Justice, the Purpose of Punishment, and the Atonement


We talk quite a bit about justice and punishment and atonement in Christian circles, and through a recent dialog I was led to thinking about the purposes of punishment in the context of justice and how these apply to the different theories of atonement. I am not expecting this particular post to go viral, obviously! This is one of those “I’m working this out for myself” posts, but I hope someone gets something out of it.

Theories of Atonement

I was very surprised to discover that some people have different views of atonement than the rather clear idea from scripture that Jesus Christ died in our place in order to justify us (e.g. Romans 5:8-9). Some of these ideas are:

Christus Victor
Through the incarnation or the resurrection, or possibly His righteous life, He was victorious over evil, and so we are made one with the Father through His righteousness.
Incarnational Atonement
The incarnation itself invites us into relationship with the Father.
Moral Exemplar
The moral power of Jesus’ life is enough to inspire us to repent of our sins and achieve atonement through our behavior.
Jesus achieves atonement with us proving that He always stands with the marginalized and sinful.
Healing Servant
Sin is disease and Jesus is the great Physician, so atonement means healing us of our disease.
Penal Substitution
The death of Jesus on the cross satisfies the demands of justice for sins committed.
Last Scapegoat
Jesus represents the release that society needs from increasing violence.
Ransom Captive
Jesus died to pay a ransom price to the devil. I will add that this is a terrible idea, because it puts Satan in authority over God and gives Satan the keys to justice.

I’m going to paint with a very broad brush here: all of these are either works salvation or some twisted form of penal substitution. “Incarnational Atonement”, for example, says that the incarnation itself invites us into relationship with the Father. What does “relationship” mean? If I am sinful, even embarrassingly so, does the “relationship” end? If it does not, does God not carry on blessing evil and sinful people with a “relationship”?

The New Testament authors are quite unanimous that the death of Jesus on the cross was extremely central to His purposes, and that it has to do with saving us from our sins. I think that some of these other things that are called “atonement” are wonderful notions, but they are not justification messages. Our central problem is that we are sinners, and the central solution offered to us biblically is Christ and Him crucified.

Here is a way to think about this: what value is the theory to you on your deathbed? On my deathbed, I don’t need a more powerful exemplar, that bird has flown. I don’t need a societal scapegoat. I am leaving society permanently. I don’t need to be healed of the disease of sin, my future is over with. I need for my conscience to be cleansed, so I can face God with assurance. I need a savior who justifies me, because it is my truest sins which will haunt me as I face eternity. I don’t need to be “invited” into a better way to live; I need a very thorough and a very convincing forgiveness. This is what the gospel offers in Christ: penal substitution. Penal substitution asks nothing of us but to know and to believe the love which God has for us in Christ’s propitiatory death.

There is only one of these theories of atonement which richly satisfy the good demands of justice and which also absolve the guilty without continuing to press future guilt. There is only one of these theories of atonement which have the power to offer eternal life: penal substitution. The others either require a history of conformance or make a mockery of God’s sovereignty and justice.

Justice and the purposes of punishment

Glenn Cassidy gives us the following possible purposes of punishment for crimes:

A felon in prison cannot commit crimes while imprisoned. An executed felon cannot commit a crime ever again.
The threat of punishment deters people from engaging in illegal acts.
The felon is required to take some action to at least partially return the victim to the status quo ante.
The felon harmed society; therefore society (or the direct victims) is entitled to inflict harm in return.
The punishment changes the felon in order to make him a better citizen afterwards. (The punishment can include mandatory vocational training, counseling, drug treatment, etc.)

(from http://home.page.ch/pub/rfm@vtx.ch/punishment.html)

The incapacitation theory could not be God’s operative theory because Christ was perfect and He was not taken out through execution so that He could stop doing evil.

The deterrence theory is not God’s operative theory either, because it is a message of complete forgiveness. This is actually the scandal of the gospel: it is such a complete offer of acceptance that it raises the question of moral license. In other words, it is because the gospel reduces our part to mere belief (Romans 3:24,25) that the Romans 6:1 question is raised: shall we sin all the more? Thus, the gospel actually eviscerates and eliminates the deterrence theory of justice as applied to the cross.

The restitution theory obviously could not be applied to Jesus Christ. He never did anything wrong which required restitution. There is no way that the cross represented this form of justice. The same goes for the rehabilitation theory.

The retribution theory of justice is the worst-case scenario for all of these purposes for punishment. What it really means is that there is some mysterious level of harm that must be paid to the perpetrator of evil, whether they have been rehabilitated, and no longer need to be incapacitated, and whether or not anyone would be deterred ever. It is the theory of justice and punishment we would most fear, and it is the theory of justice that the gospel addresses.

The Gospel is Powerful Because it Addresses our Worst Fears

The atonement we most need is the atonement that assumes we can do nothing to reform ourselves or ingratiate ourselves in some successful two-way relationship. It assumes, not that we are powerful and able to change, but that we are lost and hopeless, that we can do nothing to atone. It assumes, not that we can make up for our sins, but that our guilt is built up hanging over head like an eternal black cloud. It assumes that we need to be saved, not reformed. We need to be carried helpless out of the burning building, not to be told that we need to rescue ourselves. We also need to know that when our situation is that of a burning building, that it is most hopeless, we have a gospel message that is stronger still. When we feel that we are beyond forms of justice that depend on reform, that retribution is still angry and active in our conscience and that were we to be found out we would be hated, the gospel is more powerful still. The gospel assumes the worst case scenario for our theories of atonement and justice, and addresses those. Every attempt to make our ideas of atonement and justice more kind and modern more palatable steals the power of the true gospel. The cross of Christ saves us to the uttermost because it assumes we have no power to change at all and assumes the harshest and worst form of justice we can imagine. In Christ, through the power of His death for our sins, we are saved completely and forever.

Posted in The Cross of Christ and tagged .


  1. Pingback: Book Review: PZ’s Panopticon | Therefore Now

  2. These are the things I wrestle with, though in a semi-conscious, cloudy way. I need to know that at the bottom of it all, God forgives me, that my faith being only “mental assent” is sufficient. It’s also the Romans 6:1 issue that I wrestle with; I look at my life and see that it looks nothing like a Christian life should. Depression, a chronic illness and OCD aggravates this. I need radical grace, scandalous.

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