Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Penal substitution and proportional punishment


“(I don't like atheist Grayling's talk about not forgiving.”

That misses the point. My point, as I explained at the outset, is that even a hard-bitten atheist like Grayling can furnish arguments which justify everlasting punishment. There’s a certain irony in that given the fact that atheists frequently cite everlasting punishment as a primary reason to reject the Christian faith.

Whether or not his own position is thoroughly consistent with Christian ethics is irrelevant to the argument I made. I was arguing on his own grounds.

“Because we are supposed to forgive those who trespass against us.”

Biblical forgiveness is more qualified than that. You act like a faith-healer who quotes isolated verses about God promising to give us whatever we ask for.

“And Christ asked his Father to forgive the very people who had arranged his crucifixion).”

The textual authenticity of that verse is dubious.

“Suppose we were to ask Grayling ‘What if we had the power to inflict and eternal punishment on Polanski, or Himmler for that matter. Should we do it?’ I don't think Grayling would agree.”

Perhaps he wouldn’t. But the question then is whether he can disagree consistent with his aforesaid position.

For example, if he became aware of the fact that a Christian was using his argument, he might backpeddle to avoid a Christian application.

Unbelievers will sometimes volunteer statements when addressing a sympathetic audience which make unwitting concessions to Christianity. The moment you point that out to them, they wail and flail about to escape the implications of their stated position.

“Proportionality is the basis of the idea of retributive punishment as we know it in the criminal justice system, and this goes back to Scripture. Why is it an eye for an eye? Because that's the upper limit on punishment, so that we don't inflict vengeful pumishments.”

i) Proportionality doesn’t imply an upper limit to punishment. That would depend on the crime. Punishment is limited if culpability is limited.

ii) Let’s also keep in mind that the Mosaic laws and penalties generally deal with sins and crimes wherein one human being wrongs another human beings. Even if such crimes were finitely culpable, this doesn’t mean that wronging God is on a par with wronging your fellow man.

Likewise, some Mosaic laws and penalties concern infractions of ritual purity. That isn’t dealing with moral absolutes. So be careful how you extrapolate from this material.

“Penal substitution theory says that all sin will be punished or atoned for.”

It does? Surely you’re not serious.

i) To begin with, penal substitution doesn’t actually substitute for sin. At best, that’s just a shorthand expression.

An agent cannot suffer or die on behalf of a sin. He cannot assume the punishment which a sin deserves. A sin isn’t liable to punishment.

Rather, an agent can only suffer or die on behalf of another agent. There are no punishable sins, only punishable sinners. Sinners who commit sins. You can’t detach the sin from the sinner–as if it doesn’t belong to him in particular.

ii) Apropos (i), the demerit of sin isn’t some anonymous conglomeration of sin, disconnected from the specific actions of specific agents. Likewise, the merit of Christ isn’t deposited into some general fund–for purposes of redistribution.

Rather, the redeemer dies for individuals. Dies to redeem individual sinners.

Whether he dies for one, many, or all depends on his intentions. The design of the atonement.

Take the case of someone who is covering for someone else. Protecting someone else at his own expense.

Say Jim and John are brothers. Jim is John’s kid brother. Their father is a drunken lout who beats his kids at the slightest provocation.

Jim accidentally breaks his father’s fishing pole. His dad will beat him viciously when he founds out.

To shield his younger brother, John takes the blame. He confesses to the accident to spare his kid brother.

However, John is not taking the place of every kid who may be facing corporal punishment. He’s only doing this for his kid brother.


  1. For a Biblical refutation of Penal Substitution, see this debate:

  2. Weird. I always thought Catholics believed in penal substitution.

  3. I had to stop abruptly when I did the previous post.

    I think a fair reading of Grayling in context suggests that the passage of time without punishment is not grounds for not inflicting the punishment now. However, if Polanski had spent time in prison for his offense, and his term was up, I don't think you would find Grayling complaining that his crime was so heinous that we can't let him out. When he says that certain offenses cannot be forgiven even after a long passage of time, it's pretty clear that what he really means is that the proper judicial punishment ought to be set aside because it happened a long time ago. I would think this reading of Grayling should be pretty obvious, given everything else we know about him. Forgiving, in context, means foregoing criminal prosecution. (So I would withdraw my complaint about his saying we ought not to forgive.)

    If you were talking about rejecting the doctrine of hell because retribution is a barbaric idea, then Grayling's remarks would work against that kind of position. The objection is that sending people to hell is like beating up Basil Fawlty's car, then what Grayling says undercuts that kind of objection.

    But what he said was that if rape a 13-year-old, and you go X number of years without judicial penalty, and you are then arrested, you still should receive that judicial penalty. And that penalty is governed by proportionality. The apparent exception might be a life sentence or a death sentence, but those are imposed because the crime was so heinous that a person doesn't have enough years of his life available to pay his debt to society.

    We can be grateful to Grayling for reaffirming an idea that is essential to Christianity, and that is that you can deserve something bad for doing something bad. But I think a proper sense of the sitz im leben of the text, and other contextual matters, suggest to me that you can't get a refuation of the proportionality objection out of Grayling's comments without eisegesis.

    This, however, does not mean that there aren't ways of meeting the proportionality objection. Just not this way. I'd better stop before I start sounding like a pedant.