While the objections to Christ’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement are many, I have found most of them to be emotionally charged and without substance. Instead of clearly stating what those who hold to Penal Substitution actually affirm and giving scriptural counterarguments, they commonly resort to deliberate misrepresentations in order to vilify the doctrine.
For example, Gregory Boyd repeatedly refers to Christ’s vicarious sacrifice for mankind as “the myth of redemptive violence.”  Steve Chalk, who was the first to caricaturize the Father giving His Son to be sacrificed on our behalf as “cosmic child abuse,” says: “If Penal Substitution is true, then God is a slave to His own anger, unwilling or unable to forgive those who have wronged or misunderstood Him without first getting His pound of flesh.”  Kay Fairchild describes penal substitution saying: “It’s like the Father beats up big brother so that you can get off the hook.”  As do many, Brian Zahnd compares Christ’s vicarious death with pagan sacrifices saying: “Especially odious are those theories that ultimately portray God as sharing the petty attributes of the primitive and pagan deities who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice.” 
In contrast to those who resort to such offensive caricatures, Conservative Bible scholars like William Lane Craig, J.I. Packer, John Stott and Andrew Sach, all fairly present the heterodox views of their opponents in a clear scholarly manner and give reasoned scriptural refutations. However, reading through the writings of the opponents of Penal Substitution, one is hard-pressed to find anything that rises above the level of biased misrepresentations and depreciative remarks concerning those who disagree with them on the subject. For example, David Bentley Hart, after the manner of Atheist Richard Dawkins, says that no good New Testament scholar believes in Penal Substitution.  In fact, the very opposite is true. Some of the best New Testament scholars of all time, like Dr. Daniel Wallace of Dallas, Bruce Metzger of Princeton and F.F. Bruce of Cambridge, have all believed in Penal Substitution.
All such misrepresentations and caricatures aside, there are some sincere questions which need to be addressed. Here we will be considering seven common objections to Penal Substitution which are worthy of a reasoned scriptural response.
1. Why can’t God just forgive as He commands us to do?
This is perhaps the most common objection presented against Penal Substitution. If we are to freely forgive without conditions (Matt 5:38-48), why can’t God just forgive us without Christ having to shed His blood in order for our sins to be remitted?
The answer lies in a correct understanding of God’s essential nature and our relationship to Him as the Creator and Judge over all (Ps 75:7; 94:1-2). As to God’s nature, one of His essential immutable attributes is justice. God doesn’t simply judge according to justice, justice is an essential and immutable attribute of His very nature, just as is truth (Deut 32:4). Just as it is impossible for God to lie (Heb 6:18), so it is impossible for Him to act contrary to justice in the face of evil and injustice. “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne” (Ps 97:2). That being true, it is said of Him that “He by no means acquits the guilty” (Num 14:18). To simply forego justice would not merely be a dereliction of duty, as would be the case with a human judge – it would be in violation of His very nature.
It is for this reason that, instead of John simply saying: “God loved us and forgave us our sins,” he said that “He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1John 4:10). If God, as the Judge of all, were to simply pardon the guilty, it would be a subversion of judgment and a perversion of justice (Job 8:3). It is only through Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice that God can be just and at the same time justify those whom He loves (Rom 3:24-26). Views of the atonement which exclude Christ’s penal substitutionary sacrifice for our sins would make His love out to be unjust and His justice unloving.
Some might still ask: “but doesn’t Scripture say that we are to forgive just as God forgives?” Yes. However, that same injunction makes it clear that God did not simply forgive us apart from Christ’s vicarious sacrifice. Paul says:
“And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.
Therefore be imitators of God as dear children… And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” (Eph 4:32,5:2).
God did not simply forgive – it cost Him dearly. We have forgiveness only because God in Christ bore the just penalty due to us for our sins so that He could forgive us while remaining true to His justice. It is in Christ that we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins (Col 1:14). Without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins (Heb 9:22). Paul refers to Christ’s vicarious sacrifice as having been the ultimate fulfillment of the Levitical propitiatory sin offering which was offered to God as a sweet-smelling aroma (Ex 29:14-18). The only adequate justification for God sending His Son to be the propitiation for our sins is that He cannot simply overlook sin. His justice required a propitiatory sacrifice in order to be able to justly forgive our sins.
