At the center of the Christian religion is the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. The church is founded on our shared belief that, “God really did atone for sins in Jesus Christ and that God really did redemptively create restored relationships with God, with self, with others, and with the world.” Yet, what does the word “atone” mean? The question for the believing community is not whether Jesus was crucified but why. Interpreting the meaning of the crucifixion is the central point of contention among the church. While a variety of theories are offered to explain the work of the cross, this article will explore if penal substitutionary atonement stands as a primary option, in church history and scripture, for understanding the death of Jesus.
This discussion is not without its difficulties. The subject of penal substitutionary atonement not only opens the door for critique, but moral censure from some within academia. Rutledge describes the present situation:
This concept of substitution (or exchange) applied to the cross of Christ arouses discomfort and even hostility in many circles today. Indeed, antagonism is widespread and growing; it has been filtering down from academia into the mainline churches for the better part of a century. The fact that so much of it comes from highly placed scholars and church leaders adds to the unease, even distress, of those who have always believed without question in what has been called, “the substitutionary atonement.”
Such “filtering down” was so effective that Balthasar noted that it, “is a motif that has been almost completely abandoned in the modern world.” This abandonment may be ideological as well as textual (or even emotional) as some contend that this particular theory has led theology down the “wrong track.” It is critiqued as incoherent and even dangerous —so why present it as the primary framework for understanding the death of Jesus?
In order to answer this, we must first define the terms behind this theory, and then examine whether it can be sustained by scripture and historical interpretation. Karl Barth’s and Robert Lethem’s definitions of penal substitutionary atonement accurately summarize the theory:
Christ himself willingly submitted to the just penalty which we deserved, receiving it on our behalf and in our place so that we will not have to bear it ourselves.
In His doing this for us, in His taking to Himself—to fulfil all righteousness—our accusation and condemnation and punishment, in His suffering in our place and for us, there came to pass our reconciliation with God.
That is, Jesus suffered the penalty (penal) for the sins of the world (substitution) so that we could be reconciled to God (atonement). Can this understanding of the crucifixion of Jesus bear the weight of scripture’s testimony?
Before we examine the scriptural data from the New Testament, we must first discuss certain Old Testament passages to better understand the Jewish mindset when it comes to atonement. Two passages stand out as the premiere passages for atonement theology in the Old Testament: Leviticus 16 and Isaiah 53.
In Leviticus 16 we discover the Day of Atonement, in which the high priest made atonement for himself (Lev. 16:6) and for the congregation of Israel (16:15-16). This was done by the means of two goats: one was sacrificed, and the other was used as a scapegoat (16:8-10). The former was given as a sin offering for the people. Its blood was used to cleanse the inner sanctum of the tabernacle so that the presence of God could dwell among the people (16:15). The latter goat was brought to the high priest who would lay his hands on the beast and “confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel and all their transgressions, and all their sins” (16:21). He would then send it away into the wilderness, outside of the camp, taking the sins of the people with it. This symbolic measure seems to imply that the goat bore the sins of the people and departed to “the place of cutting off.”
Throughout the chapter, there is a relationship between the removal of sin from the people, and access into the presence of God. This seems to imply that our understanding of atonement must consider that, in order for sinful humans to access the presence of God, their sins must be removed by a substitutionary sacrifice. These sacrifices “are meant to propitiate God, that is, to accomplish a reconciliation between God and man, to avert God’s wrath.” This is the basic formula that we witness throughout the Mosaic system.
In Isaiah 52:13-53 we are introduced to a character known as the “servant of the Lord.” This figure is depicted as suffering for the sins of people, thus becoming a “man of sorrows” (53:3). He is described as bearing the sorrows of the people (53:4) and being pierced and crushed for their iniquities and transgressions (53:5). This is seen as the intentional will of God, as he lays this burden upon the servant for the sake of the people (53:6)—language reminiscent of the scapegoat of Leviticus 16. Whoever this servant is, he appears to suffer vicariously for the sake of the people’s sins. This wasn’t forced upon him, but rather he displays a “clear-headed, self-restraining voluntariness.” This passage appears to teach that a servant would come from the Lord who would freely offer himself for the sins of the people. This seems to be the most straightforward understanding of the passage, as Barrick notes:
Having considered all the key elements of Isaiah 53 and the variety of viewpoints, the simplest and most straightforward meaning of the text rests with the concept of penal substitution. When the text speaks for itself, it speaks without any ambiguity. The NT writers appear to have understood the plain intent of the prophet rightly, finding every reason to take the text as directly Messianic.
This passage is particularly relevant for our discussion since it shaped the early church’s understanding of Jesus sacrificial offering (Acts 8:32-35).
This is not to say that these interpretations are without their detractors; far from it, as others offer an alternative interpretation to both Leviticus 16 and Isaiah 53. Milgrom contends that the scapegoat was not an offering, nor did it suffer vicariously for the people. Rather, its purpose was to, “carry off the sins of the Israelites transferred to it by the high priest’s confession.” In agreement, Goldingay writes that, “not that the goat is thus made responsible for these wrongdoings and has to suffer for them; it simply carries them away somewhere.” Hermission notes that Isaiah 53 “Will remain controversial till kingdom come.”
