Substitutionary Atonement: The Satisfaction of the Wrath of God? (Long Read)

Many, who give Christianity a go, so to speak, do so on the basis of emotive appeals and/or yearning. And many, who eventually and effectively fall away, do so because Christianity seems incoherent. This may manifest itself as outright rejection, as neglect, or in wayward departure from essential verities and their application. Application is an entailment of genuine faith; much as technological applications entail genuine faith in underlying principles of scientific theories.

Proponents of Christianity can do little in regard those who honestly cannot reconcile Christianity with perceived realities; or those who exalt their own reason and/or psyche as the ultimate arbiters of Truth and the Good, especially whenever the counter-intuitive wisdom of the God of Scriptures comes into conflict (which shall inevitably occur); or those who were never sufficiently serious.

However, proponents of Christianity ought to, at least, ensure that the Gospel and Full Counsel of God that is transmitted is scripturally faithful and thereby rationally coherent. It is cause for deep grief and great disgust when it is the errant teachings of ecclesiastical orthodoxy, which prove contrary to Biblical orthodoxy, which are the reasons for initial or eventual rejection. It is cause for deep frustration when more time is required disabusing what Christianity is not, perpetuated by those self-identified and supposedly Christian, than in explaining what Christianity is.

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The Atonement of Christ, as the sating of the wrath of God unto our Justification, is one such ecclesiastical orthodoxy, deserving of such disdain.

Through living a perfect life and dying in our place, the just for the unjust, Christ absorbed our punishment, appeased the wrath of God against us, vindicated the righteousness of God in our justification, and removed the condemnation of the law against us.[i]

Propitiation means the turning away of wrath by an offering. In relation to soteriology, propitiation means placating or satisfying the wrath of God by the atoning sacrifice of Christ.[ii]

The notion which the phrase ‘penal substitution’ expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord . . . endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined.[iii]

God’s justice demands that he pour out his wrath against anyone who sins against him whether that sin is murder or merely an angry thought. In order for God to save us, someone had to pay the price that was ours to pay. Someone had to take the wrath that God had righteously stored up for us. That was Jesus.[iv]

This critique is not to repudiate Penal Substitutionary Atonement. No! On the contrary! But the current understanding of the Cross, prevalent among a swath of orthodox Evangelical elite, is rationally incoherent and unjust. And if our Justification via the Atonement is dependent solely upon sating the wrath of God, we remain dead in our sins. Or alternatively, God would be found unjust.

The incoherence of current Evangelical orthodoxy was highlighted and capitalized upon in scorn in a recent debate between Brian Zahnd and Michael L. Brown.

But particularly abhorrent is the penal substitutionary atonement theory that turns the Father of Jesus into a pagan deity, who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice and this will not do. In other words, the God who is mollified by throwing the virgin into the volcano or the God who is mollified by His Son being nailed to a tree is not the Abba of Jesus.

And neither is the death of Jesus a kind of quid quo pro by which God gains the necessary capital to forgive. In other words, Calvin’s economic model for the Cross simply won’t do. I mean how would it work? The idea is that a payment is being made. So how does this work?

Does God say, “Well look. I want to forgive sins, but I am gonna get paid. And I want an innocent life. That’s a given. And let’s see. I want his death to be painful. Crucifixion, that will do. But I want some torture before hand. I want there to be some lashes. Ah you know, a crown of thorns, that would be nice. I want a crown of thorns.”

And we might way, “how many thorns will be enough to pay the price? Ten?”

Oh no. There must be a minimum of nineteen thorns in the crown for me…”[v]

How Many Thorns Suffice to Pay the Price? 

BINGO! What precise measure of suffering in a worthy punching bag is required in order for God to relieve Himself of His righteous rage against sin? In defining the satisfaction of divine and universal justice by a paradigm of mollifying a subjective and inscrutable divine passion in the Father; or contrariwise, in the infliction and absorption of a subjective and inscrutable level of suffering upon the Son, the justice lacks decipherable logic and clarity.

But justice and its attributes and principles are, by definition and practicable necessity, objective, scrupulously rational, impersonal (“without respect of persons” – 1 Peter 1:17), and ascertainable through reasonable public scrutiny. In defining justice as a function of divine wrath mollified, the nature of justice becomes arbitrary, irrational, and capricious.

