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Refusing to Soften the Atonement

October 08, 2017     Time: 20:59
Refusing to Soften the Atonement


Various voices in the Christian church are denigrating the meaning of Christ's blood atonement.

“Refusing to Soften the Atonement”

KEVIN HARRIS: Right up your alley, Dr. Craig. You have been spending time on the atonement, not only on video (and people can join you in your study via video on the atonement) but also two books on the atonement that you're working on. So this article[1] about the Southern Baptist refuting efforts to soften the atonement should really be of interest to you right now.

DR. CRAIG: It really was. I was greatly heartened by the Southern Baptist vote at their annual meeting to affirm the doctrine of penal substitution because I am convinced that this is the biblical doctrine of the atonement of Christ. The article is certainly correct in saying that this is one of the most hated doctrines in Christianity today. Here in Atlanta there is an Episcopal church that was previously called The Church of the Atonement, and they were declining in their attendance, as is true in general for Episcopalian churches. They hired a consultant to help them determine what they needed to do in order to attract more parishioners, and he recommended (believe it or not) changing the name of the church! He said that calling it the Church of the Atonement is repulsive to people. It connotes blood sacrifice. So they changed the name of the church as a result. I have no idea yet whether or not that has increased attendance. I doubt that it will have much effect in the long run, but it is a vivid illustration of the opposition that the traditional doctrine of the atonement does face today.

KEVIN HARRIS: The article begins – this is from Bob Allen from Baptist News:

Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners, satisfying the wrath of a holy God, according to a Southern Baptist Convention resolution adopted June 13, 2017.

So the satisfaction of God's wrath, which atonement view would that fall under?

DR. CRAIG: That element of the atonement would be affirmed by a couple different theories of the atonement. That is not what makes this statement, I think, so significant. For example, St. Anselm enunciated a theory of the atonement that is typically called the satisfaction theory of the atonement. But what Anselm meant by satisfaction was compensation. God had been offended by sin. We had failed to give to God the honor that is due to him, and therefore we owe God a sort of infinite compensation which we cannot pay. On Anselm's view, God became incarnate in the person of Christ to give his life as an offering to God – a compensatory gift to God on our behalf to pay for the dishonor that we had rendered to God. Anselm believed that if compensation was not made to God for our sin then God's only alternative was punishment. So either compensation or punishment was the result of sin.

Now what the Protestant Reformers affirmed was that in fact there was punishment for sin, but instead of punishing us for our sins God became incarnate in the person of Christ. On the cross he bore the punishment for sin that we deserved thereby freeing us from our liability to punishment and affording us a divine pardon and forgiveness and new life in Christ.

So satisfaction of divine justice would be affirmed both by Anselm which tends to be the Catholic theory of the atonement (which is really a matter of compensation) or you could say what satisfies God's judgment is substitutionary punishment. And what the Southern Baptist has affirmed is substitutionary punishment.


. . . messengers to the 2017 SBC annual meeting passed a resolution affirming “the truthfulness, efficacy and beauty of the biblical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as the burning core of the Gospel message and the only hope of a fallen race.”

. . . the resolution says the denial of penal substitutionary atonement “constitutes false teaching that leads the flock away” and “leaves the world without a sin-cleansing savior.”

DR. CRAIG: Right. Now I think that this is correct.[2] Let's unpack this a little bit. The keywords there are “penal substitutionary atonement.” The word “atonement” is used in the Old Testament of the sacrifices that were offered in the tabernacle and then later in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem for the impurities and the sins of the people. These sacrifices made atonement in the sense that they would cleanse of impurity and they would also cleanse of sin on the part of the people. So the sacrifices served the purpose of what theologians called “expiation,” which means the removal or the expunging of sin and impurity. They also served the purpose of what theologians call “propitiation.” That is, they satisfy God's justice and thereby nullify his wrath upon sin. By expiating our sin, these sacrifices propitiate God and remove his wrath so that we no longer stand under his wrath. So the word “atonement” involves this expiatory and propitiatory offering to God on behalf of human sinners that will remove their guilt and condemnation and result in appeasing God's just wrath upon them.

