Sunday, March 30, 2008

Does the Atonement Make Sense?

Atonement is an explanation for how God can forgive sins. It is often presented as penal substitution: Christ took the punishment that we deserve as sinners when he died on the cross. He payed the debt we owe to God for our sins. Thus God is free to forgive our sins and still satisfy the blood requirements of justice.

Here is the problem: say person B commits a horrible crime against person A (for example, say he kills all of person's A's family). Naturally when B is caught, A wants him punished for his crime. Then person C says: I'll take the punishment instead of person B, so you can let B go free. So person C is executed instead of person B and justice is statisfied, is it? Is justice really blind to who it punishes? Even if person A decides to forgive person B and gives up his demand for punishment of B, what is accomplished by person C being executed in B's place? Or consider this, person A says: you can let B go and execute me instead of him.

What a strange idea of justice: a crime is committed and someone has to die for it. But it does not matter who dies: either the ciminal or an innocent, willing substitute, even the victim or the judge. Atonement lies at the heart of Christianity, and yet when examined closely one must ask: What is moral, good or just about this teaching? Why can't God, like us, simply unconditionally forgive?


  1. Daniel

    In fairness to Penal Substitution wouldn't it be fairer to say that the crime of 'B' is actually against 'A' and 'C'? And isn't the argument of Penal Substitution that the crime against 'C' is in fact greater than the crime against 'A'? 'C' is not unaffected or detached by the actions of 'B' towards 'A'.

    It is a fair point that 'A' will still want justice even if 'C' is punished instead of 'B'. But Penal Substitution is dealing with the need for God's justice and not just civil justice.

    Penal Substitution does not minimize the seriousness of our sins against each other but it's primary focus is on our sins against God.

    So even if 'A' lets 'B' go , as you hypothesize, and is punished instead of 'B' it still leaves the problem of 'B's offense against 'C'. 'B's offense is against both 'A' and 'C', this will leave the issue of 'B's crime against 'C' still unsolved.

    I agree it would be 'a strange idea of justice' if it did not matter who was punished, so long someone was punished and that it did not matter if the one eventually punished had nothing to do with the criminal or the victim. But Penal Substitution is about satisfying justice for the sins we have committed against God. When Christ was punished on the cross for sin, that sin was an actual offense against him, he was not an unaffected bystander.

    So is Penal Substitution 'moral, good and just'? In terms of it being moral, is it immoral for a guilty party to offer both to pay off the fine and forgive at the same time? I think we would be hard pressed to call this behavior immoral.

    For those who recognize that they have sinned against God and that any efforts on their behalf to solve the problem of their guilt before God will fail - then the news of Penal Substitution, that Christ has intervened and solved the problem on our behalf is clearly very good news.

    Is it just? Well I think in all honestly the answer is 'yes and no'. 'Yes' in the sense that God's justice is being satisfied but 'no' in the sense that we simply do not deserve this magnitude of God's intervention on our behalf. Why should God be bothered to solve the problem of our offense against him? Why not just punish us, after all it's what we deserve and it would satisfy his justice at the same time. So I think Penal Substitution is to a certain degree unjust or to use a Bible term it is about 'grace' .

    Your question about why can't God like us, simply unconditionally forgive? is interesting. Are there any situations where we simply cannot unconditionally forgive? I think so, once we introduce the issue of the law. Which is what we have to do if we are being consistent with Penal Substitution.

    If I lend you my car and you promise to drive it within the law and you go out and break the speed the limit and get a ticket, then we have a problem. Suppose you back and come clean, telling me what you did and say sorry. Suppose I forgive you 'out of the goodness of my heart', it still leaves the problem of the speeding fine because you broke the law. In this sense my forgiveness is only part of the equation, you still need to pay up for the speeding fine and satisfy the requirement of the law. Only then will justice be satisfied on all accounts.

    However we may feel about it, we can't really separated God from law when it comes to the way he relates to us. If he were to ignore the law or just write it off, it would ultimately make him inconsistent and unholy. it would be a denial of himself and justice.

  2. Phil,

    Thanks for your reply. But I don't think you explained how atonement makes sense. Let's accept your claim that our sins are sins against God as well as people. The question is: what does justice require when a crime is committed? I would say two things:
    (1) Punishment of the perpetrator (in proportion to the crime), and
    (2) Restitution to those who were harmed.

    In some cases (where harms can be easily righted) we might consider (2) alone as sufficient, that is the criminal providing restitution to the victim. Also the ciminal could be aided by a benefactor in providing restitution. But for many crimes where damage is permanent (murder, rape, etc), restitution is insufficient and justice would also demand some appropriate punishment of the perpetrator.

    Now penal substitution as atonement is supposed to satisfy "God's justice". But does it? It does not satisfy condition (1) as the perpetrators are not being punished. And I don't think it satisfies (2) either; what restitution is being made? There is none as it is simply a punishment.

    Perhaps it satisfies an ancient, tribal form of justice when people believed in group guilt. Consider this: "Someone in your tribe murdered someone in my tribe, so our tribe will only be satisfied if we can kill someone in your tribe; it does not matter if it is the actual murderer or not." In this case a penal substitute would work. But surely we would not call that true justice.

    So I claim that penal substitution does not satisfy the requirements of justice. And if it does not do this, I see no reason or benefit for Christ dying on the cross.

  3. Suppose I forgive you 'out of the goodness of my heart', it still leaves the problem of the speeding fine because you broke the law.

    This reasoning always makes it sound as if there's a law that even God must comply with. What "fine" still exists once God forgives a person?

    Also, penal substitution annihilates the idea of forgiveness. God does not forgive. He only exacts payment from a different source. This is not pardon -- it's the transfer of guilt.

    BTW, penal substitution's status as "the biblical view" is far from conclusive.

  4. SteveJ

    There is, 'a law that God must comply to'. It's expressed in different ways but essentially it's the same; "the wages of sin is death" or "the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness"

    God cannot forgive on the basis of overlooking or bypassing the law, this would make Him a hypocrite and unholy. He offers forgiveness on the basis that the requirements of the law have been fulfilled and the 'fine' for it's violation has been paid. This is what we see in Christ and in His death.

    I believe you are right that Penal Substitution is the 'transfer of guilt' but wrong that this means 'God does not forgive'.

    It is by the transference of guilt to the guiltless that God offers forgiveness, 'When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross'.