Mark Murphy’s Alternative to Penal Substitutionary Theory

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 25, 2010 in Christian Theology,Guest Post

Below is another post by Common Sense Atheism guest blogger Ken Pulliam of Former Fundy. Benefiting from his Ph.D. in Christian theology, Ken will discuss the coherence and plausibility of specific Christian doctrines.

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Philosophical theologians attempt to “make sense” out of Christian doctrines. In a prior post, I discussed why I believe their efforts fail.

I have been especially interested in the work of philosophical theologians as it relates to the atonement of Jesus Christ. Several attempts have been made recently to demonstrate that the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement is just and coherent. John Hare of Yale University presented a paper entitled, “Moral Faith and the Atonement,” at the Annual Philosophy Conference at Wheaton University in 1996. I have responded to his paper here. Oliver Crisp of the University of Bristol (UK) has written “The Logic of Penal Substitution Revisited1, and “Original Sin and Atonement2. I have responded to his writings here. Steven Porter of BIOLA University has three articles on the subject: “Rethinking the Logic of Penal Substitution3, “Swinburnian Atonement and the Doctrine of Penal Substitution.”4, and “Dostoyevsky, Woody Allen, and the Doctrine of Penal Substitution5 I have submitted a paper to an academic journal in response to Porter’s arguments.

Now, another article on the atonement by a philosophical theologian has been published. It is by Mark Murphy, Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame in 1993. The article is entitled, “Not Penal Substitution but Vicarious Punishment.”6


Murphy begins by showing that the PST of the atonement is “incoherent.” In other words, it does not meet the criterion that is required for genuine punishment. He writes:

The objections to the doctrine of penal substitution are familiar. On one hand, the             objection is pressed that it is wrong to subject someone to hard treatment for the wrongs   done by another. On the other hand, the objection is pressed that even if it were not             morally abhorrent to punish someone for another’s wrongs, it would nevertheless             constitute a failure with respect to punishment’s retributive aims if someone other than the evildoer were punished for the wrongful deed. Retribution, a legitimate and desirable             aim of punishment, is unrealized if the wrongdoer is not him- or herself subjected to             suffering on account of the wrongful deed; and a sinner’s ill-desert remains if he or she does not bear the punishment for his or her sin (p. 254).

He continues:

[P]unishment expresses condemnation of the person punished. And if that is right, then punishment will be non-transferrable: one cannot express condemnation via hard treatment of someone who one does not take to be worthy of condemnation. Or, perhaps,  one can, but then the punishing act will be defective – and it will not do for the penal substitution account to hold not merely that the penal substitution was unusual, or nonstandard (we all knew that already), but that it was a defective case of punishing (p. 256).

So, according to Murphy, affliction of hard treatment upon an innocent person cannot properly be called “punishment,” instead he terms it, “defective punishment.” This is one of the points that I have stressed over and over again. Punishment only makes sense if it is the guilty person who is punished, otherwise it is illogical (see Penal Substitution is an Oxymoron). He says that this problem cannot be resolved by trying to separate the guilt from the sin and have Christ bear the former but not the latter. He states:

[W]e have no experience of guilt as such, cut off from its sources; one is always guilty for something done or undone, or some state of affairs realized or unrealized. We can use the words ‘the guilt itself is transferred,’ but again this will shed no light (p. 259).

I agree with Murphy. Guilt cannot be detached from the sin that causes the guilt in any coherent manner. Guilt only makes sense if there is something for which to be guilty.

Having established the incoherence of the PST, Murphy now offers an alternative theory which he calls “vicarious punishment.” He explains the difference:

[I]n cases of penal substitution… A deserves to be punished; but B is punished in A’s             place; and so A no longer deserves to be punished. A’s ill-desert is removed by B’s             penally substituting for A. This, however, is incoherent. Consider, by contrast, vicarious punishment. A deserves to be punished; B undergoes hard treatment, which hard treatment constitutes A’s being punished; and so A no longer deserves to be punished (p. 260).

