John Hare’s Attempt to Justify Penal Substitution

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 23, 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.


John Hare is the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University Divinity School. Prior to that, he was the Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College. He is the son of the famous Oxford philosopher R. M. Hare. He has defended the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement in his book, The Moral Gap (pp. 243-58) and in a lecture presented at the 1996 Wheaton Philosophy Conference, entitled, “Moral Faith and Atonement“. In this post, I will focus on his lecture, in which he attempts to defend the PST against what he calls the “Kantian objection.” He writes:

Kant supposed that morality does not allow transferred liability for wrong- doing. Guilt is not, he said, like a financial indebtedness, which can be transferred from one person to another. With a financial debt, we can see how one person could take over the debt from another. But if I have been guilty of some wrong-doing, then it is my responsibility to make up for it; and this responsibility he thought could not be transferred to another person. In the traditional doctrine of penal substitution, however, it is held that Christ takes over our sins, and pays the penalty for them. This doctrine seemed to Kant to be at odds with morality, as he understood it.

Hare believes that the Kantian objection – that the innocent cannot be punished in place of the guilty – can be answered by an appeal to the NT concept of “union with Christ.” He argues:

The New Testament is full of images for our union with Christ. We are members of his body, the church is his bride, we are grafted into the vine.

Jesus compares his relation to us to that between a mother hen and her chicks. He calls us his friends. We are adopted into his family.

Hare sees this union as a partial merger of identity, which is analogous to a number of human relationships in which culpability may be shared. He maintains that our union with Christ affects one of these partial mergers, and that in the context of these partial mergers the transfer of liability makes sense.

Example #1

Hare gives a number of examples of this “partial merger of identity” in human relationships. The first is the union between an infant child and its mother. He says:

Suppose I offer to hold a baby, and its mother hands him over. I take him on my shoulder and make a few soothing noises, and the child is then sick all over my shirt. What does the mother do? She apologizes, takes her baby back, tries to wipe off the mess, and offers to wash the shirt. She behaves, in other words, just as if she had been sick all over my shirt herself.

But is this example analogous to Jesus bearing the penalty for man’s sin? Even Hare recognizes that there are problems with the illustration. First is the fact that since the child is an infant, it does not bear responsibility for its actions. The mother assumes responsibility because she shares culpability for her baby’s actions. This event would not have happened if the mother had not handed over the child. Thus, she rightly bears responsibility. In addition, as Hare notes, the mother does not bear guilt for the baby’s actions because it was not an intentional misdeed on the part of the baby. What she bears is shame and embarrassment.

Example #2

The second example Hare provides is that of an adolescent with a younger sibling:

The adolescent has a friend home for a meal, and his younger sister does something unspeakable. Perhaps, to keep on with the sequence of liquid examples I have been using, she is sitting next to the friend, and she clumsily knocks over her mug of soup, so that it drenches the front of his pants. Her brother is mortified. He feels he has to apologize, and he offers a pair of his own trousers as a temporary substitute.

Does this example provide a suitable analogy for the PST of the atonement? I think not. First, while the younger sibling is not an infant (Hare doesn’t say how old she is), she is still a child which mitigates her responsibility. Second, the brother is shamed by the actions of his young sister but he is not personally guilty of the action. He could not legitimately be punished for the action even though he does feel some responsibility, because of the family tie, to correct the wrong done by his sister. So, this illustration fails as well. According to the PST, man is a sinner and guilty before God for his actions and his responsibility is not mitigated in any way. In addition, Jesus bears not just the shame, but the guilt of the sinner’s actions, and personally pays the penalty that they deserve as a result of those actions.

Example #3

The third example provided by Hare is that of a married couple or an employee-employer relationship. In some sense there is a shared responsibility in these partnerships due to the nature of the union. While Hare does not actually provide an illustration here of how this shared responsibility might work, allow me to offer one.

Let’s say that an employee of a company commits a faux pas at work by insulting one of the clients. The CEO calls the client and apologizes on behalf of the company. The client does not accept the apology and cancels the CEO’s invitation to speak at a major conference that is to be hosted by the client.

In this scenario, the company is being punished in the person of the CEO who represents the company. It is both a corporate punishment (the company loses a client and loses the potential new business that might have come through the exposure at the conference) and a personal punishment of the CEO (he loses the honorarium he would have earned as well as the potential career advancement that might have been possible through his exposure at the conference).

Is this illustration of mine properly analogous to what takes place in the PST of the atonement? I don’t think so for the following reasons: First, the CEO shares culpability for the action of his employee. He should have trained the employee better or not hired such a “loose cannon” to begin with. Second, the punishment inflicted by the client does not “atone” for the misdeed. The misdeed is not forgiven nor forgotten. Third, the company, including all of its employees and shareholders, are punished for what the one employee did, but this punishment is more of a side effect rather than a direct punishment. In other words, they are not being singled out or held personally liable for what the employee did but they are suffering the “fall-out” from the employee’s action.

