|The Doctrine of the Atonement: Explanation and Defense|
The following defense of the Christian doctrine of atonement takes for granted certain presuppositions about the world of the Bible. The social world of the New Testament was a society rooted in the concepts of honor and shame. Briefly put, this means that what others thought of you was extremely important. Most criticisms of this doctrine presume that the world of the Bible was like ours, a culture of guilt, and to that extent, criticize a false view of the doctrine.
In this light, an understanding of the doctrine of atonement can be posed in the following way:
This is our explanation of the need for atonement by Christ and our own response to it. Now let's consider some objections to the doctrine of the atonement and use them to explain the doctrine further.Objection: The way this is set up, a single figure, Jesus, "represents" the whole group. So responsibility goes from the individual to the group and vice versa" which, in fact, represents an abandonment of responsibility and remediation.
While some critics point to the bad behavior of televangelists or speak of "cheap grace," the NT itself offers no such doctrine or permission. The NT is full of ethical guidelines and admonitions to conduct one's self in a manner worthy of Christ.
In addition, note the last point above. As we show here, thought and action was intimately related in the thinking of the Jewish background of the NT. Anyone who did not assume moral responsibility could not have been regarded, as a whole, as one who had believed.
The NT does not indicate that the gift of grace from the cross in any way allows libertine behavior - indeed, the opposite is indicated everywhere that I look in the NT, and a "real change of character or behavior" is actually demanded and expected of believers.
God is supposed to be omnipotent. Why can't He withstand the presence of one "tainted" with "sin" or create the right times and situations where one so tainted might be able to approach His divine presence?
The atonement does create such a situation. Even so, the criticism confuses categories: Power (omnipotence) has nothing to do with the nature of God per se. Not even God can overcome the laws of logic: I.e., He cannot be God, and also not be God; he cannot make 2 + 2 = 5; He cannot create something, and also not create it.
No amount of power changes such things; we cannot apply infinite amounts of electricity to 2 + 2 and make it equal anything but 4, although that same electricity applied to our person might convince us (a la Winston Smith) that it is so.
Similarly, God cannot change His nature so that sin can remain in His presence, and this has nothing to do with power or lack thereof.
It is not that God is incapable, it is that we are incapable.If Jesus "paid" a "ransom" for our sins, who did he pay it to? The Devil? Or to God? What is God, some kind of extortionist? And if Jesus is God, how does it make sense that He is paying the ransom to himself?
While some early theologians (and even a few now) believed Satan is involved, out thesis is that he is not.
Yes, the price is paid to God, but how would this be an extortion? Is someone who collects an owed and rightful debt "extorting" the person who owes the debt?
The identity question is a confused one: Jesus is God the Son, the Word, not God the Father. The difference is persons of the Trinity makes all the difference in the Atonement. However, what is wrong even if God is paying the ransom to Himself in any sense? I have never seen this objection explained.
Jesus only spent a few hours on the cross. How is that enough to pay for all sin?
For more on this, see our linked article above on the crucifixion and shame, as well as Glenn Miller's article, If Jesus Was Resurrected, Was His Death Really a Sacrifice?.
Punishing innocent man for the sins of others is a miscarriage of justice!
Really? I'm going to call upon my criminal justice background to intercede for us here. Generally speaking, when someone is convicted of a crime in our modern justice system, there are three purposes seen to exacting justice as we count it:
Now in actual practice - and without diving too far into a tangent - our justice system is doing mostly #1 and #3 and severely neglecting #2 for the most part. But keep this outline also in mind as we proceed.Even if Jesus' sacrifice were voluntary, or a noble gesture of love on his part, it would be a manifestation of hisS goodness; it would do nothing for our salvation.
Not so. Voluntary substitution was a perfectly acceptable practice to the ancients; the Jewish sacrifices, and the Greek pharmakos, and Roman soldiers dying for others as a payment for offense against the gods, are just three examples of voluntary substitution from this period. Our personal distaste for such things is not an argument.
If a convicted serial murder/rapist plead guilty to multiple counts of murder and rape, would we allow his law-abiding mother to volunteer to step in and serve his prison time (or be executed) in his stead and allow the murder/rapist to be turned back onto the streets?
Here's where we get into the issue I alluded to earlier re the purpose of criminal justice. Let's go over these one at a time, using the case provided above.
The irony here is that Jesus, in what he taught throughout his ministry -- not in an "atonement," but in a consistent message of universal compassion -- provided the means for overcoming sin.
Jesus never taught this doctrine.
Not so; Jesus taught it at the Last Supper, when he spoke of the bread and wine being his body and blood, and of dying for many.
That said: It would be correct to say that Jesus does not expound upon the notion of atonement to any explicit extent in the records of his ministry until the Last Supper. His central message, though, is that the Kingdom of God is at hand. We may relate this to the post-resurrection message of Paul, and the account of the Last Supper, by means of a simple before-after dichotomy.