2. How can it be forgiveness if a penalty is exacted for the offense?
The opponents of Penal Substitution argue that if payment is required for an offense, then it is no longer forgiveness. However, here again, this is a failure to distinguish between human relational forgiveness and divine forgiveness granted by the just Judge of all. Divine forgiveness is not merely forgiveness, but a judicial pardon. And it is more than a pardon, it is justification. Justification is a legal declaration by which we are declared to be righteous as if we had never sinned. And that justification is not arbitrary. Christ actually bore in Himself the due penalty for our sins in order that we might become the righteousness of God in Him, being made accepted in the Beloved (1Peter 3:18; 2Cor 5:21; Eph 1:6).
In reality, there is no such thing as forgiveness without a price. If you were to forgive a drunk driver for having swerved into your lane, killing your wife and children, forgiving him would cost you dearly. And, although you forgive him, that would not absolve the judge of his obligation to execute justice. Even in human courts, justice must be executed. But God in His infinite wisdom and great love for us provided a way that He could justly justify the ungodly. The Triune God and just judge of all became incarnate in the person of the Son, and as our substitute and representative head He bore in His own body the just penalty due to us for our sins so that God can justly forgive (justify) us in Christ (Rom 8:1).
However, there is no forgiveness or justification possible outside of Christ (Jn 3:18). There is no greater love than that demonstrated on the cross where God the Son bore the penalty due to us so that He could justly forgive us. However, this forgiveness is only possible in Christ our substitute. There is no divine forgiveness outside of Christ (Acts 4:12; 13:38-39; Eph 1:6-7).
3. Isn’t transferring guilt to an innocent person unjust?
What we see in Scripture is that, not only was our guilt transferred to Christ, the Just for the unjust (1Pet 3:18), but also His own righteousness was imputed to us. Paul says: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21). In spite of this, the opponents of Penal Substitution argue that there is no possible way in which justice can be served by punishing the innocent in the place of the guilty.
While on the surface this argument may seem compelling using common reason alone, taking into account all that Scripture reveals concerning the nature of Christ’s vicarious sacrifice, we can begin to fathom both the power of God and the wisdom of God in fulfilling all justice through the cross (1Cor 1:20-25).
1) God Himself bore our guilt in the person of the Son.
While it would be unjust for a judge to punish an innocent third party for the collective guilt of mankind, that analogy falls short, since it was the divine Judge Himself who bore our just punishment. Christ was not a third party but God Himself in the person of the Son. If God had merely sent a sinless creature to bear our sins upon the cross, as Unitarians affirm, then it certainly would have been unjust, not to mention ineffectual. But He was God the Son incarnate. Although many opponents of Penal Substitution affirm the deity of Christ, they actually end up dividing the Trinity when they resort to such negative caricatures as “cosmic child abuse,” or “The Father beating up big Brother.” God was never divided. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself at the cross (2Cor 5:19).
2) He bore the penalty for us, as us.
What many opponents of Penal Substitution overlook is the fact that the Son of God became incarnate in order to qualify as the corporate representative Head of Adam’s fallen race. In order for God to bear the sins of humanity and suffer the penalty of death on our behalf, it was necessary for Him to take upon Himself our human nature (Heb 2:14-15; 10:5,10; Rom 8:3). Under Adam’s headship, his one act of disobedience brought condemnation to all men. Now, under the headship of Christ, our Last Adam, His one act of obedience, suffering unto death, brought justification and life to all men (Rom 5:18-19; 1Cor 15:22). Although He was innocent and without sin, He vicariously took upon Himself the legal liability for our transgressions (2Cor 5:21; 1Peter 2:24; Matt 20:28). As our substitute and representative Head, God was able to lay upon Him the iniquity of us all (Isa 53:6).
Some struggle with the concept of an innocent person having the guilt of others imputed to them, making him legally liable for them. However, there are a few considerations which, to me, make Christ’s vicarious sacrifice reasonable. In the first place, being our God and our Creator, He had the ability to bear the penalty in our place and save His people from their sins (Matt 1:21). In the second place, He wasn’t coerced, but willingly offered Himself to suffer and die for our justification (Jn 10:17-18). He could have averted suffering and death if He so desired (Matt 26:53), but for the joy set before Him He endured the cross (Heb 12:2).
In our human judicial systems, there is such a thing as vicarious liability. William Lane Craig gives a thorough treatment of this subject in his book Atonement and the Death of Christ. However, Christ’s vicarious atonement goes way beyond secular examples of vicarious liability in which the representative head of a corporation, for example, is held liable for the illegal actions of those under him, since He voluntarily assumed legal liability for our sins.
