Atonement: Why Was Jesus Punished?

In my book I argue that there is no coherent understanding of the atonement. Here are some questions for those who accept the penal substitutionary view:

In order for someone to be forgiven why must there be punishment at all? We know of victims who have forgiven their assailants even though they have never been punished, and we know of other victims who won't forgive their assailants even after they have been punished. To forgive someone doesn't mean that you must first punish the offender at all. Forgiveness doesn't really depend upon the remorse of the offender, either, although it does help quite a bit. At this point it's not up to the offender at all, but the victim who must find a way to forgive.

To forgive means bearing the suffering of what that person has done to you without retaliation. If I stole something from you, then forgiveness means bearing the loss without recompense. If I slandered you, forgiving means bearing the humiliation without retaliating. If the cross of Christ means someone got punished for my sins, then that's not offering forgiveness, that's punishing someone for what I did wrong.

If the cross was needed to pay the punishment for my sins, then how can God really be a forgiving God? Forgiveness doesn't require punishment. To put it bluntly, if I can't forgive you for striking me on the chin until I return the blow back to you, or to someone else, then that's not forgiveness, that's retaliation, or sweet revenge! Revenge is never an ethical motive for action, even if we are led to take revenge on others sometimes. John Hick: "A forgiveness that has to be bought by the bearing of a just punishment is not forgiveness, but merely and acknowledgment that the debt has been paid in full. (The Metaphor of God Incarnate, p. 127).


Error said...

Error said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Error said...

hello Isaac,

You said: "Because it is this god who is offended it also is his right to forgive without cost."

Me now: Actually, this is false. it is a misrepresentation of the Christian worldview. God *cannot* forgive without cosat because God is *just* (in his nature. Lev.19:2). The Bible tells us that God *cannot* deny himself (2 Tim 2:13). Therefore, Gods *cannot* forgive without "cost" because justice demands cost and if cost wasn't extracted then justice would not be served and hence God would deny himself. An imbalance has occured and the scales need to be equal, (eye for eye, life for life, type stuff).

Baconeater said...

So Paul, isn't that the point of the author: that if God requires something in order for him to forgive, he really isn't forgiving. He is being bought off.
Any hoot, Jesus probably didn't even exist. The writers of the bible didn't have all the angles so this forgiveness thing is just another thing they blew.

Anonymous said...

Paul, what view of God are you describing here? An aloof potentate, or an "abba" father?

In the parable of the lost son the father merely accepts his son back. Let's say this parable describes God and us. Think about it. In a family, or among friends, or between people in general, when has someone ever demanded punishment in order for there to be forgiveness?

Not even in our own court system is this the case. We don't punish in order to forgive. We just punish.

Rationally now, what is the connection between punishment and forgiveness? What is the logical connection? Why does any sin, much less all sin, have to be punished? Why?

The Jewish Freak said...

Let's also remember that atonement and forgiveness are two different ideas. Forgiveness is an action of the wronged party, and atonement is an action of the "sinner". IMHO, atonement is the "sinner" fixing his problem to qualify for forgiveness. A simple example would be: if I stole money from you, and I returned that money to you, I have atoned for my sin and you then forgive me. No one else can atone for my sin (such as a crucified savior), it was my character flaw in the first place, and only I could change it by returning the money. Someone else paying back the money does not help to fix my character flaw, and it may even make it worse.

Steven Carr said...

It is also clear from reading Luke and Acts that the atonement simply added deicide to the list of crimes that God holds against humanity.

Jesus was one of those sorts of people who throws himself on a grenade to save his friends, and then holds them guilty for his death.

Chris said...

While Evangelical Christianity follows the Protestant Reformation and teaches penal substitution.. this is not the doctrine of the Catholic Church, which has held to a different, coherent view throughout her life.

The Catholic doctrine is that of vicarious satisfaction, and it recognizes that God could have forgiven us without any payment whatsoever. The Cross and all it entails is the superabundant love of God - an outpouring of his Trinitarian life - to forgive us.

I suggest "What is Redemption?" by Fr. Philippe de la Trinite, the founder of the Brothers of St. John.

Unknown said...

An excellent insight. I am a Christian and have been thinking through the details of how the atonement works. I'm glad someone else has been looking at the issue as closely and literally as I have.

I thought of the exact same problem with the idea of redemption that you did. The solution I came to can be drawn fairly easily from your own words:

"To forgive means bearing the suffering of what that person has done to you without retaliation."

This is exactly what God did. God the Son, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit are one God in three persons. When God the Son, Jesus, died on the cross, it was God bearing the consequences of what humanity did without retaliation, matching your definition of forgiveness perfectly.

Why couldn't God in heaven just "take" the suffering?

Well, God didn't warn us that his thoughts are higher than our thoughts for no reason--if you pursue your speculation about metaphysics far enough you will see that the mysteries surrounding eternity, spirituality, and the soul really are quite beyond our human processing power, and God's claim is well justified. But what the heck, we can still try. I believe it is possible to get just enough of a picture of ultimate reality to reassure ourselves that God's ways are rational, even if we can't get a full picture.

