A Moral Retributivist Theory of Punishment – A Defense of Penal Substitution Part 4

In Part 3 we saw three sets of laws demonstrating that the kind of act operative in penal substitution – imputation of guilt – is well-precedented. This serves to show that imputation of guilt is plausibly justified in at least some circumstances.

But these laws may well not allow for such imputation in cases of extreme criminal action deserving extreme punishment (except, perhaps, in some cases covered by the law of agency), which are the cases most analogous to the circumstances of penal substitution.

Thus, while the objection that penal substitution is legally unprecedented has been answered, more must be said to show that it is morally plausible given the extreme nature of its circumstances.

A Moral Retributivist Theory of PunishmentOne way to demonstrate that Christian penal substitution is a justified case of punishment is to harmonize it with a prominent and plausible moral theory concerning what justifies punishment generally, where such a harmony occurs when penal substitution would be morally justified according to that theory. This theory must be retributive in nature (meaning that it holds that punishment is justified because wrongdoing merits punishment). And of course this retributivist theory of punishment must be plausible in its own right. One such theory is Jean Hampton’s expressive good retributivism.

Hampton’s Expressive Good Retributivism

According to Hampton’s theory, for one person to commit wrongdoing against another is to treat them in an objectively demeaning way, which is to treat them in a way that communicates that they have lesser value, that they are of lesser worth than the wrongdoer (Hampton).

A paradigm instance of wrongdoing where this feature is evident is rape. In the case of rape, the rapist does not simply violate their victim sexually, but imposes their will on them – masters them – in a humiliating fashion that treats the victim as a mere means to the rapist’s end. For Hampton, all acts of wrongdoing have this feature in some sense: all acts of wrongdoing represent mastery or defeat of the wrongdoer over the victim and expresses or communicates that the wrongdoer’s value is greater than the victim’s.

Punishment, then, is a just response to wrongdoing because it expresses that the wrongdoer’s claim of superiority was mistaken; it directly answers and explains away the evidence that the victim is inferior. When the state (representing the community) exacts punishment against the wrongdoer, it performs an act of mastery over them proportionate to their wrongdoing, on behalf of the victim, communicating to everyone that the victim is of equal value to the rest of us, including the wrongdoer, after all.

This is an act of justice, rather than mere retaliation, because it asserts the moral truth – equality of value – in the face of its denial by the wrongdoer’s actions. Where the wrongdoing asserts the moral falsehood of unequal value, punishment expresses the moral truth of equal value, and for that reason is justified.

Classic Readings and Cases in the Philosophy of LawBecause punishment is an assertion of the moral truth, it can be justified only if it does not itself objectively demean the wrongdoer. Causing the rapist to be raped in return, for instance, would be clearly unjust. Sentencing them to a portion of jail time deemed proportionate to the act by the community, however, is just. That the community plays a significant role in determining the appropriate punishment for a particular wrongdoing shows that this theory allows for multiple forms of punishment to be just responses to wrongdoing, provided that they make it evident to the community that the victim and the wrongdoer are in fact of equal value despite the wrongdoing.

(To learn more about this and other theories of law, justice, and punishment, check out Classic Readings and Cases in the Philosophy of Law.)

Harmonizing Penal Substitution and Expressive Good Retributivism

Applying the terms of this theory to penal substitution, we may say that God is the victim who is objectively demeaned by human sin, in that human sin treats God as if he was a mere creature, with humans thereby being in the place of God, deciding for themselves what is good and evil or honorable and dishonorable.

The biblical book of Romans provides evidence for thinking that penal substitution characterizes sin in precisely this way, attributing various sinful actions (envy, murder, deceit, etc.) to the fact that humans “did not see fit to acknowledge God” and “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:18-32).

This demeaning of an infinite being deserves punishment of a similar magnitude in order to express the moral truth that God is in fact worthy of worship and that humans are created beings subject to him.

One appropriate punishment, according to the theological context of penal substitution, is for humans themselves to experience a defeat at the hands of God that is in some sense infinite, such as experiencing physical death followed by spiritual death, or relational separation from God, for the eternal future. But another appropriate punishment is for humans to be defeated through a substitute, Christ, who takes their guilt and the punishment for it in his own person.

This latter alternative, where the guilt of the wrongdoer is imputed to a strong representative who is thereby punished, is appropriate on Hampton’s theory so long as it still directly answers and explains away the wrongdoer’s mastery over the victim and defeats the wrongdoer at the hands of the victim in a way that is clear to the community.

Penal Substitution is Morally Justified

Defense of Penal SubstitutionThe punishment of Christ in penal substitution is a unique case that does this. That it was humans united with Christ that were defeated or mastered in Christ’s punishment is evident from the fact that Christ was intrinsically innocent, yet received the punishment deserved for human sin (physical and spiritual death), meaning that it must be human guilt imputed to Christ (as the strong representative) that brought about the punishment.

That this punishment was proportionate and sufficient to assert the moral truth is evident from the fact that Christ is truly divine: in the same way that human sin communicated that God was diminished in value from the status of God to the status of a creature, so now God brings it about that humans – through Christ – are diminished from the status of God, which Christ holds in virtue of his divinity, to the status of a creature subject to God.

So it is clearly communicated that God is in fact superior to humans, that humans are creatures morally subordinate to God, after all. Further evidence that such a communication of the moral truth was clear and fitting is found in the enormous number of people who have come to develop personal repentance, faith, and devotion to God, all the while holding that he brought about justice for their own sins on the cross, upon learning of the death of Christ.

Hence, because the punishment in penal substitution clearly communicated the moral truth in the face of its denial by human sin, it is morally justified on Hampton’s theory. And since Hampton’s theory is a prominent and plausible moral theory of punishment, the precedent and justification for imputation of guilt in human legal settings may plausibly be taken to extend to the circumstances of penal substitution as well.

For objections and replies, see Part 5.


Hampton, Jean (1991). “A New Theory of Retribution.” In Classic Readings and Cases in the Philosophy of Law, edited by Susan Dimock (2007), 560-570. New York: Pearson Education.

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