Skip to content

The Whipping Boy: Thoughts for Passion Week


I was e-mailing lately with a good friend of mine from college, someone who, in recent years, has distanced herself from the Adventist community in which she grew up and from the Christian worldview more generally. Somehow we had gotten onto the topic of Jesus’ death and the Christian doctrines of sin and redemption. Here is what she said, in her words[1]:

Have you read The Whipping Boy? I read it when I was about seven, and it had a big impact on the way I saw the world. There is a kid, a random kid chosen from among orphans who live on the streets, who is whipped each time the Prince does something meriting punishment. He has to be replaced periodically because some of the beatings are so harsh they result in death. . . . Under no circumstances would I want to be a Prince like that. Where all of my cruel, unthoughtful, disobedient, and rebellious acts led to the savage beating of somebody defenseless, innocent, and unentitled.  So that's how I see Jesus’s sacrificial death. . . . I would rather kill myself than let somebody else die for my sake. I could never be a Christian even if the person has already died and it seems disrespectful to refuse to accept the substitute. If that is the universe I live in, then I pray fervently, with all possible respect, that God make it so that I never came into existence in the first place.

Reading these thoughts, I recalled my own elementary school memories of Sid Fleischman’s 1987 novel The Whipping Boy. I remembered watching the film adaptation with my family — perhaps I was 10 or 11. In one of the early scenes, when young Jemmy, the Whipping Boy, is dragged out of bed in the middle of the night to be flogged for Prince Horace’s latest misbehavior, my mother turned to my two younger brothers and me and commented: “The Whipping Boy is like Jesus—he takes the punishments for the bad things the prince does, just like Jesus takes our punishment.” We nodded our agreement, accustomed to taking our movie-watching with an occasional dose of spiritual edification. But unlike my college friend, I had never followed this idea to its logical conclusion: If the Whipping Boy is like Jesus, does that make us the “Prince Brat” of the story? (I doubt if my mother had thought of this either.)

Fleischman depicts the Prince as arrogant, callous, never in the least caring that, for every prank he plays and every piece of homework he leaves undone, another child is made to suffer. Prince Horace only regrets that the hardy Jemmy never cries while being beaten—he misses the entertainment that his previous Whipping Boys have supplied with their bellows and squeals. Looking at the Prince and imagining him as a symbol of myself—of all people who accept salvation through Christ’s death—I began to understand my friend’s horror. The following Sabbath, I sang “Lamb of God” with the rest of the music team. The words suddenly seemed twisted: “Your gift of love they crucified. . . . I was so lost, I should have died.” I sang the words as usual, not wishing to attract notice, but the Sabbath morning routine suddenly felt like a dirty ritual. It was the same with “The Old Rugged Cross”: “I will cling to the old rugged cross / And exchange it someday for a crown.” I was celebrating my status as a spoiled, entitled royal child, complacent in my immunity from punishment and happily contemplating the pain that had purchased that immunity.

Of course, I thought of the orthodox Sabbath School answer to all this: “But if Jesus chose to die in my place—if he wanted me to accept the salvation that came from his suffering—doesn’t that make a difference?” Then a wry inner voice made me pause: “Yes, that’s convenient, isn’t it? If you need to escape death and torture and you find you can escape by letting another person be tortured in your place, it does make things much more comfortable if you believe that the other person wants to make this sacrifice—asks, begs to be allowed to make it for you.” To Prince Brat’s credit, he never claims that the Whipping Boy wants to take the royal beatings; he isn’t such a hypocrite as to profess gratitude or to persuade himself that any of this is Jemmy’s idea or gives Jemmy any satisfaction. I began to understand my friend’s idea— that she would rather commit suicide than have a life bought by Jesus’s death, that she would rather never have existed than exist as Prince Brat. Ellen White counsels believers to “spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ,” especially focusing on “His great sacrifice for us.”[2] But could she foresee where such contemplation might lead?

* * *

Of course, I am aware that the Whipping Boy analogy—the idea of sinners as criminals and of Jesus gaining their freedom by taking the punishment—is just one of many ways of understanding redemption and atonement. Like all analogies, it doesn’t explain everything. One can also envision sin as a debt that only Jesus has the means to pay, as many kind friends have paid for medical bills or court costs that the debtors themselves have no way of covering. Sin has taken us as hostages, and only Jesus has enough to pay the ransom—and even for him, it costs him all he has. Or one might liken sin to a wasp’s nest into which a toddler has unwittingly stepped, from which an older sibling must pull her out.  Personally, I am more comfortable with these metaphors for the atonement. The need for money and the threats of kidnappers are concrete circumstances; in both cases, it is clear why the person in danger cannot save himself, why another person is probably better qualified to rescue him, and why it makes sense for him to accept the rescue offered by the other person. It’s hard to imagine a stung child saying to an older sibling: “It isn’t fair that you were stung when you rescued me from the wasps. I would rather go back to the nest and be stung again than accept your sacrifice.” It would make no sense at all, and it wouldn’t make the older sibling’s stings hurt any less.

