One of the ways that Christians understand the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion is to view it as a form of divine punishment which Jesus suffered on behalf of Israel and the rest of humanity. This way of viewing the crucifixion is otherwise known as “the doctrine of penal substitution”, or DPS for short.
Some people object to the DPS on the grounds that it implicates God (the Father) in the injustice of the crucifixion. Indeed, various Scriptural passages seem to teach that God was actively involved in inflicting the penal suffering experienced by Jesus on the cross (Isaiah 53:6; Mark 14:27; Matthew 26:31) and that the cross was part of His plan (Acts 2:23). But if God was involved in the events surrounding and leading up to Christ’s death, doesn’t that implicate him in the use of immoral forms of punishment, namely torture and brutality? And does that mean he intended to bring about those horrible events? In this blog post, I will formulate three main responses to these questions.
First, there is nothing wrong or immoral about God the Father causing Jesus to experience penal suffering on our behalf, as long as the ethical requirements for vicarious punishment are met (see objection 1 in lecture 3 of my series on atonement). When we read passages like Isaiah 53:6 ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’, and v10, ‘it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain’ – along with Mark 14:27 and Matthew 26:31, ‘I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’, the bible is not saying that God loves to inflict pain or that he advocates torture as a moral form of punishment. It is referring to the satisfaction of God’s justice where due retribution is exacted and God’s right anger against sin is set aside.
Second, it is true that the Father sent the Son into the hands of evil men knowing that he would be mistreated, beaten and killed. But it was the Son who, in collaboration with the Father, voluntarily agreed to enter into that situation knowing full well what would happen. As the Jewish Messiah, he took upon himself the injustices that resulted from the disobedience of his people – even to the extreme of dying at the hands of Israel’s oppressors. God was not torturing Christ through the evil actions of his executioners. Neither was God advocating torture. And while the Father did send his Son into this situation, the Son also willed to laying down his own life (John 10:18).
Third, God knowingly and purposefully allowed the crucifixion to happen, which means that He played a role in the events that transpired. But does this role imply any moral defect or “guilt” on God’s part? Not necessarily. Under certain conditions, it is not wrong for someone to knowingly and purposefully allow injustice to occur. For example, if allowing it is the only way for God to secure some outweighing good, if the victim voluntarily consents to suffer, and if God adequately compensates the victim for the harm, then God may be justified in allowing it. In our case, the crucifixion was a necessary part of Christ’s voluntary role in identifying with the sins of Israel and providing a way for God’s salvation to reach the world. Christ entered into that suffering willingly and with full knowledge of the consequences; he was later vindicated by God; and he was given final authority to reign over all of creation (Phil 2:9-11). We are hard pressed here to prove any wrongdoing on God’s part under such circumstances.
Of course, this picture of God’s redemptive action can be a difficult pill to swallow. God does not merely use the actions of evil people once they occur; he knowingly and purposefully allows evil to take place for the sake of his redemptive aims – which is a more radical claim, indeed. But if critics are going to reject the DPS because it relies on this picture of redemptive activity, they are going to have to reject much more than the doctrine. They’ll have to remove God from any purposeful involvement in the events of Christ’s death, and that will be difficult to square with the New Testament documents.