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Defending Substitution

An Essay on Atonement in Paul

series: Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology

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In recent decades, the church and academy have witnessed intense debates concerning the concept of penal substitution to describe Christ's atoning sacrifice. A number of theologians, New Testament scholars, and authors of popular Christian literature have taken issue with the concept, claiming that it promotes bloody violence, glorifies suffering and death, and inevitably amounts to divine child abuse. On the other hand, others have defended penal substitution, arguing that the concept plays a pivotal role in classical Christian doctrine.

In this volume, world-renowned New Testament scholar Simon Gathercole offers an exegetical and historical defense of the traditional substitutionary view of the atonement. Gathercole provides critical analyses of various interpretations of the atonement and places New Testament teaching in its Old Testament and Greco-Roman contexts, demonstrating that the interpretation of atonement in the Pauline corpus must include the concept of penal substitution. Professors and students of New Testament and early Christianity, the history of Christian doctrine, and contemporary systematic theology will value this work.

About the Series
The Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology series, sponsored by Acadia Divinity College, offers critical assessments of the major issues that the church faces in the twenty-first century. Authored by leading authorities in the field, these studies provide readers with requisite orientation and fresh understanding to enable them to take part meaningfully in discussion and debate.

The Importance of Substitution
Defining Substitution: Christ in Our Place
Criticisms of Substitution
1. Exegetical Challenges to Substitution
The Tübingen Understanding of Representative "Place-Taking"
Interchange in Christ
Apocalyptic Deliverance
The Omission or Downplaying of "Sins"
2. "Christ Died for Our Sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3)
The Importance of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4
"According to the Scriptures"
Substitution in 1 Corinthians 15:3
Excursus: An Objection--Why, Then, Do Christians Still Die?
3. The Vicarious Death of Christ and Classical Parallels (Rom. 5:6-8)
The Translation of Romans 5:6-8
A Sketch of the Exegesis
Vicarious Deaths in Classical Tradition
The Comparison in Romans 5:6-8


"The meaning of Jesus's death remains controversial. In this short exploratory study Simon Gathercole draws on a range of classical as well as biblical sources to argue that for Paul, at least, the notion of substitution remained central. Many questions remain, but this book will give new energy to the ongoing discussion."

N. T. Wright, Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of St. Andrews, Scotland

"Why is Good Friday good? According to one classic answer to this question, Jesus's shameful and violent death belongs to the good news of the gospel because he died in our place. By careful and lucid analysis of key passages, Simon Gathercole shows that this view has deep roots both in Paul's texts and in his Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural heritage. Often criticized and caricatured, the concept of substitution is integral to the New Testament's conviction that Christ died 'for us' and 'for our sins.'"

Francis Watson, research chair in biblical interpretation, Durham University

"Can Christ's work of atonement be substitutionary in nature? Though Reformation Protestantism has replied in the affirmative, much recent scholarship has tended to have a negative view of this atonement motif. Simon Gathercole is to be congratulated for intervening in this debate with a short, clear, and lively book that argues the case for a substitutionary motif from a biblical perspective, and with an eye to both the Christian tradition and recent debates in the literature. This is a work all those interested in the atonement will want to read and engage. It is certainly a book I shall be recommending to my students."

Oliver D. Crisp, Fuller Theological Seminary

"In this little book, Simon Gathercole carefully and convincingly dismisses false dichotomies. The death of Christ is presented in the Bible as both representative and substitutionary. These learned and lucid lectures use the prism of modern disputes to take us to the heart of Pauline teaching on the cross. I highly commend it."

Mark Dever, pastor, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC

"Addressing a hot topic in Pauline studies, Gathercole's Defending Substitution agrees with those who see Christ's death as one in which believers participate and as effecting apocalyptic deliverance. At the same time, he argues persuasively for the less-fashionable view that Paul also speaks of that death as substitutionary: Christ died in the place of others, and for their sins. A model of scholarly clarity and sobriety."

