Naysayers of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, like Darrin Belousek, often begin their objections to the doctrine by describing it as something like this:
[God] cannot tolerate sin and so must judge sin by punishing sinners with death… [source]
The trouble is that this is a rhetorical setup, skewing the question to present the doctrine as a distortion of the character of God — as though God has no patience, as though God does not also love sinners, as though God is a perfectionistic tyrant, and anybody with an ounce of biblical sense is already put off and wonders who these PSA freaks are.
But it turns out that this is a very naive and uncharitable way of presenting the doctrine. Does God associate with sinners? Does He tolerate sin ever? Absolutely. Are you alive? Do sinners experience any of the good gifts of God? All the time. Does the sun shine on the wicked; do they get cool summer rain too? Yep, that too. Did God ever tolerate Israel’s sin? Was Jesus patient with the disciples? Does God ever allow any of our sin to go unpunished for a time? Definitely. Otherwise, the human race would have been over five minutes out of the Garden of Eden.
Ok, but is there any sense in which God cannot tolerate sin? Here it’s worth unpacking what sin actually is. Sin is not the opposite of God’s preferences, His least favorite colors and flavors condemned for eternity. It’s not like sin is vanilla and God is chocolate-obsessed. Sin is death. Sin is poison. Sin is a little bit of Hell here on earth. And it’s laced with a Satanic concoction of lies and false pleasure which makes it look and feel and seem harmless.
So if all sin is a cancer, a deadly venom which untreated will inevitably lead to eternal death — can God tolerate that in His world? Can the Good God, the Creator God, the Savior God let His good creation destroy itself and go to Hell? No, God cannot tolerate that. God cannot tolerate that His word of blessing on the created order should ultimately turn back on itself and become a lie. His benediction on the universe (“very good”) was as much an oath as any word God has ever spoken — a promise that this world is and will be very good. Therefore, when evil entered the world God’s justice was at stake — His trustworthiness. Can God’s word be broken? Can His oath, His promise, can His goodness be undone? No, God would not tolerate this. In His great and unbreakable love, He would not let this go. His blessing would win out. And so in this sense, God will not tolerate sin. He cannot let the cancer go. He will not let the serpent’s venom succeed. He has declared war on all sin, all evil. He loves His good creation and especially His sons and daughters who bear His image, so He hates what sin and death do to His good creation.
And this brings us to God’s wrath, His punishment of sin. The Bible teaches that the Law was introduced to do a number of different things simultaneously. First, it was introduced to increase sin — it was meant to draw out the sin, to expose the sin, to provoke the sin in some ways. When the command comes, disobedience is not far behind. Second, the law was introduced to discourage sin. Yes, that may sound at odds with the first purpose, but it actually isn’t. It is actually meant to create a sort of container for the sins of the world. It draws out sin in one sense, and in another sense it contains it, or restrains the worst sorts of sin. And finally, the law is a tutor, a teacher, pointing away from itself ultimately to Christ, the Messiah, our Savior.
If these purposes are biblical, then we can posit at least a few ways in which God’s wrath functions. First, God’s wrath in some contexts means God letting us choose sin and letting us bear the consequences of those choices. God’s wrath is turning us over to sin (Rom. 1). Second, God’s wrath is a preventative measure, the rod of God’s discipline prevents evil from growing further. God did this on a massive scale at the flood and on smaller scales with specific individuals, cities, and nations that were excessively evil. Ultimately, God’s wrath is the final sentence of unrepentant sinners to eternal torment in Hell. But the more immediate goal of God’s wrath was always stopping every mouth, that the whole world might become guilty before God (Rom. 2). Why? In order that they might turn in faith to Christ and escape the wrath to come.
But this is the point: “punishing sinners with death” is a very simplistic and clunky way of putting the facts. Sinners are terrorists, consciously or unconsciously spreading the fire of death through the world, infected with sin and spreading an epidemic. Death is God’s merciful limitation of evil. It can only consume so far, so long. He visits the sins of fathers on the children only to the third or fourth generation. He dilutes the sin and cuts off the worst unrepentant offenders, but He shows mercy to thousands of generations. He lets His grace and mercy pile up. Yes, death is the sentence for sin, but it’s also the natural end of sin. It’s what sin does. God’s wrath is pouring out this death with extraordinary fierceness by removing His ordinary gracious protection. He justly gives us the end of the barrel we are demanding He give. And ultimately, for the unrepentant, this results in the justice of Hell.
So yes, it’s true, God cannot tolerate allowing sinners to go their own way off the steep cliff of sin into eternal death, and yes, death is the natural and supernatural consequence of sin. But the entire point of the penal substitutionary atonement is that God in His great love sent His only-begotten Son to bear that judgment, to become the curse for us, to draw all the venom of sin and death to Himself, to bear that wrath which we rightly deserve in His own body. Death for death, life for life: He gave His life as a ransom for many, so that the guilty might go free. Hardly the picture of a perfectionistic tyrant, more like a Savior, more like a Hero.