Another example of vicarious liability is where the parents of a minor are legally liable for the actions of their child, even though they themselves are totally innocent. I am familiar with this since more than once in my adolescence my parents were held liable for my actions. I was a rebellious delinquent and more than once my parents found themselves legally liable for crimes that I had committed even though they themselves were totally innocent and disapproved of my conduct. Once, when I was 15 years old, I broke into a bar to steal liquor. A cigar box full of money fell behind the cooler and when I moved the cooler to get to the money a waterpipe broke, flooding the whole barroom. My parents were innocent of my crime since they were sleeping at the time and didn’t even know that I had snuck out of the house. Nevertheless, the judge held them legally liable for my offense and they had to pay the damages.
While the analogy falls short, if a parent can be declared vicariously liable against their will according to our human justice system, how can we deny that the Son of God, who is our Creator and Lord, could justly assume vicarious liability for us out of love for His fallen creation?
3) The death penalty He suffered was our death penalty.
Through our union with Christ as our representative head, the death penalty He suffered was the death penalty due to us, and His resurrection became our resurrection unto new life in Him. In Romans 5, Paul shows that all of Adam’s race was recapitulated in Christ, the last Adam. As in Adam, death passed to all, so in Christ, all will be made alive (Rom 5:17; 1Cor 15:22).
Based upon this vital representative headship of Christ, Paul explains in Romans 6 that when we were united to Christ our head, we died with Him to sin (Rom 6:3-4). Then in Romans 6:7 Paul says: “for he who has died has been justified (δικαιόω) from sin” (EMTV). Our union with Christ is such that when He died in payment for our sin, we died with Him. Having died in union with Him, we are justified or acquitted from sin. “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).
While this vital mystical union with Christ our representative head transcends logic, those of us who have received justification and new life in Christ know that it is a reality, and we rejoice in it, rather than questioning it. To the Jews who seek the righteousness that comes from law observance this is a stumbling block, and to the wise of this age it is foolishness, but to those who are saved it is the wisdom of God and the power of God (1Cor 1:18-25).
4. How can the suffering of one man atone for the sins of the whole world?
Actually, I believe that this question has its own answer when worded more accurately. While it would not be possible for one man to atone for the totality of the world’s sins, or, for that matter, even for one man’s sins (Psa 49:7-8,15), we must keep in mind that it was God the Son in human flesh who gave His life in propitiation for the sins of the world and not a mere man. As Paul says, we were redeemed by the blood of God (Acts 20:28). Being the blood of God the Son Himself, it had infinite value.
Also, as I understand it, Christ did not need to bear the full accumulative penalty for every sin committed throughout history in order to atone for our sins. Just as it was the one act of disobedience that brought condemnation and death to all, rather than Adam actually having committed all the accumulated sins of mankind throughout history, even so, it was Christ’s one act of obedience unto death as our representative head that brings justification and life to all, rather than Him being punished for each and every act of disobedience committed by mankind throughout human history (Rom 5:18-19).
This objection carries more weight against those who believe in eternal punishment, since they commonly say that the penalty for even one sin against the infinitely holy God is infinite in duration. However, God’s retribution is seen to be just and measured according to each man’s works, rather than eternal or infinite (Rev 20:13; 21:8). So this is not a valid objection for those who believe in a universal restoration.
5. Doesn’t Penal Substitution divide the Trinity?
As many opponents of Penal Substitution do, Brian Zahnd depicts Penal Substitution as fracturing the Trinity by pitting the Father against the Son in order to vent divine rage.  However, being an educated scholar, he should know that no informed believer in Penal Substitution understands Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice as consisting in the Father venting His rage against the Son. Our reconciliation was a triune enterprise. God the Father was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, and it was by the Spirit that Christ offered Himself up to God the Father (2Cor 5:19; Heb 9:14). The only separation between the Father and the Son was a perceived separation as Christ in His humanity felt the weight of the sins of the world laid upon Him (Psa 22:1 c.f. v. 24). The Reformers like Calvin referred to this as “the loss of the beatific vision” rather than there being an actual separation, since any actual separation in the Trinity would have been impossible.
Also, nowhere in Scripture do we see the Father wrathful towards the Son or punishing the Son. On the contrary, we see that Christ was obedient to the Father unto death (Matt 26:42; Heb 10:7-9). His sacrifice was well pleasing to the Father (Eph 5:2; Php 2:8-11). Rather than the Father punishing Christ, Christ bore the punishment due to us for our sins, taking our sins away (1Pet 2:24; Jn 1:29). Neither was the Father wrathful towards the Son. Rather, having made propitiation for our sins, He saved us from the wrath to come (Rom 5:9; 1Thess 1:10; Rev 6:16-17).
