Lewis on the Atonement
April 13, 2010 — 7:57

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Christian Theology  Comments: 17

I’ve been reading here and there through one of Michael Rea’s philosophical theology books, and I discovered this amazing article by David Lewis called “Do We Believe in Penal Substitution”. This is probably old news for some readers, but it was new for me, and I was deeply impressed; I had lost a lot of confidence in penal substitution.
I don’t have the book currently available to me, but I want to post on it. The gist (in my own words and from memory):
Many Christians seem to be double-minded. They would not be happy with penal substitution in certain cases (some innocent, even a willing innocent, serving a murderer’s six-year sentence), but they are okay with Christ taking our punishment. This is inconsistent. Problem? Perhaps.
BUT, Lewis points out, we ALL believe in penal substitution to some extent, in the area of paying fines. My punishment for parking illegally or damaging somebody else’s property can be paid for by a fine. And it doesn’t matter if a loved one pays that fine for me; justice is met even if I myself do not pay it. So, Lewis says, we are all double-minded about penal substitution.
Insofar as we agree with Lewis’ case, we must also agree that penal substitution is at least possible; the idea itself is not incoherent, as some claim. This point alone goes a long way in response to some criticisms.
The work that needs to be done, however, is why penal substitution seems okay in the fine case but not in the jail-serving case. What’s the difference? Lewis doesn’t answer, and I don’t know either. If we could find it, this might serve to count either for or against penal substitution as it applies to the atonement. Any ideas?

Comments:
  • I actually don’t see a problem with penal substitution in general, and even less so in the case of Christ, who willingly laid down his life. This, after all, is one of the reasons that Christians insist Christ is worthy of worship and devotion.
    Would anyone think it a problem for an individual to be hit by a car while pushing a child from harm? On the contrary, in most cases such a person would be lauded as heroic.
    The difference with penal substitution, of course, is that the child in the previous scenario presumably did not deserve to be hit by a car, nor would being hit by a car be considered a plausible penalty for any offense the child may have committed.
    So the difference between the jail-serving case and the heroic incident above is that the person going to prison is guilty and the child is not.
    Then isn’t whether or not penal substitution is acceptable a point to be wrestled with by the substitute who is actually bearing the penalty? Does it matter what others think as long as the one being substituted does it of his/her own volition?

    April 13, 2010 — 13:41
  • What purpose does a fine serve? I suppose a small fine is supposed to be a penalty, a deterrent, rather than a revenue generator.
    but what about a civil suit where a person is ordered to pay someone a sum of money? The purpose of the fine is to offset a loss caused by the guilty party.
    Can God lose something? Has mankind taken something from God? And if so, can he pay himself back?
    I don’t think “penal substitution” works.

    April 13, 2010 — 15:46
  • Andrew Moon

    Hey Gavin and Steven,
    You might be interested in this earlier discussion of penal substitution here, http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2008/01/whats-the-probl-1.html . Of course, there are a lot of interesting issues surrounding this question.
    Steven,
    I think that you might be saying, roughly, that
    1) The role of fine-paying is to offset a loss caused by the guilty party.
    2) In the case of atonement, there is no loss caused by the guilty party (since God cannot lose anything).
    3) So, the role that fine-paying plays in punishment and justice (i.e., off-setting a loss caused by the guilty party) is not played in the case of atonement.
    Do I have you right?

    April 13, 2010 — 16:41
  • Zach

    Is it really proper to think of fines in terms of justice, i.e. retributive justice? It seems like fine-paying is much more a practical concern than an issue over justice. If I purposely damage a piece of your property, you’re not so much concerned that I get punished as you are concerned that someone pays the damages; you don’t really care who pays it. Furthermore, to ensure that you are compensated and I do not commit further crimes, the state forces me to pay. But suppose I die of a hard attack before I can pay and this debt is past unto my low-income wife. For practical reasons, the state might allow the fine to transfer to her, but we would probably consider this an unfortunate injustice resulting from poor timing. However, I think this situation is very disanalgous to the situation in which I murder one of your family members; in this case, you demand justice, i.e. that I be punished, and it would not be acceptable for anyone else to take my place.
    According to Robin Collins, the fine-paying issue is tied up with both the debt theory of atonement and the medieval context from which Anselm developed it. In the medieval period, when people committed crimes the state demanded fine-payment not as a matter of justice but to prevent blood feuds and the like; and it didn’t really matter who paid the fine so long as it got paid. As a result, debt theory might have made sense in the medieval period, but it doesn’t seem to make sense to us today.
    However, I think there are bigger problems for the penal and debt theories of the atonement. The reason why I think we find atonement heroic in the case of, say, the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, is that we recognize some injustice in the system and call out for mercy. However, God presumably has perfect knowledge of justice, so it’s not like God has any room to rescue us from some outside standard or force. Furthermore, if we accept the doctrine of the Trinity, atonement basically amounts to God-paying-God or God-punishing-God, which seems more or less equivalent to God forgiving men, so why the atonement in the first place?