There have existed but few human courts in the history of the world by which the sentence upon a convicted criminal depended upon exhausting the wrath in the magistrate that was aroused because of the offensiveness of the offense or offender. Whenever a magistrate has acted upon such impulses, the rational principles of justice and due process invariably suffer detriment, however justifiable the wrath.

Judges differ in psychological constitutions and dispositions. Under this paradigm of wrath mollified, sentencing for the same crime under the same circumstance would depend upon an extreme variability of those constitutions and dispositions in the judges. Indeed, recent developments towards the variable caprice of subjective justice has made courts susceptible to charges of favoritism and discrimination, resulting in minimum sentencing laws from an aroused populace and legislators, and sentencing guidelines by concerned jurists.

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Current ecclesiastical orthodoxy deviates even from understandings of the early Reformers.

Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice in their behalf . . . that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.

– Westminster Confession of Faith (1646): 11.3

This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.

This death is of such great value and worth for the reason that the person who suffered it is—as was necessary to be our Savior—not only a true and perfectly holy human, but also the only begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Another reason is that this death was accompanied by the experience of God’s wrath and curse, which we by our sins had fully deserved.

– Canons of Dort (1618–9): 2.3–4

The judicial validity and virtue of the Atonement is premised upon the value and worth of the Person who suffered it; that is the supremacy of Christ; not upon the level of suffering and/or divine wrath mollified.

The issue, at least from my pathologically precisionist perspective, is not substitutionary atonement nor the penal version of substitutionary atonement (PSA). It is the rational and judicial incoherence underlying most explanations of PSA by current ecclesiastical orthodoxy. I uphold both penal and debt bondage/repayment models of substitutionary atonement as equally valid. It is useful and prudent to subscribe to both models in order to uphold attributes and principles of justice emphasized within each; thereby mitigating against inherent propensities towards deviance by upholding only one.

The following screed seeks to justify the necessity for the substitutionary atonement and details the basis by which the Atonement sufficiently satisfies the exact and exacting attributes and principles of a divine and universal justice.

Justification: Grace Built Upon the Ramparts of Justice

God is free to forgive. The Father does not need to punish the Son in order to win the right to forgive. Were the Father paid off, then there would be no forgiveness. God himself forgives, and in so doing he assumes responsibility for the sinner.[vi]

One of the objections thrown at substitutionary atonement is the ethical aspersion that a truly gracious God should not require some form of “payment” for sins and trespasses; this despite the Scriptural assertion that God must remain just while yet being the justifier (Romans 3:26).

The fly in the argument becomes readily evident if we transpose this mindset onto the institutions of human governance. If the sovereign of a nation, in a pique of magnanimity, begins to arbitrarily pardon criminals, without some form of rational and rationally consistent justification (and even with it), suspicions and aspersions of lawless and unjust partisan favoritism (a.k.a. partiality) arise from the commons.

Humanity is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–7), a state of affairs not changed after the Fall (Genesis 9:6, 1 Corinthians 11:7, James 3:9). In this, we share a common ontological/psychological constitution as our Creator, albeit of different composition, which potentially makes “the dwelling place of God is with man” (Revelation 21:3) mutually fulfilling. Those ethos/ethics and judicial principles which ontologically befits and benefits the Creator likewise befits and benefits the human creature. And those ethos/ethics and judicial principles which would bring ontologically detriment to the Creator would likewise bring detriment to the human creature. God is not “wholly other.”

Therefore, if God were to arbitrarily pardon sinners without some form of legitimate and rationally consistent justification, aspersions of lawless and unjust partisan favoritism (a.k.a. partiality) would likewise arise from the creature, (especially from those who forgot to say the magic words which brought pardon), including that third of the angelic host for which means of justification and salvation have not been provided.

The genius of the Cross is that grace and forgiveness extended is premised upon the exact and exacting principles of a divine and universal justice; not apart from it.

Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. – Romans 3:31

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God, by deliberate and voluntary self-limitation upon His Sovereignty, refuses to govern the cosmos by raw power (dunamis) alone, or even by virtue of legal authority alone (via right of ownership). Rather, out of a genius and wisdom which seeks a people who voluntarily desire place under His rule, God intends to rule by moral authority (exousia), backed by power. For that reason, it is “righteousness and justice [which] are the foundation of his throne” (Psalm 97:2; cf. Psalm 89:14).

Such proclamations lack meaning and value unless justice can be defined, given attributes and principles, and evidence that the person making such claims have demonstrably proven to scrupulously abide by those attributes and principles.

