Does Punishment Bring Peace? Atonement and Punishment Theory

Dani Ross
Monday 10 January 2022

By: Oliver D. Crisp

Down through the centuries many Christians have believed that the right way to think about how Christ is said to reconcile fallen human beings to Godself is in terms of his receiving the punishment due for human sin on the cross. Or, if not the punishment strictly speaking, then the penalty due for our sin that would be a punishment if we, as the guilty parties, were the ones actually suffering the harsh treatment that Christ suffers on the cross. Christ suffers and dies in our place. He takes on the penalty of our sin. These are all traditional theological claims.

But they are all problematic—or so it seems to me. One of the major issues in the background to these theological debates is in fact a matter of jurisprudence, namely, punishment theory. We might put it like this: what is the particular account of punishment at work in these ways of thinking about atonement, and what justification for punishment (if any) is offered by those theologians who adopt this sort of approach? Unsurprisingly perhaps, there is sophisticated literature on the subject of punishment in contemporary legal theory. Lawyers worry a lot about the reasons for punishing someone, and the justification that might be offered for treating someone in the manner that punishment requires. This is particularly true in the area of criminal law. As legal scholar Hyman Gross puts it, “There is in fact hardly any issue of importance in criminal justice that does not query, at least implicitly, the reason we engage in the notoriously brutal practice of criminal punishment.… In view of the momentous importance of getting it right, and in view of the dreadfulness of what is being justified, there are compelling reasons why the standard for the justification of criminal punishment must be very demanding and must be rigorously applied to exclude proposals that do not make punishment a matter of strict necessity.” (Gross 2012, 9)

In recent atonement theology, William Lane Craig has attempted to bring some of this work being done by legal scholars to the discussion of the doctrine of penal substitution (Craig, 2020), in order to show that the language of vicarious punishment is not as problematic as is sometimes thought. And no wonder. In matters pertaining to criminal punishment and closely related philosophical issues in moral philosophy (like desert and culpability), it is worth drawing on the expertise of legal scholars to help us make sense of the application of punishment theory to atonement doctrine. This is hardly a new thought. Twenty-five years ago Timothy Gorringe did something similar in his treatment of the theological dimension to criminal punishment in his monograph, God’s Just Vengeance—a book that still repays careful reading. (Gorringe, 1997)

It might be thought that using legal theory in this way means importing alien categories into theology, transforming and distorting the theological content of our arguments in the process. (Think of the way in which a virus introduced to the body can change biological functions, often with very serious consequences.) We don’t want that! But surely this is not a forced dilemma. One can find expertise in another, related intellectual field of use in one’s research. It might even throw new light on old questions.

Since the 1950s Anglo-American legal scholars have worked hard at getting a clearer picture of legal punishment. (See Schiede 1980) This surely has a bearing on theological topics like atonement. There is something like a consensus in much jurisprudence that legal punishment involves the following five tenets:

  1. It must involve pain or other consequences normally considered unpleasant;
  2. It must be for an offence against legal rules;
  3. It must be the punishment of an actual or supposed offender for his offence;
  4. It must be intentionally administered by human beings other than the offender;
  5. It must be imposed and administered by an authority constituted by a legal system against which the offence is committed.

Sometimes an expressive function is added to these five tenets—that is, the idea that we don’t approve of the crime committed and as a community express our unhappiness collectively in the punishment that is served on the perpetrator.

Now, clearly, this has a legal context not a theological one. But the leap from one to the other is not terribly difficult to make, especially for those who adopt some substitutionary account of atonement that involves Christ suffering our punishment or the penalty for our sin. How might this help? Well, for one thing it might help us get a clearer picture of the limits of punishment in its theological application. We might ask ourselves: is this what reconciliation looks like? Is this the sort of thing that Christ’s atonement consists in? My suggestion is that in reflecting on the concatenation between legal theory and theology on this matter, there might still be important things yet to be said—and important new avenues of research that may take us away from the tradition of penal substitution to other ways of conceiving Christ’s saving work. Theologians may have much to learn from such interactions.



Craig, William Lane (2020) Atonement and the Death of Christ: An Exegetical, Historical, and Philosophical Exploration. Waco: Baylor University Press.

Gorringe, Timothy (1996) God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gross, Hyman (2012) Crime and Punishment: A Concise Moral Critique. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scheide, Don E. (1980) ‘Note on Defining “Punishment”’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy 10.3: 453-462.


Oliver Crisp is the Deputy Head of School of Divinity and Professor of Analytic Theology and Director of the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology. He joined the University of St Andrews Divinity School in the autumn of 2019, having previously taught at Fuller Theological Seminary in California (2011-2019), the University of Bristol (2006-2011), and St Andrews (2002-2004). He has also held postdoctoral research fellowships at the Center for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame (2004-5;2019), and the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton (2008-9).

He is best known for his work in analytic theology, and is a Senior Editor of the Journal of Analytic Theology, and a series co-editor (with Professor Michael Rea) of the Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology. He also organises the annual Los Angeles Theology Conference series with Professor Fred Sanders, and is co-chair of the Christian Systematic Theology Unit for the American Academy of Religion. 


Photo by Ivana Cajina on Unsplash

Related topics