    April 13, 2010 — 18:21
  • Sean MacCarthy

    I’m curious if this is being thought of along the lines of calvinist theology and the idea that Christ went down to hell to suffer the consequences of our sin. If this is only a concern for this type of theology then I’d simply suggest a move to the Catholic view (roughly: Christ did not suffer in Hell but went down to conquer it). Though I wonder if the issue would still apply to the very fact that Christ had to suffer death, and thus even then he was substituted to suffer death as a result of our sin?

    April 13, 2010 — 18:46
  • Inspired by a paper by Adam Pelser, I distinguish between two senses of penal substitution:
    1. x is punished in the place of y
    2. x suffers something equivalent to y’s punishment, but it does not constitute a punishment of x
    I think the first doesn’t work–it is unjust for an innocent to be punished, and it may even be impossible when the punisher knows the innocent to be innocent. However, the second is coherent.
    Here is something that has occurred to me. None of us are bothered by reward substitution. George has just earned a large cash prize, and he says: please give the money to my friend Sally, who needs it more. Observe that the demands of justice with respect to rewarding George have been fully satisfied when Sally has been given the money. Observe also that Sally was not rewarded, just as in (2), x is not punished.
    Interesting fact: In reward substitution, justice requires consent from the substituted-for. If George doesn’t agree to the money being given to Sally, justice hasn’t been done. It may be that justice also requires Sally’s consent to the substitution. If Sally refuses to substitute for George–e.g., because she does not respect George and wants no piece of money due to him–then perhaps the justice that the rewarding was intended to accomplish was not accomplished. It would be interesting if there were an exact parallel in the penal case. The substituter needs to consent to the substitution, and maybe the substituted-for also needs to consent. This would have the consequence that God cannot justly apply the sacrifice of Christ to those who do not consent to this application.
    There is, of course, one lack of parallel. It is much easier in the reward case to get consent from the substituter, and in the penalty case it is easier to get consent from the substituted-for.

    April 13, 2010 — 18:49
  • Heath White

    I would think the distinction would be: substitution is okay when the punishment is inflicted on property; substitution is not okay when it is inflicted on one’s person. Someone else can pay your fine; no one else can do your jail time.
    (The same goes, I think, for rewards: you can have them give the money to someone else. You can’t really have them give the little statue as an honor to someone else.)
    My best take on atonement is that sin, punishment, and restitution are all somehow corporate or collective. They fundamentally apply to humanity generally (or maybe the church), and only derivatively to individuals. Adam and Christ are representatives of this corporate entity, like ambassadors or viceroys or delegates, so their actions represent actions of the corporate entity and their statuses are attributed (“imputed”) to it. This is more a theory of penal representation than of penal substitution. Mark Murphy has a paper along these lines in a recent F&P called something like “Not Penal Substitution but Vicarious Punishment.”
    I will be the first to say, though, this stuff is hard.

    April 13, 2010 — 19:38
  • James Brantner

    Hmmm. . . I suppose I tend to think quite differently than other folks here when it comes to this stuff.
    I don’t think we have any problem with penal substitution regarding the murderer. If someone else offers to die in his place, that’s fine. The only catch is that we can’t let the murderer back on the street if he’s planning on murdering again. Full substitution (innocent dies, murderer goes free) increases the chance the murderer will murder again (as he would’ve had a hard time murdering in jail). This problem is solved in the Christian case, as the forgiveness of our sins doesn’t increase our chances of sinning again. In fact, it vastly decreases them.

    April 13, 2010 — 21:15
  • Andrew,
    I think you phrased the point quite well. Thanks!
    I am reading a lot of talk about “justice” as opposed to repayment of damages, etc.
    What is this thing “justice”? What role does punishment serve if it doesn’t
    1. educate and rehabilitate
    2. deter from future infractions
    3. make restitution for something that has been lost
    I don’t think the concept of hell accomplishes any of these things.

    April 13, 2010 — 23:14
  • Kolya

    I suggest that, in the case of fines, the ideal situation would be that the fine is paid by the offender. However, to bring about that kind of situation would require us to place limits on the rights of people to transfer their property as they see fit.
    But we might decide to place property rights above the inconvenience of having someone not pay their own fine. A society in which property rights are respected (but sometimes people don’t pay their own fines) could be considered more just than a society in which we restrict property rights (but have everyone pay their own fines).
    So that explains why we might consider substitution acceptable in the case of fines. But it does not let those who defend atonement off the hook, as it is unclear what right might be defended by permitting the substitution. The atonement substitution is undesirable (in the same way that having someone pay another person’s fine for them is undesirable) and, if there does not exist a ‘higher reason’ for tolerating that undesirability, we conclude that such a substitution is unacceptable.

    April 13, 2010 — 23:47
  • Zach

    Also, what does it mean to say that Christ suffered what we deserve to suffer? On most theological schemes, we deserve hell. However, it does not seem logically possible for Jesus to suffer the punishment of hell for atonement because it would require an eternity of suffering. In other words, why should a death on the cross pay for an eternity of suffering? There seems to be some lack of proportion here. I suppose you could interpret hell as separation from God, but what does it mean to say that God became separate from God on the cross?
    As I am new to philosophy/theology, hopefully that all makes sense.

