This is parts 1 and 2, dealing with methods of judgment and hell (in part 1) in Christianity and in part 2, the atonement - borrowing from ideas in part 1. Part 3 will be on free choice and hell.
Sin, Judgment And Atonement
Joveia (Will G)
Soteriology (the study of salvation) is a large problem in modern understandings of Christianity. Most people don't know many of the problems in the way Christian doctrine is explicated. I will go over the reasons shortly. What I am about to indicate is what I call 'Expiation' theology - in the sense that Christ's atonement has to do with removing sin rather than satisfying wrath. How this is Biblical will be explained. Though I do not necessarily feel 'forced' to adopt Expiation theology, I have adopted it. It is however more cumbersome than the traditional explanation, and importantly has not been explicitly taught in the Church.
2. Problems With The Classical View
Anyone who has studied philosophy of religion should be aware of the most basic and most fundamental problem with what I will call the 'Traditional' or 'Retributive' explanation of sin. I will go over 3 basic problems now.
Infinite punishment for finite sin. An infinite amount of suffering in return for a wrong is unjust, hence it would seem at face value so is the Biblical account. But I have since come to understand that it is not necessarily the case that the Bible teaches this, especially after reading JP Holding on the issue here. It is possible hell could be a state of eternal limbo-like existence away from God, suffering neither joy nor sadness except the shame of exclusion. I fully believe this is compatible with any and all Biblical scripture once culturally and Biblically contextualised. Another clever explanation I thought up was that as God is timeless, hell is also timeless. While eternal, it has no successive moments, and is thus completely finite. Another problem even if hell is finite whether it is just to 'retribute' if that retribution involves infinite denial of happiness. A response to this might be that those in the afterlife freely choose to reject God, in addition to the necessity for retributive punishment. Part 3 of this series will explain the 'choice' element more clearly.
Punitive vs Utilitarian punishment. The difference between punitive and utilitarian punishment can be illustrated by Clockwork Orange. Alex, who rapes, murders and terrorises people indiscriminately in a gang of vicious killers is captured and undergoes a behavioural transformation. While having not served much of a sentence for his crimes, he is immediately released once he is transformed into a being who cannot physically do harm, although he would wish to. According to a punitive idea of punishment, Alex should have served out his full sentence for his crimes despite the fact he was now physically incapable of doing wrong. A utilitarian view would obviously disagree and say that once he is no longer a threat he should be set free. Personally I think the real world is a mixture of both views. If God does not punish people punitively, wrongdoing does not really pose any threat to one's salvation, only one's attitude. This is contrary to the Biblical picture though. The most persuasive defense of punitive punishment is found here at Glenn Miller's website, which you should give a read just to get a grasp of the issues.
Atonement. As I am about to point out, there is nothing inherently wrong with atonement or substitution. We substitute for each other all the time. A soldier sacrificing himself in battle for his fellows is a kind of substitution. Someone paying someone else money to pay a debt is a pecuniary (monetary) substitution. Clearly substitution is a valid principle in the world. However, the problem is that Biblical theology would seem to indicate PENAL substitution. But this is not necessarily indefensible. I myself have heard 2 very good defenses of penal substitution I would think are valid, see here at Tektonics and here at the Christian-Thinktank.
I would like to note that I am using a definition of hell that defines it as separation from God and/or spiritual death. Read here (Christian Think-Tank) and here (Tektonics) for an idea of what modern understandings of hell (non-fundamentalist) are like.
I would also like to define what I mean by 'perfection process' as I will refer to it and to becoming good enough for the New Kingdom (which is the eschatological kingdom of God in the afterlife.) According to Christian soteriology all humans are basically sinful in terms of being good enough for God. I interpret this as being good enough for the kind of society God wishes to create, where there is no evil and all do good over an eternity. The key to this is the power that God has to make anyone who wishes it perfect - literally all that is needed is acceptance of God. However as a limitation God cannot do this perfection process on earth - but only in heaven in his presence with prior acceptance of God.
1. Sin And Judgment
There are 3 basic principles of sin and judgment I am about to advocate, in lieu of the traditional method. In fact, there are about 4 kinds of conceptions of sin and judgment, which I will lay out now. All 4 can be applied to the Biblical God.
