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What is the Correct View of the Atonement? (Part 2)

December 02, 2017     Time: 21:43
What is the Correct View of the Atonement? (Part 2)


Dr. Craig considers whether his recent writing on the Atonement may be his most important work!


KEVIN HARRIS: Hey! It's great to have you back at the podcast. It's Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris. We are going to pick up where we left off last time. We are having a great discussion with Dr. Craig on the atonement in an interaction with Dr. Greg Boyd. So let's get to part 2.

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Let's get to part 2 of this series on the atonement with Dr. Craig on Reasonable Faith.

Bill, I have got to bring this up now because it may not come up again in this interview. But we are talking about this false dichotomy between the Father and the Son – the split between the Father and the Son. Could it be that that theology gets in there because of an interpretation of Jesus saying, Father, why have you forsaken me? - that God turns his back on Jesus. In fact, that is not this split. It is Jesus quoting the first line of Psalm 22 which is ultimately a positive psalm of rescue.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, it is the prayer of God's righteous servant in distress. So Jesus is praying the Psalms on the cross as he is dying. I think that is correct. But I don't think that is the root of this. Rather, as I say, in liberal theology – classical 19th century liberal theology – the idea of a God who exacts retributive justice, who is wrathful upon sin, is absolutely anathema to them. They want a God who is only love, not justice, and therefore the doctrine of the atonement needs to be caricatured in such a way as to be inconsistent with a loving and compassionate God.

KEVIN HARRIS: So this would come out of sophisticated liberal theology and not just street theology?

DR. CRAIG: That is right. This is out of 19th century liberal theology, and its long shadow still hangs over much of theological thinking today. If you read, for example, N.T. Wright's most recent book on the death of Christ, The Day the Revolution Began, his caricature of traditional atonement theories is vicious and utterly misrepresentative of what these traditional atonement theorists believed. None of the traditional atonement theorists (not the church fathers, not Anselm, not Luther, not Calvin, not Turretin, not Grotius, or any of the contemporary proponents of traditional atonement theories) believe that Christ's death somehow served to transform God from an angry, wrathful being into a compassionate, loving being. The atonement from beginning to end is motivated by the love and compassion of God.

KEVIN HARRIS: Continuing the interview:

DR. BOYD: If Jesus takes the blame for what we did, if Jesus pays the debt that we owed, does the Father ever really forgive? Does God really forgive? If you owe me $1,000 and I instead get it from this person over here, I didn't really forgive the debt. You got off the hook, for sure, but I didn't forgive the debt. I got my due. So if God has to pour out his vengeance against somebody then he never really does just forgive. We find it all over the place that God forgives throughout the Bible without needing any bloodshed. He is just capable of forgiving.

DR. CRAIG: This is an objection to penal substitution that was enunciated by the 16th century unitarian theologian Faustus Socinus. He used the same analogy that Greg uses, namely the idea of paying a financial debt. I think that this is very misleading. The transaction of paying a debt is a private affair, not a matter of criminal justice. Divine forgiveness is much more akin to a legal pardon than to forgiving someone. Forgiveness among human persons typically involves a change of attitude on the part of the offended party, a relinquishing of resentment or anger or bitterness against the offender. But in God's case what his forgiveness accomplishes is the removal of our guilt and our legal condemnation.[1] It is like a pardon which is issued by the executive in power of some person who has been convicted criminally in our justice system. It is very interesting when you study the way legal pardons work, pardons are typically given after the sentence has been fully served. In fact, the U. S. Office of Pardon Attorney in the justice branch will not even allow applications for a presidential pardon until five years after the prison sentence has been fully served. Then the person may apply for a pardon and receive a pardon. So the satisfaction of divine justice is not at all incompatible with the issuing of a pardon, especially in the case where the satisfaction of divine justice was performed by Christ and then on the basis of that satisfaction of divine justice the pardon then is issued to us. I think it is perfectly coherent to say that Christ has paid the penalty for our sins and on that basis God can then turn to us and say, The demands of justice are satisfied, I am now offering you a free pardon of your sins if you will but receive it.

DR. BOYD: How is it just to punish an innocent person for the wrongs of others? Is guilt something that can be literally transferred to another? How is that just? In fact, in Ezekiel it tells us in chapter 16 that God is the opposite. He never punishes somebody else for the wrongs that a person does. Everyone is accountable for what they themselves do. So the penal substitution theory just sort of messes up our understanding of justice.

