The Penal View of the Atonement
Atonement is the action taken by a wrongdoer to undo his guilty status for the purpose of restoring a broken relationship. The action usually involves repentance for the wrong done and the provision of compensation for the harm. When the victim of the harm willingly accepts the offer of atonement, the acceptance is called “forgiveness”.
For orthodox Christians, the doctrine of the atonement is at the core of their faith. The doctrine states that human beings have seriously wronged God and are unable to make adequate atonement through their own efforts. As a result, they stand guilty before God unless or until a worthy representative offers atonement to God of their behalf. Christian’s claim that Jesus was such a representative because he lived a perfectly obedient life and gave it to God as a worthy sacrifice by dying in our place. God forgives our guilt when we repent of our wrongs and identify with the sacrifice Christ made on our behalf.
In addition to viewing atonement as a sacrifice, the New Testament also teaches that Christ suffered a penalty. Passages such as Rom 3:25 and Gal 3:10-13 bear this out when read in their proper contexts. Not only did Christ offer his life as a valuable gift to God, but he willingly bore the penalty of death incurred by human beings for their wrongdoing. This view of the atonement is known as “penal substitution.”
Denying the Penal View to Save the Trinity
Some critics deny reject the biblical evidence for the penal view because it appears to conflict with the doctrine of the Trinity. To understand why, we will need to embark on a brief detour to unpack this doctrine a bit.
According to the Church Creeds, for God to be Triune means that God the Father is the eternal source of two distinct Persons who participate in His divine nature – the eternal Son and Spirit. Their dependence on the Father is not due to his will, nor do they have a beginning. Rather, their existence flows directly from His loving nature – which is to share His divine love with other Persons. The Son and Spirit participate in the Father’s divine nature derivatively, but are nevertheless essential to the Godhead because the Father’s love is most perfectly expressed by being given to the other Persons. Thus, if God is Triune, then the Father, Son, and Spirit are eternally united in love and cannot be alienated from each other.
At this point, an apparent contradiction between the Trinity and the Penal View of atonement begins to emerge. On the penal view, the Son suffered the human penalty for sin, which involved death and alienation from God (Rom 6:23). But therein lay the dilemma: if the Trinity is to remain intact, the Son cannot be separated from the Father as the Penal View requires. Therefore, either the Trinity or the Penal View must go. Both cannot be true.
But are we really forced to choose between these two doctrines? As I see it, a bit of theological reflection proves otherwise. The alleged contradiction rests on the assumption that death (resulting from human sin) must lead to separation from God. But while that assumption is true for virtually every human being, it was not true of Christ. Why not? Because death only separates us from God if we cannot pay for the sin we carry. Tragically, none of us can pay for the sins we carry (let alone the sins of others!) and so death threatens to separate us from God.
However, Christ was not like us in that respect. He lived a life of perfect obedience to God, and the merit he earned before God (by giving his life as a worthy sacrifice to God) was more than sufficient to pay for the sins that he willingly carried for us. Because Christ’s meritorious life was adequate payment for the sins he carried (i.e. our sins), his death did not separate him from his Father. On the contrary, the love of his Father enabled him to endure the death that sin required!
Thus, I see no good reason to think that the penalty Christ endured on the cross required that he be alienated from the Triune love. There was no “rift” in the Trinity when Jesus died on the cross.
A Notorious Objection
Now, I can imagine some critics objecting that I have ignored a crucial passage in the New Testament that weights negatively upon my case. They will argue that Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) in Matthew 27:46 is proof that he was separated from his Father in the final moments of his crucifixion. Doesn’t this pose difficulties for the Trinity?
Again, I see no basis for that conclusion. With respect Matthew 27:46, Jesus was actually quoting from the prayer of the righteous servant in Psalm 22. Taken in context, this Old Testament passage actually refers to God’s faithfulness to His righteous servant in times of great distress – not to his being abandoned! The Psalm does convey feelings of being forsaken, but the servant himself appeals to God’s good character as the basis for trusting that he is not in fact forsaken. Therefore, this verse does not support the claim that Jesus was momentarily separated from his Father on the cross.
To conclude, I don’t see any good reason for thinking that Jesus had to experience alienation from God in order to bear the penalty for human sin. Separation from God only looms for those unable to atone for the sins they carry. But since Christ’s meritorious life was more than sufficient to pay for the sins he carried (i.e. the sins of all humanity), his death did not threaten to separate him from his Father.
 Technically, this statement is not correct because there are other reasons why sin and death would result in separation from God. For example, the ongoing corrupting effects of sin in one’s life make one increasingly incapable to relating to God. If left unchecked for too long, this decline into moral decadence becomes an irreversible state of character. Needless to say, if Christ lived a sinless life, then this reason could not be a basis thinking he might experience separation from God.
 If Jesus’ cry of dereliction was the moment of his separation from God, then it hardly makes sense that he would then address his Father by praying, “into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). But that is only a marginal point.