Is This a Correct View of the Atonement?

Is This a Correct View of the Atonement?

An article on the Atonement of Christ is examined by Dr. Craig in relation to his recent study on the subject.

Transcript Is This a Correct View of the Atonement?

KEVIN HARRIS: Let’s talk about your exciting work on the atonement, Dr. Craig. These videos have been great![1] Quite an education. We think that the atonement of Christ on the cross – his blood atonement – is one thing and can be easily illustrated. That is not quite the case, is it?

DR. CRAIG: No. The doctrine is like a multi-faceted jewel that has brilliance in the way the different facets relate to each other. The doctrine of the atonement is a complex and rich theological doctrine.

KEVIN HARRIS: When some of my Seventh-Day Adventist friends heard that we were going to discuss the atonement – and I have this article here on an Adventist professor giving her view of the atonement[2] – they said, “No, no, talk to us first before you do a podcast on it!” We are not going to necessarily concentrate on the Adventist position in particular, but I do want to let this be a springboard into what you have been working on. This is a professor, Jean Sheldon, doing an interview in Spectrum magazine. She is professor at Pacific Union College. She’s asked: “How does the Adventist understanding of the atonement differ from other churches?” She says basically that different Adventists have different views. She says she was taught that Jesus came to give us an example of obedience to the law.

DR. CRAIG: That is a shocking view that she was taught as a child. That completely ignores the cross to say that Jesus came simply to give an example of obedience to the law. The focus of the New Testament preaching of Christ is on the cross of Christ. So Paul says to the Corinthians, I determined to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified. The whole book of Hebrews is a reflection upon the death of Christ as a sacrificial offering to God whereby we are cleansed and restored to fellowship with God. So the preaching of the cross is central to the New Testament understanding of the work of Christ. The idea that he came simply by the obedience of his life to give us an example is woefully deficient.


When I was twelve, I encountered for the first time the view of the atonement that I believe comes close to the current preference by a majority in the Church.

I don’t know if she means the Christian church or the Adventist church.

DR. CRAIG: Oh, I see. She could mean the Adventist church. I took her to mean Protestants because she says Jesus’ death “satisfied the claims of the law and divine justice.” I guess that could be an Anselmian satisfaction theory as well as a Protestant penal substitution theory. Both Protestants and Catholics believe that Christ through his death satisfied the demands of divine justice. They think it did so in very different ways. Anselm and the Catholic view would be that Christ’s death is like a compensatory offering to God that satisfies his justice, whereas the Protestant Reformers believed that Christ’s suffering is a form of penal substitution – that he bears the punishment for sins that we deserved thereby freeing us from liability to punishment.


That same year, I also encountered for the first time the concept that Jesus came to reveal the Father. . . . I believe that the pastor’s views are very much in harmony with a stream of Adventism that prefers the theory of forensic atonement and is also in harmony with evangelical Christianity.

DR. CRAIG: That would be the Protestant Reformers’ view that the atonement is a forensic exchange. That is to say that Jesus, by his death, satisfies the demands of divine retributive justice – that sin be punished rather than simply overlooked. Then also that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us.[3] As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This contemplates a kind of forensic transaction whereby our sin and guilt is imputed to Christ, and he bears it. Then his righteousness is imputed to us so that we are acquitted and counted righteous in God's sight.

KEVIN HARRIS: She says she could never really embrace this forensic view because she says that, “the way it was presented, Jesus became a legal means to an end: satisfaction of a penalty, and not a person who loved people, what that love meant, how Jesus revealed that love, and its significance.”

DR. CRAIG: This is a claim that is so often made today. Frankly, I just don’t understand it. I am baffled by it. I do not understand why people think this is mutually exclusive. Of course it was the love of God for sinners that caused Christ to come and bear the punishment and penalty that we deserve. The cross is the supreme manifestation of God’s self-giving love. I just do not understand why people see these as mutually exclusive. The atonement is motivated from beginning to end by the love of God and the grace of God toward undeserving sinners.

KEVIN HARRIS: So it is not either-or. I could be both-and.

DR. CRAIG: It is both-and, I would say.


So back to the question of the difference between Adventist atonement and that of other churches, it depends on who you talk to. But if we truly keep the seventh-day Sabbath, and worship the God who celebrated a finished creation as the same God who cried, “It is finished” and then rested on Sabbath in death, our views of atonement should harmonize cosmologically, from a divine perspective, as non-violent demonstrations of the character of God as the embodiment of His descriptive law of love.

DR. CRAIG: I don’t understand how anyone could think that the crucifixion of Christ is a non-violent demonstration of the character of God. The crucifixion is an act of supreme violence taken by men against the Son of God. He suffers in our place. On any view of the atonement that believes in the historicity of the crucifixion, it just seems to me impossible to describe the atonement as a non-violent demonstration of the love of God.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let’s talk about where you are currently in your work on the atonement. What are some of your insights that you’ve gained and what have you examined so far?

