Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Prodigal Son (Penal Substitution style)

I like the way this reworking of the Prodigal Son story highlights the stark difference between the Penal Substitution model of atonement and Jesus’s teaching on God’s forgiveness.

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, "Father, give me my share of the estate." So the father divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son went off to a distant country, squandered all he had in wild living, and ended up feeding pigs in order to survive. Eventually he returned to his father, saying, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me one of your hired servants." But his father responded: "I cannot simply forgive you for what you have done, not even so much as to make you one of my hired men. You have insulted my honor by your wild living. Simply to forgive you would be to trivialize sin; it would be against the moral order of the entire universe. For 'nothing is less tolerable in the order of things than for a son to take away the honor due to his father and not make recompense for what he takes away. 'Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid. My wrath—my avenging justice—must be placated.'"
"But father, please..." the son began to plead.
"No," the father said, "either you must be punished or you must pay back, through hard labor for as long as you shall live, the honor you stole from me."
Then the elder brother spoke up. "Father, I will pay the debt that he owes and endure your just punishment for him. Let me work extra in the field on his behalf and thereby placate your wrath." And it came to pass that the elder brother took on the garb of a servant and labored hard year after year, often long into the night, on behalf of his younger brother. And finally, when the elder brother died of exhaustion, the father's wrath was placated against his younger son and they lived happily for the remainder of their days.”

Taken from Robin Collins and Rebecca Adams, Understanding Atonement: A New and OrthodoxTheory (copyright 1995. A work still in progress)


  1. Interesting post! I don't adhere to penal substitution , and this post makes a good job of showing how penal substitution doesn't really make sense.

    If I may offer just one critique? A penal substitutionist may say that Jesus was obeying God until death on a cross, meaning that it wasn't just Jesus offering Himself as a sacrifice, but the Father giving His only son. Also a penal substitutionist may also say that the elder brother couldn't be Jesus, since in the story it represents the Pharisees, and even they would know that.

    Borderline straw man?

  2. Hi mate. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree with your critique. I think the idea of the piece was to write something jarring, that woke people up to how incompatible penal substitutionary ideas are with Jesus storytelling. But your right, it doesn't stand up to detailed scrutiny. Hopefully it'll make people think though.