More Objections to Penal Substitution – A Defense of Penal Substitution Part 5

In Part 4 I argued that penal substitution is not only legally precedented by also morally justified in light of Jean Hampton’s expressive good theory of punishment. What follows are four objections to penal substitution and this conclusion regarding it, along with my replies.

(For an explanation of these terms and arguments, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4).

Objection #1

Incarnation of Christ‘What is supposed to make Christ’s punishment proportionate for human sin is the fact that he was relegated from the status of God to the status of a human subject to God. But Christ already does this himself in the incarnation, taking on a human nature and subjecting himself to obey God in an ordinary human life. So the crucifixion is gratuitous.’

Reply: While the incarnation can be part of the story of what justifies the punishment Christ received, it is not sufficient to itself be that punishment because it was not exacted by God. What is necessary for justified punishment, according to expressive good retributivism, is a clear message of defeat of the wrongdoer at the hands of the victim, and this requires that the appropriate authority acting on behalf of the victim exact that defeat (see Part 4). Christ performed the incarnation willingly without any demand by God the Father, but at the crucifixion Christ was abandoned by God, and thus was subjected to the punishment that guilty humans deserve.

Objection #2

‘At the crucifixion there is no clear message of defeat of the wrongdoer, since not every human experiences defeat at the hands of God as Christ does.’

Reply: Every human that is united to Christ does experience this defeat in virtue of their guilt being imputed to him and being responded to and punished in him, in the same way that an agent experiences defeat for their wrongdoing in virtue of their guilt being dealt with through the principal who is punished (see the discussion of agency law in Part 2). It is correct that humans do not have the same physical experiences that Christ does at the crucifixion, but they are still defeated for their wrongdoings because those wrongdoings are directly responded to when their guilt for them is imputed to Christ. Such imputation of guilt is coherent and justifiable in principle, as shown in Part 2.

Objection #3

‘An enormous number of people in the human community do not think that the suffering of Christ on the cross communicates the moral truth about God and humans, but rather that it is grossly immoral. So it is not a clear expression of the moral truth to the community.’

Objections to Penal SubstitutionReply: Hampton’s theory does not require that everyone or even the majority of people agree that a punishment is a clear expression of the moral truth for it to be such an expression. In fact, it is consistent with the theory that many contemporary instances of punishment are clear expressions of the moral truth despite the fact that many disagree with them.

This is because whether an instance of punishment is fitting is determined from an objective standpoint – based on analysis of the facts of the case and of what appropriately affirms the victim’s value despite the wrongdoing – rather than simply by popular opinion. It is true that the state, representing the community, is what does the determining, but the determining should not simply be swayed by popular vote by the community.

That said, agreement or disagreement by the community can still constitute evidence that a punishment does or does not clearly communicate the moral truth. But here it is worth pointing out that disagreement from the perspective of the wrongdoer is typically taken with a grain of salt, since it is the wrongdoer who receives the punishment, and this allows personal interest to get in the way of determining a fitting punishment from an objective standpoint. Since we are all considered the wrongdoers in the case of PS, disagreement in this case as well should be taken with a grain of salt.

However, since a great many wrongdoers nevertheless agree that God’s punishment of human sin in Christ was a clear communication of the moral truth, this may be taken as further evidence that it is so.

Objection #4

‘Hampton’s theory does not allow for punishments that objectively demean the wrongdoer. But if any punishment objectively demeans the wrongdoer and treats them as subhuman, it is torture and death by crucifixion. So if humans are punished in Christ at the crucifixion, then they are treated as sub-human, and the moral truth about them is not expressed.’

Reply: Penal substitution takes the punishment by God inflicted on Christ to be physical and spiritual death (see Part 2). This objection adds that the torture of crucifixion itself is also part of the punishment exacted by God, but the defender of PS need not be committed to this.

While some loose statements of penal substitution take the torture of crucifixion to be part of God’s punishment of Christ, other more precise statements leave it out entirely or at least emphasize that the primary punishment that Christ suffered was abandonment by God. For instance, the Evangelical Alliance, in their statement of faith, described the atonement as follows:

The judgment upon sin has been endured for man by Christ. God in Christ has taken the initiative in dealing with our sin and with the judgment upon it. By voluntarily giving himself to die upon the cross Christ suffered the worst that sin can do, including separation from His Father. God laid upon him all the consequence of human wrong-doing and wrong relationships, and He took upon Himself the penalty of our sin. (cited in Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach (2007), p. 201-2)

Moreover, there are some biblical grounds for supposing that the torture of crucifixion was not part of God’s punishment per se, but a consequence of unjust treatment at the hands of humans that Christ had to endure in virtue of being abandoned by God. One prayer in the Book of Acts states:

…for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:27-28).

Defense of Penal SubstitutionWhereas earlier in Acts the apostle Peter, when preaching in Jerusalem, says that Christ was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God…[but] crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). This suggests that the crucifixion itself was an unjust human act that nevertheless graphically showed God’s punishment in that Christ was not rescued from it but allowed to endure it because he was abandoned by God (Mark 15:30-34).

So the defender of penal substitution may consistently agree that torture is unjust as a form of punishment while maintaining that it is just for God to exact the punishment of physical and spiritual death.

Our objector may retort that physical death as a form of punishment objectively demeans human beings as well. However, while one may worry whether capital punishment can express the moral truth of the equal value of human beings when exacted by one human on another (see Hampton, p. 567), there is presumably less of a worry when it is exacted by God on a human being. This is because God is construed as the giver of life and thus as possessing the right to take it away again. Moreover, in a Christian context physical death is not final since the person who dies simply moves on into a different form of life in the afterlife, so physical death as a form of punishment is not as severe as it is if there is no afterlife.

The more severe and fundamental punishment in penal substitution, relational separation from God, does not treat humans as sub-human, but rather is analogous to contemporary legal settings when we sentence wrongdoers to isolation from the victim and the rest of community by sending them to jail.

Conclusion: Penal substitution remains morally justified given Hampton’s expressive good theory of punishment.


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.

Jeffery, Steve, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach (2007). Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. Wheaton: Crossway Books.

See the conclusion of this defense of penal substitution in Part 6.

Are you satisfied with my responses to these objections? Are there other objections to penal substitution that bother you that were not covered here? If so, let me know in the comments below!

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