Penal Substitution: A Patristic View of the Atonement?

Feast of St Pappias the Martyr

GOD SET MAN in paradise as a cultivator of immortal plants—perhaps by this is meant divine concepts, both of the more simple and of the more perfect kind—naked by virtue of his simplicity and his life without artifice, and bereft of any covering or protection, for that is how it was fitting that the original man should be. And He gave him law as material upon which to exercise his free will. The law was a commandment concerning the fruits which he might eat, and which kind he was not to touch. The latter, the tree of knowledge, was not planted originally with any evil intent, nor was it forbidden in a spirit of jealousy: let not the enemies of God make any such suggestion or think to imitate the serpent. On the contrary, it was good if eaten at the right time; for, as I understand it, the fruit was contemplation, which is only safely attempted by those who have attained a more perfect state. But it was not good for those at a lower stage of development, who have less control over their desire, just as mature food is not profitable for those of tender years who still need milk. But afterwards, through the envy of the devil and the temptation to which the woman succumbed because she was more vulnerable, and which she then proposed to the man because she was more persuasive—alas for my weakness! for mine is the infirmity of my first parent—he forgot the commandment which had been given to him and yielded to that bitter food. And so he became an exile at once from the tree of life and from paradise and from God through the wrong he had done, and put on the garments of skin, by which is meant perhaps the grosser flesh that is mortal and opaque; and thereupon he first experienced shame and hid from God. Yet in consequence he also made a gain in the form of death, which cuts off sin, and so prevents evil from becoming immortal. Thus the penalty becomes an act of compassion. For such is the way, I believe, that God punishes.” ~St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 45

There are real gems in this passage from St. Gregory. He here anticipates, by well over a millennium and a half, the strain of biblical scholarship which reads the Adam and Eve narrative as an Israelite wisdom parable (among other things): Adam and Eve are denied the Tree of Wisdom (for which “Good and Evil” is a Hebraism) until they learn the “fear of the LORD” through obedience (as Proverbs advocates). We also learn here that he, apparently, felt an affinity with Adam’s weakness for Eve’s ‘persuasive[ness]’.

But what I think is most interesting is the implication of St. Gregory’s account of the Fall for the atonement—and specifically, the question of how Christ’s death creates atonement for sin. J. R. R. Tolkien, perhaps unintentionally, perfectly summarizes St. Gregory’s word here in Letter 212 of his published correspondence:

A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained: a ‘mortal’ Man has probably (an Elf would say) a higher if unrevealed destiny than a longeval one. To attempt by device or ‘magic’ to recover longevity is thus a supreme folly and wickedness of ‘mortals’. Longevity or counterfeit ‘immortality’ (true immortality is beyond Eä) is the chief bait of Sauron—it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith.

The concept of punishments as “changes of design” seems to fit well what St. Gregory has to say above, in his positive evaluation of death as a definitive end of man’s capacity for evil. The images from Tolkien’s own mythos of Gollum and the Ringwraith as hypothetical examples of what would happen if a fallen creature were to obtain ‘counterfeit immortality’ also serve as corroborating evidence of St. Gregory’s thesis: evil, when immortal, will bring about infinite corruption and destruction of the creature; death is thus a divine mercy, even while nevertheless a punishment and, indeed, an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26).

What does this concept of death as punishing gift contribute to conversations about the atonement? Chiefly, I propose that it opens up a legitimate avenue for conversation about Jesus’ death as in some sense taking a punishment that is due to us, i.e., Jesus’ death as a penal substitution, something that causes deep discomfort for many Orthodox (particularly converts, who have sometimes fled their native Protestantism specifically to avoid this doctrine). The atonement is penal insofar as death is the punishment for the Fall and substitutionary insofar as “He who knew no sin”—and thus, had not merited death, since “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) —“was made to be sin” (2 Cor. 5:21) and “died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Jesus’ death “instead of us,” as Scot McKnight puts it, creates a path towards freedom from the punishment of death, both by “trampling down death by death” (Paschal Troparion) and in His resurrection from the dead, demonstrating that “death could no longer keep a hold on him” (Acts 2:24). The death of “the righteous for the unrighteous” effectively robbed Death of its “victory” and “sting” over the human race (1 Cor. 15:55-57). Herein, too, one could treat the idea that sin merits not only death but hell. Christ’s atoning work not only submits Himself as a substitute taking on the punishment of death, but also the punishment of exile into Hades. Just as Christ by His substitutionary death dismantled the power of death, so too His willing descent into the underworld was not only a voluntary choice to suffer our final end in separation from God, but was in fact a divine invasion of hell, conquest disguised as exile.

