A Legal and Moral Defense of Penal Substitution Part 1

A Legal and Moral Defense of Penal SubstitutionChristianity holds that humanity is morally and relationally separated from God, yet offers a way of reconciliation. This way of reconciliation is the atonement of Jesus Christ, where Christ dies by Roman crucifixion to bring humanity and God together again. Christian theologians provide different views of what happened in the atonement, one of which is penal substitution, which holds that Christ bore the just punishment of our wrongdoing before God, thus removing our guilt and absolving us of condemnation.

Many, including both Christians and non-Christians, find this view legally or morally absurd. These Christians thereby seek other views of the atonement, whereas these non-Christians who see penal substitution as an essential part of Christianity seek other views about religion. In both cases the belief that Christian penal substitution is legally or morally absurd may arise from the strong intuition that it is unjust to exact punishment on one person for another’s wrongdoing and thereby let the latter go free, and that none of us would allow such a ruling in cases analogous to penal substitution in our own legal courts.

Why a Legal and Moral Defense of Penal Substitution Matters

One natural Christian response to this objection is to maintain that we are primarily subject to God’s law and his legal system, not human law and its legal system, since the former is pure and given by a higher authority whereas the latter is corrupt and given by a lower authority. Therefore, human views about guilt and punishment, along with human legal systems generally, should be judged in light of what God declares to be just, not the other way around.

While this response is available for Christians who hold to penal substitution, it does nothing to treat the cognitive dissonance formed by the genuine moral intuitions that many have that make penal substitution appear objectionable, nor does it explain why these Christians themselves have the very same intuitions about guilt and punishment (rather than those more in line with penal substitution) in the most analogous cases in human legal courts.

But if penal substitution and human legal theory can be harmonized, then Christians and non-Christians alike are given greater reason for regarding the Christian worldview as reasonable, and the God it posits as worthy of worship. A legal and moral defense of penal substitution is therefore eminently worthwhile, and the Christian apologist should be the first in line to provide it.

Series Outline

This six-part series constitutes such a defense. The remaining articles may be outlined as follows:

Defense of Penal SubstitutionPart 2 introduces the doctrine of penal substitution in more detail, and answers a superficial objection to it by clarifying that on the cross Jesus was in a sense guilty rather than purely innocent.

Part 3 outlines a legal and moral objection to penal substitution: namely, that the kind of act it posits (imputation of guilt) is legally unprecedented and morally absurd. It then begins to answer this objection by arguing that penal substitution is a kind of act that has precedent in human legal theory after all – possessing analogues in insurance law, agency law, and laws concerning marriage.

Part 4 answers the second part of this objection by showing that penal substitution is morally consistent with a prominent and plausible theory of what justifies punishment generally, which is Jean Hampton’s expressive good retributivism. The article explains this theory in more detail and then shows how penal substitution is harmonious with it, and thus not morally absurd.

Part 5 builds further upon this case by answering objections to the arguments in Part 4.

Part 6 concludes the case defended in this series that penal substitution is legally and morally defensible.



Do you think that it is worthwhile to defend penal substitution against legal and moral objections? Leave any thoughts or questions you have in the comments below!

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