DR. CRAIG: This is another objection that stems from Faustus Socinus, that unitarian theologian that opposed the Reformation theologians. In fact, I think it is just multiply flawed. There are many ways to answer this question. I talk about these in my Defenders class. I would refer our listeners to that. But let me just make one point for the sake of brevity. He asks, Can guilt be transferred to another person? Yes! This happens all the time in our justice system. In the law there is something called vicarious liability. In vicarious liability a superior is held liable for the wrongdoing of his subordinate if the subordinate does those wrongs in the discharge of his duties as a subordinate. So, for example, there are cases in which the owner of a bar was held liable because the bartender sold alcohol to a constable on duty in contradiction to the law. There are other cases in which the owner of a cafe was held liable because the manager of the cafe allowed prostitutes to consort in the cafe in violation of the law. In these cases the superior is without culpability. He has done nothing wrong. He is in no way blameworthy. It is not that he is being indicted for negligence or failure to supervise the subordinate. Not at all! He is without culpability, but the liability of the subordinate is imputed to the superior so that the superior is held liable for the deeds of the subordinate. This is the case not only in civil law; this also is the case in criminal law. So this assertion about guilt not being transferred to another that you just hear all the time is just patently false. It takes place all the time in Anglo-American systems of justice. In a similar way, Christ stands to us in this relation of superior to subordinate, and our wrongdoing can be vicariously imputed to him so that he will then pay the penalty for our sins. That is what will happen in these cases of vicarious liability. The superior will be the one who has to pay the penalty for the wrongdoing or the liability that is imputed to him.[2]

KEVIN HARRIS: The Ezekiel verse that Greg was referring to – that God will not hold someone else accountable for someone else's sins – is that because there is no superior there upon which to . . .?

DR. CRAIG: I think the situation is this – and Hugo Grotius, a great legal theorist and atonement theorist, points this out – God has decreed a system of justice among human beings according to which human persons may not punish other persons substitutionally, and he has said that he himself will not punish a human person for the crimes of somebody else in Ezekiel. But that is not inconsistent with God's punishing a divine person for the sins of humanity. And that is what he has done in Christ. God himself has entered human history, taken on human flesh, and pays the penalty for our sins himself. So it is entirely consistent with Ezekiel and with human systems of justice that there isn't penal substitution. God is free to exact the demands of his justice on a divine substitute for us.

KEVIN HARRIS: The interview continues:

DR. BOYD: This is maybe the worst aspect of the penal substitution view. It puts at the center of history and at the center of Christian theology a violent God, a God who must solve the world's biggest problem through violence. It puts at center stage what's called the myth of redemptive violence. With that at the center of our theology and the center of our picture of God it is not too surprising that we've had ever since a proclivity towards violence. We had it before. Anthony Bartlett shows this in his book called Cross Purposes.[3] When this view of the atonement gets anchored in Christian theology it was just after that that the church just erupted in violence. We have the Crusades; we have the Inquisition. Then we have Christians fighting Christians, the Thirty Years War, the Hundred Years War, and all of that. He argues (and I think he makes a pretty persuasive case) that that is not a coincidental thing. I think there is a lot of reasons to reject the penal substitution view.

DR. CRAIG: I think this charge that penal substitution uniquely puts a violent God at the center of Christian theology is groundless. Any atonement theory that includes the crucifixion of Jesus puts a violent act at the center of Christian theology. Greg Boyd's own view does that! He says that on the cross Jesus absorbed the wrath of Satan that was against us and he took it for us as a substitute. This puts at the center of his atonement theory a violent act. So any view, any theory, of the atonement that involves the crucifixion of Jesus has this violent act at its heart. That is consistent with the New Testament. Remember Paul says to the Corinthians, I determined to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified. Therefore, he referred to his Gospel as the message of the cross. That was the way he epitomized the Gospel message – the preaching of the cross. When you look at the Gospels, you'll notice the disproportionate amount of space that they devote to the last week of Jesus's life: his so-called passion, his suffering, and death. It occupies something like 25% of the Gospels even though it was only the final week of his life. The cross of Christ does lie at the very center of Christian theology, and any view of the atonement has to make peace with that. What I am suggesting is that penal substitution makes much better sense of that violent act than does a view like Greg Boyd's where I just don't see how Christ's dying and allowing Satan to vent his wrath on him does anything to defeat Satan or liberate us from sin or achieve divine forgiveness and atonement for sin.

