Penal Substitutionary Atonement is Still Valid, Despite Mass Incarceration

This post is a second part of a review of a recent volume arguing against mass incarceration. I elected to post this portion of the critique separate from the initial summary review because the primary issue of the book is important and the positive potential of the book in facilitating a discussion of mass incarceration should not get buried by the significant problems in the theological argumentation of the book. However, the overall argumentation of the book against penal substitutionary atonement, which is a large portion of the second half of the book, deserves further critique.


There are several significant flaws in the latter portion of the recently released book, Rethinking Incarceration. The first problem is methodological, the author relies almost exclusively on secondary and tertiary sources for historical data. Gilliard makes sweeping generalizations about, for example, the Puritans while only citing one source two or three times in a particular chapter. This pattern is repeated with his survey of the history of the penal substitutionary atonement, which he erroneously begins with Augustine. In his summary of the atonement in the writings of Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, and Aquinas, Gilliard cites Thomas twice from an original source. He uses quotations from the others but draws them from secondary sources. This is problematic because it is clear in his summary of the doctrine, that Gilliard does not adequately understand the doctrines that he is critiquing and is relying on the interpretations of others to formulate his argument. There are several points where the theology he is describing is unrecognizable to someone familiar with the primary sources.

A second major problem is also methodological and has to do with an overreliance on a few preferred sources. In the chapter on early American prison reforms, the author cites one book by Jennifer Graber so many times that it is unclear what independent thought went into the chapter. It also raises the question why a young associate professor in a religion department at a Texas state school should dominate a critical chapter of the volume, which is intended to substantially transform the contemporary understanding of a central Christian doctrine. Additionally, when the same chapter uses the term “Protestant reformer” repeatedly to refer to Quakers engaged in work toward prison reform, rather than to refer to the Protestant Reformers as they are commonly understood, it leads to questions about the author’s basic understanding of theology. The theological analysis of the entire section is also made less plausible by the failure to deal with the important question of (a) whether Quakers are actually Christian, (b) if they are Christian, whether they can assumed to be Protestants (unless that means simply not Roman Catholic), and (c) given their marginal nature within the Christian tradition due to heterodox beliefs, whether the work of the Quakers can be considered representative of the broader Protestant tradition. It is not clear whether this analytical ambiguity is native to Gilliard or if it resides in the only published monograph of his major source.

 Used by CC License:

Used by CC License:

The second point leads into a third problem, which is a failure to deal with any counter arguments. Gilliard stacks up a lot of arguments against penal substitutionary atonement, but because he uses critics who do not actually hold to penal substitutionary atonement to prove his point, none of his criticisms stick. Additionally, a casual reader should be left with questions about why one would hold to the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement when Gilliard has arrayed such a strong group of quotes from people that oppose it, which may be the purpose of writing this sort of book. The major issue is that his failure to engage proponents of penal substitutionary atonement means that his thesis is largely based on hearsay and, based on the evidence he provides, is not logically valid.

In order for the theological argument in Rethinking Incarceration to be valid, it would need to have several coherent premises:

P1. Mass incarceration is a problem.
P2. Penal Substitutionary Atonement is theologically incorrect.
P3. Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory necessarily leads to mass incarceration.
C1. Therefore, to solve the problem of mass incarceration, Christians must abandon Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

Gilliard does an adequate job, especially for a popular level book, in supporting premise one, which is an important accomplishment.

However, because of the weakness of the research, as represented by the book he has written, Gilliard provides very little support for premise two. He has amassed a number of voices calling for a doctrinal distortion of Christianity and mashed in some unsupported theological statements from his own perspective, but he never actually engages with an adherent of this one particular theory of the atonement.

In lieu of researching the position that Gilliard is critiquing, he substitutes assertions like the following paragraph:

“Penal substitution is a reductionistic theory that forsakes the embodied life, ministry, and relationships of Jesus, reducing Christ’s body to punitive surrogacy. Penal substitutionary says Jesus merely came into the world to clean up our mess. Outside of establishing the possibility of reconciliation (not by love), nothing else about Jesus matters, not the Spirit descending on him after his baptism, his inauguration of the kingdom of God, or his calling and sending of the disciples.” (pg. 159)

Notably, this paragraph is not a summary of a lengthy argument on this point, but a representative sample of the critical engagement offered in this volume.

The presentation Gilliard offers is certainly reductionistic. While it would be fair to say that at times evangelical Christians pay too little attention to other valid theories of the atonement, there are few, if any, Christians who would recognize their theology in the summary statements Gilliard offers. Even without raising the level of expectation of this popular level book to that of a scholarly monograph, it is fairly clear that Gilliard did not do his homework and is relying upon his readers to be similarly theologically ignorant.

The evidence Gilliard provides for premise three, however, is even less helpful. At best, Gilliard’s argument that penal substitutionary atonement theory necessarily leads to mass incarceration is based on an association between correlation and causation:

P4. Some people that have been disinterested in the problem of mass incarceration (i.e., conservative evangelicals) hold to the penal substitutionary atonement.
P5. There are people who are engaged in the problem of mass incarceration who deny the penal substitutionary atonement.
C2. Therefore, belief in the penal substitutionary atonement causes people to be disinterested in the problem of mass incarceration.

Causal claims that move from doctrine to application are notoriously hard to defend for several reasons. Among them are the reality that many people do not always live consistently with the implications of the doctrines they believe. This may be because they legitimately disregard their doctrine for convenience, or it could be because they simply have not worked out a particular implication of their doctrine. Thus, for example, someone may have legitimately sound theology, but fail to recognize an inconsistency due to his or her cultural blinders. A second reason it is difficult as a critic to sufficiently defend causal connections between doctrine and a particular act is that, if the act is truly reprehensible, those who hold the doctrine would be able to articulate a reason certain doctrines do not lead to certain outcomes.

Gilliard is unable to overcome either of these difficulties because he fails to do the basic work of interacting with the primary sources (or anyone critical to his position) to develop his claim. In other words, Gilliard provides absolutely no evidence from the population he is critiquing to substantiate his claim. This makes his unconvincing plea to abandon the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement even less compelling than it otherwise would be.

A major problem in this volume is that the theological argument is driven by the desire for a different ethical outcome. That is, Gilliard is asking his audience to reject penal substitutionary atonement because it leads to systemic injustice, by his account. However, if penal substitutionary atonement is true and it leads to mass incarceration, then the logical conclusion is that mass incarceration is right.

As I have argued elsewhere, theology must precede ethics. When ethics becomes the motive force of theology, it often leads to different and increasingly severe doctrinal errors in other areas.

More significantly, making such fallacious arguments, particularly when attempting to convince the audience to abandon traditional Christian doctrines, often leads that audience to reject both the revisionist theology and the ethical claims that are obviously driving it. In other words, Gilliard risks causing a critical audience to reject the proper concern for the systemic injustice of mass incarceration by unnecessarily (and incoherently) tying a particular doctrine to a particular ethical outcome. It leads the people being criticized to make the opposite assumption that, since penal substitutionary atonement is biblically faithful, if it leads to mass incarceration then mass incarceration must be acceptable. This is similar to the effect the repeated efforts of revisionist Christians to criticize the theology of orthodox Christians into supporting the environment; the result has been a disinterest or outright aversion to proper biblical stewardship of creation. We can hope that Gilliard’s poor argumentation does not lead to the same effect on the issue of mass incarceration.

To continue to raise point after point where the argumentation of this volume is insufficiently supported risks digressing into abusive fisking. It is sufficient to say that this is another attempt to subvert the orthodox Christian doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement that has been done so poorly as to potentially hinder the author’s cause of theological revision.