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Listener's Questions on the Atonement

December 31, 2017     Time: 21:41
Listener’s Questions on the Atonement


Dr. Craig's recent work on the Atonement of Christ has prompted many questions!

Music Links:

He Will Listen to You - Mark Heard


Breathe - Phil Keaggy



KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, I'm glad you're writing some books on the atonement because we get plenty of questions from listeners on the atonement. This one says,

Dr. Craig, regarding your atonement studies, my question is this: was Jesus' death on the cross just or unjust? The reason I ask is because the Bible makes it clear that Jesus' death was unjust (see the Gospel narratives, Luke, 1 Peter, and Isaiah). But penal substitution seems to operate according to a mechanism in which Jesus' death is just, that is, Jesus takes on the guilt of our sins and receives their deserved penalty to satisfy retributive justice. But if Jesus' death is unjust then it is the resurrection that should be seen as the satisfaction of divine justice as the reversal and restitution of Jesus' unjust death. In this case, what is unique about Jesus' death is not that he alone suffers the penalty of death (for we all suffer the penalty of death) but that he alone suffers death as an innocent party so that justice demands the reversal of his death hence the resurrection.

DR. CRAIG: This is a very interesting question. I think the answer will hinge upon whether or not you affirm the doctrine of the imputation of sins. As he rightly notes, if we say that our sin and guilt were imputed to Christ then that means he came to share in our just condemnation, and so God's punishment of him would be just. But that isn't to say that what the Sanhedrin did and what Pontius Pilate did was therefore just. I think here we have an example of a kind of double agency where what the human beings do is clearly unjust. They condemned Jesus for blasphemy and for treason against Rome, and this was unjust on their part. But God's punishing Christ for our sins was just because our sins had been imputed to Christ. So we shouldn't think of the resurrection as satisfying divine justice. Christ rising from the dead wouldn't do anything to pay the penalty for my sins or satisfy divine justice. The just dessert that I deserve is somehow discharged. That can only be discharged if someone else will bear the just dessert that I have, namely the punishment of death. I would say that if you have a doctrine of imputation of sins (that God's punishing Christ for our sins is entirely just) . . . and I do think that the doctrine of the imputation of sins to Christ is a New Testament doctrine. I would appeal to two verses in particular. First, Galatians 3:13 where Paul explains that everyone who lives by the law is under a curse. That is because no one is able to fully discharge the demands of the law. So those who live by the law are condemned as lawbreakers. They are under the curse of God. They stand condemned before God. In Galatians 3:13 Paul says that Christ has redeemed us or rescued us from the curse of the law. And how did he do it? Paul says by becoming a curse for us. That is to say, Jesus took the curse of God upon himself. He was reckoned by God as a lawbreaker in our place and therefore came to share in that condemnation and to bear the penalty for our sins. The second verse is 2 Corinthians 5:21 where this, I think, is expressed explicitly. Paul says, God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us that in him we might become the righteousness of God. I see no exegetical reason for trying to dilute this passage or interpret it in some other way than saying that God has imputed our sin and guilt to Christ and therefore we are now freed by Christ’s being punished in our place substitutionarily.[1]

KEVIN HARRIS: This next question is from Dan in the USA. He says,

Thank you so much for all your hard thinking that has helped me do the same. Your recent discussion of Vilenkin’s views on the kalam cosmological argument was very well-constructed and understandable to the layperson. It has prompted me to ask a couple of questions that have been bouncing around my own cranial quantum for some time. First of all, is the statement “nothing exists” even a coherent statement?

DR. CRAIG: If it is properly understood this is a coherent statement. What we need to understand is that even though the word “nothing” is grammatically a pronoun, that does not mean that it is a referring term – that there is some object to which the word “nothing” refers. Rather, in English, the word “nothing” is a quantifier phrase. It means “not anything.” There is a whole series of these words of universal quantification in English like no one, nobody, nothing, none. These are not referring terms. They are quantifying terms which simply mean “not anything.” So to say “not anything exists” is a perfectly coherent statement. What would be incoherent is if you take “nothing” to be a referring term like Lawrence Krauss and certain other popularizers do and say that nothing exists – that there is something that exists and it is nothing. That is incoherent.


Secondly, if nothing exists does that necessitate the existence of a potential to become something?

