Atonement: Objections

March 27, 2010 — 1 Comment


[This post is part of the Atonement series]

Rather than pushing too far forward with the limited/unlimited issue with regards to the atonement, I thought it might be better to put forward, and defend if necessary, the view of penal substitutionary view of the atonement. It seems in reality that the limited/unlimited question is a secondary concern, and that belief and understanding of atonement as both penal and substitutionary is not just primary, but is necessary to be a Christian in any meaningful sense. To deny penal substitution as means of entering the Kingdom is to virtually deny the very gospel that upholds your faith.

Consider this interchange in a recent interview. You can read the whole article at that site, but I have to give credit to this gentleman, on whose blog I originally found the excerpt. Here’s the Q/A:

The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Interestingly, the question is posed by Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell. The answer is given by, of all people, Christopher Hitchens, who has become more or less a hot topic on this blog recently. In other words than what appear above, it seems for Hitchens, whether or not you believe in substitutionary atonement, Christ’s divinity, and His resurrection determines whether or not you are a Christian in terms of your core beliefs. The whole interview is worth reading, as Hitchens seems to almost ridicule this lady’s beliefs and seem confused why she would want to retain the title “Christian” and wonders just what exactly she has faith in. He also comments that if Christians were all like her, he would have never written his book.

Hopefully she found that insulting. If she didn’t (which is probable), what you are really reading in that interview is just one atheist interviewing another. Hitchens though wins in a battle of integrity for at least not playing charades like Sewell seems to be doing.

Anyway, not that Hitchens should have the final word on what does or doesn’t make one a Christian. He does though seem to get how central a proper understanding of the atonement is for Christians, and that for all intents and purposes, it is the gospel. The gospel can be broadened to include proclamation of the Kingdom, but it cannot be reduced to exclude substitutionary atonement.

Unless Christ died (suffering the penalty of sin) to bear God’s wrath in our place (substitution), then it matters little that there is a Kingdom. We would have no part of it. Only those for whom Christ died this sort of death can be a part in this Kingdom. Christ is the Head of this new creation, and only those who are united with Him in His death and resurrection benefit.

This is also why the resurrection is so central to Christian faith, but that is getting too far ahead to comment on here. The point though is that penal substitutionary atonement is perhaps the core of the gospel; yet it is attacked today by many. There are perhaps 20 or so primary objections that have been articulated in print, although all of them flounder when presented against the textual and theological evidence from the Scriptures.

Rather than tackle all 20 of them, here is what I am planning on doing. I’ll present the objections here in this post. Then I’ll present the textual and theological evidence for this view of the atonement. And then I’ll respond to any objections that you the careful readers still think need further explanation. Some of the ones listed here will be undercut just by a simple presentation of the Biblical data, but of course some will need additional posts to clarify just why it is that they are not valid objections.

Without delaying further, here is the list of objections against penal substitution, as pulled from the Pierced For Our Transgressions (pgs. 10-11):

  1. It is not the only model
  2. It is not central to the atonement
  3. It diminishes the significance of Jesus” life and resurrection
  4. It is not taught in the Bible
  5. It is not important enough to be a source of division
  6. It is the product of human culture, not Biblical teaching
  7. It is unable to address the real needs of human culture
  8. It relies on biblical words, metaphors and concepts that are outdated and misunderstood by our culture
  9. It rests on unbiblical ideas of sacrifice
  10. It involves a type of violence that amounts to ‘cosmic child abuse’
  11. It involves retributive violence that contradicts Jesus’ message of peace and love
  12. It is an inherent example of “the myth of redemptive violence” which can never overcome evil
  13. It is unjust to punish an innocent person, even is he is willing to be punished
  14. Biblical justice is about restoring relationships not exacting retribution
  15. It implicitly denies that God forgives sin
  16. It does not work for the penalty Christ suffered was not equivalent to that due to us
  17. It implies universal salvation which is unbiblical
  18. It implies a division between the persons of the Trinity
  19. It relies on an unbiblical view of an angry God that is incompatible with his love
  20. It misunderstands the relationship between God’s wrath and human sin
  21. It generates an unbiblical view of a God constrained by a law external to himself
  22. It is an impersonal, mechanistic account of the atonement
  23. It fails to address that issues of political and social sin and cosmic evil
  24. It is an entirely objective account of the atonement, and fails to address our side of the Creator-creature relationship
  25. It causes people to live in fear of God
  26. It legitimates violence and encourages the passive acceptance of unjust suffering

Ok, so there’s 26. A couple of them will fall off with just the barest exposition of Scripture. Several more will vanish once a proper theological framework is established. I cannot realistically blog on all the objections, and after all, the book I drew these from has already responded to all of these. But I can answer ones that you are interested in hearing answered.

So in that case, what do you think?


Posts Twitter Facebook

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

One response to Atonement: Objections

  1. hey there,

    If I may…

    If we look at the death of Christ from the perspective of penal satisfaction (as a satisfaction to divine law), then we can discern that within the Reformed tradition there have been two versions of penal satisfaction. The classic Augustinians and moderate Calvinists were committed to penal satisfaction and substitution. That is, Christ standing in the place of sinners bears the curse of the law, etc.

    One the other side, one often hears from the High side of the Calvinist family that anything other than limited atonement necessarily entails a denial of penal satisfaction and substitution.

    I think the root issue is the nature of imputation. Both moderate and high Calvinists hold to penal substitution. It is that we have two versions of that doctrine.

    The High Calvinist often falls into the position that sins as a quantifiable amount were tallied and then transferred to Christ.

    If we think of Christ’s righteousness, as Dabney well says, we can see how this idea is defective. One act of Christ’s righteousness is sufficient for all: it is imputable (to treat as though…), so to speak, to all men. It is not as if there is a correspondence such that Christ had to obtain a specific amounts of righteous acts, for every specific person his satisfaction was in behalf off. And in this imputation, where Christ is treated as though he was a sinner, and no more than this, the sinner still remains a sinner. The sinner is still a recipient and subject to the wrath of God in life.

    Or this way. If we parse out the 10 commandments. Let’s say the 9th. One act of command-keeping of Christ, is of such a quality and nature that it is sufficient, and imputable to all men. And so conversely, Christ is charged (imputed: to treat as though…) with the act of command-breaking, specifically, the 9th. It is not necessary that be be charged an amount which is mathematically proportionate to all the 9th-command-breaking sins (and all the permutations this transgression manifests itself in the life of sinners), of those in whose behalf he suffered.

    Rather, Christ is placed under the law, as though he were a sinner (imputation), and he is charged with the curse of the law against “lying:” and by extension, against murder and so on.

    In this way, one can see that its not as if its so many sins of so many people imputed to Christ, or even just the sins of so many people, but human sin, human transgression, the sin of men, the same sin which condemns all alike.

    That’s how I tend to see the issue.

    Make sense?


Want To Add Your Thoughts?