Questions about Penal Atonement

Toby Sumpter, a pastor in the CREC, a strongly conservative Presbyterian denomination, has written a piece responding to part of a piece by Derrin Belousek regarding the latter’s work on penal substitution. Right, got that sorted out?

Now, Sumpter has not read Belousek’s 600-page tome taking down every brick in the Penal Substitutionary theory, so he can perhaps be forgiven for getting late to the party and trying to chime into the discussion without knowing what’s been going on beforehand. Sumpter objects to Belousek’s description of PSA, which is this:

God, who is holy and just, cannot tolerate sin and so must judge sin by punishing sinners with death; but God, who is also merciful, provides sinners an escape from divine retribution by ordaining Christ’s death as punishment in their place.

Sumpter calls this a “rhetorical setup” which is “skewing the question” in order to make PSA look like a “distortion of God’s character.” Even though it needs no rhetorical skewing to be a fundamental distortion of God’s character – but I digress. No, the problem is that Belousek’s description is the standard definition of PSA given by its supporters, so his complaint that it is an unfair caricature seems like special pleading. Pick any of the major defenses of PSA and you will essentially find this definition (for example, this one).

The second problem with Sumpter’s complaint is a big one, and it has to do with the entire spread of his post, and it is that when Belousek is speaking of God’s intolerance of sin in his article, he is specifically talking about the claim that God supposedly abandoned the Son on the cross. Sumpter assumes that Belousek thinks the intolerance of God for sin means that He must punish us with death immediately, that He can have no patience with us at all. But Belousek’s point is that

if God can abandon his own Son at the cross, what assurance do we have that God won’t abandon us in our time of trial? If the cross shows that God left his own Son derelict as he faced powers of darkness and death, what assurance do we have that God won’t leave us derelict to face peril and sword? Can anyone trust this God?

And Belousek is pulling his punches here too. If, after all, the primary agent that has set itself against Jesus in this place is actually the Father throwing all of His fury and wrath upon His own Son, then not only do we have to worry about God abandoning us, but also kicking us while we’re down, so to speak. Not only was it a sham trial through which Jesus was falsely killed, but the whole thing was ultimately God’s doing. Yikes.

One can nitpick about Sumpter’s understanding of the Torah and his definition of wrath and justice and hell, but at the base of it he just seems to think that only PSA can make sense of these ideas. As if deniers of PSA have never heard of wrath before. But those who deny penal substitution have not only heard of wrath, they also make sense of it within their paradigm. No one denies that God has wrath, or that He has the right to destroy anyone for committing sin. The question is really about whether God must destroy anyone. That God has the right to do so does not mean that He must exercise this right (Belousek discusses this at length in the second half of his excellent book, Atonement, Justice, and Peace). We see God as having the right to penal punishment but as choosing in His grace and mercy to employ restorative justice, justice that does not destroy but restores our humanity through love and peace rather than destroying us through retribution and wrath.

All this leads us to ask some fundamental questions about PSA.

Why does every single summary of the cross and what it accomplished always speak of it as the defeat of the devil and as an exodus, rather than God’s punishment for sin?

Why does the New Testament always speak of the Father and the Son working in concert through the cross to accomplish peace for humanity, rather than the Father’s penal action upon the Son?

Why does the New Testament never speak of God’s wrath coming upon Jesus, or Jesus bearing the wrath of the Father as a substitute?

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