The Retribution of God

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : April 26, 2007

Apparently, more controversy is being kicked up over a recent book by Steve Chalke. In his book The Lost Message of Jesus, Chalke rejects the traditional evangelical view of the penal substitutionary view of the Atonement–the idea that the thing we are most “saved from” on the Cross is the retributive, punitive, wrath of God.

The book is basically a popular-level retooling of N.T. Wright’s work. Both Wright and Chalke draw the most fire, it seems, from conservative Reformed evangelicals (whose understanding of the Gospel is tied directly to the penal subsitutionary view of the Atonement). The issue for many is this:

If Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins, and the reason my sins are such a big deal is that they warrent death and wrath. In the end, the Big Consequence for my sins is Hell–which is the eternal pouring out of God’s hot wrath. I need the Cross to save me from God’s hot wrath. Any attempt to diminish or deny this view is an assault on the very Gospel itself!

Want to know what I think? I think the penal substitutionary view of the Atonement as it currently is articulated by conservative evangelicals is a profound distortion of the Biblical telling. Basically, evangelicals tend to have a bad habit of reading things through bad lenses. When you read the Old Testament and the Gospels through Paul, who you read through the lense of Luther or Calvin, who you read through the lense of American Evangelicalism, who you read through the lense of individualism, you’re going to see things off kilter.

Is the Atonement punitive? Yes. Is there a substitution? Most certainly. Does Jesus receive God’s wrath on the Cross? In a manner of speaking, but not in the way one might think. Is this the primary or even a central way of understanding what happens on the Cross? I don’t believe so.

For a while Luke M. has been asking me to weigh in more heavily on the Atonement. I’m hardly a scholar on the subject. And I’m not sure I can give the issue the thought and time it deserves. But within the next week, Luke, I promise to give my brief understanding of what the Atonement is about, along with some reading suggestions for further study.

for further reading . . .

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7 Responses to “The Retribution of God”

  1. John cicero on April 26th, 2007 7:10 pm

    Interesting Article:

  2. Jonas Lundström on April 27th, 2007 3:32 am

    Look forward to your coming posts on the subject. If we want to promote a non-violent lifestyle, how we understand the atonement seems to me a central question. Is God a God who needs or take pleasure in violence and blood-shedding? (For people trained in academic theology, I recommend Denny Weavers “The Non-Violent Atonement”)

  3. Chris on April 27th, 2007 4:56 pm


    I think it’s important in this debate to separate out two different views of the Atonement that get convoluted into each other quite often it seems (e.g. the cover story in Christianity Today from a few quarters back). The Satisfaction theory of Atonement is often confused with the Penal Substitutionary view (e.g., the quote you gave from Mr. Chalke’s book is actually the Satisfaction theory). It says that Christ’s atonement was propitiatory, to satisfy God’s wrath. The penal substitutionary theory of atonement is that Christ suffered as a substitute for all humanity the deadly penalty required by our sinfulness. You can see how the penal substitutionary view need not include the idea that God is “wroth with us,” just the idea that there is a cosmic penalty for sin. It does us all a disservice I think when we conflate these two views, because the Satisfaction theory is what I would consider the bathwater and Penal Substitution the baby.

  4. markvans on April 27th, 2007 6:49 pm

    Indeed. Unfortunately, the way the penal substitutionary view of the atonement is articulated most commonly and most often includes the idea of satisfaction…the two views are almost inseparable in the current debate.

    Nevertheless, there is still some bathwater mixed in with the penal substitution view. I’d be more likely to go along with simply a “substitution” view with qualifiers. I’m not sure about the “penal” part as it is usually described. The way folks talk about punishment is often (and almost always) in the sense that the punishment is the pour out of God’s wrath and that this punishment therefore satisfies God. The questions I have are:

    1) Who is doing the punishing?
    2) Who needs to be punished and why?
    3) What is the extent of this punishment?

  5. Chris on April 28th, 2007 2:42 pm

    Unfortunately I think you’re right that the two views are almost inseparable in the current debate. All the more reason to be precise and separate them again. Wrath is not the only or even a necessary ingredient in punishment. We expect our judges, for example, to punish criminals based on the severity of the crime or on other criteria, but not on the idea that the judge requires satisfaction of his own reputation. I think the deeper questions in such a debate have to do with what we consider just and unjust, and whether wrath fits into that consideration or not.

  6. Steve Treichler on May 1st, 2007 12:08 am

    I , too, look forward to your comments on this issue, although I think we seriously disagree. I think the cross and vicarious, penal, substitutionary atonement is the pinnacle of all of the faith, proclaimed loudly through the resurrection. “I came preaching Christ, and him crucified.” I must confess, this is a biggie with me, and would love to enter the conversation to make sure I am hearing you correctly.

  7. markvans on May 1st, 2007 12:15 pm


    I’m almost positive that we disagree…though I’m hoping that we don’t disagree as much as you might think. My follow up post is coming on line tomorrow. I look forward to your comments.

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