Paying the piper is our understanding of how to handle law breakers. Therefore, judgment and punishment have two aims- to make the malefactor suffer for his sins and to protect society by preventing another infraction. There can be no forgiveness after the law is broken because both these requirements are essential to the wellbeing of society.
Oddly, in the story of divine justice, as it pertains to God and sin, neither payment in the normal sense nor the prevention of future crime seem to be involved. The sinner is not punished; instead Christ is. Instead of sin being discouraged by the pain of consequences under judgment, sin is brushed aside in an arbitrary nullification of the law. In no court of law or court of public opinion would such be called justice by the average citizen..
Can one imagine a human judge suggesting that a murderer be released because his mother offers to be executed in his place? How would that make him pay? How would that protect society from future killings? Such action would be howled down as a preposterous injustice, and the judge would surely lose his position because of incompetence.
So how does the doctrine of substitutionary atonement so easily pass muster in the minds of many Christians? It is not because it makes logical sense to the normal way of thinking about sin.
Of course, many will claim that the unnaturalness of God’s approach to sin actually confirms the plan’s origin. God is so inscrutable that the illogical and fantastical are exactly what we should expect. That may be true, but concurrently we have to accept that not everything illogical and seemingly unjust can thus be ascribed to God, His nature, and His operation. The profoundly troubling or confusing may or may not be attributable to the nature of God. In accepting inscrutability as an attribute of God, our spiritual discernment becomes our means of protecting against being misled in our understanding of Him.
Some will mock that notion because of our tendency to self deception, but self deception cuts both ways. We can judge individually out of the heart and risk self deception or let others judge for us and risk a group deception. Some see the greater risk of deception in the one; others see it in the other.
One would like to think that a group opinion carries the greater weight especially after thousands of years of acceptance. However, the actual history of how this group consensus was reached and documented suggests that a very few decided the facts of the matter and spent centuries indoctrinating the vulnerable masses before anyone had the opportunity to consider anything else. Therefore the force of traditional public belief is not the result of any commonly reasoned conclusion. Instead it is the theological product of processes that did not represent widespread concurrence on the issues at hand. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is the prevailing doctrine more by happenstance and political intrigue than any original agreement on the subject.
In the final analysis we are left with only our intuition and personal discernment to help us differentiate between a paradoxical truth and a preposterous lie. When left to the assessment of the heart, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement falls squarely in the latter category for many of us.