6. Doesn’t Penal Substitution divide God’s attributes?
It is claimed by some that Penal Substitution presents God’s attributes as divided, limiting His love by His justice. However, in the first place, this is only true according to the traditional model of eternal torment in which the majority of mankind are never restored. If His justice involved eternal retribution, rather than correction leading to restoration, then God’s justice could be said to be incompatible with His love. However, what we see in Scripture is that His correction culminates in restoration.
In the second place, God’s attributes of love and mercy have never been at odds with His justice, since from eternity, the Lamb slain has been an ever-present reality with God (Rev 13:8). In the end mercy triumphs because justice and mercy kissed each other at the cross, and God has sworn that in due time all the ends of the earth will look to Him and be saved and every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus Christ as Lord (Psa 85:10; James 2:13; Isa 45:22-24; Php 2:10-11). His love and His justice have never been at odds, since His justice and His love both work together towards the ultimate restoration of all.
Actually, the models of the atonement which divide God’s attributes are those which exclude Penal Substitution since they present Him as forgiving by compromising His justice, rather than, in love, satisfying His justice through the cross in order to be able to justly forgive.
7. Don’t Substitutionary blood sacrifices have their roots in paganism?
A final objection which I often encounter is the claim that the whole idea of substitutionary blood sacrifice is rooted in paganism. Brian Zahnd is representative of many when he says that Penal Substitution “turns the Father of Jesus into a pagan deity who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice.”  What to me is particularly abhorrent and even blasphemous is his intentional misrepresentation of the truth that God so loved us that He sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1Jn 4:10).
Is it true that substitutionary blood sacrifices for sin have their roots in paganism? When did the practice originate according to Scripture? It didn’t originate with the pagans, but with God, right after Adam and Eve had sinned. God told Adam that if they were to eat from the forbidden tree, they would die that same day. However, on the eve of that same day, God Himself shed the blood of animals to cover their nakedness in the place of the fig leaves they had made to cover themselves (Gen 3:21). This foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ in which He became sin for us in order that we might be clothed with His own righteousness (2Cor 5:21; Eph 4:21-24).
From the very beginning we see God approving of Abel’s blood sacrifice and rejecting Cains bloodless sacrifice which represented the works of his own hands (Gen 4:4-5). Noah offered blood sacrifices to God after the flood (Gen 8:20-21). The patriarchs all offered sacrifices to God. When God commanded Abraham to offer up his only son Isaac, it was to test him and also to emphasize that God did not require human sacrifices, saying that He Himself would provide the ultimate sacrifice (Gen 22:14). Coming to the Levitical sacrifices, it was the Lord that instructed Moses concerning the tabernacle ceremonies and how the sacrifices were to be made. From beginning to end the animal sacrifices are presented as having been prescribed by God to foreshadow the once and for all sacrifice of Christ for our sins. The Law was given to bring us to Christ (Gal 3:24-25).
Therefore, according to Scripture, sacrifices were of divine origin from the very beginning, rather than them being of pagan origin. All subsequent pagan sacrifices offered to capricious pagan deities were demonic perversions of God’s original sacrifices which He had established in order to foreshadow Christ’s once and for all sacrifice.
When Christ came, He was presented by John the Baptist as the sacrificial lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29). At the Last Supper, on the eve of Passover, Jesus explained that His blood was going to be shed for the remission of sins (Matt 26:28). Peter said that “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Cor 5:7). In the book of Hebrews we see that Christ fulfilled the sacrifice of the day of atonement, presenting His own blood in the Heavenly Most Holy Place (Heb 9:11-12).
The Old Testament sacrifices were linked to Christ’s vicarious sacrifice in such a manner that, for one to turn around and attribute the Old Testament sacrifices to pagan influences is tantamount to calling Christ’s own sacrifice of Himself pagan. To me, such a claim at the very least amounts to counting the blood of the covenant by which we were sanctified as an unholy thing. (Heb 10:29).
I realize that some are so deeply set against the doctrine of Christ’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement that no amount of reasoning from the Scriptures will convince them otherwise. However, it is my hope that this brief consideration of some of the objections to Penal Substitution has been helpful to those who have sincere questions and are still open-minded.
 Boyd, Gregory A. The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2 (p. 1062).
 Zahnd, Brian. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (p. 82).
 “One of the problems with a theory of the cross that fractures the Trinity by pitting the Father against the Son in order to vent divine rage is that it fails to take sin seriously enough.” Zahnd, Brian. Sinners in the Hands of a
Loving God (p. 106).
 Zahnd, Brian. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (p. 82).