Can’t Get No Satisfaction (Theory)

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.

8 Responses to “Can’t Get No Satisfaction (Theory)”

  1. Nemo Says:

    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

    To be fair, I think we already knew that about God, based on the Old Testament. It’s just consistent characterization.

  2. Archwright Says:

    I see a few problems with the last part of your argument.

    My counter argument falls back to Bushido. Since I’m neither a Bushi nor a Christian theologian, please bear with my crude applications of both.

    We all know the power of a martyr. Presuming that the Christian God does exist, and that he knows our inner-workings; he knows the power of a martyr as well. As you stated, the whole rebellion against the Pharisees and the Romans was doomed to fail miserably. Both forces were too culturally and temporally powerful for one man and his close followers to overthrow. So, basically, God set him up to fail. Just like a general will dedicate soldiers to a doomed fight because he knows it holds strategic importance.

    A good follower, like Jesus or a Samurai, will follow the order given even if it means his own demise. Provided that he either trusts his leader or he knows what is at stake.

    So, Jesus rebelled. The gathered followers. He preached. He drew the attention of the powers-that-be. They struck him down. They punished him in their traditions because he had broken their laws. The punishment was ultimately performed by man. People tried to convince Jesus to bargain with Pilot using the ancient equivalent of the insanity plea. He did not, because that would undermine his leader’s goal. He knew that in doing so he would subject himself to horrible torment, humiliation and finally a slow, painful death.

    So, Jesus honored God by doing what needed to be done even though it would end very, very poorly for him. He proved the honor of the human race to God.

    Why must one man suffer so that many may live freely. That falls back to my Bushido premise. The Samurai were born into or earned their place as defenders of the common man (at least in theory, the practice was often very gruesome). The are granted privileges and powers beyond that of peasants by their lords, and much is expected in return. In Jesus’ case, those powers are miracles. In the Samurai’s case, it is judicial and military power. From this prospective. “Not my will, but Thine be done.” actually works.

    Of course, this is quite the contrivance. As you said falsehoods covering falsehoods, adding complexity. I think that the Hell, punishment and Grace is much more a fundamental flaw of Christianity. These undermine the moral authority of God much worse than this ersatz honor/guilt business. Grace is this amorphous thing that I’ve never heard satisfactorily described. Worst of all, if God created Hell, and that is is only punishment for any infraction; it really casts him as an evil bastard more than anything else.

  3. Exrelayman Says:

    Wow, just wow! Loved the connection of truth consistent with itself supporting Occam’s razor. Loved the lucidity of the whole post.

  4. Deacon Duncan Says:

    @Archwright: that’s an interesting point, but I think there are some counters to your counter. For one thing, I think the “last-stand” scenario does more to bestow honor on the sacrificed captain than it does on the inept general whose failed foresight put them in a situation where such sacrifice was necessary. The competent general forces the other guys to make the sacrifices.

    Then too, the last-stand scenario still leaves us in a situation where the “honor” required to satisfy God is an honor where an innocent man is tortured to death by an unjust legal system. Why doesn’t it honor God enough to, say, found a hospital in His name, so that suffering can be relieved instead of imposed? Or to start a school that will lead many into wisdom? Or even to start a new religion that will lead people into true worship? None of that satisfies God, according to the Bible, because only blood can satisfy Him. Really?

    Put the two together, and you still have a scenario where God was not forced into sacrificing Jesus, He deliberately contrived to create a situation in which an innocent man would end up being tortured to death, in order to satisfy His own demands for “honor.” That’s still pretty evil in my book.

    Then there’s the problem of Jesus “honoring” God just by being obedient unto death: he’s not the only one to do so. If it were just a matter of obedience above and beyond the call of duty, Jesus is just one of many, so what makes him The Savior (singular)? We end up with a rigged scorekeeping system, where it’s not humanly possible to satisfy God’s unjust demands for “honor,” even when people do the same things Jesus did (or when they suffer even more than Jesus did). This is not a loving heavenly Father, this is a brutal and oppressive tyrant.

    I realize of course that you’re just playing Devil’s Advocate, and I think you’re exactly right that this is the sort of counter an apologist would propose. Thanks for the interesting discussion.

  5. Len Says:

    Then there’s the problem of Jesus “honoring” God just by being obedient unto death…

    That’s when the next counter will come from an apologist: Jesus wasn’t “just” obedient unto death. He was without sin (at least in God’s eyes) throughout his whole life, so he didn’t need to die as payment to clear his own balance. His ulitimate sacrifice provided enough heavenly credit to save us as well.

    That’s if you believe that a real man (as he was supposed to have been) could grow up completely free from sin. Well, sin as God sees it, which – considering what we can read of God himself in the bible – might be pretty easy, especially if you’re part of the right clique or family (nepotism much?). And if you also believe that everyone’s sin could be taken over like a finanial debt.

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Remember too that Jesus was supposedly born without the “sin nature” that the rest of us allegedly have, that drives us to sin and prevents us from obeying. So when Jesus does good deeds, he’s just following the natural inclinations of his sinless nature, no special effort required, but when ordinary mortals do so, they are overcoming a tremendous, innate, and ostensibly irresistible compulsion to disobey. Seems to me the other martyrs are honoring God more than Jesus did, since they have to overcome opposition from both within and without.

    • Len Says:

      I never really understood why Jesus could be born without the “sin nature”, but we were saddled with the results of someone else’s (ie, Adam & Eve’s) bad decisions. Why couldn’t an onmi-everything God fix that for us too. Doesn’t he love us enough?

      • Deacon Duncan Says:

        Speaking of which, a thought occurred to me the other day. Did you ever notice, in the story of the woman taken in adultery, Jesus says, “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” Yet he himself was among them, and did not cast any stones. Hmmm….


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