There are Christians who don’t believe that Jesus died in our place because of God’s punishment. That means they don’t believe in Penal Substitution Atonement. They have some other understanding of why Jesus had to die on the cross because it sounds abusive for God to punish an innocent man for the many. They instead say the blood itself cleanses us of sin, rather than saying Jesus died because he took God’s wrath in our place, but I don’t think we can reject PSA biblically.
PSA is evident in scripture. First, there is Hebrews 8-10 which explains how Jesus fulfills the need for animal sacrifices. Don’t the sacrifices and holidays point to Jesus and the work he would do on the cross? Then there is Isa 53:1-11 and 2 Corinthians 5:21. Isaiah 53:10 says it pleased God to punish him[the suffering servant] for the sins of many. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says (NLT), “God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin itself so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” In addition, there is the word “propitiation” used in the KJV for verses like Romans 3:25, 1 John 2:2, and 1 John 4:10. Propitiation means atonement, appeasement, and reconciliation which are all synonymous words used in other English translations. Is there an alternative way to translate hilastérion (ἱλαστήριον) used in Rom 3:25 or hilasmos (ἱλασμὸν) used in the two 1st John verses? Both of these words are based on hilaskomai (ἱλάσκομαι).
Hebrews 8-10 explains that the sacrificing of animals in the old testament was used to cover sins because these animals were a substitute for us and would die in our place because the cost of sin is death. On the 10th day of the last month of the Hebrew year, the Israelites observe the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), which is when all the sins of Israel were transferred to a scapegoat that was set free in the wilderness after sacrificing another goat. This practice was a foreshadowing of Jesus on the cross. In the new covenant, since Jesus died in our place, those who are in that covenant are made right with God. Animal sacrifices don’t need to be made anymore because Jesus fulfilled the law’s requirement for death in exchange for sin. Animals could only temporarily cover sin, but only a human death can fully cover human sins. However, no normal human could qualify because we all inherited sin nature from Adam, therefore it had to be a sinless human, and the messiah is that person.
Also, communion references the slain Passover lamb, from the Exodus 12 story. Jesus calls himself the “bread of life” in John 6, in reference to the unleavened bread. Leaven is often mentioned as an analogy for sin like when Paul says, “a little leaven spoils the whole lump” (1 Cor 5:6, Gal 5:9), referring to a little sin corrupting a whole congregation. Jesus is saying he is the sinless (unleavened) one. Jesus is also referred to as the lamb of God (John 1:28, 1 Peter 1:19). The lamb (or goat) that was slain during Passover, and the animal’s blood shielded the Israelites from death. Likewise, Jesus’ blood shields us from death which exists because of Adam’s sin (Rom 5:12-17). Furthermore in Exodus 13:1-16, God gives Israel instructions for the sacrifice of all firstborn males. In these instructions, all firstborn males both animals and humans were dedicated to God for sacrifice. The only expectations are unclean animals (like donkeys), which could be exchanged for clean animals (lamb or goat) or killed outside the camp, and humans who were ALWAYS exchanged for a clean animal. This exchange of a human for a clean animal is first seen with Abraham’s substitute of Isaac for a ram in Genesis 22. This represents why God is willing to sacrifice his son (born from Abraham’s seed) because Abraham the covenant man was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, who was the promised seed from which all nations would be blessed. It was from Isaac that the birthright transferred to Jacob/Israel, who became God’s “firstborn” nation and would inherit the promise to Abraham of the land of Canaan. Lastly, in Exodus 13:17-22 God says he destroyed the firstborns of Egypt because of how they treated his firstborn (the nation of Israel). Since Jesus is called “King of the Jews” when born (Matt 2:1-2) and crucified (Matt 27:11-37) and will rule from New Jerusalem in Israel when he returns (Revelations ch. 21), then that firstborn reference transfers to him from Israel. The Bible makes it pretty clear that PSA is the cosmic spiritual mechanism that God uses to execute the salvation of his people.
The only alternative to PSA that I can see is saying that the blood itself is like in the Exodus 12 story, it simply has the power to protect us. In Heb 9:14 it says “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” This passage focuses mostly on the blood’s power to take our sins. However, it was always my understanding that blood was just a reference to death since the shedding of blood causes death. As Paul said the wage of sin is death (Rom 6:23). Following that metaphor, blood is just the currency (Lev 17:11), and according to Genesis, death is the byproduct of Adam’s sin (Gen 2:15-17). Maybe some clues to an answer for this is the death penalty in the old covenant. The death penalty for moral laws, was necessary to prevent sin from spreading back then. A murderer was the only kind of sinner that couldn’t repent through sacrifice, nor be substituted with a ransom and had to be executed in order to cleanse the land of corruption (Num 35:30-34). The death penalty for murder was instituted in Gen 9:5-6, in response to the violence of Noah’s era. The pre-Flood era described in Gen 6:11 shows what happens when there is no death penalty. In Gen 4:23-24, Lamech took the mark of Cain which was a sign of mercy, and turned it into a reward for a competition that I call the “Murder Olympics”. They had to stop brutal and covenant-breaking sins like murder and adultery by “cutting people off” (execution) because it would have spread continuously which would cause chaos in the community. In the old covenant, no one had the holy spirit inside of them to help them overcome sin nature. Sin nature is what causes us to be hard-hearted toward God’s teachings. The holy spirit that was promised to be poured out on us and “circumcise” our hearts (Deut 30:6, Jer 4:4, Ez 36:25-27, Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2:16-21, Rom 2:29, and Col 2:11), giving us the power to overcome sin nature so that we could accomplish the task of keeping God’s commands.
Stoning people to death is no longer necessary because Jesus took our punishment on the cross as a substitute and the holy spirit gives believers the power to overcome sin and follow God’s will and instructions for our individual lives. Paul says “if you walk in the spirit and you will not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Gal 5:16-26), and he also said, “those who sow into the flesh reap corruption but those that sow into the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal 6:7-10). Jesus explained the purpose of the advocate (the holy spirit) in John 14:15-17 and John 15:26-27, and that is to help believers overcome the world, remind believers of his teachings so that they can overcome sin nature, and share the gospel effectively by testifying about him and empowered believers to defeat Satan’s forces. Jesus had to die in our place to take away sin’s power over us. His death was necessary so that we could become “new creatures” (2 Corinthians 5:17) with transformed hearts by giving us the holy spirit. The holy spirit is God’s presence and in the old covenant, no one could go into God’s presence unless s in a ritually pure state, however, Jesus’ work on the cross is what purified us (Heb10:22). Therefore, his death allowed believers to receive the holy spirit which qualifies them to receive the new sin-free bodies upon resurrection (Rom 8:23, 1 Cor 15:35-58, 2 Cor 5:1-10, Phil 3:20-21) and inherit the kingdom. In Matt 22:1-14 Jesus said we can only enter the Wedding Banquet (the Kingdom) with the proper “wedding clothes”. The new “clothes” are an analogy for being sanctified by the holy spirit based on Matt 22:11, Luke 24:49, Rom 13:14, Ep 4:24, Gal 3:27, 1 Pt 5:5-6, Col 3:12-14, and possibly including Rev 7:14, and 22:14, where the saints are wearing the new robes. However, God’s wrath is for everyone that rejects his ways and that is the default state of everyone who does not receive Jesus (John 3:18-21), this is why Jesus’ said salvation was like being born again (John 3:3-8) because by default we are all born in corruption. However, because of what he did, we are born again.