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Questions on the Atonement, Sin, and Divine Command Theory

May 24, 2021


Questions from Muslims received by Dr. Craig include the historicity of Christ's death, the nature of repentance, and Divine Command Theory.

KEVIN HARRIS: Next question is from Sweden:

First of all, Dr. Craig, thank you for all the work for the Kingdom. I feel like I know you, Dr. Craig, even though I don’t because I’ve been listening to many of your lectures and debates over the years. When I first started to read and listen I was a new-born Christian. Today, I am serving as a pastor. I’ve learned so much. I attended the Q&A of an Apologia Live in Sweden, but my question did not reach your ears. Perhaps you will address it here. Given PSA . . .

DR. CRAIG: “Penal substitutionary atonement” I’m sure is what he means by “PSA.”

KEVIN HARRIS: That’s what I thought as well.

. . . that Christ bore the penalty of mankind's sin or suffered the just desert of mankind's sin, and in so doing satisfied God's demand for justice, does that mean: (1) It was the actual physical suffering and the physical beating and torture of Christ that was the punishment for the sin of mankind, (2) If so, that Christ had to endure a certain number of lashes, a certain level of torture, a certain period of time of physical pain in order for God's justice to be met, and (3) In the eyes of God, we as sinners deserve to be physically tortured, indeed beaten and crucified, as punishment for our sins. Or is the crucifixion more of an outer manifestation of Christ bearing the punishment for our sin?

DR. CRAIG: I would take the latter view – that the crucifixion is an outer physical manifestation of Christ's bearing the punishment for our sin, which is spiritual death and separation from God. The actual physical suffering that Jesus endured, though horrible and just inconceivable, I think could never atone for all the sins of mankind past, present, and future. Rather, what he went through for us, I think, is forsakenness by God the Father. He who had never known separation from his Father experienced that rupture of the relationship, that alienation and estrangement from God the Father that we deserved, as the just desert of our sin. This involves, I think, an incomprehensible suffering that none of us can truly understand. So the physical suffering of Christ is just a token of the much more profound spiritual suffering that he endured for us which was the punishment for our sin.

KEVIN HARRIS: This from a Muslim in the United States.

Hello Dr. Craig, You often say that the Achilles' Heel of Islam is in its denial of “the single most indisputable fact about Jesus”: his crucifixion. This Islamic denial flows from the Qur’anic verse “They (the Jews) did not kill him (Jesus), nor did they crucify him, but it/he appeared so unto them.” It seems like your argument is as follows:

1.     If Islam is true, Jesus was not crucified.

2.     Jesus was crucified.

3.     Therefore Islam is not true.

What do you think about that syllogism?

DR. CRAIG: I think that that's right. That is what I think – that Islam, the Qur’an in particular, gets it wrong about the historical Jesus and therefore the Qur’an cannot be, as Muhammad claimed, a revelation dictated from God.

KEVIN HARRIS: He says, continuing,

To defend the crucial second premise, you cite biblical scholars who gain their information about Jesus through extra-Qur'anic materials. However, reaching the conclusion that Jesus was crucified according to historical memory is precisely what the Qur’an claims when it says “but it/he appeared so unto them.” Thus, my question is: If we make the distinction between the historical memory of Jesus' crucifixion (which, historians and Muslims agree on) and what actually happened ontologically or behind-the-scenes (which, Muslims believe Jesus was substituted for theological reasons, and historians believe Jesus actually died based on the prima facie historical memory), would that go some way into alleviating or even diminishing the tension of the crucifixion scene between the historical and the Islamic Jesus?

On a side note, I, as a Muslim myself, deeply admire your respect of the Kalam tradition in your defense of the cosmological argument.

DR. CRAIG: Well, I appreciate Samiullah’s question and kind remarks. I actually selected this as a question of the week, so this will be addressed on our website.[1] But very briefly let me just say that what this typical Muslim response to the objection implicitly admits is that the historical evidence goes against Islam. It is just to admit that if you follow the historical evidence where it leads then Islam is false. What the Muslim has to recur to is a kind of illusionism that says it's just an illusion. All of the historical evidence for Jesus’ crucifixion which has convinced every historical scholar that's not a Muslim is that this is just an illusion wrought by God to fool everybody. It would be sort of like saying the world is really only 5,000 years old but it's been created by God with the illusion of age. And that just is to say that the scientific evidence is against such a recent creation or that the historical evidence is against Jesus not being crucified. So unless you're going to appeal to some sort of desperate illusionism which we have, I think, no reason to believe, we should follow the historical evidence where Muslims admit it points – namely to the crucifixion of Jesus.

