The penal view (or PV) of the atonement claims that Christ willingly endured divine punishment so that Israel (and the rest of the world) could be reconciled to God. As Israel’s representative, Christ’s penal suffering took the form of: (1) identifying with the plight of his people at the hands of Roman oppressors, (2) dying for Israel’s past sins which had not been completely atoned for, (3) enduring the divine curses promised to Israel for breaking their covenant with God, and (4) taking the brunt of the impending divine judgment which his people could have escaped, had they accepted him as king (see Rom 3:25; Gal 3:10-13; Luke 13:34 and contexts).
Critics of PV often object that the theory seriously misunderstands the nature of human sin, punishment, and divine wrath. Sin, they argue, has no legal status as an offense that might incur a moral debt; rather, sin is more like dysfunction within an organism – like a virus that needs to be purged so that it won’t infect our relationship with God. Thus, when the bible says, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), death is not to be construed as a divine punishment inflicted from the outside, but a natural consequences of sin. These critics also argue that the natural consequences of an immoral action cannot be retributive in nature because they are inherent to act itself, not inflicted externally. Death happens because we have broken ties with God and lived independently of Him, not as ‘pay back’ for our wrong actions.
One corollary of this criticism is that the wrath of God gets reinterpreted as well. The ‘wrath of God’ is not an attribute of God per se but a description of the built in consequences of sin. Wrath is what happens when we relate in God (and each other) in a dysfunctional way. It isn’t God’s expression of anger in inflicting punishment.
Now, when sin is stripped of its legal dimension, when punishment is replaced with natural consequences, and when wrath is viewed as a description of God letting us reap what we sow, there is little room left for the idea that God inflicted retributive punishment on Christ to pay a moral debt. The PV seems to be in trouble when we reconfigure the concepts of sin, punishment, and wrath in this way.
Unfortunately, the charge that PV rests on a misunderstanding of these concepts is flawed on several counts. First, sin is organic in the way it corrupts and distorts relationship, but sin is more than that. It is fallacy to reduce sin to mere relational dysfunction. It is both legal and relational.
Second, retribution can also be inherent to the consequences of an action. As Garry Williams notes, “In a human system of justice we cannot re-design the natural order so that our acts have internal consequences. But with God the creator, it is quite possible for a punishment to be intrinsic, to follow from an act, and yet still to be retributive in character.” According to Williams, the critics fail to recognize the possibility that God has created (and now sustains) a system of natural consequences that returns ill on the wrongdoer, a system in which the end result of wrong actions and attitudes is broken relationship, alienation, and finally death. God may not intervene into this system from the outside to inflict punishment on wrongdoing, but the natural consequences are still a form of retributive punishment because God set up the system in the first place. It seems, then, that the critics have set up a false dichotomy between the consequences of sin and its punishment.
Third, while some punishments for sin can be explained in non-retributive terms, not all instances can be explained away so easily. The author of the Book of Hebrews, in chapter 10:28-29, argues that the punishment of those who trample on God’s Son and profane his blood is more severe than the death penalty inflicted upon those who rejected the Mosaic covenant. This punishment is expressed in terms of God’s initiative in avenging and paying back the wrongdoer, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (cf. Deut 32:25).
Fourth, it is difficult to square the above interpretation of ‘wrath’ with all the biblical facts. The Bible does portray God’s wrath as an attitude He expresses in response to human disobedience. Heb 3:9-11 says, “…your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’” The Greek word for anger (ŏrgē) denotes a ‘violent passion’ or ‘abhorrence’ which is excited within a person, suggesting that God’s anger in forbidding the Jews’ entrance into the promised land was a response to their disobedience, both on the level of action and emotion.
The same conclusion is supported by other passages like Romans 2:5-9, where God acts as the agent of final judgment, bringing anger, wrath, trouble and distress upon evildoers who refuse to repent. This passage cannot be reduced to previous examples (vs. 24, 26, and 28) of God “giving them over” to the consequences of their actions.
Fifth, this objection is often motivated by a false caricature of love. The critics seem to think we must choose between a loving God and a wrathful ogre who needs to have his anger placated by inflicting harm. When we accept this dichotomy, we are supposedly left with no other option but to reject PV in favor of the love of God. But these aren’t the only options. Is the love of God incompatible with any expression of anger on his part? It seems not.
In fact, the love of God makes sense of his wrathful reaction to sin. If love gets angry at whatever destroys relationship, then God is rightfully angry when human beings do things to destroy themselves, each other, and their relationship to Him.
