Theologians have studied the atonement for centuries, indeed for nearly two millennia, and have put forward a number of different models of it, all or at least most of which are helpful to some extent, but none of which is a complete and adequate description of how God in Jesus dealt with the problem of human sin.
So it would be presumptuous of me to put forward anything as a new model of the atonement. More probably what I am saying here is the same as or very similar to what someone else has put forward before. But I am not consciously dependent on anyone else here. And I think the model I am presenting here, while certainly not more complete and adequate than any other model, may help us all to understand the atonement better.
I originally wrote the what follows as a comment on Adrian Warnock’s helpful post on John Stott’s view of the atonement. In a previous comment Stephen Dunning had asked:
If Christ is not punished for my sin, my sin remains unpunished and I remain unforgiven, surely?
Here is my reply to Stephen:
Why? If your own son does something wrong, you can choose to punish him, or you can choose to forgive him. This is your choice as a free agent. In fact the two are mutually exclusive: if you punish him, you don’t forgive him. If you punish someone else instead, you are not forgiving, but simply being unjust. Why do different rules apply to God? Surely he is even more of a free agent than you are.
Now suppose your son does something wrong and breaks something which he is unable to repair. You can punish him, or you can choose to forgive him. But in either case the broken thing still needs repairing. Suppose you ask your friend to repair it and he does so voluntarily. Great! But that doesn’t mean that you are punishing your friend for your son’s wrongdoing.
Now this suggests the following model of the atonement which I am sure is oversimplified, but it seems to me a more helpful one than penal substitutionary atonement:
We humans sin and as a result our fellowship with God is broken. Nothing that we can do can restore this fellowship. God could punish us for our sin. But he chooses not to punish those who repent and believe, but to forgive them. However, this does not fix the problem of our broken fellowship with God. We cannot fix this problem. But in some way which we cannot understand, the eternal Son of God was able to fix it, and when the Father asked him he voluntarily agreed to do what was necessary. By becoming a man, dying on the cross, and rising again, he was able to restore the fellowship between God and humans.
But in this scenario we cannot say that God punished Jesus.