Why did Jesus have to die on a cross? A common view in Western Evangelicalism of what happened on the cross is this: humans have sinned and God must punish sinners by venting his wrath, but thankfully, because he loves us, Jesus went to the cross and was murdered in our place to pay our debt, so that God can forgive our sins and we can go to heaven when we die. This idea of how the cross works is called the “Penal Substitution Theory” of the atonement. Such a view may either seem obvious or repulsive, depending on your upbringing.
Many would find the idea that a father would murder his child to be monstrous. But if that doesn’t make you unsettled, realize that the only reason this father doesn’t kill you is because he murdered his child instead. It is a shocking thing to consider that, for many, atheism is a Godly reaction to the violent portrayal of the God of Penal Substitution. Far from adequately portraying the way God truly is, the god of Penal Substitution is a violent, vindictive, and unforgiving god who operates in direct contrast to the character and nature of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, some even go so far as to call this theory the Gospel, completely ignoring the fact that Jesus never even preached it.
The Penal Substitution Theory has not been the most common view throughout all of church history, nor is it the most common view of the worldwide church today. So while Penal Substitution Theory may be the majority view in modern, Western theology, the Church must wake up and realize that such a view is partially modeled after paganism, often mischaracterizes God, ultimately does not take sin seriously, and leaves out what actually happened on the cross.
Where It Came From
During the first four hundred years of Christian reflection, we find no clear, universally recognized statement on the exact meaning of the cross. The early Church never tried to assemble a formula to explain the mechanics. Over a thousand years after the time of Jesus, this all changed.1 After the seed of this theory was sown in the medieval period, it was born in the 1500s and has never been the most popular theory of the atonement up till the 1900s. The Penal Substitution Theory of the atonement, as briefly described above, was formalized by a lawyer named John Calvin2 at the time of the Reformation3 in the 16th century. Knowing that its inventor was a lawyer helps make sense of the theory’s structure where Satan is the accuser, Jesus is the advocate, and God is the judge. Prior to the Reformation, the Church had not really understood there to be a mystical economy in which the Father needs the blood of his Son in order to forgive humankind.4 Instead, the Church understood that something much bigger and better was happening at the cross. Jesus was addressing the source of the problem plaguing all of creation, instead of the symptom.
The Penal Substitution Theory largely owes its existence to the Reformer’s reaction to the medieval Catholic belief of “purgatory” and the rejection of it.5 The Reformers got a lot of things right, but they also got a lot of things wrong. The Reformers continued to be wed to the state in unholy matrimony, they continued to murder people who disagreed with them, they centralized their theology around the Bible instead of Jesus, and most pertinently they failed to read Scripture in its historical context. They often had the right answers but they also often asked the wrong questions while functioning out of pagan presuppositions.
The problem wasn’t that God was angry and his justice required his anger to be satisfied. So, therefore, asking how that works is the wrong question that will lead to wrong answers. The question we need to ask in light of the story of Israel is not: What is necessary for individuals to escape the punishment of God? The correct question in light of the story of all of Scripture is: What is necessary for us to participate in God’s work of redeeming and restoring the world? Asking the wrong questions led the Reformers to ignore the correct answers. The theory they invented wouldn’t find much popularity until the 1900s, when other self-centric theologies started to take hold in the West.6 Skepticism is a healthy reaction to such a relatively new theory about what happened on the cross, one that the majority of Church history didn’t believe.
Cosmic Debt Collector
The Penal Substitution Theory basically depicts God as a debt collector who must collect before he can forgive. Despite the fact that Scripture tells us that love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5), this theory states that Jesus must pay our debt to the Father. God is merciful and forgiving, but also justice demands payment for the debt of sin? The idea that God is merciful and forgiving, while also defining justice as demanding payment of debt are two mutually exclusive concepts. This argument of this theory begins to fall apart the moment you start seriously thinking about it.
