no answer

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  “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.”







19 responses to “no answer”

  1. “…Boyd holds to Christus Victor (the best theory for the big picture but empty without penal substitution),….

    This brings up a question. Have we historicaly so focused on penal substitution (P-S) that we lost sight of the big picture of Christus Victor (C-V)? In my previous church (reformed baptist), I beleive that bigger picture was over looked or at best barely mentioned in passing.

    In our current church I’ve seen more of a connection between P-S and C-V, but is our current experiance indicitive of how the wider “conservative” evangelical community is also regarding that connection?

    If C-V is empty without P-S, (and I agree it is,) how meaningful is penal substitution without Christus Victor?

    More to the point of your post, without P-S, I would think the only conclusions you could come to was that God the Father was a child abuser or that the cross was an unplanned interuption of Jesus’ ministry outside of God’s control.

    And it is true in the incarnation, Christ connected with our humanity but that again begs the question “Why?” What is Channing’s, Boyd’s, and Jones’ view of what “sin” is?


  2. I haven’t read a lot from these guys, so maybe I’m missing something, but they seem to chaff at the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross was, if not solely then at least primarily, to appease God’s wrath. If this is what they are speaking against, then I think they have a good point. I think the P-S and the C-V are both valid (though not necessarily equally) and necessary views of the atonement, but Christ’s work on the cross is much bigger than both.

    Did Christ come simply to satisfy the wrath of God or to restore all things to Himself–to overthrow the curse and redeem the entire created order (beginning with specific human beings)?

    In other words: Is it God’s wrath that must be appeased in order for Christ to restore all things to Himself? Or is it in restoring all things to Himself that God’s wrath is also appeased? What is it about P-S that speaks specifically to the overall purpose of God to reverse the curse, remove estrangement and restore Shalom?


    p.s. I like (and agree with) Jones’ language concerning “man” as not fully human apart from Christ. This is humanity’s problem as I see it, and I think the Scripture testifies that this is ultimately what Christ came to recover (regarding “man”, that is).

  3. mikewittmer


    I explain this in chapter 6 of DSB, but my short answer is that God’s wrath (PSA) is inextricably tied up with our sin and death (CV). So Christ could not atone for our sin and restore the world without appeasing God’s wrath. As Bill suggests, we need both PSA and CV, for neither makes much biblical sense without the other.

  4. I guess my issue with an emphasis on PSA (not against you and Bill) is that so many people reduce the purpose of Christ’s coming (and, therefore, His atoning work) to the appeasement of God’s wrath. I understand that this is part and parcel of the Gospel (if not the warp and woof of it); but in emphasizing PSA, the Gospel is sometimes seen as simply the Son satisfying the wrath of the Father. I can understand why some people are…uncomfortable with this doctrine. But, of course, I think that those who simply deny PSA are not understanding it biblically.

    I know your book speaks to these issues and I encourage people to read it. In fact, I’ve suggested to our Pastor that our church go through it in our mid-week study this Fall.

  5. Mike,

    Could it be that PSA is more important to a biblical perspective that holds to a pre-mil understanding of the biblical text?

    IF we hold a pre-mil perspective of the text, then salvation becomes all about ‘me’ as an individual and getting others to believe the same thing. From an a-mil perspective, something happened with the death and resurrection of Christ that began a greater change than individual salvation. The renewing of the kingdom has begun if we hold to this perspective.

    If we understand that the kingdom of God is now (but not yet fully realized), then we recognize that the cross and resurrection are not just about ‘us’ but also about Christ moving all of his creation toward what he originally intended. Thus, much more took place with the arrival of Christ than simply PSA.

    If I trust that the kingdom of God is at least partially at hand, then I don’t need to be overly concerned why Christ came and died and rose again for me personally. If I am called to live into a kingdom that currently exists, it is of utter importance that I live into that kingdom.

    I hold to the hope that the kingdom is at hand, and I am a servant of the king. I no longer need to know the CoDe that is necessary to escape this earth for a different reality. Thus, the matter of PSA is not primary to my understanding of living under the rule of the king. Recognizing the king as the ruler of the kingdom is of greater importance than what i think about PSA.


  6. Jonathan Shelley


    Seriously? You’re accusing Mike Wittmer of holding to a theology that it “is necessary to escape this earth for a different reality”? Have you never heard of Heaven is a Place on Earth? It’s a nice little book that combats this Gnostic dualism you are accusing Mike of.

    And, as you’re chewing on the fact that Mike has spent the last 6 years arguing against the idea that salvation is an escape to a different reality, you may also want to clarify your understanding of “pre-mill” and “a-mill” a bit. The position you describe above is not amillenialism but Pelagianism. As Mike so clearly points out in chapter 6 of DSB, the atonement is tied to our understanding of original sin – and the objections you raise about PSA are issues of sin, not eschatology. Just in case you’ve forgotten your history, Pelagius was condemned as a heretic in both the East and the West. I, for one, would appreciate it if you would stop spouting off your neo-Pelagian views and calling them biblical. You can be Pelagian or you can be Christian, but you cannot be both.

  7. Jonathan,

    While I have no desire to defend any accusations you may be making about Randy (I really don’t know what connection you’re trying to make anyway and I didn’t read in Randy’s comment an accusation of any kind toward Mike), I’d like to know how you can understand any atonement theory as “not eschatological”. Everything about Redemptive History is eschatological. Everything that God has purposed is toward an end–the Kingdom of God. If the atonement is not fundamentally eschatological in purpose, then it is meaningless.