While some hold a more tempered response, believing that the text allows for vicarious suffering, but does not demand it others take a more progressive position. Spieckermann, for example, contends that Leviticus 16 was written after Isaiah 53, opening the possibility that the view of vicarious suffering was post-exilic, presenting new ideas that previously were not a part of the traditional interpretation. Despite these critiques, the traditional interpretation of both Leviticus 16 and Isaiah 53 as examples of vicarious suffering for the sake of the people, appears to uphold the primacy of the penal substitutionary theory of atonement.
As we progress into the New Testament, we will limit ourselves to two passages: Romans 3:22-26 and 1 Peter 3:18. Romans 3 is a—if not the—central New Testament text when discussing the primacy of penal substitutionary atonement. Here Paul contends that we are justified by grace because God put forward Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood.” Paul’s point seems to be that God can maintain both his justice and our justification because of the vicarious suffering of Jesus (3:26). For Paul, Jesus is the lamb of God that takes away the sins—not simply of national Israel—but of the world (John 1:29). With the background of Isaiah 53 we understand that this wasn’t forced, but freely offered by the Servant himself. Here we witness the “self-substitution of God himself.”
The point of contention comes with the translation of “propitiation.” While some say that this implies a “wrath diverting sacrifice” which points toward an appeasement of divine justice, others argue that it speaks toward the unveiling of God’s righteousness, “through the faithfulness to death of Israel’s Messiah Jesus.” In the latter interpretation, the focus generally surrounds what is often referred to as the Christus Victur theory of atonement. Gustav Aulen summarizes the view:
The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil…the victory of Christ creates a new situation, bringing their rule to an end, and setting men free from their dominion.
This perspective has become increasingly popular in more recent generations to whom theology is experiential and not simply objective. The Christus Victor theory holds a certain appeal, “In contrast to penal substitution, which focuses primarily on Christ’s death, Christus Victor encompasses the broader view of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as winning a victory over the powers of evil which bold humanity captive.” Yet, while this view appears to hold a particular corner of perspective on atonement, it may fall short in satisfactorily answering important questions about the cross—mainly, if God was only concerned with victory over Satan, then why chose the brutal death of crucifixion? With the support of Old Testament passages such as Leviticus 16 and Isaiah 53 it would appear that we are on solid ground in preferring the traditional interpretation of propitiation as a sacrifice given for appeasement of wrath.
This interpretation of Romans 3 is bolstered by 1 Peter 3:18. Here, the apostle declares that Jesus “suffered once for sins” (penal); “the righteous for the unrighteous” (substitutionary); “that he might bring us to God” (atonement). The question is whether, when Peter uses the language “for sins,” he means “in our place” or “for our benefit.” Rutledge notes:
Sometimes these words seem to mean “for our sake” and sometimes “for our benefit” and sometimes “in our place” as a representative or substitute. It stretches credibility and common sense to insist that the words never mean “in our place.” Insisting that they can never have this meaning is even more tendentious than insisting that they always do, because taking such a fixed position betrays an unreasonable antipathy for the concept of substitution.
While such ambiguity is expected, Cousar acknowledges that, at times, the phrasing “clearly denotes ‘in place of,’ a replacement of one party for another and thus a vicarious death.” Still it would appear that, when comparing this with similar passages (1 Pet. 2:24), Peter maintains that it is through the vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus that our sins are atoned. This aligns with Paul’s view of Jesus’ death, as well as Leviticus 16 and Isaiah 53. Thus, the primacy of penal substitutionary atonement remains as a viable standard for articulating the jewel of atonement.
Finally, we want to briefly note the views of the Church Fathers. While some contend that the Christus Victor theory was prominent until the work of Anselm, they go far beyond the weight of evidence in their assertions. Rather, as Craig notes, “the church fathers were not uniformly committed to the ransom theory of the atonement but articulated views involving a wide variety of motifs.”
Justin Martyr, for example, wrote of his understanding of the cross in his Dialogue with Trypho:
His Father caused him to suffer these things in behalf of the human family…If, then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise Him up, why do you argue about Him?
From this we see that Justin saw Jesus’ suffering “in behalf of” or “in the place of” the human race. In this act, he took upon himself “the curses of all” (in reference to the curse of the law, Gal. 3:10). It would seem that Justin viewed the cross through the lens of penal substitution. This is the “essence of the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement.”
In book 2 of Clement of Alexandria’s The Paedagogus he writes:
It is a symbol, too, of the Lord’s successful work. He having borne on His head, the princely part of his body, all our Iniquities by which we were pierced. For He by His own passion rescued us from offences, and sins, and such like thorns; and having destroyed the devil, deservedly said in triumph, ‘O Death, where is thy sting?’
