Immoral Theology at the Heart of Christianity

Why are the faithful okay with it?
I don’t know how Christian apologists can live with themselves. They are on a fool’s errand: will it ever dawn on them?

They belong to that elite club of Defenders of the Faith at Any Cost, and the super devout of dozens of different religions are members of the club; they make their livings showing that their own religion is the right one. There are fervent apologists for Catholicism, for example; they can prove beyond a shadow of any doubt that their brand of Christianity has a lock on the truth about the Cosmos. But then we can turn to fervent evangelicals—who know how wrong the Catholics are—as well as to the champions of hundreds of other Christian brands, including, ahem, the Mormons. And where, by the way, do Jews and Muslims fit on the scale of absolute truth?

I wonder: Do the award-winning apologists of all the different faiths have international conferences to celebrate how right they all are? Do they dare challenge each other…just who IS right after all? A word of warning to all apologists: your primary opponents are not atheists, but rather other theists who have substantially different opinions about God, what he wants and expects, how he wants to be worshipped.

How could these members of the Defenders Club sort through all this chaos? Maybe the Christian apologists should listen to the Muslim apologists—all of whom should listen to the Jewish apologists. Maybe they should all give each other copies of John Loftus’ book The Outsider Test of Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True.

But they don’t listen and learn.

The outcome of an apologists’ conference was anticipated by Mark Twain, in his Letters from Earth

“Man is the Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute. Indeed, my experiments have proven to me that he is the Unreasoning Animal... In truth, man is incurably foolish. Simple things which other animals easily learn, he is incapable of learning. Among my experiments was this. In an hour I taught a cat and a dog to be friends. I put them in a cage. In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit. In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel and some doves. Finally a monkey. They lived together in peace; even affectionately.

"Next, in another cage I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen. Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares. Finally, a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping. Then I stayed away for two whole days. When I came back to note results, the cage of Higher Animals was all right, but in the other there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh—not a specimen left alive. These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.”

Disagreements on ‘theological details’ are rampant—even on the most basic details. Yes, trying to prove that your religion is the right one is a Fool’s Errand. When are apologists going to wake up, snap out of it—and do something useful to make a living?

Christian apologists today are still defending beliefs of the ancient Jesus cult, especially the heavy doses of magical thinking we encounter in the gospel of John and the letters of the apostle Paul.

Two of the verses most cherished by Christians are in John’s gospel, 3:16, of course, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son…” (i.e., gave to be killed) and 1:29, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (by being killed). Add to these, Mark 10:45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Also stir into this brew, Romans 3:25, “Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” and Romans 5:9, “…now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.”

Why the hell are Christian apologists wasting their time espousing and defending these ideas based on the magical properties of blood?

Ken Pulliam’s essay, “The Absurdity of the Atonement,” in John Loftus’ 2011 anthology, The End of Christianity, shows exactly how flawed bedrock Christian theology is.

What is it about Christians that they don’t balk at staking their salvation on a human sacrifice? “…it seems undeniable that the death of Jesus,” Pulliam points out, “is a human sacrifice. Human sacrifices were common in ancient times.” (p. 186) He quotes from an article on human sacrifice in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

“At times of great calamity, anxiety, and danger, parents sacrificed their children as the greatest and most costly offering which they could make to propitiate the anger of the gods and thus secure their favor and help.” (p. 187)

Is that really the way the Cosmos works? Or is it a fragment of ancient superstition that should be jettisoned? Not if apologists have their way, because this is at the heart of Christian dogma. Sam Harris spoke truth to power in a speech addressed to the most prestigious keepers of the superstition: “I hate to break it to you here at Notre Dame, but Christianity is a cult of human sacrifice. It celebrates a single human sacrifice as though it were effective.”

Just how effective was it? Christian theorists have been hard at work. Pulliam’s essay is a takedown of the “dominant view today in evangelical Christianity,” the Penal Substitutional Theory (PST):

“This view states that God’s holiness demands that sin be punished. God cannot remain just and forgive man without punishing his sin. That would ignore the seriousness of sin, according to this theory. Therefore, God sent his son to bear the punishment for man’s sin. Jesus vicariously bears the punishment for man’s sin. Once sin has been punished, then God can forgive man without compromising his holiness or justice.” (p. 181) 

It’s all very neat—if one accepts the flawed premises; Christian theologians have been wandering around this maze of their own invention for centuries. Pulliam’s essay offers insight into the failure of this demented theology on three levels: it is illogical, immoral, and incoherent.


Not that being illogical has ever bothered theologians, but as a first approach to deconstructing the idea that Christ bore our guilt, its failure on this level must be considered; Pulliam puts it this way: “The first and most important element of retributive justice then is that the guilty party and only the guilty party should be punished.” (p. 183)

“…it is illogical to punish an innocent person. It contradicts the very definition of the word punish as it is used in a judicial sense. Thus, I maintain that the phrase Penal Substitution is actually an oxymoron.” (p. 183)

But there’s a catch. Christian theologians can’t for a moment allow that Christ bearing our sins on the cross was a magnanimous gesture what works for all people. There has to be a way to make the Club of the Saved exclusive. Thus a crucial part of their magical formula is that individuals must believe in Christ for it to work. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” In other words, what’s going on in individual heads makes all the difference: it would be hard to top that magic! So another layer of illogic is added to the first.


