Critique of Penal Substitution Atonement Theory and Its Influence on the American Death Penalty

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Shippen, Joseph Jenkins II
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School of Theology Thesis 2016 , Death penalty in America , American prison system , Atonement theology
This thesis examines Christian atonement theology and how it relates to the American prison system, especially the death penalty. In particular, it explores the ways that penal substitution theory has influenced the development of the American prison system. It also focuses on the ways that penal substitution theory has been influenced by secular penal theory and legal philosophy. My thesis is that the Christian approach to the American prison system and the death penalty in particular should be driven by an atonement theology derived primarily from narrative Christus Victor theory rather than penal substitution theory. Based upon scripture and theologians from the early through the contemporary church, I explore the implications of this atonement theology on the Christian response to the American system of mass incarceration, especially with regards to the practice of death penalty. This thesis shows that the satisfaction family of atonement theories is deeply flawed, and, to some extent, the moral influence family of atonement theories is flawed as well. As a basis for my argument, I do an in-depth study of the Suffering Servant and messiahship traditions. I then show that the New Testament writers primarily looked to these two traditions to understand their experience with Jesus Christ and then to witness to his atoning life, death, and resurrection. These two traditions and how they are appropriated by the New Testament writers form the basis of my critique of satisfaction and moral influence theories of the atonement in favor of narrative Christus Victor. This thesis argues that, especially since Anselm proposed his satisfaction theory, atonement theories have powerfully shaped individual, communal, and societal responses to wrongdoing. I show that the satisfaction and moral influence theories of atonement developed at the same time that western legal and penal philosophies and practices were developing. These legal and penal philosophies and atonement theories have had a great impact upon each other and, at times, have even been dependent upon each other. I show that penal substitution theory has provided the ideological justification for the development of the retributivist policies of the American prison system. I argue in favor of a restorative and nonviolent response to wrongdoing based upon the ancient Christian sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, and Reconciliation and the narrative Christus Victor theology embodied in these practices. A primary goal of this thesis is for it to be a resource to pastors, in both parish and prison settings, as they reflect on preaching the cross in American society. It will do so by showing both that the penal substitution theology, which has underpinned the death penalty and the American system of mass incarceration, is unhealthy and deeply flawed and that retributivist penal philosophy has influenced what has become the dominant atonement theology of the western church. A better approach is urgently needed, and to find it Christians need look no further than the writings of the New Testament and sacramental practices of the church. This thesis endeavors to do just that.