As already noted; radical judicial impartiality of persons is one such principle (1 Peter 1:17, Romans 2:11); one known initially and distinctively to Scriptures and the Hebrew race.[vii] (In the decline of the Judeo-Christian ethos/ethic, we are observing a turning away from this principle. Those who are perceived to provide greater utility to society or who are “too big to jail” tend to receive fewer convictions and lighter sentences than the proverbial “riffraff” and other social outcasts.) This judicial principle is premised upon rational consistency. In that all human beings are of like kind, all are of equal intrinsic value.

Scrutability is yet another attribute and principle of justice; one not unfamiliar to societies even outside the zone of Hebrew-Christian influence. The Twelve Tables (ca. 450 BC), the engraved constitution (or “covenant”) and basic law code of the Roman Republic, came into being largely as consequence of lower class agitation against aristocratic magistrates, who had been handing down judgments based ostensibly on unwritten judicial precedents; but felt like (and probably were to some extent) self-interested caprice.

Even in Paul’s time, pagan Romans deemed it scandalous (and means to persecute “public” enemies) to publish laws yet not making them freely available and subject to public scrutiny.

But when, after enacting severe laws in regard to the taxes, he [Caligula] inscribed them in exceedingly small letters on a tablet which he then hung up in a high place, so that it should be read by as few as possible and that many through ignorance of what was bidden or forbidden should lay themselves liable to the penalties provided, they straightway rushed together excitedly into the Circus and raised a terrible outcry.

Once when the people had come together in the Circus and were objecting to his conduct, he had them slain by the soldiers; after this all kept quiet.[viii]

The Twelve Tables were to be learnt by all Roman citizens and freemen, not unlike similar injunctions in the Mosaic Covenant. For that reason, it was deemed that “ignorance of the law was no excuse” (ignorantia juris non excusat). However, just as now, the laws proliferated in number and picayune complexity over time. Knowledge of all the laws become impossible for jurists and lawyers, let alone lesser beings. Proliferation of “case” laws via interpretation by Jewish scribes was likewise behind Christ’s declamations “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46, cf. Matthew 23:4).

Populaces have likewise agitated against the secret trials of Inquisitions and Star Chambers. Sealed royalist lettres de cachet, which allowed for incarceration without trial and proper defense, and abuse against political dissenters (e.g. Voltaire), was a key item of remonstrance in the years preceding and including the French Revolution.

There is reaction against fresh outbreaks of inscrutable justice in the superfluity of complicated, counter-intuitive, and arcane regulatory laws, by which any citizen and visitor can be easily judicially ensnared,[ix] while state prosecutors proclaim “ignorance of the law is no excuse” with straight face; or in the secret rubber stamp FISA courts, which allows for NSA fishing expeditions and blanket invasion of privacy; or in the closed secret courts in the U.K., where the precise evidential details are withheld from the accused. Kafkaesque justice is rightly deemed a mark of injustice, tyranny, and oppression.[x]

Recognizing the impossibility of aliens to the commonwealth of Israel to know the Mosaic Laws (to which they were not formally subjected anyhow, having neither lived within the geographical and political jurisdiction of Israel, nor having a representative at Sinai who signed off on the Covenant on their behalf); Christian Scriptures deem a person accountable only to those laws which that person knew, through revelation and/or natural understanding, and had at some point of their lives subscribed. (“But where there is no law there is no transgression” – Romans 4:15, cf. Romans 5:13.) Determinations of such knowledge are decipherable through their judgment of others (Matthew 7:2, Romans 2:1) for instance, or by habitual practice (Romans 2:14–5); the latter a standard judicial principle governing (unwritten) contract law in civic courts.

Scrutability as a definitional attribute of justice is attested both in Scriptures and as a reasonable principle in human governance and justice.

Dikaiosuné: Justice or Righteousness

Indeed, within the pivotal passage on Justification, the attribute of scrutability is emphasized.

But now the [justice] of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the [justice] of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s [justice], because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his [justice] at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. – Romans 3:21–6

This claim, as sound as it should prove, faces the hurdle of English mistranslation of the Greek text; in particular translation of the Greek term dikaiosuné as righteousness.

In pagan writings, dikaiosuné is translated as justice. There was even a goddess by that name. (“O Blessed Equity [Dikaiosune], mankind’s delight, th’ eternal friend of conduct just and right.”[xi]) The attributes of this goddess included judiciousness (“judgments pure”), harmony, moderation (“hating excess”), and equity (“to equal deeds inclin’d”); with very little consideration of rectitude and conformity to a standard (nomos). Plato would likewise define dikaiosuné in terms of justice, and indeed distinguish, just as Hebrew Scriptures, justice from holiness/righteousness.