If there is a debt that is paid by a third party (in this case, Jesus), then the debt is never forgiven at all. Sin is not forgiven on the cross in the Penal Substitution Theory, it is just paid off. Moreover, in the PS theory view, the debt is paid by himself to himself, meaning he didn’t actually need to pay himself at all. God can just freely forgive the debt instead, which in opposition to the PS theory, is what God actually does. The only way in which God could be seen as merciful in paying the debt for mankind’s sin by killing Jesus is if the debt to be paid was not due to God but to someone or something else entirely.
Having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.
As evidenced by his life and teachings, Christ’s justice is restorative, not retributive. God doesn’t need anyone to pay off debt in order to forgive. God can just simply forgive. That’s what forgiveness is! If you fell behind on your rent and a friend paid your rent for you, your landlord did not forgive your debt. Forgiveness is not receiving payment for a debt; forgiveness is the gracious cancellation of debt. There is no payment in forgiveness. That is what makes forgiveness mean anything. Unrelated to our debt, which God simply cancels instead of paying off, our sins are forgiven freely. It was only in the accommodated old ways of the Law that payment had to be made.
Overturning the Sacrificial System
It is important to understand that the ritual sacrifice of animals to atone for sins was not unique to ancient Hebrew culture. Nearly all Ancient Near Eastern cultures (including ones that existed before the Hebrews) killed animals, and sometimes humans, to appease the gods. Animal sacrifice is undebatably pagan. Yes, the God of the Bible used this pagan ritual to teach his people something new but it was always just a step in the process to get them away from it. God never needed sacrifices in order to forgive. Read more about this here.
I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.
Even before Christ’s death, we see him forgiving sinners freely without the need for blood sacrifice (Matthew 9:2, 18:22; Luke 23:34; John 8:11, 20:19-23). Never once in the Gospel accounts does anyone repent before Jesus forgives their sins. No one even asks for forgiveness. Through his ministry, teachings, parables, actions, and miracles, Jesus taught that God had nothing but love for all people and that the sacrificial system was not needed to gain God’s forgiveness. The Old Testament prophets tried to tell God’s people that he didn’t want sacrifices but they did not listen (Psalm 51:16-17; Isaiah 1:11-14; Micah 6:6-8: Amos 5:21-25; Hosea 6:6). Jesus quotes Hosea when speaking to the Pharisees saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). The author of Hebrews claims that the sacrificial system could not take away sins (Hebrews 10:3-6).
The Penal Substitution Theory ignores all this and says that God the Father still demands blood in order to take away sins.
The theory pits the Father against the Son even though in nature they should be, and are, eternally the same (Matthew 11:27; John 1:18; 4:34; 5:19-20; 6:38, 46; 8:28; 10:29; 12:49; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 13:8). The Penal Substitution Theory fractures the Trinity and makes God schizophrenic. We are commanded to forgive like God forgives (Ephesians 4:32). But if we choose to forgive like Jesus then forgiveness will precede repentance (Matthew 9:2; 18:22; Luke 23:34; John 8:11; 20:19-23). However, if we choose to forgive like the Father (according to PST), we will only forgive those that show repentance, or after they make a payment of some kind. This clearly creates an unnecessary problem.
How and why would God need a blood sacrifice before he could love what he had created? Is God that needy, unfree, unloving, rule-bound, and unable to forgive? Once you say it, you see it creates a nonsensical theological notion that is very hard to defend. Thankfully we see this isn’t God’s character. Jesus shows us what God is like and Jesus says that our perfect heavenly Father displays perfection as pure mercy (Matthew 5:48, Luke 6:36).
Jesus Didn’t Take Our Place
The Penal Substitution Theory says that at the cross Jesus was being punished by God for our sins and that what Jesus suffered in torture and crucifixion is what every person deserves. That sounds kinda nice, kinda scary, but it isn’t Biblical. How is it true that every person deserves to be tortured to death? Is it true that your grandmother or your five year old deserves to be tortured to death? Of course, that isn’t true. Yes, the Jewish sacrificial system made provision for animal sacrifice but the animals themselves were not being punished when they were sacrificed. Also, nowhere in the law is the animal offered in place of the worshiper and the animal was never tortured. Jesus didn’t take our place on the cross and we’ll work through the logic in order to prove this.