I am more comfortable, I say, with these redemption metaphors of debt-paying, ransom, and rescue. Yet my mind keeps coming back to the Whipping Boy narrative. Perhaps Isaiah felt the same way when he wrote:

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities:
The chastisement of our peace was upon him;
And by his stripes we are healed.[3]

Was Isaiah troubled at the idea of receiving peace and healing on those terms? The Whipping Boy analogy of redemption forces me to remember that the atonement story was never supposed to be comfortable. I need to be reminded of this. Almost as long as Christianity has been around, artists have been in the business of depicting Christ’s death, sentimentalizing sacrifice and aestheticizing torture, from Michelangelo to Mel Gibson, from Bach and Handel to Sandi Patty. As much as I love Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the music has a way of cushioning my mind. If we can hear of Jesus’s death without feeling some of the horror that led my old friend to decide she’d rather die than be a Christian, is this because we have more trust in Jesus’s love or because our minds are so cushioned by art and routine that we don’t think what it means to have someone punished in our place? Or because, like Fleischman’s Prince Horace, we have such a sense of entitlement that it doesn’t matter who is punished for our wrongs, so long as we ourselves are safe?

One of the most often-heard criticisms of Christianity is that if sins can be simply washed away in the Savior’s blood, then there is no incentive to avoid wrongdoing, any more than Prince Horace had. Irish dramatist and social critic George Bernard Shaw made this argument, saying, “You will never get a high morality from people who conceive that their misdeeds are revocable and pardonable.”[4] Shaw argued that neither punishment nor forgiveness could truly cancel a sin; a sinner who regretted his actions could do nothing but recognize the irrevocableness of the sin and its consequences—this, he hoped, would motivate people to go and sin no more. If the ugly image of ourselves as Prince Brat, and of Jesus as the Whipping Boy, disgusts us, might this cause us to repudiate the Prince’s callous sense of moral entitlement? And is there a way to do this without rejecting redemption entirely?

I can’t remember whether Sid Fleischman included any explanation in his novel for how or why the Whipping Boy custom began—the rationale for having a common child chastised for the wrongdoings of the Prince. Might that rationale be something like this—to teach the future monarch in a very concrete way that his actions have consequences for others as well as himself? If this was the goal for Prince Horace, of course, it failed miserably; as he had never been struck himself, Jemmy’s pain meant nothing to him. This changes over the course of the book. When kidnappers (mistaking Jemmy for the Prince and Horace for the Whipping Boy) give Horace his first taste of corporal punishment, he learns something of Jemmy’s experience; moreover, their series of shared adventures, dangers, and narrow escapes causes a friendship to develop between the two boys. As the Prince learns compassion and respect, he can no longer view Jemmy’s punishments with indifference, and in the end, when the Whipping Boy custom is abolished, he is not sorry to see it go. As he learns compassion and respect, he loses his desire to benefit from the system of vicarious punishment and is ready to take responsibility for his own actions. As he matures and transforms, punishment (vicarious or otherwise) becomes unnecessary.

The Whipping Boy has lain heavily in my mind in recent days, as Good Friday and Easter weekend come close, as reminders of Jesus’s death seem to be everywhere I turn. I have not managed to develop a complete logical response either to the punishment theory of atonement or my friend’s concerns about it—I still have more questions than answers. But I have tried here to work through some of the troubling elements of this theory, to think what it might mean for our understanding of Christ’s death and for our lives as followers of God. If the Whipping Boy narrative has anything positive to offer as a perspective on redemption, perhaps it is this: it is impossible, with such a narrative, to be content with mere justification. Other analogies might allow us to say, “Well, I’m rescued; I’m ransomed; my debt is paid; so I guess everything’s good now—thanks for everything, Jesus.” But if we see our justification as Jesus taking a punishment we deserve and we are revolted by the image of ourselves as Prince Brat, we cannot end the story there. Perhaps this analogy is the most effective at showing us our need to move beyond justification to sanctification. As Fleischman’s Prince learns empathy, courage, and friendship, and ceases to be his old spoiled, egoistic self, so we reject the old selves for whom Christ was punished and are driven toward our better, more Christlike selves, to be Prince Brat no longer.

[1] My friend has given permission to publish this excerpt from her correspondence, but prefers to remain anonymous.

[2] Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, Chapter 8.

[3] Isaiah 53:5 (King James Version).

[4] George Bernard Shaw, Preface to Major Barbara (1905).


Mary Christian holds a PhD in English literature from Indiana University, where she currently teaches college writing as a Visiting Lecturer. Her recent scholarly essays include “Bought with Silver: Victor Hugo, George Bernard Shaw, and the Economics of Salvation,” published in Religion and Literature. She also teaches primary Sabbath School and plays piano at Bloomington SDA Church, and in her spare time, she enjoys baking bread and playing Scrabble and other word games.


If you respond to this article, please:

Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.