William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854. Detail.

This is the third in a series of four on ‘Did Jesus die for our sins?’ The first is here and the second is here . This one is about the idea that Jesus died as a substitute for the punishment the human race deserves for its sinfulness. This is the theory most popular among conservative evangelicals today.

In the ancient world most people believed the forces making life possible were gods. So when things go wrong – plagues, floods, droughts – what are the gods up to? They must be angry. Somebody must have offended them. There were priests who were experts at finding out which god was offended and how to make amends. Sometimes they said that the gods demanded the death of the guilty people, but often a god would accept an animal as a substitute. So by killing the animal you calm down the god’s anger and re-establish a positive relationship. That’s substitutionary sacrifice.

The early Christians sometimes used the language of these guilt offerings as a way to describe the death of Jesus as a sacrifice. New Testament texts are Romans 4:25 and 5:8-9 and Hebrews 9:6-15.

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (1097) analysed it in more detail. In his day feudal rulers saw it as their task to punish breaches of the law. The idea was that crime upsets the moral balance and punishment puts it right. Retribution.

Anselm thought God was responsible for punishing sinners in a similar way. But sin against God is a far greater offence than any other sin. To be forgiven we must repay what we owe, but we owe too much so we cannot. Anselm explains:

There is no-one… who can make this satisfaction except God himself… But no-one ought to make it except man; otherwise man does not make satisfaction.

So what we need is someone who is both human and divine, and willing to suffer on our behalf. Jesus! Divine justice is satisfied by the substitution of Christ.

After Anselm this became the dominant account of the Atonement in the West. Influential exponents were John Calvin in the 16th century, Emil Brunner in the early twentieth century, and more recently John Stott, Jim Packer and Tom Wright.

Why does it make sense to punish Christ for other people’s sins? Supporters of this theory stress the seriousness of sin. Sin is rebellion against God, hostility to God. They like to quote Brunner’s classic text The Mediator (1934):

Sin against God is an attack on God’s honour. Sin is rebellion against the Lord. But God cannot permit His honour to be attacked; for His honour is His Godhead, His sovereign majesty. God would cease to be God if He could permit His honour to be attacked. The law of His Divine Being, on which all the law and order in the world is based, the fundamental order of the world, the logical and reliable character of all that happens, the validity of all standards, of all intellectual, legal, and moral order, the Law itself, in its most profound meaning, demands the divine reaction, the divine concern about sin, the divine resistance to this rebellion and this breach of order. The holiness of God requires the annihilation of the will which resists God. God is not mocked. If this were not true, then there would be no seriousness in the world at all; there would be no meaning in anything, no order, no stability, the world order would fall into ruins; chaos and desolation would be supreme. All order in the world depends upon the inviolability of His honour, upon the certitude that those who rebel against Him will be punished (pp. 444-5).

John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, published in 1986, states that what sent Jesus to the cross

was neither the greed of Judas, nor the envy of the priests, nor the vacillating cowardice of Pilate, but our own greed, envy, cowardice and other sins, and Christ’s resolve in love and mercy to bear their judgment and so put them away. It is impossible for us to face Christ’s cross with integrity and not to feel ashamed of ourselves (p. 83).

Student Christian Unions today usually sign up to the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, and sign on the dotted line to a doctrinal statement which includes this:

Sinful human beings [i.e. ‘the whole of humankind’] are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God.

Despite all this self-sacrifice by Christ, it doesn’t always work. In fact, it usually doesn’t work. Following the teaching of Augustine, substitutionists usually argue that the vast majority of the human race do get punished eternally in Hell. Jim Packer’s Knowing God (1973) explains:

Before hell is an experience inflicted by God, it is a state for which man himself opts, by retreating from the light which God shines in his heart to lead him to Himself… In the last analysis, all that God does subsequently in judicial action towards the unbeliever, whether in this life or beyond it, is to show him, and lead him into, the full implications of the choice he has made. (p. 169.)


The idea that God cannot just forgive but must demand punishment goes against a lot of other Christian teaching.

Secondly, there is a kind of dualism. Brunner states:

Only where God is known as One who “outside Christ” is really angry, but “in Christ” is “pure love,” is faith real decision and the Atonement a real turning-point (p. 519, quoted with approval by Stott, p. 130).

Tom Wright uses a different argument:

God’s wrath is the necessary outworking of his love. If God does not hate slavery, child-abuse, and the exploitation of the poor; and if God is not determined to condemn them and rid his world of them, then God is neither good nor loving (Church Times, 27 April 2007, p.12).

Thirdly, the beneficiaries. It is an important principle that Christ’s salvation is a free gift to us; there is nothing left for us to pay. Yet the overwhelming majority of humanity are due for eternal damnation in Hell. The idea that we choose it is simply not true. We all commit sins sometimes, but we have no intention to rebel against God, least of all the people who don’t believe God exists at all.

Finally, a criticism which I shall call a Windows Update, as in ‘Do not turn off your computer. Installing update 2 of 2’. According to the theory God originally intended humanity to be perfect and we are not. Update 1 was when he wiped out the whole human race except for Noah and his family. Update 2 is substituting Christ for the punishment we deserve.

The need for an update means the original version didn’t work out the way God intended. This implies a failure in God’s planning. Ultimately it was God’s fault.

The fact that it’s an update to a faulty original raises other questions. One is whether there are people on other planets. Many Christians have argued that there can’t be any, because Christ would have had to die for them too, and he can’t have done it on two different planets.

The theory speaks to a punitive culture. Punishment is the centre of attention. Punishment has been imposed – lots of it – but there is still lots more to come. To me it describes a god I cannot believe in. A rather silly one. God created us intending us to be perfect. It didn’t turn out like that. Instead of just correcting the error, God got angry and insisted that divine justice cannot cope without punishment. This demand for justice then gets ‘satisfied’ by being imposed on an innocent victim. But for most people the substitution doesn’t work anyway, and eternal torture in Hell awaits us.

Does God, we wonder, also have an only-begotten Daughter who can make a better job of it?