In referencing the crown of thorns that Jesus wore at his crucifixion, Clement portrays Christ as bearing our iniquities. This follows the pattern of the Servant—the lamb of God—suffering on behalf of the sinful nation. We witness similar language in the writings of both Tertullian and Augustine. While not an explicit systemization of penal substitution, it appears that such a viewpoint was assumed among the Church Fathers when discussing the atonement.
In conclusion, we witnessed that in both scripture and history, the penal substitutionary atonement perspective was a primary means for the early church to interpret the work of the cross. The modern church must wisely articulate the truth of the cross in our present context. While we may need to offer better explanations to our post-Christian society on the important of Jesus’ vicarious suffering, we should be hesitant to dismiss scripture and history’s witness to the centrality of this viewpoint. Other theories remain helpful in understanding our justification, but they fail to satisfactorily explain Calvary apart from the belief that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).
 Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 1.
 N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 540
 Kevin J Vanhoozer, eds. et al., “Atonement,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2005), 72-73.
 Thomas J Nettles, “History and Theories of Atonement,” The Gospel Coalition, accessed May 5, 2020, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/history-theories-atonement/).
 Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 464.
 George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 361.
 Derek Tidball, The Message of the Cross (Downers Grove: IVP academic, 2001), 77.
 F.W. Camfield, “The Idea of Substitution in the Doctrine of the Atonement,” Scottish Journal of Theology 1 (1948), 282.
 J.I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve?” Tyndale Bulletin (1974), 3-45.
 Johan S. Vos, “The Destructive Power of Atonement Theology” Neotestamentica 40 (2006), 383-401.
 R. Letham, The Work of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 133.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Book 4 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956-69), 223.
 David Peterson, ed., Where Wrath and Mercy Meet: Proclaiming the Atonement Today (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2002).
 Theodore Mueller, “Justification: Basic Linguistic Aspects and the Art of Communicating It,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, 46 no 1 (1982), 21-38.
 David L. Allen, The Atonement: A Biblical, Theological, and Historical Study of the Cross of Christ (Nashvile: B&H Publishing Group, 2019), 33.
 Jeremy Schipper, “Interpreting the Lamb Imagery of Isaiah 53,” Journal of Biblical Literature 132 (2013), 315-325.
 J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 432.
 William D. Barrick, “Penal Substitution in the Old Testament,” The Masters Seminary Journal (2009), 21.
 Jacob Milgrom, “Leviticus 1–16,” in Anchor Bible 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 21.
 John Goldingay, The Message of Isaiah 40–55: A Literary-Theological Commentary (London: T & T Clark, 2005) 516.
 Hans-Jürgen Hermisson, “The Fourth Servant Song in the Context of Second Isaiah,” in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, eds. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher, trans. Daniel P. Bailey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 17.
 Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., “A Theology of Isaiah,” in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Chicago: Moody, 1991) 331.
 Hermann Spieckermann, “The Conception and Prehistory of the Idea of Vicarious Suffering in the Old Testament,” in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, eds. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher, trans. Daniel P. Bailey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 3.
 Thomas Schreiner, “Substitutionary Atonement,” The Gospel Coalition, accessed May 5, 2020, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/substitutionary-atonement/).
 John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1986).
 Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary, (Macon: Smyth and Helways, 2012).
 Jack Cottrell, The Faith Once For All: Bible Doctrine for Today (Joplin: College Press, 2002). Ebook, loc. 6960.
 N.T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York: Harper One, 2016), 316.
 Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 106.
 Brad Harper, “Christus Victor, Postmodernism, and the Shaping of Atonement Theology,” Cultural Encounters, 2 no 1 (2005) 37-5.
 Richard J. Mouw, “Why Christus Victor is Not Enough,” Christianity Today, 56 no 5 (2012), 28-31.
 Richard H. Sueme, “Divine Propitiation,” Bibliotheca sacra 99 no 394 (1942), 193-213.
 Rutledge, The Crucifixion, 469.
 Charles B. Cousar, A Theology of the Cross: The Death of Jesus in the Pauline Letters, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990), 56.
 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Dictionary of Theological Interpretation, 73
 William Lane Craig, The Atonement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) 6.
 A. Lukyn Williams, Justin Martyr, the dialogue with Trypho (London: S.P.C.K., 1930), ch. 95.
 Peter W. Ensor, “Justin Martyr and Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” The Evangelical Quarterly, 83 no 3 (2011), 217-232.
 Clement of Alexandria, The Paedagogus, Book 2: 190-195.
 Peter W Ensor, “Tertullian and Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” The Evangelical Quarterly, 86 no 2 (2014), 130-142.
 Gary Williams, “Penal Substitutionary Atonement in the Church Fathers,” The Evangelical Quarterly, 83 no 3 (2011), 195-216.
 Peter W Ensor, “Clement of Alexandria and Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” The Evangelical Quarterly, 85 no 1 (2013), 19-35.