Chapter 3 – Biblical & Logical Problems With Penal Substitution Atonement

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

The Penal Substitution Atonement (shortened to PSA in this book) has a long list of problems, both within the biblical text as well as being contrary to sound reason. If the problem was only our own human reasoning, and there were very clear texts that backed up this teaching without other contradicting texts, we may be able to just accept that God’s reasoning with this topic is different than ours and we could perhaps accept it as a matter of God’s divine prerogative. However, God explicitly appeals to sound human reasoning throughout this topic, and it is the PSA view that begs to differ, as you will see. 

The PSA problems are found at multiple levels and an attempt here has been made to categorize them instead of presenting them at random. However, some of these itemized problems overlap each other, and arguments could be made that the following list should be shortened or categorized differently. Granted, but the categories below are what this author has decided to use, for better or for worse.

Problem category 1: Justice

1. PSA claims our sins were transferred to Jesus on the cross, either by a literal transfer or by imputation (accounting) to Jesus on the cross. But punishing an innocent third party is against God’s own law and cannot be genuine justice. A second wrong does not make the first wrong to be right. Violence, torture, and retribution upon a third and innocent party cannot satisfy a just God who has explicitly prohibited this practice. Punishing a third party only serves to add an additional victim of injustice. Even in legal cases where a third party pays a monetary fine instead of the guilty party, the one paying the monetary fine is never punished in some other way, like imprisonment, torture, whipping, or execution. Only the actual guilty party will receive a non-fine-based punishment, and the punishment that Jesus received was not monetary in nature. Even if the victim is far greater in some social capacity or rank than others does not change the fact that it is an injustice. Making Jesus to be guilty by imputation or by means of a legal declaration violates God’s justice and makes God a liar. Consider these explicit Bible texts:

“He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” Proverbs 17:15

“Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.” Exodus 23:7

“‘Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” Deuteronomy 23:7

2. Mercy is the setting aside of justice. However, since according to PSA God demands absolute, infinite justice for man’s sin, then this would exclude the option of mercy and forgiveness, contrary to what He Himself has stated, because mercy and forgiveness are incompatible with a just punishment. When mercy is given by God, judgment and justice are set aside. Under mercy, no punishment, or a reduced punishment, is demanded. An “infinite justice” view of God is incompatible with the God of the Bible and is the product of philosophic ideas of men who are obsessed with a God who is perpetually engaged in wrath. The God of the Bible is certainly angry at sin and the sinners, just like a parent who is angry toward a rebellious child. But also like a parent, God’s anger, or wrath, is not a perpetual characteristic trait, but a passing factor due to the need of the moment. A favorite passage often quoted by those who want to obsess on God’s wrath is Psalm 7:11, “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.” But this verse must be quickly followed with the very next verse which is often not quoted, “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword…” (ESV) The passage viewed in fullcontext makes clear that God has indignation because of the sin, but is allowing space and time for a person to turn from their sin before He acts upon His judgment. Space, time, and patience come first, because God is merciful, like a good parent. How long He waits before acting in wrath is His prerogative, but snap judgments are not His normative mode of action.

Consider the following few passages (of many which could be listed) which describe God’s mercy and goodness as being primary characteristics, superseding judgment:

[God is] “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in goodness and truth.” Exodus 34:6

“The LORD your God is gracious and merciful and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.” 2 Chronicles 30:9 ESV

“They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.” Nehemiah 9:17 ESV

“For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6 KJV

And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” Matthew 12:7 ESV

“Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Romans 2:4 ESV

“…Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13 

3. God never demanded the innocent blood of Jesus as a payment for the sake of His justice. To say He did demand this is to say that God wanted us to murder His own Son so He could get paid, and the payment would even apply to the sin of murdering His own Son. We do read that God planned for Jesus to die at the hands of wicked men (Acts 2:23), but that was to publicly expose their evil and thereby have Jesus be a channel of reconciliation between himself and mankind (Acts 2:36-40, 2 Corinthians 5:17-21). He did not arrange this so He could get any form of a payment. At no time is the death of Jesus celebrated as being some form of divine or cosmic justice, rather it is always pictured as a gross injustice, an atrocity perpetrated by evil people. God was pleased with Jesus who was willing to be faithful, sacrificing his life by being loyal unto death (Philippians 2:8-11), but God was not pleased about what was done to him. 

“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Acts 2:23 ESV Notice that the “definite plan and foreknowledge” was to deliver Jesus over to “lawless men”; it was these evil men who arranged and carried out the killing, not God.

“Therefore let all Israel know with certainty that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ!” Acts 2:36 ESV

“What God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, [so] that your sins may be blotted out.” Acts 3:18-19 ESV Notice that even though Jesus suffered according to the prophecy, the people still needed to turn away from their sin if they wanted forgiveness. Peter (the speaker in this passage) did not claim that the death of Jesus was a payment, but as a demonstration of their injustice and wickedness, coupled with a call to repentance so that they could be forgiven and be reconciled.

