May 08, 2016
Philosophical Challenges in the Doctrine of the Atonement
Thank you for your commitment to the philosophical defense of the Christian faith. I came to Christ from Theravada Buddhism, in part through your arguments in "The Case for Christ" and others in the series. Since becoming a Christian, your work and the work of other Christian philosophers, theologians, and apologists has both been a constant encouragement and a major driving force in my pursuing advanced degrees in theology and philosophy. So, in many ways, I am indebted to you for the work you have done.
In your latest Q&A (#472) you mentioned "a theory of the atonement involving as an essential aspect the satisfaction of God's justice faces stiff philosophical challenges, which I hope eventually to address". I suspect I am not alone in excitedly anticipating the completion of your research! In the meantime, would you be able to summarize these challenges? I am certain this would be of significant interest to all your readers, especially those of us who are engaged in Philosophical Theology.
Thank you again for all your work. May God continue to bless you and your ministry.
Having recently participated in a dialogue with a professor of Buddhist studies in Hong Kong, I rejoice in your wonderful testimony, Robert. You’re right that my study of the doctrine of Christ’s atonement has resonated with Reasonable Faith readers.
There are lots of objections to any doctrine of the atonement which includes as an essential element the satisfaction of God’s justice through Christ’s death that I regard, frankly, as frivolous, for example, that Christ’s death is cosmic child abuse or that the doctrine sanctions religious violence. Rather as I see it, the fundamental challenge facing so-called penal theories of the atonement can be summarized in a question: was the guilt for our sins imputed to Christ or not?
If not, then two questions arise: how can Christ, an innocent person, be justly punished for our sins? It would seem unjust of God to punish an innocent party for the wrong-doing of others. Moreover, how can the suffering inflicted on Christ be truly called punishment, since punishment entails the blameworthiness of the person bearing the suffering? If Christ is not blameworthy, then his suffering in my place does not seem to be punishment.
With respect to the first question, I suspect that Divine Command Morality, adopted for wholly independent reasons and therefore not ad hoc, may come to the rescue. For if our moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, then, since He presumably does not issue commands to Himself, God has no moral duties. Therefore, He cannot be accused of acting unjustly in punishing Christ for our sins, even though Christ was innocent. Divine Command Morality demands only that God act consistently with His own moral nature. But, arguably, God the Son’s voluntarily bearing the punishment for sin that we deserved is entirely consistent with God’s nature, for it demonstrates His great love for fallen human beings that He should bear the penalty for sins that they deserved.
I’m not sure what to say about the second question. Sometimes theologians distinguish between the consequences of sin and punishment for sin. Death, for example, can be seen as either the consequence of sin or the punishment of sin (or both!). So one could say that on the cross Christ suffers the consequences of humanity’s sins without being technically punished for our sin. He bears the suffering, which, if inflicted on us, would be punishment, but which is in his case not punishment, since he was not blameworthy. Perhaps, however, this concedes too much to the opponents of penal substitution. Maybe punishment does not entail the blameworthiness of the person who suffers. This needs further reflection.
Suppose one feels the force of the above objections and so holds that our guilt was imputed to Christ. Then the problems above are resolved. For since Christ is accounted guilty by God, the punishment inflicted on him is wholly just. Moreover, since he is reckoned blameworthy, the suffering he bears is truly punishment. So if not merely the penalty of my sin but the guilt of my sin is borne by Christ, problems of the first sort do not arise.
But then one faces the conundrum of how my guilt can be transferred to another person, so that he becomes literally blameworthy for what I have done. I have seen theologians object that guilt cannot be transferred, since it is and always will be the case that I am the one who did the deed, not Christ, so that nothing can change the fact that I am guilty of the sin. This objection is, however, based on an inadequate understanding of guilt and renders it impossible that guilt ever be removed. It takes guilt to be simply the fact of having committed some evil deed. But, as our legal system recognizes, guilt is not just the commission of an evil deed. For people can be found not guilty by reason of insanity, for example. In such a case, there is no contest that the person did the deed, but he is reckoned not guilty of the deed due to extenuating circumstances. Guilt is not just the fact of having done an evil deed but rather being blameworthy.
So could the blame I bear for my sins be transferred to Christ? Here it is crucial that we distinguish between imputation and infusion. To draw an analogy, the Protestant Reformers insisted in contrast to Catholic theologians that God’s justifying grace is imputed to me, not infused in me. It is a legal transaction. Similarly, our sin should not be understood to be infused into Christ so that he is made into a selfish, unloving, cruel, etc., person. Rather the blame for my crimes in legally imputed to Christ, and so he is punished in my place.
The question, then, is whether this idea of imputation of guilt makes sense. I’d like to study more how the notion of imputation works in our legal system. To give one example, people who break the law are held to be guilty because they know that their act is against the law. Now in many cases, people do not, in fact, know the law well enough to know that what they are doing is against the law. But in this case our legal system imputes to such people the knowledge of the law, so that they can be held to be blameworthy! I find this quite amazing. A person who is in fact ignorant of the law is actually held legally to be knowledgeable of the law because such knowledge is imputed to him! Now if that makes sense, it’s not so obvious, it seems to me, that God cannot impute to Christ the guilt of my sin, even though Christ is morally indefectible.
I have no final positions on these and certain other issues, but these are just some of the important questions which arise in the doctrine of the atonement.