Is the substitutionary atonement doctrine immoral?

Some people think that the substitutionary atonement doctrine is immoral because it amounts to child abuse (the Father sent the Son to die for us) and that it makes the innocent suffer for the guilty (Jesus was without sin and suffered for us). Before I tackle this, let me first define what the substitutionary atonement is.

The substitutionary atonement position states that Christ was our substitute in that He took our place of punishment. This is clearly taught in the following verses:

  • Isaiah 53:4-6, "Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried.  Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way. But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:21, "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
  • 1 Peter 2:24, "and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed."  

In Isaiah 53:5 it says, "the chastening of our well-being fell upon him." In other words, the discipline and punishment due to us fell upon Christ. This is exactly what a substitution is: Jesus took our place and received our chastening. Likewise, He became sin on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21), even as He bore our sins in His body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). For more information see the article Substitutionary Atonement of Jesus.

Now, it is true that the Father sent the Son to die for us (John 3:16). But this is not child abuse since in the Trinity each of the members of the Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) comprise the one divine being. It's not as though a literal biological father sent his literal biological son to go suffer. In reality, God Himself is the one who became man (John 1:1, 14; Colossians 2:9) and died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3). This truth is found in the mystery of the Trinity, the Christian doctrine that within a single Godhead are three distinct, simultaneous persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, the criticism that the Son is different in being than the Father is incorrect. Essentially, though paradoxically, God himself became one of us and died for our sins.

As far as the criticism that the innocent has suffered for the guilty, there is a factor which this criticism overlooks. It is that God is the one who is offended, and He has the right to forgive. Since Jesus is God in flesh, He is the one who is resolving the sin problem which is against Himself.  In other words, the one offended is also the one atoning. The criticism, on the other hand, excludes this point. Let me give an illustration.

Let's say that I am at your house and we are having a discussion about the nature and extent of the atoning work of Christ. In my excitement, I knock over a lamp and break it, but you are a gracious person, and you forgive me for my offense against you. However, you then require $10 as payment even though you have forgiven me. Is it true forgiveness to require a payment for what you have forgiven? Of course not. But the lamp needs to be replaced. So, in true forgiveness who is left to pay for the replacement of the lamp? You are (now in a real-world situation I would, of course, offer to replace it, but this illustration is meant to exemplify what true forgiveness really is as it relates to payment). If I were to pay for the replacement of the lamp, a payment has been made and you, the owner, are satisfied. With God, we the lawbreakers are not capable of making a sufficient payment to rectify our sin problem because our righteous deeds are filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). Since we are not capable of making a sufficient restitution payment, the only one left to do this is God. Therefore, logically, God must be the one who makes the payment just as you, the lamp owner, in true forgiveness, would pay for the replacement of the lamp. God is the one who is offended by our sin against him, yet He also forgives.  But His forgiveness does not negate the necessity of the law being administered because the law, which is a reflection of the character of God, states that he who sins must die (Romans 6:23). Sin is breaking the law of God (1 John 3:4), and God cannot arbitrarily dismiss His law, otherwise, He is not just. So, He takes the law upon Himself via the transference of our legal debt to Himself on the cross and dies with it. Therefore, the law is satisfied, and we are forgiven.

The substitutionary atonement is the only rational way to justify God forgiving us and also satisfying the law. Without Christ taking our place, we would have to bear the full brunt of the wrath of God the Father.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.