This is a Q & A blog post by our Visiting Scholar in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.
I recently came across your website and your writings, so it seems I’m “late to the party.” From a busy academic, your willingness to accept weekly questions is remarkable. Thank you for considering the following requests for your thoughts …
Have we done a disservice to God if we assume the accountant’s tallying that seems to underlie penal substitution and its foundational theory of God’s justice? You begin your interesting article “Is Penal Substitution Unjust?” with the following: “Penal substitution in a theological context is the doctrine that God inflicted upon Christ the suffering which we deserved as the punishment for our sins, as a result of which we no longer deserve punishment.” It’s the last part that gives me pause. As a way out of our box, it seems too simplistic, too transactional — God requires a quantum of suffering to balance the books, and the sacrifice of Jesus accomplished that. Maybe Hosea and Jesus meant what they said — God desires mercy not sacrifice. The rest of what we read, as Hillel quipped, is commentary.
William Lane Craig’s Response
Better late than never, Carl! Seriously, I’m grateful for your interest and interaction. In addition to the book you mention, you might look at the much fuller treatment in my Atonement and the Death of Christ (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2020).
The tallying of an accountant most certainly does not underlie the theory of penal substitution. Rather than conceive of God as an accountant, the theory of penal substitution conceives of God as a righteous judge.
It is actually Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement that thinks of God more on the analogy of an accountant, for Anselm thinks that as a result of sin we have incurred a debt to God of immeasurable proportion which we are unable to pay, so that Christ must pay the debt for us by offering to God a gift of inestimable value, namely, his life. The financial motifs are evident.
By contrast, penal substitution is all about our just desert for crimes we have committed before the bar of a perfectly righteous Judge who executes retributive justice. The motifs here are clearly legal, not financial. The only qualification is that rather than carry out the death penalty that we deserve, God in His executive, rather than judicial role, offers us a divine pardon for sin on the basis of Christ’s vicarious, atoning death, which we may either accept or reject.
So penal substitutionary theory has rightly been called “governmental,” since it combines both the judicial and executive functions of the divine governance of creation. As Judge God sentences us to the punishment we deserve, but as Chief Executive He offers us a full pardon on the basis of Christ’s discharging the demands of divine justice on our behalf. Praise His name.