“Jesus died for me” is the mantra of Christianity, expressing radical love of God. The questions are then why God needed the cross to save my life and How do we see Love in cross?
Cross is the weapon of killing. It sounds terrible and makes God cruel, murders his own son to appease his blood thirst? Cross may mean hurtful and fearful image of God leading to misunderstanding of the loving nature of the God.
Penal substitution was introduced in medieval time by St Anslem of Canterbury in a rational mindset. Rationalistic way of thinking started to appear at this time. This was based on legal model. For any sin or a crime law required payment or punishment, justice had to be done and debt had to be paid off. It was considered that the penalty for sin was death, penalty had to be paid. It is based on legalistic and business model. This idea influenced the Biblical thinking and the death of Jesus was considered as literal substitution for the sin of Adam and Eve. Someone dying on behalf of the person who committed crime sounds profound and radical but also it depicts God as blood thirsty to take the life of his own son to pay up for our sin! It brings the questions: “what happened to the Loving father? Was it not unjust?
When we read John 3; 16 For God so loved the world He gave his own son… we observe this is about love not about blood lust. The verse does not say that He loved the world so much by making His son to pay up for our sins by making him die. It is by giving life not by taking away His son’s life, God showed the world love. .
As mentioned earlier Satisfaction doctrine or penal substitution or substitution atonement came from rationalistic thinking and it does not appear to be Biblical. The Bible is about relational not rational issue. It is about love which is irrational. Bible knows that human conditions cannot be fully expressed through rational thinking. If God is considered as Judge, He becomes impartial and detached in legal terms. We see opposite in Jesus. He defends the voiceless, oppressed and marginalized. He shows God is not detached, but Emmanuel, God is with us.
Justice in Bible is not about punishment but bring healing and reconciliation, through mercy, compassion and Grace.
Substitution theory does take sin seriously, but fails at the end because there is no Grace in it. It cannot reform inwardly. Punishment can only harden, and there is no transformation as we see in Grace and Love. The movie Les Miserable nicely highlights the power of Grace over the law.