I would like to be frank without being too blunt, but I would like to point out that those who publicly make fun of the atonement generally have no idea what they are talking about at all. The atonement is such a theologically rich concept which I know less about than most other central Christian beliefs. But the taunts of the New Atheists usually show a remarkably poor understanding of what the atonement even is in the first place, let alone a good reason for disagreeing with it. It's as if they tried to make fun of something before they even knew what it was, in my honest opinion.
Glory to Jesus Forever
What is the Atonement?
But people do have questions about the nature of the atonement, which is fair enough. The doctrine of atonement, as generally understood by American Christians, is of penal substitutionary atonement. This means that humans are so guilty of sin that they are worthy of physical and spiritual death. However, instead of punishing us, God punished Jesus, who was the voluntary recipient of the punishment we deserved. Atonement is much, much more than this as well, but this is sort of the rough and ready definition of it which is commonly adhered to. I commit a crime, have to pay a fine, BUT, Jesus pays my fine instead.
Some people raise interesting questions about the atonement. For example:
- How can one person pay for the sins of everyone in history?
- Why did Jesus just have to die, instead of go to hell for us?
- Why do only the believers have the benefits of this applied to them, as opposed to everyone else?
- How is a human sacrifice ethical?
- Is there any analogy to this in our legal system?
A lot of these will be answered by discussing the analogy in our legal system.
My uncle, Kurt Anderson, is an insurance attorney (and a smart and well-read Christian), so I asked him about how the atonement would work in our legal system.
He told me that the best analogy is that of "vicarious liability." This seemed interesting because the word "vicarious" often precedes the word "atonement" in theological discussion. In law, there is a provision where a person in a "senior" type relationship is held liable for the actions of the "junior" in the relationship. For example, employers are sometimes held responsible for accidents or damages caused by employees. Furthermore, there are situations where parents are legally responsible for the behaviors of their children.
The analogy would be as if Jesus voluntarily entered into a relationship like this with every human, making himself liable for all of our misdeeds and sins. As a result, Jesus was punished instead of us, because he voluntarily made himself liable for all of our sins. (3)
Obviously, this isn't a perfect analogy. But the comparison would be that what we do on a small scale in American law, God did on a very big scale in his divine court system, so to speak. For example, vicarious usually doesn't apply when jail sentences are involved (according to the supremely reliable source: Wikipedia). But perhaps God allows vicarious liability to work in every situation in his own court system.
Other analogies would include things such as paying for someone else's punitive damages in a court case, at great personal cost to themselves. As my uncle said, you can't insure yourself ahead of time from punitive damages. However, there is nothing stopping someone like Bill Gates from giving you a really big Christmas present, by which you can pay those punitive damages. ("Punitive" here is in contrast with compensatory damages.)
Christ the Representative
All of this may clear things up a bit more, but doesn't cover every aspect of the atonement. Christ's actions were also representative in nature. For example, the President acts as a representative for the people in negotiations with other countries. Congressmen act as representatives for certain states or areas of states. According to Christians (and this is very clear in Paul's writings), Adam acted as representative for the human race when he sinned, so all of humanity fell. Likewise, Christ, in his sacrifice, acted as our representative.
I have barely scratched the surface on the meaning of the atonement. Of all the topics I feel somewhat qualified to at least blog about, the theological nature of the atonement is where I'm at my weakest, to be completely honest.
The Atonement: Does It Make Sense?
As for the questions people raise, here are some brief replies:
1) How can one person pay for the sins of everyone in history?
There are three responses. One, Christ acted as their representative. Two, Christ took on vicarious liability for the groups actions. Three, Christ, as the Son of God, is infinite in value. So his death is sufficient to cover every human being worthy of death.
2) Why did Jesus only die for us, instead of going to hell for us forever?
This is a really good question. My answer is that no one actually goes to hell for any specific sin or sum of sins they commit in this life. Hell is reserved for a very permanent sin of rejecting God forever, and the consequences that result from being separated from him. So, it is my contention that Christ's suffering did not have to be "infinite" for it to be a full covering of sin. Christ took on the totality of God's wrath for specific sins we have committed in our lives.
3) Why do the benefits of the atonement only apply to believers?
God only wants to restore his relationship with people who actually...well...want that relationship restored in the first place. Faith is the terms by which God has chosen to save human beings. So in that sense, God gets to set the terms by which he forgives people. (4) If someone says they will pay my fine in court only if I "like" a certain charity on Facebook, or anything else, its only fair that you have to follow through on their terms.
Someone may respond and say that God would be more loving if he just forgave everyone. The issue is much more complex than that, because God is making every possible effort to bring people to faith in the first place. (2 Peter 3:9) Second, heaven wouldn't be heaven without a restored relationship to God. If someone doesn't want a relationship with God, he has no obligation to save them.
4) How is human sacrifice ethical?
The reason human sacrifice is unethical is largely because its coerced. Apostate Israelites who sacrificed their children to Molech certainly did not have consenting children! Nevertheless, Christ voluntarily gave up his life so we could be saved.
William Lane Craig's question of the week actually provided the inspiration for talking to my uncle, an insurance attorney, about some of the legal analogies to the atonement. That original post can be found here:
In another post, I will talk more about the atonement and why the earliest Christians believed in it. Again, the atonement is where I am at my weakest as far as theological understanding, but this post should quickly show critics that the concept is much more rational than they make it out to be.
3) William Lane Craig comes to a very similar, though not identical conclusion in his question of the week on the atonement. He was the inspiration for my discussion with my uncle.