  8. Randy,

    Most pre-mil people hold to a already/not yet view of the kingdom. Dr. Ladd, in his book “Gospel of the Kingdom” laid the foundation for the evangelical pre-mil folks back in the 1950’s. Its mainly the traditional dispensationalists (and those influenced by their fiction books such as Left Behind) that view the kingdom in the future tense as you describe and thus see their salvation as an escapism. I am more inclined to believe that those who embrace PSA do it because of their view of sin and its dire consequences.

  9. Well, I’ve got news for you. I deny Penal Substitution because it’s flatly unBiblical. I’m so sure of this I had a debate with a Calvinist on it:

    Once the blinders fall, you’ll be amazed at just how much is read into the Bible that isn’t really there.

  10. Jason:

    In previous posts, and in his theology in general, Mike puts forth his pre-mil stand. Hence, Randy’s attack on pre-mil theology is a somewhat passive-agressive slam on Mike and any other pre-mils reading this blog.

    In order to clarify your confusion on the difference between atonement theories and eschatology, I would recommend you read (or perhaps re-read) The Nature of the Atonement and Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond. Theological language is, of necessity, very precise, and your equivocation on the terms “atonement” and “eschatology” is probably why you did not follow my points. It also appears that you are using a “theology of hope” approach, which further muddies the waters, but that is a discussion far beyond the scope of this blog.

  11. Jonathan,

    What makes you think I’m confused about “atonement theories” and eschatology? My point is that “eschatology” is not simply the “doctrine of the last days”; it’s the foward-looking purpose of God. Everything God does is toward the consummation, the “summing up of all things in Christ”. The entire Scripture is eschatological in focus. From the beginning “creation story”, redemptive history has been progressing toward the end goal of the redemption of all things in Christ.

    I’m not equivocating on the terms. I’m simply suggesting that we uphold the Biblical trajectory of redemptive (salvation) history: that the atonement (however people ultimately define it) is not without its eschatological foundation. I understand the distinctions within the various atonement theories; but unless we understand the atonement in its eschatological context all of our talk is meaningless. And this is where I thought Randy was going.

    As for Randy’s comments, if you have a history with him and can read into his statements a subtle charge, then so be it. Not that I necessarily agree with his assertion that being “pre-mil” automatically produces an individualistic understanding of salvation (there are many reasons why the church has fallen into this unbiblical thinking), but I found his opening question to be a valid one. I think this is an interesting discussion. Do “amillenialists” or “postmillenialists” generally differ from “pre-mil dispensationalists” (or each other) about the degree to which we hold PSA over against CV (or other atonement theories)? Is there something in our doctrinal framework or tradition that leads us to a greater adherence to one theory over another?

    I think Randy’s question is worth consideration, especially in light of the above quotes provided by Mike in his post.


  12. I express myself on the subject of penal substitution here:

  13. Jason,

    Thanks for the comments to Jonathan regarding what I had written. My understanding of eschatology (in terms of what it means) is in line with what you wrote. Your critique of my thoughts is fair. Thank you.


  14. Joel

    If people took sin seriously, what it does, how evil it is, etc, then they would understand penal substitution.

    From a purely logical viewpoint on sin:

    God is infinitely good

    Anything short of Him (morally speaking) is, therefore, infinitely evil.

    Part of God’s goodness is that He is just; being just, a finite being must face an eternal punishment to account for the offense against God. If God simply casts the punishment aside, then He is not just.

    A finite being cannot overcome such a punishment.

    An eternal being can overcome the punishment by taking the sins upon Himself and dying.

    Now, this doesn’t negate the other views of the atonement. In fact, it doesn’t even make it primary; but it is a view that cannot be ignored. Just as ransom theory is very prevalent in Scripture, so is substitutionary atonement. I think people struggle with it for two reasons:

    1) They don’t understand the severity of sin


    2) You can’t have a religion that co-opts works if you have a belief in justification by substitution.

  15. Jason:

    Saying eschatology is more that “the doctrine of the last days” is like saying a square is more than a parallelogram with four right angles and sides of equal length. Your theological language is bankrupt, which makes discussion pointless. I might just as well say “Horizontal spotlight vacuums red perch overhead” as try to expound a point. And since I have no interest in entering into a futile discussion on philosophy of language, I’ll simply reiterate my original point. My critique of Randy’s post was not whether or not he posited an interesting question initially; my critique is that he did not accurately represent pre-mil and amil theologies. He created a pre-mil strawman, which is both lazy and dishonest, and then defined amil theology in thinly veiled Pelagian language. Being amil myself (sorry Mike) I take issue with someone equating my theological beliefs with heresy. More than that, I found Randy’s eggregious misrepresentations reprehensible. In hindsight, I should have ignored his comments, recognizing them as the specious and vacuous tripe that they are, instead of investing any of my time and energy into an argumentum ad ignoratiam.

  16. Jonathan,

    Being a jack-ass does not prove any point that you’re trying to make. The fact that you treated my comment with such hostility shows me and anyone else reading this that you have absolutely nothing to say.

    I could care less about your history with Randy. And you latest comment has nothing to do with my comments in the least. I’m an amil and I didn’t take offense at what Randy said. Of course, now you’re just going to accuse me of being ignorant and not understanding theology. Well, if that’s the best you can do….

    If I thought you could even engage in a theological (or biblical) discussion with you, then I would pursue it. But I have no confidence that you either know what you’re talking about, or, if you did, that you could express it without being an *ss.

    My theological language is bankrupt? Fine. I’d rather hang with Ridderbos, Vos, Clowney, Goldsworthy, Beale, etc. than some pretentious, pseudointellectual named Jonathan Shelley any day of the week.

  17. Correction: should say, “If I thought I could engage in a theological discussion….”

  18. mikewittmer

    Jason and Jonathan:

    Let me step in here and call a truce to this feud, before someone plays the Hitler card. Let’s stay focused on the topics rather than each other. Thanks!

  19. You’re right, Mike. Sorry.

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