Joshua Farris and S. Mark Hamilton have raised an interesting objection to penal substitutionary accounts of the atonement in their recent article, “The Logic of Reparative Substitution: Contemporary Restitution Models of Atonement, Divine Justice, and Somatic Death” (Irish Theological Quarterly, 2018, Vol. 83 (1): 62-77). As part of a much broader, sophisticated case to establish their own “reparative substitution model” (a development of an Anselmic satisfaction model), they argue that penal substitution theorists have a bit problem with their theory: despite Christ’s atonement, people still die.
If “somatic” or bodily death is truly part of the legal penalty for sin, and in his death on the cross Jesus does actually pay the debt of punishment we owe to God’s Law, then “why is it that human persons still die a somatic death?” (73) This is not a bad question. Farris and Hamilton are relying on the intuition central to the “double-payment” objection made famous by John Owen in his defense of a particular or limited atonement: namely that it is wrong for sin to be punished twice. Again, if Christ suffered a penal death in humanity’s place, then why do we still die? Wouldn’t that be unjust?
How might one go about answering this objection? I’ll leave to the side Farris and Hamilton’s own proposal, for now, though it is worthy of careful engagement in its own right. In what follows, I’d like to give three possible avenues of response for advocates of penal substitution, which may be taken individually, or as a cumulative set of considerations for why believers still die despite the efficacy of Christ’s penal death.
Rejecting the Double-Payment Principle
Farris and Hamilton consider several possible answers, but I’d like to start by outlining one possibility that they never really consider: relying on the insights underlying hypothetical universalism of the sort espoused by divines such as James Ussher, John Davenant, and more lately, Oliver Crisp (Deviant Calvinism) in order to reject the double-payment premise.
Recently, Michael Lynch has written helpfully on this option and I’d like to draw on his excellent historical work here in his article “Quid Pro Quo Satisfaction? An Analysis and Response to Garry Williams on Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Definite Atonement”, (EQ 89.1, 51-70). Without getting into the weeds of the whole thing (which is definitely worth reading), he makes a few points relevant to our question.
First, not every modern Reformed theologian held Owen’s “idem” (exact same) punishment model of PSA, whereby Christ suffers the exact same punishment the elect deserve or would suffer. Several held something like a “tantundem” (a just equivalent) view, which held that Christ suffered an equivalent punishment satisfying the debt. In which case, the atonement is not clued in, so to speak, on each sinner’s particular sins meriting death, even though they are covered by it. Second, several (though not all) of those who held this view also held that this equivalent punishment was universal in sufficiency, if not in efficiency. And this would require them to deny the double-payment thesis.
How do they answer this objection?
In answering the question for those who do not believe in Christ, Aquinas points out they are simply not united to Christ and therefore have not availed themselves of the remedy of his satisfactory suffering on their behalf (Summa Contra Gentiles, 4.55). Lest we think this is only a Roman Catholic response, Zachary Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, also agreed.
Second, in answering the question with respect to believers in Christ, Lynch calls attention to R.L. Dabney’s response to the argument. I’ll quote Lynch at length here:
The structure of the double payment argument looks like this:
Major Premise: If Christ was punished for any person’s sins, then that person cannot be punished for their sin.
Minor Premise: Christ was punished for the elect’s sins.
Therefore: The elect cannot be punished for their sins.
Dabney challenges the major premise, but affirms the minor. Dabney questions the major premise, asking, if justice forbids the same sin to be punished once in Christ and then in a sinner, how can God ‘justly hold elect unbelievers subject to wrath till they believe’ (cf. Eph. 2:l-3)? In other words, according to Dabney, both experience and Scripture teach that the elect are punished for the sins for which Christ made satisfaction. The wrath that rests upon all unbelievers, whether elect or non-elect, is on account of sin. If it is granted…that the elect are under God’s wrath until they believe, how is such wrath not a punishment for the same sin twice over? In other words, would not the double-payment argument also forbid God to punish the unbelieving elect for their sins on the grounds that their sins have been punished in Christ? (66)
Now, I’m not actually here affirming hypothetical universalism, but it seems that a Penal Substitution defender might appropriate this logic in order to duck Farris and Hamilton’s objection.
If God is just in punishing the elect before they avail themselves of Christ’s atoning work on their behalf, then perhaps this double-payment intuition is not as rock-solid as all that. Indeed, Scripture seems to still speak of God’s hand of punishment or chastisement still falling on believers in this life, despite having trusted in Christ (Heb. 12:5-10; 1 Cor. 10-11; 1 Thess. 4:6). Most Penal Substitution advocates would readily affirm that and so it seems that some might try to walk down that avenue to answer Farris and Hamilton.
