A Loving Father Crushes a Willing Son: How Penal Substitution Is Not Child Abuse

Years ago two liberal theologians coined the phrase cosmic child abuse.1 They used this term to express their disgust at the traditional doctrine of Penal Substitution. Those who oppose this motif of the cross see the notion of the Father crushing the Son (Isaiah 53:10) as barbaric. They see Jesus as a victim to the Father’s uncontrollable rage. However, a close look at the facts show that such was not the case. At the cross, a loving heavenly Father crushed an obedient, willing Son.

The first major answer to this false caricature is that Jesus died willingly. How can somebody describe Jesus’ words in John 10:18 as abuse? “No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.”

The second answer is that Jesus received a reward for His suffering. And thus, His pain was not like that of an abused child. An abused child is harmed against their will, and receives no good in return. The term ‘child abuse’ seems to be one’s way of sparking emotion and tricking their audience into shunning the idea of wrath.

Jesus our Substitute died willingly

Jesus was not dragged to the cross against His will. It did not involve any kicking and screaming. He weighed the pros and cons before He underwent the incarnation, having decided it was the better option. Again, John 10:18 makes this clear.

Compare this with our own obedience. When we are humble, obey God, and serve others, are we forced into it against our wills? Of course not. Christ’s servitude, just like ours, although it hurts, is not in any way against His will, as would be the case in child abuse. You may as well say God is abusing us when we suffer.

Jesus died by His own love and grace

Consider how the love of Christ compelled Him to be an offering for us (Eph. 5:2). Or how the grace of Christ compelled Him become poor on our behalf (2 Cor. 8:9). Consider how Jesus calls Peter an adversary and a stumbling block when he tried to deny and prevent Jesus’ death (Matt. 16:23). Or again, when Peter tries to defend Jesus in the garden, He tells Him to put away His sword.

There are three clear facts to glean from Christ’s attitude towards His imminent death, all spoken within the night beforehand:

  1. Jesus understood that He had to drink the cup of God’s wrath (John 18:11),
  2. Jesus knew that His death was necessary to fulfill the Scriptures (Matt. 26:54, 56), and
  3. Jesus expressed that He was still in full control and could have escaped had He chosen (Matt. 26:53; John 19:11).

Reading through the teachings of Jesus found in the gospels, one does not get the feeling that His death was a mistake. However, for many the act was an accident—the tragic end to the world’s greatest teacher’s legacy. Is this the attitude we see though? Absolutely not! In the gospel of Matthew alone we see at least 10 occasions where Jesus speaks of His betrayal and crucifixion in detail.2 It is clear that Jesus was aware of what was to come, and that He could have very easily steered clear of disaster.

Jesus and the Father had a unified plan

There is no division among the Trinity as some suggest; the Father willing one thing, and the Son another. From Psalm 40 (quoted in Heb. 10) we learn not only that Christ’s desire was to do the Father’s will, but also that He fully understood that the purpose behind His incarnation was to die. Also, all throughout Jesus’ life we see His submission to the Father’s every command. He often says that the Father sent Him and that the Father had work for the Son to accomplish (John 4:34; 6:38; 17:4). Jesus said, “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life” (John 10:17). Here we see that their plan was unified; the Father killing the Son was not an act of hate, and again that Christ’s life was laid down willing rather than taken from Him. (See also Mark 10:45.)

Our Substitute received a reward for His obedience and suffering

In Philippians 2, after describing Christ’s willing obedience to death on a cross, we read that the Father therefore gave Him the name above all names (vv. 9-11). Jesus was looking forward to the joy set before Him as He endured the cross (Heb. 12:2), and anticipated the glory He had with the Father in eternity past (John 17:5, 24). He was anointed with oil of gladness (Ps. 45:6-7) because of His obedience, and has fullness of joy in God’s presence now (Ps. 16:10-11).

So then, there are large differences between a human father beating his child, and the Father crushing the Son. A beaten child does not receive the blows willingly. An abused child does not have the same freedom Christ had to lay down his life. A beaten child gains nothing in return. An abused child is not loved by his father.

Doesn’t Jesus dying out of necessity and for a reward make it less loving?

First, Christ leaving the glories of heaven to become man was the most considerate action to ever happen, and is an example for how we ought to put one another first (Phil. 2:1-5). Having been forgiven by God, and with His mercies in mind, we ought to forgive without hesitation (Eph. 4:32-5:2). Therefore, to say that Christ’s action was less noble because it was of necessity, then our own obedience should also be considered greedy.

Do you do good deeds to benefit others? If so, is your attitude that of dread? If it is of dread, are you not in sin? If it is not of dread, then why do you question whether or not God can express the same humily and forgiveness with an attitude of joy? Again, when you do an act of service for your neighbor, which you are commanded in Scripture, do you still appreciate gratitude from them? In what way is loving somebody no longer a loving action when it is of necessity? Are we not commanded to love God? Are not husbands commanded to love their wives? etc.

The words of Stephen Charnock will be helpful here:

“The necessity of his death impeacheth not the voluntariness of it. Many things are voluntary which yet are necessary; there are voluntary necessities. God is necessarily yet voluntarily holy; the devils are necessarily yet voluntarily evil, it is not in their power to become good, yet they are carried to evil with a complete will. Man desires to be happy by a natural, and therefore necessary, inclination, yet willingly and without constraint. This death was necessary, by a determination of God; voluntary, by a cheerful submission of Christ.”3

Second, Jesus’ own teaching is laden with the principle of heavenly rewards (Matt. 6:19-20; 19:21; Mark 10:29-31; Luke 6:22-23; 12:33, etc.). When God sees that our actions (prayer, fasting, giving, etc.) are done for Him rather than for the temporary reward of appraisal from men, He promises greater reward (Matt. 6:2, 4, 18). To say then that Jesus is wrong to look for a future blessing is to contradict a bulk of His teaching on morality.

So then, phrases like “cosmic child abuse” are aimed at the emotion only, but cannot be substantiated from the Bible. Whatever our opinion on the matter may be, the Bible still teaches Penal Substitution. However the sound of it makes us feel, God takes full responsibility for killing Jesus (Psa. 69:26; Isa. 53:10; Zech. 13:7). So while we cannot deny that Jesus took the curse (punitive wrath of God) we deserve by being cursed in our place (Gal 3:10-14), we can rest assured that the cross is not barbaric, but beautiful. Jesus died willingly, and received a reward for what He did.

Steven Rohn
The doctrine of Penal Substitution is not barbaric, but beautiful! Click To Tweet

1Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), pp. 182-183. For interaction with this quote and similar objections to penal substitution, see D. A. Carson Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), pp. 185-7; Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach Pierced for Our Transgressions pp. 228-33, 326-8; R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Why They Hate It So” in Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology eds. XXX pp. 145-170; Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Atonement in Postmodernity” in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological & Practical Perspectives eds. Charles E. Hill & Frank A. James III pp. 367-404; Thomas R. Schreiner “Penal Substitution View” in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views eds. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy pp. 67-98; Roger Nicole Standing Forth: Collected Writings of Roger Nicole pp. 263-74.

2Matt. 12:38-40; 16:21; 17:12, 22-23; 20:18-19; 26:2, 12, 23-24, 45-46, 52-54.

3Stephen Charnock Works vol. 4, page 544

What do you think?