God the Father enthroned in perfection in heaven could not "bear the suffering of what someone else did," because he is perfect, and no kind of imperfection or blemish can enter into his presence. When the rebel angels sinned in heaven, God could not simply put up with it. He immediately cast them all out of his presence. If he tolerated anything short of perfection he could not be an eternal being and a sustainer of an eternal order. Think back to geometry--if an infinite line is inclined at the slightest angle above the x-axis, it will eventually be infinitely far away from the x-axis. Likewise, God's person, which upholds the eternal order, would eventually cancel himself out if he allowed the slightest contradiction to his nature--taking the rest of us with him.

Fortunately, when we humans sinned, we were not in timeless eternity, we were insulated within time and space. God had to separate time and space from himself, but he imbued his creation with enough qualities that we can survive in this physical universe. This buys us time to "get right with God" before the time-space construct falls apart and we must face him in eternity.

The disruption created by our sin--"suffering," in your terms, has been swirling around this earth since Adam first sins, making an absolute mess of things (cycles of violence, psychological distortions leading to abuse, leading to more distortions, etc.--lots of messy stuff) The way things were going, by the time we would have to present ourselves to God, we would be a sight to behold indeed. There would be no way all this horror could fit into God's eternal order.

So, God decided to do precisely what you suggest--"bearing the suffering of what that person has done to you without retaliation." God the Father could not do this, but God the Son can, since he can enter into the time-space construct as a human being. He was born, grew up, and absorbed a choice sample of the nightmare we humans have created on this planet--torture and execution, without guilt, at the hands of a the political establishment (the ultimate misuse of power) at the demands of an irrational mob, (the ultimate abandonment of love) at the direction of the religious establishment (the ultimate perversion of truth). By doing this, he was "bearing the suffering of what that person has done." When we reach eternity, Christ will be standing there beside the Father, having already borne a choice selection of human wickedness, representative of all the wickedness all of us have ever done. Because Christ, God the Son, has borne that choice sample, God as a whole, by implication, has borne all the wickedness of the world. So instead of having to eject us from his presence, God will have already suffered our wickedness.

The operation of forgiveness, you see, is not quite as simple when you are dealing with an eternal, three-in-one God, perfect eternity, and corrupt time-space. God did not simply bear the suffering--he devised an elaborate plan, thousands of years in the making, to get himself into a position where could bear the suffering. Obtaining forgiveness for man was the absolute, number one objective of God throughout the entirety of the BC period, his driving purpose behind everything he did in the Old Testament with the nation of Israel. He did this because he loved us.

In the AD period, God's driving purpose is to get people to believe in what he did. If you don't believe in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, then your mind is out of alignment with ultimate reality--and when you come face-to-face with ultimate reality after you shed your time-space body, you won't be compatible with it. God will eject you from his presence, and you will exist for eternity separated from the source of all good. The Bible describes this condition as a lake of fire.

That's why the Bible commands you to believe that Jesus died and rose again and paid for your sins.

So, yeah, God's thoughts are higher than our thoughts--this is a crude thumbnail sketch of what's going on. But hopefully this little metaphysical romp has at least convinced you that you should think twice about the magnitude of your subject before announcing that you have "debunked" the gospel.

But why am I going to all this effort to convince myself that Christianity is rational? Why not let my mind slide back into comfortable numbness, believing in nothing?

Think of it this way. You're trapped in an underground sewer system, and the water is rising. You hear voices echoing and yelling through the sewer system, telling you there is a way out. Is it intellectually irresponsible to really want to believe that there is a way out? No. Its the most rational thing you could do. Its only irrational if you believe there is a way out when that is clearly untrue.

Likewise, it is perfectly rational to want to believe that as our life winds to an end, there is a way out of this time-space mess, that you won't disappear into nothingness after death, that there is an eternal, perfect world, an all-loving, all-powerful God who cares personally for you. If it were all untrue beyond a doubt, then it would be irrational to believe. But like a man trapped in a sewer--investigating every possibility of escape to determine if there is any reason at all to believe that any of them are at all true--if there is the slightest chance at all that I am an eternal being and there is someone perfect, eternal and good controlling the universe, I will investigate it until it is proven untrue.

Do you really care so little about what will happen to yourself in eternity to do otherwise?

Philip R Kreyche said...


Your sermon is based on an enormous number of assumptions which no non-theist can take seriously.

You assume that everyone here agrees that:

1) The Bible is a trustworthy record of the Creator's interactions with the universe

2) The Creator is somehow personally offended by "sin"

3) That there was literally an Adam and Eve who lived, and that all that's attributed to them happened, and that all humanity is descended from them and somehow "inherited" the propensity to sin

4) That the doctrine of Heaven and Hell is consistent with the various positive attributes of the Creator

5) That the doctrine of Free Will is consistent with the Creator's omnipotence and omnibenevolence

6) That every supernatural claim made about Jesus was completely correct

7) That the Council of Nikaea's accepted interpretation of the existing corpus of early Christian theological writings was correct.