So then, I went on, among the parts of virtue, no other part is like knowledge, or like justice (δικαιοσύνη), or like courage, or like temperance, or like holiness (ὁσιότης).[xii]

Greek Christian Scriptures likewise distinguishes right conduct (lawfulness) apart from justice.

In holiness (hosiotēti) and [justice] (dikaiosynē) before him all our days. – Luke 1:75

Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true [justice] (dikaiosynē) and holiness (hosiotēti). – Ephesians 4:24

This corresponds to the almost 25 verses in Hebrew Scriptures wherewith righteousness (tsedeq) is distinguished from justice (mishpat). Jerome, translator of the Bible into the Latin Vulgate, translated dikaiosuné into the Latin iustitia, from whence the English term (justice) is etymologically derived.

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The Greeks had neither concept nor word which exactly corresponded with the Hebrew concept of righteousness (tsedeq). The closest Greek term hosiotés meant conformity or a disposition to conform to (divine) law. But righteousness is greater than mere external conformity to laws, and includes the motivations and attitudes behind such adherence.

English mistranslation came about honestly. In light of the lack of an exact Greek term for righteousness, Jewish translators of the Old Testament into the non-canonical Greek Septuagint translation (ca. 250 BC) generally transposed the Hebrew tsedeq to the Greek dikaiosuné, and the Hebrew mishpat to the Greek krisis; that is from Hebrew for righteousness to Greek for justice, and the Hebrew for justice to the Greek for judgment. (It was not scrupulously transposed since textual context would often become incoherent.)

Apostle Paul, on the other hand, in writing into a pre-existing language with its own pre-existing definitions and understandings, would create simple compound words for those concepts which lacked an existing Greek cultural conception or term; the most relevant at the moment being arsenokoites to signify homosexuals (males engaging in coitus or bed).

This tangent into etymology can understandably appear to be wresting with Scriptures in order to hoodwink the gullible. However, if ecclesiastical orthodoxy claims inerrancy of Scriptures, such claims become meaningless and worthless if the exact words used in Scriptures can be massaged from their original understanding to whatever pleases the translators. It is a similar complaint made against liberal secularist jurists with regard to the American Constitution.

Even so, the Justification passage concludes a long argument by Paul concerning the judgment of God, and the judicial basis and principles governing that divine judgment (Romans 2–4). And that Justification passage declares that the justice of God has been manifested, demonstrated, or shown in the Atonement at the Cross, not God’s righteousness. Indeed, since righteousness involves motivations and attitudes, it becomes difficult to comprehend how the righteousness of God is ascertainable by human scrutiny. But justice, which by its very definitional nature is public in that it involves balancing the claims and concerns of two or more entities, involves “external” principles which must be scrutable to all participants thereby governed, even if all do not or are not willing to acknowledge them. The notion of justice being satisfied, because of a mollifying of a subjective and inscrutable level of divine wrath or the amount of Christ’s suffering, fails this test of rational scrutability.

The Nature of Propitiation

At a later time, when he had laid down his command, he referred the matter to the Senate, and the seers announced tokens in their sacrifices that the gods were angry, and must be propitiated with due offerings.[xiii]

The ancient Greeks, like pagans elsewhere, perceived that occasional propitiatory sacrifices were necessary to appease the wrath of the gods; or in the case of Hinduism, to (manipulatively) bribe Indra with soma into satisfying the desires of the placaters.

While ancient Hebrews might have initially thought in like manner, the Mosaic Covenant altered that understanding by expressly tying the need for sacrificial appeasements with ethical faults; and in quantifying a cost to different types and manners of sins. The purpose was largely for didactic purposes. For long before New Testament writers were declaring that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4), Hebrew prophets were disabusing and scorning the judicial effectuality of such animal sacrifices, in of themselves. Indeed, even a human being was deemed incapable of being a propitiatory exchange for another.

Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit. – Psalm 49:7–8

The logic is two-fold. The intrinsic value of the object sacrificed must match or exceed that for which it is sacrificed. Secondly, only a pure clean specimen can be deemed valid for sacrifice. If it is impure, it lacks any excess merit to serve for another’s redemptive needs. It would be like paying a debt with “dirty money.”

