This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
I believe in penal substitution because otherwise forgiveness would be impossible and thus there would be no point in seeking forgiveness from God. Everyone would have no choice but to go to Hell.
However, how should I answer someone who says, "why is it that God the Father can satisfy the requirements of justice by punishing Jesus Christ (an innocent party) in my stead but Lance Ito couldn't satisfy the requirements of justice by punishing an infant (an innocent party) in O. J. Simpson's stead?" I have no real response except "God said it so there."
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
For those who don’t remember, Lance Ito was the judge in the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial. Simpson was actually acquitted, but you’re asking why, had he been found guilty, some other person might not have borne his sentence for him, given that Christ bore our sentence of death for us.
I want to be very precise about your question, Tomislav. Your question is not about the morality of penal substitution. Rather your question is about the satisfaction of justice. How can the demands of retributive justice be met by punishing a substitute in one case but not the other?
Protestant theologians like François Turretin (1623-87) offered an account of how penal substitution in the case of Christ makes sense. Christ, he maintains, is not merely our substitute but also our representative before God. This important distinction requires a word of explanation about substitution and representation respectively. In substitution someone takes the place of another person but does not represent that person. For example, a pinch hitter in baseball enters the lineup to bat in the place of another player. He’s a substitute for that player but in no sense represents that other player. That’s why the batting average of the player whom he replaces is not affected by the pinch hitter’s performance. On the other hand, a representative acts on behalf of another person and serves as his spokesman. For example, the baseball player has an agent who represents him in contract negotiations with the team. The representative does not replace the player but merely advocates for him.
Turretin believes that Christ, in bearing our punishment, was both our substitute and our representative before God. He was punished in our place and bore the suffering we deserved. But he also represented us before God, so that his punishment was our punishment. A good illustration of this combination of substitution and representation is to be found in the role of a proxy at a shareholders’ meeting. If we cannot attend the meeting ourselves, we may sign an agreement provided by the company authorizing someone else to serve as our proxy at the meeting. Notice that valid authorization is key; not just anybody can serve as our proxy. The proxy votes for us, and because he has been authorized to do so, his votes are our votes: we have voted via proxy at the meeting of shareholders. The proxy is a substitute in that he attends the meeting in our place, but he is also our representative in that he does not vote instead of us but on our behalf, so that we vote. Similarly, Christ was not merely punished instead of us, rather we were punished by proxy. For that reason, divine justice is satisfied.
How is it that we are so represented by Christ? In virtue of Christ’s incarnation (and, I should say, his baptism, whereby Jesus identified himself with fallen humanity), Christ is appointed by God to serve voluntarily as our proxy before Him. It is of little consequence if there is no parallel to such an arrangement in our criminal justice system; indeed, God may even forbid such substitutionary punishment of human persons. No one else has been assigned such a role. But God is free to make such an arrangement Himself. The Logos, the second person of the Trinity, has been appointed to serve voluntarily as our proxy before God by means of his incarnation and baptism, so that by his death he might satisfy the demands of divine justice. We authorize Christ to be our proxy by accepting him as our Savior and placing our faith in him.