Let us ask this question: If Jesus had been recognized as the Messiah, in the way that he desired - if the Triumphal Entry had resulted in his being recognized as King of Israel, rather than rejection - how would things have been different?
We would suggest that the Kingdom of God would have indeed begun on earth at that time (not just in the hearts of men): And hence, though knowing he would be rejected, Jesus prepared the way for his acceptance as Messiah during his ministry.
The crucifixion, and the resurrection, were then in a sense a "Plan B" for the Kingdom of God, to use a rather crude term. We see even in Jesus' ministry, of course, hints that the "failure" of Plan A is imminent (viz. his predictions that he will be killed) - but Plan A is nevertheless put forward to the people as an option they can take if they are willing.
They did not: Hence "Plan B" - and hence the most clear statement of its taking effect at the Last Supper, when betrayal and execution was imminent. And this is why Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God coming in his teaching and healing ministry, whereas Paul saw it as evidenced by the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Note that in this I am not adopting a "neotheist" position whereby God did not know "Plan A" would fail -- I am saying that He left the door open with "Plan A" as a matter of justice and righteousness, though He knew we would reject it.
Paul is the one who expounded on this grace stuff, and it's his fault we have so much libertine behavior by televangelsists, etc.
Not so. Paul is quite consistent in demanding validating behavior - or in some cases, delineating "invalidating" behavior, which simply approaches the point from another angle:
Gal. 5:19-21 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Cor. 6:9-11 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
2 Cor. 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
Eph. 2:10 For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
1 Thess. 5:23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Thess. 1:8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
Why can God forgive after being crucified but not before?
Actually, it is held that those chronologically before the Crucifixion, like Abraham, could "look forward in faith" to the time of the Crucifixion. (See for example Job 19:25.)
Matt. 7:21 shows that the idea of salvation by profession of acceptance is blasphemous.
Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
How is this read as meaning that "salvation by profession of acceptance" is a blasphemy? Indeed, it fits in with the idea that profession must be followed by evidence to be validated: Not everyone...which means that there are those who will profess, but only those who have backed it up with evidence of good works (to wit: those who have truly believed) will enter the kingdom of heaven.
Finally, let us add here that the evidence indicates that Paul was not the originator of the idea of Jesus dying for sins. Paul makes statements in this regard that are clearly formulaic in nature and therefore obviously derived from his predecessors at the Jerusalem church (1 Cor. 15:3, Gal. 1:4, Rom. 4:25, etc.). Furthermore, in agreement with Jesus, Paul cites love as the controlling principle in ethics (see 1 Cor. 8 and 13; 1 Thess. 4:9).
How can you say that even 99.999% sinlessness is somehow an 'infinite distance' on some moral dimension from 100% sinlessness?
I didn't. It is no more possible to be "99.999% sinless" than it is to be "99.999% pregnant." It is a state that you either are or are not.
Why require a substitute anyway? Why can't God just forgive sin?
On that, see Glenn Miller's essay here. Malina and Rohrbaugh's Social Science commentary notes that in the ancient world, sin was "a breach of interpersonal relations" that invoked a debt upon the sinner to the "sinnee". Thus also in the substitution model of the doctrine of the atonement: Sin incurs a debt upon us to God that Jesus' blood forgives. In addition, we should not wrongly define "forgiveness" in modern terms, thus:
How does the substitution model reflect forgiveness, since God exacts a penalty anyway, even if from Jesus?
This objection misunderstands what "forgiveness" is, Biblically. As Malina and Rohrbaugh put it, "forgiveness by God meant being divinely restored to one's position and therefore being freed from fear of loss at the hands of God." How this was done is not part of the definition, which means "exacting all that is in justice due" is not excluded as a method, whether the person itself somehow pays it, or someone else does (as Jesus does in the substitution model).
It also does not mean that no one pays anything at all. It may be claimed, for example, that in passages like Luke 7:41-2 show true forgiveness, because the debtors were forgiven their debts and paid nothing. But this neglects the dimension of patronage that governed the ancient world: Though the monetary debts were erased, the debtors would continue to serve the creditor and would be expected to return the favor.
"Forgiveness" means that they were returned to a former status that they had before they incurred the debt -- not that they never gave back something in return. That would never make sense in a collectivist society. For more on this, see here.
But God punished people in the Old and New Testament. Surely they are being punished more than is deserved because Jesus satisfied the needed punishment.
God's reactions in the OT are not simply retributive justice. They serve rather the purpose of either rehabilitation (i.e., enforcing a penalty so that the person does not do the act again) or protection of the innocent or of the greater good.
What kind of message is penal substitution for the poor, starving child in Africa?
Obviously this message needs to be accompanied by assistance to the person's basic needs for food; even so, one may as well object that there is no need to bring such people the "good news" of cheap nuclear power because in their condition they cannot appreciate the mechanics of reactors. This sort argument is not rational, but an attempt to instill guilt for believing the penal model.