DR. CRAIG: No. On the contrary, it excludes it. If not anything exists then there isn't even any potential for the existence of something else. There is not anything. That is one reason I think that the beginning of the universe requires a transcendent cause. Because on the atheistic view prior to the beginning of the universe there was not anything. There was not even the potential of the universe’s existing. But then how could the universe become actual if there was no potentiality for the universe to exist? By contrast, on the theistic view, the potentiality of the universe’s existence lay in the power of God to create it. God had the power to create a universe and therefore there was the potential for a universe to exist which God then actualizes.

KEVIN HARRIS: He asks one more question:

Thirdly, if that potential exists would it not necessarily require the existence of something to initiate that potential?

DR. CRAIG: It would require the existence of something to actualize that potential. Since a potential is not something itself actual, it can't actualize itself. There needs to be something that would actualize the potentiality of the universe's existence and make it real. I would say on theism that is exactly what you have. You have a creator who has the power to create a universe and hence the potential of creating the universe. He actualizes that power and creates the universe.

KEVIN HARRIS: This next question from Joe, also in the USA. He says,

Hello. I am submitting a question to you today because you are the best person to talk to about questions and discussion over free will.

Is that right, Bill? Are you the person?

DR. CRAIG: No! [laughter]


I was in an online discussion over the objectivity of beauty and an anonymous user brought up the debate over free will. The person basically claimed that since animals have no free will and humans evolved from animals then we can have no free will. There are three conclusions I have drawn from this statement. Either fatalism-determinism is true, macro-evolution (theistic or otherwise) is false, or animals actually have free will. I know that in an apologetic discussion is usually inappropriate to object to evolution. I also know that fatalism is unbiblical and in my opinion ridiculous. It also seems obviously true that my pet could never have free will. This appears to be a very strong objection to the existence of freedom. How should I respond and where is the flaw in the reasoning?

DR. CRAIG: The flaw in the reasoning is that there is a fourth alternative, and that is theistic evolution could result in a being who has free will.[2] On the view of theistic evolution our bodies have evolved from other animal forms – from hominids – but then God creates in us a soul which has libertarian free will. The evolution of our physical bodies doesn't do anything to negate the freedom of our will on a theistic view. It would seem to me that the alternatives are either determinism or that animals do have free will or that theism is true.

KEVIN HARRIS: Our next segment of questions – Charles from Canada.

Hello, Dr. Craig. I recently read the book Four Views on Divine Providence on which you were a contributor and which I enjoyed. After reading it I was curious as to whether you think it is possible for a person to be truly split 50-50 when trying to make a decision. In my experience it happens fairly regularly that I genuinely don't care whether one thing is chosen relative to something else, and I believe myself to opt for one or the other at random. In such a case I feel as though I have zero preference. But on Molinism wouldn't this feeling be an illusion? For God to truly know in advance what creatures possessing libertarian freedom would do in a given situation it would seem that there would always have to be at least one atom more on one side of the scale than the other, would there not?

DR. CRAIG: This question betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Molinism and free will. It is precisely the function of freedom of the will to be able to distinguish between 50-50 choices. There is a wonderful medieval illustration by the theologian Jean Buridan of a donkey who is caught between two equally appetizing bales of hay. Because, as a mere animal, it does not have freedom of the will the donkey starves to death because it isn't attracted to one bale of hay rather than the other. What theologians argued is that human beings having free will can arbitrarily choose between one alternative or the other. The medieval Muslim theologian al-Ghazali gives the example of two equally delectable dates (he's talking about the kind you can eat). He says that it is the function of free will to be able to choose one date rather than the other one to eat even though they are equal in every respect. I think that is absolutely right. That is what is entailed by freedom of the will. Molinism affirms that sort of freedom. What Charles (who posed the question) seems to be proposing is some sort of determinism – that the way God knows what you would do is there is some slight difference between the circumstances that would determine how you would act in one set of circumstances rather than in another. That just betrays the very theory. The theory is that in an identical set of circumstances you can choose one way or the other and that God knows which one you would freely choose. So Charles is actually denying Molinism in assuming there needs to be one atom at least of difference between the circumstances in order for God to know how you would choose.

KEVIN HARRIS: This next question is from Simon in Germany.