This is said to be substitutionary atonement. What does that mean? That means that someone else does it for us. It is vicarious suffering that Christ undergoes. This is already implicit in these Old Testament sacrifices. All of the animals sacrifices in the tabernacle and the temple were accompanied by a very important hand-laying ceremony. The person who brought a goat or an animal to be sacrificed was required first to lay his hand upon the head of the animal before he slaughtered it. He actually killed the sacrificial animal himself. But before he did so he laid his hand on the head of the animal. The Hebrew expression here is quite emphatic. It means to press your hand into the animal's head, and then you would slay the animal. And this act of hand-laying I think is symbolic of the worshiper's identification with the animal and thereby the animal's death represents symbolically the worshiper's death. The consequence of sin is death, and the animal dies in the place of worshiper. The offerer identifies himself symbolically with the animal, and then the animal is slain and its blood dispersed upon the altar or other aspects of the tabernacle paraphernalia. So already in these Old Testament sacrifices there is this element of substitution of an animal for the worshiper.

Now the New Testament tells us that the blood of bulls and goats can never really take away sin. This was just a provisional arrangement that God had made for the sins of the people until Christ should come. The place that you find substitutionary atonement most clearly taught is in Isaiah 53. In Isaiah 53 we confront this enigmatic person called the Servant of the Lord who is God's righteous servant. He is described as high and exalted; lifted up. These are words which the Hebrew Bible only uses of God himself, and yet they are used of this righteous Servant of the Lord. This Servant of the Lord is then punished or suffers in the place of the people. It says, He was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our infirmities, on him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his stripes we are healed. The New Testament authors over and over again identify Jesus as the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.[3] In fact Jesus himself thought of himself in terms of the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and quotes Isaiah 53 in application to himself. So you have a clear teaching of substitutionary atonement on Christ’s part.

In the final and third aspect of this is that it is penal. That is to say it has to do with punishment. I don't think we want to say in the case of these Old Testament sacrifices that the animal was punished in the place of the worshiper. You don't punish an animal. It is a brute. It couldn't understand what was being done to it. It is not being punished. Rather the animal suffers the fate which would have been the worshiper's punishment had it been inflicted upon the worshiper instead. So the animal bears the suffering which would have been the just desert of the offerer of the sacrifice had it been inflicted on the offerer. When you get to Isaiah 53 there you are no longer dealing with an animal substitute but with a person who bears the suffering of the people. In this case I think you do have him being punished for the sins of Israel. It says, Upon him was the punishment that made us whole. In the New Testament, over and over again Christ is affirmed to be that Servant of Isaiah 53. It says, He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, reflecting the language of Isaiah 53.

What we want to say minimally is that Christ suffered the fate which would have been our punishment for sin had it been inflicted upon us instead. Instead Christ himself bore that fate. And I would want to even go so far as to say that Christ was punished in our place.

That's the doctrine of penal substitution. I think that the Southern Baptist convention was absolutely right in saying that this belongs at the very center of the Gospel. It is the means of our redemption.

KEVIN HARRIS: This resolution was drawn, it seems, due to contemporary voices, they say, attempting to soften the image of an angry God in order to appeal to modern sensibilities.

DR. CRAIG: That's absolutely right. And here I want to alert our listeners to the way in which traditional Reformation atonement theories are caricatured and misrepresented. Contemporary authors who are unsympathetic with penal substitution will represent it as the view that there is an angry, bloodthirsty God who is bent on punishing sinners but that somehow Jesus of Nazareth gets in the way and bears the wrath of this angry God thereby changing his attitude from one of anger and wrath to one of love and grace. And that is a gross caricature not only of New Testament teaching but of traditional atonement theories. N. T. Wright, for example, characterizes these traditional atonement theories as saying that God so hated the world that he killed his only son. That is obviously not what Anselm and the Reformers were saying. From start to finish these theories recognize that the atonement is motivated by God's love. It is out of God's overwhelming love and grace expressed toward sinners that he gives in the person of Christ this substitutionary atonement on our behalf thereby satisfying the demands of his own justice. It's not that Christ's atonement somehow switches God's attitude from one of anger and wrath to one of love and compassion. From start to finish the atonement is motivated by God's love and compassion, and he himself bears the punishment for sin that his own justice had demanded thereby freeing us. So it is really important to understand these theories accurately lest we be misled by the misrepresentations of its critics.[4]