In other words, a person whom the criminal loves suffers hard treatment in place of the criminal and the hard treatment of his loved one is actually a punishment of the criminal. The criminal is punished vicariously. His punishment is watching his loved one suffer hard treatment. Murphy illustrates his theory:

Suppose that under a legal system one who murders someone who is married is to be             punished, if possible, by having one’s own spouse killed. The idea is not that the spouse is being punished in one’s place, a la penal substitution. Rather, the idea is that the criminal is punished by having his or her spouse killed (p. 260).

This is a clever theory but I think it is also very problematic. What are the problems with vicarious punishment?

1. It is still unjust.

There is a biblical example of vicarious punishment. David is punished for his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba by having the child born to them die (2 Sam. 12:14-15). But is this justice? Is it fair to the child who must die for something it did not do?

Murphy anticipates this objection. He writes:

My answer to the charge that vicarious punishment is unjust is a simple one. It is possible for there to be a scheme of vicarious punishment to which all of the potential suffering innocents freely and informedly consent. A practice by which one party subjects another to some deprivation may no doubt be morally objectionable even if the parties involved             freely and informedly consent, but the species of wrongness will not be that of injustice; volenti non fit iniuria. If the state, or whatever form of legal authority is in place, has             instituted and is employing vicarious punishment for some crimes, the consent of all             potential suffering innocents is sufficient to preclude the charge that if someone is made to suffer in order to punish a wrongdoer, then he or she is being treated unjustly (p. 261).

I think Murphy is confusing legality with justice. Yes, if the law stated that one would be punished for a crime by having a loved one suffer hard treatment, then it would not be illegal to do so but it would still be unjust. But what if the loved one consented to suffering so as to punish the guilty party? It seems to me that it is still an act of injustice.  My consenting to an unjust act does not transform the act into a just act. It is still unjust; I have merely consented to it. It does not change the fact that to inflict hard treatment intentionally on one for another’s crime is unjust. The only way it can be just is if the suffering  person bears some culpability for the crime.

Punishment or infliction of harm or hard treatment or whatever one wishes to call it is only justified if the person receiving the hard treatment deserves it. That is the essence of the retributive theory of justice and I cannot make myself deserve it by simply volunteering to receive it.  As C. S. Lewis said: the concept of desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice (God in the Dock, p. 288).

2. It inflicts harm on other undeserving parties.

For example, in the illustration provided by Murphy of the spouse being put to death for what her husband did, the parents of the spouse would suffer hard treatment unnecessarily and undeservedly.  They are made to suffer the loss of their daughter for something that their son-in-law did.

3. It treats persons as things.

Murphy’s theory might work if we were not talking about persons. In other words, a child might be punished for wrong-doing by destroying his favorite model airplane or some other beloved possession. However, to inflict suffering on a person for what someone else did is to treat that person as a thing and not a person. It is to treat that person as a means to an end. It considers only the importance of the criminal and not the worth and value of the loved one who is suffering harm.

4. It is not biblical.

Murphy admits: “I cannot deny, of course, that there are texts that suggest that Christ was literally punished: that he was chastised, or made sin, or cursed” (p. 266). The Bible nowhere presents the atonement as the sinner being punished by the fact that Jesus died. The simple truth is that few people will experience any kind of punishment by thinking that Jesus suffered in their place. Many don’t even know of Jesus, and for many others, he is just a person in a book. It is hard to see how any real punishment is inflicted on people by being told that Jesus suffered because of them.

So, in my opinion, Murphy’s theory of the atonement also suffers from fatal flaws. While they are not the same flaws as the PST, they are fatal nonetheless.

  1. In The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of Atonement [2008], 208-27 []
  2. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology , eds. Thomas Flint and Michael Rea [2009], pp. 430-51 []
  3. In Philosophy and Religion: A Reader and a Guide [2002], 596-608 []
  4. Faith and Philosophy 21:2 [April 2004]: 228–241 []
  5. In Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists & Other Objectors [2009], 233-48 []
  6. In Faith and Philosophy, 26:3 [2009]:253-73 []

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony Hoffman August 25, 2010 at 7:17 am

God loves us so much that he does absurd and unjust things we cannot possibly understand.

