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The Penal Theory

a.k.a. the Penal Substitution Theory

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The Penal Theory

This is a variation of the Satisfaction Theory which had been proposed by Anselem, circa 1100 CE. The Penal Theory of the atonement (a.k.a. the Penal Subsitution Theory) was held by Martin Luther (1483 - 1546 CE), John Calvin (1509 - 1564 CE), and other leading theologians of the Reformation. The theory states that God's mercy replaces his wrath after the infinite sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. This theory is commonly accepted today by fundamentalist other evangelical Protestant denominations, and some mainline faith groups.

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The Penal Theory is a modification of Anselem's Satisfaction Theory. He had based the latter from the feudal culture in which he lived. In his era, human sin was seen as an insult to God's honor that he cannot simply overlook. Just as an insult by a serf against the honor of his lord demanded satisfaction, God also required compensation for the dishonor created by human sin. The only suitable action to offset the dishonor was the death of a perfectly sinless god-man who represented all of humanity.

In the Penal Theory, the effect of human sin is not seen as dishonoring God. Rather it is perceived as incurring a debt to God which requires repayment. "...a debt is incurred and punishment is deserved." 1 God is viewed as holy and perfect. He established an impossibly high standard of holiness and perfection for humanity. When we fail to live up to that standard, a sin debt to God is created. Such sin inevitably happens; all have fallen short.

The punishment for sin must involve the shedding of blood. In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), this was the ritual sacrifice of animals; in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) it involves the ritual sacrifice of a human -- Jesus. God is apparently unwilling or incapable of forgiving sin in any other way. Consider the following biblical references:

bullet Hebrews 9:22: "And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission" of sin. King James Version
bullet Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

The Penal Theory is thus based on the need for justice. It views sin as a matter of breaking God's law, not insulting God's honor. According to Michael Martin's description of this theory: "Justice demands that sin must be punished and full compensation must be given to the injured parties. Thus, the attitude of a just God toward sinners can only be that of wrath. Only Jesus, the Son of God, who as a man represents sinful humanity, can take on the infinite sins of the world and can be punished for these sins."

The Penal Theory expanded on Anselem's belief that Yeshua of Nazareth's (Jesus Christ's) passive obedience to God by living a sinless life, and by voluntarily dying on the cross made the atonement possible. "Simply put, God requires that humankind obey an immutable law in a life of perfect, perpetual obedience. The purpose of the Mosaic law....was to prove humanity's inability to live up to these requirements. By perfectly keeping the law, Jesus earned salvation. By suffering our punishment in our place, Jesus extends this salvation to us.2

Although humans still inevitably sin, it is imputed to Jesus, leaving believers righteous, free of sin, and destined to attain Heaven after death.

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Calvin and "the elect:"

Calvin was the founder of the Reformed branch of Protestant Christianity, including today's Presbyterian Church (USA) and other reform denominations. A key component of Calvin's theology was the "utterly sinful nature of humanity." 3 Calvin's term for this state is "total hereditary depravity." By this, he did not mean that humans were as depraved as it was possible for them to be. He meant that every aspect of their personality was, to a degree, depraved. He taught that everyone inherits the guilt of original sin from Adam and Eve at birth. This causes them to be "lost in sin...hostile to God, slaves to Satan and servants to sin." 4,5

Calvin and a few other Reformation theologians linked the concept of the elect and of predestination to the Penal Theory. They taught that God selected a small percentage of people before their birth to form "the elect." They were not chosen because of any special achievement on their part. They did not deserve to be selected. They were chosen by a process known only to God. Philosopher Michael Martin explains: "Those who have faith in Jesus and are, therefore, saved are the elect of God. Their faith comes as a gift of God through the Holy Spirit...those who are saved through this gift were predestined to have this gift bestowed upon them." 3 Thus, Yeshua died, not to repay the debt for the sins of all humanity, but only for the sins of the elect.

