Legal and Moral Justification – A Defense of Penal Substitution Part 6

Defense of Penal SubstitutionThis series of articles has considered and responded to an objection to penal substitution on the basis of contemporary human legal theory, stating that it is unjust in general – legally unprecedented – to impute guilt from the wrongdoer to a third party, punishing the latter and letting the former go free, and that it is especially unjust when the wrongdoer is guilty of extreme offense requiring extreme punishment as in penal substitution. (To read from the beginning, see Part 1)

We first defined penal substitution in great detail – as the view that Christ willingly gave himself up to suffer on the cross, bearing the punishment due to humanity in their place, thereby removing the guilt of those united to him by faith and causing them to be reconciled with God – and then clarified that Christ was guilty on the the cross (rather than purely innocent) in virtue of having the guilt for our sins imputed to him. (Part 2)

This allowed us to introduce the above objection from human legal theory. In responding to it, we first showed that imputation of guilt is considered just in other areas of human legal theory, including insurance law, the law of agency, and laws concerning marriage. So the kind of act operative in penal substitution is in fact well-precedented. (Part 3)

Second, we saw that imputation of guilt may plausibly be considered justified in the unique circumstances of penal substitution as well, as it satisfies the criteria for just punishment laid out by a prominent and intuitive theory of punishment, which is Hampton’s expressive good retributivism. (Part 4)

Objections to the claim that penal substitution satisfies Hampton’s criteria for just punishment were considered but found to be unsuccessful. (Part 5)

What This Series Has Shown

It is worth pointing out a benefit of this particular response to the objection to penal substitution considered in this series. The benefit of this response is that it provides good reason for thinking that penal substitution is legally and morally justifiable without necessarily implying that analogous cases should happen in contemporary human courts.

Legal and Moral JustificationIt does not imply, for example, that the guilt of someone who commits murder should be transferred to their spouse so that they receive the punishment while the murderer goes free. This is because what justifies the imputation of guilt in penal substitution is the status of Christ and the unique strong representative legal union of faith available between Christ and humans. That these circumstances are unique and unrepeatable may explain how Christians can consistently hold that penal substitution is morally justified, but that imputation of guilt should not occur in ordinary human cases of extreme guilt and punishment.

The conclusion of this series does not by itself show that Christian theism is true, or that penal substitution is the correct theory of the Christian atonement. This comes down to arguments for and against Christian theism, and theological and biblical arguments about the atonement, respectively. What it does show is that, in the absence of good reasons for rejecting retributivism generally, the objection to penal substitution derived from contemporary human legal theory considered in this series fails.

And what this shows is that the Christian doctrine of penal substitution can be subjected to the best products of human legal and moral thought, yet found to be eminently reasonable, justified, and warranting of praise for the God who created it.

What did you think of the Defense of Penal Substitution series? Leave any thoughts or questions you have in the comments below!

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