First, what is the punishment for sin? Paul said, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Did Jesus suffer the death that comes as a result of sin? If he died in our place, he would have. He would have received the wages of sin—death. But which type of death is being talked about in Romans 6:23? Biblically, there are two ways in which one can die—physically and spiritually. Did he die in our place physically? Or was he a substitute for us by suffering a spiritual death?
A. Physical death?
Let’s first assume that the punishment for sin is physical death. The punishment Jesus received would have to have been the punishment we would have received without his sacrifice. Otherwise, it would not be a substitution. Jesus died on a cross outside Jerusalem at the hand of the Romans (Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 19). None of us faced that death. He did not take our place on a cross. If the particular physical death he endured was a substitute for anyone, it would be Barabbas (Matthew 27:16-26), not us. But that was not even a substitution, Barabbas was simply released instead of Jesus.
B. General physical death?
What if the physical death that Jesus endured was just generally in place of us since obviously no one reading this is facing death on a cross. If Jesus died as a substitute in general then why do people still suffer physical death? Was Christ’s death insufficient as a substitute? If he died physically so that we would not have to die physically, then we would be forced to conclude that his death was insufficient. Thus we can conclude that physical death is not something that Jesus suffered in our place since we all die physically.
C. Spiritual death?
The other option is spiritual death. This is the type of death that likely is being talked about by Paul in Romans 6:23. Sin results in spiritual death (Ephesians 2:1, 5). Did Jesus take our place in this regard—dying spiritually so we would not have to? Obviously no, Jesus did not die spiritually. Jesus did die physically, sacrificing his life, so we might not die spiritually. But is that a substitute? No, it is not the same death. Jesus did not take your place on the cross. He took his place on the cross.
Who Killed Jesus?
The Greek philosopher Plato knew that a perfect man would be killed if he ever appeared in a sinful society. 400 years before Jesus, Plato wrote down what would happen to a perfectly just man: “Our just man will be scourged, racked, fettered…and at last, after all manner of suffering, will be crucified.”7 Just as Plato’s foreknowledge of the murder of a perfectly just man does not mean that Plato willed it, neither does God’s foreknowledge of the murder of Jesus mean that God willed it. The false idea that God killed Jesus is a toxic notion that has resulted in more atheism than conversions. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that God killed Jesus. The idea is ludicrous. Jesus knew who would kill him and it wasn’t God (Matthew 21:33-46, Luke 11:47-51). Take a look at who the early Church named as Christ’s murderer.
This man… you put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead…
You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.
Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead…
The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross.
Your ancestors even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him.
You’d think that Luke, the author of Acts, would have plenty of opportunities to communicate that God killed Jesus if, in fact, this was true. Instead, Luke repeatedly tells us that the people killed Jesus and God reversed what the people had done, by raising Jesus from the dead. This is just like how Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane cut off the soldier’s ear but Jesus healed it. People use violence and destruction but God heals and restores. “You harmed but God healed.”
We learn through Jesus that God’s justice is restorative, not retributive.
Penal Substitution Theory relies on rewinding our understanding of God back in time to before we knew his full character through Christ. The foundation upon which the entire theory rests is that God’s justice is revealed in “an eye for an eye” instead of “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-42). Because of Jesus, the entire ungodly theory falls apart. The only kind of justice we see in Jesus is the justice of mercy, the justice which heals, the justice of redemption. Jesus shows us how the Father, rather than being just another god who demands violent sacrifice, is actually the one true God who becomes the sacrifice on our behalf—demonstrating enemy love. That is what we mean by “Christ died for us” (Romans 4:25, 8:32). He dies for our benefit. Why? To expose the system for what it is—a system predicated on more and more blood and death (Luke 11:49-51)—while yet showing pure grace in the face of it.
But Isaiah 53!
If God didn’t kill Jesus then what about Isaiah 53? The Suffering Servant song in chapter 53 of Isaiah is the bedrock foundation of the Penal Substitution Theory. Without Isaiah 53 the theory basically crumbles apart. Let’s take a look at two important verses in this chapter that indicate that it was God who killed Jesus.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted…
It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer…
It seems like a pretty open and shut case. God killed Jesus. There is only one problem: this isn’t the text that was in the Bible read by Jesus, the Apostles, the authors of the New Testament, or the early Church. Though the versions of verses 4 and 10 in your Bible states that God punished Jesus, the text that all Christians in the first few centuries said something very different. Let’s take a look.
