Craig’s Atonement and the Death of Christ– Part Eighteen

Craig’s Atonement and the Death of Christ– Part Eighteen April 8, 2021

Q. What’s the difference between saying God punished Jesus for our sins, and saying, for instance, God sent his Son to suffer in our place for our sins, which was God’s will? Is this simply to avoid the idea that Jesus deserved to be punished, and that if God punished someone who didn’t deserve to be punished, even as a substitute for others, then God is not fair and just, but rather cruel?

A. It’s hard to know what motivates atonement theorists like John Stott and Howard Marshall to deny that God punished Christ for our sins. Perhaps they want to avoid the appearance of cruelty. Perhaps it’s to deflect the objection to punishing an innocent person. But the view is clearly and importantly different from the view that Christ was punished for our sins. On the non-punitive view, Christ bore the suffering that we deserved as the punishment for our sins, thereby freeing us from our liability to punishment; but he was not punished in our place.

Q. I’m surprised that in the philosophical discussion of penal substitution theory more is not made of the fact that it was Pilate, not God who punished Jesus for the supposed act of treason. Why exactly lay the blame on God, unless one of course is some sort of extreme Calvinist or fatalist who insists that God predestined Pilate to do it, as his human agent who could not do otherwise, since he did not have free will?

A. My Doktorvater Wolfhart Pannenberg does make a great deal out of the fact that Jesus was legally condemned by human courts. But I don’t try to exonerate God for punishing Jesus in our place. Talk of “laying the blame on God” betrays a complete misunderstanding of theories of retributive justice and punishment. On a retributive theory of justice (the majority view today in philosophy of law) what gives the state the right to inflict harsh treatment and even death on its citizens is that the guilty deserve punishment. Punishment of the guilty is therefore a good thing which a just state carries out. Similarly, God’s punishment of the guilty is a positive good. God should be credited for punishing Jesus our sin-bearer (and, of course, Jesus credited for voluntarily bearing it).

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