This “economic” quantification is richly alluded throughout the New Testament. In the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts (opheilēmata)” (Matthew 6:12) is used interchangeably elsewhere with “forgive us our sins (hamartias)” (Luke 11:4). The term hamartias intimates a falling short (“missing the target”), thereby entailing something which is owed (Romans 3:23). The economic quantification is iconized in the balances (scales) in the statuesque depiction of Justitia, corresponding with declamations against the use of unjust weights in Hebrew Scriptures; all of which becomes useful in emphasizing the exact and exacting nature of justice as well as its rational and quantifiable scrutability.

Some, in Reformed camps, disdain and dismiss the economic justice model, because according to them, the debtor and his substitute never pay with their persons. However, in ancient societies, at least initially, a person, overburdened with indebtedness, entered into and remained in bondage until the last iota of debt was paid off. Thus, the apropos resonance of Christ’s warning concerning the Judgment.

Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

– Matthew 5:25–6; cf. Luke 12:58–9, Matt 18:34  

Such exact and exacting justice is a harsh regime, which caused civic strife in Athens (Solon – 594 BC) and scandal in Rome, resulting in the abolition of nexum in 326 BC through Lex Poetelia Papiria (for those who were not proper Romans, a form of debt bondage remained).

To cut a long, plodding, and pedantic exegetical and rational argument short, the propitiation is not to appease the subjective and inscrutable wrath of God, as might be commonly understood in pagan and apparently Evangelical circles nowadays. Rather, the propitiation of Christ is to logically satisfy the exact and exacting, rationally coherent, and quantifiably scrutable justice of God.

Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. – Romans 3:25

Indeed, in the pivotal Justification passage, the propitiation is determined by the intrinsic value of Christ’s blood, not as a talisman or relic, but as metaphor for His life. (“For the life of the flesh is in the blood” – Leviticus 17:11).

This is not to say that God lacks genuine wrath. But unlike humanity, the rational and the “psychological” are not at odds in a holistic God. (Indeed, rational perfectionism has tendency to become insufferably enraged by every minutiae of error, folly, and vice.) Nevertheless, it is the rational and objective principles of justice which are scrutable to humanity.

The Nature of Penal Substitutionary Justice

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” – Genesis 2:16–7

Death is normally understood by common humanity in terms of cessation of animated life. However, the First Parents did not die in this manner; at least immediately. Rather, death is biblically defined as severance from relationship with God, after which cessation of animated life eventually ensues.

Death as severance (of relationship) is not beyond all comprehension or resonance by humans. Even those among us with the greatest of patience and forbearance tend to eventually terminate relationship with persons who are deemed to consistently bring hardship and misery into their lives.

Nearly every person you will read about is deeply flawed. Some have tried to murder other people, and a few were successful. Some have abused their children, physically or emotionally. Many abused (and still abuse) drugs. But I love these people, even those to whom I avoid speaking for my own sanity.[xiv]

That same process of first severance, and eventual cessation of animated life is alluded in the vine and branches parable. A severed branch retains a semblance of animation and even growth until it finally dries up.

Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away . . . anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. – John 15:1, 6

Just as for the sinner; so must it be for the sacrificial substitution in order to meet an exact and exacting justice. If the penalty for sins and trespasses is death, as defined by severance from God, so must the actual penalty for Christ be in the substitutionary atonement.

Is Christ Divided?

For some in the Reformed theological stream, beholden to the “Great Tradition,” and in particular, the Chalcedon definition of the ontology of Christ, this may pose a problem. Unduly influenced by the prevailing Romanized Hellenist cultural milieu, the Patristic Fathers attempted to retrofit the God of Scriptures within the philosophical constraints of Hellenistic theism. In this, it was deemed necessary that God, in all His three Persons, be of one indivisible substance who could not be subject to external ontological harms (divine impassibility).

Consequently, from the late 2nd century AD onwards, when Hellenizers replaced Judaizers as the main threat to the purity of the Scriptures and Gospel within Christendom, a succession of Christological theses appeared seeking to reconcile the God of Hebrew Scriptures with Greek notions of deity, until Leo the Great blanketed the irreconcilable dilemmas and incoherence in a Veil of Mystery at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD).

Nevertheless, it was and still is largely held by the churches of the “Great Tradition” that the divine nature in Christ did not die; that is, did not suffer severance from God the Father. Only His person and human nature was severed. For if the divine nature in Christ was severed from the Father, God is not indivisible, which was believed by the Hellenists to be a necessary precondition for ontological immutability and eternality.