Dear Dr. Craig, I have two questions about laymen defending the resurrection of Jesus. It seems to me that there are two ways to do it, and one is a lot more complicated than the other. Either you have a top-down approach in which you establish that the New Testament is trustworthy and then see what it says about Jesus, or you have a bottom-up approach, which is what you do. You establish the three facts (empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, belief in the resurrection) and then infer the resurrection as the best explanation. It seems to me that the former approach takes a lot less time to learn to defend whereas the latter approach requires a lot of research and understanding of history. I really want to learn how to defend the resurrection, and I think all Christians should. This brings me to my two questions. Number one: do you agree that the top-down approach takes a lot less time to learn and is simpler to understand for the audience?[3] And two: if yes, do you think that gives laymen a warrant for learning to use this approach only?

DR. CRAIG: In answer to his first question that the top-down approach is simpler and takes less time to learn, I am astonished, frankly, that Simon could think this! This would be an enormous task of huge complexity! You would first have to establish the reliability of the Gospels and then from that you can infer that therefore what it says about the empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and origins of the disciples’ belief is true. The reason that is obviously more complicated is that in order to establish that the Gospels are reliable you would need to show that they are reliable with respect to the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith. So the thing becomes circular – In order to establish that the Gospels are reliable you need to show that it is reliable in what it says about the crucifixion and the fate of Jesus following it. So it seems to me that this is just a hopeless approach if you are doing apologetics. Of course if you are doing systematic theology it is fine to just say I begin with the truth of Scripture and then I can infer that everything Scripture teaches is true. That is fine for doing theology. But he is talking in this letter about how to defend the resurrection of Jesus. As an apologetic, that first approach is simply hopeless. It would force you to defend things like the virgin birth, Jesus' feeding of the five thousand, his birth in Bethlehem, and all of these other historical aspects of the Gospels before you ever get around to the resurrection. Then you have to establish those anyway. I really am surprised that he would see this as simpler and taking less time than the more selective approach which focuses on these key facts that go to warrant belief in Jesus' resurrection regardless of whether the Gospels are historically reliable with respect to other facts like the birth in Bethlehem, the virgin birth, the feeding of the five thousand, and so on and so forth.

KEVIN HARRIS: The final question today from Brandon says,

Hello, Dr. Craig. I thank God for your work. You have helped me encounter the true and living God, and have helped me to bring clarity to what purpose here on Earth truly is. I have been watching your debates and reading the content on this website for years now and recently picked up the third edition of your book, Reasonable Faith. I am having trouble getting past one particular idea, and I hope you can help me grapple with it. On page 42 you summarize Plantinga’s idea of what properly functioning cognitive faculties are like. Quoting from the book, “One's cognitive faculties are functioning properly only if they are functioning as God designed them to.” Doesn't this statement assume God exists because it references God's design for human cognitive faculties even though it is smack in the middle of a section of text explaining how Plantinga believes he knows that God exists? If so, doesn't the argument break down or am I understanding this passage incorrectly?

DR. CRAIG: I think that Brandon is understanding the passage incorrectly. Plantinga distinguishes between two types of objections to the Christian faith. One he would call a de-facto objection. This would be objections that say what Christianity affirms is objectively false (for example, that Jesus rose from the dead – that is simply false, it didn't happen). That would be a de-facto objection. By contrast, there are what Plantinga calls de-jure objections (from the word from which we get the word “jurisprudence” from). These de-jure objections hold that Christian belief is either irrational or unjustified or unwarranted even if it is true – that there is something defective about believing in Christianity even if it is true. Plantinga’s religious epistemology is intended to answer a de-jure objection to Christianity. So he is entirely within his rights in affirming the truth of Christianity. What he wants to affirm is that if Christianity is true then there is no good de-jure objection to it.[4] Because if Christianity is true then God has designed our cognitive faculties to function in such a way that they form belief in God in certain circumstances and through the testimony of the Holy Spirit we know that the great truths of the Gospel which we read in Scripture are, in fact, true. So there is no circularity here or begging of the question. He is not trying to prove that Christianity is true or that God exists. What he is trying to show is that there is no good de-jure objection to Christianity. This is extremely important because what that means is that the skeptic has to show some de-facto objection to Christianity. He can't just say, It is irrational or unwarranted or unjustified to believe in Christianity. He has to show that the Christian worldview is false in its claims. That puts a burden of proof on him that is very considerable and heavy to bear. Once you understand the project that Plantinga is involved in (namely, this project of saying there is no de-jure objection to Christian faith) you can see that his assumption that God exists is unproblematic.[5]


[1]          5:22

[2]          10:15

[3]          15:10

[4]          20:00

[5]          Total Running Time: 21:42 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)