Some people strongly denounce the Penal Substitutionary Model of Atonement. One such person is Steve Chalke. He says,
“…Penal substitution is tantamount to “child abuse—a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.“ Though the sheer bluntness of this imagery (not original to me of course) might shock some, in truth, it is only a stark “unmasking“ of the violent, pre-Christian thinking behind such a theology.”Steve Chalke, “Cross Purposes,” Christianity Magazine, (September 2004, pp. 44–48)
This is a rhetorical ploy. It has no intellectual substance. Consider the emotive language it employs. Jesus Christ was not crucified as a child. His suffering was not at the hands of his Father. Furthermore, let us analyse why child abuse is wrong in order to see if the two are identical. First, child abuse is wrong because it is unjust. This is either because the suffering is too severe a punishment for anything a child could do, or because it allows an innocent person to suffer. Secondly, it is wrong because it is unloving. This is either because the suffering serves only the selfish purposes of the abuser, or because the only purpose of the suffering is to instil fear of the abuser.
By contrast, the penal substitutionary model of atonement is an expression of God’s self-sacrificial love, where rather than demand justice at our hand He becomes incarnate and pays the penalty for sin that his own justice enacted.
Penal substitutionary atonement isn’t a doctrine that comes in its own separate package, or one held in a vacuum, unconnected to any other doctrine. It’s a part of a larger story. It’s a story of a gift. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). It is a story of incarnation, where God reaches out to touch the earth in order to bring about restoration. And Christ, being found in appearance of a man and in the form of a servant became obedient and submitted himself to death – “even death on the cross” (Phil 2:6-8).
Here we see God incarnated as Christ Jesus, carrying out his Father’s will. Yet he does so voluntarily. He says, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me” (John 4:34). He orchestrates his entry into the powder keg that was Jerusalem, and provokes the religious order’s displeasure by upstaging the temple Sadducees and outwitting the Pharisees, declaring himself to be the God Most High. He then orchestrates his betrayal by releasing Judas. In the final hour, at the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus shows his very human nature, his desire to avoid pain and suffering at war with his desire to lay down his life. There he says “Thy will be done,” and he fulfils his mission to die for the sake of a sinful world.
The Father doesn’t do this to Christ, his Son. From the first moment conceiving the plan of salvation, to the last moment on the cross as he chooses to stay there, Christ is doing this to himself—voluntarily. Yes, he is doing it in obedience to the calling of the Father, or mission he felt directed towards. But the two were – and are still – in one accord on this.
Christ’s voluntary offering of himself does much to dispel the illusion of cosmic child abuse. It can be neither unloving, nor unjust because it is too severe a punishment. What then can we say about it being unjust because the suffering belonged to an innocent person?
At least two things: each of which can defuse the accusation on their own.
Firstly, we need to contextualise the ethical problems we have with the atonement with a metaethic that has God at the foundation—a divine command theory. God is by nature perfectly good, and for God to do wrong is just as incoherent as the idea of circle with four equal sides. So on the Christian view, God has no moral duties that he has to adhere to. As such, the duty ‘one should not punish the innocent’ is not something that God is under any obligation to fulfil. We humans, in judging what God should and should not do—according to our feelings on the matter—have got morality precisely backwards. He is the one who judges what we do, in accordance with his good nature and intentions. Not the other way around.
Secondly, there is cause to question an essential assumption of those claiming Christ suffering was unjust. On the Christian view, was Christ innocent after-all? Yes, he was an innocent party in the sense that he never did anything wrong, living a perfect life without sin. Yet, No. Jesus was not an innocent party in the sense that he was pronounced legally guilty by the judge on the throne of all the world. The guilt of the world was imputed to Christ on the cross. He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him (Isaiah 53:5). He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor 5:21). He was pronounced guilty to serve the great purpose of the redemption of the whole world – and what greater purpose could there be than that!
The accusation of “cosmic child abuse” is therefore wholly bankrupt. On the face it, the comparison to penal substitutionary model of atonement has no merit. The charge of it being unjust and unloving fall flat with just the lightest breeze of scrutiny.