KEVIN HARRIS: A question from Australia, Dr. Craig. He says,

As Christians and sinners, we are meant to ask God for forgiveness when we sin, though God's forgiveness is infinite. I often wonder what it means to truly ask for forgiveness. Sometimes we will commit a sin, realize that it is wrong, and ask for forgiveness. However, often the acknowledgement of sinful behavior is intellectual and not sentimental. In other words, we know we've sinned and we know it's wrong, but we don't necessarily feel sorrow for it. Does this negate our petition for God's forgiveness?

That's a good question!

DR. CRAIG: It is a good question. I think that the traditional view is that that does negate our petition. The petition is simply intellectual and formal, and genuine repentance according to traditional Christian theology involves not simply confession but also contrition. Without contrition, confession alone is not sufficient for repentance. That would be incomplete repentance. Contrition as well as confession [is needed] in order to have genuine repentance. One of the things that helps me to understand the self-destructive effects of sin is it's not just something that you've done that's wrong, but that this alienates you from God. It separates you from the best that God has for you and that it's ultimately very self-destructive. It destroys your character and therefore needs to be avoided like a disease. So I think we need to take sin very seriously. When we sense that we've done something wrong in our lives go to God with genuine contrition and confession and ask him to forgive us and to cleanse us and to empower us to do better.

KEVIN HARRIS: This question is from Muhammad in Iran.

Hello, Dr. Craig. I had a question regarding divine command theory. In your debates when you present the moral argument you mention the first premise, “If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.” When I read up on divine command theory, I became a bit confused by your remarks. As I understand it, the restricted or modified versions of the divine command theory don't say that goodness depends on God the way obligations do. Rather, since God is by nature good, if he exists, that is the good or the standard for goodness since he is perfect by definition.

DR. CRAIG: And that is the divine command theory that I've defended. On the view that I've defended, which is the view formulated by people like Robert Adams, Philip Quinn and others, God's nature provides the standard for moral value. Goodness is God himself. God is the standard for moral goodness, and insofar as things resemble God more closely they are morally better, and insofar as they depart increasingly from resemblance to God they are increasingly evil. However, obligations or moral duties are different from moral values. Moral obligations have to do with what we ought or ought not to do, and those I would argue are rooted in God's commands. It is in virtue of these imperatives that duty arises. Duty is constituted by an imperative issued by a qualified authority. As “The Good,” God is certainly qualified to issue moral commands to us which then become our moral duties. So Muhammad is right in thinking that moral values are rooted in God's nature, but then also moral duties or obligations are rooted in God's will.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK. He completes his question by saying,

However, I'm puzzled how that would have a bearing on the intrinsic value or goodness of an action itself. If I were to ask how long an object is in meters, if I had no standard like the original meter bar (even though there are more scientifically modern standards using the speed of light, this works better for my analogy) and that there weren't any rulers or tape measures I would be unable to know how long something is in meters. But since there was such an idea to make a meter bar now we can measure things. But that wouldn't make things not a meter long were we to lose all our rulers and measuring tapes. We would simply not have the ability to know if something is 1 meter or 20 kilometers long as a matter of epistemology or framing. Yet, in your debates you say it's not a matter of epistemology but ontology. These ideas seem contradictory to me. I would appreciate your comments on this, Dr. Craig, please. And thank you.

DR. CRAIG: Muhammad's remarks are spot on, and the analogy of the meter bar is one that divine command theorists often appeal to. William Alston, for example, says that just as the standard meter bar in the Department of Weights and Measures in Paris determined paradigmatically what a meter is, so God is the paradigm of moral goodness. It is God, that concrete entity, that determines what moral goodness is. And that is, as Muhammad says, objective. It is a matter of moral ontology, not a matter of moral epistemology. So given that there is a paradigm of what it is to be a meter, something on my desk can be a meter long even if I don't have a tape measure to measure it. Similarly, a good person is good insofar as he resembles God even if we don't have any knowledge of God or how good that person approximates to God. So it isn’t a matter of moral epistemology. It is a matter of moral ontology. Is there such an objective standard as a kind of moral meter bar?[2]


[2] Total Running Time: 15:18 (Copyright © 2021 William Lane Craig)