Transforming the Penalty of Death
But say some respond that the punishments believers face are not the execution of judicial wrath, but a different kind of punishment, say, a “fatherly chastisement”, which is the character of all of God’s punishments upon his children. Well, this starts to point us in the direction of another possible avenue of response. It is possible that our changed relationship to the Judge, our status as sinners, and our relationship to sin may yield a change in the nature of his judgments upon sin–or those things that once were considered to be such.
A couple of analogies might prepare our minds for the argument. First, consider the way relationships change the meaning of actions. A man and a woman having sex on Tuesday may be engaged in an act of fornication, but after their wedding ceremony on Saturday, that same activity is an act of lawful sexual union. Their new relation, the new status of the participants, changes the meaning and character of the exact same activity.
Take another common example in these matters: a man taking a knife and stabbing it into the chest of another man. In a bar, in the middle of a fight between two men who hate each other, it is a vicious attack and at least attempted murder. In a hospital, when the knife is in the hands of a trained doctor whose intent is to operate on another, it is called surgery. Again, the status, the relation, or intention of the actors matters for determining the character of the act.
Here we turn to what Farris and Hamilton call a recent, “awkward tactic” to answer the question. Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach have appealed to Philippians 1:21 where Paul declares that “to live is Christ, to die is gain” to argue that for Christians, bodily death is no longer penal in nature (Pierced for Our Transgressions, 262). They argue that death for believers is transformed by the death of Christ, which has atoned for their sin, given them a new status, and brought them into a new relation to God. Farris and Hamilton are not convinced, arguing that this is an exegetical stretch beyond Paul’s main point, which was to encourage the Philippians in life and death. The text is not designed to answer the question of whether death remains a penalty.
In response, I’ll briefly note that in theology, the relation between exegesis and dogmatics is not a clean one. Often texts answer theological questions directly. Other times, however, texts can offer us theological answers by way of implication or corollary, especially when set in relation to other texts, or a broader theological framework (“good and necessary consequence” WCF 1.6). The text may not “mean” that, or teach it directly, but it follows from it. Half of our doctrine of the Trinity works that way. It’s plausible to see something like that working here.
Second, it’s important to realize this not only a recent tactic, but can be found in the work of Herman Witsius where, in answering a similar question, he says, “By the death of Christ, death hath ceased to be what it was before, the punishment inflicted by an offended judge, and the entrance into the second death, and is become the extermination of sin and the way to eternal life; and at the last day it shall be altogether abolished” (Economy of the Covenants, Bk. II. VI. XLV, pg. 230-231).
In fact, Witsius isn’t being very original here. As he points out, this is just the answer the Heidelberg Catechism gives:
Q. Since Christ has died for us,
why do we still have to die?
A. Our death does not pay the debt of our sins. (Ps. 49.7)
Rather, it puts an end to our sinning
and is our entrance into eternal life. (John 5:24; Phil. 1:21-23; 1 Thess. 5:9-10)
Heidelberg sees our death transformed by the death of Christ into our pathway to eternal life and the final resurrection. For as Witsius says in this, “there is no wrath and curse of God, and the formal nature of punishment” is absent.
Lest we think this is just a Continental answer, the Westminster Divines answered similarly in the Larger Catechism:
Q. 85. Death being the wages of sin, why are not the righteous delivered from death, seeing all their sins are forgiven in Christ?
A. The righteous shall be delivered from death itself at the last day, and even in death are delivered from the sting and curse of it; so that, although they die, yet it is out of God’s love, to free them perfectly from sin and misery, and to make them capable of further communion with Christ in glory, which they then enter upon.
The death of believers is no longer a penal death to be feared now that the sting of death, sin and the law, has been removed (1 Cor. 15:56). Instead, it is a gentle falling asleep from which we will awake in glory (1 Thess. 4:16). In the death of believers, God is demonstrating his mercy and his love by drawing them to himself, setting them free from the last vestiges of sin, which dwells in their mortal members (Romans 7). In that sense, we can see how now that we do not face God as an avenging judge, we meet death, not as his punishing sword, but as his gracious scalpel performing an operation that ends in our eventual, immortal glory.
Again, it is worth reflecting on the fact that this theological judgment about the nature of the death of believers is not an innovation, hastily thrown up as a rearguard defense in recent times. Instead, this is broadly seen to be consistent with the obviously penal satisfaction accounts in the Reformed Confessions that happens to be binding on several Reformed communions.