1. Hell/Judgment as automatic. Under this view, separation from God, due to sin is not consciously volitional by God, but is rather an automatic consequence of sin inflicting by one's own wrongdoing. So for example, suppose I murder someone. I am automatically separated from God in the afterlife without God's influence due to that wrongdoing (sin). One might then respond that God could remove the automatic consequence of the sin by punishing/forgiving the sin - hence there is no automatic consequence. But this takes us to a lesser known quantity in forgiveness verses judgment. I find it to be plausible that for events inflicted by wrongs - but not as a specifically moral judgment, the punishment of the wrong does not remove what I call the particular non-direct consequences of the wrong. I should also note the convenience of this view compared to the traditional, is that the effect of the sin is not a judgment from God directly, nor can it be removed by punishing the sin, so in terms of God's justice God cannot be accused of 'over-punishing' hence the 'infinite punishment for finite sins' objection is very inefficacious.
For example, suppose a criminal murders someone. He serves his time and prison, however cannot have employment for some jobs. The fact he cannot get this work is a non-direct consequence of his sin and is not specifically a judgment (fulfilled in prison.) However unless the community bands together and forgives the criminal, wiping the slate clean, he will be 'punished' in the sense he cannot get certain kinds of work. The Biblical model might be like this - except prevention from work might be spiritual death from sin.
Another example might be if a person becomes a criminal and gets put in prison. However he wants later to go to another country, but his visa is refused because of his record. That is a non-direct result of his crime. And his punishment does not remove - however the forgiveness of the community he injured and the other country might well do so. This could be applied (potentially) to the Biblical God.
So it is arguable that sin can be conceived in a way so that it is automatic and only forgiveness, rather than punishment can remove it. I will go further on the efficacy of forgiveness further on in the essay.
2. Community protection. This is a kind of judgment has a non-finite specification, hence is suitable for the Biblical model. Basically suppose you knew that a person was going to commit a murder in the shopping mall at 12 tomorrow. Well, the natural thing to do would be to prevent that person from going into that shopping mall at that time to prevent the murder. As an aside, you would not be justified in punishing him for it, as he has not committed a wrong if you prevent him. However you could justifiably prevent him from going into the shopping mall at that time.
Imagine that God's justice is like that. God knows infallibly through our lives on this earth which of us would be anti-community anti-social members of the New Kingdom (the afterlife). Hence God excludes us from that community as long as the community lasts and we are a danger. Hence punishment is simply exclusion to protect individuals from harmful potential members of the community.
There are some ways this is applicable. For example, suppose there was a particularly evil person in this life (i.e. Hitler). God knows that if he was in the New Kingdom he would be evil and do harm, so to protect the people in the New Kingdom (afterlife) he prevents Hitler from entering it. Since the New Kingdom is in God's direct presence, that means separation from atleast part of God.
A topical example of this is in Britain. Authorities are considering expelling radical Islamic clerics who promote terrorism - and this will last as long as the Islamic clerics are radical extremists. This is based on the potential and actual danger the radical clerics pose to Britain's citizens.
I might also add that this type of judgment is propitiatory, in the sense that God has justified anger because of his love and desire to protect the community. His expulsion is based on his wrath against harmful evildoers through love of the community.
Also what should be noted is different conceptions. I would argue that God, as he does not have middle-knowledge (see my other essays) does not know someone will definitely be bad influence in the New Kingdom unless that person is incredibly evil in this life. Hence the separation effect is going to be based on those who accept Christ and would accept Him in the afterlife - in other words to be made good enough to enter the New Kingdom. However a Molinist would not need this step. Therefore the protection of the community is based more on those who accept God's 'perfection process' to become good enough.
I should also add that this kind of propitiatory community protection is not very atonement friendly. I don't think it can be used to defend the atonement ideal. Because the atonement needs to expiate some actual sin or effect in order for Christ to substitute for us. However (1) above and (4) I will lay out do provide this.
3. Choice-based Punishment. One form of punishment which has the potential to be non-finite is that of a free choice. Generally if someone freely (in the fullest sense of the word) chooses something, then whatever results from that can't be laid on someone else. Hence it might be offered that those who die spiritually freely reject Christ and hence God cannot be blamed.
The problem with that is that firstly, there is no reason why anyone cannot make a choice for Christ in the afterlife, and secondly, why or how it is possible someone would rationally choose to be separated from God.
To solve those problems, I maintain there is a choice in the afterlife - but to make it (just as on earth, unconsciously) involves a considerable loss of self, as to some extent, believers become part of the being of God through Christ. If this is true (to some extent) then a believer is no longer an 'I' but a part of something greater, God, and hence has lost some of its self, ego and self-dependence (although not really, just become part of God.) This is a rational motive for some people to freely reject Christ.
