A rather gifted Catholic apologist, Jimmy Akin, has just released an article entitled “Did God Punish Jesus on the Cross“? This, of course, was not meant to be an exhaustive argument against “Penal Substitution“, but I have a few comments to make on this which are related, and after writing them out, I realized they were deserving of an article form.
In the first place, it appears to me that when Mr. Akin says “penal sub“, he means the idea that God the Father breaks up his perfect union of charity in the Holy Spirit with His Son in order to inflict upon him hatred and damnation. If that is what he means, then sure, such a belief is completely contradictory to the Gospel. I can’t read his mind, and the article doesn’t make clear one way or the other. Today we hear many Catholics, especially Eastern Orthodox, rightly rejecting this idea as a Protestant heresy, but do not adequately give, in turn, a valid interpretation of something akin to Penal Substitution. After all, the Scripture does say that Christ became a curse for us (Gal 3). It would seem many wish to say that Christ’s crucifixion was merely an event with ontologically overcomes death for human nature, leaving all notions of punishment to abstractions or language-devices. This is popularly known as the Christus Victor atonement model. A tendency exists to want to relegate atonement to idea of medicine and nature-repair, particularly in the modern East.
Therefore, the reader of Akin’s article is left with more questions than answers. How did Christ pay our debt? He paid it with His blood. That is the constant teaching throughout the ages. We might want to theologize on this in the way St. Anselm or St. Thomas Aquinas do, which says that Christ’s humbling Himself to be a slave and then being hoisted upon the cross to die an ignominious death out of charity for His Father and the human race merits an infinite value which cancels out the infinite demerits of sins of the world. But it remains that he *died*, and specifically for the reason to bear our curse (Gal 3) in order to satisfy divine justice. As far as I’m concerned, this is the Patristic teaching, and it is beautifully articulated in St. Alphonsus Liguori’s “The Passion and Death of Jesus Christ“, from which I will link in the comments, and will provide a few snippets, and some commentary, below.
“St. Leo writes that this cry [My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?] of the Lord was not a lamentation, but a doctrine, because he thus desired to teach us how great is the wickedness of sin, which, as it were, compelled God to abandon His beloved Son without a comfort, because he had taken upon Him to make satisfaction for our sins. At the same time, Jesus was not abandoned by the divinity, nor deprived of the glory which had been committed to his blessed soul from the first moment of his creation; but he was deprived <<*of all sensible relief by which God is wont to comfort his faithful servants in their sufferings; and he was left in darkness, fear, and bitterness, pangs which were deserved by us*>>. This deprivation of the sensible consciousness of the divine presence was also endured by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemani; but that which He suffered on the cross was greater and more bitter. O Eternal Father, what offence had this Thy innocent and most obedient Son ever given Thee, that Thou shouldst punish him with a death so bitter? Look at him as he hangs upon this cross, with his head tortured with
thorns, as he hangs upon three iron nails, and is supported by his own wounds! All have abandoned him, even his own disciples, all deride Him upon the cross, and blaspheme him; and why hast Thou abandoned Him, who hast so greatly loved Him? We must understand that Jesus had taken upon Himself the sins of the world, although he was Himself the most holy of all men, and even sanctity itself; since He had taken upon Himself to satisfy for all our sins, he seemed the greatest of all sinners; and having thus made Himself guilty for all, he offered Himself to pay the price of all. Because we had deserved to be abandoned forever in hell to eternal despair, therefore he chose to be given up to a death deprived of every relief, that thus He might deliver us from eternal death” (Pg. 291-92)