This one carries our sins and suffers pain for us, and we regarded him as one who is in difficulty, misfortune, and affliction.
Isaiah 53:4 LXX
The Lord is willing to cleanse him of the injury…
Isaiah 53:10 LXX
Notice that in 53:4 it doesn’t say “we consider him punished by God” and how in 53:10 instead of “it was the Lord’s will to crush him“ it was “the Lord is willing to cleanse him of the injury.” We went from God healing Jesus to God killing Jesus. The version that says God healed Jesus is from the 3rd century BC. The version that says God killed Jesus is from the 9th century AD. The earlier version is the version that all the New Testament authors quoted, including Matthew when he specifically quotes the earlier version of Isaiah 53:4 (Matthew 8:17). The early Church never believed in a view like Penal Substitution Theory because their version of Isaiah 53 didn’t say that God killed Jesus. If you are interested to learn more about why we have these two different versions of the text, read more here.
God Did Not Turn Away From Jesus
There are some Christian traditions that stem from the Reformation that claim that God turned his face away from Jesus on the cross. This claim comes from being painted into a theological corner rather than by Scripture. In order to support this idea, verses have to be ripped out of their context, abused, and misshapen. The argument is that God is too holy to look upon evil (Habakkuk 1:13) and since Jesus became our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) he was forsaken by God on the cross (Mark 15:34) and experienced separation from him. Let’s take a look at the verses abused to support this view.
God is too holy to look upon sin. Is he really? It seems like God, through Jesus, looked upon plenty of sin—he even dined with sinners on a regular basis. God, all throughout Scripture is shown to be interacting with, in relationship with, and looking upon sinners and their sin. So then where does this idea come from? It comes from one verse where Habakkuk says, when talking about God, “your eyes are too pure to look on evil.” Okay, that looks pretty convincing… until you read the rest of the verse.
You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?
Habakkuk 1:13 ESV
Habakkuk makes the claim, from his perspective, that God cannot look upon evil—but then immediately asks God why he does anyways. God was defying Habakkuk’s understanding of him. Why on earth would anyone think they can use this verse to prove that God cannot look upon evil when within the verse itself it claims that God can and does? This is the type of irresponsible proof-texting one must do to uphold such a flimsy claim.
On the cross Jesus cried out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, Matthew 27:46). This is the moment that some Christians will claim that Jesus was separated from the Father. Have they forgotten that Jesus and God are eternally one being?8 Jesus cannot be separated from the Father because the two are one (John 10:30). So what did Jesus mean then by what he cried out? Jesus is quoting Psalm 22, verse 1 specifically. Jesus is not crying out in defeat, rather in an oral culture, he is prompting people to think of Psalm 22, and reminding them of its victorious conclusion. The psalm is a messianic prophecy. It talks about the people hurling insults at him (Psalm 22:7, Matthew 27:39). It talks about his garments being divided up and lots being cast (Psalm 22:18, Mark 15:24). It talks about Christ’s hands and feet being pierced (Psalm 22:16, John 20:25). It talks about his death and it talks about his resurrection (Psalm 22:22, Hebrews 2:12). The psalm which begins with despair and vividly describes Jesus’ sufferings, ends with a rallying cry of victory. And guess what? Psalm 22:24 says, “he has not hidden his face from him“. The context of Psalm 22 points his listeners to the illustration that it only appears that God abandoned his Son, but the truth is that God has never turned away but is right there with him.
Claiming that God turned his face away from Jesus is sloppy and harmful exegesis. God never turned away or was separated from Jesus.
Where Was God on Good Friday?
