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#689 New Book on the Atonement

July 05, 2020

Hi Dr. Craig,

I'm looking forward to your new book on the atonement with Baylor University Press. I seem to remember you saying that you've had chance to strengthen your arguments for that volume. I was just wondering what kinds of new content we can expect? Will you be engaging at length with Stump's criticisms of penal substitution and Oliver Crisp's realist approach to the doctrine? I'd be intrigued to hear your thoughts on Crisp's claim that 'guilt is not transferable from one person to another' and your thoughts on Crisp's strategy for getting around that. In order to get around the apparent problem that he raises he develops a metaphysical response that involves positing an ontological unity between human beings.


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Dr. craig’s response


My new book with Baylor University Press Atonement and the Death of Christ expands considerably on my small book The Atonement (Cambridge University Press, 2018), which is a sort of Reader’s Digest version of the former. So in each of the three areas covered by the book—Biblical Data, Dogmatic History, and Philosophical Reflection—the discussion goes into a lot more detail, so that the new book is three times the size of the earlier one.

I do, indeed, engage in detail with Eleonore Stump’s vigorous critique of penal substitutionary theories. In my Introduction I respond to her charge that penal substitutionary theories fail to offer complete accounts of the atonement and criticize her focus on atonement in the etymological sense of the word to the neglect of the Hebraic sense. Then in chapter 9 I respond to what she calls “the central and irremediable problem” with penal substitutionary atonement theories, namely, the allegation that such a theory is incompatible with God’s love. In chapter 10, I respond to her objection to the justice of penal substitution. In chapter 11 I reply to her objections that penal substitutionary theories are incompatible with God’s mercy, that Christ’s death did not in fact satisfy divine justice, and that penal substitutionary theories imply universalism.

I also engage briefly with Oliver Crisp’s work. I defend his characterization of divine forgiveness as a legal pardon against Stump’s criticisms. I reject, however, his characterization of penal substitution as a “forensic fiction” and try to explain how the device of legal fictions should be properly employed in penal substitutionary theories involving the imputation of sins. I firmly reject his so-called realist approach to the atonement as implausible and unavailing, an approach which, I believe, he himself now rejects. On this view we are asked to posit mereological fusions like “fallen humanity” and “redeemed humanity” as a basis for original sin and Christ’s redemption. Such a posit seems to depend upon a principle of apparently unrestricted mereological composition, according to which any two objects whatsoever can be regarded as parts of an object. How else could one justify thinking that individual persons are really parts (not members!) of some super-object like fallen humanity?  But then how can it be the case that when they are redeemed, they lose their parthood in that object and become part of another super-object, redeemed humanity? Moreover, in viewing persons as parts of a transtemporal super-object, the view seems to presuppose a tenseless view of time, according to which objects are actually four-dimensional entities extended in time as well as space, a view which is incompatible with divine punishment and reward of three-dimensional person-slices.

Crisp’s belief that “guilt is not transferable from one person to another” is related to his understanding of guilt as the fact or property of having committed a crime. Since the past cannot be changed, on this understanding someone who has committed a crime will always after be guilty. His guilt can be neither transferred nor expunged, even by God. One of the most important philosophical insights of my book is that this popular conception of guilt is wrong. It is incompatible with the standard account of retributive justice. For on this understanding even someone who has fully served his prison sentence or been pardoned remains guilty. But since according to retributive theories of justice the guilty deserve punishment, such a person is, in effect, sentenced to hell, for his guilt can never be removed. I suggest instead that we conceive of guilt as liability to punishment and therefore a temporary property that can be removed by pardon or satisfaction of justice.

So there is much of interest in this new book!

- William Lane Craig