One of the cool things about truth being consistent with itself is that this explains why Occam’s Razor works. Whenever you propose an explanation that is not true, you’re necessarily going to introduce inconsistencies with the truth, which means your explanation is necessarily going to become more convoluted in order to deal with them. The explanation without the inconsistencies does not need the extra convolutions, and will therefore be simpler.
This in turn suggests one of the most common indicators of a false explanation: because it introduces inconsistencies with the truth, it multiplies the number of explanations required. These extra explanations, however, are also false, since they are trying to justify a false explanation, so they in turn introduce further inconsistencies, requiring further explanations (which will also be false), and so on.
A good example of this is the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement, mentioned recently in a comment on my post about Substitutionary Atonement. The commenter acknowledged that there were problems with substitutionary atonement, but suggested that the Satisfaction Theory might resolve some of the inconsistencies of the classic Biblical doctrine. A closer look at this theory shows that this is not the case, however, and that trying to resolve the first set of inconsistencies only introduces more inconsistencies.
Before we look at the Satisfaction Theory, let’s review the simplest explanation for the doctrine of the Atonement. The simplest view is that Jesus was an ordinary guy who misjudged the political power of his enemies and ended up losing badly. His disciples, unable to accept the fact of his death, tried to find some rationalization that would convert Jesus’ great defeat into a great victory, and thus the doctrine of Atonement was born. The truth, however, is that the Crucifixion was not a great victory for God, and therefore the various Christian rationalizations all have problems.
In my earlier post, we looked at the problems with the classic, Biblical doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement. The modern version of the doctrine, however, is not the only version proposed throughout Christian history. There have actually been a few, like the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement.
Drawing primarily from the works of Anselm of Canterbury, the satisfaction theory teaches that Christ suffered as a substitute on behalf of humankind satisfying the demands of God’s honor by his infinite merit. Anselm regarded his satisfaction view of the atonement as a distinct improvement over the older ransom theory of the atonement, which he saw as inadequate. Anselm’s theory was a precursor to the refinements of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin which introduced the idea of punishment to meet the demands of divine justice.
Notice that the modern version of Substitutionary Atonement is actually a refinement of the Satisfaction theory. That’s bad news already for those who want the Satisfaction theory to make up for the deficiencies in the more modern version, because the more modern version was altered to make up for the deficiencies that Christians like Aquinas and Calvin saw in the Satisfaction theory.
And in fact, it’s not too hard to see that, trivial variations aside, the Satisfaction theory suffers from much the same sort of problem as modern Substitutionary Atonement.
Anselm speaks of human sin as defrauding God of the honour he is due. Christ’s death, the ultimate act of obedience, brings God great honour. As it was beyond the call of duty for Christ, it is more honour than he was obliged to give. Christ’s surplus can therefore repay our deficit. Hence Christ’s death is substitutionary; he pays the honour instead of us.
The difference between Anselm’s view and the modern view is that Anselm proposed negotiable virtue instead of negotiable guilt. Where the modern theory turns guilt into some kind of independent capital that can be freely transferred to others, Anselm’s theory makes “honour” into something that exists apart from the person giving the honor, i.e. something that exists as a kind of currency that can be transferred into someone else’s account.
This is a somewhat better concept, morally, in that it’s not inherently harmful to give someone credit for a good deed they did not do. In that respect, Anselm’s theory is noticeably less corrupt than the modern doctrine. The difficulties arise when we try to reconcile this view with the broader picture of sin, judgment, and eternal punishment.
In Anselm’s view, sin is wrong, not because it harms people, not because it steals or destroys or lies or murders, but simply because it fails to honor God. All God cares about, apparently, is whether He is getting a certain amount of honor that He feels is due Him, and this amount is determined by how much He demands from us in terms of obedience. Unfortunately, He demands an amount of obedience that is beyond human power to supply, and thus we are all damned to Hell.
You can see the first problem right there: our alleged damnation is a direct result of God making unreasonable demands of His “beloved” creatures. In the Gospels, Jesus prays in Gesthemane begging the Father if there could only be some other way. According to Anselm, there could have been: all God had to do was remember the limitations He created in us, and not demand from us more than He designed us to be capable of giving.
Next, we have the question of justice. If you steal from someone, if you rape someone, if you murder someone, have you done anything wrong? Do you deserve to be punished? According to Anselm, if you give God enough honor, then that’s all that matters, even if it wasn’t really you that honored God. You beat someone until they were permanently paralyzed from the neck down, but Jesus was more obedient than he needed to be, and therefore you need pay no consequences for your actions. Your victim will suffer the consequences, but you get off free.
Then there’s the question of surplus honor. According to Anselm, Jesus was even more obedient than he was obliged to be, thus creating a surplus of honor that he could apply to the rest of mankind. But wait a minute. According to the New Testament, it was God’s will for Jesus to die to save sinners. And that’s what Jesus did. What more did he do than that? Nothing. According to the Gospel, he prayed, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” In dying on the cross, he did nothing more nor less than what God wanted him to do (according to the Bible anyway).
Was he not obliged to obey God? If he had decided not to do God’s will, and to pursue his own comfort and security instead, would that not have failed to honor God? Would that not, in fact, be a sin, according to Anselm’s definition? Whence, then, this notion that he was more obedient than he was obliged to be? And for that matter, why can’t we earn extra “honor points” by being more obedient than we’re “obliged” to be, and thus pay for our own sins? Once again, we come back to the idea that God has rigged the game against us, so that our honor can never be enough to satisfy God.
But it gets even worse. What was it that allegedly honored God? Jesus was tortured to death. Does that mean God is honored by the act of torturing innocent people to death? Worse and worse. But you can say, “No, God was not honored by the brutal murder of the innocent, He was honored by Christ’s obedience.” This doesn’t help, however, because in order to obey God, you have to do something He has commanded. In order for the Crucifixion to be “obedience,” God has to have commanded the death, by torture, of an innocent person. That’s evil. And it’s supposed to honor God?
The irony is that Anselm’s theory ends up turning God into an egotistical megalomaniac who can only be satisfied by torturing innocent people to death, and who carelessly discards justice once His ego is satisfied—and yet this theory defines “sin” as a failure to honor God. If this is honoring God, I’d hate to see what blasphemy looked like!
Any way you try to slice it, Substitutionary Atonement creates more problems than it solves. And that’s because it’s not true. Jesus didn’t really die to save us from our sins, he just died, and his followers have been in denial ever since. All their attempts to rationalize away his failure only complicate things by creating new inconsistencies with the truth. That’s how we can tell it’s a man-made myth.