Penal Substitution and the “Somatic Death Objection”
By: Christopher Woznicki
Among certain Protestants—especially those within the evangelical-Reformed tradition—the penal substitutionary model of atonement of atonements holds a prominent place. On a weekly basis adherents of this tradition speak of Christ’s work on the cross in sermons, hymns, and confessions in such a way that Christ is seen as a substitute on behalf of sinners by bearing the punishment that sinners deserved—or at the very least bearing what would be considered a punishment if they had suffered it themselves. To them, hearing of Christ’s substitutionary punishment is good news, if not the greatest news they could hear. But it should come as no surprise to the readers of this blog that despite its privileged position among those belonging to this tradition, the doctrine itself is not without problems!
One can find numerous objections to penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) in academic texts, popular blogs, and, increasingly, across social media – especially Tik Tok and Twitter. In fact an entire sub-genre of Tik Tok seems dedicated to exposing the weakness of an articulation of Christ’s work that its audiences have heard growing up in evangelical churches.
Setting aside Tik-Tok theologians for the moment, it’s a worthwhile task to distinguish between the various types of objections of PSA made by academic theologians. PSA objections can be classified as subjective and objective. Subjective objections concern the problematic effects that the doctrine might have upon individuals or society. Objective objections concern the problematic elements of the doctrine itself. Objections of both sorts tend to consist of updated and improved versions of former objections. Thus, an objection is raised, a response is received, and a stronger version of the objection is put forth. At least this is how the literature on PSA has tended to go. Recently, however, in the process of making their case for a model of atonement called “Reparative Substitution,” Joshua Farris and S. Mark Hamilton have articulated a largely ignored objection to PSA, one aptly called: The Somatic Death Objection.
What is this objection? Briefly stated, the objection goes as follows: Bodily death (i.e., somatic death) of human persons is the legal penalty for sin. Christ’s death pays the debt of punishment human beings owe; as such, humans for whom Christ died should not experience somatic death. Otherwise, the punishment for the same offense would be rendered twice; this would be unjust. Yet, humans still experience somatic death. This makes it seem as though the penalty for sin is rendered twice for those who suffer a somatic death and have had Christ die as their penal substitute. Therefore, it would seem that, as an explanation of what Christ accomplishes, PSA fails, or at the very least PSA defenders “have some explaining to do.”
What is the adherent of PSA to do? As I see it, they have at least two possible recourses in this situation.
The Eschatological Response
According to Farris and Hamilton it is a given that all humans—even those for whom Christ died as a penal substitute—die a somatic death. Perhaps one could deny this overwhelmingly intuitive claim. After all, in recent years there have been some philosophical proposals concerning personal eschatology that might be compatible with the denial of somatic death. Consider for example Kevin Corcoran and Dean Zimmerman’s “Falling Elevator Model” or Peter van Inwagen’s “Simulacrum” view. According to the former model, immediately prior to death, bodies fission in two, much like some bacteria undergo binary fission. On this account, God intervenes miraculously to cause the body of the elect to fission such that the body “jumps” into the afterlife while the old one stays behind. According to the later view, “at the moment of each man’s death, God removes his corpse and replaces it with a simulacrum, which is what is burned or rots.” That is, when someone dies, God replaces the original body with a simulacrum and the original body is taken into a suspended state. Neither view requires that God performs a miraculous intervention prior to the somatic death of the believer, but it is conceivable that God could. Of course, objections to these two views are manifold, so I won’t address those here. Moreover, exegetically we have good reasons to believe that all humans—except for Enoch and Elijah and those who are alive at the time of Christ’s second coming—in fact die. The author of Hebrews states, “it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment…” (Hebrews 9:27 NRSV) Even if Enoch and Elijah and those who are alive at the time of Christ’s second coming do not die, the majority of believers—those for whom Christ has paid the penalty as a substitute—still die and the Somatic Death Objection still seems to obtain. What other option does the PSA defender have? Perhaps they can challenge the notion that somatic death is the legal penalty for sin.
The Consequence of Sin is Somatic Death
Somatic death, in and of itself, need not be understood as the legal penalty of sin. It can be understood as a mere consequence of sin. Perhaps we can speak of somatic death* as a penal consequence of sin. To motivate this distinction between “somatic death” and “somatic death*” it ought to define the difference between mere consequences and penal consequences.
Penal Consequences: P, who is part of Group G, receives hard treatment (H), which expresses moral condemnation (E), by a legitimate authority (A), for P’s failure to conform to a certain standard (F).
Mere Consequences: P, who is part of Group G, receives hard treatment (H), by a legitimate authority (A), because they belong to a group that has failed to conform to a certain standard (F).
The distinction between mere consequences and penal consequences allows us to say that guilty and innocent parties who are part of one group may receive the same hard treatment from a legitimate authority while denying the fact that the hard treatment is a punishment. For example, think of the case of exile after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. In this event, the hard treatment was being sent off into captivity. The idolaters and the innocent were both sent off into captivity. For the idolater’s captivity was a penal consequence, whereas for the innocent it a mere consequence. With the distinction between mere consequences and penal consequences in place we can now ask the question, what is the difference between somatic death and somatic death*? This explanation involves a “just-so-story.” Consider the following:
The primal pair commits the primal sin and thus are guilty. As such they are liable to a penal consequence, namely somatic death*. Their progeny, while not guilty until they commit actual sins, are born with a corrupted human nature. Part and parcel of their corrupted nature is that they will die. The fact that they die a somatic death is a mere consequence of being descendants of the primal pair. When the primal pair’s progeny commit actual sins, somatic death which previous to having committed an actual sin, was a mere consequence now becomes a penal consequence. We can call somatic death which is a penal consequence “somatic death*.”
