On Good Friday two billion Christians around the world turn their eyes to that mysterious event two thousand years ago when Jesus Christ died "for our sins". It is a time for somber, pietistic reflection. But it is also a time to ask the hard theological question: what does that mean?
Perhaps the most common explanation, at least among Protestants, is that it means "penal substitution". And this means that Jesus died for our sins by having the punishment owing to us imputed (that is, credited) to him. 2 Corinthians 5:21 is often cited as a "proof-text" for this view: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." In other words, the claim is that God imputed or credited our sin to Christ. And then God sacrificed Christ for it.
But what is this supposed to mean? The common analogies are economic: one person can pay another person's fine. So if you're a fifteen year old and you get caught with a case of Budweiser, I can pay your Minor in Possession fine. Sure. I understand that. But we're not talking about a fine here. Rather, we're talking about one person being killed for the sins of another. How does that make sense? I simply ask those who accept the theory of penal substitution without a pious second thought to ask this question.
Tragically enough, a terrible illustration of the problem surfaced this week. On Maundy Thursday Pakistan's Supreme Court issued what appears to be a heinous decision on the guilt of six men in a gang rape. The precise details of their decision are not our concern. But this is: the evil event in question occurred in 2002 when a young woman in Pakistan was sentenced to be gang-raped as punishment for the crimes of her brother. You heard me right. Her brother committed some sort of indiscretion. And as punishment, his sins were imputed to her so that she was sentenced with gang rape.
Think about that. But don't get preoccupied with the issue of rape. In fact, imagine for a second that instead of being sentenced to gang rape she was sentenced to a brutal crucifixion. Oh and also imagine that she willingly accepted her fate for the love of her brother. She agreed that she should be crucified for his indiscretions.
How you would raise a moral voice of protest to the notion that the sins of a brother could be imputed to his sister. You would consider that a moral absurdity. Even if his sister willfully accepted the blame for his sins you would protest. Why? Because she didn't commit the sins. If she is not guilty she cannot be punished for them, whether the punishment for the crime is gang rape, crucifixion, or a year's probation. The guilty party must be responsible for their own crime.
I offer this not as a blasmphemous attempt to lampoon popular piety but rather as a reasoned appeal for Christians the world over who appeal to penal substitution every good friday to rethink the logic of what it is they are commemorating on this, the most holy of days.