Penal substitution theory is problematic for many believers because it creates a very inconsistent image of God; on one hand we have Jesus who forgave the absolute worst of sin, and on the other we have the Father who is seemingly unable to forgive any sin. Not only that, but it creates a kind of narrative where God seems like some kind of child abuser, as He is only appeased by transfering the punishment for sin onto his Son, is an innocent victim. This view of atonement risks slandering the character of God, because Jesus said that “if you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” so how could anyone assume that God lacks the capacity of forgiveness?
When I look at Jesus’ character, I do not believe that God requires sacrifice or punishment for sin. Jesus himself emphasized that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. The statement that “Jesus paid the price for our sins” is an accurate metaphor for understanding Jesus’ death on the cross, however theologically it is a mystery, and there are other theories which make more sense than penal substitution.
This really deserves more explaination, because it is so important to understanding Christ. One of the earliest atonement theories was that Christ was victorious over the forces of sin and death, and thus has full authority over both heaven and earth. This theory is much more consistent with a loving God. There are also other theories that claim that Jesus death had a kind of “moral influence” on us, so that when we look at the cross and acknowledge the significance of sin (by believing that it literally killed God), we are truly repentant and thus able to receive God’s forgiveness.
However, my current (but evolving) understand is that God is a being of integrity with certain self-imposed ethical standards, and thus is only able to judge us fairly from a purely objective standpoint. Think about it – if God has not actually and subjectively experienced life as a human, then how can anyone, including perhaps God Himself, know if God is truly forgiving in nature?
In order to be ethical (righteous) in forgiving sin, God could only ethically do so from a standpoint of subjectively experiencing that sin, i.e. participating in humanity. If God has not lived with us, we could hypothetically petition to God that “it’s unfair of you to forgive that person who hurt me, because you just don’t understand how much pain they caused me, and only I should be able to forgive what was done to me”. No one though would be able to say that to Jesus, because in forgiving the absolute worst of sin, he demonstrated that God is able to forgive all sin.
Thus God needed to enter into the world to subjectively endure the worst injustice ever faced, while simultaneously giving the most love and forgiveness ever given. By doing this, he fulfiled his own standards of ethical integrety through Jesus, who then has full authority to unfairly pardon the sins of the world.
At the same time I recognize that this is just a theory, and I could be wrong, but I also believe that we were not meant to fully understand the spiritual significance of Jesus death. It is a kind of mystery, which has been put in alligorical terms (similar to Jesus use of parables) in order that the underlying truth might be understood by even small children. What is most important is that we believe that Jesus lovingly died for our sins as our saviour, and that following Him is the way to God.