So what is the relevant difference between somatic death and somatic death*? It is that somatic death*, unlike somatic death, includes an additional component, namely an expression of God’s moral condemnation. Let us now define somatic death as a mere consequence and somatic death as a penal consequence:
Somatic Death as a Mere Consequence: P, who is part of the human race, receives hard treatment (death) by a legitimate authority (God), because they belong to a group that failed to conform to a certain standard (Adam’s family).
Somatic Death as a Penal Consequence: P, who is part of the human race, receives hard treatment (death) which expresses moral condemnation, by a legitimate authority (God) for P’s failure to conform to a certain standard (by committing actual sins).
This distinction allows us to say that all humans die while denying that death always is a punishment for sin. The fact that we can affirm that all humans die while denying that somatic death always is a punishment for sin allows us to overcome the Somatic Death Objection. How so?
I suggest that when Christ acts as a penal substitute for sinners, he takes on the penal consequence, somatic death*, for sinners. Thus, those who have put their faith in Christ no longer die a somatic death*. However, just because Christ pays the penal consequence for sin that does not mean that those who have put their faith in Christ no longer have to deal with the mere consequences of sin, namely somatic death. For those who are in Christ, somatic death is still a harsh consequence, but one which one ought not expect to be removed by Christ acting as a penal substitute because somatic death is not a penalty for sin. Somatic death paired with an expression of condemnation, however, is a punishment. Because of Christ’s penal substitutionary work, those who are in Christ die but without the expression of condemnation from God.
Farris and Hamilton ask, “Why is it that persons for whom his [Christ’s] atonement is effectual for still suffer somatic death?” By my lights we can respond by saying that atonement covers somatic death as a penal consequence but not somatic death as a mere consequence. While the categories I’ve employed in this response might be novel, the type of response is not. Question 42 of Hercules Collin’s Orthodox Catechism asks, “Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?” The catechism anticipates that some would wonder why we have to pay a penalty—namely death—if Christ had already paid that penalty. If humans die as a penalty for sin and Christ paid that penalty, then PSA would be liable to a double-payment objection. But the catechism denies that the death of those who are in Christ is a penalty. It teaches, ‘Our death is not a payment for our sins, but it puts an end to our sin and is an entrance into eternal life.’ Similarly, Question 85 of the Westminster Larger Catechism asks, ‘Death Being the wages of sin, why are not the righteous delivered from death, seeing all their sins are forgiven in Christ?’ The catechism answers: “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 clearest early Reformed response to the type of objection raised by Farris and Hamilton comes from Herman Witsius. He raises a hypothetical objection to the Reformed understanding of atonement saying, “But you say believers are still to die; and therefore Christ did not satisfy for them by his death.” Witsius responds, “By the death of Christ, death has ceased to be what it was before, the punishment inflicted by an offended judge, and the entrance into the second death, and has become the extermination of sin and the way to eternal life.” Death is no longer considered penal in nature, though we can still affirm that in and of itself death is not a good to be obtained. All that to say, the fact that humans die a somatic death, even though Christ has paid the legal penalty for their sins, need not worry advocates of PSA.
 Joshua Farris and S. Mark Hamilton, ‘The Logic of Reparative Substitution: Contemporary Restitution Models of Atonement, Divine Justice, and Somatic Death,’ Irish Theological Quarterly 83 (2017): 62–77.
 Farris and Hamilton, “The Logic of Reparative Substitution,” 73.
 Kevin Corcoran, “Physical Persons and Postmortem Survival,” in Soul, Body, and Survival: Essays on the Metaphysics of Human Persons, ed. Kevin Corcoran (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 201–217; Dean Zimmeran, ‘The Compatibility of Materialism and Survival: The “Falling Elevator” Model,’ Faith and Philosophy 16 (2): 194—212; ‘Bodily Resurrection: The Falling Elevator Model Revisited,’ in Personal Identity and Resurrection, ed. Georg Gasser (Burlington: Ashgate, 2010), 33–50.
 Peter van Inwagen, The Possibility of Resurrection and Other Essays in Christian Apologetics (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998), 49.
 Peter van Inwagen, Material Beings (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 147.
 On the expressive function of punishment see Joel Feinberg, Doing and Deserving: Essays in the Theory of Responsibility (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 98 and Mark Murphy, ‘Not Penal Substitution but Vicarious Punishment,’ Faith and Philosophy 26 (2009): 255–256. William Lane Craig has recently challenged objections to PSA based on the expressivist aspect of punishment, see, Atonement and the Death of Christ (Waco: Baylor, 2020), 155–161.
 Published in 1680, this Baptist catechism is developed in light of the Heidelberg Catechism but modified around Baptist convictions.
 Herman Witsius, Economy of Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending A Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837) 2.6.45.
 For a more comprehensive version of this argument see, Christopher Woznicki, “Revisiting the Somatic Death Objection to Penal Substitution: Original Sin and the Nature of Consequences” Irish Theological Quarterly 87 (2022): 50-65. Here I also present how one could present my argument in a way that maintains original guilt as part of original sin.
Christopher Woznicki is an Affiliate Assistant Professor in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, USA. He has published various articles in theology and philosophy of religion. His research has appeared in journals such as Calvin Theological Journal, Journal of Reformed Theology, Neue Zeitschrift fur Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie, and Philosophia Christi, among others. He is the author of the forthcoming book, T. F. Torrance’s Christological Anthropology: Discerning Humanity in Christ (Routledge).
Featured image by Chris Guan on Unsplash
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