    April 14, 2010 — 7:45
  • “It would be interesting if there were an exact parallel in the penal case. The substituter needs to consent to the substitution, and maybe the substituted-for also needs to consent. This would have the consequence that God cannot justly apply the sacrifice of Christ to those who do not consent to this application.”
    This is a prime implication of my view, albeit better articulated. But then…
    “There is, of course, one lack of parallel. It is much easier in the reward case to get consent from the substituter, and in the penalty case it is easier to get consent from the substituted-for.”
    In the case of Christ, though, did he not consent? The discussion with respect to the latter quote (above) must shift to the historicity of Jesus’s words in Scripture. Either Jesus said the following or he didn’t:
    “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.”
    I realize my point here deviates somewhat from philosophical discourse, but it seems to me that one cannot argue for or against penal substitution in general without attention to the specific penal substitution that is likely in mind, that of Christ. Put another way, Smith (or Jones) fail on multiple accounts as parallels to Christ because Christ, on an orthodox Christian view, is unlike Smith or Jones in so many ways.

    April 14, 2010 — 8:19
  • Kevin Wong

    Andrew (and others),
    As I grow in my intellectual journey, I think penal substitution needs to be looked upon through the lens of covenant. Jesus Christ is the representative of Israel and the world. So a parallel would be Secretary Hilary Clinton visiting Israel. It could be said that America is visiting Israel and how she conducts herself reflects the rest of the population. So too perhaps in some fashion when there was a breach of contract between Israel/world and God, Jesus as the representative of both could step in and met the negative terms and conditions (the penalties). It’s not a full-fledged theory, but I think perhaps there is a beginning strategy somewhere here.
    I don’t know how exactly that helps other than to say that perhaps as biblical studies scholars and theologians continue to work that out, I think philosophers may be provided with a better framework to theorize. I have been challenged by the work of N. T. Wright to reconsider my views of penal substitution.

    April 18, 2010 — 12:52
  • Ak Mike

    Hello – not a philosopher, but a lawyer. I think the premise here is wrong – we do not allow substitution in the case of fines. The criminal remains responsible for paying the fine – she cannot delegate this responsibility to another party. Even if another party agrees to pay, if that payment is defaulted, the court will look to the criminal to cure the default, not the other party.
    Having another pay a criminal’s fine is just a way of describing where the money comes from that the criminal obtains to pay the fine. It is inherent in the nature of a fine as punishment that the money to pay it will have to come from somewhere – from wages, from an inheritance, from a gift – where it comes from is not relevant to the question of who is being punished. The court records will always show the criminal has having paid, not some third party.

    April 22, 2010 — 20:22
  • Mike Almeida

    …where it comes from is not relevant to the question of who is being punished. The court records will always show the criminal has having paid, not some third party.
    This sounds a bit strange. Suppose the fine were not cash but a caning, and suppose the court allowed someone else to “pay” the fine. I stand in for Smith and get caned. Do you really want to say that I took on the “fine” but I did not take on the punishment? When I was caned, Smith was punished? Surely I was punished in Smith’s place. Similarly when I pay the monetary fine for Smith.

    April 23, 2010 — 10:18
  • Mike:
    “Surely I was punished in Smith’s place.” I don’t see it. I don’t think you were punished at all. Either nobody was punished, or Smith was punished with your being caned (this makes sense Smith loves you). But you weren’t punished, because a punishment of x expresses disapproval of x’s actions (this is one of the things that differentiates punishment of x from mere harsh treatment of x) while no one is expressing disapproval of your actions in caning you. This is a Mark Murphy argument.
    I am not disputing that your being caned or fined could substitute for Smith in justice. But I am disputing that this would constitute your being punished, except in the extended sense in which any harsh treatment counts as a “punishment” (“that car is built to take a lot of punishment”).

    April 26, 2010 — 8:55
  • Mike Almeida

    But you weren’t punished, because a punishment of x expresses disapproval of x’s actions (this is one of the things that differentiates punishment of x from mere harsh treatment of x) while no one is expressing disapproval of your actions in caning you.
    This is the very thing in question, Alex, so we can’t resolve the issue definitionally (by definition of ‘punishment’), unless your proposal is that I don’t understand the meaning of the word (which is possible, I guess). I’m claiming that possibly, x is punished, and x’s punishment expresses disapproval of y’s actions. I’m proposing that x might take responsibility for y’s actions, and justly be punished for them. You default on a loan for which I co-signed. I’ve taken responsibility for what you might do. So I’m forced to pay (I say justly) the debt. Now imagine that God tacitly “co-signed” for us and had to take on our moral debt. I’m not claiming that this is the right analysis; I’m trying to show that it is possible that x is punished for y’s actions.

    April 26, 2010 — 10:54