But “Is Christ divided” (1 Corinthians 1:13)? Can the person and human nature of Christ Jesus be severed dead from God, while His divine nature remains alive, and yet Christ be honestly deemed undivided?

Frankly, I care less about Christ’s ontological makeup; a matter of endless speculative dispute at the time; along with frequent depositions of ecclesiastical bishops, burnt books, political exile, and cohorts of emaciated Brownshirts from Egyptian desert monasteries roaming the streets of Ephesus. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

However, if the divinity in Christ did not die; that is, was not severed from the Father; then the value of the substitutionary atonement is of little worth. We are still in our sins; or alternatively, God’s grace would be unjust.

For the exact and exacting basis of the justice in the substitutionary atonement is the severed life of one divine being of infinite intrinsic value for a countless but limited number of human beings of finite intrinsic worth. By the Fall, humanity was severed from God. In the Atonement, Christ was severed in His entirety from God on behalf of those who trust in Him. Hereby, it is not the satisfaction of the wrath of God which is the measure, but the intrinsic value of the life and deity of Christ. There exists no subjective and/or inscrutable element in this propitiation to justice,[xv] rather than to wrath.

Judicially, the physical and psychological suffering of Christ is consequent of death as divine severance. For in divine severance, the protection and provision of God is withheld, as God in the Old Testament often threatened. Is it not interesting that Christ proclaimed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46)? For in a cosmos besotted with evil and the evil, all that is required for one to suffer violence is for God to abandon us to their devices. (This is not to deny the positivist element of the justice of God exacted, as in the Second Death. It is to put the evident sufferings of Christ into judicial context.)

Justification by Atonement: Summary

The basis by which Christ Jesus, in the substitutionary atonement, satisfies the exact and exacting principles of a divine and universal justice, can be defined as follows (although humble honesty prevents me from proclaiming ex cathedra that these are the only principles).

  • The substitute must be of the same intrinsic category as that which it substitutes (Hebrews 2), and thus the importance of Christ being fully human. It would not be particularly valuable to one undergoing an Arctic winter, that the mail order company ship a necklace, no matter how gilded and diamond studded, when the fundamental and immediate need is for a heavy coat.
  • In a moral universe, where death is consequence for ethical shortcomings and transgressions; in order for a substitute to have any merit beyond itself for the purposes of judicial redemption, that entity must itself be perfectly clean of unrighteousness and injustice.
  • The intrinsic value of the substitution must exceed the total value of that which it substitutes; the primary subject of this essay.
  • The sacrifice must be voluntarily consensual without duress or punitive measures against the person who refuses to self-sacrifice. (“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. This charge I have received from my Father” – John 10:17–8.) Otherwise, the imposition of the debt payment for the sake of another becomes injustice, and the charge of the Cross as “cosmic child abuse” has merit. (Unlike law and justice, there is no obligation in grace and mercy – Romans 4:4.)[xvi]

A relationship based on justice is harsh, impersonal, and cold; one which neither God nor man finds ultimately satisfying (e.g. Les Miserables, The Merchant of Venice). It is one which comes about as a minimal necessity for a tolerable society in the presence of sin and its prevalence in lawlessness. Justification, among its many other benefits, is the means by which relationship is converted from legal rectitude between strangers to that of warm adoption as children, lending to a voluntary zeal and dedication to do that which exceeds that which is obligatory.

The Telos of this Essay

Such distinctions, made here, may be dismissed as “how many angels can dance on the head of a needle” scrupulosity. But be not deceived. Unless the terms by which we understand the Gospel and operate under are judicially sound, we remain dead in our sins. God, who intentions to govern the cosmos on the foundations of righteousness and justice, can neither grant exoneration nor His Spirit by terms which violate the principles of His own justice.

Anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber . . . Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. – John 10:1, 7–10

One may indeed believe that Christ died for one’s sins and sinner status without precisely knowing the legal arithmetic and mechanics of Justification. But those, genuinely on the Christian walk, know well of the doubts and arguments, emanating from both without and within, which incessantly inflict the heart and mind and perpetually threaten to lead us astray in practicable unbelief or theological waywardness. But a true and rationally convincing argument and framework has habit of enervating the power of those incessant objections.

