Criticizing the Logic of the Atonement

Criticizing the Logic of the Atonement January 11, 2021

The Christian atonement is the reconciliation of humans to God through the death of Jesus. While it’s pitched as an incredible gift from a loving god, it doesn’t make sense when you stop to think about it.

The role of today’s Christian apologist is played by Greg Koukl, who responded to a skeptic’s question on the Unbelievable? podcast (audio here @30:10).

And our skeptic questioner is Frances. She had three concerns. Each is an illustration of how our sense of justice works, and each is a tenet that the atonement rejects. (I’ll try to clearly identify input from both Frances and Greg Koukl, and anything else is my own reaction.)

  1. If we’ve done something worthy of punishment, then we should get that punishment. Anything else is unjust.
  2. Whenever someone takes a punishment that should’ve been applied to someone else (like Jesus taking our punishment), that’s a miscarriage of justice.
  3. If you give one guilty person a break, you must give the same break to everyone in the same situation, otherwise that’s an injustice as well.

(And there are more issues. For example, why must we be reconciled in the first place? If we’re flawed, that’s because our Maker made us so. And why make a big deal about the sacrifice when Jesus popped back to life a couple of days later? I talk about that more here. But the answers to the three answers are such a train wreck that we’ll limit this discussion to just them.)

Worldviews: let the tap dancing commence!

Koukl responded by saying that we must first identify the worldview from which a statement is made. Sometimes people critique Worldview 1 from the standpoint of their worldview, Worldview 2. An atheist doesn’t accept miracles and so may scoff at a Christian talking about miracles. “It’s absurd from within their story because their story doesn’t allow for that kind of thing,” but within the Christian story, miracles are quite normal.

He wants to pigeonhole Frances’s comments as coming from an atheist worldview, but they’re not. Her observations about justice come from a Western worldview and perhaps even a worldwide worldview. They are pretty much universally held within the modern world.

Koukl imagines a symmetry that’s not there. He’s saying in effect, “We each have a worldview—I have my Christian worldview, and you have your atheist worldview, so let’s admit up front that we’re both biased.” Here again he’s wrong because there is a default position. We have a common idea of justice, and Frances is speaking from that standpoint rather than an atheist standpoint. Koukl is welcome to have a different point of view, but we will always see it in terms of its differences from the default.

He wants to respond to Frances from within the Christian worldview, but is that available to anyone? Can I answer from within a Scientology worldview and expect that to be respected? Or Raelian? Or Pastafarian? Can I say that polygamy is okay from a Mormon standpoint? Can I say that ritual murder is okay as Kali worship? Or is Christianity privileged for some reason—and if so, why?

Koukl says that God is the primary one offended by any sin or crime. “Even if I sinned against Frances, I am sinning first and foremost against Frances’s maker.” So if God is indeed the primary offended party and he’s satisfied with Jesus as a substitute (and the substitute is satisfied, and the guilty party is satisfied), then where’s the problem?

The problem, of course, is that this isn’t justice. Instead, it’s mythology and legend that over time became codified into religious dogma. Koukl starts with an assumption of God and then weaves a story showing how it all makes sense from within a Christian worldview. It may make sense to him, but that’s not the point. We start, not with an assumption of the supernatural (the Hypothetical God fallacy), but with the idea of justice held pretty much universally in the West and compare the Christian version against that. It doesn’t compare well.

He says, “I don’t see the conflict within the context of the Christian worldview. Certainly I can see from a perspective of justice outside of the Christian worldview that there could be a conflict.” Exactly! Critiquing his position from outside the Christian worldview reveals a conflict. That’s all Frances has been saying. More importantly, this external, more universal view is the default. Koukl can’t dismiss it by saying that he simply has a different worldview.

(Oddly, Koukl’s position sounds like the postmodern “We each have our own truths” attitude that conservatives claim to hate. Maybe they only hate it until it’s convenient.)

Mercy and debt and punishment, oh my!

Koukl addressed the unfairness issue: “Mercy is an overflow of goodness that is not required of God.” God can grant mercy . . . or not. For example, Frances is within her rights to forgive one debt but not another. And if she is owed a debt but a third party wants to pay it, and everyone is happy with that, problem solved.

Yes, Frances can be arbitrary, but doesn’t God follow a higher standard? A judge certainly does. Fairness is the standard that society tries to achieve with our justice system. True, we don’t always meet that standard, because we are imperfect. A perfect, omnibenevolent being would be perfectly fair.

As for a third party paying a debt, that’s an option only for monetary payment, not for punishment for a crime. Frances suggested that we imagine someone unfairly imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit. Once the error is discovered, no one says that the debt has been paid and there’s no need to find the actual perpetrator since someone has already served the time.

That’s what we see in the Innocence Project, which has used DNA evidence to overturn more than 300 criminal cases in the U.S., one quarter of which were for murder. Had justice nevertheless been satisfied in these cases because punishment was at least given to someone? Of course not—these were miscarriages of justice just like the Christian story of God’s righteous wrath being satisfied by the death of Jesus.

Koukl has a few more misfires on justice and morality, and that critique is concluded in part 2.

Justice is the only worship.
Love is the only priest.
Ignorance is the only slavery.
Happiness is the only good.
The time to be happy is now,
the place to be happy is here,
the way to be happy is to make others so.
— Robert Ingersoll


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/3/16.)

Image from Justin Leonard (license CC BY 2.0)

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