Stephen Westerholm, professor of early Christianity, McMaster University

"In this slender but admirably clear and focused volume, Simon Gathercole sets out to recover the recently unfashionable understanding of the atonement in classic Reformational terms of substitution. He concludes that there is indeed every reason to recognize this theme in key texts such as 1 Corinthians 15:3 and Romans 5:6, when they are understood in their Old Testament as well as Greco-Roman contexts. But this is for him a case of compatible rather than competing metaphors: Christ's substitution for sinners does not make his death any the less representative or liberating. I warmly recommend this revival of a classic argument that recent New Testament scholarship sometimes appears to have forgotten. Here is an eminently accessible point of reference for future exegetical, theological, and, indeed, ecumenical engagement with St. Paul on the death of Christ."

Markus Bockmuehl, Keble College, Oxford

The Author

  1. Simon Gathercole

    Simon Gathercole

    Simon Gathercole (PhD, University of Durham) is senior lecturer in New Testament studies in the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge and Fellow and director of studies in theology at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. A leading British New Testament...

    Continue reading about Simon Gathercole


"Gathercole's presentation is a model of brevity and clarity, and he is particularly effective in establishing the radical nature of the claim that Christ died for the sins of others, when the OT norm was that people died for their own sins. . . . This slim book punches above its weight, and while it may not persuade critics of substitutionary atonement to change their mind, it should deter them from dismissing it out of hand. It can be read in a single sitting: thinking through its implications takes a lot longer. More books should be like this."

Timothy Carter,

Journal for the Study of the New Testament

"We see the virtues of Gathercole's scholarship in this stimulating work. Defending Substitution makes precise distinctions and carefully attends to Scripture. Gathercole's use of primary sources is always illuminating, and his parallels to noble deaths in classical literature are particularly helpful. . . . We can be grateful for Simon Gathercole's excellent scholarship."

Thomas Schreiner,

The Gospel Coalition

"A brief but nonetheless stimulating engagement. . . . Gathercole's book has a number of strengths, chief of which is its brevity. . . . Its lean 128 pages offer an excellent overview of recent atonement debates. His concise examination of the latest NT guild discussions offers an easy entry-point for students or interested laymen to explore these issues. . . . In my judgment, Gathercole makes his case and presents convincing argumentation to prove the substitutionary nature of Christ's death. Another strength is that he does not dismissively reject the insights of other deficient views. . . . Gathercole has written an eminently readable and important contribution to the ongoing debates regarding Christ's substitutionary atonement. Anyone interested in the debate would do well to read and digest this book."

J. V. Fesko,

Journal for the Evangelical Theological Society

"This excellent book, originally delivered as a series of lectures, will make readers hope that Gathercole will some day attempt a full exegesis and exposition of all the Pauline atonement passages."

D. A. Carson,

Reformation 21

"This is a lucid, well-written book that would be a fruitful addition to a graduate seminar on atonement. The prose is straightforward and the arguments clear. . . . It is an important addition to the subject, offering insightful exegesis."

Stephen Finlan,

Catholic Biblical Quarterly

"The length of the book can be misleading, because content-wise it is quite substantial. . . . Perhaps it goes without saying that not everyone will endorse the premise of this study, nor will they be persuaded by its arguments. As much as anything, value judgments inevitably come into play. Even so, as one who is persuaded, I would commend Gathercole's study as an excellent starting point for any further investigation into the death of Christ in the letters of Paul."

Don Garlington,

Review of Biblical Literature

"Easy-to-read and insightful. . . . This brief book offers a careful discussion and compelling defense of the doctrine of substitution in Paul. Its arguments may be technical at times, but Gathercole is able to explain them in a clear way. . . . Future discussions of these doctrines [substitution and the atonement] need to take into account Gathercole's work, especially when interested in Pauline teachings. Informed pastors would be wise to read it as well."

Brian C. Dennert,

Bulletin for Biblical Research

"The book's brevity makes its feat all the more impressive: Gathercole sets out to defend substitutionary atonement, and he succeeds. . . . When I first held the book, I lamented Defending Substitution's brevity. Now I wish everyone wrote theology this way. In fact, the editors of the Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology should develop a whole series of Defending books so professors can select from various thin titles to compile a hefty textbook for a class. Until then, everyone should read Defending Substitution. I expect to reread it myself."