The most extreme version of this view would state that in the afterlife there is no longer any 'us' or 'I' at all, but rather the re-absorption of spirits into God - we would not have independent existence anymore than a drop in an ocean. I do not endorse this outmost view - only that the loss of self and individuality - to some extent, provides a rational warrant for rejection of God for some people.
Provided this above view of the afterlife is correct, what is needed is that one's reaction to Christ and the Holy Spirit in this life has a high correlation with the chance of (internally) of accepting Christ in the next, and there is some possibility for such a thing.
I might also add as an afterthought, that if God's primary motivation in salvation is not to promote beliefs, but to promote a choice, then the problem of divine hiddenness in terms of belief might not be such a problem at all. Though this needs more elaboration and defense.
I will also cover this in more depth in part 3 to this series coming soon.
4. Retributive models of sin. The retributive model of sin is the traditional one the church has adopted. The main problem is inherent finiteness of punishment in the model. However this is not necessarily a problem as I elucidated above. The second is punitive punishment - but one may persuasively argue that if a criminal does not repent, punitive punishment is a good. United with a choice for hell and rejection of God, retributive models of sin may become quite viable.
2. Expiation Theology
I should note that any orthodox Christian theology involving the atonement must have either (1) or (4) or both. Expiation theology which is the subject of this essay involves (1) - automatic sin separation, (2) - community protection and (3) - free choice for hell. It does not necessarily involve (4). However (4) in conjunction with (3) - with the possibility of (2) may well be viable. I will now, (as you know my theories) go over scripture passages and attempt to explain how they fit in with Expiation theology.
3. Verses Explanation
Matthew 5:29 And if thy right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. 30 And if thy right hand causes you to sin, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
Now in line with the above explanation the warning on sin could well be fitted with (1) that is sin is automatic, hence should be avoided to avoid separation from God. However what about the fact that sinners are 'thrown into' hell?
My answer to that is that Christ is talking to an audience that hasn't necessarily repented and accept the choice for perfection. Necessarily everyone in the New Kingdom will be perfect so they can live together in harmony over an eternity. So Christ is saying that if you commit a wrong - you have shown yourself to God to be imperfect, and hence unless you make the choice to accept the perfection process of God (not mentioned, and not offered yet) you will inevitably be cast out (to protect whatever community there is there that is perfect.)
Mattew 13:40 As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
I should note that this verse actually gives support to my position regarding the belief in community-protection as being a method of judgment - as this verse seems to be very different than ones dealing with the past legal sin against God - this is definitely based on active protection of the community. So I think I can conclude there are atleast 2 different methods of judgment going on in the Bible.
Matthew 18-23-35: Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened to a certain king, who would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought to him, who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he had nothing with which to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, who owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took [him] by the throat, saying, Pay me what thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told to their lord all that was done. Then his lord, having called him, said to him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou didst beg me: Shouldest thou not also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was angry, and delivered him to the torturers, till he should pay all that was due to him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also to you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
I would like to note the verse above only offers the maxim that 'Since God has forgiven us so much, we should forgive one another.' If you read anything more into this parable, you are putting into it more than what the parable is saying.
Now according to my doctrine, the direct result of a moral wrong a person commits is that they incur offense against God and against the human community. However a non-direct result is that they are automatically separated from God and die spiritually. In my theology as I outlined earlier, it is forgiveness, not punishment that removes the non-direct result of a wrong, as with the 2 examples I offered. One more, a highly speculative one:
'Suppose that there were beings who were telepathic and lived in a communal consciousness. One being killed another. The direct result is that they expelled the evil being from the community. The indirect result is that the being, by having committed the wrong dies automatically as a result of the way their brain is set up. If the wrong is punished he suffers the separation from the community and as an indirect result death. If the community-consciousness forgives the evil person, he is not separated and the community can attempt to heal him from the consequences - through forgiving him.'
So it seems, granted certain spiritual axioms that might be similar to the one in this analogy (i.e. that spiritual sin entails automatic spiritual death because of the 'image of God' nature of humans) then automatic sin could potentially only be healed through forgiveness and acceptance regarding a moral wrong, rather than punishment of the moral wrong which caused the indirect harm.
Jn 3:36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him
Rom 5:8-10 But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life
1 Jn 2:2 And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.
My answer to these verses under Expiation theology is that it isn't Christ's sacrifice that is the propitiation for our sins, but Christ himself. Let me explain. The relationship one needs to have with Christ for Christ's substitutionary death to be causally efficacious in removing sin requires that one has accepted the afterlife fate - including the perfection process and of course accepted the extra closeness and being part of God through Christ.
