Is Substitutionary Atonement Unbiblical and Unjust?

Critics are quick to dismiss the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as unjust. In fact, many dismiss it with a single sentence that God would be unjust to punish an innocent person (Jesus) for the sins of others (mankind). But as philosopher William Lane Craig argues in his recent book The Atonement, this critique is far too simplistic.

Essentially, penal substitution is the “the doctrine that God inflicted upon Christ the suffering that we deserved as the punishment for our sins, as a result of which we no longer deserve punishment.”[1]

There is precedent for substitutionary atonement in both the Old Testament (Isaiah 53:4-6; Exodus 32:30-34) and in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 Peter 2:24). While there are a variety of models to understand atonement, as Craig notes, any adequate biblical theory of the atonement must incorporate penal substitution.

But Is It Unjust?

Defining substitutionary atonement brings to the surface the aforementioned objection, namely, how God can be just in punishing an innocent person for others’ sins.

The classic Christian response is that God exempts sinners from punishment by transferring it to Jesus. In other words, God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us so that we are no longer held guilty for our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ endures the suffering we would have received had it been inflicted upon us. And as a result, through faith in Christ, we can be declared innocent.

In The Atonement, Craig asks whether fruitful parallels of such transfer can be found in our legal system. And there are many! For instance, sometimes an employer can be held liable for actions committed by an employee, even though the employer did not do these acts himself. The legal charge against the employer is not complicity or negligence, but rather “the liability incurred by his employee for certain acts is imputed to him in virtue of his relationship with the employee, even though he did not himself do the acts in question” (p. 65). In many cases, the superior can choose to bear the full weight of the punishment and relieve the subordinate of liability (p. 79). This is a remarkable legal parallel to substitutionary atonement.

Legal Fictions and the Law

In my favorite part of the book, Craig explains how the law often utilizes “legal fictions.” Essentially, a legal fiction is something a court knows is false, but nevertheless adopts as if it were true for a particular case.

For instance, in Mostyn v. Fabrigas (1774), Mr. Fabrigas sued the governor of the Mediterranean island of Minorca, which was under British control, for trespass and false imprisonment. But since the governor himself had to approve such suits, Mr. Fabrigas brought the case to London. The problem was that the London court only had jurisdiction in cases brought by London residents. As a non-resident, Mr. Fabrigas was seemingly stuck! Nevertheless, to ensure a just hearing, the court invented the idea that Minorca was part of London (p. 62-63). It was a legal fiction that ensured justice.

The point is not that Christ’ death or substitution is a fiction. Far from it! Christ truly bore the punishment we would have received. Rather, God adopts the “legal fiction” that Christ did commit sin, so he could justly act as our substitute.

On the Judeo-Christian worldview God is the Legislator, Judge, and Ruler of the moral universe. Why can’t God adopt such a posture in order to be both merciful and just?

Further Questions

Of course, this does raise many other objections. There are further nuances that need to be considered. I am not attempting to defend the entirety of penal substitution in one post.

Nevertheless, as Craig observes, it is simply false to claim there are no legal analogies of someone’s responsibility or guilt being imputed to another innocent party. Whether skeptic or Christian, if you have been tempted to dismiss penal substitution as either unbiblical or immoral, you owe it to yourself to consider the arguments in The Atonement. It won’t disappoint.


[1] William Lane Craig, The Atonement (UK, Cambridge: 2018), 53.

Sean McDowell is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, and in particular young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He connects with audiences in a tangible way through humor and stories while imparting hard evidence and logical support for viewing all areas of life through a biblical worldview. Sean is an associate professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University. He is the Resident Scholar for Summit California. Sean still teaches one high school Bible class, which helps him have exceptional insight into the prevailing culture so he can impart his observations poignantly to fellow educators, pastors and parents alike. In 2008, he received the Educator of the Year award for San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The Association of Christian Schools International awarded Exemplary Status to his apologetics training. Sean is listed among the top 100 apologists. He graduated summa cum laude from Talbot School of Theology with a master’s degree in theology and another in philosophy. He earned a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies in 2014 from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Traveling throughout the U.S. and abroad, Sean speaks at camps, churches, schools, universities and conferences. He has spoken for organizations including Focus on the Family, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Backyard Skeptics, Cru, Youth Specialties, Hume Lake Christian Camps, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Association of Christian Schools International. Sean has also appeared as a guest on radio shows such as Family Life Today, Point of View, Stand to Reason, Common Sense Atheism and the Hugh Hewitt Show. Sean has been quoted in many publications, including the New York Times. Sean is the author, co-author or editor of over 18 books including The Fate of the Apostles (Routledge, 2015); A New Kind of Apologist (Harvest House, 2016); The Beauty of Intolerance (Barbour, 2016); Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, with John Stonestreet (Baker, 2014); Is God Just a Human Invention? with Jonathan Morrow; and Understanding Intelligent Design, with William A. Dembski. Sean has also written multiple books with his father, Josh McDowell, including The Unshakable Truth, More Than A Carpenter and an update for Evidence that Demands a Verdict (2017). Sean is the general editor for The Apologetics Study Bible for Students. He has also written for YouthWorker Journal, Decision Magazine and the Christian Research Journal. Follow the dialogue with Sean as he blogs regularly at seanmcdowell.org. In April 2000, Sean married his high school sweetheart, Stephanie. They have three children and live in San Juan Capistrano. Sean played college basketball at Biola and was captain his senior year on a team that went 30-7.

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