Problem category 2: The Bible speaks of God’s forgiveness, not payment…

4. Genuine forgiveness, a pardon (without a payment) is not unjust, especially if granted to those who have demonstrated that they have chosen to abandon sin and do right. God is within His right if He chooses to forgive someone, just as we can forgive others. He has repeatedly promised to forgive those who forsake a life of sin and turn to Him and His paths. Not once did He put a payment condition on His forgiveness. His forgiveness is freely given and is not for sale.

“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin.” 2 Chronicles 7:14 ESV

Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. Isaiah 55:7 ESV

“But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die. Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.” Ezekiel 18:21-28 ESV

“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” Romans 6:16-18 ESV

5. Basic logic tells us that a complete payment cancels forgiveness, and complete forgiveness voids any demand for payment. You cannot forgive a debt that has already been paid, and you do not need to pay a debt that has been forgiven. Forgiveness is granted because a debt has NOT been paid, not after the payment has been made!

6. A forgiveness that can be bought or sold is not true forgiveness. If you think that you or a third party can purchase genuine forgiveness, you do not understand forgiveness!

7. We humans are able to forgive others when they sin against us. To claim that God cannot do a good thing that we can do is to make us more moral than God. 

8. PSA’s “infinite justice” claim has God incapable of truly forgiving us without first getting a proxy payment by murder and blood. How can that be genuine forgiveness?

9. If someone says, “I forgive you”, you assume it is done right then, not secretly projecting it into a nebulous future when a payment will eventually be made by someone else. Secretly projecting the act of forgiving into the future would be considered deceptive. God is not a deceiver for forgiving people before Christ died. Some have tried to claim an “outside of time” idea to get around this problem, but this is just conjecture, especially since God never even hinted about this idea of a postponed payment-for-forgiveness arrangement. 

10. God said many times that He would forgive, and He forgave (past tense), long before Jesus was born. Many texts could be listed. The following are just a few of these: 

“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin.” 2 Chronicles 7:14 ESV

“I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” Psalm 32:5 ESV

“Their heart was not right with him, neither were they steadfast in his covenant. But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath. For he remembered that they were but flesh.” Psalm 78:37-39 ESV

You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin.” Psalm 85:2 ESV

“LORD our God, you answered them; you were to Israel a forgiving God, though you punished their misdeeds.” Psalm 99:8 NIV

“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.” Micah 7:18 

“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Isaiah 55:7

11. Jesus did not seem to think that he was going to make a payment to God for the sins of humanity. Even while on the cross Jesus did not speak as if he was making a payment when he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). Jesus did not say, “Father, wait until I am finished paying for their sins, then you can forgive them.”

12. Every example of forgiveness we have from Jesus shows forgiveness in the normal human sense, not in some unheard of future forgiveness, transfer, payment, or third-party justice. 

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors..for if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses..” Matthew 6:12, 14-15 ESV

“And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” Mark 11:25 ESV

(See also Matthew 9:2-8, 18:21-35, Luke 5:20, 6:37, 7:47-48, 11:4, 15:11-32.)

Problem category 3: Payment

13. A literal payment requires a literal transfer and a literal recipient of that payment. How can a death (an action, not a substance) be a literal payment? Who collected this payment? 

14. If God has been paid in full for our sins, then why does he still demand that we stop sinning and live right, and even have wrath and threaten judgment for disobedience? If Jesus paid it all, God got what He wanted! Do not be fooled by bad translations! For example:

“He is the payment for our sins, and not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John 2:2 (God’s Word Translation®) Note: This is a very bad translation of this verse; it is only used as a reference here to show how translators distort the Bible to make it say what their doctrine teaches. The correct translation would use the words “mercy seat”, not “payment”.

15. Would not a payment for sin be a type of indulgence payment, a bribe to ignore sin and to issue a pardon? A blood sacrifice as a payment to a god is a pagan idea, which is why God ordered the Old Testament people many times to stop their sacrifices – they began treating sacrifices as if they were indulgences, and that stinks to God. Ps. 40:6, 51:16, Jer. 6:20, Is. 1:11-18, 1 Samuel 15:22, Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:6-8, Amos 5:22. (The God of the Bible is relational, and sacrifices were supposed to be a token of this relationship, not a payment to get on God’s good side.)

Problem category 4: Sacrifices

16. The Bible never taught that a human sacrifice was needed to pay for sin. The belief of needing to pay God for sin was not part of biblical Judaism. Peter even rebuked Jesus for saying he was going to die (Mat. 16:21-23), and when he did die, they were not rejoicing that their sins had now been paid for. Read Peter’s teaching just a few weeks after the crucifixion and notice the absence of a payment idea:

“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and asked Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Acts 3:37-38

“Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities.” Acts 3:26

“Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:7-8 Notice in this passage that a human sacrifice is explicitly not acceptable, rather, God accepts a change of heart and behavior.

