The Lie Behind Penal Substitution and Divine Satisfaction

A way of illustrating how sin functions through a lie is to use the theories of divine satisfaction and penal substitution as a case in point (a singular illustration) of the lie.  That is, these theories of atonement, I would argue, simply offer up the universal deception of sin under the guise of salvation.  Penal substitution and divine satisfaction do what Paul depicts sin as always doing – presume there is life in the law, that suffering and death are redemptive, and that death is an absolute.  Paul’s picture of the fallen Subject is one in which the law (the law of the mind) is presumed to provide life, and death and suffering, under the guise of law, are continually taken up as the law of sin and death.  Three things come together in this understanding: the law as the will to power (to obtain life and being); desire and suffering of and for the ego or “I” (the idol or image); and the production of death confused with life.  In Paul’s picture this is the dynamic within every fallen Subject.  Likewise, the logic of every form of false religion is built upon these three pillars; the immutability of the law setting up the absolute nature of death which makes suffering and death a form of redemption. The gods of paganism require penalty and payment so that law and order are maintained. The good Buddhist or Hindu recognizes that there is a cosmic law at work (karma or destiny) which must be obeyed, that asceticism or relinquishing of life and self is the means of salvation, and that death is the doorway into this salvation.  Both Anselm of Canterbury and John Calvin presume that law is the economy determining the nature of salvation and this salvation requires eternal payment – the death of Christ. If penal substitution and divine satisfaction are a repetition of the problem it is a peculiarly blasphemous repetition as it is at the same time a displacement of the orthodox Christian answer.

Though the logic of these three pillars flow from the (pagan) notion of absolute law (a closed system subject to eternal laws), the notion that death is absolute seems to be most clearly contradictory to a Christian understanding, yet this reification and absolutizing of death is a necessary part of divine satisfaction and penal substitution.  This may be the most controversial and at the same time the most damning aspect to penal substitution and divine satisfaction.  So, I will begin by showing that by making the death of Christ an inter-Trinitarian exchange, alienation, death, and separation, are made absolute.

John Stott, in representing penal substitution, argues that Christ’s cry of dereliction on the cross indicates that “an actual and dreadful separation took place between the Father and the Son.”  This separation occurs, according to penal substitution, because Jesus’ is bearing the penalty for sin in place of humanity.  The Father’s justice requires this punishment so that he must “turn his back on” or “hide his face from” the sin-bearing Son.  The Trinity, in this picture, is necessarily made up of distinct and separable persons, such that the Father and Son can go their separate ways.  While the Son’s greatest desire, in this dark hour of separation, is for the Father’s presence (as he cries out), the Father must deny the Son his presence so as to maintain his own integrity.  Stott notes, that this separation of Father and Son is in direct contradiction to an orthodox understanding of the Trinity but he poses the notion that this contradiction is a paradox. Christ is made to bear final judgment on the cross and thus to endure eternal separation.  As Howard Marshal puts it, Christ bears “eternal exclusion” from God’s presence.

Penal substitution requires a literal, ontological (rather than metaphorical) separation within the Trinity (both Stott and Marshal argue).  The Father himself, along with the disciples, flees the scene or distances himself from it.  The mockers get it right, even God will not deliver Christ. In this understanding, death and separation are eternal and ontological.  In Jurgen Moltmann’s picture, following Hegel, death is a reality which God takes up into himself through the death of the Son.  The cross marks a deep division in God – the absence of the Father from the Son due to sin’s penalty – such that alienation, absence and death separate God from himself.

This reification of death – nothing made into an absolute something – (Paul’s depiction of idolatry – the idol is nothing but it is a nothing made divine) is the form that sin always takes (though it may manifest itself in an infinite variety of ways). Beyond idolatrous religion, or forms of Buddhism and philosophy in which the absolute is literally designated “nothing,” ideology in all of its forms (nationalism – the reification of the nation state, capitalism – the reification of capital, tribalism – the reification of the tribe, etc.) marks the same move.  The Apostle demonstrates that human subjectivity is itself grounded in the inner workings of a deception in which we would reify the self (as in Genesis, which Paul is echoing, the promise is that you will be like gods”).  Death is denied (“you won’t die”) as knowledge is reified and made absolute (“you will be like gods, knowing good and evil”).  This knowing or law (a law in which man is the final arbiter of ethics) is a means of being (according to the serpent and sin). To absolutize death as a part of atonement is to commit the ultimate tragic mistake of reading the problem as the solution and, in this case, of doing away with the solution of the cross. Christ defeats the law of sin and death he does not obey it or acquiesce to it.

Anselm, I would claim, is the first to take up the mode of the serpent or sin in his depiction of salvation. For Anselm, the will is the sight of sin and salvation, so that one can actualize himself through an act of the will.  In Anselm’s argument one is able to fuse memory and remembrance into the unbreakable bond of love but it is a bond which is purely interior to the individual. “To strive to give, therefore, expression to this impressed image; to strive to actualize, by an act of will, this, nature’s potential: such above all, is, in consequence the debt that rational creation owes its Creator” (M68, p. 73).  Sin creates an absence in the will, which is the force that would give “expression” to the “impressed image.” Will is the vital force that would take the basic equipment of the rational self, and if restored to its proper “rectitude,” could preserve a subject fully present to itself or able to completely remember itself and in rightly remembering itself encounter God. The self-identical self (one in which there is no division or alienation) should encounter God in a true self-identical willing as it is the will that animates and moves the entire human being. Salvation then, would aim at closing the gap in the will so that the will could properly will itself.  This strangely echoes Paul’s depiction of the striving of the fallen Subject.

There is a two-fold deception which Paul depicts which Anselm, then, seems to repeat as the truth. The poles of the deception are between the law (the law of the mind or will) and the “body” or the “flesh” or simply the ego.  The deception that sin works is in the orientation of the ego or “I” to the law as this law (will/power) is perceived, through the deception of sin, to be life-giving.  The law as life joined to the ego or “I” would impart life to the self.  The covetousness or desire which Paul describes is aimed at fusing these two contradictory registers (rightly remembering the self, according to Anselm): law/language/the work of the mind and the flesh/ego/“I”/image.  The former exists in the realm of symbols and speech and the later exists in the material, spectral realm.  The will contains the power of self-remembrance or self-production, it is the place of ethics, and it is the location of sin and salvation. The will then is simply another name for being, or the power to be, and one is able to be or to have life through rightly knowing. In other words, Anselm repeats Paul’s picture of the sinful deceived Subject and then offers a mode of salvation working through the lie of sin.

The deception is two-fold: there is the presumption that there is life in the law or the will to power (and this is the impetus behind fallen desire) and in pursuit of this life, death is continuously enacted or taken up. Death exists at both ends of the equation, in that there is no life in the law or through the will (or in language or the symbolic realm or in rightly remembering), and the self – “I,” ego, image, as object is incapable of life (this sort of image, idol, or tselem is dead by definition).  Paul makes it clear that “sin deceived me in regard to the law” and this deception is to presume that the law (the will to power) is absolute such that law and God (as the true source of life) are confused.  Anselm’s entire system is centered on a personality that is lacking in will or being and the point of the system is to integrate one more fully into obtaining it, which this reading takes to be a deeper integration into the sin system.

Penal substitution develops Anselm’s notion that the economy of salvation is worked out in and through the law – the subject of the next blog.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.