One of the many travesties currently coming upon the world is subjectivist justice. Hereby, a “victim” can accuse and destroy the life and livelihood of another in areas of sexual assault, bullying, hate crimes, and prejudice; not on the basis of intent of the alleged perpetrator, nor on the basis of the actual substance of the word or deed, but on the basis of how the complainant subjectively perceives the word or deed. But both the integrity and competence of that victim’s belief and the actual psychosocial harm is beyond the incontrovertible scrutiny of limited human insight, despite the arrogance of human jurists to divine otherwise.

Christians, among others, would be right to disabuse and condemn this Kafkaesque regimen coming to a court near you. However, if we should prove right and successful in the court of public opinion to whom we are evangelizing; will not the preaching of Cross, as it is currently understood by most of Evangelical orthodoxy, that of Atonement as the sating of the subjective and inscrutable wrath of God mollified, be likewise deemed incoherent, absurd, and unjust?

Christ’s death is a substitutionary and propitiatory sacrifice to God for our sins. It satisfies the demands of God’s holy justice and appeases His holy wrath.[xvii]


Divine wrath is an entailment of an objective, scrupulously rational, and exact and exacting divine and universal justice, not its rationale and basis.

© Copyright John Hutchinson


[i] Bethlehem Baptist Church (John Piper), Elder Affirmation of Faith, November 3, 2003, Section: “Saving Work of Christ”.

[ii] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth, Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1999, [Kindle Edition], Kindle locations 5503-5504, as cited in “Propitiation,” Theopedia,

[iii] J.I. Packer, The Logic of Penal Substitution (Lecture), Cambridge, UK: Tyndale House, July 17, 1973.

[iv] Pastor Koby Orr, “Big words: Substitutionary Atonement,” Canyon Hills Community Church, January 29, 2014,

[v] Brian Zahnd, “Debate: Monster God or Monster Man”, IHOPU Symposium – Part 7, September 13, 2014, Min. 13-14 (personally transcribed),

[vi] Frank Stagg, New Testament Theology, Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1962, as quoted in Albert Mohler, “Substitutionary Atonement is Central to the Gospel,” Christianity, August 12, 2013,

[vii] Contrary to assertions by 19th and 20th century theological liberals, Hebrew Scriptures differ significantly from the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (18th Century BC), especially in regard to equality of persons before the law. Article 198 and 199 of Hammurabi’s code states “If he put out the eye of a freed man, or break the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina. If he put out the eye of a man’s slave, or break the bone of a man’s slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.” Such distinctions of status are rampant throughout the Hammurabi’s Code. In contrast, God “shows no partiality to princes, nor regards the rich more than the poor, for they are all the work of his hands” (Job 34:19)?

[viii] Cassius Dio, Roman History, c. 200-22, Trans. by Earnest Cary, (Vol. VII), Harvard University Press, 1924, 59.28.11. Another account by Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, 121 AD, translated by J.C. Rolfe, London: Heinemann, 1913–1914, Life of Caligula, 41.1.

[ix] Glenn Harlan Reynolds, “Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything is a Crime,” Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee College of Law, April 2013.

[x] Franz Kafka, The Trial, Berlin: Verlag Die Schmiede, 1925.

[xi]The Hymns of Orpheus, ca. 3rd century BC –  2nd Century AD, translated by Thomas Taylor, 1792, “Hymn 62 to Dicaeosyne.”

[xii] Plato, Protagoras, 380 BC, translated by W.R.M. Lamb in Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 3, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd. 1967, 330b.

[xiii] Plutarch, “Life of Camillus” (d. 365 BC), 75 AD, in Plutarch’s Lives, translated by Bernadotte Perrin, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1914, 7.5.

[xiv] J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, p. 9.

[xv] For personal didactic purposes, which lack canonicity, the infinite value of Christ Jesus relative to humanity is not due to the personal relationship the Son had with the Father. Otherwise, that would constitute a “respect of persons,” contrary to the scripturally stated and rational principles of Justice. It is qualitative. That is, for example, Christ has life in Himself (John 5:26) unlike humanity. The latter has no existence whatsoever without the former. It is quantitative. That is, in the three hours or three days that Christ was severed, Christ could theoretically accomplish more than humanity in an eternity. It is ethical. In that Christ has performed one or more act of pure virtue in ethics and ethos compared to none by humanity (and are thereupon called worthless).

[xvi] The Chalcedon notion of the Trinity as one substance also undermines the credibility of the voluntary consent of Christ.

[xvii] Matt Chandler, “Beliefs – What Is the Gospel?” The Village Church,








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