I'm sorry, Caleb. Your argument is only going to convince someone who already believes. Why do you think this blog exists? Who do you think the majority of the people are who post here? If any of us held any single one of the assumptions you make that I listed above, do you think we would still be here debunking Christianity's claims?

"Do you really care so little about what will happen to yourself in eternity to do otherwise?"

Do you really think we all believe that there IS a supernatural eternity?

Unknown said...


Thanks for responding. I was a little worried after I saw the rules about sermons that I would be deleted...I intended my post strictly as a discussion that uses concepts of reason, not a Bible-based sermon, but I was worried that the length would confuse people.

Your seven points miss the point of Loftus' thread. He is presenting an argument about the rationality, coherence, and "goodness" of the gospel, not its truth. That is a separate task which has been dealt with better than I can do. (Look at John Warwick Montgomery, C.S. Lewis, or Lee Strobel if you're interested in that)

If the reasonableness, apart from the truth, of the gospel is relevant, then let's discuss it. That is the purpose of my entire "sermon." If it is not relevant, why are so many people replying to this comment? That is the sole basis of Loftus' book and his post.

"Do you really care so little about what will happen to yourself in eternity to do otherwise?"

You mistakenly thought that by "what will happen" I meant heaven and hell. What I am marveling at is that people professing atheism seem to content to believe that there is nothing but total annihilation after death. I've never been an atheist so I don't know, but it seems like there should be some spark, some hope that there is something after death--in fact, I would imagine that you would exhaust all possibilities to determine whether there is a reasonable basis for believing in the existence of the afterlife, much like a man trapped in a sewer would exhaust all possibilities to determine whether there is a reasonable basis to believe that he can escape the sewer and save his life. I don't understand why you are willing to resign yourself to annihilation when there's some possibility that an eternal afterlife could be real. I treasure my belief that I an eternal being and embrace the solid arguments I have discovered for its validity wherever I can find them. I don't understand why people who espouse atheism think it is somehow more rational to be predisposed to a nightmare view of the universe where they cease to exist at death.

Of course, for the purposes of this thread and my "sermon," we are judging the validity of the gospel by whether its reasonable, not whether its true. This activity is not a waste of time at all, since if the gospel is a perfectly absurd bundle of contradictions, we could dismiss it out of hand. If it is internally logical and attractive, however, we can go on hopefully looking to see if it is actually true.

Again, thank you for replying. In this postmodern, emotive age, it is refreshing to talk to someone willing to use reason and coherent language. Christians and those espousing atheism have more in common with each other than the rest of the culture, in some ways. There have already been situations where we have fought alongside each other in defense of objective reality, reason, and empiricism. I almost think of you guys as good Republicans. (laugh, that was a joke) I hope someday that this partnership, strange as it is, helps us refine our tools of reason to the point that we both gain the capacity to discover the truth.

Philip R Kreyche said...


If you find the collection of books collectively referred to as the Bible to be internally harmonious, consistent, and reasonable, I'm afraid there's little more to be said.

Let me rephrase my last post's main point: To argue that any one part of Christian theology is -rational- requires numerous unprovable assumptions I personally cannot bring myself to make. I've read defenses of the "reasonableness" of Christian doctrine, but I'm still unconvinced. You think you have something new to bring to the table?

Unknown said...


There's plenty to be said, sure, but Loftus' post is specifically about the the internal reasonableness of the atonement--not the truth of Christianity, not the internal reasonableness of Christianity, not the the truth of the atonement. Only the internal reasonableness of the atonement. It's a good, worthwhile thing to discuss. That's what Loftus was discussing, and that's what I'm discussing. I don't have the time or interest to address every apologetic topic ever proposed. That's why I included the names to other apologists in my last post--they've already dealt with that subject matter to my satisfaction. I am discussing this specific subject because I haven't heard anyone present a good argument on it yet.

To argue my thesis--that the atonement is internally coherent--does not, as you claim, require numerous unprovable assumptions. In fact, It does not require any assumptions about what is true at all. It deals with internal validity. Do you understand the difference between internal and external validity? Let me know if you don't.

I presented my thoughts because I wanted to test them against intelligent opposing thinkers, not because I wanted to prove the whole of Christianity. That task can only be done through many arguments by many arguers. I am focusing on only one of many issues which I believe is critical to the acceptability of the gospel.

Do you want to argue in defense of Loftus' thesis in this thread, or not?

Thanks for replying!

Unknown said...

This is disappointing.

Anonymous said...

Romans 3:23-25 lays this out well. God is just...the sacrifice of Christ makes a way for God to have peace with sending his son in their place & covering them with his righteousness. His mercy & justice both meet at the cross.