If you were to ask the average Christian what it means when the scriptures say that "Jesus died for us" - the answer you will perhaps hear the most revolves around the thought of "Jesus taking our place on the cross." The thinking goes something like this. There is a penalty to sin, which rightfully belongs to us. Yet God pours out his wrath upon the innocent Jesus, punishing him instead of us. He takes on our penalty and we go free. In technical language this is called penal substitutionary atonement. If is sounds familiar, it should. It is how many Christians see the work of Jesus on the cross, even the only way to making sense of the work of Jesus on the cross.
This last week, I came across a post by James F. McGrath on What's Wrong with Penal Substitution? It's well worth the read as he brings up some challenging points, and puts into words some things I've wrestled with the past few years.
Here's a taste...
Let me conclude by noting what are perhaps the biggest problems with penal substitution. One is Biblical, the other is moral. First, the Bible regularly depicts God as forgiving people. If there is anything that God does consistently throughout the Bible, it is forgive. To suggest that God cannot forgive because, having said that sin would be punished, he has no choice but to punish someone, makes sense only if one has never read the penitential psalms, nor the story of Jonah. The penal substitution view of atonement takes the metaphor of sin as debt and literalizes it to the extent that one's actions are viewed in terms of accounting rather than relationship. It is not surprising this is popular: in our time, debts are impersonal and most people have them, and it is easier to think of slates being wiped clean and books being balanced than a need for reconciliation. But the latter is the core element if one thinks of God in personal terms. And for God to forgive, all that the Bible suggests that God has to do is forgive.
The moral issue with penal substitution is closely connected with the points just mentioned. Despite the popularity of this image, to depict God as a judge who lets a criminal go free because he has punished someone else in their place is to depict God as unjust.