James E. Bruce,

Anglican and Episcopal History

"Defending Substitution is a welcomed addition to the discussion of atonement in Paul's letters. . . . Gathercole makes a good case for a classical view of the atonement--that Christ died 'on behalf of' sinners, in their place. In the process, he interacts fairly with challenges to substitution, acknowledging that each makes a positive contribution to the discussion. . . . [This] volume does an admirable job of 'defending substitution.' Thus it achieves its goal--it shows that substitution is vital to Paul's understanding of the atonement, deserving a place in the conversation of atonement in Paul's letters."

Gregory E. Lamb,

Southern Baptist Journal of Theology

"A concise, helpful tool for making sense of Paul's teachings on substitutionary atonement. . . . Gathercole's work does much to ground and defend the biblical, but often maligned, notion that Christ died for both us and for our sins. I'd recommend it to pastors and students as a concise tool for better understanding the essential doctrine of substitutionary atonement."

Jesse Owens,

Helwys Society Forum

"Defending Substitution is a measured, fresh, and persuasive statement of the case that Paul understood Jesus's death to be substitutionary. In addressing two critical passages in Paul, Gathercole highlights dimensions of those passages that are sometimes overlooked in this discussion. . . . Gathercole's findings offer welcome corroboration of an often-embattled biblical teaching. . . . One of the most salutary features of Defending Substitution is its unwillingness to be forced into false dichotomies. Is Christ's death substitutionary or representative? Substitutionary or liberating? In declining to accept such terms of debate, and in probing the depths of Paul's teaching on substitution, Gathercole succeeds in helping us to grasp the magnitude and depth of Christ's death for our sins."

Guy Waters,


"Gathercole addresses objections against substitutionary and representative understandings of the atonement in an exegetical key. . . . Challenges to the position that Gathercole articulates and defends demands a clear and biblical portrayal. Gathercole looks at three prominent theories that pose a threat to the substitutionary and representative picture: the Tubingen view, the 'interchange' view, and the 'apocalyptic' view. If you're interested in knowing what teaching these views espouse and why Gathercole argues against them, you'll simply have to get the book."

Mark McDowell,

Reformation 21

"A short, sharply-focused study defending the place of substitution within the Pauline doctrine of the atonement. [Gathercole] models careful interaction with those who deny that substitution is evident in Paul, making judicious use of textual background, both canonical and noncanonical, to make the simple exegetical point that Paul's writings reveal that Christ's death was 'in our place, instead of us.' He carefully distinguishes the concept of substitution from penal substitution (e.g., the scapegoat in Lev 16 is a non-penal substitute), representation, propitiation and satisfaction so as to provide a clear boundary for his argument. . . . This is a book that makes one point well and the academic world cannot ignore its carefully-argued conclusion. But this is not just a book for the world of academic biblical studies; it would also be a blessing to a pastor wanting to prepare for preaching the cross with renewed vigor and clarity."

John Percival,


"This essay reads like a sounding for a larger project. It is accessible to nonspecialists, seminary students, and ministers, though specialists will also find it stimulating. It is a welcome contribution to current discussions of Pauline theology."

Christopher R. Hutson,

Restoration Quarterly

"It is gratifying that Simon Gathercole has written this defense of the substitutionary nature of Christ's work. Gathercole . . . is eminently qualified for the task. . . . Gathercole has provided an important, and for the most part, compelling case for the importance of the theme of substitution in the New Testament's understanding of Christ's atoning work. . . . Gathercole's study makes a worthy contribution to our understanding of what Christ has done for us by his vicarious death."

Cornelis P. Venema,

Mid-America Journal of Theology

"A much needed corrective to the tendency within the more liberal branch of biblical scholarship to throw out the substitutionary baby with the penal bathwater."

Marion Gray,

The Reader