17. PSA ignores the underlying relational component of covenants in the Old Testament. PSA also confuses the relational blood covenant of Christ in exchange for it becoming a blood payment. PSA makes the same error that many people of ancient Israel sometimes made, by thinking that they could cover their sin by merely making a sacrifice, without reconciling the relationship by genuinely turning from sin and loving God. 

God repeatedly begged ancient Israel to stop making sacrifices because they were being done as a substitute for reconciling their relationship with Him. If sacrifices are intended to literally pay for sin, why did God call for stopping the sacrifices when Israel was in rebellion? If blood sacrifices are what He really wants, shouldn’t God have demanded more sacrifices to make up, or pay more, for the increase in sin? 

“And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” 1 Samuel 15:22 ESV

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.” Proverbs 21:3 ESV

“In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” Psalm 40:6 ESV

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6 ESV

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Isaiah 1:11-18

18. Blood was not the only substance allowed in sin sacrifices. Flour was also acceptable!   

“But if he cannot afford two turtledoves or two pigeons, then he shall bring as his offering for the sin that he has committed a tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering. He shall put no oil on it and shall put no frankincense on it, for it is a sin offering. And he shall bring it to the priest, and the priest shall take a handful of it as its memorial portion and burn this on the altar, on the LORD’s food offerings; it is a sin offering.” Leviticus 5:11-12 ESV

19. Old Testament sin sacrifices were only for unintentional sins (minor crimes) not intentional (capital) sins. 

““If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” Numbers 15:22-31 ESV

“But into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.” Hebrews 9:7 ESV

20. Ephesians 5:2 states that the death of Jesus was “an offering of a sweet-smelling sacrifice to God.” However, if our sins were transferred to Jesus, he would have been a polluted sacrifice and this verse should have stated, “an offering of a repulsive-smelling sacrifice to God.” 

Problem category 5: Reconciliation

21. PSA is about paying God for sin to cancel God’s wrath, pouring His wrath on Christ, punishing him until His justice was satisfied. Even if this were possible, the primary result would be to reconcile God to humanity, not stopping our sin. But the Bible says Jesus was reconciling man to God, on God’s terms, which requires righteous living, a cessation of sin! The objective is to motivate the world to be reconciled to God, not for God to get satisfaction due to His sense of justice being offended.

“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 ESV

22. PSA preachers typically have people accepting Jesus as a substitute for being reconciled to the God OF Jesus. It is the God OF Jesus who seeks for us to be reconciled to Him. Reconciliation with His Son cannot be an appropriate substitute and is not genuine reconciliation with the party whom we have offended. Therefore, the term “substitutionary atonement” is on its face a serious error, separate and in addition to the payment idea.

23. The word “atonement” in English and in Hebrew, when used in a relational context, is about reconciliation, not payment. An action that has reconciliation as its goal cannot become a substitute for the actual reconciliation. Furthermore, a belief cannot substitute for relational reconciliation – believing that Jesus paid God on our behalf does not resolve the relational problem. An “act of reconciliation” cannot be substitutionary. (There is no such thing as “substitutionary reconciliation” i.e., being reconciled with a third party instead of with the individual who was injured or offended.) 

Problem category 6: Righteousness

24. Most PSA proponents claim that humans have a sin nature that goes beyond merely having a natural choice to sin; that we are sinful by design and are incapable of choosing to be righteous or choosing to turn away from sin. Yet, we read in the Bible that people were able to turn from sin, both in the Old Testament as well as in the New. They did not need Jesus to do it for them, nor for an external righteousness to be transferred to them. Both Jews and Gentiles had the ability to live righteously and did not have to believe in Christ in order to be righteous. Here are a few of many texts related to this subject:

““If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’ if they repent with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name, then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you.” 1 Kings 8:47-50 ESV

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations.” Ezequiel 14:6 ESV

“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.” Ezequiel 18:30-32 ESV

“But if you warn the righteous person not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning.” Ezequiel 3:21 ESV

“Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation…” Acts 10:22 ESV  Note: Cornelius was not a Jew, yet  is said to have been righteous before he even heard of Jesus!

“So Peter opened his mouth and said: Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Acts 10:34-35

Problem category 7: Redemption and Ransom

25. PSA claims that the words “ransom” and “redeem” indicate a payment. However, God redeemed people without receiving or giving a payment in the Old Testament, showing that the word “ransom” and “redeem” are often used metaphorically. Ps. 49:15, Ps. 74:2, Exodus 6:6, 15:13.

Conclusion

No doubt additional PSA problems can be found, but the problems outlined here are sufficient to show that the Penal Substitutionary Atonement model fails miserably in every area. It is refuted by solid Scripture, ethics, and common-sense logic, and it is an insult to the righteous God of the Bible.