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A Narrative Theology of Penal Substitution

One common objection to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement is that it cannot be found articulated in the gospels. I find this claim to be unpersuasive, not least because of Jesus’ declaration that he came to offer himself a ransom in place of the many (Mark 10:45). Further, the account of Jesus taking the place of Barabbas strikes me as a rather straightforward narrative describing how the innocent Jesus took the penalty of the guilty criminal, who walked away with his life a free man. Do not the gospel writers intend their readers to understand that what is true of Barabbas is also true of all, that the Son of God has taken our penalty in our place? This is precisely what is argued by Adam Hamilton in his book, 24 Hours that Changed the World, as he reflects on the depiction of this event in the film The Passion of the Christ:

“For an instant, Barabbas seemed to comprehend that this innocent man would be nailed to the cross in his place. Barabbas would be the first sinner for whom Jesus died. This is one small picture of the substitutionary work of atonement Jesus performed with his death; for we, like Barabbas, have been spared, with Jesus suffering the punishment we deserve” (67).

This is not to say that penal substitution is the only way to understand the atonement. And it is true, the gospel writers do not give a systematic exposition of the doctrine of penal substitution, but what they do give us is, in some ways, more telling and more powerful. They show us through their narratives what it looks like for Jesus to bear the punishment of a single sinner. And they invite us all to place ourselves in that story. Jesus not only died in place of Barabbas, he died in place of us all.

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