Sunday, 8 November 2009

"Not Penal Substitution but Vicarious Punishment"

In Faith and Philosophy (July 2009), Mark C. Murphy poses the old question of just what it means for Jesus to die for our sins. He criticises the “penal substitution” view, not for its moral repugnance but its conceptual failure. Then he proposes a view of “vicarious punishment” which, he claims, is just as faithful to the Biblical witness, but just different enough from penal substitution to avoid its failure.

Let me see if I can simplify his argument …

First, he points out that the Atonement is a rich concept that probably can't be explained by any one theory or analogy. Furthermore, the concept raises varies difficulties and its unlikely that any one theory will deal successfully with them all.

The penal substitution theory of the Atonement says that we deserve to be punished on account of our sins, but that Jesus was punished in our place. To a well-trained Evangelical ear, that sounds very clear and straight-forward, but it raises a few questions, like:
  • Why should it be that my sin is such an obstacle to my union with God? It's not such an overwhelming obstacle in my relationship with my wife or kids.
  • Was Jesus punished in the place of every human, or just punished in the place of some of us?
  • Isn't it morally wrong to punish one person for another's wrong-doing?
  • Even if it's not morally wrong, what good does it do? If the goal of punishment is retribution, then punishing the wrong person simply fails to bring down any retribution on the guilty person.
Murphy's point, however, is something different. He claims that punishment has four essential characteristics:
  1. Punishment is hard treatment, i.e. there must be some suffering.
  2. Punishment must be imposed by someone in authority; it's not just revenge or vigilante justice.
  3. Punishment is imposed for some failure to meet a required standard.
  4. Punishment is a condemnation of the person punished.
Note that the first three are insufficient without the fourth. As an example, someone playing basketball may violate a rule and as a result the ball is handed to the other team. This is hard treatment, authoritatively imposed, for the failure to meet some standard. But a penalty like that is not a punishment, precisely because there is no moral condemnation of the player. The player broke a rule, but awarding a penalty is not a moral judgement.

A consequence of the fourth characteristic is that punishment is not transferable. You can't morally condemn one person for another's failure any more than you can praise someone for another person's success. (You might of course say “You must be proud of your son” to the mother of an Olympic medallist. Or you might say “You did a great job of training her” to the medallist's coach. But you wouldn't say “Congratulations on winning the medal” to any one other than the athlete herself – she is the only one who could be honoured for winning.) If Jesus is harshly treated by God for our failure, it could never be classified as “punishment” because the act doesn't meet the fourth criterion. Jesus could never be morally condemned for our failure.

What about the famous sermon illustration in which a person is found guilty of speeding and fined by the Judge, but then the fine is paid by the Judge (who turns out to be the person's father)? This of course may be a good analogy of the Atonement, but it is not captured under the penal substitution theory. This story is more about the punishment being eliminated rather than re-directed. The guilty party is not punished, but neither is the Judge. The Judge incurs the harsh treatment but is not condemned, while the guilty party incurs the condemnation but bears no harsh treatment.

So what's the alternative?

Murphy suggests that “vicarious punishment” is not a lot different from penal substitution, but sufficiently so that it gives a better account of Christ's Atonement. In this theory, A deserves to be punished, B undergoes hard treatment and that hard treatment constitutes A's being punished.

Are there other instances where one person is punished by having someone else treated harshly? One that Murphy never mentions is the classic whipping boy of the 17th and 18th centuries: where a close companion of a prince would be beaten for the prince's failings.

Murphy asks us to imagine a legal system where a murderer is punished by having their own spouse killed. This may be any even harsher punishment (and greater deterrent) than being killed oneself. It is not just that one's loved-one is suffering, but that one's loved-one is suffering because of one's wrongful actions.

Another example Murphy offers (from Steven Porter) is an athletic team in which the captain is made to run extra laps if anyone in the team misbehaves. This is somewhat like a CEO having to take responsibility for actions of other employees in the company. I wonder if there is an implication here that God, as universal CEO, is accepting that s/he bears responsibility for what went wrong with the world?

Murphy then deals with several objections to vicarious punishment, but I'll jump forward to how this applies to Christ.

First, note that vicarious punishment requires some sort of special relationship between the guilty party and the suffering innocent. It wouldn't work if the hard treatment was meted out to an anonymous or unrelated person. In the Atonement, our punishment is vicariously assigned to our Lord. If that special relationship is taken seriously, then this is very hard treatment indeed – that I am responsible for my Lord's suffering.

