One of the biggest problems with Christian theology is that the core of the Gospel is based on “substitutionary atonement,” the idea that criminal guilt is like some kind of negotiable debt that can be legally transferred to others. If you think about it, that’s a truly horrible and corrupt idea that lends itself to all kinds of injustice and abuse. Well, someone at the Wintery Knight blog is trying to defend the doctrine, and he’s pulling out the big guns to help him.
I’ve noticed that on some atheist blogs, they don’t like the idea that someone else can take our punishment for us to exonerate us for crimes that we’ve committed. So I’ll quote from this post by the great William Lane Craig, to respond to that objection.
Since we’re currently reading through Dr. Craig’s book On Guard, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at this topic as well.
There’s a lot in Wintery Knight’s post that I could talk about, like his leading thesis that everyone is in rebellion against God and deserves to be punished for it. I’m going to resist that temptation, though, and zero in on his or her appeal to Dr. Craig’s defense of substitutionary atonement. Here’s the quote from Dr. Craig.
The central problem of the Penal Theory is, as you point out, understanding how punishing a person other than the perpetrator of the wrong can meet the demands of justice. Indeed, we might even say that it would be wrong to punish some innocent person for the crimes I commit!
This is indeed the problem, and it’s even more pronounced if you stop to think about why we even have punishment in the first place. After all, two wrongs do not make a right. If you punch somebody in the face, that’s wrong. If they punch you, that’s wrong. If you punch them because they punched you, that’s two wrongs. So why do we punish?
There are two reasons for punishment. One is anger: you’ve been hurt, therefore you want to hurt someone else. Understandable, probably, but this is two wrongs failing to make a right. It does not resolve anything, it merely increases the amount of violence in the world, because now the other person is hurt, and is angry, and wants to hurt someone else. Swell.
The other reason is deterrence. Ideally, the threat of punishment will make people think twice about doing something they shouldn’t. If they do, and are punished for it, ideally the experience will make them reluctant to repeat the offense. This, I’m going to argue, is marginally moral. It’s still two wrongs that don’t make a right, but from a practical perspective we can’t have a rule of law unless there are substantive penalties for breaking the law. People being what they are, you’ll always have some predators in any society, and society needs some means of defending itself against them.
Neither of these alternatives really justifies any kind of substitutionary atonement. As Wintery Knight explains, we all start out in the “guilty” state, so the threat of hell as a deterrent is moot. There can be no justice in a system that assumes you are guilty until someone dies in order to acquit you. Hell is reduced to being the first kind of punishment, where God just wants to hurt somebody because He is angry, or else it is purely a form of extortion, where you have to agree or face endless torment.
But that’s just the superficial criticism. Anybody can look at the practice of punishing an innocent man in order to let a wicked man get away with his crimes, and say that it’s problematic. But there’s a deeper issue here, and that’s the matter of treating criminal guilt as a kind of negotiable debt. By “negotiable” here I’m not talking about sitting down and haggling over how much you owe, I’m talking “negotiable” in the financial sense of “negotiable currency,” an independent quantity that can be freely transferred to others as a gift or in exchange for other valuable property. And here’s Dr. Craig, portraying guilt in exactly those negotiable terms.
I remember once sharing the Gospel with a businessman. When I explained that Christ had died to pay the penalty for our sins, he responded, “Oh, yes, that’s imputation.” I was stunned, as I never expected this theological concept to be familiar to this non-Christian businessman. When I asked him how he came to be familiar with this idea, he replied, “Oh, we use imputation all the time in the insurance business.” He explained to me that certain sorts of insurance policy are written so that, for example, if someone else drives my car and gets in an accident, the responsibility is imputed to me rather than to the driver. Even though the driver behaved recklessly, I am the one held liable; it is just as if I had done it.
Now this is parallel to substitutionary atonement. Normally I would be liable for the misdeeds I have done. But through my faith in Christ, I am, as it were, covered by his divine insurance policy, whereby he assumes the liability for my actions. My sin is imputed to him, and he pays its penalty. The demands of justice are fulfilled, just as they are in mundane affairs in which someone pays the penalty for something imputed to him. This is as literal a transaction as those that transpire regularly in the insurance industry.
Notice how he says “justice has been done” even though his insurance example is not about justice, but merely about business. The parallel he draws is between substitutionary atonement and a business transaction transferring negotiable debt from one party to another. The “sinner’s” guilt is equated with the negotiable obligation of a business deal. We’re not talking about a system that bases consequences on moral considerations, we’re talking about penalties based on business considerations. The insurance company isn’t in business to pursue true morality and justice, it’s in business to make a profit. Hard to see how you could be more crass than to define God’s “grace” in terms of the practices used to pursue mercenary profits!