On the day Jesus was crucified and suffering on the cross, where do we find God? Where was God in the midst of the most unspeakable horror, tragedy, and sin ever to trespass on the earth? Do we find God in the Jewish religious system, demanding a sacrifice? Was the heart of God reflected in the high priest Caiaphas as he sought a scapegoat to release the people from turmoil? Do we find God in the Roman Empire who kill to satisfy punitive justice? Was the heart of God reflected in Pontius Pilate as he fulfilled the demands of death? Or was God in Christ, hanging on the cross, absorbing the most wretched sin of the world? Was the heart of God reflected in Jesus as he turned the other cheek and said, “forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)?
God was in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Jesus didn’t continue the sacrificial system, he ended it. Jesus didn’t pay our debt, he canceled it. Jesus didn’t die in our place, he died in his place. Jesus wasn’t killed by the father, he was killed by us. Jesus wasn’t reconciling himself to the world, he was reconciling the world to himself. Jesus didn’t die to change God’s mind about us, Jesus died to change our minds about God. Jesus didn’t die on the cross in order to forgive, the cross is what he endured as he forgives.
At the cross, we see the total depravity of our sin of violence. Christ’s death on the cross was a murder; a state-sponsored execution. It wasn’t justice, it was murder. The cross shows us what we are like and the cross shows us what God is like. The violence part of the cross is entirely human. The forgiveness part of the cross is entirely divine. The cross shows us that God’s way to peace is not by killing anyone, but by forgiving everyone. The cross showcases God’s perfect enemy love and the cross shames our way of violence. The cross was an instrument of imperial violence that Jesus transformed into a symbol of love. God revealed that the only proper response to murder is forgiveness because, without forgiveness, murder leads to a cycle of violence that only ends in annihilation.
The theory of Penal Substitution is abhorrent, unbiblical, ungodly, and incoherent. The Bible does not teach Penal Substitution. Worst of all, those who claim that this theory is the Gospel clearly ignore the fact that Jesus, the Apostles, and the early Church never taught anything like it. They repeat lies told to them without giving the implications serious and contemplative thought. It was invented less than 500 years ago. A theory that there is a God who must murder his Son is not “good news”. As long as we insist that somehow it was God who demanded the murder of Jesus, we continue to exonerate the very systems of evil that God intends to save us from.
Read more about how the cross actually works here.
- J. I. Packer, What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution (Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture, 1973): ‘… Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon and their reforming contemporaries were the pioneers in stating it [i.e. the penal substitutionary theory]…’
- ‘The roots of the penal substitution view are discernible in the writings of John Calvin (1509-1564), though it was left to later expositors to systematize and emphasize it in its more robust forms.’ (Paul R. Eddy and James Beilby, ‘The Atonement: An Introduction’, in P. R. Eddy and J. Beilby [eds], The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views [Downers Grove: IVP, 2006], p. 17)
- Gregg Allison, ‘A History of the Doctrine of the Atonement’ in Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 11.2 (Summer 2007): 4-19: ‘The Reformers introduced another view of the atonement, generally called the penal substitutionary theory ‘ (p. 10); ‘…the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, originated by the Reformers and developed by their successors’ (p. 14-15).
- Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor (1931) (London: SPCK)
- During medieval Catholicism “purgatory” developed as the belief in a place of temporary punishment whereby Christians could suffer, fully paying satisfaction to God for their sins before going to heaven. The Reformers opposed this teaching because they believed that Jesus suffered the punishment of sin in our place already on the cross, once and for all.
- “True, the doctrine of purgatory was not so popular outside Roman circles in the nineteenth century. But “penal substitution,” which had been emphasized partly in order to ward off that idea, then found a new home in the Western piety that focused not on God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, but on my sin, my heavenly (that is, nonworldly) salvation, and of course my Savior. This, indeed, presses a particular question upon us: if many of our contemporary ideas about what was achieved on the cross belong with a nineteenth-century view of “sinners” being “saved” and “going to heaven,” what might the cross mean for the earlier view in which the gospel is transforming the whole world?” Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began (p. 35). HarperOne.
- Plato, The Republic, trans. A. D. Lindsay (New York: Knopf, 1976), 37.
- Matthew 11:27; John 1:18; 4:34; 5:19-20; 6:38, 46; 8:28; 10:29; 12:49; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 13:8