So if one has accepted Christ, then as per an explanation above - your community sins that make you unsuitable for the New Kingdom no longer count - because you through Christ accept that Kingdom and perfection. Hence there is none of God's wrath and anger against you for endangering the community - rather there is the satisfaction of God's wrath through your acceptance of the requirements to make you an appropriate non-damaging member of the Kingdom.
I am at this point convinced that Expiation theology is compatible with every verse in the New Testament. I will be building an reference to scripture verses regarding judgment soon to go over this in more detail as an ancillary to this article if I get the time.
4. Foreword To The Atonement
We are now ending Part 1 of my series on sin, judgment, atonement and choice. I would like now to make some comments referring to Part 2 on atonement.
We have canvassed 4 ideas of punishment. The traditional view by itself needs to have a finite punishment. There are 2 views of sin where this is provided, that hell is shame and exclusion (but nothing else) and that hell is timeless. Granted this, for retribution to work one must believe in punitive punishment as an appropriate recompense for those who refuse to repent for wrongs. Also granted this, to explain the great denial of happiness in heaven one must employ free choice as an explanation.
My problem with this view is that the atonement is less friendly to retributive views of sin. Although there are 2 explanations I think may be satisfactory here and here).
Regarding Expiation theology, the result of moral wrong is that one is automatically separated from God without Him needing to judge us. The only way to remove this non-direct consequence of evil is for God to forgive the sin. At this point, we have an inroad onto the atonement, but we must explain, why does God not simply forgive sin? Well given my expiatory view of sin, my answer is that God's forgiveness, by itself is not causally efficacious to remove the separating effect of sin on a person unless that person is already a very good, repenting person. Hence many very observant Jews and pagans in the Old Testament were good enough so that God was able to remove the separating effect of sin from them - but it doesn't really work on worse people - because of the innate separation caused by the heart that is not very good and contrite. To make salvation freely attainable for all hence, Christ's substitutionary atonement is needed. But this will be covered in more depth in Part 2. Hence God can't simply forgive all sin away - there should be an atonement to help most people be saved, to make salvation commonly attainable. Plus of course the necessity of all the other things Christ did (make the perfection process possible etc...)
Part 2: The Atonement
The problems with the atonement are known less than the problems with traditional Christian views on hell, judgment etc... But they are there. Specifically it is alleged that although other kinds of substitution might work, the notion of penal substitution is inherently wrong. It is wrong for all concerned and simply isn't a way to transfer guilt.
2. Viable Penal VIews On The Atonement
Before we swallow this belief whole, I would like to point out 2 competent defenses of the atonement offered by Christian apologists, and analyze why they work.
1. JP Holding, shame atonement. Link here.
JP Holding's atonement is very good at Christ substituting our owed shame at breaking God's law onto Jesus by Jesus accepting shame for us - and of course this would need to require some relation between the sinner and Jesus to have an effect - such as acceptance. JP Holding's view explains the mechanism quite well, unlike many other what you might call 'solidarity' views of atonement.
2. Glenn Miller, pre-judgment atonement. Link here.
Glenn Miller's view works I think because it de-personalises the eschatological fate of sinners under retributive sin. For example, suppose a criminal hits me. The moral relationship between us can be expressed like the criminal owes me his punishment, and I owe him my acceptance of his punishment in return. This is an intensely personal and private debt - hence the difficulty when a third party (Jesus) comes onto the scene. But according to Glenn Miller, the relationship is a very general one God has with all sinners, and Christ enters a pre-judgment for us and represents us. Hence it is not so personal and there is no real violation.
3. Atonement Under Expiation Theology
Under Expiation theology when a sinner commits a crime, he owes an ordinary finite debt both to God and to society. But as a result of this having committed a crime, he is saddled with the inevitable and automatic separation from God, as a non-direct result of the crime. God can punish the crime, but as with the above examples that doesn't remove the non-direct results. If society punishes me for breaking the law, it does not remove the fact I can't get work in some possible employment places, whereas forgiveness does. Also remember that because the effect is not a direct judgment from God, God cannot be blamed for its occurrence, although he should do all he can to alleviate the condition. Hence the 'infinite punishment for finite sins' objection is cancelled.
So what we have here is that all sinners, as a result of sin must suffer the ultimate eschatological consequences of sin which is separation from God/spiritual death, unless God forgives them. This is my second point. I argue that God's forgiveness, unless the sinner is already quite a good person, is not effective at removing the consequences of sin from the sinner (separation from God).
