In the previous thread, Matt started up a defense of the penal-substitution theory, so I am putting up this post as a place to discuss it in more detail.
The central idea of this theory is that every sin must be punished due to the unyielding demands of justice. Sin is a violation of the law and justice is the enforcer of the law. God cannot simply forgive us of our sins without punishment because to do so would violate the law of justice, and as we all know, “the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:13).
The fundamental problem with the penal-substitution theory is that is says justice can be satisfied by an injustice. No one will quarrel with the idea that sinners deserve punishment. However, I can think of nothing more inherently unjust than punishing someone who is innocent for something they didn’t do. But this, of course, is exactly what the penal-substitution theory says the atonement is about.
It is important to remember that the injustice I am referring to is not the unfairness to Christ. By all accounts Jesus volunteered to be our Savior, which accounts for the unfairness to him. All the same, it is still unjust to punish an innocent person for what they did not do. They may volunteer to be punished, but such punishment could never have been demanded by justice. Furthermore, the whole arrangement being proposed is unjust. Not only is it unjust to punish an innocent person, it is also unjust to forgive a guilty person based on the suffering of someone else. The idea that guilt can be transferred from one person to another does violence to our notion of justice. If the problem of sin is that justice must be satisfied, the penal-substitution theory has an odd approach because everything it proposes as a solution runs directly counter to our notion of justice.
The Debt Analogy
Now, 400 years before the penal-substitution theory was being formulated, Anselm had come up with a brilliant idea of framing the atonement in terms of a debt. His idea is often used in conjunction with penal-substitution by using debt as an analogy for the demands of justice. The idea is to mitigate against the accusations of injustice. Whereas punishing someone for another person’s sins seems unjust, there is nothing unjust about one person paying another person’s debt. Mormons are familiar with this approach from the popular parable “The Mediator.”
The parable is the story of a youth who takes on a debt that he is eventually unable to repay. When the time has expired and the debt comes due, he comes before the creditor, who demands payment. Because the boy is unable to pay the debt, he begs for mercy. The creditor, on the other hand, demands justice-he wants to be paid. It appears the mercy and justice cannot both be served. If mercy is shown, the creditor will get no justice and he will be out the money. On the other hand, if justice prevails, then there is no mercy. The impasse is resolved when a wealthy friend of the boy has pity on his situation and voluntarily pays the debt. Commentary at the end explains that this is how mercy can be reconciled with justice. The boy got mercy and the creditor got justice because of a third party who was willing and able to pay the debt.
At first glance, the parable seems to do pretty well. It explains why God cannot simply forgive by pointing to the creditor who would not get the money he was rightly owed. It does not strike us as unjust because in a financial arrangement there is no injustice in one person paying another person’s debt. But this is where we can detect the sleight of hand. The debt analogy is just that, an analogy. As such, it represents things in the actual world. Both solutions become problematic when we try to map the analogy back to the real world. As we have already discussed, the debt is supposed to represent the punishment required for sin, and while debts can be paid justly by another, punishment cannot.
Who is the Creditor?
The second problem is that there seems to be no real-life analog to the creditor. It does not work to make Satan the creditor because he has no legitimate claim over humankind when they sin.
It does not work to make God the creditor for a few reasons. First, it makes no sense that God would require something of us (the debt) which we were not capable of paying. Second, it makes no sense that for payment of that debt he would accept the suffering of his only obedient Son. Third, our answer becomes circular. First we asked why God could not simply forgive. It makes no sense to turn around and answer that it is because God won’t allow it. The whole point was to explain why not so this begs the question. Forth, it also destroys the notion of forgiveness. Forgiveness of a debt is when you don’t require payment. Saying that God only forgives the debt when he is fully paid is the same as saying God does not forgive.
It makes no sense to say that justice is the creditor because now justice is back in the position of demanding an injustice.
So, there you have it. While I haven’t addressed all of the problems with the penal-substitution theory, this is a good start. I’m sure we’ll address several more before we’re done arguing about it.