In a footnote, Murphy leaves an interesting question open. Does Jesus bear this special relationship of being Lord with just those who recognise that Lordship? If so, then those who do not have that special relationship with Jesus are, as yet, unpunished. Or is Jesus every person's Lord regardless of their acknowledgement of the fact – in which case all have been punished by his suffering?

Some implications of this view:
  • Note that there are few cases where vicarious punishment could be applied without being seen as simply unjust. How can it be just to cause one person to suffer for another's wrong-doing? The only exception really is when the suffering innocent accepts the hard treatment voluntarily, and that of course if exactly the case with Christ.
  • We do not get away with not being punished. It is not that Jesus was punished instead of us, but that we are punished by the fact that our Lord suffered.
  • Vicarious punishment is a form of retribution: “It is far worse, incomparably so, for my Lord to be killed, and killed for my offences, than it is for me to be killed for my offences.”
  • Like the team whose captain is caused to suffer, the church experiences a strong sense of unity through the fact that all of us are punished by the one act of suffering of our common Lord.
  • Vicarious punishment is also form of deterrent Although we can't undo the fact that Christ has already suffered for us, we may now think “If I do this wrong thing, then it will be true that Christ's death occurred in order that I might be adequately punished for my wrong-doing.” – and that may give me good reason for not doing so.
I think Murphy misses an important point about the nature of the hard treatment in vicarious punishment. There are really two separate “hard treatments” in his examples. There is the hard treatment of the suffering innocent (such as the spouse who gets killed), but also a separate hard treatment constituted by the psychological suffering that the guilty party goes through in watching the spouse suffer, grieving for the loss, and feeling the guilt from their own responsibility for the spouse's suffering. In Murphy's example, all four criteria of punishment are met by the guilty party's suffering, quite independently of the spouse's hard treatment.

This calls into question Murphy's conclusion about the case of the Atonement. It does seem to me that his account still requires each of us to suffer for our own sins. If it wasn't for the psychological pain of us knowing that we caused our Lord's suffering, then there is no vicarious punishment. If we could brush off that pain – as it would be in the case where we had no special relationship to Christ, or if we were pathologically unable to feel empathy – then surely the "punishment" is void. But if vicarious punishment still requires the guilty to suffer, then a significant chunk of the "vicarious" part is lost, and the work of Christ is diminished.

Finally, Murphy poses the question of what role is left for forgiveness? Under any theory of Atonement in which the punishment that we deserve is applied, doesn't the punishment remove the offence? So what's left to be forgiven? On the other hand, if God can pardon us then by definition no punishment is left to impose.

Murphy draws on the distinction between criminal law and tort law to show that being punished for our sins does not remove all the obstacles to union with God. Criminal law involves some violation which is answered by punishment; tort law involves some violation that is answered by compensation. It makes sense to talk about a victimless crime, but no sense to talk about a victimless tort. One action may be both a crime and a tort, and just because one is sent to jail as punishment for a crime does not prevent the victim seeking compensation via a separate process. The one act may bear two independent liabilities – one to punishment and one to compensation – and being freed from liability in one respect does not entail being freed from liability in the other respect.

If we apply that to the case between us and God, our crimes against divine law may be dealt with by the vicarious punishment of Jesus. But we have also wronged God, and how can we provide compensation for that when everything we have is God's already? That is why we also require forgiveness.


Anonymous said...
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Phil said...

I feel like I'm going through some punishment. My Wife seems to be dying to the idea of our marriage. I think I went wrong when I thought it'd be good to adverse lies back in college. Isn't this the end: ads create a need in order to sell something. My wife has bought the idea that it's not loving for me to talk about God as much as I do. This is the reason she feels it's better for us to be apart. Better for the kids not to have to see her get angry at me for talking about God. Maybe so, but isn't there a better way to do it? I thought of her part first but it just dawned on me. There's alot of work she dies for me and our kids and I do very little of it. Maybe if I earned the right to speak it would be better heard. My parents did that, letting me go my own way and still showing live and not usually with words. I'd be blessed to follow their example. So I see her suffer for my sin. I hope that Jesus' death for me was not in vain. I hope in Him to change my heart and help me to act out the love He has for my wife. That's the power He has over sin. To free me from it. The burden is in His hands. It feels like that's just a copout but I can't do it so only He cam change me and make me love her. Why does it feel so strange to type this? I want to do the good stuff myself without giving credit. Nope. Not me. He's doing it. There. Hope this is done. Need to stop eating my own vomit.

Matt said...

Phil: I'm not sure why you're telling me all that, but I can commiserate with you. Love is a tricky business and I think marriage is the hardest challenge of life.