Weird Eschatology, God’s Patience, and God’s Purposes
A third line of reflection we ought to pursue relates to God’s discretion over life and death in relation to his providential purposes. What do I mean?
Well, think for a minute about weird it would be if all of a sudden, right in the middle of history, everybody who believed in Jesus just stopped dying. The Apostle John exiled to Patmos? He just kept living while all of his island neighbors kept dying. Christians all over the Mediterranean and Middle East, converting and then continuing to live 200, 300, 400 years past their Pagan and Jewish neighbors. Yes, I know the Resurrection and the gift of the Spirit means we have an already/not yet eschatology, but this would seem to tilt the balance a bit much, wouldn’t it? And would this also require not just longevity and the cessation of death by natural causes? Invulnerability to disease? Sort of like the Elves of Middle-earth, I suppose. But death by war, persecution, or murder also would seem to fall afoul of death as penalty, if all death just is penalty. Wouldn’t we need to be invincible as well? Would we need some sort of glorification before the eschaton? Semi-glorification?
Without necessarily jumping into the deep end of our theology of belief, it would be safe to say that would mess with the epistemic conditions involved in calling people to faith and hope in Christ, wouldn’t it? You sort of wonder what missions would look like when all you have to do is send an immortal or two to a new country to get the whole nation to convert.
Beyond that, you do wonder how terrible that sort of longevity might be. Imagine immortality before the general resurrection and the closing of this evil age? It’s the stuff of tragic fantasy fiction novels: immortals cursed to unending life in this vail of tears. Imagine seeing non-Christian friends and family continue to die, not just for the 80-90 years most of us have on this earth, but for 200? 300? That kind of pain and heartache would accumulate in a way that I don’t think an un-resurrected, un-glorified body and soul could take. Yes, we would have the hope, even the possession of a semi-glory of sorts, but at least for a while we would be subject to so many other increasing miseries. In a situation like this, death may easily be understood as a mercy.
Another example may illustrate the way the same condition might be mercy or judgment depending on the context and intention of its application. Say you have a prisoner who has been convicted of a vicious murder and is serving time in prison. New evidence comes out to exonerate him and the judge pronounces him innocent. All the same, it is widely believed in the community that he is guilty, and it will take some time for the fact of his innocence to become widely established. If he were simply released, it is likely that he would be gravely harmed or even killed by the general populace. And so, in his care and wisdom, the judge orders that the now exonerated prisoner remains in a sort of protective custody until it is safe for him to be released. The prisoner’s condition remains roughly the same—he is incarcerated, possibly against his will. But now it is no longer restraint being imposed as an act of punishment, but restraint as an act of mercy and protection.
Returning again to our eschatological considerations, it does seem that if you press this logic to its ultimate conclusion, it would require an immediate glorification of each individual Christian, or the immediate closing of the Age, which would cut off the gathering in of the saints across time and space.
It is worth recalling here, then, what Turretin says about God’s justice and forbearance in punishing sin. He argues that while the necessity of the punishment of sin is an absolute principle, it does not follow by natural or physical necessity like lightning follows thunder, but of moral necessity which is consistent with the “positive and free” right of God the Judge to determine its time and mode of infliction. And so, consistent with his own perfect will and counsel, God showed forbearance and exercise a relaxation so as to not execute his judgment on sin immediately, but delayed and executed it in Christ, the Surety, so that his providential purposes could be furthered (Institutes, Vol. 2, 14.10.10, 16).
In a similar way, we might see the death of believers as God’s invitation of believers into a participation in the exercise of his forbearance (2 Peter 3:3-9). His patience with sinners might require the temporary death of his saints until they can be raised again to new life. Or from another angle, in his positive and free right as the Lordly dispenser of the gracious goods of life, both spiritual and physical, he may choose when and where to dispense his gifts as well.
It seems, then, that we have another set of considerations for why God might in his sovereignty, wisdom, and grace, take believers home to himself in death even though they no longer owe their death as a penalty. At this point, it becomes a wise, discretionary measure for the furtherance of the kingdom of God, its spread to every tribe, tongue, and nation through the sort of historical progress we have seen throughout Church history.
In conclusion, then, it seems there are three possible avenues for a defender of penal substitution to pursue in dealing with the problem of somatic death. Even more, we have reason to reflect upon the Lord’s mercy and wisdom, the unfathomable love and grace made manifest in the death of Christ, the benefits of which we enjoy even in our own deaths in Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria