A Catholic apologist I was listening to recently said something which took me aback at first, and then, the more I thought about it, helped me make much more coherent sense of God’s punishment of man. He said that we could not say, in the strictest sense, that Christ was the object of the wrath of God on the Cross because he was receiving the punishment which our sins deserve, for in that case punishment would be something other than the consequence of sin. Sin, however, is its own punishment, in the sense that its effects (separation from God) are themselves the punishment for sin. Therefore, Hell is it’s own punishment, as it is freely chosen in sin; Hell isn’t an additional punishment imposed by God. The same can be said of Purgatory – it is its own punishment, for the saved who are encumbered by sin must rid themselves of that impurity.
1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.
~Catechism of the Catholic Church
Therefore, all the language we use about God being a ‘judge’ who imposes his ‘law’ is intended analogously. Which is to say that our human judicial systems are a proximate reflection of God’s justice.
Now, this doesn’t do any serious damage to the Anselmian view (though obviously it dismisses the reformed protestant view), for one can still speak of Christ receiving the punishment for our sins. However, it becomes clear that it may be more appropriate at times to talk about Christ confessing humanity’s sin to God on the Cross, receiving the necessary penance of death, and being absolved and restored unto life in the resurrection. Thus it is in Christ’s resurrection that we are justified, as Paul says: “[he] was raised to life for our justification.” (Romans 4:25). Notice that if Justification were mere penal substitution the resurrection would not itself be that by reason of which we are justified. Moreover, strict penal substitution leads to absurdities, such as the absurdity that if Christ did die paying for the sin of all humanity in the strict legal sense, then God would ‘owe’ us salvation, on pain of betraying his own justice.
There remain, for me, some questions left over, however. For instance, I am not entirely convinced that in Hell there is no punishment other than eternal separation from God which is called ‘fire’, for after all, it isn’t impossible to imagine that after the resurrection the damned are burnt with fire (though the image is unpleasant). The Catechisms’ language is also, it seems to me, rather careful on this point:
1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.”617 The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
~Catechism of the Catholic Church
Obviously the use of the word ‘chief’ connotes that it is not the only punishment of hell. Perhaps, however, an additional punishment of hell is just the ‘unhealthy attachment to creatures’. This demands more thought from me.