The immorality of human sacrifice alone should be sufficient to eliminate Christianity from any roster of respectable belief systems. But to the illogic of an innocent person being punished we can add the immorality of the concept. Pulliam builds the case for this as well:

“The practices of human courts around he world demonstrate that this principle, that only the guilty are deserving of punishment, is a universal belief among mankind.” (p. 184)

“…if one were to believe that man was made in the image of God, as evangelical Christians do, then one would have to believe that his innate sense of right and wrong was implanted in him by God. If man knows right from wrong as a result of being made in the image of God, and if one of the things man knows from his being so created is that it is wrong to punish the innocent, then how can the central doctrine of Evangelical Christianity, namely penal substitution, be maintained?” (p. 185)

But theologians indulge endlessly in clever plotting to make it all come out right in the end: “The Evangelical defender of penal substitution will argue that man’s sins were imputed to Jesus. In some grand accounting scheme, God transferred the debt of man’s sin to Jesus’ ledger, and then Jesus paid the debt that was owed upon the cross.” (p. 185) Does this succeed in transforming guiltless-Jesus-being-killed into one of God’s moral acts? Pulliam shows that the concept is flawed: “…the Evangelical is on the horns of a dilemma. In order to defend penal substitution, he must either have an unjust Father or a sinful Savior. Either one destroys Evangelical Christianity.”

Evangelical maneuvering amounts to little more than idle theological gossip. Where are the reliable, verifiable data that could lead us to believe any if it? And I will point out again that the main pushback will come, not from atheists—who are baffled that anyone can take the gossip seriously—but from other devout theists who consider Christ-taking-away-the-sins-of-the-world just so much feeble nonsense. It’s not only immoral; it literally doesn’t make sense. The top Jewish and Muslim clerics, among others, would say that Christianity has gone off the rails with this flimflam. Many moderate and liberal Christians prefer as well to disown any literal understanding of the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”


The idle theological gossip intensifies with added layers of theology, which usually mean that theologians have even more ‘explaining away’ to do. Pulliam notes that the Penal Substitutionary Theory is hard to reconcile with other aspects of Christian orthodoxy.

“…according to the doctrine of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all equally God and share precisely the same attributes. If this is the case, why is it that the Bible presents only the Father as needing to be propitiated? The New Testament speaks of the Father sending the Son to die and of the Father being the one whose wrath is turned away. It never speaks of the Son or the Spirit being propitiated. If sin cannot be justly forgiven until God is propitiated, due to the holy nature of God, then how is it that it is only God the Father that is propitiated?” (pp. 189-190)

And just how it is that God died on the cross? Pulliam points out the devastating flaw: “…when Jesus died on the cross bearing the penalty for our sin, it was not his divinity that suffered and died but rather his humanity.
If it was just his humanity, then why was the incarnation necessary? Could God not have just created another perfect Adam and had him pay for the sins of the world? Most theologians would say that the death of Christ is infinitely valuable precisely because he was God. But…God cannot die, so it was not his deity that died.” (p. 190, bold added)

“If the divine nature cannot die, then it cannot pay the penalty for sin. If only the human nature died, then it did not have the inherent value sufficient to pay for the sins of the whole world.” (p. 191)

Of course, theologians are paid to come up with smooth answers, and have shown immense talent for writing theobabble—the kind of stuff that only likeminded theologians can appreciate. Pulliam quotes Rustin Umstattd:

“When Jesus experienced the Father’s wrath upon the cross and he cried out from the depths of his being the lament of dereliction, the Son was not separated from the Father and the Spirit ontologically, but experientially…In this forsakenness, Jesus was left alone on the cross to bear the full weight of judgment. At this point, the Spirit is the bond that holds the Trinity together.” (p. 193)

Thanks for clearing that up. We were
so worried about the Trinity! Jewish and Muslim theologians—and secular thinkers not lost in the morass of Christian minutia—wonder what the hell this means. I have written countless times in the margins of theology books, “How does he know this?” and “How do theologians learn to talk like this?” But they are slavish members of that club, Defenders of the Faith at Any Cost.

But the folks in the pews are seldom willing to think it through, and that’s why the priests and preachers keep getting away with the swindle. Pulliam’s final word: “…to accept the most fundamental Christian doctrine, namely that Jesus died for your sins, requires one to believe something that is illogical, immoral, and incoherent. In essence, it requires a sacrificium intellectus, the sacrifice of our own intelligence.” (p. 194)

Pulliam lets Marlene Winell have the last word:

“…the temporary three-day death [actually about thirty-six hours] of this one person is supposed to wipe out all the wrongdoing and ineptitude of the species. And finally, you should believe that all you need to do to erase the responsibility for your actions and enter a haven of eternal reward is to believe. It’s no wonder that once a convert has wrapped his or her mind around this story, anything can he accepted as truth.” (
Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion, p. 75)

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was recently reissued by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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