But according to the PST, (1) Jesus shares no culpability with sinners; (2) Jesus’ suffering removes the sin and allows complete forgiveness; and (3) Jesus’ suffering is not merely a side-effect or “fall-out” from his connection with sinners. He is the direct object of God’s wrath which has been refocused away from sinners onto him personally.

Example #4

The fourth example is that of one person being granted the power of attorney for another person. Hare writes:

If I appoint you as my representative in some negotiation, two things become true. First, you act instead of me. Second, when you act, I act as well. I act through you. To put this in terms of the relevant inference, you act instead of me, and therefore I act as well… Because Christ has chosen to incorporate us, two things are true about his death. First, he dies instead of us, and therefore, second, when he dies, we die with him.

This analogy comes much closer to picturing the PST because it is really no different than the Federal Headship Theory which most adherents of the PST hold. Under the theory, Adam served as the representative of the human race and when he sinned, the consequences were passed down to all of his posterity because he was the official representative. In addition the theory holds that Jesus, as the second Adam, serves as the official representative of a new race (elect believers) and thereby is able to pay the penalty owed by the race (passive obedience) as well as do what the first Adam could not do – live a sinless life (active obedience). The consequences of both his passive and active obedience are passed down to those for whom he served as the representative.

The problem with this analogy is twofold. First, a person must appoint someone else as his or her representative. For a legal power of attorney, a formal document has to be completed and signed by both parties. This definitely did not take place with regard to Adam. One might argue that it does with regard to Jesus because when one chooses to trust Jesus for salvation, one is voluntarily allowing him to serve as his or her official representative. However, if Adam was never granted the power of attorney, then there is no sin nor guilt inherited from him and nothing for which Jesus to suffer.

Second, while a person can do various things as a legal representative of another individual, one thing he cannot do is to suffer punishment for a crime in place of the one he represents. While the actions of the representative could legally be applied to the one represented; the actions of the one represented could not be applied to the representative. Thus, there still would be no way for the sins of mankind to be transferred to Jesus even if he is their official representative. The representation flows in only one direction (from “representor” to “representee” ), not both ways.

While Hare’s discussion is interesting, and one of the better attempts to justify the PST, it still fails. Hare admits as much when he says: “To conclude, I am not claiming to have found human analogies for the doctrine of the atonement in all its parts. It remains a mystery of the faith.”

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Hermes May 23, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Or a fifth: The situation where a shepherd minds a flock and will sacrifice one animal to the gods to appease or bribe or flatter a deity. Not that there’s any president for such a thing in Abrahamic religions, of course.


Lorkas May 23, 2010 at 7:38 pm

I’m not sure what you’re saying, Hermes. The 4 examples in the article are examples of “identity merging”, which your example is not.

Could you explain a bit more what point you’re making?


svenjamin May 23, 2010 at 8:36 pm

His point, as far as I’m concerned, was that the Jesus myth makes more sense in the context of ancient tribal sacrifices to appease and placate violent and capricious deities than as a penal substition.


Hermes May 23, 2010 at 9:02 pm

Yep, that’s right. (Lorkas … it was also tongue and cheek!)

I wrote then deleted a reference to burnt meat having a pleasing aroma, though, as it didn’t fit the Jesus story even if it fit the Yahweh story. In the Jesus story, he was not roasted by fire specifically though he was placed shish kabob style on a jumbo stay stick and baked in the sun. My only question is this: Would peanut sauce be appropriate, or is that over the top?


Lorkas May 23, 2010 at 10:22 pm

That was my first thought but I was thrown off by the phrase “Or a fifth” at the beginning of the sentence.


ildi May 24, 2010 at 5:57 am

“To conclude, I am not claiming to have found human analogies for the doctrine of the atonement in all its parts. It remains a mystery of the faith.”

What is the point of apologetics, then? Why go through the rigmarole of cherry-picking and misapplying science, statistics and history if ‘mystery of faith’ trumps everything?


justfinethanks May 24, 2010 at 6:25 am

What is the point of apologetics, then?

Let’s let William Lane Craig answer that one:

The role of rational argumentation in knowing Christianity to be true is the role of a servant. A person knows Christianity is true because the Holy Spirit tells him it is true, and while argument and evidence can be used to support this conclusion, they cannot legitimately overrule it.

So in this case, an argument can be used to support the coherence of penal substitution. And if all arguments for it fail, that doesn’t mean that a central pillar of Christianity is incoherent, that just means that my puny mind can’t understand God’s awesome awesomeness.


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