The problem isn’t that the above statement is idiotic, but that it’s good enough for so many people. The two baptists who came to my door recently cited The Atonement as one of the reasons Christianity is true. “Really?” I asked. “Really? So that’s what you’re going to go with in your opening salvo?”

It was hard for me to not be a dick.

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Márcio August 25, 2010 at 7:45 am

The judge is the one that knows what is just and what is not. So if the judge says that believing in Jesus is what matters, than, that is it.

It doesn’t matter if we agree or not, because we don’t know what is just.

Justice among humans are very relative (rich vs poor, black vs white, man vs woman, socialism vs capitalism, etc).

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Tony Hoffman August 25, 2010 at 7:52 am

Marcio: “The judge is the one that knows what is just and what is not. So if the judge says that believing in Jesus is what matters, than, that is it.”

No. We still have to determine if there is 1) a judge, and 2) if there is, which one. If you try and get there by asserting that you know 1 and 2 above, you have to justify your knowledge. At least if you don’t want to get kicked off my doorstep.

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Hermes August 25, 2010 at 8:00 am

It doesn’t matter if we agree or not, because we don’t know what is just.

Is it possible that every act you perform could be evil and you would not know it?

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Tony Hoffman August 25, 2010 at 8:18 am

Marcio, to further explicate my point, do you determine the answers to questions 1 and 2 by rational means? If so, wouldn’t the incoherence of The Atonement figure into your determination of 2? In other words, assuming you could get to 2 rationally, do you make a rational decision that the Christian God is the one true God before or after you include the incoherence of the Atonement as part of your belief?

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Charles August 25, 2010 at 8:30 am

Retribution is neither legitimate nor desirable. His argument rests on a false assumption.

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Tony Hoffman August 25, 2010 at 9:38 am

Charles, I’m not sure what you mean.

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Márcio August 25, 2010 at 9:49 am

The only thing i’m trying to defend is the the coherence of PST depends on the worldview a person has.

In the christian worldview, for exemple, it is not incoherent at all. In the atheistic worldview, for example, the PST is incoherent(if i’m not mistaken).

That is why you think that the PST is incoherent and unjust, because your worldview is not the christian one.

Now if you think that even inside the christian worldview the PST is incoherent, i want to know why do you think so?

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Charles August 25, 2010 at 10:46 am

Tony, it makes no sense to seek retribution if the person couldn’t have done otherwise.

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Keith August 25, 2010 at 11:05 am

Marcio, I don’t think any of the arguments presented by Ken Pulliam depend on his “worldview”, i.e. they do not depend on assumptions regarding the existence and/or nature of God. They do, however, depend on basic ideas about what is just and what is not.

Furthermore, part of the point of analyzing the PST is to determine whether sense can be made of the Christian worldview. And you cannot make an honest or coherent attempt at evaluating a worldview that you have already decided is true regardless of the outcome of your evaluation.

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Hermes August 25, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Márcio, we live in the same world. The same reality. Talk about ‘worldviews’ doesn’t change reality, so it is not a dependency.

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cl August 25, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Punishment or infliction of harm or hard treatment or whatever one wishes to call it is only justified if the person receiving the hard treatment deserves it.

Then, why is it that most societies deeply revere a person who would sacrifice their well-being for another? We typically do not refer to that as illogical or unjustified; instead, we typically call it an act of love or selflessness. That simple concept seems sufficient to undermine all objections to “PST”, in my opinion.

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Tony Hoffman August 25, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Marcio: “Now if you think that even inside the christian worldview the PST is incoherent, i want to know why do you think so?”

Because I read so often from Christians that they are they only ones who are rational. By that I take them to mean that they value logic, and argument, and consistency, and experience. And I find this Christian claim to being (uniquely) rational and the PST being coherent to be in conflict. Day is night conflict.

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Hermes August 25, 2010 at 1:18 pm

The sacrifice has to be meaningful. That’s why we revolt at the thought of Van Gogh’s cutting off part of his own ear. The whole Jesus story is is not touching, it is in the same category of madness.