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Criticisms which have been made of the Penal Substitution Theory:

Most of the criticisms of the regular Satisfaction Theory apply here as well, with minimal modification:

bullet The theory assumes that because God is infinite, even a single, minor human sin incurs an infinite debt to God. It can only be cancelled by an infinite satisfaction through the death of Yeshua, the sinless god-man. But, using the same logic, a single, minor positive act by a human would bring about an infinite amount of good. But that is irrational, because only God can bring about an infinite good. Thus, one might conclude that atonement does not require infinite satisfaction such as could only be achieved by Yeshua's death.
bullet "Justice surely demands that at the very least the guilty party -- [i.e. humanity] -- provide as much of the satisfaction as he or she can." 3 But in the Satisfaction and Penal theories, humans contribute nothing and Yeshua everything. The torture-death of Yeshua and the zero contribution of humanity seems unjust and unfair in comparison.
bullet The belief that God's need for justice is so strong that he would demand as satisfaction the death of an innocent person "assumes a view of God's moral nature that many modern readers would reject." 3 Being omnipotent, God could find some other way that atonement could be attained.
bullet One of Jesus' main messages was that we must love our enemies, forgive those who injure us, and overcome evil with good. These teachings appear to be totally opposite to God's demand for blood and a torture death of an innocent man. Fr. John Mabry views the Penal Theory as " oppressive theology, and inauthentic in light of Jesus' teaching." He asks: "how can a God who in Jesus told us that we were never to exact vengeance, that we were to forgive each other perpetually without retribution, demand of us behavior that God 'himself' is unwilling or unable to perform?...why can God not simply forgive as we are instructed to do, rather than mandating that some 'innocent and spotless victim' bear the brunt of 'his' reservoir of wrath? The ability of humans to do this when God will not or cannot logically casts humanity as God's moral superior. This is of course absurd!" 6
bullet Presumably, the Penal Theory would require that any new human sins committed after Yeshua's execution would also have to be punished. They would necessitate the ritual sacrifice of a second God-Man. Thus, multiple incarnations and executions would be required over the millennia of human history since the first century CE. An indefinite number of human sacrifices might eventually be required.
bullet It seems logical that if the death of Yeshua satisfied God's need for justice, and if humans made no contribution to the process, then salvation and atonement should be granted to everyone -- to Christian believers and unbelievers alike. It is unclear why  only those individuals who trust Yeshua as Lord and Savior will attains salvation, atonement, and Heaven. To send those who have not trusted Yeshua to Hell for eternal punishment is to penalize a person for committing a thought crime -- a despicable act in today's world.

In addition, one might argue that the essence of the Penal Theory is that violence, suffering, and punishment of one or more innocent people is justified, if it produces beneficial results for other people. Many find this concept offensive and profoundly immoral. They regard punishment of the innocent for the sake of others to be inherently evil. It is this concept that partly justified the Burning Times (the extermination of Witches during the Middle Ages and Renaissance), the Armenian genocide, the Nazi Holocaust, the genocide in Bosnia Herzegovina by Serbian Orthodox Christians, and other recent genocides religious oppression, and mass crimes against humanity.

Some of the criticisms of other violence-based atonement theories may apply here as well:

bullet The Penal theory suffers from an inconsistency in Christian teaching:
bullet The church has traditionally taught that a person is responsible for their own sin, and that a person cannot morally be punished for the sins of others. Of course, they deviated from this teaching, as when they taught as late as the mid-20th century that modern-day Jews were responsible for the execution of Yahweh. But in general, people were not held responsible for the sins of others.
bullet The church also teaches that the default destination for Adam, Eve, their children, their grandchildren and their descendents to the present time, after death, will be Hell because of the first parents' transgression in the Garden of Eden when they ate the forbidden fruit. All will be tortured in Hell, unless they are saved through sacraments and/or good works and/or faith. The sin of Eve and Adam were imputed to the entire human race.
bullet Most liberal and many mainline Christians believe that Adam and Eve were mythical humans. That is, they didn't exist as actual people. Without that belief, this atonement theory collapses.
bullet Some Christians note that Eve and Adam were created as proto-humans without a sense of sin. After all, they ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to develop a knowledge of good and evil. Being without a moral sense, they cannot be responsible for eating the fruit any more than an animal might. Again, if the first parents are not responsible for eating the fruit, the atonement theory collapses.


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  1. Kevin Davidson, "The Atonement," at:
  2. Keith Johnson "Major views of the Atonement," at:
  3. Michael Martin, "The Case Against Christianity," Temple University Press, (1991), Page 257 to 258. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store.
  4. Allan McNabb, "Calvinism," (2000), at: You may need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:
  5. "The Book of Confessions," Presbyterian Church (USA). Cited in Ref. 2.
  6. John Mabry, "How the doctrine of vicarious atonement...," at:

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Copyright 2004 & 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-APR-12
Latest update: 2005-APR-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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