Is penal substitution unjust?
Talbot School of Theology
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. Ever since the time of Faustus Socinus, the doctrine has faced formidable, and some would say insuperable, philosophical challenges. Critics of penal substitution frequently assert that God’s punishing Christ in our place would be an injustice on God’s part. For it is an axiom of retributive justice that it is unjust to punish an innocent person. But Christ was an innocent person. Since God is perfectly just, He cannot therefore have punished Christ. Virtually every premiss in this argument is challengeable. Not all penal substitution theories affirm that Christ was punished for our sins. The argument makes unwarranted assumptions about the ontological foundations of moral duty independent of God’s commands. It presupposes without warrant that God is by nature an unqualified negative retributivist. It overlooks the possibility that the prima facie demands of negative retributive justice might be overridden in Christ’s case by weightier moral considerations. And it takes it for granted that Christ was legally innocent, which is denied by the classic doctrine of imputation. It thus fails to show any injustice in God’s punishing Christ in our place.
International Journal for Philosophy of Religion
DOI of Published Version
Craig, William Lane, "Is penal substitution unjust?" (2018). Faculty Articles & Research. 511.