I have struggled with the concept of the penal susbtitutionary sacrifice of Christ for a while. The idea (as it is usually presented) just does not make sense to me. As I think about it, and read about it, it seems I am (as usual) approaching the subject from the wrong end! I was looking at it phenomenologically, from the perspective of one who is saved looking out (or back) at the work of Christ. Turns out if I had looked at it from a different (better? correct?) angle the issue would be much reduced.
It turns out, in my ever-growing, ignorance I was unaware of alternatives to the substitutionary argument. Turns out this is a relative innovation. It was first formulated about 1000 years ago by Anselm, and was picked up, brushed off and put to good work by the Reformers about 500 years ago. But it is neither the ONLY explanation for Christ’s work, neither is it the final word.
The Bible proposes 3 (at least) different understandings of Christ’s redeeming work:
Briefly (because I am not fully knowledgeable about these things myself) #1 is what I would call the traditional Protestant understanding of Christ’s work: Jesus takes the wrath of God upon himself, so when the Father sees me He really sees Jesus and doesn’t take His (righteous) anger out on me. Obviously in this more juridical model great emphasis is placed on the "price paid", on the cost of my sin in Adam and on judgement.
To tell you the truth this view is quite complex and requires much mental juggling to comprehend, mostly because it is not plainly taught in Scripture! See here: http://www.the-highway.com/cross_Packer.html
Now Packer is a great mind, and I shy away from challenging such luminary, instead I honestly hope to be instructed by him as by any other wiser and saintlier Christian. But…if you need that much ink to explain a concept, especially by setting a complex backdrop to highlight your point, then I am at best suspicious. Say it another way: when you paint a picture for me you are (begningly) biasing my interpretation to your advantage. You are leading me down your logical paths. But you are not necessarily doing so from a completely Biblical position. You have to admit that you are doing it from your own series of prejudices and pressupositions. This is not truth, but logic. Consistent, yes. But it obscures as much as it illumines.
On the other hand I am a theological progressivist: our theology, these days, is better than it was in the past and not as good as it will be in the future. We simply know better than our forefathers int eh faith. Notice I do not say we know more. Peter knews Jesus better than I will ever do. The early Church knew the apostles better than I do. But the theology which I can learn and practice today is much more advanced than theirs. It took the church a few centuries to get its story straight. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example did not even begin to be part fo the discussion until tertullian in the 2nd century and not until Nicea did it become defined and codified. Today we have a very advanced doctrine of the Trinity which is many times better than Tertullian’s.
It is quite possible that #1 is theologically superior to the older formulations of the church.
For example, the Christus Victor tradition is probably closer to the original understanding of Christ’s work for the first millenium of the church’s exiostence. It is still the norm in Eastern Christianity. It places the emphasis on Christ trampling down sin, death and the power of the devil by his incarnation, death and resurrection. The incarnation and the resurrection play a big role in this. Christ brings humanity to himself and redeems us. The redemption occurs because he united us to Himself as he died on the cross. Further He then marches into Hell and frees the prisoners so that death no longer has dominion over us. That is a powerful bit of Good News! It also has its difficulties, of course (how exactly did Christ absorb "me" into Himself?).
The exemplary version (#3) shows Christ as leading by example, by doing what needs to be done to show us the way. This one I am having more difficulty in finding a tradition which will uphold it, perhaps something Jesuit? It has many things to commend it, mostly by by-passing all sorts of weird absorptions of a self into another self. But it runs the serious risk of turning grace into works. If I imitate Christ then I am saved? I am sure many of my Buddhist friends would have no issues accepting this – Christ as guru, I guess. Tricky.
Fast forward to my issue with the whole "Who is saved?" which approaches it form a psychological and biological angle. Only 3 can satisfy as an answer to the question, because it does not require positing an inflexible monad called "self", which is as real as an unicorn. On the other hand the Biblical evidence, which guides all my thinking, suggests a variety of answers to the question. Before doing much study (and therefore simply raising a research question) I would say that any explanation that talks about relationships is bound to be in firmer ground than one which expects some sort of neo-Platonic cosmology.
Nevertheless, it seems interesting that, as usual, what the Bible actually says is much more complex and nuanced. Penal susbtitutionary atonement is one option, but from some of the evidence not the first option that the Church chose to explain Christ’s work.