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Patrick August 25, 2010 at 1:21 pm

cl- Sacrificing yourself for someone else is honorable, but that’s not the question.

Imagine this scenario.

The Nazi death camp guard says, “I’m going to kill everyone here unless whoever tried to send messages to the allies confesses.”

An honorable prisoner who did not send the message says, “I did it,” knowing that he will be executed, but hoping that others will be spared by his confession.

In this hypothetical the prisoner is honorable, and one could even argue has behaved justly. The Nazi guard has not. In Christianity, God serves as both the prisoner and the guard.

And the scenario as a whole is not a just scenario. In fact, the prisoner is knowingly accepting an unjust punishment in order to spare others greater injustice. One would certainly not watch this take place and then nod to oneself and say, “Yes, justice was done here.” One might admire the prisoner’s selfless act, but never the justice of what transpired.

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Pinkpoppop August 25, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Didn’t we skip a very important step here? Where is the proof any of this happened?

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cl August 25, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Patrick,

Sacrificing yourself for someone else is honorable,

I agree. That’s why I don’t see any inconsistency.

…that’s not the question.

Then, what is?

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Hermes August 25, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Agreed. No gods, no accounts till decades later, differing accounts, and none of it was third party attestation = no confidence that any of it happened in the manner it was depicted and for any of the same reasons.

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Hermes August 25, 2010 at 2:09 pm
cl August 25, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Patrick,

Also,

One might admire the prisoner’s selfless act, but never the justice of what transpired.

Well, there is no justice in the scenario you provided. As you said, the Nazis were acting unjustly to begin with. So, the comparison doesn’t really work.

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Hermes August 25, 2010 at 3:09 pm
TH August 25, 2010 at 3:13 pm

cl:

Well, there is no justice in the scenario you provided. As you said, the Nazis were acting unjustly to begin with. So, the comparison doesn’t really work.

Let’s suppose someone volunteers to take the punishment of a serial child murderer. I’m not sure I would revere that person, and certainly I wouldn’t say justice was done.

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Tony Hoffman August 25, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Patrick: Punishment… is only justified if the person receiving the hard treatment deserves it.

CL: Then, why is it that most societies deeply revere a person who would sacrifice their well-being for another? We typically do not refer to that as illogical or unjustified; instead, we typically call it an act of love or selflessness. That simple concept seems sufficient to undermine all objections to “PST”, in my opinion.

Um, because the conversation isn’t about the merits of altruism, but the coherence of the PST; bringing up the regard we have foraltruism seems like changing the subject.

It’s also a misplaced objection because even altruism is logical when viewed through an evolutionary lens; it’s practiced by bats and pretty much all social animals (dolphins, monkeys, etc), and Hamilton exposed how apparent altruism is often based on a logical calculation that can be tied to the proportion of shared genetic material. Dawkins did a brilliant job explaining how, rather than being selfless, altruism is in fact selfish, in his aptly titled “The Selfish Gene.”

The atonement isn’t logical that way. When you consider the full roll out of everything it entails, it’s (ironically, in this regard, because bats really do practice the logic of altruism) batshit crazy. At least Marcio has admitted the fact that yes, The Atonement is a wee tad confusing as a concept, even if he’s not sure if this judgment should precede or follow his belief that the Christian God is the one true God.

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Patrick August 25, 2010 at 6:04 pm

cl- The moment I posted I figured you might misunderstand like that, and nearly wrote an addendum. Then I figured you’d work it out on your own.

Well, yes, the scenario I gave was never just to begin with. Lets watch what happens when things are actually just at first.

Judge: I have ten men before me who deserve execution for their horrible crimes. Justice demands that THEY pay for THEIR acts.

Innocent Bystander: Justice demands execution, but why does it demand THEIR execution? Surely the fact that SOMEONE needs to be executed is entirely unconnected to the question of WHO needs to be executed. This is how justice always works! We rarely concern ourselves with punishing guilty people and sparing innocent people. So in order to achieve justice, I volunteer to be executed instead of all of these guilty people.