For example, to use the highly speculative example again to the collective community consciousness. The person in the consciousness has committed a moral violation and will both be expelled from the community and suffer mental death for having done wrong. So the community attempts to heal the evildoer from this automatic result of doing wrong. Grant that as community consciousness telepathic beings, doing wrong is very serious and leads to 'mental death'. Is it plausible this healing cannot work when the community forgives the wrongdoer, unless the wrongdoer either did perhaps a small wrong and/or is highly contrite and willing to be re-integrated?
The situation is like that with God, as we are made in the image of God and sin is the utter opposite of what we are. Hence we suffer spiritual death as a result of it.
Regarding Christ's substitution, I cannot make it clear enough that Christ is not substituting for a direct debt but for an indirect one. Just as in the community consciousness the bad telepathic suffered the indirect harm of dying mentally, we suffer the indirect harm from sin of dying spiritually. So if there is any substitution, then clearly it is not normal penal substitution - or not penal at all.
Let me keep going with that example. Suppose a member of that community consciousness offered the wrongdoer suffering from mental death, by taking on parts of the wrongdoers identity that was causing him to suffer and eventually die. Hence this kind individual suffers as a substitution and the wrongdoer is saved.
Let me say that this happens on a global scale with Christ. As a result of wrong we suffer the automatic consequence of spiritual death. Christ substitutes for us somehow. There is no wrongdoing in this, as illustrated by my example.
4. The Connection Between Christ And The Sinner
Regarding substitution, all substitution requires some kind of relationship between the substitute and the substitutee to work. For example, if I give you some money to pay off a debt, the substitute relationship there is that I know you and am friends, and offer to pay you money and this exchanges through our relationship. If I push you out of the way of a car to save you and get hit myself, the relationship is that I have to be on the scene and desire to save you.
Is it not so unreasonable that atonement requires a relationship too? The mechanism of Christ's atonement in fact requires nothing less than the acceptance of an individual of Christ and decision to accept the perfection process, become part of Christ (of his body) and participate in the Christian community. That is the relationship needed.
5. The Length Of Time Of Christ's Sacrifice, And Its Physicality
What Christ is suffering in our place for is for spiritual death/separation from God and the automatic results of sin to separate one from God. It is arguable this can be served anywhere. Hence on the cross Christ suffered the spiritual death from sin which killed him (?). Or some other variant on that. Alternatively one might simply say the physical death is symbolic and all that was needed was 'spiritual' atonement in the afterlife. Which brings us to how long Christ's sacrifice had to last.
I would adopt the opinion that Christ stood in our place, as an event within the trinity, through us becoming in Him. What I mean is that we suffer an eschatological fate of separation from God and spiritual death. Christ, before us, (although 'before' may not have much meaning if God is timeless), suffered for us this spiritual fate. The effects of the sacrifice lasts as long as our sin lasts.
A timeless perspective on this would state that necessarily Christ suffers a timeless spiritual death. Regardless, it is absolutely necessary that before we can get to heaven it is necessary that Christ removes the sin - hence the necessity for earthly atonement or some other kind at some point. In terms of timelessness, one could say Christ's atonement was a necessary 'primary' event. And if timelessness is true, that doesn't mean Christ is eternally suffering, it means that as one event in the timeless existence of the trinity Christ is suffering. Events don't happen after each other in timelessness, they happen as either primary or secondary events to another event.
I should note that other views of the atonement (JP Holding's especially) it is not strictly necessary that Christ suffered some kind of spiritual atonement - although for my view it is necessary because Christ substitutes for the non-direct (and impossible to remove by punishment of the sin), result of sin to separate the wrongdoer from God.
6. Foreword To Free Choice
My next Part 3 will deal with free choice, but there are a few things I want to make clear. First of all, there are probably viable defenses of traditional penal substitution. And even if they fail, not only is there a defense in Expiation theology, but elements of it can be demonstrated by example very clearly and succinctly, and additionally the whole can be demonstrated in a highly speculative example (see above) which one may find compelling or not.
As I made clear in Part 1, one of the methods of judgment is through choice. I also laid out a way a rational and reasonable person could reject that choice in favour of spiritual death/separation from God - which is that the choice requires becoming part of God through Christ and a loss of the 'self', so that one may reasonably reject it. In the next part I will explain how the way we act towards Christ has a strong correlation in this life with whether we accept him in the next.
Also I believe as I outlined above that a necessary relationship for Christ's atonement to work is that one accepts this choice for which it is rational to reject to maintain the one's self and individuality in the face of becoming part of God through Christ.
I hope this has been informative/helpful
Joveia (Will G)
You can contact me at my weblog here.