So there is some unavoidable sense in which, indeed, Christ dies to take a penalty that we deserve, and by taking that penalty frees us from its consequences, in part by transforming our punishment into a path to new life and communion with God. So far, then, penal substitution not only coordinates with, but undergirds and informs, accounts of the atonement which stress its victorious, transformative, and medicinal character. But the question that vexes many, I think, is what even this rather nuanced sense of penal atonement has to do with the anger or wrath of God. I want to say immediately that it is clear, in Scripture, that there is in fact some relationship here. Instrumental for our understanding of the New Testament material on this relationship is 2 Maccabees 7. This story is perhaps the quintessential expression of the Judean persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes: seven brothers and their mother are arrested for refusing to eat pork at the king’s command, and one by one each are tortured and killed, each of them elucidating their hope in the resurrection as they are martyred. Finally, the seventh brother, as he is about to die, addresses his tormentors: “Like my brothers, I offer up my body and my life for our ancestral laws, imploring God to show mercy soon to our nation, and by afflictions and blows to make you confess that He alone is God. Through me and my brothers, may there be an end to the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation” (2 Macc. 7:37-38). 2 Maccabees signifies a brewing theology in Second Temple Judaism that informs much that will follow it in Early Christianity: the death of an innocent martyr may pacify the wrath of God for the people.

St. Paul is not far off from the seventh Maccabean martyr in his understanding of the salvific significance of Christ’s death (see, especially, Jarvis J. Williams’ Maccabean Martyr Traditions in Paul’s Theology of Atonement [Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010]). Jesus is the one who “delivers us from the coming wrath” (1 Thess. 1:10); God “did not destine us for wrath, but to gain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:9). Of course the “coming wrath” is none other than that of God. The Apostle clarifies this in his letter to the Romans. He begins his exposition of his Gospel with this wrath: “The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:18); the “stubbornness and impenitent heart” of humankind is “storing up wrath...for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God” (2:5) who will repay “wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness” (2:8). Paul goes on to demolish modern debates about the justice of God’s wrath, to which I will return before the end, by clarifying that God is not in any way unjust to inflict His wrath (3:5); it is in this context in which Paul says that “since we are now justified by [Christ’s] blood, we will be saved through Him from the wrath [presumably, of God]” (5:9).

So there is also a legitimate notion in any biblical conversation about the atonement that Jesus’s death, which as established above saves us from the penalty of sin which is death, also saves us from the wrath of God. To my mind, the objection that this presents a division in the Godhead—between God the Father whose wrath seeks our destruction and the Son of God who comes to save us from that wrath—is essentially bogus. Paul both asserts that the wrath of God is being revealed against mankind and will be finally manifest on a particular “day of wrath” and that “God shows his love for us in this, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8; notably, just one verse before asserting that Christ dies to save us from God’s wrath). God’s love for humanity and His justice in avenging idolatry and immorality are not fundamentally contradictory for the biblical authors, whatever problems they present to our modern (or ancient) sentiment.

What does the wrath of God have to do with the idea of God’s punishments as gifts? In what sense can we call the eschatological wrath of God from which Christ saves us a ‘gift’ of God to humankind? We may identify it as such in that, in the same way that death is given by God as a mercy to humanity that one’s capacity for evil may not continue indefinitely, so, too, the wrath of God is a mercy to human beings and to the world. God will not forever tolerate the ongoing corruption of humanity in idolatry and immorality. Death and dissolution are the present experiences of punishment for sin, but the confluence of the tributaries of sin and death, running on and on through millennia into a great torrent or flood of falsehood, evil, and disfigurement, demands a larger response from God.


David Armstrong is an Orthodox Christian. He is blessed to know and love Bethany, his impending bride-to-be on July 14th (2018), the tenth anniversary of their meeting. He has an MA in Religious Studies from Missouri State University and is a current MA student in Classics at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. He has an avid interest in far too many things, and would do well to specialize.


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