I know of three things today which have no answer: the Cleveland Cavaliers, Roland Burris, and those who oppose penal substitution. The first two are self-explanatory if you are following the news, but I should explain the third.
It hit me recently that those who deny penal substitution are unable to explain exactly how the cross accomplishes our salvation. You can see this for yourself if you read the quotes below from three diverse theologians. Channing is a Unitarian, Boyd holds to Christus Victor (the best theory for the big picture but empty without penal substitution), and Jones is really popular with the kids.
These quotes come from a sermon, a chapter, and a blogpost in which each theologian either strongly criticizes (Jones) or outright denies penal substitution (Channing and Boyd). I include bibliographical information in case you want to check this out for yourself. For the sake of space I have only included the paragraphs where they attempted to explain precisely what happened on the cross.
Their inability to explain how the atonement works does not prove that penal substitution is true (Scripture does that), but it does demonstrate that those who deny penal substitution are left with a large hole in the middle of the atonement.
1. William E. Channing, “Unitarian Christianity,” in The Works of William E. Channing (1882; reprint, New York: Burt Franklin, 1970), 378: “We have no desire to conceal the fact that a difference of opinion exists among us in regard to an interesting part of Christ’s mediation,–I mean, in regard to the precise influence of his death on our forgiveness. …Many of us…think that the Scriptures ascribe the remission of sins to Christ’s death with an emphasis so peculiar that we ought to consider this event as having a special influence in removing punishment, though the Scriptures may not reveal the way in which it contributes to this end.”
2. Greg Boyd, “Christus Victor View,” in The Nature of the Atonement, ed. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (InterVarsity, 2006), 37: “Obviously, this account leaves unanswered a number of questions we might like answered. E.g., precisely how did Calvary and the resurrection defeat the powers? In my estimation, the ancient Christus Victor models of the atonement…became incredulous precisely because they too vigorously pressed for details. …But at the end of the day we must humbly acknowledge that our understanding is severely limited.”
3. Tony Jones, “Why Jesus Died,” at http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2009/04/why-jesus-died.html: “Some people today may find it compelling that some Great Cosmic Transaction took place on that day 1,980 years ago, that God’s wrath burned against his son instead of against me. I find that version of atonement theory neither intellectually compelling, spiritually compelling, nor in keeping with the biblical narrative.”
“Instead, Jesus [sic] death offers life because in Christianity, and in Christianity alone, the God and Creator of the universe deigned to become human, to be tempted, to reach out to those who had been de-humanized and restore their humanity, and ultimately to die in solidarity with every one of us. Yes, he was a sacrifice. Yes, he was ‘sinless.’ But thank God, Jesus was also human.”
“The hope he offers is that, by dying on that cross, the eternal Trinity became forever bound to my humanity. The God of the universe identified with me, and I have the opportunity to identify with him. Today, and every day, I hang with him on that cross.”