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Question and Answer

Penal Substitution

Question:

I have a question about penal substitution. I am a Catholic, and I do not believe in penal substitution, but I assume that you do and that you likely have an answer for my objections, and I am interested to know what it is.

Under penal substitution, Christ must have suffered exactly the right amount of punishment on the cross in order for God to be just; no more, no less. This raises the question of how his finite suffering can equal the infinite suffering of many people in hell. The usual responses involve the infinite righteousness of Christ and the infinite injustice of the cross, with this somehow balancing the scales. My question is, under this view, isn’t the cross too much? Even a paper-cut unjustly inflicted on our Lord would be an infinite injustice, since he is the infinitely holy God. The price would have been paid long before the scourging began. The precise amount of finite pain ceases to add anything if you build the defense on his infinity. Is there some way to resolve this, or is there a better way address the finite/eternal problem of penal substitution?

Answer:

First let me thank you for the tone of your email, which I appreciate. These days, perceived difference between “your group and my group” are taken as a pretext for ad-hominem attacks, rather than discourse.

I think the best place for me to begin interacting with your questions is to state the historic Reformed understanding of what the Scriptures say about penal substitution.

I hope that we would agree one one basic starting point: In Old and New Testaments alike forgiveness of sin is accomplished through atonement. In the Old Testament the verb kaphar (cover, purge, appease) means to atone. See Leviticus 5:18, “And the priest shall ‘make covering’ for him on account of his ignorance,” or Proverbs 16:14, “A king’s wrath is a messenger of death, and a wise man will ‘appease’ it.” This is consistently used in connection with forgiving sin through sin offerings (see dozens of occurrences in Leviticus, particularly Lev. 14:19; and interestingly Isa. 6:7). In the New Testament the same idea of atonement focuses on the one that Christ accomplished for those who believe. He takes upon himself our sins and willingly undergoes the righteous wrath of the Father in our place.

In other words, it is vital to a biblical understanding of the atonement that it be penal (that Christ satisfied the penalty of the law, as the righteousness of the Father demands) and substitutionary (that he underwent this penalty in our place). If you and I were to look back in the history of the Christian faith, then we could trace a continuous line of theology presenting this understanding of atonement from Augustine Bishop of Hippo (De Trinitatis 4.7) to Anslem Bishop of Canterbury (see the whole of his book Cur Deus Homo) to Thomas Aquinus (Suma Theologica IIIA), to the Protestant reformer John Calvin.

If I am understanding your questions correctly, you too operate with these two main points in some form. I think your question “how his finite suffering can equal the infinite suffering of many people in hell” assumes what I have mentioned above; namely, person A (here Christ) suffering for party B, because party B (in hell) has a sin problem he needs resolved.

With this basic point concerning salvation laid down (i.e., that salvation, if it be biblical and actually forgives sin, must include atonement that is [a] penal and [b] substutionary), the questions that you go on to pose may then be addressed.

You write: “This raises the question of how his finite suffering can equal the infinite suffering of many people in hell.” I would respond: “It isn’t and it doesn’t.”

Christ’s suffering is not finite—in its worth, that is—and it does not equal the suffering of many in hell. Christ’s suffering is of infinite worth or merit, by virtue of his sinless life and divine identity. Perfect perpetual obedience equals the standard of divine holiness, it is thus of divine perfection, worth or merit—that is to say, infinite.

Christ suffering is because of the divine justice of God as expressed in his righteous anger at sin. It is not to somehow balance out the suffering of many in hell. It is sobering to realize that atonement/forgiveness is a matter of this life; by the time a man dies and goes to his eternal destiny the matter is decided one way or another. Before we die, we either look to and trust in the once-for-all sacrifice of the perfect Savior, or we don’t (Heb. 9:27). So, those who are in hell cannot be suffered for in a vicarious or substutionary sense.

You also ask “My question is, under this view, isn’t the cross too much? … The price would have been paid long before the scourging began. The precise amount of finite pain ceases to add anything if you build the defense on his infinity … Is there some way to resolve this, or is there a better way address the finite/eternal problem of penal substitution?”

Working from your last question, yes, there is a better way—a biblical way—to address the “problem” of penal substitution. The better way is to let God define and direct our thinking.

Christ’s passion and death lasted for a finite time, with a finite number of actual events making up the whole passion. It did finish at a set point: after specific events and duration—hence his cry, “It is finished!” Yet it is not finite in its worth or effect, as it does address all sin—hence his cry, “It is finished!” Why or how does our Lord’s death address all sin?

Well, because from Adam and Eve’s time in the garden the principle of divine justice stood fast: sin results in forfeiture of life—the wages of sin is death (see Gen. 2:17 and Rom. 6:23). Christ, by virtue of his incarnation and his identity as head of all who believe, both:

Thus—and this is one of the key themes of the epistle to the Romans, but also Isaiah 53 and dozens of other passages—the just Father can justly forgive and make just unjust sinners like you or me. Christ and his cross make free forgiveness of the unjust to be righteously or justly possible. This is not just some President (of either party) pardoning felons whom he might wish to, because the end of his presidency has come around. It is perfect justice.


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