KEVIN HARRIS: They give two examples of contemporary voices that are trying to soften the atonement or soften this image. One would be William Paul Young, author of the best-selling novel The Shack. It is now a movie. Boy, Bill, we've been talking about  The Shack for a long time. People have criticized that. Listen to what he says:

. . . if God originated the cross “then we worship a cosmic abuser, who in Divine Wisdom created a means to torture human beings in the most painful and abhorrent manner.”

DR. CRAIG: I think you can see how silly that is as a characterization of the traditional atonement theories I've just described. God is not a cosmic abuser; he is a cosmic savior who goes to the extent of taking on human flesh and paying the penalty for sin that his own justice had demanded in order to rescue sinners who are lost and without him going into everlasting perdition. So this is just a gross mischaracterization. Even worse is this statement by Young that is quoted in this article. He says:

“Frankly, it is often this very cruel and monstrous god that the atheist refuses to acknowledge or grant credibility in any sense,” Young continued. “And rightly so. Better no god at all, than this one.”

Here he seems to say it's better to be an atheist then to believe in God. But it is this caricature of God that he rejects, not the God of these traditional atonement theories.

KEVIN HARRIS: The second contemporary voice that they talk about is Christian musician Michael Gungor. Now, Bill, I have met some contemporary musicians who are very sophisticated in their theology. Michael Gungor is not one of them. He tweeted back in February:

“I would love to hear more artists who sing to God and fewer who include a Father murdering a son in that endeavor.”

DR. CRAIG: It's just ridiculous the way in which these theories are caricatured.


“If you can’t think of anything to sing to God other than gratitude for taking your shame away through bloodshed, stop singing and look around,” Gungor said in a follow-up tweet.

I don't know where our modern sensibilities are. We don't need to cave into modern sensibilities and soften hardcore biblical truth.

DR. CRAIG: The thing the Southern Baptists realized is that this is a beautiful teaching. They affirm the truthfulness, the efficacy, and the beauty of the biblical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. This is a doctrine that is not about a cruel and monstrous deity but rather about a loving heavenly Father who so yearns for his erring children that he goes to the extent of taking on human flesh, joining them in their historical situation, and there allowing them to abuse him and kill him in the most horrendous fashion thereby satisfying the demands of God's justice so that they can be pardoned, cleansed, and forgiven. It is a beautiful doctrine of self-giving love for the sake of others.

KEVIN HARRIS: On the last page here I was looking at this quote by Billy Graham. In 1957 he said, “Some might say that blood is somewhat revolting, but blood given is a blessing.” This was in a 1957 sermon explaining Christ's vicarious death in the place of sinners. So here is this attempt, I guess you would have to be a sociologist to comment on this but they keep talking about our modern sensibilities. What are we squeamish about the atonement to the point that we have to mangle it and soften it? I wonder if we are that schizophrenic because movies and cinema are more violent than they've ever been. The number one show on TV is The Walking Dead. There has never been a more violent, grisly, gruesome production.

DR. CRAIG: So often in film or literature we admire characters who are willing to give their lives to save others, who will sacrifice their lives to save innocent people.[5] And they will do it for their friends or their colleagues, but the Christian doctrine of the atonement is that Christ voluntarily gave his life to save people who were his enemies and who hated him and were in rebellion against him. This is all the more beautiful a doctrine that we ought to affirm. I wonder if Billy Graham when he said this “blood given is a blessing” was thinking of when they have a blood drive and you give your blood at the Red Cross or something for the sake of others. Christ gave his blood, but he gave his life! He didn't just make a donation! He gave his life for our sake and our salvation. So it is a doctrine that is, I think, a beautiful doctrine that does elicit proper praise of God for his self-giving sacrifice.[6]


[2]          5:09

[3]          10:07

[4]          15:09

[5]          20:01

[6]          Total Running Time: 21:00 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)