Further Questions About Substitutionary Atonement

Christians who believe their faith is reasonable should be able to answer my questions here. Those who merely want to quote the Bible can do so all they want, but they are simply not dealing with my questions, which if answered apart from the use of the Bible, would make their belief in substutionary atonement reasonable.

To say that my sins are an infinite wrong because they are committed against an infinite God, and thus demand an infinite punishment, seems mistaken for several reasons.

In the first place, does justice really demand this much punishment? Can it really be true that justice demands I suffer for all eternity in hell for one little white lie? Who creates the demands of justice, anyway? What judge would think this is a fair punishment? What picture of God lays behind this view of justice… a caring father, or an aloof vengeful medieval potentate? Jesus describes God as the former, a caring father. We see this in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-15), and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), where no one pays any penalty for their sins--they merely have to ask for forgiveness. Asking forgiveness was all a Pharisee had to do to (Luke 18:13-14). Jesus himself said, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” (Matt. 9:13).

Secondly, if God became incarnate to relate to us, then why can’t he also see what sin is from our perspective, as a finite offense from partly good and partly bad human beings? We intend no infinite wrong against God when we sin. God should know this, especially since it is claimed he related to us by being one of us. To claim that we did would make God’s view of justice very misguided and very very inappropriate.

Thirdly, did Jesus really suffer an infinite punishment for our sins? If Jesus was merely being punished for all of the wrongdoing of every person who ever lived on earth based on human standards of punishment and not infinite standards, we’d still have to ask whether he was punished enough. After all, if every person who ever lived deserved to be slapped in the face just one time, then the equivalent of 10 billion slaps would surely amount to more punishment than Jesus physically endured. But if it’s true to say that each and every one of us deserved an infinite punishment for our sins, then how much less is it true to say Jesus suffered infinitely for each and every one of us? More to the point, if any single one of us were given a choice to suffer as Jesus did or be cast in hell for eternity (which would be our infinite punishment), we would all choose to suffer as Jesus did. Jesus didn’t suffer forever, nor did he stay dead.

But it is said that Jesus endured more than just physical pain. He also endured the pain of being separated from God. How can we make sense of this claim? If it’s merely a metaphor for the mental pain of not sensing God’s help when we need it, then we have all felt that pain throughout our lives. Otherwise, it must somehow mean Jesus ceased to be God while on the cross. However, Christians cannot believe that. Because if Jesus in fact ceased to be God, then since Christians believe a Triune God exists, that means God also ceased to exist when Jesus ceased to be God.

In the fourth place, in order for someone to be forgiven
why must there be punishment at all?

Fifthly, even if punishment is needed, which I seriously question, then how does punishing Jesus help God forgive us? This Christian theory says God himself bore our punishment on the cross in Jesus. But why is any additional punishment even demanded? The punishment borne by the one who forgives is merely the pain that was inflicted by the offender. That is, if I humiliate God in front of the universe by being self-seeking in all of my ways, then in order to forgive me God merely has to bear the pain of that humiliation and open his arms toward me. There would be no additional pain to bear beyond the pain of being humiliated. There would be no need for the cross until it can be shown, based on this atonement theory, that there is a relationship between punishment (or justice) and forgiveness.

The divine way to forgive us when we sin against him is to turn around and punish his Son? If you see me along the roadway and beat me to a pulp, the divine way to forgive you is to turn around and beat myself up all over again, or my son? This is because "someone's got to pay," and a loving divine guy like myself just shouldn't beat you up in retaliation? It doesn’t make any rational sense at all. There’s no reason for additional punishment especially to an innocent person like Jesus.

Furthermore, if we die outside of faith in Jesus what kinds of reasons would God have for punishing us when we die? Maybe God punishes us when we die to deter others from doing wrong? But then why is it we don’t see any evidence of this punishment while we’re still alive? Maybe God punishes us in order to teach us to do better, like a father who corrects a child? How can this be, since hell would be final and horrible? Maybe God punishes us because he is angry with us? That doesn’t seem to fit either. If God foreknows everything we do, or, rather, if he knows every background experience and genetic makeup that goes into every decision we make, then we can never surprise him by what we do. I have found that the more I understand someone's background, the easier it is for me to love and have sympathy for that person. By the same reasoning do you think God can ever get angry with us enough to punish us with hell? How can he? What judge would do this? What father would do this? He understands everything about us. But what other motives are there for God to punish us when we die? If there are none, then our only punishment is what we do to ourselves here and now. When we do wrong we hurt ourselves. God doesn't need to punish us. By sinning we punish ourselves.

If, however, being sent to hell is not about punishment for our sins, but rather about God not tolerating sin in his presence, then exactly where does sin reside in us? Can it be located somewhere in our bodies and seen by an X-ray machine, or does it somehow make an actual black mark on our soul? The truth is that sin isn’t an existing thing at all, nor is sin something we have. We cannot hold a cupful of sin in our hands. Sin is an action we do. Once we do it, sin becomes a memory of a hurtful deed done. We don’t carry sin on us; we do sinful things. So there is no sin to bring with us into God’s presence.

There must be a reason why Jesus died on the cross. But what is it? John Hick: “The idea that guilt can be removed from a wrongdoer by someone else being punished instead is morally grotesque.” (p. 119).