But there’s a lot more wrong with “negotiable guilt” than just being based on ordinary greed. In the “imputation” analogy, there’s a commercial transaction going on: the insurance company is receiving material goods (money) in exchange for services rendered (paying damages on a claim). There is an exchange of goods involved. The financial obligation is imputed to the policy holder, because the policy holder is responsible for taking reasonable precautions against theft and/or misuse of his vehicle. It’s part of his contractual obligation, which he entered into voluntarily, and if he files a claim (i.e. receives services under the terms of his insurance contract) then he is liable for the consequences (higher rates, as specified in his contract).
Criminal guilt is categorically different from the kind of negotiable financial obligations you voluntarily enter into when you sign up for an insurance policy. If we’re going to say, as Wintery Knight does, that all humans are guilty of rebellion against God and deserve to be punished for it (i.e. by being damned to suffer in Hell forever), this is nothing at all like the imputation of liability the businessman is talking about.
Consider some of the differences. While it’s true that some lesser criminal infractions can be settled by payment of a fine, moral justice is not a financial transaction driven by a profit motive like the insurance transaction is. When you commit an offense, there are two parties involved: the offender, and the person or persons offended. There’s also the larger context of society itself: some offenses are personal and only involve the two parties, while others are an offense against society, and thus society itself becomes one of the offended parties, with an interest in prosecuting the offender, out of self protection. But again, this is not a business transaction, this is an issue of morality and justice. There’s not a third party seeking to profit from your sins, unless you want to get into some really weird theology about Satan having the power to blackmail God somehow. And even then, it’s more analogous to extortion than to insurance—hardly a better basis for morality and justice!
With the insurance example, the insurance company receives revenue from the policy holder rather than from the actual driver. But notice, this does not spare the driver from financial liability—he can still be sued (by the policy holder, for instance). The driver is still guilty of causing his accident. No transfer of actual guilt has taken place. All that has happened is that the policy holder has been required to fulfill his contractual obligations, which were put into the policy by the insurance company in order to assure them of a profitable business. Moral guilt has nothing to do with it, nor has moral guilt been transferred. Financial obligations and moral guilt are categorically different things.
What’s more, the penalty for the policy holder is limited and impersonal: he is now subject to paying a higher rate if he wants to continue his policy, but he is not obligated to keep the same policy. The penalty specified by the Gospel, however, is radically different, and is not any kind of transaction. Suffering forever in hell is not an experience that generates some kind of spiritual “revenue” that can be collected and paid to some kind of supernatural creditor. (What kind of monster would want to be paid in a currency of torment, anyway?)
This is where substitutionary atonement, and it’s underlying notion of negotiable guilt, become really creepy. Not only are the wicked escaping from paying the penalty for their offenses, but their “debt” is being “paid” in some kind of spiritual “revenue” generated through the suffering of the innocent. Ever see Big Trouble in Little China, about the sorcerer who steals the souls of beautiful young women in order to prolong his own evil life? Same plot as the Gospel, except there’s no hero to come along and save the innocent victim from this perverse power-sucking voodoo. And it’s all supposed to be God’s brilliant idea, fore-ordained before the foundation of the world? That’s not just evil, it’s cheesy.
Negotiable guilt is a truly terrible basis for constructing a system of moral values. Imagine a world where Osama bin Ladin was free to transfer his guilt to some young mujahidin eager for martyrdom. Osama could bomb some crowded venue, kill hundreds of innocent people, and then transfer his guilt to the young martyr, who would be executed in his place, thus rendering the terrorist mastermind innocent again and free to continue his plots. Does that sound anything at all like justice and morality? Wouldn’t a better term be “irresponsible insanity”?
And yet this is the core of the gospel. Like the young mujahidin, Jesus allegedly volunteered to be the Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world, but that does not change the fact that this moral system is based on negotiable guilt, on the idea of being able to freely shift your guilt on to some sacrificial animal or person, and on the idea that suffering generates some kind of “spiritual revenue” that can be paid to some third party to satisfy some kind of perceived debt, who presumably covets human suffering enough to accept it as valid currency. Otherwise it’s no good volunteering to be tortured to death. Without negotiable guilt (and all the moral corruption that implies and enables), there’s simply no good reason to voluntarily seek your own death. You’re just committing a particularly macabre and self-destructive form of suicide, which is hardly a moral virtue.
Thus, even with all the fancy language and crass business exemplars, substitutionary atonement still boils down to the crudest of standards: God is mad, and He wants to hurt somebody. But this is even worse than “two wrongs don’t make a right,” because God is so mad, He wants to hurt somebody whether they deserve it or not. And He won’t be satisfied until somebody—even His own son—has paid the ultimate penalty. And then He no longer cares about all the evil things sinners have done. This is neither morality nor justice, this is God ruling by being the biggest and most psychopathic bully on the block, enforcing His will by threatening people with the most vicious atrocities imaginable if they in any way resist or dismiss His demands. That, as I’ve said before, is the worst possible basis for defining morality and justice. Those who desire true morality and justice should flatly and emphatically reject it.