Rethinking Rethinking Incarceration

The dangers facing the church today are subtle. They are like those facing the family. Imagine a young man sits his parents down at the kitchen table for a talk. He then outs himself as gay or perhaps transgendered. The danger facing that family at that moment is very real. Traditionally they have been a conservative family. They believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. They believe that biology is authoritative in determining gender. Will this family continue to hold to their beliefs? Or because the LGBTQ agenda now has a face, one they love deeply, will they soften toward amoral behavior or worse will they endorse it? That danger faced by a traditional family is being faced down by the church at this very moment.

Our culture has been shouting slogans like Defund the Police for almost a year now. It’s no secret that George Soros’s latest DA from Los Angeles, George Gascon, is turning the city into a nightmare. Likely (hopefully!) he will be recalled like Governor Newsome.  He should be. Now, we expect this sort of nonsense from the world but what happens when the church acts as the parent in the story above. They listen to the world. And then they begin to endorse the world’s foolish behavior.  That is the current danger facing down the church at this very moment.    

Dominique DuBois Gilliard has played the parent in our story.  He wrote a book titled Rethinking Incarceration. He wants us to know that “this book will frame mass incarceration theologically.”[1] He goes on to assure us that this book “is written for the church.”[2] What is more, he wants us to know that the church has been wrong all of these years. The church has held to what is called the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. Of course, penal substitution has not been the only theory of the atonement held by the church. How can one view encompass all that we find in Scripture?  However, the penal substitutionary view has been central to the church’s understanding of what Christ has done on our behalf and for good reason.  It’s Biblical. 

But Gilliard wants us to rethink this whole idea. First, he says that it is based on an unbiblical view of justice. Justice, says Gilliard, is restorative. It is either distributive in that it decides how material goods should be spread through the community or it is corrective, which is how we deal with those who break the law.[3] Now, perhaps like me you are wondering about retributive justice.  You know, getting what you deserve. Ah, Gilliard says, quoting another, “[justice] is satisfied by the restoration of peace to relationships, not by the pain of punishment.”[4] What is more, the only other time Gilliard does deal with retributive justice is to acknowledge that it is a concept widely attested to in the Old Testament.  But instead of working that out theologically he blames the church for the retributive system our government has established![5]

Then Gilliard continues his attack on penal substitution, the Biblical view that says Christ stood in my stead, took the punishment due to me that I might have forgiveness and His righteousness, and judges it “punitive surrogacy.”[6] This little statement alone ought to incite an ecclesiastical trial which should culminate in Gilliard being defrocked.  Yet, Gilliard says that penal substitution makes God’s response like our own human response to crime.[7] And as if that weren’t enough, he says, and you could see it coming, penal substitution is racist.[8] What? But it doesn’t stop, according to Gilliard this is all very mericratic and the Bible deals in grace.[9] I guess we are to forget the Covenant of Redemption entirely.  I suppose we are to forget that Christ obeyed the law in order to be a perfect sacrifice for His people.  And by the way, what about hell?  Gilliard never deals with that little retributive problem in his book. 

Rethinking Incarceration is a terrible book. It is a classic case of the church bowing to culture.  Hopefully, the next book on this subject will be heavier on theology and a bit lighter on cultural mandates.  Until then I’ll probably just keep on reading the Bible.  Thanks but no thanks, Gilliard.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.


[1] Dominique DuBois Gilliard, Rethinking Incarceration (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 2018), 5.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. 139.

[4] Ibid., 142.

[5] Ibid., 149.

[6] Ibid., 159.

[7] Ibid., 160.

[8] Ibid. 165-168.

[9] Ibid., 170.