A God who does not get angry at sin is not a loving God, but an indifferent deity, unmoved by the seriousness of human depravity. We must remember that the bible portrays God as both loving and wrathful – he is desires to forgive, initiates relationship, and offers grace when we don’t deserve it, but he also gets angry when sin threatens to destroy his creation.
It is also important to remember that His righteous anger is not arbitrary, uncontrolled, inordinate, intemperate, impulsive, or disproportionate to an offense. These are false caricatures that result from projecting our own bad experiences of human anger onto God. Humans may express anger to manipulate or engage in a power-play, but God never does this.
Sixth, we must be careful not to equate PV with the mistaken view that if Christ was punished on the cross, then God was angry at him. This is simply untrue. The idea that God was angry with his sinless Son, the one with whom he was well-pleased and whose life was lived in perfect obedience is neither taught in Scripture nor implied by the doctrine of penal substitution.
We must be aware of this very subtle yet important point: When an innocent substitute is punished for the guilt of another, the anger of the victim is still directed at the offender, even if the punishment is being endured by someone else. We run into trouble when we use the word “punishment” because we normally equate the person being punished with the person who has angered the victim, but this not the case when penal substitution is involved.
Perhaps, then, we should use the word “penalty” instead of punishment. Christ took our penalty and therefore experienced the consequences of God’s wrath, but he was not being punished in the sense that God was angry with him. As P.T. Forsyth explains, “There is a penalty and a curse for sin; and Christ consented to enter that region. It is impossible for us to say that God was angry with Christ; but still Christ entered the wrath of God. You can therefore say that although Christ was not punished by God, he bore God’s penalty upon sin. To say that Christ was punished by God who was always well-pleased with Him is an outrageous thing. Calvin himself repudiates the idea.” In conclusion, the doctrine of PV implies that Christ turned God’s anger away by bearing the penalty for our sin, not that God was literally angry with him.
Seventh, when it comes to “propitiation” (which refers to averting, turning away, or setting aside someone’s anger) it is easy to get the impression that the Father was unwilling to forgive sinners and that the Son had to persuade him by offering his life as a substitute for our own. Here we have the picture of a moralistic Father who is at cross purposes with his Son, and the doctrine of PV is in trouble if it suggests such a picture.
But as D.A. Carson writes, it is not “right to imagine in this context that Christ is well-disposed toward guilty sinners, while his Father is simply at enmity with them until Christ intervenes and by his own sacrifice to make his Father favorable or propitious”. This picture of God is false because it reduces the Father to an object of propitiation as if he was ill-disposed to us and has to be made well-disposed.
Actually, He is also the subject of propitiation. Because of his great love and generosity (Rom 8:31-32; John 3:16); his willingness to extend mercy and grace (Luke 15:11-32), and his desire to reconcile with us (2 Cor 5:18-19), the Father collaborated with the Son to provide a worthy sacrifice which would satisfy the demands of justice and turn away is right anger against sin. There really is no contradiction here. There is no need for the Son to make the Father well-dispose toward us.
In conclusion, for the above seven reasons, I see no basis for rejecting the penal view of atonement on the grounds that it misunderstands divine punishment, wrath, and human sin.
 I am thankful to Graham McFarlane for his lectures on the Atonement, given at L’Abri Fellowship in August 2003, which helped me to formulate this objection. I in no way claim that my formulation accurately represents his position.
 Williams (2005) summarizes this point succinctly when he says, “if God created the process, then God is involved, and it is his process. The interposition of a mediating natural process between God and the sinner which brings about the punishment does not remove the retributive role of God, it simply shifts its imposition” (p.4).
I am indebted to I. Howard Marshall for the following response. See his article The Theology of the Atonement. Presented at the “Symposium on the Atonement” held by the Evangelical Alliance at the London School of Theology in July 2005, pp.3-7.
 P.T. Forsyth The Work of Christ (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910), p.147, quoted in Marshall (2005), p? John Calvin said “We do not, however, insinuate that God was ever hostile to him or angry with him [i.e. Christ].” See his Institutes of the Christian Religion 2:16:11 Trans. H. Beveridge (London: J. Clarke, 1953), p.444, quoted by Marshall p. 16.
 D.A. Carson’s “Atonement in Romans 3:21-26.” The Glory of the Atonement Eds. Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 2004), p.131.
 Some argue that the images of Christ’s intercession (Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25) and advocacy of us (1 John 2:1) do imply that God must be persuaded to forgive us, as if Christ is placating a vengeful and unloving God. These images do emphasize the holiness and justice of God but they are not incompatible with his love and desire to forgive. We mustn’t choose between God’s love and his justice. Both were at work in the Cross.