One of the problems with the Christian Gospel is that it must somehow reconcile the idea of a loving heavenly Father with the idea that unbelievers go to hell, even though they’re supposedly God’s children and a truly loving father would not send his kids to eternal torment. Without a Hell to be saved from, however, we really don’t need a Savior, and thus the whole gospel story falls apart.
Writing for the “Answers in a Nutshell” section of the Tektonics Apogetics Ministries web site, James Patrick Holding tackles this issue in the “Nutshell” commentary on Atonement. It’s a good example of the kind of backwards thinking Christians use to try and rationalize away the inconsistencies in their story, so I thought I’d give it a quick look.
First of all, let me clarify what I mean by “backwards thinking” and how it compares to “forward thinking.” In forward thinking, you look at something and say, “If this is true, then what real-world consequences should happen as a result?” You start with a cause, and then work your way forward to the effect that should result. But what if the results you find don’t match the results you expect? You can do one of two things: you can change what you think the cause is, and do the forward-thinking bit again, or you can start with the observed result and work backwards and say, “What would it take to make my preferred cause produce the observed effect?”
Backwards thinking, in other words, is simply rationalization. Things didn’t turn out the way they should have if what you say is true, so you try and retrofit some new idea on top of your original theory in order to make your original claim produce the right results. This is similar to the way scientists modify their theories when they find new data, except that it omits the part where you discard the parts of your theory that didn’t work out. In backwards thinking, you never admit that any of your original dogmas were wrong, you just retrofit some additional, new idea intended to account for the inconsistencies.
Now then, on to the Atonement:
How did Jesus dying on the cross save us from our sins? And why did he have to die for our sins at all? Here’s a simple way of explaining it:
- All sin is an offense against God.
- All offenses require payment of a price.
- Jesus paid that price.
A deeper understanding will require more explanation. The people who lived in the time of the Bible valued honor, which means, they valued how others looked at them. Today most people in the world still value honor more than anything else, though people in Western societies are an exception.
Because God makes the rules, and is the most honorable being in existence, when we break His rules, we insult His honor. We say in essence, “You are not deserving to make rules. I do not pay any attention to you.” When we sin we disregard God’s authority and say He has and deserves no honor. Since this is untrue, a punishment is required, and the matching punishment is shame, the opposite of honor. And thus we cannot stand in His presence. (See more on this in entry on Hell.)
When Jesus was crucified, he underwent the most shameful treatment a person could have had in that time and place. But because he was deity, his own honor value was as high as God’s. And so he paid the only price that would satisfy an “honor insult” to the God who was of greatest honor — giving up his own greatest honor for our sake, and being “shamed” in our place.
Notice first of all that Holding is bolting on an entirely extra-biblical framework for interpreting the Bible. There’s nothing in the Bible about “honor” being more important to God than the eternal salvation of His own children, nor does the Bible say anything about sin being an insult to God’s “honor.” According to the Bible, the rules say that the payment for sin is death, not shame. (And, incidentally, the Bible says that at the Final Judgment, God will condemn those who have already died and who, technically, have paid for their own sins, since they’ve died. But God, the Loving Father, condemns them anyway!)
Notice too that, as Holding himself points out, it is people who value honor. This is because “honor” (or “respect” or “status”) has a lot to do with how much power one has in society. It’s a direct result of the fact that we are not immortal and omnipotent, and therefore our safety and well-being depends on maintaining a good relationship with our peers. Whoever harms our honor (or social status) causes us actual harm.
Now, if God truly were an immortal, omniscient, and omnipotent being, His status would be unassailable and invulnerable. It would not be possible for us to diminish His status as Lord God Almighty by any effort of our own, sinful or not. In fact, if He would only show up in the real world, we would not even be able to be a bad influence on others, at least as far as God’s honor were concerned.
More than this, Holding’s explanation is backwards thinking. He’s got a premise (“God is a loving Father”) and an inconsistent consequence (“God sends most of His children into eternal suffering”) and so he’s trying to retrofit some kind of honor system in order to reconcile the alleged cause with the inconsistent effect. If we use forward thinking, it’s easy to see that the consequences ought to be different.
For example, suppose God were all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, and that He also placed a high value on His own honor. Since everything is easy for God, it would be easy for Him to offer us choices between multiple good alternatives, allowing us to develop our free will without ever impugning His honor. Or He could behave like any responsible parent, and intervene whenever He sees us about to do something that will ultimately cause us (eternal) harm, and thus prevent the insult to His honor from happening in the first place. What would happen (if God were loving and omniscient) is quite different from what supposedly does happen.
Of course, that’s assuming that we even could insult God’s honor, which as I alluded to before manifests an insultingly low opinion of the unassailable glory of God’s invincible dignity and power. Yes, we as humans can insult and vilify that which is more noble than ourselves, but to assert that mere human insults have the power to stain God’s robes and darken His glory–that is not just nonsense, but blasphemy. When you complain about a real God (like Alethea!), it does not diminish the God, it merely exposes you as a whiner. The loss of honor is yours, not God’s.
Grieving disciples found the idea of “atonement” an appealing balm for the loss they felt when Jesus died, and so they made it the central idea of Christianity. But it’s all backwards thinking, and leads to a fragmented story whose inconsistencies and contradictions tell us quite plainly that this is not the truth.