While we’re at the Tektonics Apologetics Ministry, let’s continue looking at Holding’s remarks on the subject of atonement. One of the inherent inconsistencies in the Christian Gospel has to do with the problem of evil. Not just that evil exists at all (though that is a serious problem), but that we live in a world where a genuine, omnipotent, and benevolent deity could do a tremendous amount of good, and yet we do not see God doing any such things. Warning us of imminent disasters or crimes, for instance, or giving clear, unmistakable doctrinal instruction to thwart the rise of heresies and destructive cults. Things God could do (if the Gospel were true) and yet very plainly does not do.
There are only two ways to account for this, each of which compromises the Christian doctrine of God in some way. You can either deny that God wants to do good, or you can deny that God is able to do good. So either He’s not really loving enough to behave in a truly caring manner, or there are circumstances beyond God’s control which prevent God from behaving the way He’d like to (in other words, God is not truly omnipotent). This is an inherent and unavoidable contradiction within the Christian Gospel. No matter how much one wants to believe it, one must either contradict it at some point, or deny reality itself.
James Patrick Holding falls prey to this same dilemma when trying to address the issue of why God doesn’t simply forgive us our sins instead of sending His own children to eternal punishment and suffering. Try as he might to defend the Gospel, he cannot build a coherent answer to this problem without contradicting the very doctrines he is trying to uphold. (The “Nutshell” page is here, scroll down to the section on Atonement.) Let’s have a look. [UPDATE: it appears the argument below was not, in fact, written by Holding, but was summarized from a longer paper by someone else. See the link in the original article on the Nutshell page for details.]
- Can’t God just forgive sins? No.
Right off the bat, Holding denies God’s omnipotence. God may be powerful, but there are other forces, even more powerful than God, which prevent God from forgiving sins. God is not in control of His own response to sin, God’s will cannot allow Him to forgive sins. He must obey the constraints and limitations of forces outside of His control which demand some rather extreme punishments for finite amounts of sin. Thus, we “save” the doctrine that God is a “loving” God, at the expense of portraying Him as essentially helpless regarding His own responses.
Holding continues by summarizing the arguments he makes in a more in depth article:
- God’s emotional response of wrath, anger, outrage is the only sane, appropriate, and morally authentic one.
- God’s commitment to each community, entails some actions on His part to maintain the basis of community.
- Much of the punishment (or more simply: “consequence”) of evil is ‘built into’ the system, and does not involve any ‘extra’ action on God’s part. (I include eternal punishment on this category.)
- God, in His role as community member, has the right to hold another member accountable, and in so doing, expresses the worth of that other member.
Let’s look at each of these arguments in turn.
1. “God’s wrathful emotional response to sin is the only sane, appropriate, and morally authentic one.” So in other words, if God didn’t send His own beloved children off to eternal punishment for their finite sins, He would be either insane, inappropriate, or immoral. Some power beyond God’s control has defined God’s emotional responses in such a way that God has no choice but to respond wrathfully when people sin. Likewise, some power beyond God’s control has defined, for God, what the appropriate and moral responses to sin have to be. God has no choice but to obey. He is not omnipotent. He does not make the rules. He does not define what sin is or what the appropriate and morally authentic penalties for sin ought to be. He’s just a pawn like anyone else.
This response, however, has a serious problem in that, according to the Gospel, God does forgive sin anyway! If the only “sane, appropriate, and morally authentic” response to sin is to send the sinner off to eternal punishment, then God cannot sanely, appropriately, and morally forgive the sinner. Certainly, beating up someone who didn’t commit any sins can hardly be called a sane, appropriate, and morally authentic response to the sins of someone else!
Atonement assumes that God does retain the option of forgiving sins, and that if you can just get Him to calm down, if you can just satisfy His lust for blood and death and suffering, and get Him to feel a little better, He might agree to let you off the hook. This, however, contradicts the doctrine that God is a loving, merciful, and benevolent God. It makes God the “bad cop” to Jesus’s “good cop.” Sure, God has the ability to forgive sins, He just doesn’t want to. His Son can talk Him into it, though, provided God, the bad cop, gets to really hurt somebody at least. It’s a pretty corrupt theology, but Christians never intended it that way. They just wanted to think up some good story that would “redeem” Jesus’s death and turn it into a cause for rejoicing instead of dispair. The consequences of that story didn’t occur to them. Let’s move on, though, to #2.
2. “God’s commitment to each community, entails some actions on His part to maintain the basis of community.” This, unfortunately, is precisely what God does not do. It is far less expensive to prevent crime than to allow the crime to occur and to then pursue, apprehend, convict, and punish the criminal. Prevention is more beneficial in other ways as well. But God does not show up in real life to either prevent or punish crime. The Christian story sounds nice, but it’s not consistent with what we see in the real world. So what’s lacking? God’s commitment to the community (i.e. His love), or God’s ability to do what is required to maintain the basis of community (i.e. His omnipotence)? Either way, we must contradict at least one part of the Gospel, or else deny reality. We do not see any divine commitment to the community in real life.
3. “Much of the punishment (or more simply: ‘consequence’) of evil is ‘built into’ the system, and does not involve any ‘extra’ action on God’s part. (I include eternal punishment on this category.)” “Built in” by whom? Once again we have an appeal to the idea that forces beyond God’s control prevent Him from taking a more merciful and edifying approach to sin. God can’t help it if “the system” automatically produces consequences appropriate to the provocation. Well, maybe not, assuming someone else is responsible for designing the system and writing the rules. But again, this rationalization has the problem of claiming that God cannot allow someone to escape the consequences of their sins, while at the same time the Gospel claims that God does allow some people to escape the consequences (i.e. eternal punishment). And let’s not forget, a genuine, loving, omnipotent God could intervene, like any loving parent would, to prevent the sin (and consequent harm) from occurring in the first place. But He does not (or cannot).
4. “God, in His role as community member, has the right to hold another member accountable, and in so doing, expresses the worth of that other member.” Ah, yes, the “I respect you too much not to send you to Hell” argument. Only, once again, the Gospel says that God can and does “hold [some sinners] accountable” by the judicial legerdemain of punishing an innocent third party. Apparently, accountability is a law that is flexible enough that God could claim to be holding someone accountable, even though that person never went off into eternal punishment (and even Jesus never went off into eternal punishment, otherwise he’d still be there). So argument #4 is just another excuse for why God can’t help His inability to simply forgive people’s sins (even though, according to the Gospel, He does forgive). Forces beyond God’s control prevent Him from doing so (even though they don’t, actually).
The atonement is one of the major areas of inconsistency and self-contradiction in the Gospel, and Holding has served us up a heaping helping. Not that he’s to blame, of course–the inconsistencies and contradictions are unavoidable. The whole doctrine is rooted in the primitive animism behind animal sacrifice, mingled with the denial the disciples went through when their erstwhile Messiah ended up dead on a cross. The idea of “atonement” satisfied a purely emotional need at the time, but like any rationalization, it has problems when you try and impose it on the real world.