KEVIN HARRIS: Continuing a few more minutes in the interview:

DR. BOYD: To Craig's comment about Colossians – here in Colossians Paul is talking about the significance of the atonement for us. When Jesus died it is true that all that the devil had on us was nailed to the cross and was abolished. That is why Satan and the principalities and powers are disarmed against us. And that is beautiful. But I would argue that that happened because God did something even more fundamental. The manifestation of God's perfect, unfathomable, loving, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing character on the cross blew up not only all false conceptions of God which imprisoned us but it blew up the entire legal system that empowered the devil to hold our sin against us.[4] Here is an analogy. Imagine that you were being justly punished because you owed someone a large sum of money you couldn't pay. Imagine if I freed you not just by paying off your particular debt but by somehow canceling the entire monetary system. If I did that, money would no longer have any meaning which means you could no longer be justly imprisoned for a debt because debts won't have any meaning. I contend that our sin allowed Satan to imprison us and God freed us not by paying off our particular debt (because who was he going to pay it off to? Himself? To Satan?). He rather did it by exploding the entire monetary system in which debts could occur. This was Satan's system, and it has been blown into nonexistence and the bomb that exploded it was the perfect revelation of God's true loving, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing character on the cross.

DR. CRAIG: Let's stop there. I don't think Greg has seriously thought through what he just said. What he is saying here is that God has not met the legal demands of his justice but that he has set aside the law. That is just incredible. God sets aside his moral law and no longer holds to it? What kind of God is that? What happens to the righteousness of God? That would be a truly horrendous view – a God who sets aside the demands of the moral law and of his own holiness. What Colossians says, in that verse of Colossians 2:14, is that God forgave us our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside nailing it to the cross. He didn't give up the legal demands. He didn't erase the legal demands. Rather, he set aside the record of our sins and wrong-doings that stood against us because of the legal demands. He met the demands of the law. Paul will say that the just requirements of the law are fulfilled in us. God has done what the law could not do, namely meet the demands of the law. He does this through Christ. He doesn't set the law aside. That would be to give up his own holiness and justice. I think Greg really needs to think this through more carefully.

DR. BOYD: There is no sin being held against us either by God or Satan. That is how God reconciled the world to himself. Paul tells us that we've been given a message of reconciliation that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting people's sin against them. In that new creation God's love defines all and love keeps no account of wrong which means that all is forgiven and debts no longer have meaning. So the remaining question is will people submit to this truth or will they live in resistance to this truth?

DR. CRAIG: 2 Corinthians 5 is an extremely important passage. What Paul says there is that God in Christ was not imputing our trespasses against us. So to whom were our trespasses imputed? Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, God made him to be sin who knew no sin that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Our sins were imputed to Christ, and he bore the just penalty demanded by the law, that his righteousness then might be reckoned to us, as Paul describes in Romans 4. Through faith righteousness is reckoned to us, and we receive a divine pardon for our sins. I think it is important for our listeners to understand how these passages are most plausibly interpreted rather than distorted in such a way as to think that God just blinks at sin and especially that he would abrogate his moral law and no longer demand that the just demands of his holiness be met.

KEVIN HARRIS: I think that you working on the atonement with these videos and with these two books that are coming out are very timely because, as we discussed a couple of podcasts back, very popular music artists, very popular film that Christians are responding to, get the atonement really wrong and are going for this incorrect view of it that desperately needs correction.[5] The trickle-down I think in culture may be coming. So your book and your work could be very timely on this.

DR. CRAIG: I have a deep sense that my work on the atonement may in the end be the most significant work that I have done as a Christian philosopher and theologian. Because this is the heart of the Gospel, as I say. The preaching of the cross, the cross of Christ, is the heart of the Christian Gospel. In this year, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we need to get back to the doctrine of the great Reformers and to reaffirm that God out of his great love has conducted this rescue operation whereby he takes on human flesh, pays the penalty for sin that his own justice had exacted, thereby removing our condemnation and offering us a pardon and redemption from sin's power.[6]


[1]          5:06

[2]          10:09

[3]          Dr. Boyd misspeaks the name of the author. The author's name is Bartlett.

[4]          15:15

[5]          20:15

[6]          Total Running Time: 21:45 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)