DR. CRAIG: What I’ve tried to do is to approach the atonement from a three-fold perspective: biblically, church historically, and philosophically. Almost nobody has done this. Biblical theologians who do good exegetical work on the New Testament and Old Testament passages relevant to the atonement are not equipped to reflect philosophically about it and rarely do they get into church historical matters as well. Those who are equipped to talk about the history of doctrine with regard to the atonement and the various theories that Catholic and Protestant theologians have offered, again are rarely equipped in philosophical analysis to be able to deal with the philosophical objections and issues raised by the atonement. I find my work to be, I think, unique in being able to address the doctrine of the atonement from this three-fold perspective. That would be the first contribution that I think I’m going to make.

KEVIN HARRIS: I think this is so important because we have heard so many times that you are putting philosophy before biblical doctrine. Notice the order, philosophy then Bible, and things like that.

DR. CRAIG: Which was not the order that I just gave!

KEVIN HARRIS: I know it! Biblically, historically, philosophically. But they all do work together because philosophy – God has given us brains to fill in some gaps in the biblical exegesis.[4]

DR. CRAIG: Let me give you a perfect example of this. In order to reflect philosophically on the doctrine of penal substitution (the idea that God punished Christ in our place), I’ve been reading a lot on the philosophy of law lately where a major component of the philosophy of law is the theory of punishment. Here it is asked: with what justification does the state impose harsh treatment upon people? What gives them the right to incarcerate a person for thirty years or to fine a person? The question of the justification of punishment is a huge philosophical question. Similarly, the very definition of punishment is a philosophical question in the philosophy of law.

What you discover is that biblical theologians are largely ignorant of these issues. To illustrate, I recently read a book called The Suffering Servant, which is a colloquium of German theologians at the University of Tubingen, and one of the most prominent of these is a man named Otfried Hofius, who is an Old Testament scholar, and he gives a detailed exegesis of Isaiah 53 which describes the servant of the Lord and how our sins, he bore them; our infirmities, he carried them; upon him was the punishment that made us whole; and by his stripes we are healed. Hofius shows with great force that what Isaiah 53 teaches is penal substitution – that the servant of the Lord bore the punishment for Israel’s sins that Israel deserved. Now, at the same time that Hofius defends this exegetical reading of Isaiah 53 he says, “Such a reading is nonetheless theologically outrageous.” He says there is nothing in legal theory that would correspond to the idea of a transfer of someone’s guilt and wrongdoing to another innocent person. Therefore this idea is incoherent, really.

When I read that I thought Otfried Hofius knows nothing about the law because what I’ve found is that in the law, both in civil law and in criminal law, there is something called vicarious liability. Vicarious liability is the imputation of one person’s wrongdoing and guilt to another person who has done nothing wrong. That other person can then be punished for the wrongdoing that the first person did. Whether you think this is just or not is irrelevant. The point is that Professor Hofius is just wrong – flat wrong – when he says there is nothing in our legal experience like vicarious liability and punishment because there most certainly is. This has been one of the most interesting things that I have discovered because I think the claim that Hofius makes is so often repeated – that there is just nothing like the imputation of wrongdoing and guilt that we have in Christian doctrine when in fact this is an important part of both civil and criminal law.

KEVIN HARRIS: As we come to the end of this podcast today, I’ll ask you this. Last time we talked about the atonement on a podcast we talked about how many illustrations there are out there and how they all tend to fall short or we mix the illustrations – the illustration of the judge who passes sentence, takes off his robe, steps down, and takes the punishment. Things like that. I’m curious if you’ve encountered or even developed an illustration that we should use.

DR. CRAIG: You know, I haven’t even tried to do that. As a philosopher what I want to do is engage in conceptual analysis and to defend a clear conceptual model as it were of the atonement that is biblically faithful and philosophically coherent. I don’t think we need to have illustrations. Those might be helpful for preaching but philosophically they are just unnecessary. So, for example, in my work on the doctrine of the Trinity I don’t try to develop some sort of analogy or illustration for the Trinity.[5]

KEVIN HARRIS: I quit trying to do that, too.

DR. CRAIG: We don’t need it. You can show the philosophical coherence of the doctrine without trying to find illustrations. When I read the critiques of illustrations of the atonement, it seems to me that the illustrations are faulted by their critics primarily because they only illustrate one aspect of the atonement rather than all of them. But if the doctrine of the atonement is, as I said, a multi-faceted jewel then we shouldn’t expect to have one illustration that would capture all the facets. Rather, one illustration would illustrate perhaps one facet of the doctrine of the atonement and a different illustration would illustrate a different facet of the atonement. That is just fine. There’s nothing wrong with illustrations by saying that they fail to illustrate all of the facets of the atonement simultaneously.

KEVIN HARRIS: Thank you for clearing that up. People can go join you in your study.

DR. CRAIG: Amen![6]

[1] See the ReasonableFaithOrg YouTube Playlist “Join Me In My Study: The Atonement” at (accessed December 6, 2016).

[2] See (accessed December 6, 2016).

[3] 5:00

[4] 10:00

[5] 15:06

[6] Total Running Time: 16:27 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)