very own share in damnation isn't really a great use of that right, don't you think? OK, let him - if Hitchens wishes to have no part in Christ's saving work, then God shall accept his choice; but that really won't turn out well for him. We can, though, admire the righteousness of God's justice: he gives the Christ-rejecter nothing more than they themselves demand.
It would be immoral for my crimes against the government to be heaped upon another innocent victim who had no interest or part in my case. That's why Sydney Carton could not go to the gallows for another. But in another case, if a contract has been taken out such that someone had agreed that whatever debts I ran up in the course of my trading, he agreed to take them all, then it would be perfectly moral. Such contracts are routine. What Hitchens has to do to establish his case is to prove that the transaction recorded in Scripture in which Christ became the covenant head of his people definitely belongs to the former category and not to the latter. He hasn't done this - he hasn't even seemed to appreciate the need for it. He can't, because in fact God is at liberty to constitute whatever relationships between his own creatures that he pleases to constitute, consistent with his own holiness and justice. He simply assumes that we must and can all be related only on a hyper-individualistic basis and leaves out the authority of God. Of course he does - he's an atheist. But that's ultimately nothing more than arguing in a circle.

Christ can die in our place, and that is the good news of the Christian gospel. Jesus can die in our place because God appointed him to it. Where is Hitchen's good news? The doctrine that our sins are our own and we must be punished for them is horrible. To proclaim it as gladly as he does is a kind of madness which only sinners in determined rebellion against their Creator are capable of.


huttonline said...

Thanks David, very good post.
I'd be happy to join in any ongoing discussion here about this topic.

David Anderson said...

Thanks Simon. To Nick - the arbitrary despot who moderates here doesn't allow comments which say "you're wrong, read this to find out why"; you have to make the argument yourself.

Nick said...

I did make the argument myself (I did not cut and paste someone else's work). The post was a debate I personally had with a Calvinist on the subject of Penal Substitution, using the Bible as my only source.

David Anderson said...

Hi Nick,

The arbitrary despot who rules the roost here is also very grumpy and capricious. He doesn't care if the cut-and-paste URL was to your own words; if you want to debate you have to use them again. He also lives in Africa and doesn't like using bandwidth to visit other peoples' websites without a guarantee in advance that they're great.

The posting rules are here. Pay particular attention to numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4. Any more whinging and the thunderbolt of wrath will consume you whole and even limitless numbers of the finest goats will not save you.

Best wishes,

Nick said...

Ahh, so you're the "arbitrary despot," I thought you meant me! haha.

Let me highlight some specific points then, and I will be arguing along the lines of Scripture and leave the philosophical issues of morality aside for now:

1) You began by saying the phrase "Christ died for our sins" signifies Penal Substitution, but note what 1 John 3:16 says:
"Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers."

Notice the parallelism here, if "lay down life for" means a PSub framework, the second half wouldn't make sense; it would be calling Christians to be Penal Substitutes for other Christians. Thus, saying "Christ died for our sins" and other such phraseology does not indicate Psub but instead put the burden on oneself to correct a problem, in a similar sense the way a father takes the burden of providing for his family on his shoulders (1 Tim 5:8).

2) You mentioned the scapegoat was an example of Penal Substitution, but the fact is the scapegoat was never killed, in fact it was set free (i.e. kept alive)!

3) You stated that hell was the primary punishment for sin, but using Penal Substitution means Jesus had to undergo hellfire in your place. The Bible simply nowhere teaches this, nor does it fit Trinitarian orthodoxy.

4) Nowhere in the Bible is there a model for transferring punishment either in the Mosaic Law or in other cases of the atonement. Consider the sin offering in Leviticus, note especially 5:11 where an animal could not be provided for the sin offering so a sack of flour was used instead. That is impossible if Psub were the framework, for you cannot kill a bag of flour. Further, the sin offerings were made for sins which did not require the death penalty, thus a 'life for life' model would not make sense.
As for turning away God's wrath and making atonement, the Bible gives many solid examples of where a hero turns away God's wrath and makes atonement without recourse to Psub (i.e. the hero getting punished in their place), consider:
-Num 25:1-13 (Ps 106:30-31);
-Deut9:16-21 (Ex 32:30,Psalm 106:19-23);
-Numbers 16:42-49
-Proverbs 16:6 says: “Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for,” and 16:14 says, “A king's wrath is a messenger of death, but a wise man will appease it.”

And I know you don't like to be told "go read this link," but if you found any of my arguments interesting, here is a fuller account of what I said above:

If you have any comments, objections, or simply want me to go away, please say so.

David Anderson said...

Thanks Nick. I'll take this and use it as the subject of another post.