Judge: I can’t see a problem with that. The demands of justice do not care whether the guilty are punished, only that punishment is given to someone. So lets execute that guy instead of the guilty people.

Atheist: First ten guilty men were to be killed, and one innocent man was to go free. But now ten guilty men go free, and one innocent man is killed. How is that not more injustice than before? I don’t see why justice works the way you say it does.

Theist: Shut up.

Atheist: No, seriously. If the idea is just to show the judge’s mercy, then why doesn’t he just let the guilty men go free without killing that innocent guy? And if that’s the idea, why do you keep calling it justice instead of mercy?

Theist: Shut up.

Atheist: I’m not kidding! Its like you’re treating this as a mathematical equation. X amount of sin has been committed, so X or greater punishment must occur, and it doesn’t matter who does or does not suffer.

Theist: Shut up!

Atheist: But what I just described is literally the definition of injustice! What could possibly be less just than intentionally punishing the innocent and letting the guilty go free? Why do you keep calling it just?

Theist: SHUT UP!

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Patrick August 25, 2010 at 6:07 pm

I guess I should note that penal substitution works perfectly well if you adopt a polytheistic approach in which the three gods of the trinity live in a pre existing universe of moral and magical laws. If there were some unalterable law of existence that proclaimed that blood must be paid for with blood, then it would great for Jesus to intercede and save humanity from the harshness of the cosmos. It would be like many other myths of gods that sacrifice themselves in some way to protect humans from the natural or spiritual world.

Its just in monotheism where this all breaks down, because the monotheistic deity is conceptualized as having created the natural and spiritual world, and its laws. Even if monotheists seem to have a very, very hard time remaining consistent on that point.

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svenjamin August 25, 2010 at 8:20 pm

I think it’s a clever theory, but still pretty silly. And the non-biblical part is kind of a problem, as PST seems to be the biblical position.

However, I don’t think the first objection, “it’s still wrong” works. It seems to me to be neither just nor injust to inflict harm on a willingly consenting and fully informed innocent.

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Hermes August 25, 2010 at 8:29 pm

It seems to me to be neither just nor injust to inflict harm on a willingly consenting and fully informed innocent.

Yet, we have laws against many such actions.

If someone wants to cut off their ear for me, they will be stopped if possible. In Van Gogh’s case, he was (rightly) treated as mentally unstable because of his act. The Biblical example is in the same category as Van Gogh’s actions.

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Matthew D. Johnston August 26, 2010 at 12:15 am

That is why you think that the PST is incoherent and unjust, because your worldview is not the christian one.

In other words, you think that we find PST incoherent because we have not preconceived (like you) that it is coherent. That’s… deep.

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Matthew D. Johnston August 26, 2010 at 12:30 am

Then, why is it that most societies deeply revere a person who would sacrifice their well-being for another? We typically do not refer to that as illogical or unjustified; instead, we typically call it an act of love or selflessness.

But we do consider such situations unjustified. It is precisely because of the injustice of the situation itself that we revere the person who makes the sacrifice.

I think we all would agree that, if God came down and told us that He had set things up so that everybody on the planet would die unless one person should volunteer as a sacrifice to die everybody else’s place, and then Jesus stepped forward, took a deep breath, and said “I’ll do it”, that we would greatly revere Jesus because of it. But it’s only because of the injustice of the original situation that we would do so… in fact, there would be no need for the act otherwise. And if we found out that God and Jesus were in cahoots from the start, it would confuse things beyond all comprehension. How could you revere Him for sacrificing Himself to appease His own questionable dictates?

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Tony Hoffman August 26, 2010 at 8:43 am

Patrick,

Your scenario is missing the part where the punishment for the 10 isn’t for anything that they did, only for being born. And that other creatures who aren’t even related to any sinful act are being executed all the time without a hope of justice interceding on their suffering. And that the executioner is guilty of entrapment or willful neglect. Etc.

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al friedlander August 26, 2010 at 6:28 pm

^
Well said

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